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Outside the inn on a weathered gibbet, a woman’s bones were twisting and rattling at every gust of wind.  I know this inn. There hadn’t been a gibbet outside the door when she had slept here with her sister Sansa under the watchful eye of Septa Mordane, though. “We don’t want to go in,” Arya decided suddenly, “there might be ghosts.”  “You know how long it’s been since I had a cup of wine?” Sandor swung down from the saddle. “Besides, we need to learn who holds the ruby ford. Stay with the horses if you want, it’s no hair off my arse.”  “What if they know you?” Sandor no longer troubled to hide his face. He no longer seemed to care who knew him. “They might want to take you captive.”  “Let them try.” He loosened his longsword in its scabbard, and pushed through the door.  Arya would never have a better chance to escape. She could ride off on Craven and take Stranger too. She chewed her lip. Then she led the horses to the stables, and went in after him.  They know him. The silence told her that. But that wasn’t the worst thing. She knew them too. Not the skinny innkeep, nor the women, nor the fieldhands by the hearth. But the others. The soldiers. She knew the soldiers.  “Looking for your brother, Sandor?” Polliver’s hand was down the bodice of the girl on his lap, but now he slid it out.  “Looking for a cup of wine. Innkeep, a flagon of red.” Clegane threw a handful of coppers on the floor.  “I don’t want no trouble, ser,” the innkeep said.  “Then don’t call me ser.” His mouth twitched. “Are you deaf, fool? I ordered wine.” As the man ran off, Clegane shouted after him, “Two cups! The girl’s thirsty too!”  There are only three, Arya thought. Polliver gave her a fleeting glance and the boy beside him never looked at her at all, but the third one gazed long and hard. He was a man of middling height and build, with a face so ordinary that it was hard to say how old he was. The Tickler. The Tickler and Polliver both. The boy was a squire, judging by his age and dress. He had a big white pimple on one side of his nose, and some red ones on his forehead. “is this the lost puppy Ser Gregor spoke of?” he asked the Tickler. “The one who piddled in the rushes and ran off?”  The Tickler put a warning hand on the boy’s arm, and gave a short sharp shake of his head. Arya read that plain enough.  The squire didn’t, or else he didn’t care. “Ser said his puppy brother tucked his tail between his legs when the battle got too warm at King’s Landing. He said he ran off whimpering.” He gave the Hound a stupid mocking grin.  Clegane studied the boy and never said a word. Polliver shoved the girl off his lap and got to his feet. “The lad’s drunk,” he said. The man-at-arms was almost as tall as the Hound, though not so heavily muscled. A spade-shaped beard covered his jaws and jowls, thick and black and neatly trimmed, but his head was more bald than not. “He can’t hold his wine, is all.”  “Then he shouldn’t drink.”  “The puppy doesn’t scare...” the boy began, till the Tickler casually twisted his ear between thumb and forefinger. The words became a squeal of pain.  The innkeep came scurrying back with two stone cups and a flagon on a pewter platter. Sandor lifted the flagon to his mouth. Arya could see the muscles in his neck working as he gulped. When he slammed it back down on the table, half the wine was gone. “Now you can pour. Best pick up those coppers too, it’s the only coin you’re like to see today.”  “We’ll pay when we’re done drinking,” said Polliver.  “When you’re done drinking you’ll tickle the innkeep to see where he keeps his gold. The way you always do.”  The innkeep suddenly remembered something in the kitchen. The locals were leaving too, and the girls were gone. The only sound in the common room was the faint crackling of the fire in the hearth. We should go too, Arya knew.  “If you’re looking for Ser, you come too late,” Polliver said. “He was at Harrenhal, but now he’s not. The queen sent for him.” He wore three blades on his belt, Arya saw; a longsword on his left hip, and on his right a dagger and a slimmer blade, too long to be a dirk and too short to be a sword. “King Joffrey’s dead, you know,” he added. “Poisoned at his own wedding feast.”  Arya edged farther into the room. Joffrey’s dead. She could almost see him, with his blond curls and his mean smile and his fat soft lips. Jofftey’s dead! She knew it ought to make her happy, but somehow she still felt empty inside. Joffrey was dead, but if Robb was dead too, what did it matter?  “So much for my brave brothers of the Kingsguard.” The Hound gave a snort of contempt. “Who killed him?”  “The Imp, it’s thought. Him and his little wife.”  “What wife?”  “I forgot, you’ve been hiding under a rock. The northern girl. Winterfell’s daughter. We heard she killed the king with a spell, and afterward changed into a wolf with big leather wings like a bat, and flew out a tower window. But she left the dwarf behind and Cersei means to have his head.”  That’s stupid, Arya thought. Sansa only knows songs, not spells, and she’d never marry the Imp.  The Hound sat on the bench closest the door. His mouth twitched, but only the burned side. “She ought to dip him in wildfire and cook him. Or tickle him till the moon turns black.” He raised his wine cup and drained it straightaway.  He’s one of them, Arya thought when she saw that. She bit her lip so hard she tasted blood. He’s just like they are. I should kill him when he sleeps.  “So Gregor took Harrenhal?” Sandor said.  “Didn’t require much taking,” said Polliver. “The sellswords fled as soon as they knew we were coming, all but a few. One of the cooks opened a postern gate for us, to get back at Hoat for cutting off his foot.” He chuckled. “We kept him to cook for us, a couple wenches to warm our beds, and put all the rest to the sword.”  “All the rest?” Arya blurted out.  “Well, Ser kept Hoat to pass the time.”  Sandor said, “The Blackfish is still in Riverrun?”  “Not for long,” said Polliver. “He’s under siege. Old Frey’s going to hang Edmure Tully unless he yields the castle. The only real fighting’s around Raventree. Blackwoods and Brackens. The Brackens are ours now.”  The Hound poured a cup of wine for Arya and another for himself, and drank it down while staring at the hearthfire. “The little bird flew away, did she? Well, bloody good for her. She shit on the Imp’s head and flew off.”  “They’ll find her,” said Polliver. “If it takes half the gold in Casterly Rock.”  “A pretty girl, I hear,” said the Tickler. “Honey sweet.” He smacked his lips and smiled.  “And courteous,” the Hound agreed. “A proper little lady. Not like her bloody sister.”  “They found her too,” said Polliver. “The sister. She’s for Bolton’s bastard, I hear.”  Arya sipped her wine so they could not see her mouth. She didn’t understand what Polliver was talking about. Sansa has no other sister. Sandor Clegane laughed aloud.  “What’s so bloody funny?” asked Polliver.  The Hound never flicked an eye at Arya. “If I’d wanted you to know, I’d have told you. Are there ships at Saltpans?”  “Saltpans? How should I know? The traders are back at Maidenpool, I heard. Randyll Tarly took the castle and locked Mooton in a tower cell. I haven’t heard shit about Saltpans.”  The Tickler leaned forward. “Would you put to sea without bidding farewell to your brother?” It gave Arya chills to hear him ask a question. “Ser would sooner you returned to Harrenhal with us, Sandor. I bet he would. Or King’s Landing...”  “Bugger that. Bugger him. Bugger you.”  The Tickler shrugged, straightened, and reached a hand behind his head to rub the back of his neck. Everything seemed to happen at once then; Sandor lurched to his feet, Polliver drew his longsword, and the Tickler’s hand whipped around in a blur to send something silver flashing across the common room. If the Hound had not been moving, the knife might have cored the apple of his throat; instead it only grazed his ribs, and wound up quivering in the wall near the door. He laughed then, a laugh as cold and hollow as if it had come from the bottom of a deep well. “I was hoping you’d do something stupid.” His sword slid from its scabbard just in time to knock aside Polliver’s first cut.  Arya took a step backward as the long steel song began. The Tickler came off the bench with a shortsword in one hand and a dagger in the other. Even the chunky brown-haired squire was up, fumbling for his swordhilt. She snatched her wine cup off the table and threw it at his face. Her aim was better than it had been at the Twins. The cup hit him right on his big white pimple and he went down hard on his tail.  Polliver was a grim, methodical fighter, and he pressed Sandor steadily backward, his heavy longsword moving with brutal precision. The Hound’s own cuts were sloppier, his parries rushed, his feet slow and clumsy. He’s drunk, Arya realized with dismay. He drank too much too fast, with no food in his belly. And the Tickler was sliding around the wall to get behind him. She grabbed the second wine cup and flung it at him, but he was quicker than the squire had been and ducked his head in time. The look he gave her then was cold with promise. Is there gold hidden in the village? She could hear him ask. The stupid squire was clutching the edge of a table and pulling himself to his knees. Arya could taste the beginnings of panic in the back of her throat. Fear cuts deeper than swords. Fears cuts deeper...  Sandor gave a grunt of pain. The burned side of his face ran red from temple to cheek, and the stub of his ear was gone. That seemed to make him angry. He drove back Polliver with a furious attack, hammering at him with the old nicked longsword he had swapped for in the hills. The bearded man gave way, but none of the cuts so much as touched him. And then the Tickler leapt over a bench quick as a snake, and slashed at the back of the Hound’s neck with the edge of his short sword.  They’re killing him. Arya had no more cups, but there was something better to throw. She drew the dagger they’d robbed off the dying archer and tried to fling it at the Tickler the way he’d done. It wasn’t the same as throwing a rock or a crabapple, though. The knife wobbled, and hit him in the arm hilt first. He never even felt it. He was too intent on Clegane.  As he stabbed, Clegane twisted violently aside, winning himself half a heartbeat’s respite. Blood ran down his face and from the gash in his neck. Both of the Mountain’s men came after him hard, Polliver hacking at his head and shoulders while the Tickler darted in to stab at back and belly. The heavy stone flagon was still on the table. Arya grabbed it with two hands, but as she lifted it someone grabbed her arm. The flagon slipped from her fingers and crashed to the floor. Wrenched around, she found herself nose to nose with the squire. You stupid, you forgot all about him. His big white pimple had burst, she saw.  “Are you the puppy’s puppy?” He had his sword in his right hand and her arm in his left, but her own hands were free, so she jerked his knife from its sheath and sheathed it again in his belly, twisting. He wasn’t wearing mail or even boiled leather, so it went right in, the same way Needle had when she killed the stableboy at King’s Landing. The squire’s eyes got big and he let go of her arm. Arya spun to the door and wrenched the Tickler’s knife from the wall.  Polliver and the Tickler had driven the Hound into a comer behind a bench, and one of them had given him an ugly red gash on his upper thigh to go with his other wounds. Sandor was leaning against the wall, bleeding and breathing noisily. He looked as though he could barely stand, let alone fight. “Throw down the sword, and we’ll take you back to Harrenhal,” Polliver told him.  “So Gregor can finish me himself?”  The Tickler said, “Maybe he’ll give you to me.”  “If you want me, come get me.” Sandor pushed away from the wall and stood in a half-crouch behind the bench, his sword held across his body.  “You think we won’t?” said Polliver. “You’re drunk.”  “Might be,” said the Hound, “but you’re dead.” His foot lashed out and caught the bench, driving it hard into Polliver’s shins. Somehow the bearded man kept his feet, but the Hound ducked under his wild slash and brought his own sword up in a vicious backhand cut. Blood spattered on the ceiling and walls. The blade caught in the middle of Polliver’s face, and when the Hound wrenched it loose half his head came with it.  The Tickler backed away. Arya could smell his fear. The shortsword in his hand suddenly seemed almost a toy against the long blade the Hound was holding, and he wasn’t armored either. He moved swiftly, light on his feet, never taking his eyes off Sandor Clegane. It was the easiest thing in the world for Arya to step up behind him and stab him.  “Is there gold hidden in the village?” she shouted as she drove the blade up through his back. “Is there silver? Gems?” She stabbed twice more. “Is there food? Where is Lord Beric?” She was on top of him by then, still stabbing. “Where did he go? How many men were with him? How many knights? How many bowmen? How many, how many, how many, how many, how many, how many? is there gold in the village?”  Her hands were red and sticky when Sandor dragged her off him. “Enough,” was all he said. He was bleeding like a butchered pig himself, and dragging one leg when he walked.  “There’s one more,” Arya reminded him.  The squire had pulled the knife out of his belly and was trying to stop the blood with his hands. When the Hound yanked him upright, he screamed and started to blubber like a baby. “Mercy,” he wept, “please. Don’t kill me. Mother have mercy.”  “Do I look like your bloody mother?” The Hound looked like nothing human. “You killed this one too,” he told Arya. “Pricked him in his bowels, that’s the end of him. He’ll be a long time dying, though.”  The boy didn’t seemed to hear him. “I came for the girls,” he whimpered. “... make me a man, Polly said... oh, gods, please, take me to a castle... a maester, take me to a maester, my father’s got gold... it was only for the girls... mercy, ser.”  The Hound gave him a crack across the face that made him scream again. “Don’t call me ser.” He turned back to Arya. “This one is yours, she-wolf. You do it.”  She knew what he meant. Arya went to Polliver and knelt in his blood long enough to undo his swordbelt. Hanging beside his dagger was a slimmer blade, too long to be a dirk, too short to be a man’s sword... but it felt just right in her hand.  “You remember where the heart is?” the Hound asked.  She nodded. The squire rolled his eyes. “Mercy.”  Needle slipped between his ribs and gave it to him.  “Good.” Sandor’s voice was thick with pain. “If these three were whor............
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