In theory Sandor had every reason to be there. There was not a buggering thing wrong with him setting foot in Tobho Mott’s, because he had his dented pauldron from the tournament with the master armourer for repairs. Within the next two, three days, Tobho had said, but there was nothing wrong with him checking in on the progress, especially when he’d just been to the seamstress’s a few streets down to pick up his Pact Day present for the little bird. He was just passing by. Just checking the progress of his pauldron. Just…
‘Fuck,’ he said, and ducked his head to enter the shop, only to stumble back as another figure, familiar enough, rushed out and froze for the briefest of moments at the sight of him.
‘Clegane!’ Renly recovered fast enough to waggle his eyebrows and say, ‘Here to take a better look at the goods?’
‘Just my pauldron,’ said Sandor, though in his head, he said, Fuck off. He knew exactly what Renly was trying to imply. After all, Renly had been in the yard when the little bird set off this morning with her wolf pack, and every bastard with a cock – and some without – had taken a good look at her behind. She was wearing breeches, for ease of movement at Tobho’s, no doubt, and there shouldn’t have been anything in that, except… Except why the flying fuck was she wearing the exact same breeches and tunic as the Knight of the fucking Flowers did to the tournament? And why… There had been another question in his mind, but it was impossible to focus on anything apart from how those breeches left everything yet nothing to the imagination.
‘Oh, Lady Sansa looks even more beautiful than Ser Loras! If only she’d been born a man.’ One of the maids all but swooned.
He’d be willing to wager the good side of his face on the fact that the same thought was not going through any of the men’s heads, with the only possible exception being Renly.
‘Your pauldron?’ said Renly, seeming to suppress a laugh. ‘I’m sure you’ll love what they’ve done with it.’
What in the seven hells had they done with it? He’d come to Tobho’s expecting a good-as-new piece of armour that’d be shaped for all blows of the sword to glance right off his shoulder. If the armourer was trying to sell him rubies or sapphires, then he’d better be ready to be fucked with the end of a sword.
Renly, on the other hand, wasn’t one to see a good set of armour as only something to shield and intimidate.
‘Here to put more gold on your antlers, are you?’ he said.
‘I see a lordship has done little to improve your courtesies,’ said Renly.
He snorted at that. As if Renly didn’t surround himself with enough yes-m’lords already. And what in the seven buggering hells was he talking about? He’d been perfectly courteous to his buggering lordship.
‘In truth,’ said Renly, ‘I am here to visit my future betrothed. What lord wouldn’t want to spend more time in her presence before she leaves for Harrenhal?’
It was worse than any wound he’d sustained in battle. Worse than the lick of the flames on his arm. Almost worse than the–
‘I am not speaking of Lady Sansa,’ said Renly, ‘in case you were wondering.’
A stab of anger replaced the awful stab of something else, and Sandor embraced it like an old friend. ‘Don’t,’ he growled. ‘Don’t drag the she-wolf into your buggering game.’
‘The dog really does stand sentry for the wolves these days. Despite what you think of me, I am not deaf,’ said Renly, as the voices of the she-wolf and Tobho’s apprentice drifted out of the shop, ‘or blind. I have been most loyal to Tobho and Gendry’s handiwork for the best part of eight years. I have seen the boy grow into a most impressive young man. It almost feels as if I am… close to being his sire.’ Renly paused, but it was hardly needed to get his point across. Sandor had had his own suspicions about the apprentice boy’s sire; it was difficult not to, especially with the likes of Renly prancing about with the same thick, black hair and set of the jaws. ‘I hear the boy is going with Lady Sansa and Lady Arya to Harrenhal. As you are a… friend… to them both, tell me… Should I pursue Lady Arya in the hopes of gaining a Baratheon heir for Storm’s End?’
‘They are still young,’ said Sandor.
‘And I am not averse to waiting. After all, I very much doubt that there will be another highborn maiden who will be able to fulfil my needs in quite the same way. Lady Arya doesn’t seem to take to my charms as much as she… takes to yours though. For her sake, won’t you put in a good word on my behalf?’
‘Might be you just need to tell it to her straight.’
‘Might be,’ said Renly, in a voice that would sound better with a pair of hands choking the breath out of him, ‘that she’d say the boy is stubborn and stupid, that there’s nothing there. If you need inspiration for the praises to sing on my behalf, just think of the praises you’d like to sing Lady Sansa, and realise that I am ten times greater than her.’
Before he could tell Renly to go and bugger himself with a hot poker – though being Renly, he’d probably enjoy being buggered with a hot poker – the wolf cub dashed out and threw his arms about his leg. The little wolf followed, looking a little abashed, with hands behind his back.
‘Hound! Thought I heard your voice. Look! We made something for you! I hurt my finger making it,’ said the cub, holding up his forefinger, which bore a small red gash across it.
The little wolf turned up his palms, and Sandor looked down. The boy was clutching a dark metal pin badge with a shaky letter S engraved upon it, enclosed by a ring with a sword-like point poking out of it that made it look strangely like the pin that the king would give to the Hand.
When he looked back up, Renly was gone.
He turned back to the wolves and said, ‘You made that yourselves?’
The cub nodded. ‘I made the S! We made new badges for everyone in the Society, you see.’ He held out a plain round badge with the letter S engraved, and the little wolf did the same. ‘Yours looks different though, because we’ve got a new position for you! Jon’s is different too, because he’s the Founder.’
Whatever his new title was, it was better than any lordship they could bestow upon him. He crouched down and let the cub pin the badge to his studded leather jerkin. Except the cub held the badge high and tapped it on his right shoulder instead.
‘Do you hereby swear before the eyes of… of Rickon and Bran – we’re not children! – to… to defend those who… Well, Sansa can defend herself as well, but not with the pointy end of a sword. But yes, to defend and protect Sansa in times when she needs defending and protecting, no matter what they make her change her name to, whether she’s a Stark or a Lady of Harrenhal or… something else, and do you swear to give Lady all the belly rubs she deserves, and to give her treats when she’s been good, but not too many, because Sansa says it will make her too round, and a round direwolf won’t look as graceful as a wolf-shaped direwolf?’
‘Aye,’ he said. He was not a man of oaths, but he’d sworn a handful throughout the years, to Myrcella and Shireen, for one. A pinkie promise that he’d never tell it was the two of them who’d smashed Joff’s set of clay horses by accident.
‘I hereby pronounce you the Point of the Society for Sansa’s Protection,’ said the cub, tapping the badge against his left shoulder.
‘Jon said you’re the one in charge of sticking people with the pointy end,’ said the cub. ‘He also said if anyone should ever say, “What’s the point?” at any moment in time, we’re allowed to point at you.’
‘I see…’ He straightened the badge and patted it against his leather jerkin. ‘This is an honour.’
‘You have to wear it every day when you go back to the Westerlands!’
‘I will,’ he said. Another oath, of sorts. ‘Do you…’ He cleared his throat. There was still time. He did not want to think upon how short that time was getting. ‘Do you know what they’d done with my pauldron?’
The little wolf exchanged a look with the cub. His heart fell. Had they coloured it some ridiculous shade of autumn yellow, so bright that he’d be a beacon for attack?
‘I suppose you can see it,’ said the little wolf. ‘But it’s… it’s still being worked on.’
He followed them through the armourer’s, past where the she-wolf was chasing Tobho’s apprentice with a bull’s helm on her head, past where Lord Stark sat with his bastard, backs to them, hunched over a dagger that glinted like Valyrian steel, past where Tobho Mott hovered, biting his fist, peering through a doorway like a man who was watching the gelding of a courser like Stranger. He peered through the same doorway, where the sounds of uneven hammering drifted out, swallowing the sounds of his footsteps.
The little bird shone with sweat, and loose strands of her pretty red hair was plastered across her cheeks despite the plat she’d fastened it in. Her brows where knitted in concentration, and she glowed nearly as pink as the metal she was hammering at… which was… Well, it was still soot-dark, and the original dent was gone. Instead, a thousand smaller dents covered the pauldron, making it as smooth as the burned side of his face.
Tobho Mott turned and stumbled back, then dragged him away to a room packed with colourful gems.
‘My… my deepest apologies, my lord… I will personally re-forge your pauldron later this evening. In fact, I will cast you a new pauldron to the one that the lady has… has worked on.’
‘Why did you give her that to work on?’
‘I… I didn’t, my lord. We had prepared a cast of a decorative seashell for my lady to… to work on. She’d only need to pour the liquid metal into the cast, you see, and she’d be able to take it back with her, but then she saw the pauldron, and said she wanted to do something… useful. I couldn’t stop her, my lord. She’s… She’s… She can be… very insistent. L… Like I said, I’ll personally smooth out all the hammer marks she’s made. It will be as good as new!’
‘Leave it,’ he said.
‘Leave it.’ He pressed his coins into Tobho’s hands.
It was folly, to choose dented armour over new plate, but this was proof carved in steel, wasn’t it? Proof that she… What exactly?
There was really one thing he knew for sure.
‘She makes a fucking awful smith,’ he said.
Faced with the little bird’s green stocking, with her name curling about it in gold thread, Sandor realised that he’d overlooked the most basic problem: the bloody dress the seamstress had crafted wouldn’t fit. He shifted the brown paper parcel he’d made of the present and tried to dangle it at an angle, but it simply tumbled out once more.
Suppressing a need to growl at bloody thing, he pulled a parcel from someone else out of the stocking, meaning to rearrange it. It was heavy and lumpy, and as he turned it around, the ribbon snagged on the point of his badge and a sheaf of paper tumbled out, scattering across the floor.
He bent down to retrieve the pages with an unsuppressed growl this time, and…
What in the seven buggering hells…
He blinked, and rubbed his eyes, just to be sure that it really wasn’t all in his head, but someone had really drawn… No. It couldn’t be. But it looked… The figures were of height of… Well, the woman was small enough to rest the top of her head against the man’s shoulders, and the spidery writing underneath each image was enough to turn a septon blind, if the sketches hadn’t done so already.
Sandor turned to the last page, titled ‘Breathing techniques’, and found it signed, ‘With love, Ami’. That fucking gatehouse. What the fuck did she think she was doing?
He found her easily enough, batting her lashes at the Strongboar as he secured a flagon of wine for her; half the stable boys were happy enough to point Sandor in her direction. She squeaked as she laid eyes on him, and the Strongboar buried a flinch of his own, but moved in front of his dear lady all the same.
‘Step aside,’ he growled, waving the sheets of paper at the Gatehouse. ‘I have business with her.’
‘I think not,’ said the Strongboar. ‘Do not force me to draw my steel.’
‘Don’t force me to carve you from head to toe and offer your buggering entrails to your lady as a buggering necklace,’ said Sandor.
‘It’s all right, my lord,’ said Gatehouse Ami, huddling behind a barrel of pickled cod, trembling as she should. ‘He does not frighten me. I will s… s… speak with him.’
‘L… L… Leave us please, my lord. It’s a… a private matter… I believe.’
The Strongboar threw an impotent glare his way, and said, ‘If I find my lady hurt…’
‘Then you are more than welcome to wash your breeches. Wouldn’t want the whole court to find you stinking of piss.’
‘Please! My lords…’ Gatehouse Ami threw a pickled cod in their direction. It landed with a plop between their feet. ‘Please let me speak with him, so that we can resolve any… any… any matters that need resolving. I will come and find you again after, my lord.’
The Strongboar glared at him again, and scrambled out of the kitchens with his tail between his fucking legs.
He turned to Ami, who had all but disappeared behind the barrel, and said, ‘What the fuck is this?’
‘That’s p… part of my Pact Day present for L… Lady Sansa,’ said the barrel. ‘It’s private! It’s not for you to open!’
‘How dare you–’
‘How dare I? You’re the one who hurt her,’ said the barrel, with a wobble.
‘This is somehow my fault, is it? Look here, woman, I don’t know what in the seven buggering hells you’ve heard, but I haven’t done a fucking thing.’
‘That’s your problem then!’
‘Not doing a thing! How can you not do a thing? You… You… You can’t leave my poor Sansa to do everything! It’s not fair!’
‘How is she your Sansa,’ he said. He was sure that that was not the point he was trying to make, but it was difficult to speak sensibly to a barrel of cod.
‘At least I never hurt her,’ said the barrel. ‘I’ve always been good to her. I’ve always been a good friend to her, as much as she’s been to me. She’s the sweetest and kindest lady I’ve ever met, and… and…’ A blonde head poked out from behind the barrel. ‘And if you think any different, f… f… fight me! I’m not af… f… fraid of you!’ She rose to her full height from behind the barrel, which wasn’t all that high, and took a cod in each of her hands. Her face was streaked with tears, and she looked so pale that her face was almost blue.
He took a step towards her, and she squeaked again, muttering incoherently to herself. ‘I won’t die here. I won’t die here. The woods witch s… s… said so…’
‘Throw this away,’ he said, throwing her sketches at her feet.
‘No!’ she said. ‘Y… Y… You’d do well to study them too. I… I… I’m disappointed in you.’
It was undeniable that the little bird had, somehow, befriended Gatehouse Ami; he’d seen them together often enough, laughing easily despite their differences. Had the little bird really confided in her friend? Had he truly disappointed her by doing nothing? By the seven hells, he wanted to do everything to her, but…
Did she really…
Did she really want him?
The thought would not leave him alone.
The bells tolled for midnight a lifetime later, and he untied the stocking she’d made for him, hoping, almost fucking praying for a sign.
The cub had given him a drawing of them all, dancing in a circle with a grin that looked strange on his face. He pinned it on his wall with a spare dagger. The little wolf had made clay figures of all their direwolves and a black dog. He arranged them so that the dog sat at Lady’s feet. The she-wolf gave him… Well, a note tumbled out of the brown paper, saying, DO NOT OPEN unless you are in Arya AND Sansa’s presence!!! He pushed it back into the stocking.
Then there was the cylinder that the little bird had given him, wrapped in a rich black silk with a yellow satin ribbon that was now both their house colours. A small wooden figure rolled out, delicately crafted, wearing a real green silk dress and with hair as red as… No. He ran a finger across the doll’s hair. It was real hair. And as sure as the seven hells, he could recognise that shade of red anywhere.
A guardian of the hearth in northern tradition, said the note, will sit above hearths and braziers. They have red hair, or as we say in the north, they have been kissed by fire. They will guard you against all ills, even those in the Westerlands.
He was glad that he’d opened it all in the privacy of his own room, so that there was no one to see the blank mask he’d perfected over the years slip and fall.