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Dénouement

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i.

 

She awoke suddenly in the forest to the sound of dense crisp leaves crackling. Fear shot through her heart, and Sansa pushed herself up by her arms, looking around to get a lay of the land. She didn’t know where she was, nor could she remember why she was here, and the terror was real, palpable. Her heart thudded in her chest.

 

His boots crunched the leaves as he came around a tree, and the Hound eyed her briefly before turning around to tend to his horse. He was carrying a bundle he strapped to Stranger’s side, and Sansa remembered where she was and why, and who had brought her here. The Hound, she thought, her mouth going dry. He had offered to take her away from King’s Landing, drunk and frightening, but something told her the wild with him was better than a prison keep with Joffrey.

 

“I could keep you safe,” he had rasped in the darkness of her room as wildfire lit the sky. “They’re all afraid of me. No one would hurt you again, or I’d kill them.” He had yanked her closer, and Sansa had been afraid he meant to kiss her. He made no move to do so. She almost closed her eyes. Something beyond her had told her to keep them open. His face in the dark hadn’t been as bad as it was during the day, the blood masking the worst of his scars. His grip had loosened on her, his body leaning away. He had seemed almost satisfied that she hadn’t looked away.

 

The Hound never hurt her like the others had, she had remembered that night, and he had even saved her from Lolly Stokeworth’s fate with the mob. He had always protected her in what ways he could, never striking her by Joffrey’s command, and so she had said yes as wildfire arced through the sky outside of her window, her voice small and scared to her own ears, but she had nodded her head all the same.

 

Now, she watched as he gathered up the campsite gear, preparing to leave. Sansa did not know if she should help him or wait, so she waited until he spoke to her.

 

“Come, girl,” the Hound rasped. He extended his hand to her. Sansa looked at it before she took it, and he helped her to her feet. He rolled up her blanket and fastened it to Stranger, and then he helped her onto the horse before mounting it himself.

 

They were far from the road. The road wasn’t safe, even Sansa knew that, so they traveled under the protection of trees. She thought perhaps she ought to feel afraid, traveling through the wild with a man like him, but the Hound never touched her except to help her up and down from the horse or to pass her food and drink. She remembered her prayer to the Mother for him the night the Blackwater caught fire, and found herself leaning into his arms as she rode atop the horse with him.

 

If he noticed, he didn’t say anything.

 

He was oddly quiet most days. At first, Sansa did not mind it. She began to miss conversation, though, and she wondered what she could talk to him about. She opened her mouth many times before closing it, deciding silence was better than his sneers or cruel remarks. Only he hadn’t been cruel to her since they left King’s Landing.

 

“Can I bathe?” she asked one day, when they stopped by a stream in the woods to gather some water for themselves and for Stranger.

 

The Hound cut a dark look at her. “Why?”

 

“I’m dirty,” she said.

 

“Good. You’ll look more like a peasant.”

 

Sansa opened her mouth to protest, and then realized he was right. She wanted to look more like a peasant. Her dress wasn’t rough spun, but it was simple and plain as well as dirty and torn from traveling. Her hair was a mess, so she tied it up with a ribbon to tame it. She peeked at her reflection in the water. There was dirt on her face. Sansa made a small sound of frustration in her throat, but she knew she shouldn’t clean it off.

 

They got back on the horse, Sansa seated behind him this time, and continued on. Eventually, the trees thinned out and they came upon a field to cross. The Hound was wary at first. His eyes scanned the distance for anything they ought to be aware of, but Stranger went forward again on his command and they passed under the sun for the first time since they left the city.

 

Sansa looked up at the sky and closed her eyes. She enjoyed the heat of the sun on her face. Moments passed uninterrupted until a voice called out and broke her from her reverie. Stranger halted suddenly, and Sansa peeked around the Hound’s arm. He called back out to a group ahead. He had told her a while back not to speak to anybody and stay mute, so Sansa kept her mouth shut. Her arms tightened around his middle, her breathing becoming shallow.

 

The group came upon them. They were soldiers. She could tell by how they talked. The Hound wore a cowl over his face to hide his scars, and he spoke like a peasant. Sansa clung to his back the whole time, hiding her face against his cloak. They asked about her, and the Hound said she was his daughter. They asked for a go at her and tossed him a coin. Sansa heard the metal ting in the air. She clutched him tighter in fear.

 

“No,” he said, his voice scraping like steel over stone.

 

“Come now,” one of them said with a laugh. “That’s more money than you’ll see in a year. Give us the girl. We’ll return her once we’ve had a round with her.” The others laughed too. Sansa thought she might cry.

 

“I said no,” the Hound repeated darkly. Kill them, Sansa thought. Kill them all. There was only three or four of them. He could take them. She knew he could.

 

“Don’t know how to respect your betters,” another one said. Sansa heard the sound of steel being drawn.

 

It happened so fast.

 

The Hound leapt off of Stranger and drew his sword from beneath his cloak. He slapped Stranger and sent the horse running off at a dash with Sansa on its back. She clutched helplessly as she heard the ringing of steel behind her, and she thought to make Stranger turn around, but she was too frightened to do much of anything but hold on for her life.

 

A whistle cut through the air, bringing Stranger to a halt. Another whistle came, and he turned around and began to trot back in the same direction they ran away from. Sansa saw the Hound standing in his hooded cowl, cleaning off his blade, a ring of dead bodies around his feet. There was blood on his cloak. She feared for a moment he was wounded, but he seemed just fine.

 

“The blood’s not mine,” he said, reading her thoughts. “We’d better get far from here before more come.” He hoisted himself onto Stranger with her in front this time, and they rode out of the field as quickly as possible.

 

That night they made camp in what looked like a deserted barn. It was colder than most nights, and Sansa clung to the blanket he had given her, but it wasn’t enough. He refused to light a fire, saying it would draw unwanted attention.

 

“I’m cold,” Sansa said, and he looked up at her from where he sharpened his sword.

 

“Go to sleep, girl.”

 

“I can’t,” she said softly.

 

He threw his blanket at her. “There,” he snapped. “Are you happy?”

 

It wasn’t what she meant, but Sansa wrapped up in both blankets and still couldn’t fall asleep. Eventually, the Hound lied down on the straw. She waited until she thought he was definitely asleep, and crept over to where he lay. Sansa gently placed both blankets over him and crawled under them too, snuggling against his back. He was big and warm, and somehow it made her feel safer to be beside him than all alone.

 

When she woke up, he had turned around in his sleep and wound himself around her. His heavy arm was draped across her just under her breasts, his face pressed into her hair. Sansa was so comfortable that she snuggled closer and closed her eyes again with a soft sigh. She hoped he didn’t wake up soon. He’d probably get mad at her.

 

Not long after her, he awoke. She felt him stir and freeze completely. His whole body tensed, and for the longest time, he did not move. Sansa thought feigned sleep was better than appearing awake, so she rubbed her head against his chest and sighed, her small fingers curling against his jerkin. Perhaps if he thought she was still asleep, he wouldn’t get angry with her.

 

She was right. He began to loosen up some, and she felt his arm come back down and rest over her side. His hand held her back, not ungentle. He sighed. “Little bird,” he rasped. Sansa slid her arm around him, causing him to tense up briefly again, but then she pretended to open her eyes from sleep. Sansa tilted her head back, blinking up at him.

 

“Good morning,” she said, and the Hound gave her a new look that he never used to give her before. Like he didn’t know what to make of her.

 

“We should get up,” he said gruffly, but he made no move to get up.

 

Sansa nodded, and then she ducked her head underneath his chin to yawn. She was sure her breath was a foul thing. She pushed herself up and brushed the straw off of her shoddy gown. There was a time once when she would have been upset at such a thing, wearing a dirty and torn dress, but King’s Landing had changed her. It didn’t seem so important now. Her whole world had turned upside down. She brushed off her gown calmly, and looked to the Hound.

 

He prepared the horse fast. They took a moment to eat some bread and wash it down with water, and then they resumed their journey. Sansa wondered how long it would take to get to Winterfell through the woodlands, and she fingered a loose thread on the Hound’s cloak as they rode Stranger at a normal pace. It wouldn’t come off, so she tugged on it.

 

“Stop that,” he barked, and Sansa withdrew her hand quickly as if he had slapped her. She didn’t apologize. Sometimes, she thought, it was best not to answer him. He mocked her courtesies plenty of times for her to know out here in the wild they meant very little to him.

 

“How long will it take?” she finally asked to break the silence. Sansa couldn’t withstand such a long trip with nothing said at all.

 

“Long enough,” he rasped. “A month, maybe two. That is, if we don’t encounter trouble on the way.”

 

Sansa was unnerved by that. “What kind of trouble?”

 

“Thieves, bandits, rapists, and murderers. The world’s full of them all. Take your pick.”

 

“Oh,” Sansa said, and her voice was small even to her own ears. “You won’t let them hurt me, will you?” she asked, her fingers unconsciously clutching onto his cloak again.

 

He seemed to sit up straighter on the horse. “No, little bird. I won’t let anyone hurt you. The man who tries is a dead man.”

 

Sansa was satisfied with his answer, and she laid her head against his back as she wrapped her arms around his middle. With her father no longer with her, she had no one to look out for her except for the Hound. She closed her eyes and prayed they would get to Winterfell safely with the Hound’s sword clean, but she knew it was only a prayer and sometimes the gods did not answer.

 

Come nightfall, they made a quiet camp with no fire in a dense copse of trees. A large dry rot log lay across the forest floor, and the Hound leaned against it. Sansa felt safer if she was close to him than far away, so she crept up to him and sat beside him. The Hound gave her that look again, that look like he’d never seen her before, but she ignored it and surreptitiously averted her eyes from his gaze like she was looking for something. That way he couldn’t be angry with her for looking away from his face.

 

There was a rip in his jerkin. Sansa noticed it and reached out for it, and he reacted quickly, blocking her hand by grabbing her wrist. The Hound pushed her arm away, letting go just as fast, as if he didn’t want to be bothered with touching her.

 

“Keep your distance, girl,” he warned.

 

Sansa was wounded. “I can fix it,” she whined. “I know how.”

 

“You’ll fix more than just a jerkin if you don’t keep your hands to yourself,” the Hound snapped, and he turned away from her to make his bed on the forest floor.

 

Sansa sat awake for a while, wondering why he was so mean when she had only wanted to help. He was supposed to be helping her, and yet he still got mad at her. If he didn’t want me to come along, Sansa thought with tears in her eyes, then he shouldn’t have come for me. She quickly wiped away the tears, and lied on the ground not too close to him to try and go to sleep.

 

When morning had come, she somehow rolled herself into his arms. The air was cold, and she drew closer into his embrace for warmth. A root poked into her back from the ground, but she shifted and found a soft place away from it. Sansa began to drift off again when the Hound rolled toward her and grunted in his sleep, and the root between them poked her again. She frowned and tried to wiggle into a comfortable position without leaving his arms.

 

He jerked away from her all of a sudden, swearing loudly. Sansa started in fear, her eyes shot open, and she turned over to look at him. Had she made him angry yet again? What would he say to her this time? Would he just leave her out here if he got mad enough?

 

She expected him to look murderous, but instead he just looked afraid. It confused Sansa. When was the Hound afraid of anything, except fire? His expression didn’t last that way for long, though, and he ground his teeth together as he pointed his finger at her. “I told you to keep your damn distance,” he told her, an edge to his voice.

 

Sansa felt she would cry at any moment. “But I was cold,” she whispered.

 

The Hound took a deep breath, and got up. She watched as he paced around their campsite for a moment, and then he was packing up the horse again. She grew terrified all of a sudden, and scrambled to her feet.

 

“I won’t do it again, I promise,” Sansa blurted out, so afraid he was about to ride off without her and leave her out here in the wild all by herself. She walked up to him, but she was mindful enough to keep her distance as he said, and yet he ignored her the whole time he prepared the horse. He walked this way and that, never looking at her. “I promise I won’t do it again. I’ll do whatever you say. Please, please, just don’t leave me.”

 

He froze. Sansa swallowed past the catch in her throat. The Hound slowly turned around, his sharp grey eyes staring back at her. “Is that what you think?” he asked, but she wasn’t sure how to answer him. What was the right answer, and what was the wrong? “You think I’d leave you here? After all this trouble?”

 

Sansa cast her eyes to the ground. “Why else would you be so mad?”

 

The Hound did something she didn’t expect, then.

 

He laughed.

 

“Get on the horse, girl. We don’t have all day.”

 

Sansa didn’t waste a moment. She scrambled onto Stranger with his help, and then watched as he grabbed her blanket, roll it, and tie it back onto Stranger’s side. Once he mounted the horse, they rode off again with her at his back, holding on as they sped through the trees. They stopped briefly to break their fast by a small stream, and continued on again after a moment’s rest.

 

Sansa started to keep quiet for the most part, and she slept away from him, even though it kept her up too late most nights because the weather was growing colder and colder. Each day was starting to blur together. She was so tired. After so many days of nothing more than ‘good morning,’ ‘goodnight,’ ‘yes,’ and ‘no’ said between them, the Hound finally said something about it one evening as they ate a meager supper.

 

“What’s wrong with you?” he asked. “Haven’t said a word in days.”

 

“I . . . I don’t know what to say,” Sansa said.

 

It wasn’t a full lie, but it was close enough the Hound could smell it.

 

“You’re lying, girl.”

 

“I haven’t been sleeping,” she blurted out, admitting it all to him. “It’s so cold and the blanket isn’t enough to keep warm. You won’t let me near you. I don’t know what I’ve done wrong, and you won’t tell me. I’m afraid I’m going to wake up one morning and you won’t be there.” There were tears in her eyes when she was finished. It was silly of her to cry. She was ten and two, a maiden flowered. She should be strong. Queen Cersei was strong. Why couldn’t she be more like her?

 

The Hound was quiet for a long time. He did not answer her, nor did he get angry. His silence unnerved her more than anything. The Hound always had something to say. She almost hoped he would call her a stupid little bird just so she would know what he was thinking, but he said nothing.

 

She finished her meal without saying another word. The Hound rose to prepare his bed on the grass, and Sansa stood up to get her blanket as well. As she spread out her blanket and bunched up a cloak for a pillow, the Hound summoned her attention.

 

“Sansa,” he called out.

 

She froze. Very slowly, she turned around to look at him. He never called her by her name before, except maybe once or twice in the presence of his betters. Even then, he had only called her Lady Sansa. She stared at him like she had never seen him before in her life, blinking away the shock.

 

The Hound scowled, and it twisted his face in an unpleasant fashion. “Don’t look at me like that,” he said. “Come here.” Sansa took a step forward. “Bring your blanket and cloak,” he added. Quickly, she turned around and scooped them up in her arms before walking over to him.

 

The Hound lifted a finger at her face and spoke very sternly. “You can lie beside me tonight, but I have rules. One. No talking. I want to sleep, not have a tea party. Two. No writhing. It keeps me awake. Three. No damn wiggling. In fact don’t move at all. Just be still. Understood?”

 

Sansa’s brow creased and she opened her mouth to say that’s a lot of rules, but she clamped her mouth shut and hastily nodded. “Yes,” she said.

 

“Good.” The Hound turned away from her to finish, and she helped him. Once their spot was made and he took his place on the ground, Sansa quickly joined him. Instead of lying beside him, she cuddled close to him under the blankets and put her head on his shoulder and her arm over his chest. He tensed up immediately beneath her, but her eyes were already closed so she didn’t have to see the look on his face.

 

After a long time, he allowed his arm to encircle her back and rested his hand on her shoulder.

 

No talking, Sansa thought, chanting the rules in her head. No writhing. No wiggling. Be still. No talking, no writhing, no wiggling. Be still. She fell asleep to the chanting inside of her head, drifting into a comfortable sleep she hadn’t had in what felt like weeks.

 

When she woke up, their limbs were an entangled mess beneath the covers. The wind blew chilly, and the sky was still black with a smattering of stars sprinkled above the tree tops. Sansa lied on her back, her head resting in the crook of his neck. One of her legs was hooked over one of his, but then one of his was over hers, and he had one of his big arms thrown over her middle.

 

It was uncomfortable, so Sansa shifted as gently as possible so as to not wake him, and he made a deep noise in his sleep, rolling over onto his back and taking his arm away from her. Sansa’s heart fell. Half of his warmth escaped her, so she curled up close against his side and bundled the blanket up to her cheek. Sansa looked up at his face in the moonlight; it was barely visible, but the good side of his face was the only part in her view, and she thought, wildly, that as he lay there unimposing and asleep, he seemed softened and almost gentle and he no longer looked as ugly as he did in the daylight with his scars when he scowled and made those horrible, cruel faces at her.

 

The Hound was no Ser Loras, nor was he golden and beautiful like Ser Jaime, but he was sharp and dark haired and there was something, dare she think it, almost handsome about him. Sansa stared at him, mesmerized, and reached out her hand tentatively to touch his face to make sure it was real. When her finger barely grazed his skin, she jerked her hand back and he stirred.

 

Sansa buried her face against him and hoped he hadn’t woken up. She didn’t want him to be mad at her because she broke one of his rules. His hand rubbed against her arm in his sleep, and he rolled back onto his side, facing her.

 

When he remained asleep, Sansa allowed herself to breathe. Her hand was pressed to his chest, and she curled and uncurled her fingers against his jerkin, closing her eyes. He smelt of blood, smoke, sweat and salt—and underneath it all, he held the distinct scent of a man. Sansa felt her heart quicken in her ribcage, and wondered if this was how it was like to share a marriage bed.

 

She pushed away her thoughts, but she could not still her fingers. Again and again, they curled and uncurled against his jerkin right above the area of his heart until she fell asleep and her movements stilled, her breath slowing down and her heart evening out its beat.