Nights were the hardest. There was nothing to fill them, if sleep would not come. He tried to turn to his sour red, an old friend that could fill his belly with warmth, and that was close enough to his heart, but the wolf was there. The wolf was always there these days, and if not, then it’d be traces of her mistress, sending a hot bath into his room. Wolf and mistress: at times one and the same.
The wolf had taken his hand into its jaws, not ungently, as much as a wolf could considering the size of her fangs, and had tugged him towards the door.
‘What do you want?’
‘You want me to walk you like a fucking dog?’
A wag of her tail.
So they fell into a routine, of sorts, which the solider in him craved and needed; she’d come every evening, and they’d go for their walk, him in front and her padding behind, until the darkest of this thoughts melted away into the night air, and then they’d return to his room, where she’d lay at the foot of his bed, and he’d fall into some sort of a sleep, slowing his breaths to match hers.
Tonight, they ventured out of the Red Keep, keeping to the darkest, most abandoned alleys of King’s Landing. Others feared to set foot here, but what did the Hound with a direwolf have to fear?
They turned a corner, and two men staggered through into the alley in front of him from another road, one balding and the other with unkempt blond hair, arms hooked around each other. He was sure he’d seen them before.
Once they bored of singing a hardly-recognisable version of ‘The Dornishman’s Wife’, they switched to ‘When Willum's Wife Was Wet’, followed by ‘Meggett Was a Merry Maid, a Merry Maid Was She’. Bawdy sailing songs. Ah yes. They were Stannis’s men. Sailors, both. He’d seen them with the onion knight.
Running out of tunes, the blond one said to the other, ‘A reachman, a valeman, a northman and a westerman walk into a tavern. The wench sees they’re all newly married, and asks them, “How did you meet your wives?” The reachman says, “Oh, I saw her from afar, played her some songs on my high harp and told her how beautiful she is, and she became mine.” The valeman says, “She’s been intended for me for twelve generations. Her bloodline is most noble, as is my own.” The northman says, “I stole her.” Finally, the westerman says, “That all sounds like a lot of trouble. I just popped out of my mama’s womb with mine.”’
The balding one howled with laughter, and, once he caught his breath, he said, ‘That’s a shit joke.’
‘Oooooouuuu… Look who has high standards these days!’
‘My standards are so fucking high these days, that the only hands I want to raise my mast are Lady Sansa’s!’
Sandor tensed in spite of himself. Those cunts meant no harm. It was just how they talked, soldiers and sailors both.
‘Careful of that one! She’s a witch!’
‘Prettiest witch I’ve seen,’ said the balding one. ‘I’d let her give me a happy death.’
‘Fuck off,’ said the blond one, stealing the words right out of Sandor’s mouth. ‘You tell a better joke then.’
‘All right. Listen to this one. What do you call a westerman whose sister’s just died?’ Without missing a beat, he said, ‘A widower.’
Fuck this. The last time Sandor’d heard this joke, it had been, ‘What do you call a reachman who’s lost his sheep?’ Thanks to Cersei, the in-bred westermen jokes were going to dominate sheep-shagging reachmen jokes for some time.
‘Now that,’ said the bald cunt, once the laughter had died down, ‘is a joke worthy of a glance at Lady Sansa’s teats!’
‘Stop speaking of Lady Sansa’s teats,’ said the blond one. ‘You’ve hardly even caught a look at her hair. Do you even know what colour her eyes are?’
Bluer than the seas those cunts sailed on.
‘No, but I know her teats are soft.’
‘If you carry on like that, the Hound’s going to cut your tongue right out. You’ll end up like Ilyne Payne, you will!’
‘Fuck that. That’s one ugly mug I do not want to see in a dark alley. He’s not going to be here, is he? I sure as fuck wouldn’t, not with the champion’s purse and a new lordship. I’d go to Chataya’s and tell them to bring out all her girls!’
It had been tempting, when he’d considered the wine, and gods he needed… Needed something. But the little bird had slipped away from her father to change the dressing on his arm, slicing up the remains of her ruined blue dress. The thought of a whore, or anyone else, touching her silks made his stomach turn.
‘As if the Hound’s going to find anything that looks half as appealing as Lady Sansa in Chataya’s!’ The other said with a snort, stumbling over a stone at the same time. ‘The blonde wench – what’s her name again? – has dyed her hair red now, you know?’
‘True enough! Who needs a dyed whore when you can bury yourself in the real thing whenever you’d like? If half my face is the price for that honour, then burn me right now!’
There was a small whimper behind him, and Sandor turned to find the wolf’s head tilted gently to the side. Her mouth hung half-open, her snout was crinkled, and her eyes were so wide that they were in danger of popping out of their sockets.
Something about such a human expression on the face of a creature that should have been a majestic beast made Sandor bark with laughter for the first time since the tournament.
The cunts turned and saw him.
‘I didn’t mean… I… I… I’d never lay a hand on your lady,’ they stammered.
And that was when they saw the direwolf behind him.
The bald cunt screamed like a whore who’d taken Joff’s gold and legged it. The blond cunt pissed himself, and when he turned to run, he slammed himself into the wall and slid to the ground.
He’d known of those rumours for some time now, and had wondered, from now and again, how things would go if she was to ever find out.
The wolf’s wide-eyed surprise was still plastered on her face. She padded over to him, looked up, and sank down to her haunches with a bump.
‘That went well,’ he said.
Days were easier. He never thought he’d be thankful for a title, but with his lordship came a fuck load of things to do and people to see, so that he didn’t have to think upon the things that lurked in the fire, and people that were dead but not gone.
There were other things to do too, people who might need him. And the green stocking that the little bird had made him for Pact Day had been filling up with packages wrapped in brown paper from the wolf pack. Handmade presents or simple trinkets, they’d said; thing that’d mean something. The she-wolf’s present, whatever it might be, worried him, simply because she’d worn such a wide grin when she’d given it to him, and told him that he couldn’t possibly imagine what was inside. He’d taken it out of the stocking many times, weighed it in his hands, bent it a little to test what it might be. It must be a notebook, he decided, which did little to reassure him.
What was even less assuring was that he didn’t have a fucking clue what to give them in return.
Today, he’d told all his lordly duties to fuck off, and he’d spend the whole day out of the Red Keep.
‘Do you have permission from the k–’ The cunt of a Tyrell guard froze as soon as he realised exactly whose footsteps he’d been hearing. ‘My… my lord… Let… let me open the door for you.’
A peal of laughter escaped from the room, or cage, in truth, where Myrcella was being kept. At the sound of it, he froze too. Nobody should be here apart from the former princess; he’d seen the way that most lords and ladies averted their eyes at the sight of her now, and worse, some looked at her as if she was worth less than the mud on their shoes. The world was awful. But once again, someone had forgotten to tell the little bird, who was right there, braiding beads into Myrcella’s hair. Her eyes met his, and she turned the same shade of pink as her dress.
Tommen was there too, sitting on the bed, as the room lacked other chairs. He held a folded piece of gold cloth on his lap, as if he didn’t know what to do with it. It looked suspiciously like the gaudy gifts that the king had showed him earlier: presents from the Freys, perhaps in hopes that the new queen Margaery would wear on her wedding day.
‘See here, Clegane?’ the king’d said, showing him an ugly pair of children holding hands, embroidered in silver threads on the gold. ‘This is supposed to represent the Twins. For once, I have to say that this looks worse than the damned fool himself.’
‘Are they supposed to be old men?’ he’d said in response. ‘Thought they were children.’
‘Children?! They are bald…’
‘As are children, after they contract lice. They look unhappy enough to be afflicted with lice. Why are their eyes red?’
‘Because they are rubies,’ said the king, throwing the cloth at him. ‘Must be worth a damned fortune. That’s real cloth of gold, right there.’
He tried to pass it back, only for the king to pass it back again. ‘Take it away. Margaery says looking at it makes her sick.’
‘Why are you trying to pass it onto me?’
The king looked him up and down. ‘Clegane, it pains me to say so,’ he said, looking far from in pain, ‘but it seems that you only own three tunics and one doublet. They’re all plain and brown, as far as I can remember, except for that red tunic you’ve got with a dog on it. I thought you wouldn’t know what an ugly item of clothing was if it hit you in the face. It’s a damned relief to know that’s not the case.’ The king took back the cloth of gold and carried on, ‘Now, what have you got to wear to my wedding? And don’t say your fucking armour. I’m not having it.’
‘The doublet, Your Grace.’
‘There are going to be manservants better dressed than you on the day. I swear, Clegane, if you come to my wedding dressed in that damned brown thing, I will make you sing a fucking duet with that tenor we’re bringing in. Hells, I’ll make you perform the part of the fucking woodharp. Just buy yourself a new doublet. If you’re not sure which one to pick, take someone with you. Someone who knows how to dress themselves. Got it?’
‘Good! Now… this bloody cloth…’
‘Might be you’d like to throw it at the Westerlings. They’d take it off your hands, no matter how ugly, as long as it’s made of gold.’
But apparently the king had found other uses for the cloth.
‘Is it from your father?’ he asked Myrcella.
‘Oh no,’ said Myrcella, flashing him a smile that disappeared all too quickly, ‘it’s from Lady Olenna. She said she thought we might want something… special… to wear to… to… on the morrow should the fancy take us.’ She didn’t need to mention what was to happen on the morrow. ‘It looks like a giant shroud,’ she said under her breath.
Perhaps it was supposed to. Perhaps the Queen of Thorns had turned the ugly cloth into a threat. What else could it be? After all, bastards weren’t even allowed to dress in silks, much less cloths of gold. There was no need to say so. Everyone in the room already knew. Instead, he said, ‘Where’s Joff?’
‘He’s run off again,’ said Myrcella. ‘He said he didn’t need the guards to keep him safe. I couldn’t stop him…’
Fuck. Anyone could see that the guards weren’t there to keep off threats against the three of them now that everyone knew they were bastards, though that was how the Tyrells were spinning it. No, the guards were there to watch them, to judge whether they’d be a threat to the new queen, especially when she was yet to produce a trueborn heir. Best to act meek, harmless and stupid. Perhaps something good could have come of it too. Perhaps Joff could realise what a cunt he’d become, and turn his life around. But from the looks of it, he’d taken to screaming at the Tyrell guards and threatening the Imp instead.
‘I must take my leave soon to meet with Lady… Whent,’ said the little bird, still looking a shade pinker than normal. ‘I will look for him on my way there.’
‘No,’ he said. ‘He should know better than to hurt you again, little bird, but…’ But this was Joff, and he knew Joff all too well. Joff wouldn’t understand, wouldn’t believe that his past princely status would excuse him no longer, that for a bastard to strike a lady of the little bird’s status would make him join his mother for the chop on the morrow. ‘No. I will look for him later in the day. But first, Myrcella, Tommen, we are spending the day in the city. Find something with a hood. I’ve had the stable boys saddle the horses already.’
The fresh air would do them good. Take their minds off of Ilyn Payne’s blade against their mother’s neck. They’d steer clear of the Great Sept of Baelor today.
‘But… my lord…’ said the Tyrell guard, ‘their safety…’
‘Will be surer with me than you.’ He tapped the pommel of his sword. ‘Think any of the rats would dare try me?’
‘N… No, my lord. Only… His Grace…’
‘Has tasked me with buying a new doublet,’ he said. ‘And he’s recommended having other pairs of eyes advise me on my choice before I hand over the gold. They’re going to be those eyes.’
‘But... my lord–’
‘Oh, that sounds lovely,’ said the little bird. ‘I will walk with you to the stables. Shall we be on our way? It would be most discourteous of me to be late to the meeting. Perhaps you can accompany me, ser,’ she said, turning to the guard and placing the folded cloth of gold into his arms. ‘The gold and silver in it makes it a little heavy for me to carry. I will attempt to unpick the silver threads this evening. It will make a most beautiful cloak, or if you have no wish to wear it, then we can use it to make a tapestry. It is only the two odd-looking lemons that make the cloth a little… little…’
‘Wait,’ said Sandor. ‘In what world are they lemons?’
She furrowed her brows. ‘I did say they are odd-looking lemons. Most lemons are not so large, and each tree would yield more than one lemon. The lemon tree in Winterfell’s glass garden would yield near to three hundred lemons every–’
‘It has red eyes and a face!’ said Sandor. ‘And you think it’s a tree?’
‘All heart trees do,’ she said.
Still, the corners of his mouth twitched into a smile as he saw her fall into step beside him, in human form this time. How long had it been since he’d last spoken to her? It seemed moons ago, but when he counted the days, only two had passed.
Except… she walked on in silence.
‘Thought you of all people would be used to rumours by now,’ he said. ‘What’s got your tongue, little bird? The guard’s my-lorded me more times than you have this morning.’
‘I… I… It’s not the same. It’s just… I don’t understand how…’
‘How they’d link the likes of me to the likes of you?’ Bitterness crept into his voice before he could stop the words escaping his mouth.
‘No! I just don’t understand how they’d know about…’ She trailed off, leaving only a look of mild horror on her face.
‘Nothing, my lord. I… really must run. Please excuse me, if you please! I will let you know should I come across Joffrey. Good day to you, ser… my lord. And to you too, Myrcella, Tommen.’
She drifted away, and the Tyrell guard trailed behind her.
It was in the stables that he caught sight of Lady Whent. The old bat had just glided off a horse with more grace than most ladies a quarter of her age.
‘Enjoyed the ride?’ said Sandor.
‘It’s the only ride I get to enjoy nowadays,’ she said. ‘I thought about falling off the horse and breaking my neck today, but then I remembered that I still have an heir to train, so I had to tell the Stranger that I won’t be supping with him.’
‘I hope the only Stranger you’ll meet is my horse for many years to come,’ he said. ‘We won’t keep you from your meeting with Lady Sansa.’
‘Oh, I have no plans with her today,’ she said. ‘She said she had some important matters to take care of.’
Lady Whent. She’d said Lady Whent. Had he misheard, or had she misspoken?
But a dog could sniff out a lie, and she’d paused before speaking the old bat’s name.
Stranger tossed his head and stamped his hooves, sniffing out the anger that was threatening to swallow him whole. No. No, no, no. This would not do. The last time he’d mistrusted her, seeing her with the Knight of Flowers, had been one big misunderstanding. He’d not mistrust her again. No.
He took a deep breath, and willed it to melt away. It didn’t do much good.
Today was Myrcella and Tommen’s day. And this would not fucking do.
No Lannister red and gold. No silks beyond their stations. No seamstress sent to their rooms to tailor clothes exactly to their size. But he could buy them fine, dyed wool in other colours that was better-fitting than the brown, rough-spun things they’d been given.
The seamstress in the shop grinned widely at him, or rather the knowledge of his gold.
He bought Myrcella a dress in green to match her eyes, with a thin row of embroidered vines around the bodice and sleeves, and three in different shades of blue that’d never quite replace the one she used to love in satin. For Tommen, he bought the finest woollen tunics the shop had to sell, as long as there was nothing resembling a lion or a stag on it, and a thick, fine cloak in a burgundy so dark that it’d never be mistaken for red.
For himself, he waved aside the silks and velvets, until the seamstress pressed a padded doublet in a dark olive into his hands. There was a faint gold pattern of lilies woven deep into the fabric, so that they were hardly visible from most angles. Sturdy, leather straps made the doublet fasten easily enough around his chest, and there were a few bronze studs down the arms to make it impossible for the king to call is plain. Aye. That would do, if the arms are loosened a little more to make it easier to swing the sword.
‘And… we’ve just had the most beautiful Myrish lace come in in a blue that… um… m’lord might want to see.’
‘What the fuck am I going to do with Myrish…’
One pale blue dress looked much the same as any other, but… that colour of that lace looked far too much like the silks wrapped around his shield arm. He glared at the seamstress, but she merely winked and said, under her breath, ‘We have silks in the same blue. It will look a vision lined in a soft, light, yellow gold, it will. We even have the measurements. We hired the woman who made that dress with Lord Stark’s face, you see.’
They’d said that it should be nothing of great expense, that it’d only need to mean something. But this would mean something too, and it’d likely be the only Pact Day he’d be spending with her. Bugger his gold. It meant nothing to him anyway.
She fell in step beside him when the sun was nearly down, once again in human form.
‘My lord,’ she said. So she’d regained her ability to my-lord the fuck out of every moment. ‘I… I found Joffrey, but he didn’t see me. Did you want to…? He’s at the bottom of the serpentine steps, near the pig yard,’ she said. ‘There is… a serving girl with him, I believe.’
He grunted at that. ‘Leave it with me.’ Then, because he couldn’t keep his bloody mouth shut, he said, ‘Fruitful day for you with Lady Whent, little bird?’
‘I… yes I…’ She clasped and unclasped her hands. Such a bad liar. ‘I… actually met with Lady Margaery.’ To speak of what? Marriage to Highgarden still? ‘She agreed that there was no real need to keep Myrcella and Tommen at the Red Keep if… if another safe location could be found for them. Not in the westerlands, of course, but… somewhere else. Please don’t mention it to Myrcella and Tommen yet, my lord. The king is yet to agree, but I hope… on the morrow, perhaps… Will you… will you speak nothing of it for now?’
He’d not mistrust her again. Didn’t he know her well enough know that by now? Best remember your mistakes, the old Lannister master-at-arms had told once, before they’d marched to war, before he’d killed his first man, because many men won’t live to make the same mistake twice. The master-at-arms hadn’t survived the war; Sandor had, and Sandor remembered. But this wasn’t war, where all a man needed to know was how to kill, how to destroy. Whatever this was, no one had ever shown Sandor the words to speak, the steps to take.
‘Aye, little bird,’ he said, and left her to take her leave.
And aye, Joff was exactly where she said he’d be. His brown, roughspun tunic could do little to dampen the regal way he held himself, and his hair shone as sure as a golden crown. The girl with her, on the other hand, could not have been a true serving girl. Not from the way she held herself and dared look straight into Joff’s face. She might have worn a simple, roughspun gown that matched Joff’s tunic, but there was a silvery hairnet adorned with purple gems among her thick, dark hair that looked out of place.
He yanked her back by her the neck, away from Joff, and she fled towards the kitchens with a squeal. Good riddance.
‘What the fuck do you think you’re doing?’ he growled.
‘Dog! I should ask you the same. Whose dog are you now these days?’ said Joff, slurring his words in a way he knew too well. ‘Working for the roses now? A dog sniffing after the flowers?’
‘I’m my own dog now, and you should be asking that of the girl,’ he said, and lifted Joff from the ground until they were eye-to-eye, until he was close enough to smell the boy’s wine-sour breath. Boy. That was what Joff had always been, and still was, despite having lived a year longer than the little bird. Joff had never stepped out from behind his mother’s skirts. But the boy that Joff was, unlike Tommen, had never flinched from Sandor’s scars. Joff didn’t now, unfocused as his green eyes were, and Sandor willed that his words would sink through the boy’s buggering skull. ‘Do you really think they’d let you escape the Tyrell guards if they didn’t want you to? They’ve got other ways to keep an eye on you, if keeping an eye on you is all they want, that is. Where do you think the girl got her hairnet from? Wasn’t from you, I’d wager. Looked like buggering amethysts to me. What did you tell her? That you’ll not suffer your mother’s house being brought so low? That you’ll regain glory for the Lannisters, like Lord Tywin once did? That it’s all one big mistake, and you are still the rightful prince? Did you? And do you think the Tyrells would suffer that? I tell you what they’ll do. They’ll separate your head from the rest of you. That’s what they’ll fucking do.’
‘They… they can’t!’ said Joff. There was fear in his eyes now, even with the wine to dull it. ‘Mother will–’
‘Be losing her own head on the morrow. And if you a man at all, you’d go back to your quarters right now, speak some words of comfort to Myrcella and Tommen, and later, on the morrow, you’d grovel in front of the Tyrells, tell them you were drunk as a dog, tell them you didn’t know what you were talking about, you didn’t mean it, any of it, and tell them it’d never happen again. Then you’d keep your buggering mouth shut until they produce an heir or two of their own, until they start to forget about you. Then, and only then, might they let you out of King’s Landing, let you live a quiet life somewhere. Do you understand?’
Joff made no sound.
He dropped the boy down to the ground.
Somewhere behind them, a pig snorted.
Joff had never been a man, and the boy would not live.
Sandor found that he’d ceased to care.