First she heard an explosion, followed by cries of terror, louder than what Kaoru remembered of the shelling and screaming in Tokyo before the shogunate forces had surrendered. She smelled the stink of offal, of burnt buildings, of sweating beasts. She allowed herself to realize that even as she seemed to be riding an earthquake, her windpipe was no longer being crushed beneath Enishi’s fingers. She gulped a breath and opened her eyes to darkness.
Well, not darkness, not exactly -- more of a green-black glow over a greasy haze, and not an earthquake to ride, either -- a horse, in the middle of a riot! Kaoru screamed, not that her voice could have been heard over the chaos. She didn’t have time to look around, though. She was losing her balance, sliding backwards. She thrust herself forward instinctively, grabbing blindly at anything that could save her. Her arm hooked around a great wall that spoke.
“Hold on tight, little bird,” it growled in crunchy syllables, and it cursed, and then there was another explosion that lit up the skies in electric green, and Kaoru saw an enormous bloody broadsword in a great gloved fist. A pair of hands reached up toward the horse through the crowd, and the sword came down and hacked them off in a single stroke.
The blood sprayed across Kaoru’s hakama. Her chin snapped up, and she clamped her jaw shut. She might not understand how she’d come from the triad’s island jail to this midnight hell, but she knew how to fight. With the hand that wasn’t clutching the man in front of her, she reached for the bokken that should have been at her belt, but of course Enishi had disarmed her before he had kidnapped her.
“Stupid,” she muttered to herself, but didn’t have time to think as the horse slowed just enough that a pale foreigner with yellow hair and black broken teeth hurled himself at her and grasped at her clothes. “Off!” she screamed as she gave him a hard kick to the face.
The wall-man in front of her raised his sword again, and when Kaoru looked beyond she saw a mounted soldier with a crazy full bodysuit of armor charging toward them on another great horse. But the man skewered the soldier in the neck, in a crack between the metal pieces.
As the dead soldier slumped over and his horse passed by, Kaoru stretched herself outward and wrestled his sword from his limp hand. The weapon was heavy, and straight, and sharp. She wouldn’t really be able to wield it effectively, but she needed something, and fast. No sooner had she taken it than another man in the crowd reached for her. She whacked him over the head with the flat of the blade, and as he fell the others seemed to decide that she wasn’t worth the risk of injury.
The horse sloped from a bumpy trot to a smoother, faster gait, and the men on the streets got out of the way, uninterested in being flattened. The man and his horse -- and now Kaoru, apparently -- seemed to be fleeing through a canyon of burning buildings, though she couldn’t identify much amidst the smoke and flame.
Kaoru’s long black hair had somehow stayed tied back, and now it whipped behind her as the man brought the horse to a gallop. A foot soldier tripped in front of them, and the horse ran him down. His screams echoed in Kaoru’s skull.
Kaoru clutched the man in front of her with both arms just to keep from falling, and the sword she held clanged against the plate metal on his massive thigh. They passed under some kind of bridge, or perhaps through a tall open gate, and straight into the thickest, blackest woods Kaoru had ever seen.
They rode through whatever was left of the night. The man never looked back, though once he asked, “Glad you’re rid of that place?”
Kaoru, in her fear and exhaustion, forgot all her questions and simply replied, “Yes.”
By the time the first rays of sunlight seared their way through the tree branches and smoke, Kaoru’s fingers felt locked in place, and her thighs felt like they’d been whacked by a thousand shinai. She could finally see that the man she rode behind had a scraggly mess of dark hair and impossibly broad shoulders.
As they crossed a stream, the horse thrust its head into the water and refused to bring his head back up in spite of its master’s best efforts. “Stubborn bastard,” the man laughed, low and rough.
Kaoru let go of him and didn’t catch the next words out of the man’s mouth. He dismounted, turned around, and looked up at her.
Kaoru gasped. She knew scars -- long white seams -- jagged purple patches -- an ‘x’ across the cheek, her heart beat to her -- but she had never seen half a face melted off. She tried to scuttle away, but there was no place to go. With the last of her strength, she held up the sword and took a swing.
He said something garbled and held up his massive arm, which the sword bounced off with a clang; then he reached up and hauled her off the horse by her collar. “Oh no you don’t, you little bitch,” he growled. Kaoru tried to kick at him, but her legs flopped like thick noodles.
He threw her to the ground and she tried stand to flee, but once again her legs failed her. The man put his knee against her spine and knocked the too heavy sword from her fingers. He stank of dried blood and sweat and a foul sort of kerosene. His gloved hand on her neck seemed to reach nearly all the way around.
And then there was only his horrible breath, sweet and putrid on her face. Low in her ear, he said, “What have you done with Lady Sansa?”
She must have been thrown off Stranger and passed out, and Sandor Clegane must have left her here in some King’s Landing alley. One moment Sansa had been careening through the streets on the warhorse’s saddle blanket with her ruined gown bunched up around her legs, the man who was not a knight rescuing her from a terrible fate, and the next she was lying on her back, her arms outstretched, her hands hot against the cobblestones. Clegane had told her he would keep her safe, had promised to pluck her from the viper’s pit and take her home to her mother, but he must have lied, because she didn’t hear her mother’s voice, couldn’t hear anything but squalling seabirds in the distance. She didn’t want to open her eyes, because then she would have to face whatever was to come next.
She had to do something. She cracked open one eyelid, then the other, to the deepest azure sky she had ever seen. That didn’t seem right. Even if she’d been lying in a ditch for days, the wildfire-burnt wrecks in the harbor should still be smoking, spewing out a brownish haze for miles and miles.
Someone coughed softly nearby. She blinked and swallowed, too frightened to turn her head away from the blue. The cough came again, meatier this time.
“Neesan,” a man’s voice gurgled through the hacking.
Sansa bolted upright, her head pounding from the movement. She blinked again, stunned and confused by the sight before her. She wasn’t in any King’s Landing alley, nor in any Crownsland forest. She was sitting up, legs splayed, on the ground of some kind of open courtyard with fine wide tiles and a tall, delicate building on two sides. Beyond a short parapet, Sansa could see the tops of lush trees with peculiar leaves. And off to her side, there was an overturned table, the spilled remains of a meal, and a man curled up on the ground beside a pool of vomit.
Sansa scrambled to her feet, careful not to trip on the muddy, bloody hem of her skirts. Instinctively, she called out, “Help, someone, is anyone -- ah --”
Her voice sputtered out as she looked beyond what she could now clearly see was a balcony, which was clearly attached to the second or third story of a house that looked out over a whole forest full of the strange trees. A green bird with a hooked beak darted past with a squawk. Just how far away from King’s Landing was she?
Sansa glanced back at the man, who was still curled up on the floor. He seemed to be shivering, or sobbing, or both. He was dressed quite peculiarly, wearing what seemed to be some kind of short silk orange and blue jacket and long pants of the same colors. At first she thought he was very old because of the straight white hair that stuck out everywhere, but as she approached him to look at his bruised, scratched face, she realized that he was probably only a few years older than she was, and certainly not from Westeros. His tan complexion and narrow chin suggested someplace further east, perhaps even further than the Free Cities. Gently, she placed her fingertips on his shoulder. “Ser,” she said, wondering whether this was the proper way to address him, wondering if she shouldn’t just run away to see if she could find Clegane. “Where can I get you help?”
“Sister,” he replied clearly, his eyes popping open wide, then slamming shut, and Sansa pulled her hand away as fast as if she’d reached out to touch a blacksmith’s forge. He clutched his stomach with a heavily bandaged arm. “Nee-san,” he cried plaintively.
Sansa backed away toward a strange double door embedded with the largest, clearest, most perfectly square pieces of glass that she had ever seen. “Stay -- stay there. Let me find you help,” she said, her tongue like wet leather in her mouth. She pressed down on the door handle -- a complicated mechanism that she could feel clicking through the vibrations in her hand -- and stepped inside, hoping for the best.
The door opened onto a hallway that ended with a tall window at the other end. Halfway down was a narrow but carefully crafted staircase. The floor inside was made of buffed wooden planks, partially covered by a maroon rug with an intricate, dizzying pattern. “Hound?” she called. “Clegane?” she said, more quietly this time.
No one answered. From the open door, she heard the man sigh, followed again by that strange word.
This man needs help. You need help, Sansa reminded herself, swallowing the rising panic in her throat. She took the first step forward, and the next ones down the hall and down the stairs were easier.
On the first floor, she found an entry area with two large rooms on either side -- a sort of sitting room with a single upholstered chair in a style she had never seen before, and another large and mostly empty room with a heavy writing table in the middle -- and then smaller quarters in the back that she worked out to be a very different and small sort of kitchen and eating space, but there were no people. The kitchen, at least, had been used recently, judging by scraps of fish and rice beside a knife on one of the flat surfaces. She returned to the entry hall and opened the wide, heavy front door.
Sansa swallowed again, but this time she couldn’t control the fear. She walked a dozen paces out beyond the door, up to the edge of a bluff. The land below, blanketed with foliage, stretched out on either side like the horns of a bull, or the outstretched arms of a mother. Beyond that was a crescent-shaped beach with the whitest sand she had ever seen. Far in the distance, a ship with oddly configured sails pointed away from the bay.
Her braids had come loose during the commotion of the battle, and now her hair flew around her face in the breeze. Her ruined skirts rustled uselessly. Overwhelmed, she sank to her knees and stared out at the endless ocean, the only thing bluer than that sky.
Behind her, she heard shaky footsteps on the staircase.
[to be continued]