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End in Fire

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Fire and Ice

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

~ Robert Frost 

 

The first thing Sandor noticed were the bells.

He stopped in his tracks, whole body tense, coiled as a snake ready to strike.

It was dusk, the clouds rolling overhead blacker than the sky around them. The moon poked through, a witness.

His head had been bowed against the wind as he trudged along, through the mud and course grass, but he looked up, looked around at grey bleeding into grey. The world falling away to nothing.

He staggered back as an even louder peal hit him, brow crinkling in annoyance. The oil lamp dangling from his massive fist threw erratic widening circles of flickering yellow light over the ground.

‘Fuckin’ temples,’ he muttered, voice gruff from lack of use. ‘You calling for Drowned Gods, Cunt o’ Fire, or some other bullshit?

The mist clogging the air around him thinned, and in the valley below lights flickered, hundreds of eyes blinking.

People were just trouble, he knew, people meant more eyes prying. He should plough on – probably he was trekking along the Mountains of the Moon, should aim for Fairmarket, even keep going to Oldtown. They said it was impossible to be the ugliest person there. But, still, people meant hot food, meant coins to be taken, one way or another, and a horse, he needed a horse…

He slung his pack firmer over his shoulder, over the remnants of his tarnished armour and under his tatty cloak, and set off at a stuttering pace down the hill.

When thorned bushes gave way to houses hewn from rock, that rose from the ground in long rows, there were at least cobbled streets. Empty streets, edged with barred windows.

Bloodied boots pulled from some fresh corpse hit the stones with each step as he strode along, stomach grumbling. Finally, the open door of a tavern threw a long rectangle of light across the cobbles, puddles from that morning’s rain glittering. A swinging sign over the door showed a crudely painted severed head dripping blood, and Sandor made out KING beneath it, the other words just fallen sticks. Kairos, the maester of his childhood at Clegane’s Keep, had soon given up on him and left him to his own devices.

As he pushed inside, ducking his head so as not to hit the doorframe, a dozen pairs of eyes blinked up at him from tables spaced around the cavernous hall. He squared his shoulders and headed for the bar, the floorboards creaking under his feet.

Ale,’ Sandor grunted at the barkeep who peered at him with one bloodshot eye, the other a hollow black slit sunk into sallow skin. ‘And food, whatever you have that’s not rotten.’

‘We don’t get many wayfarers ’round these parts,’ he said, while he filled Sandor a wooden flagon from a barrel.

‘And yet it’s such a welcoming hellhole. What is this place?’

‘Hertogen. Proud township of a proud people. You’d best not stay long.’

‘Fuck off.’ Sandor scowled as he took his drink, want over to a table and let it slosh over as he banged it down. Leaving his leather gloves and damp cloak over a chair, he warmed his hands by the fire in a hearth tall as his chest. Piled beside it stood a stack of wood, horseshoes rusted – nailed to the rough stones of the wall – and drying herbs hung from oak beams above. His fingers prickled as the warmth edged into them, and he hissed. Even as he thawed, he stayed well back from the flames.

‘– paying before touching,’ a high-pitched voice called, and Sandor glanced over. Dress barely containing her breasts, the girl struggled off the knee of a patron in sooty riding britches that hadn't been fashionable since Aegon the Conqueror reigned. Strong hands clawed her back down, and she laughed, striking as the bells, her eyes darting around.

Sandor tensed, hand itching for the hilt of the greatsword strapped to his hip.

‘Leave ’em to it,’ someone said behind him and he spun around. His speed, as always, belied his mass.

Pewter plates clanged onto the table, laden with slabs of meat, baked potatoes, grapes, a round loaf of rye bread, better food than he expected on a cold night in the middle of nowhere. His mouth watered as the air filled with the rich scent of meat, of grain.

Tearing his eyes away he looked up at who had served the feast. The person looking back was nowhere near Sandor’s height and bulk of muscle, but then few were. Sandor gave them more scrutiny than he usually would, trying to fathom their gender. Skin tawny, their eyes glinted gold in the firelight, black hair hacked unevenly – as if by their own hand –  stuck out and brushed their shoulders. The long, patched-together jacket and loose shirt over breeches didn’t help much. Nor did their features, youthful but closed off, finely sculpted under the parchment of their skin. And black lines etched into flesh poked from their collar, a hidden message.

The urge to give thanks tickled Sandor’s tongue, but he just grunted, and received a nod, the glistening eyes never raising as far as his own. But over them copper caught the light, a ring pierced through a thin eyebrow, and more through a nostril, a lip, and running down small ears.

The moment dragged on too long, until a distant flagon slammed against a table and laughter as course as ground glass broke the air.

Sandor sat down with a thud, the chair creaking under his weight, and tore into a chunk of meat, the flesh still pink enough to taste blood. He threw back his first cup of ale, ignoring the pair of eyes still looking down at him. ‘Enjoying the show? Don’t you have something better to do?’ He asked and got no reply.

With a belch, he pushed his flagon across the rough wood, and the server filled it. And Sandor ate, mouthfuls of potato and fruit.

When the food was down to scraps, he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and looked up.

A hand reached out to him, waiting. It took him a moment to realise: money, of course money, isn’t it always? He pulled the bag from his belt, took out copper and dropped groats into the waiting palm. The hand was tiny beneath his own, and smooth, cool, but more like a crow’s claw against the meat of his own scarred and calloused skin. He could easily enclose a hand like that, make it disappear, make it –

‘There’s more upstairs, if you want it? I’m Nim. I will take you.’ Their voice was quiet, Sandor strained to hear it over the other voices trying to drown it out. Neither deep nor high, it revealed little about its owner, who dropped off the coins at the bar then beckoned.

‘I’ve had my fill,’ Sandor said, voice gruff as he stood, grabbed his pack, hand resting on the hilt of his battered sword.

Nim’s smile didn’t reach their eyes. ‘There’s never enough.’

And, stopping by the courtyard to piss against a stone wall, Sandor let himself be led further inside and up a winding staircase to the top of the tavern.

‘What’s your name?’ his guide asked along the way.

‘Clegane. Sandor – it’s Sandor.’

Into a massive attic room the size of the building, but whose sloping walls leading to the rafters made Sandor feel like a giant taking up too much space.

‘But everyone calls me The Hound,’ he added.

A plain, thin bed stood against a low wall, along with rough, mismatched trunk and dressing table.

‘Why?’

Whitewashed walls and white sheets, Nim lit weeping white candles in brass holders.

‘Because I’m loyal,’ Sandor answered.

He caught sight of himself in the unframed mirror on the wall, cracked and more oxidized black than clear, but enough to capture his face. The flesh of one side still screamed – charred and puckered. He dipped his head, long, lank strands of greasy brown hair falling over his shame. He dragged it over the bald, outraged flesh covering half his skull, his naked brow, his scorched, shrunken ear. His chin, his throat, at least hidden by the short but thick beard that ran down to his chest, wherever his skin wasn’t too scared to remember growth.

His chest tightened, familiar, and he wanted to lash out, wanted to make those golden eyes stop looking. Stop looking, the words died bitter on his tongue, stop stop stop

‘What do you want?’ he asked. ‘I don’t usually…’ do this. But that sounded like a boy on his first campaign, and he wasn’t that, hadn’t been for decades.

Nim held out their hand again. ‘Gold.’

Sandon’s laugh was bitter and too loud. ‘I’ve known better whores than you in Flea Bottom who didn’t even ask for silver. Do you even have a cunt or a dick under there?’

‘Does it matter? I have a mouth.’

The heaviness between Sandor’s legs told him that no, it didn’t matter, and it had been so long. He left his pack, left his cloak, left his sword.

Banging his head against the wall and swearing, ‘Seven hells,’ he let himself be sat on the edge of the bed. Let his heavy, studded tunic be pulled aside, and his member pulled free, long and thick and full.

He was wiped clean, the cloth warm from a basin, Nim’s scent clean and perfumed against the stink of his own stale sweat.

And, sleeves pushed up to avoid the water, Nim’s arms showed their litany of scars, angry red gaping mouths lined up till they disappeared, above purple bruises circling their wrists.

Nim licked their lips and Sandor looked away, out the tiny, filthy windows at the stars.

Hand big enough to cup their whole head, Sandor gripped their hair, ‘Just a slag,’ he ground out, hunched over, the whole world warm and wet as he pushed them down, felt them gag, pushed up, all-consuming as fire, burning him alive, tipping him over and dragging him down into –

Too soon Nim was falling back, coughing and gasping for breath as they wiped their mouth, off-white dripping down their chin.

Black hairs still wrapped around his fingers, Sandor tucked himself away, hissing, still pushing against his always battle-ready clothes.

‘You’ve done that before. Probably had half the king’s men up here,’ Sandor said, pulling out a gold coin, a dragon embossed on one side, some long-dead king on the other. He tossed it onto the floor. Gritted his teeth, tensed as he waited to be thrown out. ‘You should get the coins first, didn’t some brothel owner ever teach you that? I could beat you bloody, find out what you are and rape you on that floor, cunt or arse, makes no difference to me. Leave you to rot up here, and would anyone even miss you?’

The light too dim to catch the gold of their eyes, Nim scrambled to their feet, rinsed their mouth out from the bowl, went to the dresser. Came back and held out a straight razor crusted with blood.

‘Nothing below the waist, but you can use this on me if you want? I don’t mind.’

Making a sound of disgust, Sandor’s face creased as he snatched the mother-of-pearl handle. He pointed the open blade at Nim, ‘That’s a good way to get yourself killed. I’ve known men that would take your tongue, take fingers.’

Nim shrugged. ‘I’ve seen worse.’

‘I’m a soldier: you can’t imagine the things I’ve seen, I’ve done. Bodies piled so high you can’t see the sky. Children –’ Sandor’s voice got louder till it broke.

‘You think worse things don’t happen in a place like this? Least dead babies, their suffering is over. I never got left alone, never –’

With a scowl, Sandor reached back to push himself from the wall as he unfurled and stood, snapped the blade shut. Shoved it into the drawer and slammed it.

He scooped the gold coin up and tucked it into Nim’s pocket as they squirmed away too fast for Sandor to tell whether small breasts swelled beneath. ‘There’s plenty like you in King’s Landing – pretty boys that can’t get work any way but on their knees, girls who know anything’s better than being a wife, beaten and raped for free. You’re not special.’

Too long a silence descended, before Nim went back to the dresser. Picked up a trinket Sandor hadn’t even noticed. Square, useless, black lacquer covered in symmetrical gold patterns more intricate than those winding up Nim’s throat.

‘A toy? How old are you?’ Sandor asked.

‘Old enough.’

Delicate fingers moved over polished wood.

Sandor grabbed it, the cube looking smaller in his hands. Warm against his skin, it thrummed in a steady rhythm – perhaps inside was a clock, ticking.

‘It’s a puzzle box,’ Nim said, and backed away. ‘Wysill gave me it, the butcher's son, called it the Lament… something… Configuration? Before he ran away to take the black. But they wouldn’t take me at the Wall, I know they wouldn’t. Anyway, he probably never got there, probably drowned in the Shivering Sea. Sometimes, I think nowhere but here is real anyway.’

Whilst talking, Nim moved into the shadows in the dimmest corner of the room. They lit more candles, revealing a plank of wood balanced on two rocks. On it, beside the candles, sat a large, chipped bowl filled with white petals. Next, another bowl filled with – Sandor moved closer to get a better look – the heads of birds, blank eyes the colour of sour milk, white feathers stained red with blood. Even after everything he’d seen, Sandor managed a scowl of disgust. And beside those a jug, an acrid smell hitting Sandor as he leaned over.

‘What’s this meant to be?’ Sandor asked.

Knelt on the floor, Nim hesitated. ‘They’re offerings…’

‘Who to? What hard-up gods want your piss?’

‘… King’s Landing, that where you’re from?’

‘No, the Westerlands. Got sent away to be in the king’s guard. What does it matter?’

‘The king?’ Nim looked up, eyes too wide. ‘I always thought King’s Landing was just a place made up for stories, about chivalry and fair maidens. You’re a knight?’ They looked Sandor over. ‘A knight errant, maybe? Looking for adventures and people to save?’

‘I’m no knight. But I’ve known plenty of them: they’re all cunts. Just hired killers like the rest of us. And you didn’t answer my question. Which gods? Old? New? Woods, sea, fire?’

‘Don’t you have puzzles like this in King’s Landing?’

Sandor glanced down at the box tingling in his hand. ‘Never seen one.’

‘I thought they were everywhere… Those I pray to, they make the grain grow. Give us meat…’

‘Everyone thanks the gods when they get things they want, but they don’t blame them when bad shit happens. You survive a shipwreck? A fire? Thank your gods if you like, but that means they pulled everyone else under and drowned them, burned them alive.’

Nim just shrugged. ‘No one here thinks the Gods are merciful. But they’re powerful. I thought maybe…’

‘What?’

‘That… that they could get me away from here…’

‘You don't need gods for that, just go. I’ve been everywhere in the seven kingdoms.’

‘It’s not that easy. I’ve always been here. My mother said she was from Dorn, but I never believed her, never believed she'd travelled so far. But you could take me with you? Take me anywhere! I’ll do anything you want…’

Their hands flat against Sandor’s abdomen, they looked up at him, golden eyes promising him the world. And for a moment, just a moment he let himself imagine someone to take care of, someone to wait for him, someone to mourn him lying dead in some field of bodies.

Just for a moment.

‘Fuck that,’ he said, ‘I’m not some fool who’ll fall for a harlot’s pretty words.’

The mask of their face closed, hardened. They reached out and touched the box tingling in Sandor’s hand, then jumped back as a filament of golden flame snaked out and lit red against their finger.

‘Fuck this,’ Sandor shouted and flung it at the wall. It landed against it with a crack, a shower of lime falling with it to the floorboards.

Nim scurried to it, swept it up. ‘No, you mustn’t – I was told it’s a key. Great art comes from it, and riches, pleasures we only dream of, and escape.’ They held it out towards Sandor. ‘It likes you – I can tell. You have blood on your hands? Wys said the doorways like blood.’ They thrust the box into Sandor’s hands. So big in theirs, then so tiny in his.

‘No fire,’ he yelled, pulling it back to aim it again at the wall.

A whir stopped him. The grinding of levers. A tinkling music filled the air, the song of a marionette. His palm prickled, itched, as the box slid like oil, moved too fast, the gold etched over it realigning into new shapes. A cross-section rose up, pivoted, slot back into place. Pinched his skin. Held him. More a blade than a caress. The gold circle on top called to him, his thumbs itched to caress it. Fingers that didn’t know how to be tender, for once stroked, coaxed, and the box swung into a new shape, pointed at each end.

The bells started again. Reverberating through his flesh right down to his bones.

‘They will come now!’ Nim called out, reaching up for the box.

Sandor held it above his head, touching the point where the sloping sides of the ceiling met.

Nim jumped, small fist slamming against his chest. ‘You’re going to ruin it!’ They stepped back, looking up at him, kohl rimmed eyes wide. Sandor had seen that look before. Seen it far too many times. Terror. The sight of his blade spilling guts.

‘Broken bird,’ Sandor said, soft as he knew how, ‘it’s just a –’

But Nim flung open the door and their footsteps rang out as they ran, stumbling down the stairs.

Grabbing his sword, Sandor followed, emerged into the tavern to the sight of the patrons at tables around the room, haggard old men bent over. Boxes in their hands, like the ones in his, but still cubes. Still whole. Their fingers moved, eyes unseeing, hooks ripping their flesh that flung from the boxes on chains. The squares decorating the boxes moved, slid and skittered.

Sandor uttered a sound of disgust as fresh blood dripped onto the floor.

The barkeep behind the kegs, bound by his own hooks, muttered, ‘Leave, leave, leave, le –’

But Sandor was out the door, wincing into the light overhead. It glowed, the darkness smouldering, the streets below sepia in the glow.

New buildings rose up, looming over the street. At one end, the rough stones parted. Walkways winded, bridges, a watchtower with rotating light at the top over it all, and to its side a fortress, its flag blazing. Across the front a mural in every colour, as big as the castle, an open-mouthed face screaming.

In the distance, the fragile shape of Nim, being dragged up steps to the shining dome of what looked like a temple, the kind hewn from rock by slaves, then gilded while these that built it starved.

Sandor spat onto the flagstones, ominous smoke making the air thick. He turned his back, sheathed his sword, steps heavy as he strode away from it all.

And yet…

‘Seven fucking hells,’ he ground out the words as he turned, rushing towards the temple. The steps snaked into the building, the rest continuing around it, behind, running into a walkway disappearing into the distance. Arches beneath, a still twitching body hanging in each.

Sandor climbed, came to the massive, open doors, strode inside.

People stood, peasants, once fine clothes patched and ragged. And at the front, another altar, this one carved from wood. Lit by candles. The light flickering over the twisting images of faces screaming in agony, bodies spread eagle, fists reaching inside and pulling out guts.

And Nim – the locals at their side still holding their arms before stepping away, disappearing into the mass cringing low.

A bang behind Sandor, as the doors banged shut and were barred.

Deep multicoloured glass windows, cast more bodies writhing in agony in shifting, too-bright moonlight on the stone floor. Greens, Purples, and most of all so many reds. They exploded, shattered glass raining down. Sandor shielded his eyes with his arms.

The chiming, so loud Sandor felt the vibrations through his boots, rung in time with light glowing between the stones of the walls. A heartbeat. And, where was once an altar, beings emerged from blackness. A rainbow of glass crunched under their feet.

A priest.

Black leather robes brushing the ground: a maester, a butcher. Taut skin pale as ivory. Bald head crossed with lines, and at each meeting a jewelled nail shrunk into flesh. The pattern reminiscent of the box.

Flanking it, four others. Each as pale, as disfigured. Skin pulled back. The etched robes sewn to their bodies parting to show skin stripped, flesh on display. Nails and wires holding it open. Obscene, proud, pulsing with a mockery of life. One just mounds of putrid flesh. The incessant sound of teeth chattering grating Sandor’s nerves. Another’s mouth sewn shut with black thread.

‘What is your pleasure?’ the leader’s voice boomed through the temple. Its black eyes raked over Sandor.

Bile rising up his gullet, Sandor’s chest burned, the air thick with the stench of a charnel house. So many battles had started this way. With his free hand he drew his sword, the swish of metal through leather.

‘The box. You opened it: we came. What is your pleasure?’ it repeated.

Sandor looked down at the toy still clasped in his other hand, unwilling to be let go. Face twisted into disgust at the horror before him, he bellowed back, ‘I’ve seen worse than you! Bunch o’ sick cunts. I’ve seen the Greyjoys skin men alive, seen the Mad King rape rows of children impaled on spikes. You’re nothing new.’ But his flesh crawled.

Around him, the spectators had fallen to their knees, whispering hushed prayers.

‘I brought him for you!’ Nim called out, looking up at the glittering torture of the adorned face. ‘Wys said – said if someone comes here willingly, you’ll take them. And in return, will give freedom from this place. He came here himself. Delivered himself to you. The villagers, they’d have given me to you anyway, it was only a matter of time. Sacrificial lamb, my mother called me before you took her. Take him instead!’

‘We are cenobites, followers, the Order of the Gash. The razor-thin line between pleasure and pain; between the damned and the saved. We do not play games, child.’

The voice, honey-rich, quivering with anticipation, filled the hall, grated down to Sandor’s bones.

‘But he solved the puzzle box! It chose him!’

‘It is desire that calls to us, not hands. Your heart yearned for the pleasures that only we can offer.’

Rustling behind Sandor told him that more of these beings guarded the doors. He plotted out where each entrance was, each weapon, each pair of hands, each throat to be slit and eyes to be gouged. As he had done many, many times.

‘Why wouldn’t you take me away with you?’ Nim turned and yelled at Sandor.

His fist tightened on the hilt of the sword, but he didn’t move.

Sweetling,’ the soft voice drowned out Nim’s screams and the posturing of the desiccated priest.

The stones of the wall pulsed, blinding light shining through the cracks, before the barrier faded away entirely. Sandor looked through into the endless beyond.

Sweetling,’ wafted to him again, the scent of honeysuckle replacing vanilla and decay.

‘Can’t be…’ Sandor muttered as he followed the sound, the scent. Stepped out into infinity.

The very air roared, the starless charcoal sky heavy, arid clouds racing too fast over dusty ground. Lighting beckoned a storm that never looked like it struck. And spread out below lay a stone labyrinth. Tall and winding stone. So big he couldn't see the end. Big enough to get lost in, to die in of old age. Grates hinted at oubliettes below.

And above it all hung a monolith, like the one clasped in his hand, honed to a point at each end, pointing to the maze. Dust buffeted against him from the powerful wind swirling. Below the perfume, the scent of timeless parchments.

Sweetling,’ his mother’s voice.

Sandor looked up as it hit him, a black beam of mist from the configuration above. It picked him up as though he were weightless, ephemeral as dust fluttering in the air. And he hung, chest forward arms and legs dangling, his sword a distant clatter against rocks.

Sweetling.’

He’s four years old, listening to his mother’s screams in the next room.

Hands over his ears, Sandor rocks back and forth. Gregor would know what to do, his brother always knows what to do.

‘I told you to shut up!’ his father screams in the distance, followed by the dull thuds of fists on tired flesh.

And, cowering, Sandor knows he is to blame.

Six years old now, and bored. He roots around in the toy chest at the end of his brother’s four-poster bed.

A knight! A knight carved from wood, the paint rubbed off on the rounded edges, but still red and blue, yellow for the gold. How Sandor dreams of being a knight, of shining armour and of saving princes and princesses. Of being the hero he had failed to be for his mother, a year now in the ground.

‘I’ll save you!’ Sandor calls out, grabbing a wooden horse and running to the great hall. A chill in the air, he tumbles to lay on his front before the fire. He has no pretty princess doll, or handsome prince, his father says they’re for girls. But he imagines. Imagines their fancy clothes and red-gold hair.

He laughs as he plays, the flames in the hearth dancing behind the knight clasped in his tiny hand.

‘A dragon, there’s a dragon, and, and a white walker! And –’

‘What you doing?’ Gregor yells, and Sandor looks up.

‘What? I –’

After that, everything moves too fast for him to keep up. Gregor, already too strong at ten, grabs him by the hair, drags him to the fire.

‘Mine!’ Gregor yells, and for a moment Sandor doesn’t even know what he means.

Pain as white-cold as ice, and his whole body stiffens in shock, stutters. And, as he will always remember, he doesn’t even think to struggle.

And the smell, the worst thing is the smell, as his face burns.

‘What the –’ His father is dragging them apart, his father who will tell everyone he tripped.

And, as Sandor is carried away by servants, he sees the forgotten knight kicked into the fire.

Twelve years old, a squire now to Lord Tylon Tarbek, a fop who teaches him nothing, who only says: ‘You’ll scare them away soon as they get a look at you anyway, Clegane.’

But Sandor gets his first kill at a Lannisport tourney. Another squire who thought sparring a safe game. He just looks surprised, then he looks nothing at all.

‘He’s just a child!’ He hears many times, of bodies sung over his saddle.

They start to call him The Hound, whisper then scream, the king’s mad dog, snarling, all teeth and claws. He'll do anything he's ordered to do, they say.

And the bodies pile up. His thumbs in eye sockets, hands around throats, guts spilling over his feet. The years measured in corpses. Except they number hundreds, and has it been centuries? It may have been, it may well have been.

And in the end he hung, suspended, as his life of blood and guts played out. It never seemed to end. It never did end. But a scream, yet another scream, reached him and he fell, he fell.

With a clatter he hit stone, stunned he lay there, looked over at the noise.

The priest, the acolytes, black robes, ashen skin and red flesh showing, gathered under the wide grey sky. Nim stood in their midst, small and delicate, looking ready to blow away. Trembling under the sharpness of their intent gazes.

Leave ’em be,’ Sandor muttered, gasping back his breath. ‘Sick fuckers.

He couldn’t hear what was said, just the howl of the wind that blew from nowhere.

As Sandor struggled to his feet, Nim was backed away, into a vertical casket that hemmed them in with chains and disappeared downwards.

Sandor lunged forwards, and the obscene figures parted as he stumbled to the edge, their full-length robes rustling. He looked down at grey mists disappearing into nothingness, a gulf before the maze spread out beyond.

Where’d they go?’ Sandor yelled as he turned around, scanned the ground for his sword.

The pierced priest answered: ‘They are fortunate: chosen to be one of us. They meet with the Engineer to be reborn. And what of you? What is your pleasure? We have such sights to show you.’

‘You’re a talker.’ Sandor planted his feet firmly, spaced apart, as the wind buffeted against him and he swayed, the depths of infinity at his back. ‘I’ve known a lot of talkers. All mouth and no trousers. Always useless cunts. Good soldiers do, talkers just watch. You like to watch?’

It cocked its head to the side and smiled, yellow teeth rotten. Hooks pierced the cloth where its nipples should be, and the exposed flesh showed beneath. ‘You do not worship at the temple? So many, many deities, in so many worlds, it is hard to keep track. And does it matter? In the end, all are penitent and kneel before us. We serve Leviathan, oldest of the Old Gods. All is flesh. The secret song of exalted screams as it is stripped away to reveal the truth. The freedom of surrender.’ It raised its hands, the leather reaching down to cover its thumbs. ‘Behold, the seven-pointed star doth shine only for me! I am the light.’ And it laughed as light glowed around it.

Its hands fell, one hovering over the grotesque chatelaine it wore over its hip, instruments of torture, a meat cleaver waiting under its dead-white fingers.

Sandor made a sound of disgust. ‘Talk, talk, talk! Where. Did. Nim. Go?’

‘They delivered you to us. How lonely must one have to be to still cling on.’

Nim was just a bird flapping broken wings in their cage: even if Sandor could have found the words, he would not have said them. ‘I knew a sick fuck like you in Flea Bottom. Paid a whore to tie him up and use a cheese grater on the head of his dick. She got banged up by the City Watch for pickpocketing, left him to starve to death. I can see that happening to you. Sad fucker who gets its rocks off by some girl calling ’em naughty. He was a soldier. Were you a soldier? Probably some knight: they’re always all talk.’

It growled low in its throat, maggots winding their way from its scull around the nails jutting from its head, as it took hold of a hooked blade.

Feeling naked without his sword, Sandor tensed, ready to take them on.

But grinding gears made him turn.

The casket rose back into view, halting. A wooden box, lacquered and covered in golden shapes and letters that meant nothing to Sandor. Like a puppeteer’s box he saw once distracting children from the carnage at a tourney.

It ground open, slowly, so slowly.

And there was Nim, the broken bird. So pale they were tinged blue, and the copper hoops looked golden and had multiplied, their eyelids skewered, eyes forced open. The scrolls of meaningless letters swirled up their cheeks, vines creeping. Their nebulous androgyny now complete. They had, in the end, a strange, haunted beauty.

‘To think, I almost gave you this gift,’ they said, directed at Sandor, their voice a grating whisper. Their leather robes brushed the floor, like the others, the red of their flayed chest exposed. ‘My vengeance will be glorious, none of them will forget what they did to me now.’

They advanced, a shiver of silver and black. Knife sharp, sliver of moon.

The sight grabbed Sandow tight, squeezed him. His right hand flexed on the hilt that wasn’t there.

And yet Sandor had learned. Learned well. Not that discretion was the better part of valour. Fuck that. Learned that he was no different than a whore to his masters, to his kings. Learned that he was just a body to be left crumpled on some shithole battlefield. Learned that all that mattered was survival. Because what else was there?

And he turned and, haltingly, ran, footsteps heavy on the ground, one dragged.

Ran along a rampart, strip of solid stone. It fell away to nothing at each side, mist far below. Sandor went to The Wall once at Castle Black, looked down over it, but it was shallow as a stair compared to this.

But there were stairs, endless staircases of wide stone that ran up, ran upside down and sideways, disappeared into the distance. Dizzying and impossible, yet there they were.

Sandor reached the end, turned a corner, lost in the labyrinth. Leapt down to the level below, landed with an oomph. More ramparts, arches over them, disappear in every direction, and emerging from them, the sins of flesh.

‘So eager to summon us, so reluctant to partake in our pleasures.’ The jewelled pins decorating its head caught the hazy light emanating from an unseen source.

‘Don’t you ever shut the fuck up?’ Sandor hollered back.

Its hiss morphed into the smile of rigor mortis.

From another archway another patchwork emerged, strips of leather nailed across its eyes, teeth clattering, chattering.

Figures emerged from each arch. The figures from above, and more. Robes swishing over dusty ground. The familiar old battle-ground stench of flesh, of blood, of guts.

‘Are you wights?’ Sandor called, backing away.

The priest laughed, head thrown back. ‘We can be wights, white walkers, shadows, whatever your heart desires. Whatever stories you tell yourselves for comfort in the dark. Yet you have no angels here? What kind of barren world has no angels?’ Its voice boomed, reverberated, as though dredged from far below. ‘But your fear, the secret you hold dearest: fire. Shall we give you to the fire? Shall you be as infamous for your suffering in hell as in your little kingdoms? Shall we make you whole again? Make you less hideous?’

Fuck.’ Sandor muttered as his heels dipped down too far and he spun around to find the chasm opened before him. And down below, flames, an ocean of red and orange and gold, rolled and leapt, the world on fire, the heat hitting him hard as a fist. He recoiled from the lick of it.

And, above it, he saw himself, still hanging, head lolling back, limbs limp, looking up at unseeable sights, ghosts telling their endless stories. Stuck forever in an invisible web.

With a piercing roar, tangible as it rumbled through the mist, a skeletal dragon swooped over it all. Its breath a rush of icy fire, a cascade of motes in the heavy air singed and crystallized.

He shook his head, stepped backwards, turned.

Pain ripped through him, and he yelled out as chains flung out, struck fast as snakes, hooks at their ends snagging through the flesh of his legs, his arms, the remnants of his armour.

From above a massive creature. A knotted blasphemy. Pink as freshly pulped flesh. Long and thin, grasping, its head bright, full of teeth. The blasphemous flesh of it quivering in anticipation.

‘The engineer comes for you!’ The pinned leader called. ‘You are chosen. Blood calls to blood.’

Bile rising, burning his chest from the inside, Sandor caught Nim’s eye: a glint of empty gold. ‘It’s better this way.’ Just for a moment, their breathy voice almost alive. Almost. ‘To escape. To forget. To –’

With a roar Sandor plunged forwards, flesh ripping and blood coursing down his legs, leaving a trail on the burning stone.

The box – the box still clenched in his hand. Clenched so hard his blood ran down the long diamond of it, ran into the grooves.

His roar rising to agony, reaching its climax, Sandor sunk the point of the configuration into the peeled chest of the pinned one. The familiar squelch of flesh parting, the release of blood, his hands wet with it.

Eyes wide, mouth open to a scream, its hatred hot enough to burn, it grasped rotten fingers at Sandor. Jagged nails pulled at his skin, leaving behind bloody grooves. But even as it did, even as it howled out, ‘We shall tear –!’ it lit up along its intricate lines with blinding light.

Then it was gone. Pulled back to whence it came.

The box clattered to the ground, shreds of ragged flesh hanging as a pool of blood oozed around it.

Sandor grabbed it. He had never been any good at games, at pretence. But it called to him. Skittered under his blunt fingers. Rose and slid. Turned.

The other figures came towards him as he sank to his knees, fingers rubbing, pushing.

The flash of blades.

‘You were never the warrior your brother was,’ his father’s voice hissed in one ear. ‘He’s a mountain, you’re just a mangy dog.’

I needed you, my son, you should have saved me,’ his mother’s voice whispered in the other.

And over it all, his brother's voice: ‘You're no use to anyone. I should have killed you when you was a pup, burned you up. But I'll find you, my last battle, my –’

Sandor's fingers faltered. The low bells of a faire jangled.

‘No!’ Nim. A small hand sparked on Sandor's shoulder, grasping at his clothes.

But the box, for once again it was a box, clicked back into a cube. Closed shut. Harmless. Whole.

And Sandor looked up from the toy in his hands. He was alone. Knelt in the sodden street of the village.

He stood, the box falling from his hands, landing with a squelch in the mud.

Sandor spit at it, turned, staggered between the low, leaning stone houses. Silent, shutters drawn. The winding streets small, mundane.

Outside the tavern, a horse was tethered. Black, it stood still, head down, nostrils expanding as it snorted out each breath, sides heaving.

Sandor didn’t look through the leaded windows. Didn’t want to know.

He unknotted the ropes, quick and ignoring the trembling of his fingers as he checked the crude leather saddle was secured.

‘Ser, you’ve forgotten something.’ A voice behind him.

Chest tight, Sandor slowly turned.

A beggar. Filthy under the dim, flickering street lamp. Clothes ragged. Maggots crawled over his bald head, out of his mouth. Ants ran across his bloodshot eyeballs. Eating him alive. He smiled a toothless grin. ‘Yours, Ser.’ He said. The stink of ancient sweat rose from him, as he held out the box with his three fingers. ‘It has always been yours,’

You can fuck right off too,’ Sandor ground out, but he grabbed it, held it tight, ignored the chuckle at his back, swung onto the horse. It whinnied, rearing as he pulled sharp on the reins then dug his heels in and rode out of there as though all the hounds of hell were chasing him. Which perhaps they were.

Soon, Sandor left the ramshackle houses behind. Out into coarse, open fields. And, for once, he didn’t look back.

Ahead, the sky bled, clouds swimming like islands in a sea of blood. Endless. The river ahead red too with reflected glory. The yellow yolk of the sun a blurred circle emerging on the horizon.

But it was morning, he’d made it to yet another morning.

And it was a new day.

The night’s monsters left behind.

If only it were so easy to escape the past.

 

The End