Seven Devils All Around You
After three long weeks of travel, the Unsullied scouts finally report that the Dreadfort has come into view, though a shroud of thick fog has denied the war party a clear vantage point from which to begin the assault on the castle.
"There it is," Sandor rasps low. "The much feared Dreadfort. Long ago Jaime Lannister told me the Dreadfort was ill-omened and even bleaker than Harrenhal. Bugger that."
Brienne squints, shielding her eyes from the early morning light. "Lord Bolton was said to keep torture chambers there, and the great hall's torches were grasped by skeletal human hands jutting from the walls."
Glancing at Sandor, Arya shivers inadvertently. "I lived at Harrenhal for a time, when your brother was there."
Sandor eyes dart to hers. "Gregor?" He asks dumbly.
"Yes, Gregor," Arya rolls her eyes at him. "You got another Clegane brother stashed somewhere?"
"Bugger him." Sandor spits on the ground. "Bugger that. Bugger you."
Smirking, Arya adds, "The Dreadfort has to go quite a ways to match Harrenhal. We'll see how it holds up under attack from dragons." Closing her eyes, she then whispers words to her brother Jon. Ghost and Nymeria howl in response and dart toward the castle.
The thick stone walls and massive towers flanking the castle are soon overshadowed by Drogon's ominous form. The Dreadfort's large triangular merlons, like sharp stone teeth jutting out from the battlements, do little to prevent the enormous dragon from perching on the tallest point of the castle, bellowing out a warning as he does so. Immediately the men at arms begin shouting orders.
Sandor has no idea what the men hope to accomplish in the wake of such a fearsome beast. It seems to Sandor that Drogon has grown larger still since he first saw him, as has Rhaegal. The spring has been good to the dragons as well. His musings are interrupted by the sound of the stone roof of the Dreadfort crumbling under the black beast's immense weight. Scores of soldiers take up position in the courtyard, shooting their catapults and long spears into the dragon.
Drogon's thick skin, armored with bony spikes, proves impervious to the Bolton force's weapons. Their feeble efforts only serve to anger the creature further. After letting out a deafening roar that frightens both armies, horses and direwolves alike, the immense black dragon then unleashes a torrent of dragonfire on the soldiers gathered below, reducing the Bolton men to ashes in an instant. Satisfied, Drogon returns to his perch and bellows out a challenging call.
Dense sulfuric smoke envelopes the Stark sortie, choking the men. Nymeria howls long and low in response while an unseen wolf pack adds their voices to the din. "Jon must truly be a Targaryen to be able to handle that beast." Arya whispers in awe. "I fear this will not go easily. Centuries ago, the Boltons rose up against King Harlon Stark, and the Dreadfort held out for two years under siege before the Boltons surrendered."
"The Dreadfort's got nothing on that fire breathing bastard. Look at him," Sandor gestures to the beast as he lands in the center of the courtyard. Bolton men scurry to escape the creature but to no avail: the fear inspiring animal stomps any soldier close to him while flapping his immense wings, challenging the survivors to do battle.
Faintly they hear Jon calling out commands in High Valyrian, to which the dragon responds by turning in a wide circle. The breadth of Drogon's stride brings his massive spiny tail down on the Dreadfort's sharp merlons, easily levelling the stone structures.
"Even without dragon fire, that monster is going to turn the Dreadfort into a pile of rubble in no time. If we tarry, Daenerys will come with Viserion." Sandor leans over and rests his hand on Arya's arm. "This isn't a fight at an inn, you best believe, but it will all be over soon."
"I would not have it come to that." the young woman answers decidedly as a wake of ash rains down on them. "The queen coming here on her dragon, I mean. My father-it is not our way. There have only been two battles in the history of the Seven kingdoms in which all three of the Targaryen dragons took to the battlefield at the same time."
"That so?" Sandor raises his brow.
"Yes, once during the War of the Conquest, there was the Field of Fire in which the dragons burned over four thousand men. And the last time it was Jon, Daenerys and Ser Barristan who led them into the Battle of Ice and Fire." Arya chews her lip nervously. "I saw what the dragons did to Harrenhal. Melted the walls. The smell of smoke still permeates the castle. I grew up admiring Visenya Targaryen," she whispers softly. "but believe me, no one can truly appreciate what that family is capable of until you have witnessed the fury of their dragons."
Snorting, Sandor spits again. "The Boltons put an arrow in your sister-my wife." Poking his chest, he hisses, "They do well not underestimate whatI am capable of, believe that."
"Dearest Sansa, who has never taken a life. She's the one person in this family who never allowed her suffering to alter her innate goodness." Arya shakes her head. "If not for her I would have lost the belief such a quality even exists." Sadly she turns her face to Sandor. "And yet they chose to hurt her-why?"
"Since when have men needed a reason to cause pain and suffering?" Shrugging, Sandor draws his sword. "Probably thought her death would weaken the family, make us vulnerable. They saw what happened after the killed your kingly brother and your mother. They would have done better to kill me, or you."
Arya nods as Sandor darkly fingers the bloodied sash tied to the hilt of his sword. "You both are the Wardens of the North. Get your head in the fight, wolf bitch. It's up to you how this plays out."
Arya seems to understand the intention behind his words: a reminder to turn her thoughts toward a more strategic mindset. "It is up to you as well, Clegane. We are a pack and we are not Targaryens. Though Jon is, he won't use fire unless need be." It is Arya's way of offering reassurance to Sandor; she remembers well what he was like the last time he was burned by Dondarrion's flaming sword. "We will get justice for Sansa, for Catya and Edric."
While Drogon continues his fiery onslaught, Sandor gestures to Grey Worm, who then nods to the Unsullied army. The men fall into formation while Brienne leads the rest of the warriors behind them.
"I need her as she needs me," Sandor rasps in spite of Drogon's roaring. "She and the babes are everything, Arya. I have to see this through, fire or no."
Arya's eyes dart up to meet his gaze at the sound of her name; it is perhaps the first time Sandor has ever called her by it. "I know, Sandor; they are everything to me, too. She and I are two sides of the same coin, my father once said, and though I doubted it at the time, I have learned that it is truer now than ever."
"You both have suffered far too much, you and your brothers." Sandor pats Stranger's flank.
"It was not only the Starks who have suffered. Since the war, the Dreadfort has held Stark prisoners-old women and children whose families were sworn to us for generations. Old Nan. Turnip. Bandy and Shira. They were my friends," Arya's face turns to stone as she speaks. "Jeyne Pool, too; she was no friend to me but Sansa was very close to her. The Boltons tried to kill my sister, my niece and nephew and they will pay dearly for their treachery. The North remembers."
"Aye." The men gather to Sandor. "Leave no Bolton standing, save for Ramsay. Bring him to me."
"The wolves have come again." Arya calls out, drawing Needle and Wolf's Blood. "And the North remembers. We will have our vengeance."
In the distance Rhaegal answers Drogon's call, the deafening sound sending the remaining Bolton men scattering into the surrounding forests.
"Gendry has come!" Arya smiles at the sight of her husband lowering Rhaegal onto the castle walls. With everyone finally assembled, she shouts, "For Sansa and for the North!"
"For Sansa, for Houses Stark and Clegane, for Winterfell and the North!" Jon cries as he positions Drogon. The great dragon answers with his distinct chirping call before releasing a torrent of dragonfire onto the battlefield.
"For family," Sandor rasps low while making the sign of the Seven over his chest, the man certain that this battle will be his last, one way or another. After kissing Sansa's favor, he positions Stranger alongside Arya and Craven and rides hard for the gates of the Dreadfort.
"Dracarys!" Responding to Jon's cry, Drogon disgorges a stream of dragonfire on the castle, its impenetrable stone walls melting steadily under the intense heat.
The fierce battle rages for three days. The fighting is by far the most brutal campaign in which Sandor has participated, but even in the face of dragonfire, the scarred man never wavers. After the initial aerial assault of the dragons, the Bolton men abandon the besieged castle and the more traditional tactics of battle in favor of guerilla warfare in the forest. Grey Worm, Lady Brienne and their men steadily drive the surviving members of House Bolton and its allies out of their hiding places in the hollows of the wood.
After Sandor executes the members of the Bolton host, he carefully wipes the blades of his swords on the remnants of the gown Sansa was wearing the day she was pierced by the bastard of Bolton's arrow. After the first day of fighting was over, Arya commented on the gruesome practice, but upon learning that Sandor means to bury the garment alongside Lady in Winterfell's lichyard, the young woman has left him to his own devices.
Sandor is surprised to find the satisfaction he once received in shedding blood is no longer present in him, but he fights nonetheless, the man knowing it is necessary for the safety of his family. Elder brother told him long ago that one day it would be thus, but Sandor ignored him at the time, the belief that killing was the sweetest thing still deeply entrenched in his soul. He is certain that the holy man notices the change in him but to his credit, Elder brother keeps his thoughts to himself. Quietly he offers his prayers each night as he tends Sandor's wounds and Sandor, instead of being annoyed, follows along with him.
Nymeria and Ghost, together with their packs, carefully sniff out the few remaining men, tearing them to pieces or offering them to Sandor and Arya as gifts by turns. On the third day, Nymeria offers Arya Lord Roose Bolton, whom she found hiding among the rank and file soldiers in a cave. Not long after, Ghost drags Ramsay, broken and bloodied, to Sandor.
The young man laughs wildly, the sound feral and mad, all the while his father offers his meager account of the deaths of Lady Catelyn and Robb Stark. Arya listens closely to the men as Jon and Gendry look on.
Sandor, for his part, would rather slit their throats and be done with it but he leaves her be, for he knows it is the way of House Stark. It is the way of the North, a tradition lasting eight thousand years. It is the way Sandor chose to adopt the day he wed Sansa; one day, it will be the way of Edric and Catya as well.
"In the name of Daenerys Stormborn of House Targaryen, the first of her name, Queen of the Seven Kingdoms and Protector of the Realm, I, Arya of the House Stark, sister to Lord Rickon Stark of Winterfell and Warden of the North, together with my sister Sansa Clegane, sentence you to die."
After Gendry positions Lord Bolton over the stump of a nearby tree, Arya swiftly brings the blade of Wolf's Blood down across his neck, the Valyrian steel weapon effectively severing his head with a single blow. Afterward, she kneels beside the body while Jon pats her on the shoulders approvingly.
"That was a mouthful," Sandor mutters, breaking the silence. "Surprised you remembered all that."
His words dissolve Arya's weary countenance, and smirking, she offers the hilt of Wolf's Blood over to Sandor. "Your turn, Hound."
Cackling, Ramsay turns his head toward Arya. "Lady Stark. You and I were once wed, you know."
"That was Jeyne Pool, you fool," Arya spits out angrily. "If I had been there, I would have slit your throat before the ceremony began." Turning to Sandor, she adds, "Ramsay Bolton meet Sandor Clegane, the man about to take your miserable head."
"So you're the Hound." Ramsay hisses at Sandor.
Baring his teeth, Sandor stares long and hard into Ramsay's face. "Aye, and the husband of Sansa, the woman you tried to murder."
"I must say I admired your brother's work at Harrenhal."
"Do you now?" Sandor shoves him to the ground. "Well we'll see how well you like mine."
"I meant to kill Sansa, I did," Ramsay shrugs. "She's the eldest true born Stark! Winterfell belongs to the Boltons-it is ours by right!"
"Boltons…what Boltons?" Sandor snarls in his face. "Your castle has been turned to ash by dragonfire, you are the last of your house, and you are about to taste my steel. After today your people will be nothing more than an ink blot in some history book."
"Fuck your sers," Sandor grabs the young man by the scruff of the neck and throws him down on the same stump where his father was executed minutes before. "I'm no Stark and I have no intention of listening to your final words." Flipping him onto his back, Sandor adds, "And none of this facing the ground, no; you will watch me as I take your head. I want the last thing you see before you go to the Seven hells is my blade coming down on your neck." It is Sandor's turn to laugh now, the sound low and frightening. "You drew her blood, and now I will spill yours. Prepare to meet the Stranger, you buggering worthless piece of shit."
Blinking wildly, Ramsay tries to squirm away but Sandor places his foot across his chest before raising Wolf's Blood over his head. With one violent stroke, Sandor Clegane deals the final blow to House Bolton.
In his fury, he has wedged the fine Valyrian steel into the stump beneath Ramsay; with a violent twist, he wrenches it free. Relief spreads over the man as he stares down at the lifeless body. He did not need to be the Hound to avenge his wife and children, Sandor realizes; he is not a good man, not by far, but all he needs is the love of Sansa and their children to give him courage. Warily Jon places his hand on Sandor's shaking form while carefully taking the sword from his hands. "Easy goodbrother. It's over now."
After spitting on Ramsay's body, he carefully wipes the blade clean on Sansa's gown and whispers, "I swear I'll keep you safe, little bird, you and our pups, for the rest of your days. I swear it on our marriage and on the old gods and the new." With those final words, Sandor Clegane puts away the Hound once and for all.