The mare was going—there was no denying it—but Sansa was not so heartless, or indeed stupid, to ride the palfrey until she failed, leaving them both for dead in all the harshness of Winter. She had tried to sell her at the last three inns she'd patronized, only to receive the same answer from each: a resounding no, then a recommendation to take her to the Quiet Isle, just outside Saltpans.

"A monastery, it is," one innkeep had told her, "full o' them silent brothers o' the faith. They have a stables, they have, an' I reckon they'll take 'er off yer hands."

"Won't give ye much for 'er," another had warned, "but then, no one would, old thing like her."

That had offended her. Sansa had grown very attached to the horse—Missy, she called her—during their days of desperate riding, south, south, south, and she had a talent, it seemed, for keeping Sansa out of sight of her pursuers. Still, though, the time had come for her to part with the mare, as much as it pained her, but Sansa needed another horse to see her through to King's Landing, where Aegon V Targaryen, if he really was a Targaryen, would hopefully offer her shelter in exchange for the fealty of the North and Riverlands. And the Vale too, she reminded herself sadly, now that Harry's gone. I'm heir to the Vale now as well...

That made her the most powerful woman in Westeros, three kingdoms united under her eight-thousand-year-old-name. How many times had Petyr whispered those words to her—'power…your power'—like the sweetest of nothings, mint breath on her cheek and neck?

But she pushed those thoughts away. No more thoughts had she for Petyr Baelish—she was her own woman now, flowered and deflowered, her beauty still taut with a child's suffocating innocence, but her eyes, when she caught them, deep blue in cheval glasses, told another story.

Missy slowly picked her way up the hill, her gait lilting but careful, until they broke the line of the trees and caught sight of the port city of Saltpans, lapping over the hills and pooling in the valley before them. Sansa reined up, giving her mare a chance to pull a mouthful of dying autumn leaves into her mouth as her mistress tried to pick the most covert way down into it.

The island monastery, or what must have been it, was situated on a hilly spit of land where the Bay of Crabs swallowed the fury of the Trident, though she found herself squinting into the morning sun to spy it. If I'd known I was so close I could have found an inn for us last night, she thought to herself. But no. Missy was tired. She never would have made it up that last hill before dark. And besides. If all goes well by the end of the day, she will have a new home and I will have a new steed. She patted the mare on the side of her neck and jerked the reins upward, discouraging her from diving for another chomp of foliage and urging her down into the valley.


Sansa bought herself lunch at a tavern close to the bay, giving the serving girl a reprieve from the endless leers and bawdy comments from the other patrons with questions about the best way to the Quiet Isle.

"Don' take no silent sisters, miss," she warned her. Sansa indicated her unconcern. "Bes' way's the ferry, then. From the dock out yonder. Won't charge you a star for the fare neither."

Sansa thanked her warmly and slipped a dragon she'd taken from Petyr into her hand. The girl's eyes grew wide and she made not to take it, but Sansa shushed her, insisted with another smile, and left the woman gaping after her.

There she goes, Sansa thought to herself, imagining thoughts the woman could not have, your liege. Heir to the North and the Vale and the Riverlands all, dressed like a peasant with the poise of a Queen.

But that stung the roof of her mouth... 'power' he echoed, deep in her thoughts, 'your power...' and his hands and his fingers and her hips and her waist and Gods but she wanted to retch, but she couldn't stop herself. Petyr lusts for power and beauty, and I have both. His fingers in her hair, on the nape of her neck. Her mother's name incanted, as though if he wished hard enough, she would suddenly transform into her.

Catelyn. Catelyn. Alayne. She was tired of wearing other names to fit into schemes she had none but a mechanical part to play, a lady in her own right, desperately thirsting for the liberty to just be.

By mid-afternoon she was leading Missy off the ferry onto the island, giving the Silent Brother acting as the ferryman her thanks and wondering how she, on an island full of Silent Brothers, would find anyone she could deal with in the trading of her horse. She patted Missy's neck, running her fingers over her greying, plaited mane as she made her way into what seemed to be the centre of the isle, the seven-sided sept on the top of a high hill, six other huts gathered in a circle before it.

This silence is eerie, she thought, shivering. Where is everyone? It was not a normal time for worship, she knew from her understanding of her mother's faith, and yet the isle seemed completely bereft of humanity. Have I unwittingly stumbled into some plague site? Greyscale, perhaps? She tightened her fist on Missy's reins, in case she needed to mount her quickly and make some daring escape. As if she would be up for it. Figuring any discovery of her identity was the least of her worries in a place like this, she took down her hood and cowl, letting her hair, red again since her wedding, show as she strained harder to hear any sounds.

There! She thought. Shhhk. Kshhhk. Kshhhk. Shhh. Digging. It was coming from near the sept.

Guiding her nearly-lame mare up the hill by the sept they came together on a novice brother in his brown-and-dun, larger than average and guarded well against the winter wind, wearing cowl and scarf, only the slit of his eyes bared to the elements. She pulled up her cowl, covering her hair and face.

"Pardon me, Brother..." she said, giving him a violent start as he threw down his shovel and whipped around to her, sitting back on his haunches, his hands on his thighs. For a long moment he regarded her, both of them frozen, before she realized that she shouldn't be waiting for him to speak. "I've come to see if your order would be so kind as to help me. My mare is old and nearly lame—no one will relieve me of her—but I've urgent business in the Capital, and need a horse to complete my journey." She paused. He had not moved, not even blinked it seemed, as if he was made of stone. I wouldn't even know if he had grayscale, she thought fleetingly before continuing. "Forgive me if I offend, but is there a Brother on the Isle who I might be able to speak with? To see if your order might be so kind as to let me a horse for the remainder of my journey?"

The Silent Brother remained frozen for another long moment before lumbering to his feet, favouring one leg, and giving her one last look before limping past her into the circle of huts, pausing to beckon her follow him. Sansa followed, unsure if the Brother was actually as rude as he seemed, or if merely not being permitted to speak gave him that air.

When he burst into the Elder Brother's personal solar, though, without even knocking, she figured he was likely the former.

"Goodness!" the Elder Brother, who did not seem so elderly to her, said, standing as they entered unbidden. "You gave me quite a start there, Brother Digger! Forgive me, my lady. How can I be of service?"

"A thousand pardons, Brother." She uncovered her hair and shook it out, hoping it would speak to her identity so she wouldn't have to. Her Silent escort was seized by a violent coughing fit. "I was hoping you might be willing to sell me one of the horses from the stable on the Island. I've urgent business in the Capital, and my mare is going lame. I've got good coin to pay, and jewels if my coin doesn't cover—" but he had silenced her with a raised hand.

"It is not a concern, my lady. You may give what you wish. Let me escort you to the stables so you might have your pick." He gave the Silent Brother a sidelong glance as he offered her his arm, brushing past him as they exited the solar. Next to the Elder Brother on her arm, Sansa came to appreciate just how tall the Silent Brother was. He nearly takes up the whole doorway.

"You may go back to your duties, Brother Digger," the Elder Brother said to him as he followed them out of the hut and off toward the stables, but the Silent Brother only glared at him momentarily before limping after them, silent as ever. "You must forgive him. He has always been tactless."

"I don't mind him," Sansa said truthfully, taking Missy's reins in her hand momentarily, before the Silent Brother snatched them out of her hands, glowering, and urged her forward.

"He likely wants to guide the horse for you," the Elder Brother explained to her shocked visage, shooting a knowing look at the Silent Brother before continuing. "It is plain that you are highborn, my lady. It is our place to serve," he said with a kind smile.

"Oh," Sansa said, turning to face the Silent Brother and look him in the eye. There was a striking vehemence in them. "You are too kind, Brother."

He bowed his head in response.

Perhaps he's not so rude after all, she thought, taking the Elder Brother's arm again and allowing herself and her horse to be led to the stables.

"Were you after any particular breed of horse, my lady?"

"Oh, I must admit, I know little of horses," she blushed. It was true. She'd ridden more in the past six days fleeing Petyr and his goons than she had ever in her life. All she'd learned about saddling, brushing and riding a horse she'd learned the hard way on Missy's back, adrenaline coursing through her veins, knowing that any single misstep could pass to her into the hands of the Stranger, and that it was a risk she was more than willing to take. "Something fast and sturdy. I have a lot of riding ahead of me and I am anxious to arrive in the Capital sooner rather than later."

"Forgive me for being so rude, my lady, but I have to ask...your hair, your eyes..." the Elder Brother said, pausing nearly mid-step to turn and look at her, the twinkle in his eyes leading her to believe that he already knew the answer to the question he was about to ask. "Are you...?"

"Sansa Stark," she confirmed, her name, only so recently reclaimed, cloying on her tongue. "I am."

He nodded, flicking his eyes to the Silent Brother for a long moment before giving her a smile and a little bow. "You can trust me to keep your identity a secret from any who might ask after you. I am at your service, Lady Sansa."

"Thank you, Brother," she said, suddenly anxious of any questions he might ask, questions she didn't want to answer, answers she didn't want to think about. "Now that we are acquainted, you understand my anxiety to get to the Capital as swiftly as possible."

"Certainly," he said, looking yet again at the looming Silent Brother still trailing behind them, Missy's reins in hand. "But I'm afraid, my lady, that our selection is not wide. Your mare will not be the saddest creature to take up residence in these stables," he said by way of introduction, holding open the stable door to her.

It was warm within, smelling strongly of hay and horses, though not unpleasantly so. Nearly half the stalls were occupied, the heads of the animals within each poking out into the little corridor between the stalls and looking down towards the stable door expectantly. She paced the corridor slowly, placing her palm on the nose of each horse, letting them nuzzle her, know her. The Elder Brother had been right—many of these horses were old and lame, though there was a chestnut palfrey, nearly a filly still, who seemed like she might be suitable.

Until her eye caught on one horse, a handsome black beast, quartered far and away from the rest of the animals in the last stall on the left. She admired him, bewildered, for a moment before recognition set in.

Her heart leapt into her throat, and she turned to the Elder Brother, pointing down at him.

"Not that horse, my lady," the Elder Brother cautioned. "Driftwood has a madly foul temper, I promise you."

"I happen to recall as much; his name is not 'Driftwood.'"

"We do not honour his previous, blasphemous name on this Isle," the Brother explained, looking at the Silent Brother who was listlessly quartering Missy in an empty stall. "I fear he still has his former master's nature."

His master's nature—'do I frighten you so much girl?'—startling gentleness and a bleached handkerchief—'paint stripes on a toad, he does not become a tiger'—a wetness on his cheek that was not blood—'knights are for killing'—a kiss; no, that was the stuff of her dreams—eyes so filled with hate and bitter rage they changed the colour to a gray blaze unbearable—her dreams, and his hulking figure crawling into her marriage-bed—I wish the Hound were here—his master's nature...

And then the disembodied voice of the animal, his soul reaching out with cool flame tongues and speaking to her in transcendent words his master once feverishly spoke: "I could keep you safe."

She swallowed and snatched back her composure.

"What happened to his master?"

"What happened to the Hound?" The Elder Brother clarified, glancing at the Brother again.

"Yes. Sandor Clegane. When I knew him, he would not have stood to be separated from his horse for any reason."

"The Hound is dead, my lady."


"I buried him myself."

"...I see."

"May I offer my condolences if this news grieves you, my lady. I had not known that you knew him..."

"I should like to think I did," she answered, looking back to the horse. Driftwood, she thought to herself, you're turning in your grave right now, aren't you Sandor? Dead, the Brother says...did I know that, somehow? Did the Mother gentle your rage, as I asked? Did the Stranger ease your passing, make it painless?

Did you think of me?

"...But rest assured that Driftwood is not the horse you want."

"On the contrary," she answered, whipping around. "I am absolutely certain that he is."

"My lady," the Elder Brother began to explain, glancing back at the Silent Brother, who had since frozen in awe, likely of her apparently unacceptable selection of horse, "Driftwood has broken one Brother's shinbone in two places and bitten an ear off another."

Sansa was unfazed. "He will be gentle with me," she said assuredly, and began to hastily close the gap between her and the warhorse.

"My lady!" The Elder Brother said frightfully, he and the Silent Brother both hurrying after her as she approached Stranger, looking the handsome beast in the eye before placing her palm on his nose, just like she had to all the other horses.

And like all the other horses—moreso, even, she would have dared to say—he nuzzled her palm, letting her pet his face as he whickered contentedly.

I could keep you safe, he said to her again, chanting in a language only souls understand. His former master's nature...

She gave the frightened Brothers a triumphant little smile.

The Elder Brother glanced at his hulking silent companion. "Well. I can't say I was expecting that."

"How much do you want for him?"

"My lady I have to insist that you do not—"

The blood of winter turned her composure to ice. "How. Much."

"My lady, please. You would not be safe on the road with him."

"I am sure that is not true." I could keep you safe, the horse said with the mist of his breath, hot and course with life.

"Any other horse. Take two, even. Just not Driftwood, I beg of you. I would be worried sick about you until the end of my days."

"You would have more cause to worry if you let me off with any other horse," she snapped. Stern as she might have outwardly appeared just then, privately she was frantic. Please let me keep him. If Sandor is truly dead, then Stranger is the only connection I have to him, the only man I could ever trust...

And if he truly has his master's nature, he will keep me safe. He said so. She glanced back at the horse and thought she saw a flicker of his master's stormy rage in his black glass eyes. Her conviction solidified. She straightened her posture as the horse searched for hidden treats in the drapes of her cloak and cowl.

The Elder Brother glanced at the Silent Brother. "Perhaps you would stay the night, my lady. You are tired, surely. Let us give you food and a bed—and a bath, even, should you want it...tomorrow, once you are rested, we will resume discussion of which horse you should take."

He's stalling. He's trying to bribe me. He's not going to let me off with the horse.

Unless...Her lips twitched, wanting to smile at the idea that bloomed within her. Maturity has made my morals suffer, truly. My father would be ashamed of me.

Morals were what got Father killed, she remembered, shivering at the echo of Petyr's voice in her head. He had been right, though—Robb and Father both, murdered by their own honour.

She put on her most charming, conciliatory smile and agreed.


Later, in the black infinity of the small hours of the night, Sansa's things were packed again and her cloak bound tightly around her face. With a shred of childish giddiness she stole from the room the Elder Brother had so graciously afforded her, a couple of the fine gold necklaces she'd brought with her from the Vale laid out on the desk within as payment. She would not let herself believe for a second that she had stolen the horse, whether the Elder Brother let her leave with him or no.

Producing a dried apple from her saddlebags as she ducked into the stables, she approached Stranger's stall, whistling and calling his name quietly so she wouldn't startle him as she approached. Likely she was imagining it, but he almost looked glad to see her when she caught his eye, even before she held the apple out to him, which he took eagerly from her palm before nuzzling it again. It was all the encouragement she needed.

She found his old saddle and blankets still within, and struggled a bit to outfit the courser, so much taller than she was used to, with his tack in the dark, but he did not make it more difficult for her, standing still as stone, flicking her gently with his tail every now and again.

It was probably an hour before he was ready to go, and it took her a couple of tries to mount him successfully, but once she had he was out of the stall before she could even dig her heels in to urge him forward, creeping out of the stables as if he understood intrinsically the delicacy of her situation.

"Goodbye, Missy," she whispered to her old horse as they passed her. "Thank you for bringing me this far."

And then she was out in the winter night, crouched close to Stranger's neck with her fingers tangled in his mane, wondering how often Sandor's fingers had done the same, and if he was looking up on them now from whatever fresh hell he was quartered within.

The courser was prone to escape the Isle, picking his way quietly through the isle and into the mudflats exposed by the low-tide, weaving carefully through the unstable land until he'd brought her safely ashore. Then he took off in a canter, seemingly of his own accord, south, south, south.

He did not break his pace until well into the morning, Sansa finding herself lulled into a near-sleep with her cheek resting on his neck. No. You've got to stay awake until you find a town. An inn. No one will be able to guess how far you've come. She smacked herself in the face, reined Stranger back into a trot, and carried on riding, the horse picking the way as much as she was, until the sun sank lower to the west and she came upon a town, the local inn letting the tantalising smell of roasting chicken perfume the air around it.

She struggled some with her dismount, legs sore from what had been nearly twelve hours of riding, warning the stableboy aptly before handing off the reins, and watching as indeed Stranger showed the boy his teeth, flattening his ears threateningly. He really does like me especially, she thought to herself, awed. I had hoped as much, but I couldn't be sure.


It was not until halfway through the next day when she started to find fault with the temperament of the courser, as he was willful, less than obedient, going so far as to outright ignore her command to turn east at one point, picking their course stubbornly and sticking to it, no matter how violently she jerked the reins. After half an hour of kicking and tugging and slapping and hissing at him she gave up, sitting straight up in the saddle and crossing her arms haughtily, unwilling to believe she'd just had a row with a horse and lost.

But then, while supping in a roadside tavern, she discovered that the horse had kept her away from a road lined with ghost towns, playing host to thieves and bandits, broken men. Dangerous men.

Perhaps he really has his old master's temperament after all...

And the night following, camping in the woods with no inns available to stay in, Stranger had woken her by snorting in her face repeatedly, wide-eyed and spooked, pawing at the ground beside her head.

"Seven hells, Stranger!" she swore, irate, as she stood from her pallet to calm the horse, only then able to hear the sound of distant hoofbeats, male voices.


She rolled up her pallet quickly and mounted Stranger in one frenzied leap, and he took off from their camp at a canter, moving so swiftly that the hair of his mane, alight in the wind, was whipping stingingly at her face. He did not slow for the rest of the night, nor well into the next morning. Though she had not caught sight of the men she'd heard, she knew they had been searching for her, and if not for the courser, they would have succeeded.

When they finally found an inn close to evenfall, she dismounted and told the stableboy she'd stable him herself. And though the stalls were cramped and putrid, he ducked into one willingly, turning around to blink at her with his wide obsidian eyes. She put her hand on his nose, and then leaned her forehead against him, sighing, breathing in his clean, horsey scent.

"Thank you," she whispered, stroking his cheek. "I know you're protecting me. Thank you. Thank you."

The horse nosed her hair aside and breathed onto her shoulder, giving her, she realised, the closest thing to an embrace that he could.


It was strange, then, that the rider was able to come upon their camp so suddenly the following night. Stranger must have fallen asleep as well, Sansa thought, awaking in a bolt of panic as she heard crashing foliage and hoofbeats nearby, hurrying to roll up her pallet and picking up a large stick to defend herself on a whim as the rider broke through the trees.

He was unarmed, as far as she could see, but Sansa wasn't taking any chances. She swung up into Stranger's saddle, having recently adjusted the stirrups to a reasonable height for herself, and, when he was queerly still, gave him the biggest kick she could manage on the flank as the rider dismounted across the clearing.

"Come on Stranger," she nearly growled into his ear, heart thumping madly as she kicked him again. And again.

"Sansa," the rider rasped.

And again.

The rider removed his hood. Her legs went limp.

Moonlight was scarce in the clearing she'd claimed, but there could be no mistaking the ruined visage gaping at her, framed by lank dark hair. Her throat went dry as she sat, motionless atop her horse. I am dreaming. I am seeing a ghost.

Sandor Clegane gave her a sheepish little smile, gray eyes, gentler than she remembered, flicking momentarily to his horse. "He likes you better than he ever liked me, it seems."

And then she was off Stranger's back, crashing through the leaflitter, flinging herself into his arms. It was improper, horrendously so, but her emotions overcame her, and while she was not sobbing or weeping or choking, even, on tears, she would not relinquish him where her arms had come around his shoulders, solid, warm, alive.

"Oof," he grunted as she latched onto him, staggering back more than she would have guessed of him. She caught sight of the chestnut palfrey she had rejected before squeezing her eyes shut, tucking her face into his neck and breathing him in. Have I really not seen him since the battle of the Blackwater? It seemed impossible, and yet it was true. Six years...I have been twice wedded since then. I'm surprised he recognised me...

His arms came around her waist, seemingly content to hold her wordlessly as she clung to him, stretched up onto her tiptoes and pressing herself against his reality for an immeasurable moment. I dreamed of you.

"I missed you," she whispered instead.

"Little bird," he groaned, supplicating, pained. "I missed you more."


They tell each other their stories, where they've been those six years past. She is glad to hear of his sanctuary, his peace, his reflection on the Quiet Isle; he is infuriated to hear of Petyr's schemes, his touches, his 'lessons' at the Eyrie and the Gates of the Moon. Sandor swears to gift her with her captor's severed head, a thousand times over if only he could. And when he tells her that Arya is alive, or at least that she was five years ago, she cries on his shoulder and he promises, again and again and again, to find her once her own situation is secured.

They head south, south, south, trading horses back and forth until Stranger will have it no more, showing Sandor his teeth one morning, only letting Sansa close enough to mount him.

"What have you done to my horse?" he asks laughingly, with an awed and mirthful expression she had never thought to see on his gnarled and ruined face, even in all her fantasies where he was gentle, and kind, and noble. Chivalrous. Dashing.

They are not so fantastic, now, she thinks, not so far from the reality of him that she has come to know in the dappled winter sunlight of the deep wood, all his new gentleness that is not, she imagines, that new.

She only smiles at him, spurring her adopted horse into a canter, wordlessly inviting Sandor to race her.

She wins.

"I kept your cloak," she tells him that night, her cheek on his chest as they share their warmth in sleeping. "Your Kingsguard cloak. You left it with me. Sometimes I would wrap myself up in it and pretend you were there. Asking me to come with you again. And I'd understand, this time. I'd come with you."

"You were right not to," he snorts, his fingers winding through her hair like she imagined they once had Stranger's. "I would have been no good for you."

"Maybe not then," she assented, covering his heart with her palm. "But a lot have things have changed since then."

He squeezes his eyes shut at her words, at her touch. "That hasn't, little bird. Believe me."

"I'm not so sure."


She sees a flicker of the man he used to be when she refuses King Aegon's proposal.

"What do you mean, you refused him?!" He is growling, menacing, and angrier than she's seen him since she told him of Petyr.

"I will not marry a man I do not love," she says simply, putting her hairbrush down on her vanity, indecently dressed in a soft wool gown over a silk shift, and not the least bit bothered by it.

"He is the King, Sansa."

"Kingship means nothing to me. You of all people should understand my feelings on that." Her voice is cold and she can feel that it startles him, silencing him from where he stands in her doorway.

"You are a threat to him," he pleads in a voice much more reverent, weak. "Well-loved by your vassals. Three kingdoms to your name..."

But that is just it with Aegon, as well-mannered and handsome and gallant that he is. Behind the sweet-scented roses and the cool plink of his high harp is the empty stench of politics, repugnant. She is a threat, not a woman; a kingdom not a heart. And she is done with all that, her symbolism and functionality preceding her, the scared little girl she could never afford to be and the bitter, wary woman she never wanted to become.

"I will give them up if I must."

His head snaps up and he looks like to raise his voice again. She stands from her chair, bare toes on the cold stone floor and paces towards him, pinning him in place with her eyes, her voice.

"I will not if I do not have to, but I'm willing to make sacrifices to get what I want."

"And what is it you want?" He rasps, grimacing. He sounds afraid of her answer.

She could give him all of it. He would listen. He's the only one who would listen to her, the only one who ever has. It would be difficult to convey what she wants, all the branches of it so disparate and contradictory, but rising, gnarled, from one single root sunk deep and so true, a longing so acute it's become physical, a fact of her existence, objectively absurd.

Her hand slides up onto the back of his neck and she winds her fingers through his hair, silky like Stranger's mane. The two of them were more similar than anyone could have known, Sandor and his horse, both cruel and resentful to everyone but her—and sweet, gentle, tamed under her hand.

"You," she whispers to him, letting her lips graze the corner of his as she speaks, placing her other hand on his chest.

He draws back, bewildered, one hand clasping hers to his chest. "Sansa..." his throat sounds dry. "...don't toy with me," he begs. But his heart isn't in it. He knows her better than that. She waits for him to remember.

He blinks at her, disbelieving. And then he closes the space between their mouths with a hungry fury, and she knows, as she did with his horse, that she would steal away with him, if it came to that.