The red tide again. Purple and vermilion, blood fills her skirts and soon reaches her knees. A constriction in his chest, he waves his hands but can't do anything to stop this. There's no way out.
He wakes up with a start and finds her lying next to him under his cloak. In the sullen woods of the Riverlands, they sheltered themselves in a sort of cave. It's not even the hour of the wolf and he can't see anything. He sits up, his head resting in his hands, and tries to catch his breath. He thought he got rid of his fucking nightmare the day he decided to marry her, but he was wrong. She stretches herself out, then takes him in her arms.
"It's over," she whispers. "I'm here, Sandor."
She doesn't ask what his dream was about; she knows he won't tell her. Nightmares are probably the only kind of things they keep for themselves: she didn't say anything about the bad dream she has once in a while. He agrees to this silence. After all, telling the truth could only upset her. And we're close to the Thistle now. We'll reach the inn before sunset. We'll be safe.
"It's over," she repeats. "Go back to sleep now."
Her gesture belies her word, though: she struggles with his laces, drawing him close to her. If it wasn't pitch-black, he would probably see her elated smile as he gives in and leans over her, taking a sharp intake of breath in anticipation. These moments bring back together the different sides of his personality: the green boy, still afraid to hurt or deceive her; the Hound unable to restrain his desire; the one he became in the woods, a man with no illusions left yet eager for her affection. She rails at the lack of comfort on the hard soil of the cave but tonight, they'll have a decent bed.
In the fading sun, the timber frame house supported by dark beams seems ready to collapse under its own weight. Just like the first time. Behind him, she gives a sigh of relief when she finally sees the painted thistle on the wooden sign swaying on the wattle and daub walls of the facade. The now familiar sight brings a twisted smile on his lips. We'll be fine here. They go around the inn and find Symon hurrying from the stables, just like he does for every customer. When the lad recognizes them, he freezes, then walks towards them.
"Glad you're back, m'lord," the boy says, uncomfortable.
"I'm not a lord," he rasps, jumping from his saddle and running his fingers through Stranger's mane. And you're not glad.
"My sister will be so happy!"
At least, this sounds sincere. Symon peers at her then at him, while taking the reins and leading their horses to the stables. They make their way through the holes and puddles of the backyard and reach the backdoor. The place isn't crowded like the first time and they see Ella serving ale to a bunch of peasants. From where she is, the blond girl can't see them and for a few moments, they watch her in her daily routine. She keeps the mask of self-confidence and cheerfulness she already had before her father died, laughing with her customers. When she suddenly turns around, she gasps in surprise and nearly drops the empty pitcher she just took from a table.
"On your left," she says in a broken voice. "We'll be alone."
He pushes a creaking door leading to the place where she lives, a small room with one narrow hay mattress. Symon must sleep somewhere else, maybe in the stables. Ella looks at them, fighting back tears, hesitates, then hugs him. He feels awkward; blond girls were never fond of him. The only woman who dared to hold him in her arms is standing next to him, a puzzled look on her face. He nevertheless pats Ella's shoulder. She breaks with him only to embrace Sansa.
"I was sure you would come back," Ella whispers. "So you're safe. Nothing bad happened to you. I kept praying, you know."
They look at each other; so many things occurred since they left the Thistle their return looks like a miracle.
"We are married now," she tells Ella, her cheeks suddenly red.
Is their wedding the first thing that comes to her mind when she thinks about the past two weeks or does she feel the need to let Ella know because she's a bit jealous? I'll have to reassure my wife and remind her that dogs are faithful. Ella grins and congratulates them before leading them upstairs, to the room they already slept in.
"Come with me," Ella tells him. "I suppose you prefer to dine here, so you'll bring back the food while I'll fetch some hot water if one of you wants to take a bath."
They leave Sansa in the room and as soon as he shuts the door she can't resist to tease him.
"So you finally did it," Ella whispers, trying not to laugh. "I'm so proud of you!"
He doesn't know what he prefers: the genuine smile on her freckled face and her giggle in the staircase.
Once the last customers gone to bed, their need to talk gathers the four of them on the ground floor. Symon doesn't stay, though; his sister quickly sends him away and he drags his feet towards the stables.
"What news from the capital?" Sansa asks.
"Some say the Imp escaped after his trial by combat," Ella answers. "The Queen's men are after him, but they didn't find him so far."
Sansa's reaction isn't long in coming; she suppresses a shudder then reaches out and squeezes his hand. In the flickering light of the burning down candles, what he sees in her eyes looks like concern for her former husband.
"The Queen's men?" he repeats. "What about Tywin Lannister?"
"Dead. The Imp killed him before scurrying off, most likely."
He swallows hard. He blames Tywin Lannister for many things, yet it's odd to hear someone you once considered as a sort of father died. A father who sent me to my first battle and made me kill people without questioning. Forgetting her own surprise and solicitude for Tyrion, she tightens her grip on his hand.
"There's something else you need to know," Ella adds, avoiding his gaze. "That's why I didn't want Symon to stay with us. The less he knows..."
She pauses then leans forward.
"The Imp couldn't fight to prove his innocence and some dornish prince offered to fight for him. The Queen had to make sure the Southerner couldn't win... She chose the Mountain."
"So what? Gregor Clegane crushed the Dornishman's skull?" he says. The feigned detachment in his voice doesn't convince them, but he couldn't care less.
"They're both dead. I'm sorry, I didn't know how to tell you-"
He curses, unable to realize what she said and gets on his feet so briskly they're startled.
"How?" he rasps, pacing up and down. "It can't be true..."
"A merchant told Symon the Mountain was wounded and laid out, but the dornish prince wanted him to confess his crimes before finishing him off... The Mountain crushed his skull. Just like you said."
"So he's alive..."
"No, he's not," she explains patiently. "The prince's spear was poisoned. Your- The Mountain died slowly. I'm not a liar, you can trust me."
He shakes his head.
"Can't be true. If he was dead, I would know it."
The two young women staring at him look so concerned and appalled by his disbelief they make him feel terrible. His brother's death should relieve him, because he once prayed for it. The Gods didn't fucking hear me at that time, why would they now? There's something else, growing inside him now, a combination of anger and frustration. He thought he was done with wrath and he doesn't want to upset them, so he does his best to regain his composure.
"We'll begin to work here tomorrow, Ella. You'll tell her how she can help in the kitchens. I'll be in the stables. I know what I have to do."
Cursing silently this time, he goes upstairs, Sansa coming on his heels. Once in their room, he feels like he can't breathe and opens the window, despite the cold. Everything is quiet outside; there are only night birds calling each other and chasing. Neither the heavenly vault nor the rustle of feathers under the trees can soothe his nerves, though. Gregor is dead. He died by someone else's hand.
"Do you want me to leave you alone?" she asks softly.
He shakes his head; he needs her more than ever now. All of a sudden, he turns around to face her.
"I would know if he was dead. I know it's fucking weird, but I would know it."
None of them thought to bring a candle from downstairs; only the moon lights up her features and she looks like a pale blue vision. She closes her eyes for a second, then stares at him. There's something else you don't tell me, she seems ready to say.
"I- I had the right to kill Gregor," he admits. "For all his cruelties. Not only towards me, because I'm the lucky one. He killed my father and my sister; my mother died of grief. He brought shame on our family. At twelve, I was an orphan, I had no one to rely on but I believed I was still alive so that I could kill him someday. I grew up clutching to this idea. The dornish prince sought revenge, too. But I had more rights than him."
She takes him in her arms, slowly leading him to their bed.
"It's over," she whispers. "You may be right about your brother, but it doesn't change anything. Gregor is either dead or hiding somewhere, which means he won't come for us. It's the only thing that matters."
He spends the next day with the horses, while she begins to work in the kitchens, with the fat cook he once mistook for the innkeeper. Two peacocks hiding in the poultry yard. Customers come and go, ignoring the huge and silent man staying in the half-light of the stables. One merchant asks him if the big black horse in the last stall is for sale and that's when he realizes how difficult it is to remain unnoticed with Stranger. Even if the weeks wandering in the Riverlands and in the Vale tired him, even if the lack of food made him the shadow of the battle steed he was in the king's stables, nobody can believe Stranger is a workhorse. I must hide him to protect us and protect Stranger himself. During the afternoon, he looks for a place where the stallion won't draw attention on him. The inn is so close to the woods the ruins of an old barn adjoining disappear in the undergrowth, but there's no roof so he can't conceal Stranger here. After a while, he sees a small building nearby. The walls covered by ivy and creepers are almost invisible from the inn. There's a creaking door, the roof is in a bad shape but the place can serve as a pen: it might have been a pigsty, years ago. Despite Stranger's lack of enthusiasm, he leads him to his new shelter, where the horse's head nearly touch the ceiling and he shuts the door.
At dusk, he only comes back in to hear Sansa arguing with the fat cook.
"Do it yourself!" she hisses. She leaves the kitchens, frowning and glaring, then goes in the backyard where he follows her. Not a single hair comes out of the scarf covering her auburn hair.
"He wanted me to scrub the floor where there was some soup," she tells him. "I'm sure he spilled it on purpose, to humiliate me."
She stops, sighs heavily and meets his eyes.
"I know what you think. You think I'm a spoiled child, some high-born girl unable to work as a kitchen maid... But I tried, Sandor, really. And I'll try again. But he had to know I'm not his slave."
Her furious little face would make him laugh if their safety wasn't at stake. He leads her back to the kitchens and calls the fat cook, making him jump and roll his eyes with terror.
"What's your name, again?" he rasps.
"Lucas... My name's Lucas, but my friends call me Lard."
I wonder why. Lard's small eyes wander on the walls of the kitchens, avoiding him. The fat man probably doesn't know what he can call him. He steps forward, staring at the frightened cook.
"I help Symon in the stables," he adds, towering over Lard. "Which means I'm not far from the kitchens. Treat her right and we'll be good friends. But if you want to argue with my wife, I'll take care of you. If you shout at my wife, I'll take care of you. Understood? Now go back to work."
Turning slightly, he sees her triumphant smile.
"Go back to work," he repeated. "Both of you."
Though she always manages to wear her mask of cheerfulness, he can read anxiety on Ella's face. After two days spent in the stables, he knows something has changed about Symon. It's not only the boy's distrust towards him. Small details put him on the trail, like the boy's absences and the distracted expression on his face when he thinks no one looks at him. His sister's worried gaze has something to do with it. She furiously scrubs a table as if she could remove the dark stains left by wine and restore what years of bender have done. Ignoring the few customers sipping their ale, he stops in front of her.
"Tell me what's wrong," he says calmly. "Stop devastating the table, please."
Ella simpers and sighs. "Outside," she finally answers.
"Things got weird once Sansa and you left," she explains, arms crossed in a self-protective gesture. "I don't know if it's our father's death or- or what happened to me. Must be disturbing, I suppose, for a boy. The thing is, our father took care of us and I never needed to give Symon orders. I'm not used to it. That's why I was so happy when you came back. Being the only man of the house is no good for him."
With the sole of her worn-out boots, she draws semi-circles in the dust of the backyard. She looks like a stubborn little girl, eyes downcast and brows furrowed.
"He's seeing that girl in the Oak Grove," she adds.
"What is the Oak Grove?"
"A hamlet built around a mill, nearby. She's the miller's daughter. She turned his head. Now, he wants to leave the Thistle and marry her. Seven save us, he's four-and-ten. What am I to do without him?"
On the verge of tears, she clenches her fists to pull herself together.
"You want me to talk to him?" he asks.
"Would you do that for me?" Her begging tone reveals how vulnerable she is.
"I'll talk to him."
She shyly puts her hand on his, as a token of gratitude. Many years ago, his sister died, leaving a void in his heart. But when he looks at Ella's poor smile, he could easily believe that life gives him another sister to take care of.
"What did you do to me?" she asks, wrapping herself in the sheets and panting.
His own breath is erratic and he lies flat on the back, arms folded under his head. Her offended tone is so fun he can't help but laughing. A harsh sound escapes his ruined lips and echoes in the dark room, provoking their neighbor's furious knock on the wall along with swearwords.
"Actually, it was you who did this to me," he rasps. "And you seemed to like it. Who could have thought Eddard Stark's daughter would like-"
A pillow thrown to his face shuts him up. He laughs again and ignores the man cursing on the other side of the wall. The dim light provided by their only candle shows her thin form sitting up in the bed, a confused look on her face.
"I'll soon be with child," she says.
"You think it's too early? I'm sure Ella knows how to get you some moon tea."
"That's not what I'm asking for!" she answers briskly. "I want children, but I'm scared, I can't deny it."
As she sighs heavily, he reaches out and lifts her so that she lies half across him.
"I want children," she says stubbornly. "It means so many changes but I do want children. It will be fine, as long as you stay with me."
"I'm not going anywhere."
"Good," she sighs, her head resting on his chest as if it was a pillow.
"You'll sleep later, girl. I'm not done with you."
A wolfish smile on his face, he shifts and sits up before pinning her to the bed. Nor her fake indignation nor their neighbor swearing at them can stop him now.
If someone had told him he would have to talk to a boy of fourteen in a fatherly tone, he would have laughed, but after all, he saw strangest things. He lectured Symon and insisted on the boy's duties towards his sister. He asked him how serious was his relationship with the miller's daughter and tried to keep a straight face when Symon swore he didn't touch the girl.
"Sansa is my age," the boy protested in a challenging tone. "She's already married."
"You're wrong. She's older. And smarter than you, as well."
Symon shrugged and pulled a face.
"Now that you're here to take care of the horses, why should I stay?" he asks angrily.
"I don't want to take your place, if that's what you mean! I got revenge for your father's death and your sister offered us to stay, that's all! Our safety depends on your ability to shut this little mouth of yours. Not only my wife's safety or mine, but your sister's as well. Don't be selfish. Someday, your sister will let you decide where you want to live, but right now, she fucking needs you."
"Someday," repeated Symon, eyes shining with exasperation and disbelief.
Now that he's patting Stranger's neck, the boy's angry expression makes him smile. He takes the reins and leads his horse outside of the pen, toward the meadow. They have to be careful, because of the darkness, because of the creaking branches and holes on the way to the field. It became a ritual between them since he hid his old companion and his saddle in the pigsty; at dusk, when his presence is no more necessary in the stables, he visits Stranger and allows him to canter for a while. Somebody could see them but his horse needs fresh air and exercise. Such a pity you're fastened in this awful place, he thinks bitterly as the stallion snorts and whinnies in approval. Should we stay for a while, I would demolish your pen to build something bigger.
On the first hours of the day, everything is quiet about the Thistle. He wakes up at dawn, but as Symon sleeps in the stables, the boy is supposed to take care of the horses if some customer wants to leave early. Instead of facing the bone-numbing cold, he stays in bed and watches her curled under the rough blanket, until his memories of the evening before come back.
Once more, Ella was dead-worried and Sansa asked her why, after the last customers were gone. The blond girl explained her brother was nowhere to be found. Sometimes, he wondered if Ella wasn't overreacting when it came to Symon but after all, she had no other family. It soon became clear nobody had seen him since the mid-afternoon, when he had disappeared as usual to pay a visit to the miller's daughter. Lard finally said the boy wanted to spend the night out there and Ella went mad. But it was late and a walk to the Oak Grove seemed ridiculous. He tried to calm her down, reminding her that staying out all night was some foolish thing all boys plan to do, but she wouldn't understand.
Perhaps he should get up and see if Symon's back. If not, he should check on the horses. He swings his legs over the side of the bed, gets on his feet and puts on his breeches. A faint moan escaping from the blankets makes him turn around.
"It's too early, Sandor. Go back to sleep."
"I don't know if our young seducer came home," he explains, grabbing his tunic. "I've got to go to the stables. You should probably get dressed and see if Ella needs some help. I'm quite sure she didn't sleep."
She sighs and obeys. For once, she stands up naked and brushes his side when picking up her clothes, probably expecting this sight would make him change his mind, but before she can put on her dress, the sound of hooves on the uneven ground of the backyard startles him.
"Who can come here so early in the morning?" she asks.
He hurries himself to the window and sees a dozen horsemen in the yard, some of them dismounting. The group divides itself in two; those who jumped from their saddle walk toward the stables and the others stop their horses in front of the backdoor. Among those men, he notices a blond boy riding double, violently pushed to the ground. They're after us.
"We can't stay here," he rasps, taking his weapons and the purse he kept under the bed. "Quick now."
She follows him without questioning and he opens the door. Before he can decide who are those men, the shouting downstairs makes him freeze. Ella's trying to stop the men, not to come in through the backdoor, but through the main entrance. Trapped, like rats in a cage.
"In the name of Lord Baelish, Lord Protector of the Vale, open the door!" a man yells.
Still on the threshold, she turns to him, clutching to the hilt of his dagger and pointing the blade on her chest.
"I said 'no surrender'," she tells him bluntly. "You know what you have to do."
OK, I did it. Some of you may be angry, or hate me. Well, you can. But don't say I didn't warn you in the summary. Throughout the story, there were hints of a possible sad ending. A happy ending didn't seem coherent with what happened before, so I tried to stay true to my vision of this fic – see this girl in the street with a T-shirt claiming "Happy endings suck"? It's me.
Sansa's words were supposed to be the last ones of this story. So you can read chapter 21 as an epilogue... or wait for chapter 22. I can't promise a fluffy chapter – I'm still wearing my "Happy endings suck" T-shirt – but... you'll see.
Thanks for the last reviews I received, especially to the guests, since I can't answer to their messages. As usual, any comments are welcome, because I'd really like to have your opinion on this... and if there are some angry reviews, they will be stoically tolerated.