Sansa stands at the stern of the weathered ship, leaning over the waist-high rail. Carefully, she grips the chamber pot at its base, tipping it forward. She watches with a grimace as the bilious liquid breaches the edge like a lolling tongue, and then it is no more than a far-flung mist, lost at sea.
She knows she ought to return and see to him, but she has hardly left his side, these last four days.
The air above deck is dank and salt-tinged, and though her skin prickles beneath the kiss of an icy breeze, it is a welcome change from the gloomy cabin—the cloying stench of sweat and sick and hay, the smoky haze of tallow candles, the suffocating press of the moldering walls. She sets the chamber pot on the deck beside her. A welcome change, indeed.
Her eyes slide shut as if of their own volition, and she turns to face the horizon, allowing herself the selfishness of a few stolen moments. With each inhale, the throbbing at her brow fades. With each exhale, the knot of worry in her gut loosens. She sways with the ship as it drifts across the sea. A pleasant glow warms her skin, and upon opening her eyes, Sansa is dazzled by the sun. It is a half-orb in ascent, gold and gleaming, and the sky along the horizon is ablaze with a vivid red.
She retrieves the chamber pot and makes her way below deck, stopping only to visit the galley before returning to their cabin. The iron bar slides easily across the door, locking her inside once more. When it clicks into place, she hears a flurry of movement behind her, and turns to find Sandor Clegane sitting upright on the rumpled pallet.
“Where have you been?” His voice is gruff, but only because he has hardly spoken since they boarded the ship.
She holds up the chamber pot by way of explanation, then adds, “It’s morning. I fetched us something to eat.”
Sansa approaches the hay-stuffed mattress and sits near the end, just beside his legs. She tucks the wooden tankard into the crook of her elbow, then opens the cloth parcel in her lap. There, she finds a block of hard, piquant cheese, an assortment of dried fruit, and a few strips of salt beef. Wordlessly, she hands him the beef, and he takes a small, purposeful bite, then another, and another. The cheese she keeps for herself, but he accepts a shriveled plum without hesitation. The ale is weak and watered, but it is better than dying of thirst. She holds the tankard out toward him, the question unspoken.
He shakes his head. “No.”
“Surely you must be parched. You’ve been abed near four days.”
He pushes at her arm with just enough force to spill a fat droplet on the sheet near his thigh. “And I’ll be abed once more if you force that piss-warm ale down my throat, girl.”
“I could fetch some wine,” she starts, but he only curls his lip in scorn. “Water will be hard to come by, but perhaps if I—”
“Enough,” he growls, a hand raised to silence her. “You’ve troubled yourself enough on my behalf. Just—” He pauses to glare at her, sullen. “Give it here, then.” His raised hand reaches out toward her, and though he sneers again at the taste, he drinks, dutiful.
Sansa averts her gaze, jaw clenched tight in an effort to stifle the grin that threatens, lest he misconstrue.
She had feared some strange ague had taken him, so swiftly did his illness descend. No sooner had they boarded the ship than he had gone unusually quiet, and upon reaching their cabin, barred the door, seeking rest. But after only an hour, he had bolted upright and staggered to the chamber pot, spilling his guts therein. He had been frightful to behold, after—his hair slick against wan skin, his eyes heavy and dull. He had done the same a dozen times more that first night, and by dawn, he seemed some frail thing. With trembling hands, she led him to the pallet, and he had all but collapsed there, his sleep shallow and fitful.
He fared no better the second day. He could stomach neither a drop of broth nor a bite of bread, and when he was not some piteous heap upon the mattress, he was bent in half over the chamber pot, each violent retching followed by a guttural, plaintive moan. She had begged the Old Gods and the Seven both that he survive.
But as the ship travelled farther from Gulltown, the voyage had grown easier, less choppy, and so, too, did his ailment gradually abate. Sansa had very nearly wept with joy, on the third day, to recognize that it was only the sea that ailed him. And so she slept only when he did, spending most of her waking hours attending to him. Though he sought it with less frequency and diminished urgency, Sansa kept the chamber pot emptied and waiting just beside the pallet. Though he made no effort to clean himself, he let her wash his soiled tunic in a bucket of seawater, and he did not grumble when she used a soapy rag to clean the sick from his lopsided beard. Though his appetite was uneasy as a newborn foal, he gnawed hard biscuits at her bidding. He had been meek and pliable as a straw doll, and that had troubled her more than all else. For, though the Sandor Clegane who found her at the Gates of the Moon is a changed man from the Hound she knew in King’s Landing, he is not so different as that.
And so it is the return of his disagreeable temperament that sends her hope soaring. “You’re feeling well,” she remarks.
“Well enough.” He drinks again, unbidden—the lump in his throat rises, then descends quickly, like a hawk in plummet.
This time, she does not bother to hide her smile. “I am glad.”
“I suppose it’ll be me emptying the chamber pot, henceforth,” he muses, wry, before setting the tankard on the floor beside him.
She clicks her tongue at him, frowning. “That’s not what I meant.”
His answer is a snort of a laugh through his nose. His mouth quirks, and he draws a deep breath, a cutting retort surely at the tip of his tongue. She places her hand atop his, and his mirth vanishes in an instant. His eyes flit down, and then back to her own. Suddenly, his expression is unsettlingly bald, grey eyes bright in a way that stokes a dull ache in her chest.
“That’s not what I meant,” she repeats. “I thought you might—” She cuts herself short, unable to say the word aloud. Something in his gaze makes her feel like a skinned rabbit, and rather than bear it for a moment longer, she looks down between them. Her own hand seems but a child’s atop his, skin pale as bone against his ruddy tan. “I was—worried,” she stammers. “For you.”
He wrenches his hand away, leaving her palm to flop against the mattress. She looks up to find his countenance shuttered, that half-burnt mouth pressed into a thin line.
“Take more than a sea sickness to do for me.”
The ache in her chest turns sharp, and Sansa shifts away from him, focused instead on the food that sits all but forgotten in her lap. As she works the cheese into smaller pieces, she nibbles on a dried cherry, so tart her jaw stings. The silence grows louder, louder, so loud her ears are ringing with it.
He stands abruptly, his joints creaking and cracking as if in protest at being forced fully upright. Though he winces, he makes for the door.
“Where are you going?”
A muscle in his jaw twitches and jumps when he looks back, as if he is chewing on his words to form them. “To walk above deck. Bar the door.”
And then, he is gone. She does as bid, unable to subdue the feeling that she has misstepped, somehow, like wading into a puddle only to suffer the shock of finding it waist-deep.
Alone in the cabin for the first time since this journey began, Sansa takes in her surroundings. The spindly desk in the corner is so coated in candle drippings it resembles nothing so much as the deck of a rookery. A small porthole sits above it, the late morning sky a pale blue stippled with tall, woolly clouds. The walls still press too close for comfort, but somehow, the space between feels roomier, or perhaps only less full without the hulking presence of Sandor Clegane.
She returns to the mattress, intending to finish her meal, but a long-ignored fatigue settles about her shoulders like a cloak. She sheds her slippers and her gown, then crawls into the lumpy pallet, wearing no more than a linen shift. Though the pillow is stained a foul yellow, though the thin sheet smells sour, she is asleep within moments.
* * *
The godswood is in turmoil.
A dreadful wind tears through the treetops, and though the stolid pines have survived the very worst that winter has shown them, they sway and groan with each gust.
She is running, her body humming with frenzy. The snow is fresh, soft, and it gives easily beneath her heavy boots. The more effort she pours into her movement, the harder she must work for each step forward. Her calves seize up, and though she cannot remember what is chasing her, she can feel it drawing closer, closer.
A ripple of thunder. Her scream swallowed whole by the black storm.
A flash of lightning. The heart tree, its face a bloody grin.
Sansa, it calls her, reaching its branches out toward her. Each step is an agony, a triumph.
To me, it beckons, bending forward to cradle her like a newborn babe. She slumps into its grasp, the sweetest relief she has ever known.
There, there, it coos, lifting her up, up, up. I’ve got you, it soothes, rocking her back and forth. Prickly leaves caress her cheek, the same color as her mother’s hair.
I’ve got you, it says again, and she is rising higher, higher, above the other trees. Far off, she spots a shadow in the darkness, an orange glow breaking through the whiteout—Winterfell.
No one will hurt you again, it promises her, and suddenly she is rising so quickly she thinks for a moment that she is flying, and she has only to follow the light to find her way home.
But then she is falling, the Weirwood disappeared, alone as the ground rushes up to meet her—
Sansa awakens with a start. A dream. It was only a dream.
She can hear only the rushing of her own blood in her ears. Her linen shift is stuck to her with sweat. Her body feels sluggish, weighed down. She blinks. The cabin is wrong, all dark and drenched in murky blue, as if she has slept straight through the rest of the day. Am I still dreaming?
A deafening crack, like the very ship has been torn asunder.
A flash of white light, near-blinding.
Her stomach lurches, and then she is falling again. The thin pallet rushes up to meet her, and she can feel the hard wood beneath it as she lands with a thud.
The storm was not a dream.
A pinprick of pain at the back of her head spreads roots down her neck to curl around her throat, bloom in her chest. Her lungs seem to shrink away, the air somehow too dense for her to swallow. “Sandor?” she wheezes. “Sandor?” She glances about the small cabin, dazed. There is no answer save for the distant echoes of thunder, like growling of a thousand wolves. She is alone.
Where is he?
She jumps from the pallet, fearing he has succumbed again to sickness. But the ship lists, just then, and her ankle twists, gives, when her foot collides with something solid. Her knees rap against the floor hard, palms tingling at the impact. She watches the wooden tankard roll away, victorious but not unscathed as ale spills from its neck like blood from a wound.
A walk above deck.
The memory hits her like a knife to the gut. She clambers to her feet, but once she is upright, her head spins, swoons, and her vision goes spotty and narrow. Half-blind, she stumbles to the door and gropes until she feels the pull. Her hands tremble and the tips of her fingers are numb and stinging, but she tugs as hard as she can.
The door only rattles in its frame.
She adjusts her grip, heaves, pulls again and again, but it is her dream all over again. It is both an age and an instant she toils, surrendering only when the numbness renders her fingers useless. Determined, she curls her hands into fists, wincing at the way her bones seem to grind against one another as she beats them against the fusty wood.
Her breath comes in ragged pants, each shallower than the last, but she manages to shout, “Help!”
From the hallway just beyond comes the crescendo of heavy footsteps.
The door before her shakes. “Let me in!”
The door shakes again, harder.
“Locked,” she croaks, her fists like war drums. What little remains of her sight blurs behind hot tears.
“It’s barred, you stupid girl!”
Another crash of thunder. Another streak of lightning. Sansa blinks, stunned, and sees that he is right. The moment she lifts the bar, he barrels through, eyes wide and white. She staggers backwards, but he catches her by the wrist and wrenches her upright.
“What’s wrong?” His hands are groping her all over, squeezing and prodding, searching for some mortal wound. “What’s happened?”
“Can’t—breathe,” she manages to choke.
“You—” The word is half-scoff, half-laugh. “You scream like that, you can breathe, girl.”
Her fingernails bite into his forearms. "Please!”
“You’re just frightened,” he tells her, his voice soft as he pulls her close. Though he is ice cold and sea-drenched, she melts against him like butter atop oven-warm bread. “Slow and deep, that’s it. With me, now.” Her head rises and falls with his every stolid breath, and his hands are gentle, curving along her spine. “You’re alright.” And so she is. Like some lathered mare, she is soothed by his touch, and her frantic heart slows to a canter, a trot, a walk.
“Forgive me,” she says after a time, grateful that he cannot see the hot flush creeping down her neck. “I dreamt of a storm, but it was real, and you were gone, I thought—”
“It’s alright,” he murmurs, his fingers twitching against her ribs.
With the steady lub-lub of his heartbeat at her ear, she hardly notices the din of the storm. Each time the ship reels, she leans into him. He never seems to lose his footing. The cabin grows ever-darker, and her eyelids grow heavy. Soon, she is all but slumped in his arms, and though he does not speak, his hands are at her shoulders again, steering her toward the pallet.
She hardly seems to move, but then she is drifting down like a feather, curling up like knotted silk. He takes one step back, but she reaches up and catches his hand with hers. “Don’t leave.” She flinches at the sound of her own voice, so thin and frayed.
“Best if I wait it out down here, lest I ruin the mattress.”
“You’re unwell again.” He tries to turn away and out of her grasp, but she sits upright. “Lie back,” she tells him, bending her knees to fold her feet beneath her. “I don’t mind.”
He eyes her warily in the half-light, frowning. “As you wish,” he says at last.
He leans forward to climb in beside her, looming over her like the specter of a nearly forgotten dream. That peculiar ache in her chest returns, this time but a single thread of a tapestry that pools, hot, in her belly. She nearly chokes on it, but he does not seem to notice, only sprawls out supine, tense as a bowstring. He arranges himself with a care to occupy only the spaces she does not, and it might as well be a dozen leagues between them as she longs, suddenly, to feel his hands on her again. But she is not Alayne, anymore; she is not bastard brave. No, she is Sansa, now; she knows the pretty words.
“It was not the storm that frightened me, not truly.”
“Sansa?” Her name coils from his tongue like a question.
“You had gone above deck,” she murmurs, “and I thought you had—you—you could have—”
“Sansa.” He spits her name like a curse.
Thrice she has stumbled over this truth, and she is determined to speak it. “You could have died. I feared the same, when you were ill.”
He rises swiftly, drenched in shadow as the dim glow of the porthole disappears behind him. “And why should that frighten you? Why should you care at all?” The edge in his voice is sharp as a blade.
The heat in her belly swells in answer. “Can you not guess?” she whispers. It is easy to find his cheek, so diligently has she memorized the peaks and valleys of his suffering, easy to brush her fingertips across burnt and whole skin alike.
“Little bird.” Whispered thus, a plea.
Easier still to meet him, there, the brush of her lips against his featherlight.
It is no song, but it is freely given.