Mummers´ Show


Chapter 040





Brienne pushed Stranger forward fearing that all the wights in Westeros followed in their wake. A path among the centenary trees was cut open in front of them, or they were cutting it out with their large bodies as they went, she could not know. A flurry of branches marred the upright figure of both the lady and the beast as the white chrysalis around the horn of the dead dragonlords glimmered in the green, a jewel lost forever in the forest wilderness.

Despite all the odds, no pursuit came after them from out of the woods, nor down the slopes of the hills, nor from the brown muddy meadows. The woman and the black horse rode alone in an empty land that used to be populated, and green, before the inevitable change of season was announced by the maesters of the Citadel.

Brienne rode so for long and so hard that her head started spinning, unable to ponder her most recent past clearly, which was more or less what she unconsciously sought. Welcoming the numbness in which she could no longer see Jaime's shocked angry face on the back of the white dragon, swallowed by the clouds. Yes, Brienne did her duty, yes, her honour was intact as ever. Yet her obedience of a good soldier still burned her like a cowardly, unworthy act. Had she been a true knight, she would have saved him, too.

Except that she was a lady, not a knight, and what she did was an act of bravery she was not fully aware of. A battle won with great pain against tender womanly feelings dressing themselves firmly in that deep valley of her large heart where only dreams of honour and valour used to dwell. She should ride to King's Landing with great haste. Princess Daenerys had to know more about the dragons. If the gods were good, she might be able to tell Brienne what the beast intended to do with Jaime. And the Horn had to be brought to safety: Brienne was under no illusion, Lord Euron would be looking for it, and for the woman who stole from him, sooner rather than later.

The Elder Brother and Mance Rayder still haven't caught up with her as they should have done on the first day. So she continued riding.

Brienne rode for two days and two entire nights almost without stopping. On the third day she began to suspect that she may have lost her track in the wild. In the freshly risen greyness of the morning the air smelled quaint, not to her liking at all. She had to approach the roseroad, to learn where she was, more closely than she would have liked, to establish if she was still heading towards King's Landing or towards the mountains of Dorne.

After dismounting, all of a sudden sleep was a barren necessity, impossible to evade. There was no way she could have escaped it so she chose to hide in a thicket of white-berried bushes with Stranger, at the end of a large grove of elegant trees consisting mainly of redwood. It seemed like a prudent decision to take. She was near the road, dangerously so: there could be travellers and she didn't want to be seen. The black horse was unusually docile and for the first time since she left with the Horn, she allowed herself to consider more fully the unexpected bravery of his former master. His true master, a man people called dog to humiliate him, just like they called her beauty. Someone should make a song out of it all, she concluded as the world darkened behind her eyelids that could no longer be kept from closing.

Jaime's unconscious pretty face, when the white dragon secured the horn in the saddle with its glimmering breath, flashed before her eyes squeezed tightly shut, before Brienne yielded to Stranger. Some faithful of the Seven in Tarth believed fervently that the God of Death was also the God of Dreams, for when people slept they were lost to the world. The dragon helped us, it helped me, not Lord Euron, Brienne mused, or maybe she only dreamed. It cannot be altogether evil. It mustn't.

Her next vision was of a treasury at Evenfall Hall when she was barely more than a little girl with prickly hair, almost white from the sunlight, spilling like dry hay to the small of her back. It was long before she defied Septa Roelle and cut it to a more suitable length. That was the first thing she did when she came of age. Meanwhile, Brienne, the little girl, was observing the shield her father found on his travel to Summerhall among the few treasures they possessed, singled out from the armoury for reasons only Lord Selwyn had known and kept to himself. And next to it, on a blue pillow, another thing was laid, an oddly shaped stone, smooth of surface and uneven in colour. Her father had brought it home together with the shield. Brienne never discovered what it was, and not for the lack of asking.

When Brienne woke up, she didn't remember her dream, nor was she alone. What passed for sun was high up in the sky, and what kind of travellers there were!

Not too far away from where Brienne was in hiding, two ladies she would have never expected to see in the Reach were holding each other closely, like sisters in all but blood, in front of a rather tall broad-shouldered wight with a deep cutting chest wound who was threatening them with an axe.

"We are not going back to your master, demon," the silver-haired Targaryen princess announced, facing the wight, while Lady Sansa Stark hanged nervously on her arm. "Put your axe down!"

But the wight would not, or could not do as he was told, being under Lord Euron's orders regarding his unwillingly taken slaves. When it raised its weapon to kill, the blade halted in mid-air. Brienne's eyes widened when she recognised that the dragon princess was not as alone as she looked, nor arrogant in her posture as she seemed. Black wings flapped over Brienne's hiding place and the huge scaled body of a dragon who blessed her shield in Harrenhal landed next to his Mother, his Queen, or both. The wight froze in motion too, petrified in his attack.

"Where have you seen her, Drogon?" Daenerys asked of her dragon. "Bring her, then. Best she goes with us. It will be faster. Come, my lady, take heart, things are rarely as they seem," she told Sansa. The black beast stomped decisively on two giant clawed feet, straight to the bush where Brienne was. The Lady of Tarth came out of her own will, followed by Stranger. There was no more purpose in concealment.

"Princess," she bowed to Daenerys and admitted the whole truth, blowing away her hopes of asking for mercy for Jaime, his sister and their children. "I bring you the Horn you demanded, but I was not the one who retrieved it for you. You own your gratitude to a dead man."

"We cannot know for certain," Daenerys said targeting the Lady Sansa again with a sharp purple gaze, and only then to Brienne. "What we do know is that we should better leave now while we still can. The kraken will not come even near the Horn again for as long as I draw breath," the Queen solemnly swore.

The daughter of the Lady Catelyn Stark decided to approach Stranger, caressing its mane. "Come," she told the horse quietly, arranging its saddle with great care for longer than necessary, "run back to your master. He will have need of you if he yet lives."

"But the Horn!" Brienne tried to protest when the dragon ended all reasons for her arguing. It retrieved the horn and its white casing from the saddle with its snout, lowering it under its claws with a thud. Stranger immediately trotted back in the direction he and Brienne had arrived from, obeying the Lady Sansa.

"Are you a mother to this horse," Daenerys asked, gesturing towards the dragon. "As I am Drogon's?"

"No, Your Grace," Sansa said. "In all honesty I believe that the best way to describe what I am is crippled. Only that my maiming is not visible to the outside world."

"What do you mean?"

"I had a wolf once, Your Grace," Sansa explained. "I was young, and full of faith in people. Yet I never believed in certain stories from my home, from the north, not at first, not about the horrors that lie behind the Wall, or about the cruelty of the wildlings and terrifying giants. I chose to believe in others, beautiful and filled with light, which have all proven false. So the stories of horror must all be true, Your Grace.

One of them tells how there are wargs among the men and women in the north. They can see through the eyes of an animal of their choosing, and run and fly with it if they so wish. I might have been able to walk with Lady, my wolf. But Lady was killed, and I was crippled on the inside by that loss, not knowing what has come to pass for years. Later on I was beaten for the amusement of the court, and I have lost my entire family to foes I would have never suspected before. It was like losing more pieces of myself, one by one. And ever since the cold winds started blowing in the Vale where I have been hiding from the world, under false name and pretence, under protection of a man who did not wish me well, I started sensing the intent of other beasts, horses, dogs, wolves…. I could not see through their eyes, nor run, nor fly with them, but I could understand some of their wishes. Slowly I discovered I could suggest what they might do. Sometimes they listened to me, and sometimes they did not. The animals are whole, unlike myself. I am a ruin of a lady in unblemished flesh."

"People too?" Daenerys asked with genuine curiosity.

"Only one better than others, and only at brief times," Sansa said, her eyes a pool of blue, tinged with unearthly sadness.

"Your sun and stars," Daenerys said gently. Sansa neither confirmed nor denied the unusual statement, while Brienne was unsuccessfully trying to grasp its meaning. Another understanding dawned on the Lady of Tarth when she finally dared forming a not entirely courteous question of her own.

"Are we… flying back to the capital?"

Lady Sansa's mouth opened only so slightly in apprehension, as she too began to understand. Brienne was tempted to follow her lead in that when the black beast lowered its huge body peacefully on the soft ground, waiting. Presumably for them climb on its powerful back. Brienne only kept calm because she knew that her thick lips could look even less pleasing than usual when her mouth was open.

"Drogon can be cruel," Daenerys said. "But he and I have passed through a great number of adversities. When he hunts on his own, he always returns to me. I trust that he will not harm any of you while we are together. Come!"

When the three of them were up, the Dragon Queen in front, Drogon took the Horn between its paws and prepared to lift flight.

"Oh, I was almost about to forget," Daenerys looked cruelly in the direction of the immobile ugly wight. "Draca…" she began commanding when a dishevelled living woman with two children, a boy and a girl holding hands, ran out of the redwood.

She must have seen me coming, Brienne thought. Yet she didn't betray me, nor ran to Lord Euron to tell about us all.

The woman and her children positioned themselves mutely in front of the wight.

"Please, don't," the woman begged. "He was my husband and their father before the ironborn turned him into this. Now he has to obey Lord Euron like the others, but in the things Lord Euron forgets to mention, he remembers us. He helps us when he can in his way, even if he cannot speak. We will die on this march if you scorch him…. Your Grace." The woman seemed to remember with delay the title she had to accord to Lord Euron and address it to Daenerys. Words being the only weapon she possessed to defend her family.

Daenerys paled on sight. The dragon opened and closed his black eyes, blinking, and his Mother was adamant. "Show me that what you say is true or I will have no mercy for any of you!"

The wight could move again. It lowered its axe carefully not to harm the children, it gurgled something to the woman who clung to him, and tried to kiss both of her hands. He gently set her aside then, rumbling deeply in her direction, the sound resembling that of a ship being pushed to the sea over the stones, on one of the more rocky shores of Tarth. The wounded walking corpse advanced slowly and clumsily, axe above its head, towards the eaves of the wood where three women, different like the seasons, were seated on the back of the black dragon. His wife grabbed both of her children, who were already holding tight to one of her legs each. She pressed their faces into her skirts so that they would not see whatever would be coming next. She lost the gift of speech but her eyes were pleading.

"Mother of Dragons," she managed after all. "In the name of your children, please spare the father of mine."

Daenerys paled further and lowered a hand she had unconsciously lifted in the air. Her slender fingers touched a short front-most spike on the neck of her dragon.

Brienne stomach rumbled stronger than the hoarse rasp of the unlucky husband when a pair of great wings spread open, revealing in full their majestic width, taking the three women very vertically to the skies. She gripped a black shiny spike closest to her body, and stared at how the land below them slowly diminished in size.

Flying was not what she imagined it to be, and she needed time to adjust.

Elder Brother

The Elder Brother opened his dark clever eyes under a torrent of fresh water. His covered head hurt as if it had not been his own, but rather sewn on his shoulders by an unknown power of old.

The peaceful brown eyes of Mance Rayder stared at him from the foot of the hill where they had all faced Lord Euron Greyjoy on top, and where Sandor Clegane accepted to die to retrieve the Horn. A water skin gaped empty in the wildling's hands. The Elder Brother remembered exchanging words with Lord Euron as if his voice were not his own, just like his head seemed foreign and dazed. He wondered if that was how Lady Arya Stark experienced her rare condition of not being herself. The monk was supposed to join Brienne, but it seemed he fell off his horse instead, losing consciousness. The horse in question grazed peacefully nearby in the company of Patience.

"Are you quite all right?" Mance Rayder asked, masking his worry with his versatile words.

"I seem to be," the Elder Brother said stoically. "If only I could get another head to replace my own!"

Mance Rayder laughed heartily.

"Be careful what you wish for, Elder Brother," he said. "By the old gods, you may yet get your desire."

"Maybe, if I was a skinchanger in those forlorn lands of yours…" the monk retorted coarsely wondering if some of Sandor Clegane's personality had rubbed on him after all during their brotherly coexistence.

"Forlorn?" the singer asked. "If I have a say about it, the forsaken lands of my home will live and prosper to see the new spring. Come, the lady knight is long gone. Her trail is clean of any following and if she doesn't stray she will get to the capital two days before us. After you left, Daenerys's black dragon has come and chased the wights and the ironborn away, with some help from the Golden Company, I must add."

"I see," said the Elder Brother scratching his head. "What do we do now?"

"We ride back with such speed that we can muster," Mance said. "Daenerys should now honour our agreement. And the songs we have been hearing of late planted a doubt in my bones. I mean the song of the mystery bard above all; it has revealed to me that I may still miss some lines of importance for my own play. Lines that could change many things. There is someone I have to see in the capital to remedy that, and he will not be pleased at all to see me again. He may have the knowledge that I seek. Won't you join me?"

"I will, Mance Rayder," the Elder Brother said, headache clearing up and the new sense of purpose sinking in. "If you in return follow me on a visit I have to pay. I do not wish to die by a sword and today I have lost a brother who would have protected me."

The sword of Eddard Stark did not arrive of itself into the hands of Lord Euron Greyjoy and the Elder Brother had a faint idea of who may have sent him such a regal gift. And he would rather not go alone when he went to check his far-fetching assumptions.

"Today?" the singer asked with amusement. "It took me almost two days of riding to find you. In this mild land all hills look the same. It's just that there are no roses growing on the feet of this one."

The monk took a look around realizing the little differences in the landscape from the hill he abandoned only a few hours ago in his feverish mind.

"I see," he said, feeling for bumps on his head, finding a rather large and prominent one on the left side of his face, right above the eyebrow. He carefully felt the skin under his new red head dress and the persistent stubble of grey hair he could no longer get rid off. Apart from the growth getting thicker and more entangled every day, there was no bleeding or sign of further injury. He tied the red scarf back as tight as he could to contain his unwelcome hair, and concluded. "I apologise for my mistake. The fall has affected me more than I thought. For all my recent way of living, I will never be a warrior again, if I have ever been one to start with."

"Don't be tough on yourself," Mance said. "You did better than most. Better than I may have done under the circumstances in Highgarden, if it was me who lived as a priest for 20 years."

A peculiar certainty, which must have been acquired only in a dream, surged in Elder Brother's bruised mind. "Sandor Clegane, did he live? If he did, why is he not with you?"

"He is… suffering from a delay," said Mance Rayder after a long pause to weigh his words within a single sentence. "I trust that he should follow after us when he can."

"Have the dragons helped him in the end, as they helped with the horn?" the monk asked.

"Very much so," Mance said. "Except that his new crystal armour was not crafted to be white but rather black like his horse."

"Oh," the monk said, considering the cryptic words of the wildling. Yet, somehow, the idea sat well with him. His brother in everything but birth would have preferred black as a colour of his armour anyway. May the Warrior guide his steps, Elder Brother thought, the Warrior and the… Stranger. It was the first time that the monk unwillingly admitted which of the Seven faces of one god has always protected his adopted brother. The face no one prayed to veiled over the tormented and the outcast. For they too deserved divine benevolence.

To speak of something else, he asked the northerner. "So who are we going to see?"

"Lynn Corbray," Mance said, " he killed Prince Lewyn Martell in the battle of the Trident. Prince Lewyn rode to battle with Rhaegar, side by side."

"He may have heard Prince Rhaegar's last thoughts!" the monk observed with interest and certain melancholy.

"Or not only that," the singer said. "He may have been still alive and seen with his own eyes how the Prince of Dragonstone was defeated and how he fell."

"But why would Ser Lynn Corbray know any of that?"

"Why indeed, I wonder? Because a dirty traitor gloats on its prey when the gods are not looking. Corbray may have enjoyed torturing Lewyn before he died; I wouldn't put anything past the man who was so natural in impersonating the Mad King. Or because Elia's uncle loved the Princess much more than he had ever loved Rhaegar. She was the only reason Dorne came to the Trident in force, as far as the history scrolls in Castle Black were telling," Mance said. "But even if there is a very small chance Corbray might know anything of any interest to my play, I am most eager to hear out what he has to say."

The brown eyes of the King Beyond the Wall glowed dangerously, reminding clearly of all the things that he had been in life, some less savoury than others. His unrefined hands closed convulsively around a small sharp knife, which could be used to gut a fish.

Or to skin a man alive.

"I will go with you gladly, Mance," the Elder Brother agreed.

Unable to determine why his own curiosity to learn what Ser Corbray might confess under a flaying knife all of a sudden almost overtook the eagerness of a blood thirsty wildling.


It is not half as uncomfortable as riding a horse, Sansa thought in wonder, absorbing the sight of the immaculately white puffy heaps passing above them and the green lands below. The dragon chose to remain under the clouds. Daenerys told them it had to be that way because men, or in their case, women, could not breathe as high up as a dragon could. She, being a blood of the dragon, would be able to stand it for longer, but Sansa and Brienne would not.

It has no match in loveliness, Sansa thought, in love with flying. And all the while her heart beat faster with another kind of new hope; one she could not yet reshape in words, not even in sensible thoughts.

Their journey was almost too short to be properly enjoyed, in Sansa's opinion: like the last lemoncake on a feast, forced down one's throat in a single bite, not to be left on a plate when all the guests start retiring for the evening. In less than a day the ladies saw the sails and masts of Daenerys's fleet underneath Drogon's belly, surrounded by an army camp which had spread from the decks to the ground.

"My Unsullied," she told them. "They prefer to be on firm land when they can choose. Salty water is for the fish and for the ungodly krakens."

The Queen's hatred for Euron still ran strong, judging by her words. Sansa wondered what the Unsullied were but she didn't dare asking. When they landed, a man who looked sullied, rather than the other way around, welcomed the queen.

"My queen," he said, in a courtesy deeper than required.

"Well met again, Ben," she replied, bantering. "Have you betrayed me again while I was gone?"

"I tried hard not to," he responded in kind, with friendly mischief in his eyes, joyful to behold his queen. "Ser Barristan believed you would return to us with only one lady in tow, and here you are with two! And none of them is who he had told us to expect! Well met, indeed, my queen."

Sansa admired how different their conversation was from what she was used to hear when the kings she had known in the past would speak to their servants.

"How many ladies accompany me is my own choice," the queen said somewhat more cautiously, appearing reluctant to discuss the matter further. "Lady Sansa Stark and Lady Brienne of Tarth will stay here under your protection until Drogon and I bring the Horn to a safer place. I do not dare to have it here in my keeping! Enemy will soon march on King's Landing. I should see Aegon as soon as he returns so that we can jointly prepare our defences."

"It will be done as you say, my queen!" Ben exclaimed. "And Aegon will no doubt come running to you! It only remains to be seen whether he will demand you return Septa Lemore to him to beg her for forgiveness or to carry out her death sentence which he may have, or may have not ordered, and from which Your Grace and Drogon have seen fit to rescue her in your great wisdom and even greater mercy."

Queen's face remained more impassive than a Hound's could be when he was guarding Joffrey, and Sansa understood where the Queen must have gone in the day she was missing from the ranks of Euron's slaves. But why did she then return? For me? Sansa wondered. Not for you, stupid, Arya's voice said in her head. For the Horn! a rasp she hoped to hear again in life laughed at her credulousness in her mind, the only voice that would not spare her from the truth. She must have been exhausted from flying back and forth in too short a time… Whatever her reasons, Sansa had become moderately fond of Daenerys Targaryen, and she was also secretly glad that Septa Lemore did not die.

"We will speak more about all of it when I return," Daenerys told Ben with affection and finality at the same time. "Time is of importance now. Farewell, Ben, my ladies. Enjoy the good autumn weather while it still lasts!"

Ben gestured merrily to the two ladies he was given charge of when the dragon's wings blackened the sky again. Brienne and Sansa found it difficult to follow his lead through the camp, for the ground seemed to be shaking under their feet, blood gone from their legs after a long flight. Sansa admired how her firm muscles softened like cream, and for a moment she believed that the soil itself moved in a steady rhythm of Drogon's huge wings. Uncalled for, a different weakness that had made all of her body feel the same invaded her soul, a memory of a single embrace she would never have imagined possible. Sansa dreamed about being in Sandor's arms again, coveting it more than she had ever wanted to return home when she was still held hostage by the Lannisters. When Petyr took her, that illusion was gone. Sansa grew up in the Vale, and she could accept that her home may have been gone for good.

They were offered a seat on a deck of a large ship Sansa had not seen before. A flat white screen of fabric protected the low table and cushions surrounding it from the autumn sun. The sea water around them was at peace. It was past midday and the air was saturated with sweet smells pleasing to those weary after travel.

"They call me Brown Ben Plumm," Ben introduced himself more fully when they all sat down as Sansa politely nodded. "I command a company of sellswords called the Second Sons, although I was a third child of my parents," he continued. "And hearing your names was most welcome, my ladies, for strange as that might seem I have tidings for both of you."

"Tidings?" Sansa parroted, uncertain of the outcome. News she received from others were rarely of the kind she would have liked to hear.

"Well, for Lady Brienne, there was a raven, from Tarth, from her Lord Father. Addressed to Lady Brienne in service of the good Queen Daenerys Targaryen."

A letter was brought by the servants who must have been spying from the corner on their commander's words. Lady Brienne grasped the parchment, sealed with the sigil of two suns and two moons, on red and on blue, with a large sun in the middle of it all.

"I do not know the sigil, my lady," Ben Plumm commented.

"It is my own," Lady Brienne said opening the missive, "of House Tarth."

Whatever she has read in it, it must have been as devastating as when Sansa had heard about the murder of her mother and eldest brother with most of their bannermen on a wedding feast. Sansa was ready to offer consolation if the tall lady would burst in tears, but her reaction was to be quite different.

She carefully rolled the parchment in a wrinkled knot, squeezing her large palms around it, and then she stood up, more upright than most knights Sansa had seen. "Lord Plumm," she said, in a voice purposefully made even as Sansa's would be when she had to lie to survive. "I suppose there is a place here where a knight can get some training, even if the knight in question is a lady. It would please me greatly to stretch and lose some sweat in order to recover from our journey."

"On a condition that I can accompany you there and that you join us for dinner!" Ben said. "Otherwise the queen may yet feed me to her dragon."

"Thank you, my lord, but your company will not be required," Brienne said with difficulty to stay calm, her countenance stiff and unyielding. "I suppose I could agree to dinner, a late one, if it please you, if that is indeed necessary. My lord, my lady, please do allow me to take my leave now."

Ben stood up to point out to Brienne where she should go. While they were at it, Sansa noticed a board with figures, waiting in the middle of the table, ready next to a jar of water and a few glasses.

"You find it intriguing, my lady? I was just so looking for someone to play a game of cyvasse with me when Her Grace had decided to return," Brown Ben said when they were left alone. "You would not be a player, would you?"

"I have heard of it," Sansa said carefully. "It is popular in Dorne."

"Indeed!" Ben cheered. "That's one thing! I can show you a few tricks. You just order your figures as you wish, for a good start!"

Soon they were very comfortable, hidden from the mighty sun which decided to show its face that day in all of its splendour. Hope she could not name grew, outweighing everything else in Sansa's heart once she was surrounded by sheer beauty.

The board was full of elements she couldn't make any sense of, and the order she made in her own white set of figures was erratic, not drawn by any strategy. When Brown Ben Plum would make a move, she would parry it with one of her own, the same way she would always politely answer her septa. It was mindless and it was proper.

"You do know something of it, my lady!" the sellsword approved of her game, and Sansa continued playing with hopes soaring high in her soul.

An hour passed by before Ben said anything else that triggered Sansa's attention. He spoke with great caution: "Across the sea, where cyvasse is much more popular than here, I have left a friend, a rather short fellow of stature if you understand my meaning."

"Short," Sansa stopped and her breath faltered. The day did not seem so beautiful any longer, and the man in front of her became frightening.

"Ugly fellow, two different eyes, but a big heart."

"Eyes," Sansa repeated.

"A very learned person, and a son of a lord. He is also in service of the queen now."

"Does the queen know his full name?" Sansa tried asking, on the verge of losing her composure, lifting her skirts,and running away.

"Where would the queen be if she knew all her humble servants by their names?" Ben exclaimed. "But she does appreciate him greatly for he has helped her understand her children. The dragons. He read all that there was left to read about them as a child in Casterly Rock…"

Slick stickiness filled Sansa's small clothes, killing all her hopes and raising her fears to unprecedented height. She didn't conceive a child with the man she loved as she had dared to hope for. Worse, she was no longer a maid, and her husband in the eyes of gods and men was alive and serving the new queen.

"This friend of yours, he has a message for me," she ventured, sliding a white trebuchet down the board to hide the trembling of her hands.

"He does," Ben said. "A message or a gift, it depends on how you choose to take it. The queen wanted him to return to Westeros with her. But my friend told Her Grace he had taught her everything he knew of dragons. He beseeched her to be left behind, and help rule her kingdoms over the water while she is away."

"Please, continue," Sansa said, willing her new torment to end.

"The queen inquired why he wanted to stay. And my friend, a giant in his mind, if not in his bones, without whom I would have been dead when I was stupid enough to betray Her Grace, he told her he had to stay to determine where the whores went…"

"Whores…" Sansa stuttered, slickness spreading further between her thighs, cutting its way through her smallclothes. It was only a matter of time before it would soak her dress, refitted many times for all the disguises she had recently worn, to her great shame. "My lord, I do not understand."

"My lady," Ben said, finally getting to the point. "My friend, he was married out of love as a young lad of six and ten."

Six and ten? Sansa was out of air from shock and from the heat not blocked by the sunscreen. Tyrion was much older when they married us, he had to be. At least six and twenty!

The foreign sellsword voice continued slowly and the story he revealed was becoming like one of Mance Rayder's songs, sad, and yet real. "But his father decided to teach him some manners, with the help of his older brother. They told him his young innocent wife was a whore whom they paid to lie to him that she loved him. And then they let a company of soldiers lay with her, and pay her a coin each for her services, my friend being the last one.Being the son of the lord, he was allowed to pay her in gold, where the others used lesser metals…"

"Your friend killed his father," Sansa dared stating, blue eyes wide, dampening from emotion.

"Many years later, he did," Brown Ben Plumm admitted. "But not before he learned that his true wife in the eyes of gods and men may yet live somewhere in Essos. He hasn't stopped searching for her since. That was the message he bid me give to Lady Sansa Stark, if I ever encountered her on this side of water separating our two continents."

"Thank you, my lord," Sansa managed to say, pushing a white dragon two squares forward, towards the only remaining free space in the middle of the board. Brown Ben Plumm rolled his eyes with surprise.

"Have I won?" she asked, looking at the board where suddenly, the white figures appeared dominant, in a new formation they had created playing.

"It would seem so," Ben said. "My friend, he always said you had steel hidden under your beauty and your grief. He remembers you fondly, but no more than that. I hope that you understand."

"As I remember him," Sansa complimented Tyrion, afraid she was going to faint over the cushions, from sudden sharp happiness, or from the strident hurt of disappointment caused by getting her moonblood.

Her marriage could be dissolved if she could prove that Tyrion had already been married, maid or not.

And not having any certainty about Sandor's destiny, she unwillingly carved her reason to live on the fantasy of carrying his child after they had lain together one single time. Her mother told her that was how Robb was conceived when her father had gone to fight in Robert Baratheon's war. It was one of the few things, if not the only one, her mother had told her about the marriage bed in person, so Sansa had always expected that with her it was going to be the same.

Flying on the back of the dragon, she imagined carrying a strong babe under her heart. A son she could not name, because names she willed for her children before, like Eddard or Brandon, would not fit him. Sansa had to think of a different name, one that would contain the immensity of what his father had become for her, delving the way to her heart as a worm would burrow an apple. Sly, he conquered it from the inside where nothing could be seen on the surface. And now she needed him back not to collapse from the hollowness within.

Will I ever be able not to dream? she thought. And she didn't think she would be. Foolish as it was to have illusions in a world where the strong killed the weak, it was keeping her alive and afloat, which was more than mere food an drink could do. Except when yet another of her dreams would end, crushed like an innocent flower by a boot of a knight.

There would be no child.

Sansa was not a widow like her mother had been, but she understood at that moment how it must have felt to be one, as her sorrow for a man captured in dragonglass ran deeper than any she had previously known.

"Please, my lord," she still managed to keep some of her dignity, "if this game is now over, I would need a moment, and a place to change. The dust from travel lies heavy on me."

"It will be done, my lady," Brown Ben Plumm hastened to obey. "The queen's handmaidens will tend to all your needs."


Opening the eyes came more difficult than usual when he would be drunk. Stretching limbs was almost impossible.

I must have fallen sleep wearing my armour, Sandor Clegane thought, and it wouldn't be the first time. On top, it was too warm in the chamber he was in. Forcing his right eye open, he glimpsed a surface of translucent black glass. Odd, he thought, I do not tend to sleep with flagons…

Forcing his left eye open, the reality sank in, accompanied by his latest memories. He was lying sideways on the soft grass next to a shiny sword while a familiar heavy one was still hauled over his back. He instantly moved his hands to his line of sight.

They were whole.

The dragons, just like the bloody Lannisters, seemed to be paying their debts. He lost the use of his hands trying to serve them and it was given back. A much more honest and better payment than when lord Tytos paid for his grandfather's leg with a crumbling keep and an empty title, the Hound considered.

He made an effort to touch his face, giddy with a gale of vain hope, that a dragon could succeed where ointments had failed in the past.

That, was still the same and the foolish hope immediately faded. He was going to live for the rest of his life with the face Gregor made for him, other miracles notwithstanding. And maybe it was good, because if he didn't have that face he wouldn't have survived touching the Horn, he knew very well. It was almost like one of those foolish things the Elder Brother believed in come true, where the gods have made things to be in a certain way for a purpose.

Alive. I'm alive, he thought, lungs expanding with every breath he took, grinning like a lackwit.

Unfortunately, healing his hands was not everything the buggering dragon had done. Black one, he could remember it clearly now. The big brother of the two beasts Euron thought to tame… He had to laugh at the absurdity of the dead kraken's ambition.

Attempting to move his legs was an entirely useless endeavour. He was firmly encased in a chest of harsh crystal the likes of which he had never seen. There was no visible way out. He pushed the glass with his hands but it was too hard to break through. He would have drawn his sword against it but he could not reach it in the scabbard over his back. There was barely enough room to move his hands up and down, or tilt his face ever so slightly upwards or down to the soil, smelling on fresh cut grass.

Through his cage he could see the surroundings. The top of the hill was empty, the black ship with the red hull gone, and so was everyone else. He heard a snort coming from behind his back. He would have turned but there was no place. His good mood was somewhat spoiled, but at least he was able to breathe.

I am worse than a little bird now, he thought, a giant ugly bird in a cage of its own...

A cold blade of worry filled his heart faster than water would fill a bucket on a well. Euron may still have Sansa. Most likely without any knowledge of the treasure he possessed, but still. Sandor rolled forward with the mass of his body, hoping to crack the buggering glass.

The snort behind him repeated itself, and it was familiar.

He froze in place and listened. A thud, then another. A different movement over the grass than that of his scarred body. The Hound blinked, sharpening his ears to better listen. When he fully opened his eyes again, he saw two pairs of hooves through the darkness of his cage, kicking the ground.

"Stranger!" he exclaimed, tilting his head up. The Horn was no longer there, but a ribbon of dark grey tissue hung at his horse's saddle. Tied as a lady would attach her favour to her knight's sword. There was only one lady in the world who would have done that for him, and grey was the colour of her House. He didn't think Euron Greyjoy would let his horse go free if it was his failed lordship who had caught Stranger, Brienne and Sansa. They must have somehow met. They must have gone away with the singer and the Elder Brother. The joy Sandor Clegane felt was so contagious and outgoing that for a moment he hoped it would burst open the grave where he was buried in alive.

Why would a dragon heal him first, and than leave him to die, was beyond the understanding of a mere dog. He rolled forward again, hoping that the mass of his body would do the trick.

Nothing happened except that he nearly cut his wrists open with the steel that used to belong to Ned Stark.

Valyrian steel, he thought. He has never held a blade made of that noble material. The hilt was close enough to his hand to try it. Sandor Clegane considered he had the entire world to gain if he could break free, and nothing much to lose. The sword was not as heavy as it looked, nowhere as massive as his own trusted blade. He slid the blade of winter ever so slightly over the ground towards the walls of his prison. His grip wasn't firm enough, in a cramped space, clumsy. He cursed himself for a fool. The steel rippled in the colours of the cold and almost rustled with the sound of leaves of the bloody trees people prayed to in the north.

Maybe, it made a ripple in his cage, one too small to be seen.

The Hound applied his considerable force to slide the blade further. There was no place to lift it or to wield it properly, only to push forward.

If his eyes didn't cheat on him, the tip of the sword was out, protruding through the crystals. He nearly broke his right arm twisting it further. He didn't know for how long he laboured, the progress in breaking out as slow as the passing of the ages in the world.

When the sun sank behind the trees, half of the sword was on the outside, vertical to his body, and then he pushed it down with both hands with all the strength he had left in his bones.

The gash in the crystal increased. It took him some more time to enlarge it, but way less than the first opening.

In the deep of the night, the opening was large enough for his head, and hopefully shoulders. He crawled out like an overgrown snake, having no choice but to push the naked blade to a side with his shoulder, cutting it slightly as he did that.

Stranger did something then his horse has never done before. By his large mouth, the animal caught the edge of the man's tunic under the neck, and pulled him further out, so that only his legs remained caged.

Ignoring a pain in his shoulder, the same one where a piece of flesh had been ripped by the White Walker not so long ago, he pressed both elbows in the grass, raising his back to a half seated-position. He pushed himself further back, and in another moment, he was free.

There was only one non soiled piece of fabric he possessed to bandage his latest wound, and no wine to boil. The cut was fresh and clean, so he hoped it would do. He also hoped that Sansa would not mind if the favour he was of a mind to return to her, as she had asked him to do, would not be complete.

Mindlessly, he tore out a long stretch of the bloody sheet he had been carrying under his tunic, wrapped around his waist, and fastened it around his shoulder, as good as it went.

When the cold light of the morning finally dared to show on the horizon, it was fragile, but it did look like daytime, and not a shadow of the world as it ought to be. There was no bleeding to be seen on his arm, so he must have done the job of the Elder Brother well enough.

Good, the Hound thought simply, pleased by the simplicity of the morning. The dragon paid his debt to him in more than one way, he discovered. It caged me with the means to free myself if I, in turn, was clever as those beasts seem to be. It protected me from Euron when I was too weak to fight back.

Having loved his horse more than most people love their family, the Hound found it easy to accept the intelligence of dragons.

"Come on, boy," he rasped quietly to the Stranger. "King's Landing is waiting for us."

And if he found a pretty knight in Sansa's bed when he returned, so much the worse. He would gut him and he would take his place, even if she came to her senses about what they had done, as he expected she might. The dog was well trained. He could hold back from what has never been his. But nothing in the world would prevent him from taking back his own.