EPILOGUE

Sandor stood in the dark of the ruined village, wretched and shivering from the cold pouring rain that had soaked him right through and clenching his chattering teeth from the pain in his arm where he'd been burned. His bandages were drenched and they chaffed against the raw blistered skin and he winced and raged inwardly to remember how he'd sobbed for help after pushing off the burning shield and frantically smothering the flames on his sleeve.

The many-times-dead bastard of a knight had fought with fire, and I killed him once more for it; but he's not dead.

Sandor had laughed when they'd sentenced him to trial by combat: he'd thought none of them could defeat him, a mangy, ragged lot of outlaws and broken men who called themselves a brotherhood. He thought it would be good practice for killing his own brother…until he saw the flaming sword. All at once there seemed to be fire all around him, just like the bloody Blackwater, from the bastard Dondarrion's blade, from the flaming pit that had seemed to keep creeping up behind him and then on his own shield and arm.

Now the only thing that burned was his own fury, his angry humiliation at having been captured in the first place. He'd been caught while sleeping and surrounded by a pack of vicious hunting dogs and a more vicious huntsman who had bound him and brought him on his horse to the walled village of Stoney Sept. He'd brought him further south when he needed to ride north, to ride like hell to the Trident to find the Young Wolf and warn him of betrayal and treachery and of Gregor. The murderous huntsman had thought to leave him to die in a crow cage with the commons throwing rocks and shit at him. They thought it his due to die slowly of heat and rain and thirst and starvation, thought that he had been raping and burning and pillaging like Gregor and the other Lannister soldiers, and like the wolves too, to hear them tell it; even the fucking brotherhood had tried to lay his brother's brutal crimes at his feet.

He spat bitterly even now to remember their pathetic accusations, all because he was a Clegane. Sandor remembered the dead and mutilated crofter family he had seen, with the child drowned in a rain barrel: fuck if he'd let that sorry lot blame such a horror on him. He'd fought and he'd killed but he had never tortured or raped, and he'd certainly never burned. He hadn't even stolen until he took the loot from the dead Westermen soldiers; he'd paid for everything he'd ate and drank. Now they hadn't left him a single copper to buy food or drink, especially drink; and when he'd confronted them for the thieves they were, they told him they'd used it all to buy food and seed for the poxy smallfolk he'd been paying for hardbread and cheap ale. Dondarrion even had the bloody balls to write him a note for the sum to be paid after the wars: all nine thousand dragons. Fuck his paper: his paper wouldn't buy him shit while he shivered and starved and sweat for lack of wine.

Many will you have to put in the ground before you make things right again, the old crone had told him; and he'd gladly kill every last one of them…but Sandor wanted, no, he needed the wolf-girl.

The little bird's little sister: everyone had thought her dead, he scoffed now, but she had lived and the miserable little bitch had wanted him dead. She'd thrown the killing of her butcher's boy at him just when the others had failed to find him guilty of any crime to try to justify their killing him like a dog. She'd screamed at him to burn in hell when he won his trial, fucking fought savagely for his life and won. Well, he'd burned and now he was in hell. He'd had to follow them north again, to Riverrun if he understood well their plan to ransom the wolf-bitch to her brother. He'd had to follow slowly and far behind in the constant downpours after challenging them for his gold because he'd heard Dondarrion order the archers to kill Stranger if they sighted him again.

So he'd suffered the hunger and his pain and the cold and the bloody endless pissing rain in hopes of claiming the brat. He was chasing a wolf-girl just like the old hag had said he would, but Sandor knew that she was the key to making the Young Wolf accept him. If he brought him his missing sister, then he would have to listen to him about the betrayal against him, about Duskendale and the crossing to the Twins: the boy needed him; he just didn't know it yet. If he had any brains at all, he'd take him into his service and let him kill Gregor. Mayhaps he'd even reward him with gold or lands-

The little bird would see then, if he helped her brother, if he saved her family: she'd see he'd meant to protect her. She would know that he would keep her safe. She'd look at him then.

He peered ahead suddenly when the lightning flashed and he saw something dart out in the darkness. He crept carefully behind a mossy crumbled wall, not wanting to be spotted by the outlaws and wary of Stranger being seen where he had left him when he heard him whiny uneasily at the thunder. There was another bolt of lightning, and Sandor could not believe his luck: the wolf girl was running away, running straight to him so that she barrelled into him when she turned behind the wall. He quickly closed his hand around her arm.

"You're hurting me," she complained and tried to free herself, just like her sister had, he thought fleetingly.

"Let go, I was going to go back, I…"

"Back?" He laughed with a mocking triumph: he knew that he had won now. "Bugger that, wolf girl. You're mine."

With grim satisfaction and a hard yank, Sandor pulled the prize little bitch off her feet, and dragged her through the mud and the pouring rain to mount Stranger.

FINIS