It was all Sandor could do not to let his knee buckle, to shove the she-wolf to their horses and make it onto Stranger. His head spun and pounded, blood loss and too much drink on too little food. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
"Move," Sandor growled, and was relieved when she obeyed without question, and when Stranger followed without encouragement. The least movement of his leg opened the muscle wide and made the world lurch for pain.
Maybe if they rode quickly enough they could get to Saltpans before his brother caught up to them. Maybe.
Before they'd ridden far, he knew that was optimistic.
He rode as long as he could without stopping, clinging to Stranger's back and gritting his teeth not to make a sound. He caught the she-wolf looking at him dubiously, in some of his more lucid moments, and knew she thought the same thing he did, bleakly: if they catch us, we don't stand a chance.
If they catch us, I'll run.
Sandor could hardly blame her for that. It was what he'd done. Run from the fire, run with his tail between his legs like the coward he was. And now he was running again. Or limping. A three-legged dog.
His body shook with painful, mirthless laughter that choked in his lungs.
Mostly, though, as Sandor's fever rose with the sun, he drifted absently into fever dreams, sliding from nightmare to nightmare.
Sansa Stark sang her song, eyes wide and terrified, face streaked with tears, and his dog's head helm slavered hungrily over her, jaws snapping. Her face peeled away to red, glistening, muscle and her eyes glared at him so accusingly. "You left me to this," she said in a hideous hissing whisper. "Cowering dog. Worthless craven. You never helped me. You are no true knight." And it hurt him, oddly, to hear that, but he was a dog and all he could do was whimper and put his black head down, ashamed.
Sandor caught himself before the moan made it past his throat. His shoulder was soaked in blood from his severed ear, and his leg felt like fire from hip to knee for every twitch. He could see the she-wolf a bit ahead of him, moving at little more than a walk. He was too tired to care about more than staying on Stranger's back.
Consciousness faded fast.
The she wolf drove her narrow blade hilt deep in his back. "Where is the gold?" she snarled, just as she had when killing the Tickler – savage little wolfling. "Is there gold in the village?" And her hands around his neck; he strained for air as she threw back her head and howled. Was that real? The wolves smelled his blood and were closing…his little bird sobbed with frantic, wracking cries until he cut her throat just so she would be silent. He knelt on the scaffold and the Imp held the axe as it came down and he wept, but the Imp was laughing, laughing…
Sandor dragged himself free again to find Stranger stopped, himself slumped in the saddle, the she-wolf looking back at him, expressionless. No, he snarled to himself, no, not yet. Not done yet. He swallowed hard and forced his head up, feeling as though there were bands of steel around his chest. He wanted to tell her to ride, but his treacherous voice rasped, "Need to rest," and he half slipped, half fell to the ground, and was proud only that he didn't whimper or pass out for the pain when his leg hit.
The she-wolf dismounted too, and stood watching him with those cold ice eyes of hers as he struggled to drag his way to a tree, putting his back to it. "I'd skin you alive for a cup of wine, girl," he rasped, and let his eyes close, letting the instructions go without thinking. Clean first, then bandages. Just have to trust the girl not to do for you when you're weak as a kitten.
He pounded after a running figure in the sobbing rain, weapon raised high, and they glanced back and ran faster. But he had Stranger, guiding him with his knees, and brought the sword down to cleave the boy in two. But when he turned, screaming, trying to scramble out of the way, it was the little she-wolf, it was the little bird, his little bird, and she bled screaming on the ground.
Engulfed in flames, he burned, unable to breathe enough to scream. The violent of the shivering hurt, and dazedly, it occurred to him that cold fire burned just as hot. But maybe that was only the fever; and maybe the she-wolf was burning him alive.
He dragged himself back with a groan, staring blankly at a fire. Had he told her to do that?
Well, he wasn't in it.
That struck him as funny, suddenly, and he rasped a laugh. The she-wolf was still watching him. Seeing the slits of his eyes, she stood, and brought his helm with something sloshing in it. He had a moment of confusion before he registered the stick between his teeth and remembered.
Sandor looked away as she poured the boiling liquid over his wounds, fist clenching, a whimper just making it out between his gritted teeth. The wine burned and stung. When she poured the second bit over his leg, the stick snapped between his teeth and he heard himself scream once, sharply, before he lost the world again.
The other dreams were gone. Everything was gone, except for the black, empty plain, flickering with small and dying fires and piles of dead bodies. He felt naked, no armor, no comforting weight of his sword at his hip. The sky was the color of sullen coals, black and red, and the ground beneath his feet was ash.
And he was alone.
Except that, across the field, someone was approaching, slowly. With a heavy tread, and even at this distance they cast a shadow far too long for any ordinary man. And he was unarmed. The fear, the terror welled up in him, familiar from so many years ago. A younger Sandor.
He wheeled to run, but his leg gave out under him and he fell heavily to his side and couldn't rise. Then he looked up and they were there.
The little bird. The she-wolf. The Imp.
They stood in a half circle around him, looking down at him with implacable indifference. He looked over his shoulder, straining. The great shadow was drawing closer. "Please," he heard himself say, reaching out a hand to the little bird, hearing his own desperation and hating it. "Please, help me."
She stepped back and shook her head, without a word, face regal and proud and cold. He could feel the footsteps, now, through the ground, and shoved himself upright, appealing to the she-wolf.
"Please," he said, "Don't let him have me."
But she stepped back like her sister, expression grave as she shook her head, denying him. The sob caught in his throat as he looked to the Imp, raising his head to the coal-colored sky. "Kill me if you must," he said, pleading. "Kill me, just, please…mercy…"
"Coward," said the Imp, and he didn't step back. "Traitor," added Arya Stark, the she-wolf, baring her teeth. "Liar," challenged the little bird, his little bird, and his hand dropped as they closed.
"You should have burned in the Blackwater," the Imp sneered.
"You should have died at the Twins," the she-wolf said, eyes accusing.
"You should have saved me," Sansa whispered, her eyes full of tears.
"No," he said, and the footsteps beat the ground with the rhythm of his heart.
"Coward," Sansa said, so softly, "Traitor. Liar." And she turned away. He reached after her.
"You should have let me go," said the she-wolf, "You should have let me kill you." And he could find no answer, no answer at all as she turned and walked away, disappearing in the dying fires.
Sandor hated himself for the words, but they came anyway as he struggled to look up – up – at the Imp. "Please," he said, hoarsely, "Don't…"
The Imp didn't bother to speak. He just laughed, and laughed, and the footsteps were drawing nearer. If he were alive when his brother found him the death would be long and painful, taken apart piece by piece, if there was any such thing as mercy. And he knew how much Ser Gregor valued mercy. He had seen his brother kill before.
If Gregor took him alive.
His chest heaved violently as he lurched into wakefulness, breath catching. The fever was devouring him; he didn't have long. If Gregor took him alive. No.
The she-wolf stood in an unfamiliar stance, holding that slender blade, but it was clear she knew what she was doing. Killed by a child, dog, what an end…if Gregor took him alive. He found his voice, desperately, filled his dry mouth with saliva.
"You remember where the heart is?"
"I was only," she started to say, freezing, but he cut her off, desperately, too aware of the thud of footsteps. Or was that his heart? Hard to believe it still beat so solidly…
"Don't lie. I hate liars. I hate gutless frauds even worse." And still she didn't move. Come, girl, you've wanted to, you've always wanted to. The words spilled out of him. "I killed your butcher's boy; cut him near in half and laughed about it after." The breath caught in his throat and he could feel the sobs coming up, fear and pain and desperation. Please. "And the little bird, your pretty sister, I stood there in my white cloak and let them beat her. I took the bloody song, she never gave it." He felt like retching. Please…don't let him take me alive. "Do you mean to make me beg, you little bitch? Do it. The gift of mercy…" A heaving breath, feeling as though his eyes were rolling in his head. "Avenge your little Michael…"
He saw it in her face, saw it go cold, as it had in his dream. She took a step back and shook her head, sheathed her narrow blade and not in his body. "You don't deserve the gift of mercy," she said, and it was over. She turned away, leaving him for the wolves. No. For the Mountain. If Gregor took him alive…
He forced the last words out, knowing it wouldn't be long now. "A real wolf would finish a wounded animal."
If she replied to that, he didn't hear it. He could only watch as she kicked out the fire, took his pack, and swung onto her horse without looking at him again. Watch. Helpless. Watch, and wait, and perhaps before his brother reached him…
Thump-thump. Thump-thump. Thump-thump.
The fever closed over his head again and dragged him down.
Too late. He lay on his back looking up at his brother, monstrously huge, greatsword in one hand, and his voice was like breaking rocks. "So."
Sandor's voice had gone. He had nothing left. Nothing left.
"So." His brother kicked him, viciously, with an armored foot. He curled up with a yelp, reflexively, trying to protect himself. "This is how the Hound ends. Crumpled in a heap at my feet. As it should be."
He tried to struggle to his feet. Tried to fight his way upward to throw himself at his brother, even fruitlessly. He was kicked down before he made it halfway. "Did you think you could run forever?"
"You're dead," he tried to snarl, but it came out as a thin whine, afraid. Terrified. Small. "You're dead, and so am I."
"Welcome to the Seven Hells, brother." And he laughed that hideous, booming laugh that only ever meant pain. Sandor tried to drag his way up, again. His leg stabbed with fiery pain, and then Gregor had him by the scruff of the neck and was dragging him. "Would you like to burn again?"
"No," Sandor howled, trying to struggle away, but so weak, so damnably weak, and they were all there, jeering as they watched. His little bird…she looked at him, lifted a hand, and laughed, clear and light as bells, and he lifted his head and there it was.
The brazier as before, but larger, a cauldron of fire, and his brother dragged him toward it, kicking and screaming, but it was as useless as when he was six, and Gregor laughed, his footsteps faster now – thumpthumpthumpthump or maybe that was the racing of his own heart–
The flames scorched his face from a few feet away. "No," he howled, desperate, fighting with everything he had left, which was nothing. "No, no, please-"
And they roared with laughter, all of them, but it was Gregor's voice that yelled, "Let him burn!" And flung him into the flames.
It would have been easy to say that there was nothing but the pain, but that wasn't it. There was everything and the pain. It was as bad and worse than he remembered, searing his whole body, devouring him whole, and he could only writhe helplessly and scream, a high, reedy sound, unable to breathe for the pain and the pain and the pain.
"Help me!" Sandor cried, desperate, pleading, smelling his own burning flesh. "Mercy, mercy-"
But it did not end. It would never end. The fire went on forever until, screaming, he ran out of breath to breathe and faded into darkness.
The world came back in blurs of fuzzy oddness.
"Hold him," said a man in Gregor's armor in Gregor's voice, but the hands were gentle where they pressed his shoulders back as someone murmured, "Easy," and then dug something into his leg and twisted as he howled.
Someone had ice pressed to his forehead – or was it a hand? He fought it, but all his strength had left him, somewhere. He could hardly move his own hand. "Something for the fever… such heat and still alive…"
He wanted nothing of that. But it came back, anyway, gradually, more and more and more.
From the pain he guessed he wasn't dead. At last, when the voices faded, he let his eyes open, head falling sideways.
Sunlight spilled through the window, nearly blinding him. Squinting, he could just see green hills outside, and trees. Someone had folded his hands on his chest.
It was the singing that caught his ear, though – from a small, red breasted bird, perched on a branch just outside the window, singing in a throaty, rich voice. His mouth twitched in a smile.
Too tired, too bone-deep weary and sore and confused to think anymore, Sandor let his eyes close again, and slipped into dreams once more. But the sky in these was only grey, and no footsteps shook the ground.