Sansa finally awoke sometime around dawn. Her body was tucked up beneath a thin patched blanket and when she breathed out she could see a faint mist as though she'd inhaled one of Jory's foul pipes – yet she felt far from cold. Her body felt on fire though it trembled from the cold at the same time. She'd been feverish before and Bran was constantly unwell when it grew frosty since the young boy never knew when to stop climbing and stay indoors so she knew the symptoms. However, she'd never been this ill without her mother or a maester watching over her. She managed to peep over at the fireplace and saw that the embers had long ago died. The room was still dark due to the lack of a window although she knew she should be grateful as a window would surely create drafts. She tried to sit up but her head pounded as soon as she tried to move and she could feel her sleeping shift stick to her body from damp sweat. She instead resolved to sleep some more and, with her head spinning, fell into a deep sleep straight away.
She felt the Hound shake her shoulder but couldn't awake from the deep slumber. She was trembling in earnest now and her teeth chattered. She heard him move out of the room before returning with his own blanket. He dumped it on top of her along with his cloak and perched on the side of the bed. He tried to talk to her but she only heard the rumble of his deep voice. Her eyes rolled back into her head and once again she found sleep.
Dreams came and went. At one point she dreamt that she was back in Winterfell with her brothers and sister. She was kneeling in the snow with little Rickon, helping him to make the snowman's head, while the others assembled the rest of the body. Robb was singing a song that the cook always used to sing and Sansa accompanied him without thinking. Robb's voice was clear and strong, and hers was light and soft. Soon enough Jon Snow had joined in, and Bran, whilst Rickon hummed along tunelessly. Arya had been collecting coal for the mouth but she suddenly dropped the load to jump at Jon. They all laughed and Sansa had to dry the tears from her eyes...but she found she couldn't stop laughing. Her ribs hurt and her siblings all turned to frown at her. "Sansa?" Robb called but she'd fallen to her knees. Her ribs ached and she was running out of breath. The frost was soaking through her skirts and the cold was spine curdling. Her hands came up to her throat and she clawed at the skin; she couldn't breathe! She was choking. She just managed to feel Robb's arms around her before she saw darkness.
The next thing she knew she was back in King's Landing. She was standing beside Joffrey on the balcony of her rooms and he was showing her his new crossbow. Any weapon in the hands of Joffrey was not ideal but she smiled to please him. He looked at her warily and then gestured down to the gardens. She looked down and saw the Hound holding a large black sack that seemed to have something squirming inside. Fear struck her but when he tipped it upside down a couple of wolf pups fell out. They were tiny, she supposed they were only a few days old, but Joffrey turned the crossbow on them anyway. "No!" she screamed and rushed forward to shove the crossbow's aim away but instead Joffrey turned it on her. She heard the clang before she felt the arrow. It hit her right in the chest and blood oozed down her dress to puddle on the floor. She gasped and blood spluttered out of her mouth onto Joffrey's grinning face.
"No..." she mumbled, her head tossing against the hard pillow. She managed to open her eyes but everything felt so heavy. "Robb, help me. Arya, Jon..."
She felt a coolness on her forehead but she couldn't see who helped her. She couldn't even remember where she was or who she was with. She tried to focus and saw the blur of someone's face hover above her but once again passed out.
This continued for another five days. By the time the fifth day rolled around she managed to open her eyes and focus. The first thing she saw was the mass of blankets above her and then the Hound asleep beside her on the bed. The scarred side of his face was against the pillow and for a split second she tried to imagine what he might have looked like without the burns. There were dark shadows underneath his eyes and his skin looked haggard and pink from drink. He was unshaven but the beard only covered one side of his face – as did the black hair that fell loose around his face. He was by no means comely even without the burns, but he might've looked ordinary. She listened to his light breathing for a few minutes and then tried to struggle up.
"Keep still, girl."
"I feel a little better." Her voice broke and she sounded as raspy as he did. Her sleeping shift clung to her back with dried sweat and her throat felt parched; she craved water. Her entire body felt heavy and weak too.
He yawned and slowly sat up himself. She saw that he'd placed his long sword between them on the straw mattress and felt thankful to him for the surprisingly chivalric gesture. "You've been unconscious for the last four days. You need to rest."
She settled back down and allowed her eyelids to close for a moment, allowing her eyes to adjust to the light. It looked to be around noon. "We can't stay here. They'll find us."
"With any luck they'd still be fighting Stannis's fleet. We can risk another night here."
"I dreamt..." Sansa's throat stung and she had to stop. The Hound got up from the bed and came back with a flask of water. He helped her to sit up and gently held the cup to her lips so that she could drink. She slurped at the liquid clumsily and felt her cheeks heat up with embarrassment but she was too busy drinking to care. After a minute he pulled away and she licked her lips, refreshed. She was about to speak again when he silenced her.
"Food first." The broth he fed her was lumpy with bits of hard meat but she didn't complain and he fed her in the similar way as before. When he deemed she had eaten enough he carried to plate away and then settled once more at her bedside. "Now. What did you dream, little bird?"
"I dreamt of my family. Of snowmen and singing. Of Joff too," she croaked, wincing at the memory. "I dreamt of the heart tree in Winterfell and it spoke to me with its horrible blood red mouth...I used to hate it when my father took us to it. It said the Starks were doomed and that I would never reach home. It said that the Lannisters would also fall; the Greyjoy's too. Every great family in the seven kingdoms will eventually fall to their knees."
"Feverish dreams are oft strange," he mumbled. "Wiser not to think of them."
She accepted this insight and huddled back down under the blankets. She smelt of sweat and dirt and wished sorely for a bath although she knew this was impractical in her weakened state. Instead she tried to sleep some more and the Hound left her to see to his horse.
When he returned she questioned him.
"Where are we going?"
"Somewhere safe, little bird."
"The North?" she prompted hopefully. "Or to Riverrun? My lady mother's father holds the River lands. Hoster Tully. I've never met him though..."
"We can try it." His tone wasn't hopeful.
"You'll be rewarded. For saving me, I mean...My family will be grateful."
She thought he would be relieved but, ever the unpredictable, he only scowled at her. The side of his mouth twitched as he tried to repress the sudden flash of anger. "I want no bloody reward. I didn't sprint you away from King's Landing for that." Without another word he left the room, leaving her confused and disappointed. Over the next day they only spoke once more and that was at dinner time. Sansa realised that outside of King's Landing the Hound was just an ordinary man with a foul temper. Back at court they had been secure in their stations, she a Lord's daughter and he a sworn shield, but now that protocol was taken away she didn't know how to talk to him. Arya would've known what to say; she always used to hang around Jory and the master at arms back in Winterfell but Sansa didn't know how to converse with rough men like this. The Knight of the Flowers she could handle, though coming away somewhat tongue tied, but that was all courtly words. She felt indebted to the Hound but didn't know how to say so without displeasing him. He scorned courtesies and made her feel like a little girl again.
Soon enough the morning of their departure arrived and they left the Inn before even the sun had woken. The air felt cool and dew was sprinkled across the grass but the Hound had bundled her up in two cloaks so that she would not get sick again. She expected to ride behind him again but the Hound led two horses out of the stable; his own black demon horse and a sturdy looking grey palfrey. She looked at him questioningly but he only shook his head. Whether he'd stolen it or bought it she was grateful. Though not a strong horsewoman she felt more comfortable on her own horse and would be relieved to get some fresh air after being so stuffed up inside. He lifted her up onto the saddle easily and then mounted his own. He'd given her his white cloak so was wearing a rough woollen one purchased off the Inn keeper for twenty bronze stars. He pulled the hood across his face so that she could only see his mouth.
"Hood up, girl."
They rode for a good few hours, making their way slowly north. The Hound wouldn't let them ride up the King's Road in case they were spotted so they were instead heading towards Maidenpool. She didn't think it was best to question him so meekly ride beside him in silence. The provisions they'd brought were meagre; several wine skins, salted pork, some withered apples and a burnt bread. Sansa nibbled on an apple when they stopped for lunch and the Hound downed a wineskin but ate nothing. For a moment she allowed herself to believe that their journey to Winterfell would be equally as dull but just as they reached the Antlers she discovered that it would not be so.
They'd stopped in an Inn for a hot meal and a bath and just after Sansa had washed and changed into her sleeping shift the Hound had anxiously joined her. "I have news..."
She turned. Her hands had been busy braiding her hair but she stopped when she saw the Hound's expression. "What's wrong?"
"Winterfell. I'm sorry, little bird, but it's been raised to the ground. I just overheard two knight's talking about it. It was the Greyjoy boy. Your father ought to have killed him when he had the chance...He's slithered back under his father's influence."
Sansa felt her knees buckle beneath her and she had to hold on to the bedpost for support. "What about my family?"
He looked at her for a moment without speaking and then, in an unexpectedly kind gesture, went to her and brushed the loose strands of hair away from her face. "They mentioned that the little lord was missing, presumed dead."
Her grief was great. After the execution of her father she'd been sure that nothing else could hurt more but the loss of her brother...possibly two... was heart wrenching. Bran had still been a little boy. During a war it was more understandable that adults could be killed fighting but the slaying of an innocent child was unfathomable. She assumed that it was Bran seeing as Robb was at the Neck fighting and Rickon was hardly bigger than a pup. Sansa had never loathed anyone quite so much as she now hated Theon Greyjoy. She hated Joffrey and his mother, of course, and they still gave her nightmares but Theon was a rotten turncoat. Years ago there had been talk of her marrying him in order to gain the Iron Island's loyalty but her mother had been venomously against it. Sansa felt sick at the thought of him.
The Hound didn't try and consol her after that initial moment. He kept out of her way for the most part and spoke even more rarely than usual. When he did speak, though, he always used a quiet tone as though afraid she'd burst into tears at the slightest thing – which she did frequently.
Sansa didn't take much notice of where she was anymore. She was swung up onto the saddle every morning at dawn and obediently rode beside him until the late evening. Her legs often cramped from being in the saddle for too long and the skin on her thighs was rubbed raw but it was nothing to what she felt inside. The first time she spoke up involuntarily was when they approached their first town; she'd become unaccustomed to seeing so many people and wondered why he was taking the risk of being so close to the chance of being discovered. "This is Saltpans, the harbour town in the Reach," he answered. He then reached over and, taking her reigns, pulled her horse to a stop. "There'll soon be a ship sailing for Braavos."
"Braavos?" She didn't know much about the place except that it was one of the free cities across the sea. She recalled that Arya's dancing teacher had come from Braavos.
"Little bird, I'm taking you to that ship."
Leave the Seven Kingdoms? Sansa had never been in a ship before and certainly never travelled abroad. The idea of leaving home didn't appeal to her. "What about my family? My mother and brother are still alive..." She had no idea where Arya was or even if she was still alive. She presumed that the young girl had run away during her father's arrest but Westeros was not a safe place for a young girl to be travelling alone. If she hadn't been kidnapped or killed she could have easily starved to death in some ditch.
"Your brother will not win this war. I know the Lannister's." Sansa's head snapped up and she opened her mouth to retort but he silenced her with a look. "Aye, and even if he does by some miracle win, a battlefield is not a safe place to take you."
"But..." What if her mother or Robb needed her? How would they find her? If she caught the fever again or got thrown overboard then they would have no way of knowing. She should go back to Riverrun and find her mother...the Starks should stick together. But then again she had been the one to run to Cersei with her father's plans; it was her fault Eddard Stark was dead. Maybe her mother wouldn't want her back? She swallowed the lump of guilt from her throat and spoke hesitantly, "...I'm a Stark. I have to go North."
"You're no wolf," the Hound replied, in his usual matter of fact tone. "Nor lion. Can you fight? Can you even hold a sword properly? What use will you be in a war? Battles are not won by pretty girls singing songs."
Sansa thought of her mother and how she could make even the toughest of warriors look like a foolish boy with one look. "My mother cannot wield a sword and yet she is needed."
"What are the Tully house words?"
"Family, duty...honour," she replied slowly. Family. Duty. Honour. She had let her family down and had her honour stolen by Prince Joffrey the day he stripped her, but Sansa knew the value of duty. Throughout those months of torment in King's Landing she had never once forgotten her duty to be a Lady. Her courtesies were her armour. She was not like Arya or Robb and had no stomach for Stark ways but she was a Tully. Bravery did not always have to be found on the battlefield; she could leave for Braavos and grow to be her mother's daughter, a true Tully, and then maybe one day find the courage to return to Winterfell. There was time for that...
"It is your duty to keep safe. By all means return after the war is finished and join what's left of your family but for now you have to keep out of the way... There is nothing cowardly about keeping safe, Sansa." For the first time he used her given name and the surprise alone made her look up at him.
He's right, she thought. There's no place for me here.
"Will you protect me?" Sansa asked finally. She glanced down at the small town behind her and sure enough there were three boats drifting offshore. One might be for her. "I won't go alone." She was afraid of him, afraid of the way she sometimes caught him staring at her, but she trusted that he would not let her down and she needed to share his courage. The Hound considered her for a moment before shrugging,
"I'm no knight, little bird, but I did swear to keep you safe. Aye, I'll come with you."