It had only been four days before they'd come across the first set of soldiers. There had been five of them. They'd been surprised to see The Hound with the Kings betrothed, obviously they weren't aware of him going craven and stealing her away on the night the Blackwater burned. They'd fought, regardless. And they'd lost. Sandor had taken what coin they had, which wasn't much, but hadn't bothered with their armor. It would never fit a man as big as him. Sansa had taken one of their cloaks. In her frantic hurry to leave that night, she hadn't taken one of her own. Sandor had also taken two of their swords, and shoved a few of their daggers into his saddlebags. When she'd asked why he'd taken their swords, since he had one of his own, he'd told her that swords were expensive. They could sell them later, or if something happened to his, at least he had backup.
Sansa had been frightened when the fighting had started. There were so many of them, and just one him, but he never once seemed worried. He seemed sure, maybe even a little egotistical, but rightfully so. Watching him fight was thrilling. Beyond her fear that he would fall, she was enraptured by the way he moved. He was massive, that much was obvious, but he was also graceful and there wasn't a move he made that didn't have purpose. He'd taken a few blows, and had been cut fairly deeply across his left forearm, but had come out the victor. Sansa had sewn his arm that night after cleaning it out with boiled water since they had no wine, something he complained about endlessly.
The next incident was two weeks later, although this time it was just a small group of bandits, and Sansa had been alone, or at least somewhat. Sandor had gone to the river to bathe while she stayed by the fire to give him privacy when they found her. There was only three this time, and they carried no swords and wore no armor. They looked thin and ravaged, hungry and desperate. And not just for food. She had nothing on her to protect herself. No daggers or knives like they carried. Sandor had taken his sword with him to the river, and the others were all on the other side of the camp near Stranger. She'd screamed, her only line of defense, and had struggled as hard and strong as she could against the three of them. Kicked and slapped and clawed and bit at anything that came close enough. Her dress was ripped and there was blood on her chest and arms, although she wasn't sure if it was her own or theirs, but she kept fighting, and kept screaming. Sandor had come, like she had known he would, and had cut the men down before she knew he was even there, wearing only his pants, unlaced, and soaking wet. She'd assured him she was alright and after he'd cleaned her up he'd taken her for her word when it was clear the blood was mostly not hers. He'd told her she'd done a good job, but she insisted she could have done better, if only she'd had the proper equipment and training.
It would be another three days of begging and bargaining and bugging before he finally agreed to it. Ultimately she got him to agree by pointing out that he could possibly not get there in enough time when it happened next. And there would be a next time, of that she was certain. It might not be bandits or even soldiers, but there would be a next time she fought for her life. She wanted to be capable and ready.
Sword fighting was not as easy as Sandor made it look. The sword was heavy and Sansa could barely make a few swings with it before she couldn't lift her arms any longer. Sandor made her practice with a large branch that he'd smoothed down with his knife. She felt silly practicing with a piece of wood, but he did as well so as not to cut hers in half with his blade. He taught her how to stand and how to move, where to place her feet and where she should be watching and when. He might have taken it easy on her in the aspect of slowing down his movements, but that didn't mean he never hit her. He did. Often. She gained cuts and bruises, but she also got better and better with each passing day and eventually she wasn't getting so many cuts and bruises. He made her practice with the actual sword every morning and night before practicing with her makeshift wooden sword to help her gain arm strength. He told her that if they had a chance, or if they come across an armory, they might find her a smaller sword that was lighter and a better fit for someone Sansa's size by trading in the soldiers swords. By the end of a fortnight, Sansa could spar with Sandor with the actual sword without tiring out so quickly. It felt good. She felt stronger and when she undressed and washed herself in the river, she could see a difference in her arms as well. They were less delicate looking, more defined. A part of her was horrified at it. What Lord would want a lady with muscles for his wife? Not that she was in any way muscular, but she was no longer so soft in her arms and upper chest. A bigger part of her, the part that wanted to live, and that was beyond tired of having people threaten her life, was thrilled with it and reveled in the knowledge that if Joffrey were to find her now, she could fight him. Treason might cost her her head, but she was strong enough to take him out before she went down.
After practicing that evening, she and Sandor sat down and ate their meager supper of the rabbit he'd caught and the berries she'd found.
"You're getting better." he told her with a mouthful of meat. It wasn't so long ago that Sansa would have been appalled at that. But she was getting used to Sandor Clegane and all his harshness and lack of manners.
"You'd still have my head off before I could even lift that sword." she argued.
"True, but I've been swinging a sword since before you were born. It's been my livelihood for most my life. I'm one of the best there is. No point in comparing yourself to me." If anyone else had said something like that, Sansa would have thought it was conceded, but she knew Sandor was no such thing. He was merely honest. And he was one of the best there was.
"You'll be better once we can get you a lighter sword." he added after sucking the remaining meat off the bone and wiping the grease off with the back of his hand.
"You are an animal." Sansa grinned. Sandor looked over at her jape, his eyes narrowed, but then his harshness softened some when he saw her smile.
"So I've been told." he tossed the bones into the trees. "Same could be said for you."
"And how is that?" Sansa asked, sitting primly on the log, ankles crossed, nibbling daintily on her rabbits leg.
"I seem to recall finding you with your teeth sunk into one of those bandits throats like a damn wolf." he reminded her and she blushed. "And I can remember that look in your eye the day you were going to push Joffrey off the battlements."
Sansa froze, shocked. They'd never spoken of that day. They'd actually refrained from talking of Joffrey and things that had happened to her in Kings Landing at all. She remembered it with perfect clarity, though, and also remembered hating Sandor for days afterwards. He'd saved her life that day, but he'd taken away her choice. It was her decision to die that day with Joffrey, to seek vengeance for her father and her family. She'd eventually gotten over her anger and had been glad Sandor had stopped her, though.
"How did you know?" she asked. Sandor shrugged and looked away.
"It was written clear as day on your face. You went from a courteous little bird to a wild animal out for blood."
"Why did you stop me?" she whispered, unsure he would hear her from where he sat on the ground several feet from her.
"You'd have fallen with him." he still looked out in the trees instead of at her. "Or they'd have taken your head after. Either way, you would have died with him. And the little cunt wasn't worth it. Still isn't. If it were a reckoning for your father you were seeking, it was ill placed. Eddard Stark wouldn't have wanted you to die that way. For that reason."
Sansa sat in silence, staring at the side of his face in shock. He was right, of course. Her father would have been disappointed in her for acting so rashly. But she didn't think he would be disappointed for her choices now. No. Her choices now weren't rash and in the moment. She had long ago developed an odd sense of trust in Sandor Clegane, and going with him the night of the Blackwater seemed her only right choice since meeting Joffrey Baratheon. Now she was fighting to live, not plunging willingly to her death.
"Thank you. I'm glad you did it." Even if his reasoning's in caring whether or not she died confused her then. But he'd never hurt her, and now he was doing everything in his power to get her back home. She'd felt maybe that thin thread of trust was growing, on both ends. That maybe they were becoming something close to friends. She so dearly wanted a friend again.
Sandor had told her when they started out when she asked how long it would take to get to Winterfell that it would be a long time. He said it would be even longer still because they had to stay off the Kings Road and in the woods. They only had the single horse, so it was slow moving. The weather wasn't helping them any. It had been two turns of the moon since they had fled the city, and they had spent that entire time in the woods, only stopping twice in villages to restock on their food supplies, but never staying. One thing that Sansa had remembered in the panic of fleeing was her jewelry and it had come in handy. She was exhausted, though, and smelled something horrid she was certain. Her hair was a tangled mess from not having anything other than cold river water to wash it with. Her skin was chapped and dry and her clothes were all getting too small. She had obviously hit a growth spurt during their travels, it seemed.
"Sandor, please." she begged quietly as they approached the tree line of a small village, the inn's chimney smoking invitingly.
"We don't know who's in there." he said.
"No one is in there." she tried to reason. "No one of importance. Please, Sandor. I need a bath, a real bath with hot water and soap. And I'd dearly love a bed. And a hot meal cooked by someone other than you."
"What's wrong with my cooking?" he snapped, his grey eyes narrowing at her. Sansa couldn't help but grin a little. "It's kept you alive this long, My Lady." he said My Lady like it was an insult, and maybe he'd meant it as one. She had told him she didn't know how to cook because ladies had people to do such things for them when they'd first started out.
"Don't you want those things?" she ignored his mocking. "I know you must. Just imagine it. A big wooden tub, or perhaps copper. Filled to the brim with steaming water and salts. A bar of soap to lather away all the dust and filth and sweat." she was putting it on thick and she knew it, but she really, really wanted to stay the night. "A big comfy bed with warm blankets. A roof over our heads and a door that locks. You won't have to keep guard and we can both rest. Really rest." Sansa closed her eyes and sighed, so lost in the fantasy of her own words she could almost picture the bed in her mind. Sandor clearing his throat had her opening her eyes.
"Fine. Just stop your damn chirping."
They went back to where he'd tied Stranger off and Sandor told her to keep her hair tied back under the hood of her cloak since it was such a noticeable feature. There wasn't much he could do about his scars, but Sansa was sure it was his size and aura of danger that called more attention to him anyway.
The innkeeper was a little old man that Sansa was almost certain was half blind anyway, but just to be sure they had the food sent up to their room instead of eating in the dinning room where one other person sat eating. Sansa had questioned him outside on getting one room or two, and they'd agreed one would be best. Two would look suspicious for a man and woman travelling together, and he would be better able to protect her sharing her room. Besides, they'd been sleeping side by side for the last fortnight for warmth so it wouldn't be much of a change.
The room was tiny, but it was clean and the bed wasn't the cold hard ground and the fire soon had the place warmed. It wasn't too much longer before their food was brought up, along with a tub, two young boys carrying hot water up to fill it. After they'd gorged themselves on the chicken stew, Sandor left her to bathe in private while he saw to Stranger in the stables. The water stung her chapped skin, but she sank in until only her knees stuck above the water and stayed there until she could no longer hold her breath. It felt amazing to scrub herself with the soap bar, even if it wasn't the flower scented ones she was used to. She wanted to stay longer, but figured Sandor would be back soon and he would want a warm bath as well so she got out and dried, putting on her cleanest dress, which was still too small on her ever expanding bust and hips. The innkeepers wife had sent up some hair oil, and she massaged it into the tangled ends and was brushing it out when a knock sounded at the door.
"It's me, child." Sandor's voice rumbled through the door and Sansa grimaced. She hated when he called her that. She moved to unlock the door and he opened it slowly, to make sure she was decent apparently, then stepped inside.
"The water isn't as warm now." she told him. "I could go ask for some more hot water to be brought up if you'd like."
"Don't bother." he undid his sword belt and sat it in the corner. Without him having to ask Sansa went to help him remove his armor like she'd done so often before. Once he was down to his tunic and breeches, she stacked the armor neatly next to his sword, then nervously turned to him.
"I don't know where to go while you bathe." she admitted.
"You don't go anywhere." he snapped. "It's not safe. Just turn around if it upsets your sensibilities." with that, he started to remove his tunic and Sansa spun around, her cheeks heating. As much time as they'd spent together, she'd yet to see him in anything less then what he'd been wearing, save for the evening she was attacked but she'd been too panicked to notice anything. To give herself something to do, she went to the table where he'd brought in the saddle bags and started removing the items to sit out, to help stave off the mold and mildew that tended to grow.
"My dignity is preserved now, little bird." he chuckled darkly to himself and Sansa risked a peek behind her, only to see his upper body and knees above the edge of the tub. He was too big to be able do fit in enough to go under the water, so he was scooping it up with his hands to splash it on his hair.
"Where are we now?" she asked, turning back to her task.
"Somewhere in the Riverlands I'd say."
"So we're getting closer to Winterfell?" he was quiet for a moment and Sansa turned to look at him. He had paused in the act of running the soap bar over his arms and her stomach sank with a sick feeling. "What is it?"
"I spoke to the stable boy." he went back to washing, so Sansa turned back around. "Winterfell is gone."
Sansa froze. Her hands seemed unable to work.
"What do you mean it's gone?" she asked, her voice sturdier than she felt. Behind her she heard Sandor moving about, the water sloshing in the tub, so she didn't turn around. Her heart was beating so hard it felt as if it might burst right out of her chest.
"It's been burnt down. Winterfell is gone."
Unable to stop herself, Sansa spun around to face him, her eyes burning. Sandor stood on the other side of the tub, a towel about his hips, but Sansa didn't care. She wasn't really seeing him.
"Who?" she was mildly surprised she wasn't crying. She was just angry. She'd heard before leaving Kings Landing of Theon taking Winterfell, and of him killing her little brothers, but she'd thought her home would still be there, that somehow they'd be able to get it back. "Who was it?"
"They say it was the Ironborn."
"Why would Theon burn it?" Sansa couldn't believe it. "He wanted it from Robb so he took it. Why would he burn down the place he'd just seized? It doesn't make sense!"
Sandor met her gaze evenly, watching her closely as she raged. And rage she did. She didn't stop there. She yelled and she screamed, she demanded answers and she demanded blood. Sandor let her, not saying anything during her tirade as he moved to the table where his cleaner clothes were. She only just remembered to turn to give him privacy in her fit of temper. By the time he was fully clothed, she was sitting on the bed, her anger deflated now, leaving her feeling hollow and bitter.
"What do we do now?" she asked him once he sat on the opposite end of the bed as her.
"What do you mean?"
"My home is gone." her voice wobbled and she clenched her eyes shut for a second, determined not to cry. She was over being weak and she wouldn't cry again. "Where will we go now?"
He was silent, thinking, and a horrible thought trickled into her mind. What if he left her now? He had agreed to take her home, presumably hoping her brother would pardon him on the grounds of saving the King in the North's sister. It was really his only hope after turning craven during the battle and committing treason by insulting the King and stealing his betrothed. But what about now? He hadn't bargained on traipsing her all across the lands, with soldiers and guards out looking for them. He would be faster alone. He could jump a boat to Essos or somewhere people didn't know him and disappear. What would she do without him? Her newfound skills with a sword not withstanding, she was at great risk being a woman alone. She didn't know the lands as well as he did, and beyond that had no clue where to go now.
"Your kingly brother is at Riverrun, at last word." Sandor finally spoke. Sansa had been so consumed with her newfound worry that she was confused by his words for a moment. "We could go there."
"How long will he stay there?" he was in a war, after all.
"Don't rightly know." Sandor sighed. "Doesn't matter, though. That's House Tully. The Blackfish, your mothers uncle, will take you in regardless. You have family there, and that's all that matters."
Sansa thought about that as they both lay down for the night. Was it all that mattered? Yes, she wanted to find her brother and her mother again, and, Gods willing, Arya as well, but that couldn't be all that mattered. Bran and Rickon were dead. Her father was dead. For the first time in her life, she wanted vengeance and felt that she had the ability to seek it out. If she were to go to Riverrun and find her great uncle there, he would hold her and not allow her to leave. If Robb was there, he would do the same. She would be kept in a tower, locked in a gilded cage, expected to preen and chirp and sing pretty songs. She would be expected to be the little bird Sandor Clegane had always mocked her for being.
She didn't want to be a useless bird anymore. Her family were direwolves, and so was she. Sandor had seen that in her. Now she just had to convince him to help her unleash it.