Bitter winds from the Frostfangs carry the sharp clean smell of snow over the land south of the Wall. Thick lush evergreens flecked with snowflakes flank each side of the icy trail, eventually giving way to an empty wasteland of ice. Sandor Clegane dismounts from Stranger, choosing to lead him and the packhorse on foot the last few miles as an extra precaution over the treacherous terrain.
The layers of fur in addition to the heavy leather and wool clothing he bought in the Vale are little deterrent for the biting cold, leaving Sandor cursing the relentless wind of the north. The frigid cold sends fresh stabs of pain shooting through his scarred thigh, serving as a nagging reminder of his past battles during trip northward. Reaching into his pocket, he touches the delicate strip of pink silk folded inside: a memento of his days in King's Landing, a precious reminder of Sansa, the reason he chose to make this brutal journey in the first place.
Sandor spotted the eight thousand year old massive ice fortification two days past. Though it appears no closer, several Nights Watchmen he met while hunting assured the weary traveler that the thinning forest was a sure sign of his nearness, less than a half day's ride from Castle Black.
This is the second time he has made the journey, hoping to be admitted north of the Wall for the chance at a new life and perhaps a new beginning with the little bird. Her Lord Commander brother turned him away two moons ago and he cannot help but wonder if by now she has learned he is alive. Determined to see her, today Sandor is carrying cargo that will not make it so easy for Lord Commander Snow to turn him away.
By midafternoon, Sandor Clegane arrives at the massive iron entrance called simple the Gate, guarded by several young green boys outfitted in the grim black clothing of the Night's Watch. "Ser, what business do you have at Castle Black?" the youngest man calls out, his voice barely matured into the timbre of adulthood. "My name is Sandor Clegane and I seek admittance to the lands beyond the Wall," he rasps low, watching the men exchange nervous glances, no doubt recollecting his past appearance here. "You were already turned away by Lord Snow once Clegane. He doesn't want your kind up here."
"Tell the Lord Commander Snow I have business with him regarding Winterfell and the Stark family." The youth standing closest to him stares blankly. After eyeing him a moment Sandor recognizes him as Podrick Payne, Tyrion Lannisters former squire. "I know you, boy. Don't tell me you've forgotten this face," Sandor sneers, barking out a snarling laugh. "Give up on squiring for the Imp I see." Being reminded of Tyrion drives a familiar black rage though Sandor's veins though his face remains impassive, gazing warily at the young man.
"I know you too, Hound. Last time I saw you, you abandoned the battle of Blackwater, leaving my lord to fend for himself," Podrick replies, his voice breaking with apprehension. Sandor's face twists into a grin, giving the hulking man an even more fearsome appearance. "Aye, true enough lad. My only regret is I didn't kill the bugger when I had the the chance. If the gods were good, they'd have burned him that night," Sandor sneers at him. "I hear the little bird married him but later shit on his head and flew away. Good on her. The lass has wolf in her after all, wouldn't you say?"
Stiffening, Podrick watches Sandor apprehensively, well aware of the Hound's abilities in battle. "I killed Ser Mandon and besides I don't answer to you anymore, Hound. You best move on from here." Glaring at the boy Sandor cannot help but admire his spunk though his patience is threadbare. "Killed Mandon huh? Not much of an accomplishment, that."
"Nothing you could say will convince the Lord Commander to allow passage of the former Lannister man who held his sister captive." Chuckling low, Sandor sizes up the young man, his lip curling into a smirk. "So says a former Lannister man himself. Bugger that. How did Ned's bastard boy take the news you were once a squire for his sister's husband? Did you tell him all about the wedding the Lannisters forced upon the little bird? Bet you spared him that detail now."
Podrick stands motionless while the other guards digest this information. "Don't act like you're better than me, Payne. We both served the Lannisters; the only difference is, I don't lie about what I am." Podrick casts an uneasy glance at the men around him. "How did a little buggering bastard like you get all the way up here anyway?"
"Not that it concerns you but I came as Lady Brienne's squire." Sandor remembers her from the day she and Pod visited the Quiet Isle in search of the Hound and the Stark girls. He stood right beside the wench and she never once guessed it was him or even asked him to remove his cowl. "Enough talk, boy. Lead me to the Lord Commander now," Sandor barks.
Another young man steps forward, red faced and heavy and a bit older than the others. He appears to be the highest ranked man there and carries a maesters' bag strapped to his side. "Sandor Clegane, the Lord Commander on the Wall will not wish to speak with you of that I'm certain." Stepping forward Sandor leans down and brings his face within mere inches of the young man, his steel gray eyes glinting with rage. "What's your name, runt?" Casting a sidelong look at the other men around them he replies, "Samwell Tarly, ser. I am the Maester here."
Narrowing his dark gray eyes, Sandor leans in closer still. "Well Maester Samwell Tarly, bugger your sers and you, too. Listen well because I'll only say this once: I don't answer to a bunch of pups. If I'd wanted I could have cut through the lot of you without even breaking a sweat so spare me your insolent tone."
The guards glance at each other nervously while Sandor regards them with a mixture of annoyance and amusement. "I don't have all day to jaw away the time with a bunch of scared shitless green boys. You best remember the Hound is never far away. Tell Lord Snow I've brought him a peace offering that will interest him. Quick now, before I lose my temper!" Sandor growls, his deep voice like metal scraping against stone. Swallowing hard, Podrick and Sam scurry back into the castle, leaving the other young men gaping and staring at him.
Kneeling in front of the lone heart tree north of the wall, Sansa recites her usual prayers: for Winterfell, Arya and Jon's safety and an end to the war. Thoughts of the past disturb her worship, a familiar occurrence ever since she learned Sandor Clegane was alive. Much to her disappointment, Jon turned him away, which was hardly surprising yet caused her a great deal of sorrow just the same. She has felt a connection to the man ever since the night the Blackwater burned, for time and experience has given her a much different perspective on the man and his actions toward her in King's Landing.
Though a man long accustomed to battle, Sansa recognized he was afraid, alone and in need of comfort, just as she was that night. They were not so different from one another, not really-both outcasts among the Lannisters, unwanted and unloved. He was drunker than she had ever seen him and thus more open about expressing his feelings as was his pattern. Looking into his deep gray eyes as he held the cold steel blade against her throat, she had been gripped with fear until she glimpsed his soul for the first time and saw the man rather than the Hound.
"You won't hurt me," she whispered and watched his bloodshot eyes fill with tears at her words. Cupping his burned cheek, she felt the hot tears wet her hand as she sang the Mother's Hymn. Suddenly his body relaxed under her touch. He was no longer the Hound or Joffrey's sworn shield, the man in her arms was Sandor Clegane, a man afraid of the wildfire. "Little bird," she heard him rasp low, holding her so close in his arms she felt his gravelly voice echo through her body.
"No, Little bird I won't hurt you," he choked out before tearing off his cloak as he moved away from her. Sansa remembers tarrying on the verge of agreeing to go with him but she hesitated moment too long and when she looked up he was gone.
Over the years following that night, regret has been her constant companion. She was entirely too young at the time to discern the intentions behind the brutal exterior of the Hound. Sansa only comprehended much later it was merely a form of armor he wore among the Lannisters, no different than her own mask of courtesy she used to survive them. On many occasions since she has pondered how different her life might have been had she taken him up on his offer.
Plagued with self-doubt, she laments she was not mature enough to understand his reasons for trying to help her in the first place. So preoccupied was she with how he offered she overlooked a vital truth that night. After much contemplation, she has come to the conclusion that part of him empathized with her situation as well. In retrospect, she now wonders if his behavior at times meant that he may have even cared for her.
Knowing it is pointless to speculate about such things, she nevertheless cannot help but wonder if she is romanticizing him. Perhaps he would have regretted taking me once he sobered up after all. Or maybe it is just as likely he would have kept his word and taken me home. Would he have helped Robb if I had asked him to? If he indeed cared for me and had taken me home, he most certainly would never have allowed Theon to seize Winterfell.
She cannot help but speculate if perhaps going with Sandor may have somehow altered the fate of her mother and brothers. Her reasoning is based not on logic but on the nagging uncertainty she has carried with her ever since that night. Such pointless musings have become a regular part of her life, robbing her of her peace of mind.
Alone in the Eyrie, she spent many hours pondering these thoughts while Lord Baelish entertained his whores. Sandor had visited her in her dreams over the years and the nagging questions soon returned too. Upon learning of his death from Lady Brienne she grieved deeply, knowing the answers to her questions were now buried on the Quiet Isle along with the beginning of something inside she is unwilling to name.
Sansa longs for the chance to talk to Sandor as a woman grown. Never would she be able to make Jon understand why she is haunted by him, why she needs answers to settle the matter once and for all. Jon's turning him away cheated her of that opportunity and she can barely contain her frustration with him during their daily interactions.
Today she brought his bloody cloak with her to the Heart tree. His survival is the gods answer to her prayers, of that she is certain. Once more they have seen fit to give me the chance to see him again, that must mean something. Fingering the rough material lightly, Sansa remembers what it felt like to have him drape his cloak over her. She prays he will return to the Wall and to her. Somehow Jon must be moved to allow him admittance. Silently she prays the two of them will find a measure of peace and a new life north of the Wall, maybe even as friends of sorts. If nothing else, she would like to communicate her feelings to Sandor about that night and in so doing close the chapter on that part of her life once and for all.