He made it another day before his wound festered again and slowed him for six, where he languished in a decaying inn’s maggoty bed. Sandor had never managed more than three days with his wounds. His goal was as far south as south went, but he knew he’d die before he’d make it there.
There were times when he reached for his helm, and realized it was gone, fingers grasping for sturdy metal and finding only intangible winter air and then he’d panic, thinking he’d dropped it somewhere along the road. He’d remember, the Elder Brother who said he’d bury it for him.
The Hound is dead, he’d said, so Sandor Clegane might yet live. And Sandor Clegane did live, but not for long.
“Not for long, you old bastard. What was the point, keeping me alive?” Sandor had muttered, and then had passed the next days in a feverish sleep.
He awoke from sleep on the sixth day, lying in a pool of sweat and piss and blood, and saw Sansa Stark sitting daintily beside him. A fever dream, the Hound thought, but noticed through hazy eyes she wore boiled leather and mail. He’d dreamt of the songbird before, but always in her King’s Landing finery or in nothing at all.
Sansa Stark watched him through shadowed eyes—once, her eyes had been as bright and carefree as a clear summer morning; then they had chopped off her father’s head—and said to the quiet room, “Sandor Clegane, you are dying.”
“Yes.” No point in denying what he could feel to be true. “Nasty wounds. Shouldn’t have lived as long as I have but I’m a stubborn bastard—wanted summer sun one last time.”
Was that her fingertips he felt, there on his wrist? When he twisted his head to look, she had them pressed into her chainmail lap. “I can’t save you, the wound is too much.”
He barked out a laugh. “Would you, if you could?”
“Yes,” she said, surprising him. “You were kind to me, in your own way. Kinder, perhaps, than anyone has ever been since they—killed my father.”
“I’m not kind, little bird.”
“And I’m not a bird anymore,” she said. “I don’t sing for anyone—unless it pleases me. I’m the Queen in the North—that’s what everyone’s calling me.”
He laughed again; it scrapped out of his throat in a harsh rasp. Blood rolled out from the corners of his mouth. I’m not afraid to die, he thought, even though he was. He was terrified. Looking into her big blue eyes—he was terrified of death. “Are you off to make war then, Your Grace?”
“I am,” she said. “I mean to take back Winterfell.” Her coppery hair looked like blood about her shoulders, tangled and wild—she was north now, as wild as the lands she’d been born in but had never wanted to call home; her coloring and looks were Tully through and through and yet she did not appear anymore southern than her father had.
“I’d offer you my arm,” he told her, as serious as a man languishing in death throes could be. “You’d be the best I’d have ever followed, but I’m afraid my arms’re about as useless as the rest of me. Don’t very much think I’ll make it from this bed.”
“Yes,” she said, quietly.
He considered her then. She looked like Sansa Stark, the little songbird in King’s Landing, but her chin seemed firmer, her pretty eyes harder. Ah, the Hound thought, ah. “You’ve come to kill me, then?”
“When they told me you were here,” Sansa paused, her lips pressing together before she made herself continue, “I thought perhaps you—it doesn’t matter. Your injury is too grave, but if I leave you here you’ll only suffer more. I am sorry.”
“I’m not mad at you—did you think I was?” He managed another rasping laugh, spraying blood and spit over her mail. “Someone has got to do it—I’d prefer it be you.”
She took a small, curved dagger from its sheath at her hip. The carefully crafted silver seemed to flare in the dim candlelight. “You should have kissed me, that night in King’s Landing.”
“I’m not in the habit of taking what isn’t willingly offered,” he snapped. “You’ve seen my brother.” He noticed then her hands shook and said, “If you’re a queen, then you have men-at-arms? Call one of them. I’d prefer a clean cut.”
“No,” Sansa managed, her voice strained. Then stronger, “No. My father—he always told his sons that the man who passes the sentence should wield the sword. My father is dead with no sons left but I—present your neck, Sandor Clegane.”
He did, with what little strength remained to him he arched his neck out and laughed. Laughed long and belly-full. Sansa didn’t look at him as if he were half-mad, though he was. She just looked. I should tell her about her sister, Sandor thought, that the little she-wolf yet lives. But he didn’t.
“So you will sing to me, after all,” he said. When Sansa shook her head, he explained, “Steel through flesh—that’s its own song; one this world knows best, and I better than your knights and your ladies. So sing for me, Queen in the North, keep your hand steady and sing. Don’t miss, girl. Don’t miss. Your men are going to come up here, and you’re going to show them how easy it was for you—to take the Hound’s life, and maybe they’ll make that a song, the Queen who put down a rabid dog. So you won’t miss?”
“Yes, yes,” Sansa said, and her sweaty fingers slid against his, bumped and held. Sandor felt near ecstasy, so close to her. It’s nowhere good I’m going, he thought, but I’ll have this at least. It’s good that it’s her. I’m meant to die, but it’s good that it’s her.
“Have you ever killed a man, Your Grace?”
“Good. I’ll be your first. I’m rotten, and this is mercy what you’re doing; and then it gets easier. Remember your first kill was a mercy, and that your second will be easier.” His neck strained and the coarse, grimy strands of his hair brushed against her smooth wrist. “Go on now, girl. Don’t falter.”
And she didn’t. Her eyes were clear of shadows as she leaned over him, and the dagger that he felt press and press and press against his throat was not hot but cool.
Sandor Clegane heard, from a great distance, his death rattle, the gurgle and splutter of blood and Sansa Stark’s steady, steady breathing, raising together into one staccato of sweet sound.