Sandor Clegane was killing a man.
Blood spurted from his chest in a hot crimson fountain, splattering like sparkling rubies cast across the virgin snow.
The Hound watched with grim satisfaction as the man gurgled and choked on the blood bubbling up in his throat. This was not a clean death. Nor did the bastard deserve one for what he'd done.
Sandor dropped to his knees and leaned in close to the pretty knight's face.
"Yes, look at me, boy. Take this vision with you to the seven hells and know I'll come for you there too," he growled, spittle gathering at the corners of his mouth. Sandor knew he looked exactly like what he was, a rabid dog.
There was a price on Sandor Clegane's head and this knight meant to have it—fair means or foul. He'd lit the stable where Clegane slept on fire, hoping the Hound would be too addled with fear to defend himself.
A deadly mistake. One that now cost him his life.
The dying knight clawed uselessly at the heavy, wet snow, filling his hands, flexing around the cold mounds like they were his mother's teats and would somehow save him.
The Hound barked a laugh—the sound like a clash of swords, yet all the more horrible for the honest joy in it.
If he'd been able to do it without drawing too much attention to himself, he would have burned the knight alive, roasted him in his armor like the pig he was. Let him feel the wages of what he would have inflicted upon another.
Sandor wanted to stay and watch the light go out of his eyes, but dusk was falling as fast as snowflakes, stars blinking to chilly life in the sky above him.
And the beasts and dark things that stalked the night would smell the blood and heat of the meal Sandor had left for them from leagues away. He preferred not to be present while they disposed of his mess.
An eerie, unfamiliar howl echoed through the forest, unlike any wolf or other beast Sandor had ever heard before. Stranger perked his ears and pawed at the ground with his massive hooves.
Sandor launched himself onto the destrier's back and Stranger thundered toward the high road. If he had his way, he would not make camp tonight, but would ride straight through until the warm fingers of dawn clawed the night back down into the dark.
His instincts told him to ride hard, not for dawn, but for the next inn. The snow swirled around him, the flakes fat and heavy. The sky which had quickly fallen to dusk was now lit with an odd green tinge. The first sign of one of these bastard northern storms—it was the frozen ice high above the firmament reflecting and refracting the light, like the western borealis.
After the day he'd had, Sandor had to admit he wouldn't mind passing the rest of the night in a warm bed, with warm spiced wine and a warm whore. Or a cold whore. As long as she spread her legs, the rest didn't much matter.
But he couldn't help thinking he'd like a fine-boned creature with a hellion's red hair.
His fingers were stiff and frozen by the time the twinkling lights of the town came into view and he had to fight to uncurl them from around the worn leather of the reins.
The city gates were closed and Sandor was torn. With the gates kept closed, he'd be trapped, but it would keep unwanted things out.
He realized it didn't matter what he thought about it, the snow was more like pale sea and in minutes, he wouldn't be able to see his hand in front of his own face. He had to stop here, gate or no gate.
The gatekeeper asked him his business and keeping his cowl over his face, he answered. The heavy gates swung open just enough to allow Stranger to carry him inside and he headed for the The Nag's Head.
The sign swung back and forth, creaking like an old bedlam's knees in the chill air. Smoke wafted black and heavy from the chimney, but when he stepped inside, there was only a boy who he paid to stable his horse and a man in front of the hearth fire sipping a whiskey.
"Cold night," the man muttered.
"Aye, it is." Sandor studied the interior strategically marking exits and possible weapons.
"You'll be wanting a stew and a room, ser?"
Fuck your sers was on the tip of his tongue, but he bit back the retort. No one needed to know who he was and bringing attention to himself by giving a shite what they called him. Any looking for him would be looking for a dog, not a ser.
"And a wench," he added.
"The color of your coin?" the innkeeper asked as he drew himself slowly from his chair by the fire.
"A fine knight such as yourself would have the gold." He nodded to himself.
Sandor ground his teeth and considered killing him if he said anything else about knightly virtue.
"Depends on if ye want to spend it, ser."
"Meaning?" Sandor asked, the shadows of the fire playing on the wall and dancing in macabre lines over the old man's face.
"For a virgin."
Sandor couldn't contain the barked laugh that escaped him. A virgin? Here? Virgins were bought and sold through high class flesh peddlers. Not aged innkeepers. They were more and more a rare commodity these days, with flesh as the only thing of value many had to trade.
"What in the name of the seven hells would I do with a virgin?" Sandor had never had a virgin and never cared to—although as soon as the thought entered his head, he knew it for a godsdamned lie. He wanted Sansa Stark.
"She's very skilled. Taught by the best to use her mouth, her tongue, her fingers in an island king's seraglio."
Did this man take him for a fool? "Then how is the girl a virgin?"
"Her veil is untouched. She's cursed."
"Oh, by the gods." Fucking nonsense. He snorted. "I'd rather have an honest whore."
"She has skin like fresh cream and hair like fire…"
Fire? Sandor didn't hear the rest of what the innkeep said. In that second he knew he'd take the whore, virgin or no. He'd even pay the virgin's price, because in the dark skin like cream and hair like fire would be enough.
Sandor had no illusions about himself, he knew he was a twisted bastard that after all these years he still fantasized about the only fire he'd ever wanted to burn in—Sansa Stark's hair.
He'd heard Joffrey had killed her after Sandor'd left King's Landing. Beat her to death, his little bird with her feathers spread all over the executioner's block.
It was the only thing he regretted, not taking her from there. She'd never answered him, she'd never said no. And while he wanted her then as a man wants a woman, he wouldn't have fucked her.
But not because he was a good man. He wasn't. It was her innocence even in the face of such wanton depravity that made her so beautiful. If he'd touched her as he wanted to, that would be gone. It would shatter like all of her pretty little dolls in their lace dresses posed with knights and kings.
He would have kept her safe though, kept her in a gilded glass cage like one of those porcelain dolls and she'd sing for him—her sweet voice pulling him down into sleep like his mother's once had.
That wasn't so much to ask for her life, was it? A song from a little bird safe and warm in her glass palace with her stories of valor and happily ever afters.
And yet, even so, he'd used whores in the most deviant of ways thinking of her. As if in some other world, some other time, she'd ever deign to look at him with more than pity. Or even, he thought, the awe of a child, as she had that day when he'd saved her precious Knight of Flowers. Yes, some other place than here. A place where whores were virgins and dogs were true knights.
He dropped the gold coins onto the battered surface of the bar and the innkeeper thrust them into his pockets with the cool demeanor of a man used to brokering such deals.
Sandor knew he was being played a fool, but he couldn't bring himself to care.
"I'll have the hot water sent up for your bath. The wench will attend you."
Why couldn't he just fuck her and have done? But he realized he still had blood on his hands. He didn't want her to attend him though, for the sake of anonymity; he had to stay in the shadows.
He parted with a few more coins. "No. Have her enjoy some hot water as well. I want her clean and sweet smelling." Not that he gave a tinker's damn, it was simply a good excuse.
"As you wish, lord." He made his way to the stairs and Sandor followed the rickety man up to the second floor and to a non-descript room.
A while later, after he'd had some warm stew, spiced wine and a bath, he waited for the virgin whore with only a breechcloth slung low on his hips and bittersweet ash on his lips.