Lyanna’s words still echoed through his mind.
It has been so long.
So long. She’d looked so young, standing there before him in the crypt, ghostly white, as beautiful as he remembered. But of course she was young. She’d been unchanged for all those years he’d spent growing soft and fat and old. It was a wonder she’d still recognised him.
I can’t help but worry. You look so unhappy, yet I must add to that misery.
Unhappy? Did he look so to her? Everyone spoke of jolly old King Robert. But Lyanna was different. She had always been different.
He’d tried to reach towards her, but she’d danced away with such grace.
Dancing through Winterfell. That was what he’d thought when he’d first caught Ned’s daughters talking about his Lyanna, huddled closely together, whispering among themselves and casting furtive glances in his direction. At one point Ned’s redhead daughter frowned with such worry at him that he’d had to ask.
‘What’s the matter with you two?’
‘I… Your Grace… It is not a matter that is… I mean, things are sometimes different in the north, Your Grace. We have tales of the Others, and wargs, and greenseers, and direwolves. None of them true anymore, of course,’ she said, looking down at her fucking huge direwolf.
‘The Ghost of Winterfell, Your Grace… And… It must have been a trick of the light. She was but a flash of blue by the crypt, and I only thought… I thought she had a crown of blue roses in her hair, and I…’
He’d hoped, then. And he’d thought, perhaps, when he saw Ned’s younger daughter glancing to the side at times and blanching at some unseen horror throughout the serving of lemon cakes. But it wasn’t until he was making his way back to his chambers after the feast, ready for an earful from Cersei for disappearing with a pretty kitchen wench that he’d made up his mind. Ned’s boy had slammed right into him then with a muffled scream.
‘Bran? Shouldn’t you be abed? Did the dog not tuck you in well enough?’
‘I… Yes… I was woken by a woman chanting outside my window. I tried to follow her but she… she walked through the wall, Your Grace.’
‘… What did she look like, boy?’
‘She had dark hair and grey eyes, like father, and was floating across the courtyard in a blue dress. She had some blue roses in her hair as well, but no cloak, so I thought she might be cold, Your Grace.’
‘Where did she go?’
The boy had pointed in the general vicinity of the crypt.
And there, he’d found her.
Please don’t be angry.
She’d known he’d be angry.
Please be kind to the children. They do not know.
The children. Were they even his? He’d often wondered how he’d sired a son who didn’t love him. Perhaps he hadn’t. He slammed his fist against the table.
No. It would not do.
Please be kind to the children. They do not know.
She’d known he’d be tempted not to. He rubbed his eyes and picked up the quill once more. It felt foreign in his hands, for he had taken to dictating all his letters, but these letters were not suitable for the ears of any scribe.
One letter to the High Septon. Two letters to Casterly Rock, and another two to Highgarden. Two would end up in flames, and two in the rookery, depending on how this morning played out.
You look so unhappy.
There’d been no curtsies and no Your Grace from her.
The game makes me unhappy, Lyanna.
He was made for the game of hooves and hammers, not the game of thrones.
Must it be this way?
And finally, a raven to Dorne.
It has been so long.
It had been too long.
‘Your Grace?’ His page hovered at the door, as if unsure whether he’d really find Robert in Winterfell’s library like he’d been told.
‘Yes, yes, in here,’ said Robert.
‘I’ve brought the Hound, like you asked, Your Grace,’ said the boy.
‘Good,’ he said, and waved the boy away. ‘Clegane! You’re looking bright and cheerful this morning!’
He wondered if he looked even worse than the Lannister dog this morning. Very possible, considering he had not slept since the meeting in the crypt.
Sandor Clegane grunted a response.
‘Did you enjoy your night off? Find yourself a bitch to warm your bed?’
The burnt corner of Clegane’s mouth twitched. ‘She was not much of a lady.’
Robert gave a hearty laugh as a response and moved onto business.
‘Tell me Clegane,’ he said, ‘who pays you these days?’
Clegane’s face became an expressionless mask. ‘I am the Prince’s sworn shield, Your Grace. My stipend comes from the Crown.’
‘So I pay you,’ he said.
It earned him a nod.
‘How do you like being Joffrey’s sworn shield, Clegane?’
‘The Queen appointed me, Your Grace. It is an honour, Your Grace.’
‘And how is Joffrey? Is it an honour to the realm to have him as the future king?’
‘The realm has seen better,’ said the Lannister dog, ‘and the realm has seen worse.’
‘And me? The realm has seen better,’ said Robert with a laugh, ‘and the realm has seen worse?’
‘We all do what we must, Your Grace.’
What was it that Sandor Clegane must do? Loyalty and Servitude: those were the words of House Clegane. Would the Lannister dog be more loyal to Casterly Rock or to the Crown? It would be so easy to answer with the former, but sometimes he wasn’t sure.
Robert ran a hand through his hair. No more hunting today, and no more drinking tonight. The dark thoughts that came the blood and wine wasn’t pumping through him needed to be pushed back by other types of amusement. He wondered if he could break through Clegane’s mask of indifference today, and if so, would it be as amusing as he imagined?
‘Sandor Clegane,’ he said, ‘from this day forth you are relieved from your duties as Joffrey’s sworn shield. I’m giving him Blount in exchange. Or would he rather have Trant? Hells, let’s throw in Trant as well! He can have both of them!’
A small frown passed over Clegane’s face. Gods, it was truly an ugly face. At length, the ugly mouth on that ugly face moved and said, ‘Your Grace, you’ve only brought three of your Kingsguards from King’s Landing.’
‘And that’s three too many. Tell me Clegane, how many men do you have following you around and guarding you? I faced Rhaegar Targaryen himself at the Trident, the Others take him, and I crushed him with my warhammer. Can Boros Blount or Meryn Trant do the same?’ He snorted. He had been great in that moment, and he would regain that greatness. ‘Joffrey can have them, and in return, you…’
The temptation was too great to resist.
‘How do you feel about the white cloak?’ he said, watching for any flickers of more extreme anger in that half-melted face. ‘No taking of land. You don’t want to inherit your brother’s keep anyway. No taking of a wife, or fathering of children. Not something you’d wish for either.’
Clegane avoided the question again, and instead said, ‘Killing is the sweetest thing there is, Your Grace. But I will take no vows.’
Robert felt his insides tremble with laughter. There were opportunities to kill a plenty working as Joffrey’s sworn shield, yet the dog was drowning in sour red to get by, as much as he was himself. He shook his head. ‘This will not do. No white cloak for you, Hound. You can marry whichever unlucky bugger’s daughter you’d like. I’ll give you no titles, but I will give you more coin to line your pockets. Instead of guarding my son, you are to drag me out into the courtyard every damned morning at first light. You are to swear at me if that’s what’s needed. You are to train me until I am able to grind at least five members of my precious Kingsguard into the dust once again. Here, there’s a piece of paper to give you leave to do so. Just make sure you don’t run me through, and your head will stay on your shoulders.’
‘Surely there is someone better for the job?’ said the dog.
‘Who? All those other prancing cravens will never dare to land a blow on their king. And the Kingslayer? I’d rather not give him the opportunity to slay another king. It’s going to be you, Clegane,’ Robert commanded. ‘I can’t imagine many others able to say fuck the king, but I believe you have it in you. Oh, and one other thing… I will be giving up my indulgence in sour red. Two cups a day.’
‘Surely you don’t want me to enforce that, Your Grace.’
‘Of course not.’ Robert chuckled, knowing what was to come. ‘Your king will not suffer alone. Two cups a day, Clegane.’
The mask on Clegane’s face finally shattered. ‘You don’t mean…’
‘It’s all written here in this decree,’ he said, pushing the parchment across the table. ‘Says right here, in the name of Robert of the House Baratheon, the First of his Name, King of the Andals and other sorry buggers who have me as king, followed by a bunch of titles. Thank me for still allowing us two cups each day.’
Clegane took the parchment and broke into a tirade of curses.
Robert smiled. He felt young again, back to the times when Jon Arryn would beseech him not to addle on the sons of other lords in the Vale, not to play tricks on Ned.
Ned. Ned would be next. The tiredness of the previous night was gone. He was going to wipe that solemn, lordly look right off of Ned’s face.
Being surrounded by beautiful women had never been worse.
Ned’s uptight Tully wife stared at him with eyes as deserving of the name Ice as Ned’s ancestral sword did. No wonder they were happy together, with five loving children to prove it, and another on the way. That woman was sure to look personally offended once he voiced his proposal. Not one for japes, that one. And she’d only see the jape in it all.
On his other side, Cersei sat rod straight with a constipated look, as if she had something rammed up her arse. Jaime’s cock, for example.
The Kingslayer stood to the side, looking as smug as ever. If Robert punched out all his teeth, would Tywin Lannister replace them with ones made of gold?
Finally, his children filed in to the Great Hall, all three as golden as no Baratheon has ever been. A smirk so like Jaime’s, though far crueller, was carved across Joffrey’s face. Robert sighed. He’d once hoped that his eldest son was merely like a caterpillar, and would one day transform into a passable moth. Now that Joffrey was a man of seventeen, less than two years younger than Ned was when the weight of Winterfell fell on his good friend’s shoulders, he could see that Joffrey would never transform into what he’d hoped for, because Joffrey was but a worm.
With another sigh, he clapped his hands together and turned to his friend.
‘Now that everyone’s here, let’s settle things once and for all! There have been too many words between us already, and you know I’ve never been one to settle things through discussion, Ned.’
‘And what… are we here to settle, Your Grace?’
‘Come now. I know you don’t want to accept the position of Hand. I know you’ll hate it, probably enough to kill you. And I know you’ll say yes if I command you to. I’m king, and you’re Warden of the North. I could just settle this with my final word, but I won’t,’ he said. ‘You want to stay for your family, you say? For your daughters, your sons?’
‘There must always be a Stark in Winterfell,’ said Ned.
This was where Robert would usually argue that Robb was old enough to rule Winterfell, and the rest of the Starks could all travel south with him. This time, he nodded and said, ‘Let’s settle it through our daughters and sons then.
‘You would… ask their opinion?’
‘I said I’m sick of talking. There will be no asking. I demand trial by combat!’
Ned’s lordly face slipped, and for a moment he looked as confused as he used to in the Vale before he’d step into one of Robert’s well-disguised dung pits. Ned’s lady wife couldn’t keep her courtesies in place either, and her mouth fell open like that of the leaping trout on her Tully coat of arms.
As no one spoke, Robert continued, feeling inspired, ‘Now it’s your family’s duty to do you honour. I’d go for a trial by seven, but you’re still a little short of that, and I’m nowhere near it, so we’ll do a trial by three. Your youngest three against my youngest three.’
Rather, his only three. And Robert knew that his three, if they were even his, would never stand a chance against Ned’s oldest three.
‘A trial by… combat?’
‘Just a way of speaking. A trial by strength, if you will. A Ghiscari-wrestling match. If yours win, I’ll call off the betrothal and find… another arrangement for Joffrey. I’ll also find myself another Hand. You’ll still travel with me back to King’s Landing to celebrate the appointment of the new Hand and act as a temporary advisor to the throne, but you’ll be back to freeze your arse off in a moon or two. If mine win, you’re coming with me, and we’ll hold a tournament to celebrate your Sansa’s betrothal to my Joffrey as soon as we get there. Get everything set up in the courtyard. We’ll start within the hour.’
Robert could have sworn that Ned’s younger daughter, the one that resembled Brandon Stark with her wild hair and wild eyes, frowned with disappointment that she’d just lost the chance to run Joffrey through with a sword.
‘Yes, your Grace?’
‘You’d better not be thinking of commissioning that blacksmith to make you a bigger cup.’
‘Two cups, sized like any normal buggering cups. Anything more is treason. Got it?’
‘... I was just about to check on Princess Myrcella, as she looks to be in shock.’
‘You go do that.’