This story takes place a few moon turns after the Blackwater Battle in a parallel world where Sandor has not flee and did not go to Sansa's chamber.
Special thanks to wildsky sheri my fantastic beta!
Comments are sooooo welcomed!
The Red Keep's godwood was a beautiful place at night, especially with the full moon shining in the sky and giving off enough light for Sansa to discern every detail of the peaceful sanctuary, almost as if the sun was still up in the sky. I wish I could stay here, at least a little longer, she thought regretfully as she left the heart tree that she usually favored for her daily prayers. She had lingered there long enough though and since Sansa preferred to draw as little attention as possible to herself, she hurried back into the dark corridor that led to Maegor's Holdfast with no further hesitation.
The long hall was empty and for a while, Sansa believed that she would be lucky enough to get to her chamber without bumping into anyone. Her foolish hopes were short-lived; a sudden panic took her over as she heard distant men laughing followed by the jingling of armour, both getting louder by the second. It's Ser Meryn's voice! Sansa realized with dread, while hastily looking around to find a place to hide from the man that she had come to hate and fear. With relief, she spied an alcove along the corridor and ran toward it; her thin body would easily fit into its shadowy corner and with some luck, the approaching knights would not glance in her direction and would pass by without ever suspecting that Sansa was standing so close to them. The voices were getting worryingly close when she finally reached the alcove, her heart in her throat. As quickly as she could, Sansa slipped into the darkness but bumped into something. She almost screamed in fear as she felt a movement behind her but a strong hand hastily muffled her mouth, preventing any sound from escaping her lips.
"Hush, little bird! Stay calm and they won't see you," she heard a low rasping voice whisper in her ear as a thick arm circled her front to keep her from squirming.
The Hound! Of course it would be him, Sansa reflected as she stopped moving, obedient as ever. It was far from the first occasion that she stumbled into Sandor Clegane during her nocturnal wanderings. The man apparently had a habit of frequenting the dark corners of the Red Keep during his free time; he always appeared when Sansa was least expecting it but since he had never reported any of their impromptu encounters to the king or the queen, Sansa tried to soothe her nerves. Better that I bump into him than into anyone else, although she knew it to be true, that reasoning had limited success and Sansa's uneasiness was quickly escalating. She could feel the Hound staring down at her from where he stood behind her, raggedly breathing into her hair as he kept his arm tight around her and a hand firmly pressed against her mouth. Reluctantly, Sansa leaned further into the huge man's queer and unloving embrace, shutting her eyes tightly while praying to the Gods with that gesture that she might completely disappear from Ser Meryn's sight.
The knights had gotten close enough for Sansa to conclude that they were only two; she could now discern their words and her attention was suddenly caught by their conversation.
"So, they're going to send the Stark girl home. Too bad, she was getting pretty pleasant to look upon," Meryn was telling the other man.
"Who cares about looking when you can't touch?" the unknown knight scoffed, before sniggering. "King Joffrey is going to lose his favourite toy but the girl's torment isn't over yet: can't wait to see her face when she learns who has volunteered to bring her back to her family!"
Ser Meryn apparently shared the mirth of his companion. "Who would have thought that that old piece of furniture would be willing to leave his post to wander across the Riverlands? The queen wanted to send them away as soon as tomorrow but it won't be possible since the…" The voice of Ser Meryn trailed away as the men continued on their path until Sansa could not distinguish his words anymore.
For a moment, Sansa didn't know what to believe but after her initial scepticism, she felt as if her heart was about to explode from the abrupt surge of joy that was taking over. Am I truly to go home? No words had ever sounded so sweet to her ears. The news was so liberating that for a short instant she completely forgot that the Hound still had his arms locked around her. When she regained some of her senses, Sansa jerked her head upward to look at him; he was gazing down at her and his eyes were gleaming in the darkness in such a weird way that she felt a shudder go down her spine. The studs of his leather jerkin were hard and uncomfortable against the thin fabric of her dress and the hilt of his sword was boring into her lower back. Why isn't he letting me go now that Ser Meryn is gone? she wondered as she nervously avoided his stare and tried to break free from his iron grasp. After a few seconds of struggling on her part, the Hound finally freed her and she immediately took a few steps away from him.
Out of breath and still slightly shaken by their previous proximity, Sansa managed nonetheless to regain enough of her composure to break the awkward silence that stood between them. "Thank you, my lord. That was kind of you to… not reveal me to Ser Meryn," she said timidly, already convinced that he would find a way to mock her as he always did.
She was right; the Hound snorted as he heard her thanks before replying hoarsely, "What was I supposed to do? Let myself get bloody caught by Ser Meryn while hiding in that dark alcove with the king's betrothed?" He barked a laugh at that while slowly approaching Sansa. "My noble brothers of the Kingsguard are all a bunch of buggering halfwits but none of them would be fool enough to believe that we were chatting in there; even you should know that, little bird."The Hound smirked and grabbed Sansa's chin to lift her jaw before adding, "I like my head on my shoulders, where it's meant to be."
With hesitation, Sansa shyly raised her eyes to look at him and after a moment, the man let go of her chin and spoke. "You heard what they were saying, didn't you?"
"I did, my lord," she answered in a nervous but polite tone.
"Aren't you happy, little bird? You're going to be free of that golden cage you've been kept in for so long," The Hound snorted at that. "I'd wager your family will put you in another one as soon as they see you. Can't be worse than this one though." A scornful laugh that sounded as if it came from the very depths of his throat reverberated through the corridor as he clutched Sansa's upper arm with a strong hand. "Come on, little bird, you're not free yet. I'll take you to your room," he said as he pulled her out of the alcove.
They walked briskly through the dim corridor, the Hound wordlessly staring in front of him with piercing eyes while Sansa tiredly tried to keep pace with him, her mind completely elsewhere. The words of Ser Meryn were still echoing in her ears:
"So, they're going to send the Stark girl home,"she kept hearing over and over again.
Never in a million years would she have predicted that man's mouth could ever utter anything that would fill her heart with so much exaltation. She smiled to herself but suddenly froze. What if the king changes his mind? How can I be certain that he won't reverse his decision at the last minute as he so often does? Worry that her newfound hopes would be crushed as swiftly as they had arisen was quick to sprout in her mind as Sansa realised that she had no notion whatsoever of the motives that had compelled her captors to free her from their grip. There had to be indubitably good reasons for them to let go of such a valuable hostage and Sansa was quite curious to learn their nature. In an instinctive movement, the young girl turned her head toward the Hound who was still by her side, his fingers as tightly clasped around her upper arm as a hawk's feet on prey. Sandor Clegane was Joffrey's sworn shield and followed the king as faithfully as his own shadow; he almost assuredly witnessed the events that had led to that decision, if only Sansa was bold enough to ask him.
As she was pondering how she could broach the subject, the Hound, who had probably felt Sansa's gaze on him, lowered prying eyes on her. "What is it?" he asked dryly.
Her heart began to beat faster and she immediately turned her head around to avoid the man's intense stare but Sansa nonetheless decided to divulge her preoccupation to him. "I was wondering if you knew why King Joffrey has agreed to let me go back to my family."
From the corner of her eye, Sansa could see the Hound smirk at her question. "As a matter of fact, I do. They're going to exchange you for the Kingslayer. Your kingly brother has sent an envoy with a proposition and our good king has agreed to it."
"Oh, is that true?" Sansa still had a hard time believing that this was not just some cruel jape on Joffrey's part and that she wouldn't end up even more wounded and disillusioned than she was already.
As Sansa muttered these words to herself, the Hound almost instantly scowled and eyed her with annoyance. "Why would I lie about that? Tell me!" he snapped.
Sansa jumped as she heard his harsh retort. "I was only incredulous about the situation. I… I know you're no liar, my lord," she said weakly.
The Hound only grunted at that before quickening his pace as they reached the serpentine steps. The stairs were very steep and Sansa was out of breath; she almost fell a few times on their way up but the Hound either didn't notice or care about her stumbles. Sandor Clegane was back to the brooding silence that so often enveloped him and he didn't so much as spare her a glance.
When they arrived in front of her chamber, the Hound freed Sansa's arm but grabbed her chin instead to make sure that she looked at him as he spoke. "Listen to me, girl. Tomorrow, the king and the queen will want to tell you about that exchange you'll be a part of. You weren't supposed to hear about it, they wanted to be the first ones to break the news to you. You're as bad a liar as it comes, but do your fucking best to seem surprised or else they'll be suspicious. You don't want that, do you, little bird?"
"No, of course not. Thank you for warning me, my lord," Sansa said while keeping anxious eyes on him.
The Hound's steely grey eyes stayed on hers for what appeared to Sansa as an interminable moment before he abruptly turned around and disappeared into the obscurity of the stairs. For a few seconds, Sansa stared at the shadowy corridor in a trance-like state while rubbing her chin where she still felt a slight pang. I'm going to go home! she realised as she opened the door and entered her room, a huge grin forming on her lips. She jumped on her bed and closed her eyes with a relieved sigh while dreams of innocence timidly touched her scarred soul.
It was past midday when she finally heard a knock on her door.
"Who is it?" Sansa asked, suddenly nervous.
"Ser Boros. I'm to bring you to His Grace. The king has asked for you, Lady Sansa," a low-pitched voice formally answered back.
Sansa's eyes widened in expectation. I'm going to be told about my exchange with the Kingslayer! Be natural; act as if you have no clue of what is to come. She took a deep breath and opened the door. Ser Boros was stoic as usual, gazing in her direction with empty eyes.
"Follow me, my lady," he grunted before starting to walk.
It was a beautiful day and the air was warm but Sansa was nonetheless shaking like a leaf, afraid as she was that something might have happened and that Joffrey had changed his mind. What if I have to stay here after all? I couldn't stand it after all the hopes that I was given yesterday, she thought while biting her lip.
There was also something else that was bothering her. At first, when she had overheard his conversation, Sansa had not given a second thought to a comment that Ser Meryn had uttered - his remark had been lost in a sea of more appealing information, but now that she'd had all night to think it over, she was beginning to obsess over that mysterious detail.
"The girl's torment isn't over yet: can't wait to see her face when she learns who has volunteered to bring her back to her family!" Meryn had said in a mean tone that promised nothing good.
Who could be the dreadful person that the knights had prattled about? It wasn't Ser Meryn obviously, since he was the one to bring the matter up. Perhaps Ser Boros? Sansa quickly glanced at him but dismissed the idea. She didn't like the man at all but he was not so terrible that Ser Meryn would laugh with enthusiasm at the simple notion that he would be the one escorting her back to her family. A shiver went down Sansa's spine as apprehension over who it might be invaded her mind like a biting winter wind that froze her to the bone. Please Mother, I beg your mercy. I don't want it to be him! Not him! Please! Ser Meryn had mentioned that the man in question was an old piece of furniture who never left his post; who had been around the Lannisters longer than… Ser Ilyn Payne! The mere mention of the name of the king's justice made Sansa tremble in fright; something about that man terrified her. He was even scarier than the Hound and it wasn't as if she felt comfortable around Joffrey's dog either. I should've asked him who'll escort me yesterday; he probably knew it and would've told me if I had asked, she mused regretfully as Ser Boros led her into the throne room.
"Ah! Here she is! Sansa, come here!" Joffrey yelled at her from the gigantic iron throne as soon as he saw her.
Obedient as ever, Sansa hastily approached the king and knelt before him, her eyes lowered respectfully to the ground. She could feel the weight of the stares of the entire court.
"Sansa, I have some news for you. Would you like to hear it?" the king asked in a weird mix of contempt and interest.
"Yes, of course, Your Grace," Sansa gently answered while raising her eyes to the boy that she despised so much.
"Mother, tell her!"
Sansa turned her gaze to the queen who was beautiful and elegant as always in a rich crimson velvet gown. "Sansa, my sweet child," she said in a voice as soft as silk, "we have reached an agreement with your family and you will be returned to your brother in exchange for the king's uncle: Ser Jaime Lannister. As much as it pains me to give you back to those traitors, it was the only possible solution that would get my brother back. I hope you're not too disappointed since your betrothal to the king is obviously cancelled with that exchange." The woman was smiling sweetly at Sansa but her inquisitive eyes were boring into her in an invading, almost aggressive manner.
The throne room was getting warmer by the second as Sansa felt her face flush in embarrassment. Be natural, she told herself, remembering the advice that Sandor Clegane had given her the night before.
"You're as bad a liar as it comes," he had told her, "but do your fucking best to seem surprised or else they'll be suspicious."
She knew the man was gazing at her from where he stood not far from the king, but she kept her eyes on Joffrey and his mother as she finally reacted to their announcement.
"I… I truly regret that this has to be. I was looking forward to our wedding day and counting the turns of the moon impatiently," she reeled off in a quick, low voice.
"Little hypocrite," the queen whispered.
Sansa didn't miss the woman's crude comment but nonetheless kept her eyes on the floor and pretended that she hadn't heard anything while shaking nervously.
"Your will depart two days from now," the king said with enthusiasm. An ugly grin appeared on his cocky face as he added in a satisfied tone, "You'll be in good company on your travels; one of my most loyal retainers has volunteered to escort you to the exchange point that has been agreed with your traitor brother." The king jerked his head around and looked at the Hound, an evil gleam shining in his bright green eyes. "Dog, come closer."
Sandor Clegane approached the king and lowered his gaze before rasping, "Yes, Your Grace?"
"Will you be ready to leave the city the day after the morrow as we have agreed, dear dog?" Joffrey asked the Hound, while expectantly staring at Sansa. If the king was hoping for a reaction, he was certainly not disappointed: Sansa's eyes widened and her mouth gaped in shock as she realised who the mystery escort she had worried so much about was. Why didn't he tell me last night?!
"Yes, I will. In fact, I could even depart on the morrow but I'm sure that Lady Sansa will be thankful to have an additional day to prepare herself," the Hound said while glancing at Sansa with what appeared to be a hint of amusement at her response.
Oh! What a horrible man; he'll never stop mocking me, she thought angrily.
"You're more gallant than I believed you were. Not a very common trait for dogs!" The king giggled at his own joke like a child.
The queen glanced at her son for a moment before turning her gaze on the Hound. "Sandor Clegane, how many men will you need for your mission?"
"I told the king yesterday that I needed no one, apart from a squire."
Reproachful whispers were heard all over the throne room.
The queen raised a hand to demand silence. "No one would ever doubt your capacity to defend yourself, but the roads are dangerous these days, especially in the Riverlands. It might be wise to reconsider your decision." She smiled dryly before adding, "Furthermore, it would be highly improper for a maiden such as Lady Sansa to travel alone with two men without the company of at least one handmaiden."
"Better to be fewer in number on the roads at times like these. A large party would attract too much attention and I don't want to be slowed down by a bunch of maids that don't know a thing about horseback riding," the Hound hoarsely explained.
Unease was plain on the queen's graceful face and the hush that had fallen over the court was thick with disapproval. The king, on the other hand, was undoubtedly thrilled by the turn of events. "Why should we bother preserving Lady Sansa's reputation? I couldn't care less about what will become of her virtue now that she's not promised to me anymore." The queen stayed silent and after an instant, Joffrey clapped his hands to conclude the hearing, "It's settled then. Come with me, dog," he said while standing up before heading to the door.
Sansa watched as Sandor Clegane faithfully followed his master out of the great hall. The court shortly followed but the young maiden stayed on her knees in front of the throne for a long moment afterward, not certain of how she should feel about the knowledge that she would spend the next few weeks alone in the company of the Hound and of a squire that she didn't even know. I'll be with Mother and Robb very soon; that's what truly matters, she mused in a vain attempt to reassure herself.