The story so far:

Chapter 1: An Exchange of Hands

One Month Later, in the Port of Caffe, in the Republic of Davneros

It was beautiful and shiny and red. It was sitting snugly on the top of a barrel full of apples in the market, looking at her, talking to her, beckoning her to caress it with her slender fingers. She imagined the juicy sweetness on her tongue, the crisp crunch against her teeth. She had to have it
Sansa could not clearly remember what happened after that. She vaguely remembered the feel of something in her hand, then running, falling, being struck again and again until she tasted blood on her lips. She did not even try to fight back, just as she did not fight back when Joffrey had ordered her beaten black and blue at King’s Landing. She was too much a lady…curse it all

    She couldn’t process everything that was happening. They had caught her, that was all she knew, and they were going to make her pay. They were dragging her forward, shouting and spitting at her. They accused her all at once; they convicted her within minutes. They shoved her down hard among some crates.

    A burly butcher pulled out his meat cutting blade. Sansa whimpered and buried her face in the crate as they yanked out her hand. She was too petrified even to scream, just waiting for the cutting of flesh and bone…

    “Stop!” Tyrion shouted, in an authoritative voice that belied his lowly attire as shuffled across the street, stubbornly squeezing his way through the crowd. Only his smallness of size enabled him to successfully do so. But he was still high born at heart, and could not manage to dispense with his habitual manners, expecting his words to be heeded so easily. “Gods’ teeth, what’s this about?”

    Oh, why did he always follow her when she went out? He tried not to let on, but he always did, and she had always found it rather irksome…until now.

    “What is it to you?” one of them sneered, twisting her arm a little to demonstrate their power over her.

     “Take your filthy hand off my lady,” he growled.

     They all cackled at this. “Your lady, dwarf?”

     Tyrion’s eyes narrowed. “She is under my protection,” he stated firmly.

     “Aww, your pillow girl,” the butcher mocked. “You must have paid a hard fare for this one to keep your bed warm.”

     Tyrion turned red with rage, but controlled himself. “What has she done?” he asked in a measured tone.

   “It turns out your little comforter is a thief.”

   “Thief…of what?” he demanded hoarsely, his eyes meeting Sansa’s for the first time. They were shot through with terror.

    “Look-y here!!” someone in the crowd shouted, waving aloft the “evidence” of a bruised apple.

    Tyrion grimaced.

      “She’s starving,” he blurted, trying to mask the tremor in his voice. “Can’t you see she’s starving?”

    And it was all his fault. If he were not a dwarf, he would not be passed up for work, and she could eat as freely as she wanted. The two of them had barely been able to keep body and soul together for all his efforts.

     But the difference was that while he could bear up against the hunger well enough, she could not. Yes, her face pleaded for him to understand she could not. He had never felt so small, so helpless, as he did looking into her frightened eyes.

     “Just ignore the half-thing and get on with it,” someone in the crowd egged on the butcher.

     “Wait, stop!” Tyrion’s order hissed through his teeth, clenched against the cruelty towards a hunger-wracked child. “I said she was under my protection, so…the crime should be on my head. The punishment should fall on me.”

     Sansa’s jaw dropped.

     “What…?” the butcher drawled, accompanied by a hyena-like chorus of laughter.

     “I said you should do your work on me,” he affirmed.

     “Are you calling your dwarf hand a good exchange for this…soft, tender thing?” The butcher lifted Sansa’s hand, and started stroking it sadistically.

     “My hand is as much a loss to me as hers would be to her,” he reasoned, forcing down his temper with a super-human effort. Really, he wanted to swear every salty word he knew, and hack the butcher apart with his own tool. But he had to win this point. So he decided to change tactics slightly. “Wouldn’t you like to find out how loud a dwarf can scream?” he challenged with a cynical smirk. “Well…now’s your best opportunity.”

     There was a pause, as if everyone could not believe that he could actually be jesting at a moment such as this, and then there was an uproar, and then…they unanimously seemed to decide to take him up on his offer. And then there was chaos. Sansa was shoved roughly to the side, and Tyrion put in her place among the crates.

    Faced with this impending reality, he tried to focus on the good points. Firstly, he had the full intention not to scream at all, and thus cheat them of their sport. Secondly…well, he was used to being gawked at; he could handle it. But it would kill Sansa, self-conscious, fragile thing that she was. Thirdly…he’d come up with something later…but right now…all he knew was that she had just screamed and fallen into a faint. And he saw the blade uplifted, glistening in the pale sun of winter…

     “Hold, butcher,” came a woman’s deep voice, thick with a wanderer’s accent. She face was wrinkled with age, yet her eyes were clear, and her back was straight as a reed. She moved through the crowd without struggling, as the pedestrians quickly gave her right of way. Tyrion let out the breath he hadn’t known he’d been holding. What in the name of the Seven was going on?

     “This last minute change of plans is becoming slightly redundant,” he remarked in an effort to be nonchalant.

     “I wouldn’t complain, little man,” she reprimanded him out of the corner of her mouth.

     “I’m not exactly complaining, just making a very pointed observation,” he shot back, saucily. “Perhaps it’s just me, but I do believe these gallant executors of the law are growing quite vexed at the constant interruptions.”

     “Shut up, dwarf,” the butcher snapped. Then he turned to the woman. “What is it you want, Sauriel?”

    Why the hell were they being so deferential towards her?

    “I am here to pay for the bruised apple.” She pulled out three coins and placed them on the crate, next to Tyrion’s outstretched hand. They were special coins…fortune telling coins. They had symbols on them. He grimaced as he made out a lion, a wolf, and an apple. Did she know?

     “Don’t you put a hex on me, woman!” the butcher blurted taking a step back.

     “It is no hex,” she countered coolly. “I offer you a fair exchange for my neighbors.”

     Tyrion blinked. Neighbors? Wait…yes, perhaps she was the one living in the apothecary shop at the corner of the street. Then she was…a healer?

    “I cast symbols of good fortune in exchange for their pardon,” she continued.  “The wolf is a survivor of the winter, the lion a provider of sustenance, and the apple is wisdom for eternity.”

     Tyrion exhaled. Coincidence, or…?

     “…or I could take the coins back.”

     The butcher looked visibly disconcerted by that idea. “The last curse you laid killed a dog that had attacked the blacksmith’s child. Would you ruin my business?”

     “The dog destroyed itself through malice, as you will do this day if you refuse my coins,” she countered. The crowd made garbled noises in response to the ominous prediction. She turned to the fruit seller whose apple had been stolen. “And the same will fall upon you!”

      Tyrion felt the urge to make a plucky remark about the superstitions of this country…but restrained himself. Best to let things play out as they are.

    The butcher spit out of the side of his mouth. “Enough with the dramatics. I’m willing to let it go if the others are. My stall wasn’t robbed; I’m merely doing my civic duty…”

     “I’ve had enough m’self,” the fruit seller conceded. “Let ‘em go.”

     The butcher finally unhanded Tyrion, who made his way over to the unconscious Sansa. “M’lady,” he murmured, then bit his lip, seeing the bruises and lacerations on her face. Memories of Joffrey welled up in his mind, and his father, and his sister. Oh, he wanted to kill them all so much.

     “Butcher, help get m’lady off the street,” he ordered.

     At first the stocky man just cackled.

     “Do as he says, butcher,” Sauriel intoned. Grumbling, the butcher obeyed, and scooped her up into her muscular arms. Tyrion swallowed hard. He wanted to be able to do that…to carry her to safety like a real man would do, to feel the strength of protecting her with his body. What was wrong with him?

     It was not a long walk from the market square to the side street cellar in which Tyrion and Sansa had been hiding. It was cold and damp inside, but at least it had managed to shield them from the frigid gales blowing in from the harbor, and the lashing white whip of the snow. The butcher dumped her in the corner as if she were a sack of potatoes. Something twisted inside Tyrion. It would be natural enough for people to treat him like that…but she…she was beautiful…she was a lady…

     “You’ve had your sport, now get your maggot-ridden carcass away from her!” He pointed authoritatively to the entry.

     He shrugged. “Do you fancy this to be your castle, dwarf?”

     Tyrion wanted to say that he had indeed been accustomed to living in castles, was of noble birth, and could have him flayed if he continued his insolence. But of course he knew he couldn’t, so he bore up with the man’s laughter as he skulked back outside.

    Tyrion’s gaze turned back towards the unconscious Sansa, who was now being tended by this strange woman Sauriel who knew far too much for his liking. Still, he was glad someone was taking care of her, as the mob had battered her quite badly, and he feared how she might react if he tried to touch her. Paradoxically, their relationship had grown even more distant after their encounter on the cliff, when Sansa had demonstrated some care for his welfare by risking his wrath in order to save him.

    But now Tyrion still could not forgive himself for what almost happened. His knife, with her blood on it…he could never forget that horrible image. He might have killed her easily enough in that moment of ferocity, and spent the rest of his life destroying himself over it. Now he was afraid to acknowledge whatever reason she might have had for saving him, and afraid of growing too close to her. He was not right inside himself; he might hurt her again. Best to keep away.

    Indeed, for the past month of exile in Davneros, he had been very careful about keeping his physical distance from her, even though they shared the same small grated cellar. He wanted to make sure she had her own space, and felt free to go where she wanted…even if he did follow after her at a distance for protection’s sake. He did not want her to feel imprisoned by his presence. Indeed, he was most often out, scrounging about for some mud-laden, filth-splattered job in the streets or in the docks, while she remained hidden in the hovel, curled up in the corner with a single blanket trying to keep warm. He was insistent that they should not be seen together outside.

     Now he watched silently as Sauriel pulled down Sansa’s rough peasant’s dress to check the bruises on her shoulders. He had a hard time tearing away his gaze; his time spent among prostitutes had done nothing to quell his weakness for naked beauty displayed in front of him. But he fought off the gaping impulse and focused instead of her face. He noticed a trickle of blood on her trembling lower lip. He suddenly had the impulsive yearning to kiss the blood away, and let the heat of his breath take the pain away from her. He clenched his fists very, very tight. Stop lusting for her. She’s only a child. Stop…

     Sauriel seemed to sense his inner struggle and snapped her gaze on him. “She is very beautiful. And you are a man, living in this place alone with her, in the dead of winter. But she is still a virgin.” She rested her hand on Sansa’s abdomen indicatively.

     “What of it?” he snapped, uncertain what these observations were intended to prove.

     “So you must care for her very much.” She squinted. “What binds you to her?”

     He thought of lying outright, but determined this old woman was crafty enough to read through even his polished cunning. No, he would have to word the truth in a way that would not give away too much. “She has lost her family, though she is still only a child,” he explained simply. “I am her sole guardian. It is a matter of necessity not feeling.”

    The woman cackled. “I know men; say whatever you fancy, little man, but your eyes can never lay away your love for her.”

    He let his eyes wander to Sansa’s sleeping form, then snapped them back on Sauriel, his patience running thin. “I am sworn to keep us both alive until we can return…from whence we came.” He stopped himself from going further, although he sensed that the old woman knew far more about them than she was letting on.

    “To avenge old wounds?” Yes, she was reading him well….too well.

    “I don’t see how it’s any of your affair,” he growled. “Indeed, I don’t know why you’re here at all.”

     “Perhaps I was sent.”

     “To sell us off, or slit our throats?” he blurted. Damn. What made him say all that? Too much information…it had been too long of a day…

     Sauriel sighed heavily. “If you don’t learn to trust someone aside from yourself, you are going to die, and so is she. She needs medicine, and food, and another woman to care for her…”

     “I…cannot trust,” he hissed. “I have been given no reason to trust.”

     “And I am not able to give you a reason,” she responded. “You must take that risk for her sake. You must find the courage to dare it.”

     “I have dared enough in my life,” he whispered. “It never ends well.”

     The old woman looked at him, through him. “This world can be a place of great cruelty, but also great kindness. You must never let the ravages of the one overtake the flowering of the other in your mind.”

     He shrugged, which suddenly caused him to shiver slightly. He hated that; he hated seeming weak. “My mind has armor, old woman. It can deal with the wars of this world, cut through them, and come out the victor still.”

     “But can you handle the war within?” she questioned pointedly. “There are wolves at war in the heart of every man, lords of darkness and light, and in every choice we make, one or the other gains a victory. Be careful, for give too many victories to the one, and you will become him.”

    “I live as I must,” he stated in a measured tone, “by cruelty or kindness, whichever may serve me best.”

    “And did it serve you best to offer your hand for the sake of the girl?”

     He turned his eyes to the ground, and mumbled in a low tone, “I told you, I must care for her…I have to care for her, and I can only trust myself with such a task….no matter the cost. Once this task is accomplished, I shall put away such acts for good and turn to a role that suits me far better…” His own menacing words seemed to slice him inside, and he spit out, “Does every man know the full reasons why he does a given thing?”

     She shook her head solemnly, conceding the truth of his words. “Least of all you, little man.” She stood up to leave. “Before I go, I ask you remember one thing.”

     He rolled his eyes. “Yes, woman?”

     “It is the fool who takes a knife out to stab it into another,” she stated, “but it is the wise one takes the knife, cuts the cord, and frees himself from the fools. Staying alive is not enough, not for her, or for you. It is what you are living for that matters.” She gazed at the unconscious girl with a look of compassion, and then added to Tyrion, “You know where to find me if I am needed.”

    Then she was gone, leaving Tyrion to watch over his own broken lady and face up to his own inner darkness.

Avellina Balestri (aka Rosaria Marie) is one of the founding members and the Editor-in-Chief of The Fellowship of the King, a literary magazine with a strong Tolkienite influence (which, by the way, is open to submissions). She reads and writes extensively, and eagerly seeks out the deeper spiritual significance of popular fandoms such as The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, Star Trek, Star Wars, and The Hunger Games. And yes, she does have a soft spot in her heart for classic Disney movies, The Princess Bride, and Merlin 😉 She is also a recording artist, singing traditional folk songs and her own compositions as well as playing the penny whistle and bodhran drum. She draws her inspiration from the Ultimate Love and Source of Creativity, and hopes to share that love and creativity with others.