But who, I ask thee, who art thou?
Tell me thy name, and tell me now.
Across the wide, empty stretch of prairie, Sandor saw a light.
It was dusk—the sun had just dipped below the mountains in the west and the world around him had a black-blue tint. Sandor’s horse, Stranger, huffed as he pulled the wagon loaded with rations and a new pickaxe. Sandor pulled the reins and Stranger stopped. An autumn wind rustled the tall grass around them. Smoke billowed from the firelight about half a mile away.
Sandor hoped it was just a caravan. Though he had yet to encounter any Indians, stories of them scalping wayward travelers chilled him to the bone. There wasn’t much that Sandor feared, but losing his fleece was one of them. He glanced over his shoulder at his bounty from Rockport—a rifle, a bag of coffee grounds, five pounds of dry meat, and a few new tools for prospecting. There was still another ten miles to go ‘til King’s Landing. A night of sleep by a fire was too tempting to pass up.
Sandor clicked his tongue and guided Stranger to the fire. As he neared, he spotted a single covered wagon next to a healthy fire pit. A young boy with blond hair sat on his haunches as he grilled a can of beans over the flames. Across the fire, a young woman with copper red hair sat cross-legged, a wool blanket wrapped around her shoulder. She looked up from the fire and gaped at Sandor. He stared at her for a moment, her pretty face and green eyes illuminated by the fire.
Finally, the young boy saw Sandor and leapt to his feet, knocking the can of beans over. “Who are you?” the boy cried.
“Easy, lad,” Sandor said, dismounting from Stranger. “Just looking for some warmth.”
The boy eyed Sandor’s large, imposing frame. He had a pinched, rat-like face, with beady eyes and a sneer like a weasel. He was dressed well in a button down and black coat, hair neatly combed with animal fat. Sandor recognized the boy’s accent as a prissy git from London, not the hard, gruff drawl he sported from Glasglow.
Sandor held Stranger’s reins and waited for the child to speak. The boy stared at the scar on Sandor’s face, his mouth twisting in disgust. Finally, he said, “Do you have ale?”
The boy stepped aside and motioned to the fire. “Sit with us a while, then.”
Sandor unhitched Stranger to let him graze, then gathered a jug of whiskey and sat at the fire. He took the first gulp, then handed it to the boy.
“Cheers,” said the stranger. He took a hearty swing, then coughed and choked.
A laugh rumbled deep in Sandor’s chest. Watching this twit struggle was the best amusement he’d had in a long time. “What’s your name?” he asked.
“Joff,” the boy said, passing the jug back to Sandor. He pointed to the girl. “That’s Sansa.”
Sandor’s eyes traveled across the fire again. The flames were insistent, made him squirm unconsciously, but the lovely young woman was worth it. “Drink?” Sandor asked.
She shook her head and mustered a weak, polite smile.
“My woman doesn’t drink,” Joff said. “It’s not ladylike.”
Sandor snorted and took a swig. “You’ll be singing a different tune come winter.” He could feel the boy’s eyes on him as he drank again. They burrowed deep into the ugly scars on his face.
“We didn’t get your name, friend,” Joff said, reaching for the jug.
Sandor pulled the liquor away from the boy’s reach. “Didn’t give it,” he grumbled. “And I’m not your friend.”
“There’s no need to be gruff,” Joff said. He faked a laugh, but his eyes gave away that he was angry.
Sandor took another swig, then said, “People call me The Hound.”
Joff laughed, looking at Sansa as though she would start laughing as well. The girl was still and silent. “Hound?” Joff said. “I suppose it suits you. You’re as ugly as a dog, anyway.”
Sandor leaned back on his elbows. He was used to firelight chatter—the men back in town were all obnoxious and crass. Put a fire between them all and the insults flew fast than dirt in a mine. Still, this little brat’s words felt particularly cruel, as though he believed Sandor to be truly as lowly as a dog than simply look like one.
“Where are you traveling?” Joff asked.
Sandor drank from the jug. “King’s Landing, California.”
“Ah. We’re on our way to San Francisco.” Joff reached for the jug again and this time Sandor obliged him. The boy took a long drink, wiped his mouth, and continued, “Sansa and I are on a honeymoon of sorts. Got married in New York right off the boat. Isn’t that right, darling?”
Sansa lifted her hooded gaze to Joff and nodded her head slowly. Sandor looked across the fire to the small, meek girl. Only now did he notice the bruise on her left cheek and the dark circles under her stunning green eyes.
“We’re meeting my family in San Francisco,” Joff went on, handing the jug back to Sandor. “They struck gold in Coloma. Looking to find some riches for yourself, eh, Dog?”
Sandor sighed deeply. The boy was already drunk. Sandor wondered how someone like him, still wet behind the ears in so many ways, could land a girl as pretty as Sansa.
“C’mon, then, Dog,” Joff slurred. “Tell us how you got those scars. Bar fight? Mine collapse? Inbreeding?” The boy laughed and slapped his knee. He once again looked at Sansa for validation but she simply stared at the ground.
“None of your bloody business, boy.”
The fire popped, sending a spark of an ember into the air. Sandor flinched, his pulse quickening. Joff noticed how the burly man flinched and smiled widely. “Was that it, then?” Joff teased. “Did you fall into a fire?” The young man howled with laughter. It echoed in the dark, empty night. “A fire!” Joff exclaimed. “What a bloody idiot!”
Sandor corked his jug of liquor and sat up. He’d had enough of this cunt and his snide, sniggering face. A warm place to sleep wasn’t worth this shit.
Joff stood on wobbly legs and picked up a long piece of kindling. He thrusted it in Sandor’s direction. “Does this make the big, strong man cry?”
The Hound leapt to his feet, jerking back from the red ember of the stick. “Enough!” he cried.
“Ooh,” Joff mocked, “looks like our cowboy is nothing but a crying woman!”
Sandor flinched as Joff continued to shove the stick in his face. His body broke into a sweat and every muscle turned to stone. He whimpered, despite himself. He’d take a thousand scalpings over a single lick of fire on his face.
“Stop it!” Sansa yelled.
The men stopped and turned their attention to her. The young girl was standing, fists at her side. The blanket she had been clutching was on the ground around her feet. Sandor now saw that she was wearing a striking blue dress with black lace trim, her hair done up in curls atop her head. She looked as regal as a queen. But one murderous look from Joff turned Sansa back into a mouse.
“What did you say to me?” Joff demanded.
“Nothing,” Sansa breathed. “I’m sorry.”
Joff threw the tinder back into the fire and approached his shaking wife. “Did you just try to tell me what to do?”
“No.” Sansa shook her head vigorously, then yelped as Joff grabbed her by her hair.
“Oi!” Sandor called. He held up the jug of whiskey. “Let’s let her be, eh?”
Joff looked at the jug and back at Sandor. Sansa trembled under her husband’s grasp. Whiskey alone might not be enough to take his attention away from beating her, but Sansa had hope, nonetheless.
Joff released Sansa and smiled. He flapped his arms as if embarrassed and said, “My apologies, sir. I lose myself when I drink.”
Sandor’s eyes darted to the young bride. She picked up the blanket, wrapped it around herself, and sat back down. She closed her eyes tightly. Sandor ached to know what she was thinking. He handed Joff the whiskey and the boy continued to drink.
Sandor got out his paring knife and whittled a bit of wood he found in his wagon. Joff heated another can of beans over the fire and the trio ate silently. When they had their fill, Joff walked a few yards away from the camp to relieve himself.
Sandor eyed Sansa and he carved the bit of splintered wood. She unfurled herself from the blanket and walked around the fire to Sandor. He watched as she reached down and took the nearly empty jug, uncorked it, and took a long gulp for herself. Sansa covered her mouth and coughed at the bitter tobacco taste of the drink.
Sandor grinned at the girl’s small act of defiance.
“Did you make that?” Sansa asked, rounding the fire again and sitting in her spot.
“Aye,” Sandor said. “Cheaper than buy it. Stronger, too.”
Sansa wiped her mouth on the blanket and asked, “Are you a miner?”
The Hound looked up from his project at the girl. “Aye. There’s gold at King’s Landing. Just haven’t found it yet.”
Sansa’s eyes danced across the fire, her brows knitting together in thought. “What kind of town is King’s Landing?” she asked.
“A shit one,” Sandor mumbled. “Girl like you will do better in San Francisco.”
Sansa closed her eyes and sighed heavily. She glanced out at the prairie as her husband pissed in the grass. “Joff is a monster,” she said.
“Then why’d you marry him?” Sandor asked, peeling a strip from his hunk of wood.
“I didn’t want to,” Sansa confessed. “My family needed money. The Lannister’s paid well for ‘a woman of high breeding’.” She said the last bit with an air of sarcasm.
Sandor looked at her. “They bought you?”
Sansa slowly looked at Sandor. Tears welled in her eyes and she nodded. Sandor opened his mouth to speak, but was interrupted by Joff stumbling back into the camp.
“Sansa!” the boy called. “Let’s have a song.” He flopped on his blanket and motioned to The Hound. “My wife will lull you right to sleep.”
The campsite was quiet. The fire crackled.
“Sing!” Joff yelled.
Sansa flinched, opening and closing her mouth like a fish on land. The tears in her eyes finally spilled over. “Come, o thou traveler unknown,” she sang, “whom still I hold, but cannot see …”
Sandor recognized the song instantly. It was an old church hymn from the 1700s, the story of Jacob wrestling an angel along the riverside. His father had made him memorize the passage front and back as a lesson in humility.
“My company before is gone, and I am left alone with thee …”
Joff may have been an insolent prick, but the boy was right about one thing—Sansa had a voice as sweet and airy as a bird in a spring morning. Even through her tears, she sang clearly and softly. The song unraveled something within Sandor that he didn’t know he had; it was soft and warm and no bigger than the head of a pin. It frightened him.
“With thee all night I mean to stay … and wrestle ‘til the break of day…”
Sansa stopped and looked at her husband. Joff snored on his blanket. The fire was dying, smoke puffing upwards to the millions of stars that shone on them. Sansa wiped her tears and looked at The Hound.
“Keep singing,” he urged.
The warm spot spread out within him like a hot breath. His heart raced and the earth below him suddenly felt like it was sinking. It was probably the whiskey. Sandor told himself it was just the whiskey.
“I need not tell thee who I am … my misery and sin declare.”