Author's note: I don't normally post my writing in-progress, and this is the first fic I've put on this site (as I'm still not convinced by it), so let's just say this is an experiment! Constructive criticism is welcome.

Warnings: Implied abuse


"Tell me again," Sansa says that afternoon when Brienne finally surfaces for a few gulps of fresh air. She has been so dreadfully seasick that Sansa has not had a chance to ask her to repeat the tale she first related on their escape to Gulltown. It had seemed too big to take in at the time, in any case, even though Brienne had told it in infuriatingly small pieces as they rode away from Petyr and his gilded cage.

How did one find the right shape in one's mind to accommodate that kind of knowledge? The Hound had loomed large in the private world she kept inside her mind all these years, casting his shadow over her every action, part of that world that reminded her who she was, and why she must endure. To suddenly hear that he was no more... brushed from existence as she might brush snow from her skirts... it was impossible to make the knowledge stick. It had felt as though she both knew it, and did not know it. Couldn'tknow it, for she could barely believe it possible, let alone acknowledge it as fact.

And yet, something about the story has teased at her brain this last day at sea. Petyr had taught her to deal in subtleties, and she is certain there is something here she didn't catch the first time.

"Sandor Clegane is dead, my lady," Brienne says feebly, still pale and weak from the ordeal her stomach has put her through. "I'm sorry. I know you said you were... friends..."

There is uncertainty in Brienne's voice as she speaks the final word, as though she cannot quite trust her own memory of the matter. Of course, all she knows of the younger Clegane brother is what she has heard – she cannot possibly understand. Brienne is honourable and brave and tenacious, and becoming increasingly dear to Sansa, but she lives in the light where Sansa moves among shadows.

"No," Sansa says slowly, brows knit in concentration as she draws the pieces of the puzzle together. "That is not what you said before."

"Forgive me," Brienne replies in confusion. "That is what the Elder Brother told me – that the Hound is dead, and that he buried him himself."

"The Hound..." Sansa murmurs. She can feel it, the moment something slots into place. "The Hound is dead – that'swhat you said! And Sandor Clegane is at peace."

"Yes, I— my lady?"

Sansa leans forward, and in a rare show of emotion kisses Brienne on her scarred cheek. Oddly appropriate, she thinks giddily, before rising to tell the captain to change course for the Quiet Isle. This is truly her first day of freedom, and she will use it to set her own path.

The Elder Brother of the Quiet Isle does not seem entirely surprised to see them, and though it is late when the first mate rows Brienne and herself into the Isle's little dock on the evening tide, she cannot help from pursuing the man with a buoyancy of spirit she had thought lost to her. You must not get too excited, she tries to warn herself. Nothing good ever comes of it. And yet she cannot help herself. She is finally free, after all – perhaps it signals that her luck is changing.

Despite her insistence, the Elder Brother is adamant that he cannot speak to her until the morrow.

"I have responsibilities to attend to, my lady," he tells her with a queer, restrained smile. "I'm sure you understand."

A silent brother shows them to the women's cottages and Sansa helps Brienne from her armour. She feels agitated, constantly looking over her shoulder, excitement rising in her stomach like bubbles, bursting with little shocks of anticipation.

"If he is alive..." she begins to say, "if only he is alive... he will join our cause, Brienne, I know he will."

"Is he such a good man, to leave the safety and peace of this place and rejoin the war?" her lady knight asks her dubiously.

"No," Sansa replies, forcing herself to keep down the hysterical laugh that wants to simmer up her throat. "No, he is not a good man at all. At least, he was not when I knew him. But I think... there was something inside him that wanted to be." She turns to Brienne who has sat down tiredly on her narrow straw pallet. "He made me a promise that he was not able to keep. Sandor Clegane, who refused every vow of knighthood and fidelity! I have had many years to think on it, and I am certain now that he did not make it lightly. His honour will not allow him to leave it unfulfilled."

"From what I have heard of the Hound, he was not known as a man of honour," Brienne continues to protest.

"Conscience, then." Sansa concedes. "And as you said, the Hound is dead."

It is hard, even now, to find the correct words to explain. She knows Brienne is not happy to return here, and will be even less happy for a man such as Sandor to join them on the journey north. But even if she is right – even if he will not give up this place and whatever peace he has been able to find here for her – Sansa knows that she cannot rest easy until she has at least spoken with him. She must try.

"I'm sorry my lady," Elder Brother says the following morning as they break their fast with him in Hermit's Hole. "Lady Brienne was correct – the man you seek is dead."

"Yes, I understand, the Hound is dead," Sansa replies patiently. "It is Sandor Clegane whom I wish to see."

Elder Brother gives her a penetrating stare and Sansa looks back, unflinching and eager.

"My lady," he says in a low voice, and Sansa's heart starts to race in fear and excitement, "You are too subtle for a simple brother of the faith."

Sansa holds her smile in place. "Pardons, Brother. I do not understand you."

The man's expression softens into something compassionate. It prompts the sudden urge in Sansa to tear at his face with her fingernails. "I think you do," he says gently. "The man you seek is dead. I'm sorry."

Sansa breathes in. She breathes out.

Her heart has stopped beating, but somehow she continues to breathe.

The world slows to a stop, colours leeching to grey.

In her lap, her hands turn to stone claws as they grasp mercilessly at one another, forcing away the trembling in her bones.

She breathes in. Her throat is tight, and there is a strange ringing in her ears.

She breathes out.

She cannot move, muscles locked together like lobstered steel. She cannot move, because if she does this moment will be shattered like glass and she will be pierced through by pointed shards.

Someone is talking to her. A woman's alto voice, concerned. She cannot hear, cannot focus on the words. Suddenly she is a girl of thirteen again, the husband her enemies have forced on her informing her of her mother's and brother's murders. He looks at her with an awful expectancy, greedy for her grief. The part of her that is still human understands that he has done her a favour by telling her in the privacy of their rooms. The part of her that is a small, frightened animal fighting for its survival knows that he wishes to use this, as all things, to his advantage.

Grief is such a violent thing, she thinks within the safety of the shell she has hastily erected around a body made suddenly soft and vulnerable. It exposes the very deepest emotions for the base examination of all and sundry. Like a fist through the soft skin of the belly, dragging out the guts into the light of day where the gods never intended them to be seen. If you grieve, everyone knows why, and they feast on your pain as the crows do carrion for that is what grief is – the dead meat of what was once living, breathing love.

She would rather have been stripped bare by Joffrey a hundred times than allow Tyrion Lannister to see her grieve for her family.

She would rather turn to stone than allow this stranger to pick over the bones of a sorrow he could never understand.

She breathes in. She breathes out.

And she opens a door in her mind – heavy oak, studded with iron – and pushes her soft, vulnerable body through, leaving nothing but the calcified shell to face the world.

She breathes in.

And stands.

And smoothes down her skirts.

And says, "I see. Thank you for your time, Elder Brother."

And turns.

And forcibly reminds her body how to walk, concentrating on each muscle, each joint, each step, one in front of the other, until she is facing the door for true – heavy oak, studded with iron.

"Leave me please, Brienne," she murmurs, close to the limit of what her ancient heart can bear. Her companion draws in a breath, about to protest, and Sansa turns to face her, meets her eye briefly. Long enough. Brienne bows her head, ashamed of the momentary invasion. She is an honourable woman – she will give Sansa what she needs now.

Only once she is alone inside the cottage with the heavy door barred does she sink to the rushes and weep.