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Harrenhal

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Sansa I

‘There,’ said Sansa, tying off the embroidery of three winter roses with a lumpy-looking knot and snipped the thread so that it trailed a little too long to look neat.

‘Are you sure that looks sloppy enough?’ asked Arya, wearing her usual scowl on her face.

‘The stitches are poorly balanced. Look,’ said Sansa, pointing at the two roses surrounding the central one, ‘these should be symmetrical, but they are not. This leaf is crooked to cover up the mistakes here. Don’t worry, Septa Mordane will spot it for sure. It will show that you have improved. You have to improve a little, or Mother will put a stop to your archery lessons. Maybe she will actually look into the nature of your dancing lessons too.’

‘Fine, fine, you’re the expert.’

Arya had just stretched out her hand to claim the embroidery as hers when Sansa’s door burst open. Excuses rushed through Sansa’s head. But… But it was not right for a lady to lie. If Mother found them now, she’d simply say she was helping Arya with her embroidery, which was true anyhow. There was no need for her and Arya’s arrangement to come to light. She could not stand the thought of the disappointment that was sure to colour Mother’s face if she should ever find out that those horrible rumours about Sansa and Arya were started by none other than the Stark sisters themselves.

A dash of auburn peaked through the doors, but there was no swish of a silk gown. Bran’s Tully-blue eyes landed on her own, then on Arya. He let out a sigh, waited for Summer to pad into her room and closed the door behind him.

‘Sansa, Arya, I… I need your help,’ he said.

Bran’s hair looked as wild as Rickon’s, and his breeches were torn. As he wrung his hands together, Sansa thought she caught a bleeding nail or two.

‘Have you been climbing again?’ said Sansa. It must be an injury he’d sustained scaling the walls against Mother’s wishes.

‘Yes, but that’s not… That’s only part of it. I climbed the broken tower, because there’s no one around, and I’m not too young to go on the hunt, really. The Hound said he’d killed a man when he was scarcely older than me–’

‘Exactly,’ said Arya, ‘I should have been allowed to go too. I’m better with a bow than Robb, and–’

‘Never mind what the Hound said,’ said Sansa, biting back an urge to make disparaging remarks about the Prince’s sworn shield. After hearing the Hound’s remark to Ser Rodrik and Robb in the training yard, Bran, at eleven, was sure to bring it up every day. Worse, Rickon had stopped letting her weave ribbons in his hair, and had even refused to hear her songs, saying that he was too old for such childishness at eight years of age. Instead, he had taken to following the Hound around, constantly trying to ambush the warrior with his wooden sword. The Hound had stolen her baby brother, and what’s more, he didn’t even appreciate Rickon. He was constantly telling her brother to get lost, though in not-so-polite terms. How dare he.

‘I bet he made it up anyway. He always makes horrible comments about everyone else to make himself look better,’ she said, and before Bran could protest, she added, ‘I’m sure that’s not what you need our help with, is it?’

‘No… I… Well…’ Bran went pink with embarrassment as he struggled to find the right words. ‘When I got to the first keep, I came across… I heard… people. And they were… They were talking for a bit, and then they were…’

Sansa nodded, dashing him an encouraging smile.

‘They were mating,’ said Bran, going full crimson at that admission.

Oh. Well. She exchanged a look with Arya. Arya shook her head. Chicken, Sansa mouthed at her sister. Only brave with Needle in her hand. Why should she have to be the one to explain things to Bran? She wasn’t sure what there was to say anyhow. All Septa Mordane had explained to her and Arya, since their flowering, was that their future husbands will take care of what goes on in the marriage bed, and they just needed to lie back and think of the children they’d come to get and love.

Ah, yes. That was something, wasn’t it?

‘Bran,’ she said, trying to imitate Mother’s confidence, but still unable to meet her brother’s eyes, ‘when you… take your lady wife into the marriage bed, you need to lay her down, and then you will know what to do. But the lying down is important.’

She looked to Arya for assurance.

‘Yes,’ Arya agreed. ‘It’s important. If you need more details, you should ask Jon. Don’t ask Theon though. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.’

Yes, good deflection on Arya’s part! Bran was sure to feel assured after that conversation. She stole a look at her brother, but Bran’s hands had clenched into fists, and his mouth was set in a thin line of determination. Oh no… He wasn’t going to ask for… details… was he? She racked her brains for anything else that might help. There was something about legs, of course, but she didn’t want to impart any information that might not be accurate.

‘That’s not…’ he said, ‘that’s not what I need help with.’

‘Oh!’ She almost laughed out of relief. Whatever was coming next couldn’t be worse than what they’d just been through. It just couldn’t.

‘The people I overheard…’ Bran took a deep breath. ‘They’re people we know. One of them was Ser Jaime…’

Ah. It wasn’t right for a member of the Kingsguard to engage in that kind of activity, and it must have been a blow to Bran to discover that someone he admired was capable of such despicable acts. Before she could find the right words to offer, he pushed forth with the rest of his tale.

‘…the other one was the Queen.’

‘The… Queen?’

It couldn’t be.

‘Queen… Cersei?’ she asked, just for something to say.

‘There’s only one Queen in Westeros,’ said Bran.

But they were… They were…

‘Are you sure?’

Bran nodded. ‘I’d know Ser Jaime’s voice anywhere.’

Of course. Bran had spent hours watching Ser Jaime, Ser Meryn and Ser Boros during their stay at Winterfell, dreaming of wearing the white cloak as their brother one day.

Now that the worst was over, he recounted the conversation he’d overheard with more ease. Her heart sank with every word. Even if Bran had been wrong about the voices, it was all there in the words, in the way they talked about the King, in the way the man had called the woman sweet sister, in the things they’d said about Aunt Lyanna, about Lord Arryn. She knew the implications. Lord Arryn, possibly murdered to finding out. They surely wouldn’t stop at one Hand to keep their secrets secret. She imagined staring into her father’s lifeless eyes. Outside, Lady howled. Nymeria joined in. She couldn’t let that happen.

‘Should I tell Father once he comes back?’ said Bran. He didn’t seem to relish the thought of narrating the event to their parents.

‘Of course we should,’ said Sansa. ‘Father will–’

‘No!’ said Arya.

‘No?’

‘You know what Father will do.’ Arya chewed on her bottom lip. ‘He will tell the Queen. He will give her a chance to do the right thing, and she won’t, because she’s horrible. She’ll poison him, like she did to Jon Arryn.’

‘She can’t poison all of us, Arya,’ said Bran.

‘Could too!’

Sansa placed her head in her hands and peaked at her siblings through her fingers. It wasn’t ladylike, but ladies weren’t supposed to hear about incest, murder and treason. She needed to think. What would Father do? Arya was right about that. What would the Queen do? Perhaps Arya was right about that as well. She’d found out the hard way that life was not a song, but a collection of songs, and for every Florian, there was a Rat Cook. But that was not the point. What would the King do? That was the crux of it. Lord Arryn had been Hand for a long, long time. Surely he hadn’t just discovered this… this abomination… right under his nose? But he had not brought it up. He was like a father to King Robert, but he had not brought it up. She pictured fat King Robert, easy with his laughter, eager to recount his glory days, so sure of his strength, so sure of his subjects’ love for him.

‘No, we can’t tell Father,’ she said, ‘because even if he tells the King, the King won’t believe him.’

There was only one person the King may believe. She looked at Arya and knew what they had to do.

Chapter Text

Sandor I

Not long into the banquet, Lady Stark excused herself, leaving her pretty daughter to play hostess, picking at her food to avoid staining her silks and chirping her courtesies at Joffrey and Cersei like a little bird. If only Sandor had been able to leave this sorry feast as well, instead of needing to suffer through an evening standing behind Joffrey, watching him play at being a charming prince. But then Lady Stark had good reason, having been plagued by sickness from bearing yet another wolf pup. A girl, they said, from how wide and how green in the face she’d grown. For the sake of the Starks, he hoped that this girl would turn out normal, like their parents. Most likely too much to hope for, considering how the rest of their litter had turned out.

Right on cue, something smacked into the back of his knees. He growled at the attacker, and it would have had most men cowering in fear, but most men did not repeatedly try to attack the Hound with a wooden sword. The wolf cub grinned at him, and behind him stood the little wolf, looking ever so slightly sorry. At once, he felt eyes on him, and there it was again. If this had been a battlefield instead of the Great Hall of Winterfell, he’d have been ready to expect the swing of steel, but instead, the little bird was glaring at him as if he’d been the one striking the wolf cub instead of the other way round. That was new as well. Fear and disgust, he got plenty of, but this was pure hatred, and the little bird didn’t seem the hateful type, always ready to offer a polite smile to all around her except him. Myrcella spoke of her with such warmth too. So why, in the seven buggering hells, did she hate him? They’d not even exchanged words, so it must be some rumour she’d heard. He swore under his breath. She, of all people, should know better than to trust rumours.

As soon as she saw him look back, she looked away, turning to mutter something to Joffrey instead. Still couldn’t look him in the eye, for fuck’s sake. What did she want? To strangle him with her yarn while looking the other way?

Softly, the little bird rested a hand on Lord Stark’s arm.

‘Father,’ she whispered, ‘I’m afraid Bran and Rickon have managed to sneak in here. I’ll bring them back to their rooms and put them to bed once more.’

The wolf cub must have heard her, for he screamed, ‘No!’

So much for the little bird’s attempt for a quiet exit.

The King turned, beard slick with grease from the boar he’d speared and the wine he’d scoffed, no doubt pausing from a tirade of reminiscence and more and more unlikely reasons to convince Lord Stark to take up the position of the Hand willingly.

‘What’s the matter now?’ asked the King.

‘I’m sorry Your Grace,’ chirped the little bird, ‘my brothers are usually better behaved, but with Mother’s present condition, they are a little unsettled. I was just about to put them to bed. There will be baked apples and lemon cakes to follow. Please enjoy them, and I will–’

‘No! Sansa’s bedtime stories are boring!’ Then, to Sandor’s horror, the wolf cub said, ‘I want a story from the Hound!’

The King roared with laughter. ‘A dog acting wet nurse for a wolf!’

‘Your Grace, my sincere apologies, my brother is still young and–’

‘Why not!’ said the King, ‘Clegane, you have the rest of the night off. Go put the boys to bed. Trant! You come here, I’ve got a standing job for you tonight!’

‘Your Grace,’ said Lord Stark, joining the fray. Poor man, stuck here hosting the banquet. ‘Please allow Sansa to–’

‘Come Ned, I told you none of that Your Grace nonsense! If you’re going to argue about it ‘til the pie goes cold, then you’re both going. Give the boys both a mother and a father, hey?’ said the King with another uproarious laugh.

Lord Stark looked as if the pie had gone down the wrong hole, and the little bird blushed prettily right down to her neck. Joffrey snickered, no doubt amused by the thought that the Stark girls would one day be betrothed to the likes of dogs once the rest of the great houses reject them. Every day since the King expressed an interest in betrothing the elder Stark girl to Joffrey, the little worm and his lady mother had been grousing, saying that the Stark girls had witch blood from Lady Minisa’s family. The Queen had a particular aversion to witches and prophecies. Your own critter have need of both a mother and a father, he wanted to tell fat Robert, but Robert was King, though perhaps they are not yours.

‘Off you go then!’ said the King. ‘Ned, there’s no need to make your face longer than it already is. Clegane will see the boys and your girl back to their rooms safely. Now, where were we? Ah, yes, I swung my warhammer and…’

The wolf cub grabbed his hand and tugged him away from the voice of the King. The little wolf and the little bird followed behind, and as the little bird passed her sister, she whispered, ‘I’ll have to leave it to you. Good luck!’

‘But… I’m no good at that kind of…’

‘You’ll be fine, Arya.’

With that, the little bird left the she-wolf floundering by Tommen’s side. Sandor almost felt sorry for the girl, but this was no time to think of others, for as soon as they pushed through the door, leaving the noise of the Great Hall behind, the little bird started chirping.

‘I… thank you for your assistant with my brothers, ser.’

‘I’m no ser, woman,’ he said.

‘Why not?’ asked the wolf pup.

‘Yes, why not?’ said the little wolf.

Seven buggering hells.

‘Do I look like one of your buggering knights from your story books?’

The little wolf and the wolf cub both turned to study his face. What was wrong with the lot of them?

‘I think so,’ said the little wolf at length, sounding a little unsure, ‘but they don’t look much like Ser Boros. They don’t usually have such big… bellies.’

Sandor snorted. ‘Paint stripes on a toad, he does not become a tiger.’

‘Have you seen a real tiger before?’ said the wolf pup.

Before he had a chance to reply, the little wolf cut in, ‘Oh! I heard they have striped horses across the Narrow Sea. Is it true?’

‘Aye, and aye, Lord Tywin once had one brought to Casterly Rock. They say it was gold he’d have spent getting a dwarf, but there was little need of that what with him breeding his own half-man,’ he said, ignoring the way that the little bird’s mouth had pressed into a thin, angry line.

‘Do they have dwarfs in every castle in the South?’ said the little wolf with a frown. ‘We don’t have one here.’

‘They like them in the Reach. Fat lot of use they are.’

‘We just have Hodor, but he’s not here because he’s big,’ said the wolf cub. Then he added, ‘I like Hodor.’

‘The stable boy?’ said Sandor. He remembered catching a glimpse of a giant of a man in the stables when they’d first arrived at Winterfell. For a heartbeat, he’d thought that it was Gregor, but as he’d drawn near, he’d found a man just a little larger than himself, with a kindly face. ‘Seems a friendly sort.’

‘Oh yes,’ said the little bird, finally resuming her chirping. ‘He’s very happy in with the horses. He’s a little simple so we make sure he never learns to fight, else he might hurt someone.’

Now Sandor really had to laugh. Else he might hurt someone! What when through these northmen’s heads? In a different life, the stable boy could have been another brother. Gregor, Sandor, Hodor. Ha! The Lannisters would have trained him every day. Being simple was all the better, as long as he’d understand the command to kill. What helm would they fashion him? Perhaps they’d make Hodor the Hound, then Sandor would have to be something else, though Sandor wasn’t sure he knew how to be anything else. What would be left if he gave away his helm? He tried to picture Hodor’s kindly face peeking through the snarling helm and barked another laugh at the thought.

‘I don’t see what’s so funny,’ the little bird said with a huff, though some of the anger had drained from her face.

But he simply shook his head.

‘Have you ever ridden against Barristan the Bold?’ The little wolf was already on another tangent.

‘Aye,’ said Sandor, thankful that they’d now entered the Great Keep. Not long now until both young wolves would be abed and he’d be free. ‘Old Selmy has unhorsed me many a times.’

‘He’s a true knight! I can’t wait to meet him.’

‘Me too!’ said the wolf cub.

‘Aye,’ he said.

‘Oh,’ said the little bird, cocking her head in surprise.

‘What?’

‘I… Nothing.’

‘Told you,’ the little wolf said to his sister.

He looked to the wolf cub, hoping for an explanation, and the cub said, ‘She thought you were lying about everything.’

‘Rickon!’

‘What? You did! You told Bran he’s making everything up.’

Was that why the little bird hated him? Because she took him for a liar? And took the likes of Joffrey for honest men? He searched her face for the truth, but she looked away once more.

‘A hound will die for you, but never lie to you. And he’ll look you straight in the face,’ he said. Then he added quietly, ‘That’s more than little birds can do, isn’t it?

The little bird took a deep breath, drew herself to her full height, which was still only to his chin, and looked him straight in the face. Gods, it was worse than being looked at by the two young wolves. Her eyes were so blue, her skin was so smooth, and her auburn hair was so shiny and thick. He cursed himself for making her look at him, his skin scarred and his hair so thin where it had been burned away. Why did he want her to look at him when he didn’t even like to look at himself in the buggering mirror?

She drew another breath, donning a suit of invisible armour and said, ‘I’m not sure what little birds are, but I had believed that you were trying to get in my brothers’ good graces by… exaggerating your… deeds. I was mistaken, and I beg your pardons, ser.’

He wanted to correct her, but there was a more urgent question. ‘Why would I do that?’

‘Because I might be Queen in the future,’ she said.

He scoffed. ‘Very unlikely.’

‘You… think so?’ she said, and for a moment, he caught a look of relief in her eyes.

‘Considering how little the present Queen and your Prince in question take to the idea,’ he said. ‘And it appears that the feeling is mutual.’

‘I… It’s just that… Father promised to find me someone brave and gentle and strong.’

‘And the Prince?’

‘Prince Joffrey is…’ the little bird furrowed her brows, searching for the right words to chirp, ‘… is very handsome.’

Both young wolves chuckled at that as they dashed through a door to the right. Sandor ducked into the room after the little bird, who had already grabbed her brothers and was stripping them for bed. She threw them into the featherbed and tucked the throws around them. The two young wolves huddled together.

‘Can I stay here after the stories, Sansa?’ asked the wolf cub.

‘Of course, just don’t do it every night. Mother will worry,’ she said, brushing the back of her hand across the cub’s forehead.

Sandor turned to leave, not wanting to intrude on more private moments between the siblings.

‘No! Hound! You’re going to tell us our story before bed, remember?’ the wolf cub said. ‘Sansa’s stories are boring. We’ve heard all of them already.’

He swore. What did he know about stories for eight-year-olds? When he’d turned eight, there had no longer been a sister to tuck him into bed, to tell him tales of knights and fools.

The little bird arched a brow at him. A challenge?

‘Tell us one that’s true and not some made-up tale,’ said the little wolf.

There were truths about spilled guts and headless men, but those were not tales the young wolves deserved. He drew two chairs from the other end of the room, pulled them in front of the bed and squeezed into one of them. The little bird glanced at him and took the other chair.

‘Would you like to hear about the prince and the rabbits?’

‘Ooh, is it about Joffrey?’ said the little wolf.

‘It’s about a prince who wanted to hunt rabbits. He doesn’t have a name in this tale, boy.’

‘But it’s not a made-up tale?’

‘No,’ said Sandor. He couldn’t quite believe it had actually happened either, but it did. The young wolves nodded, so he began.

‘There was a prince who wanted to practise his archery skills on moving targets, so he decided that he’d shoot rabbits. Now, there were rabbits around King’s Landing, but if he’d just gone hunting for wild rabbits, he’d spend more time riding and tracking rather than shooting, so he had the bright idea of making one of his men breed rabbits for the hunt instead. On the day of the hunt, he had hundreds of rabbits brought into the woods, and the hunt was supposed to begin once the rabbits were released. Now, when the cages flew open, the rabbits didn’t scatter like they were supposed to. Instead, they suddenly collected, first in knots, then in a body, all as one, and instead of running away, they all turned to face the prince and flung themselves at him. Now, there was a knight with the prince from the Kingsguard, and the knight tried to fend off the rabbits, but one particularly large rabbit knocked his helm askew. It had been difficult to find the target as he’d had to look past his belly anyhow. With his helm askew, he was next to useless. The other rabbits continued to attack the prince in the rear. They piled between his legs and forced him to retreat. To this day, rabbits can still make the prince and the knight turn craven.

‘And that,’ said Sandor, ‘is the tale of the prince and the rabbits.’

Two young wolves grinned at him. Neither of them looked sleepy.

‘Is that it?’ said the little bird. ‘Isn’t there a moral to the story?’

‘True stories don’t have morals, woman.’

‘Exactly!’ cried the wolf cub. ‘Real stories aren’t boring!’

‘And how do you expect them to sleep now?’ said the little bird.

‘Get the fuck to sleep,’ he growled at the young wolves, and he heard her gasp.

‘Another!’ they cried.

‘Make it boring this time,’ she muttered under her breath, ‘and watch your language, ser.’

He was already watching his language, and he was still no ser, but she might look him in the eye again, and he both wanted and didn’t want that, so he turned to the young wolves instead. ‘Last one before you get yourselves to sleep, all right?’

‘Yes!’

He ran a hand over his face and searched for another harmless tale. ‘This is the tale about a rich lord and some vipers. The rich lord lived in a country full of mountains, and there weren’t many vipers there, but somehow they’d spread into his domain from a neighbouring country, and now he was stuck with an infestation. Now, most of the rich lord’s riches came from gold, which was mined from the mountains, but the vipers were making that difficult, as several miners had been bitten and people didn’t fancy being killed by poisonous snakes, so the trickle of gold slowed down. The rich lord knew he needed to defeat the vipers, so he decided that the best way to go about it would be to use his greatest asset.’

‘Did he send a great knight after the vipers?’ said the little wolf.

‘No,’ he said, snorting at the thought of Gregor slaying snakes instead of men. ‘The rich lord used gold. He put a bounty on the vipers. Every dead viper brought to his castle would earn a big fat purse from the rich lord. How quickly do you think he got rid of his snake infestation problem, hey?’

‘A sennight!’ said the wolf cub.

‘Maybe… a moon?’ said the little wolf a little more cautiously.

‘Well, turns out that it costs less to breed them vipers than what the rich lord was offering to kill them, so the smallfolk took up viper breeding.’

‘Oh no!’

‘So what did the rich lord do?’

‘Stopped giving them those purses?’ said the little wolf.

‘Aye. Those vipers stopped being worth anything, so those smallfolk breeders threw them vipers away. By then, they’d bred thousands of the buggers, so the rich lord ended up with things much worse than they’d been before it all started. And the moral of the story is…’ he added, just so the little bird couldn’t find fault with his latest tale, ‘… even people like the rich lord makes mistakes. And now get yourselves to sleep.’

*

Gods, too sweet.

Since Sandor didn’t wish to spend his evening off hearing further quips about being a wet nurse, but had yet to partake in food and, more importantly, drink, the little bird had showed him to the kitchens. He’d taken two flagons of sour red, but she’d pressed another flagon of northern wine into his hands.

According to the little bird, it was a rare wine made from grapes grown in Winterfell’s glass garden; the head gardener would open that section of glass and allow the grapes to freeze on their vines before harvesting the grapes for wine. Ice wine, they called it. The result was a wine that was not as dark as a man’s blood, but as fiery as the little bird’s hair.

And too sweet.

She’d chirped a lengthy praise of the glass garden at the north end of the godswood, saying how they housed lemon trees, and how the cook had harvested lemons from these very trees for the cakes they had this evening. She’d said that he must see it before he left Winterfell.

So here he was, in the godswood in the middle of the buggering night, and the moon had gone behind the clouds. Now he couldn’t see a fucking thing.

Gods, too much wine.

The godswood should have only taken a moment to cross, but here in the dark, the great oaks and soldier pines pressed into him, and the air became thick and brooding. His olive-green cloak was made for King’s Landing, but here, in Winterfell… Well, he muttered those Stark words, ‘Fuck, winter is coming.’

At once, he felt eyes on his back. It wouldn’t be the old gods watching, for their existence was as questionable as that of the seven. He spun around, only to be knocked to the ground. Seven hells! He fumbled for his sword. At that moment, the moon remerged from the sky, and sharp teeth descended towards his face. He tried to roll away, but it was too late, and… it licked him across the face.

Then the massive wolf rolled off to lie by his side, belly up. Those yellow eyes gazed at him expectantly.

Did the direwolf want… a belly rub?

He drew himself into a crouch and inched towards it. Her. For even though the direwolf was nearly as large as him, she was the smallest of the litter. It was the little bird’s wolf.

Her light grey fur was thick and soft, and her paws twitched happily in the air. Wolves and dogs: not that different after all.

‘Do you know the way back, Lady?’

She rolled back onto her feet and took a few steps forward, only to stop and look back at him.

‘Looks like you do,’ he muttered.

Of course she did. She was a creature made for this forest. The trees bowed down in the wind as she passed. And soon enough, he saw the steam from Winterfell’s heated pools creep up into the ice-cold air, like ghosts. The guest house where he’d find his room was just through a little wooden gate behind those pools.

Voices came from the other side of the moss-covered walls. They didn’t sound like bats; nor did they sound like they were feeding on the blood of men, so the rumours must be false.

‘I can’t believe I have to wear a dress in your stupid plan,’ came the voice of the she-wolf. ‘Are you sure it’s going to work? Aunt Lyanna’s supposed to be beautiful…’

‘As you are,’ said the little bird.

Yet Lady made no attempts to join her.

The she-wolf snorted. ‘Maybe now that you’ve redrawn my face.’

‘I haven’t! It’s just a little flour to make you paler, and a little beeswax for your lips. You look pretty with your hair properly brushed and pinned.’

‘It feels stupid, as does this dress.’

‘It’s not too tight, is it?’

‘It’s too loose across the chest!’

‘Oh good, you can have it after this then. I haven’t worn it for years! The blue looks very becoming on you.’

‘I don’t want your stupid dress!’

‘It might appease Mother if you wear one occasionally.’

‘Who cares? She hates me anyway.’

‘She does not!’

‘It’s all very well for you to say. Mother and Father would be so much happier with two of you.’

The little bird didn’t reply straight away, and when she did, she sounded far, far away. ‘Father has given me a doll for my namesday for as long as I can remember, and I haven’t played with dolls for eight years now. It was always a doll, no matter how good I’d been. For you, he has arranged secret water dancing lessons with the First Sword of Braavos, he has given you a bow and arrow, and has even ask Mikken to re-hilt a dagger made from Valyarian steel – oh, don’t think I don’t know about that. And you never had to be good. You just had to be you. So don’t say that. Don’t say that ever again.’

‘He just… doesn’t know what to get you.’

‘I have asked for an illustrated book of songs. But let’s not argue. We’re friends now. I won’t have us go back to how we were. Do you want me to go through the words again?’

‘No… I remember them.’

‘Good. Just make sure–’

‘To make everything positive and sparkling, and make sure he’s not angry at their children. Yeah I know.’

‘It’s important!’

‘I know… Sansa?’

Their voices drifted away.

‘Hmmm?’

‘What illustrated book of songs do you want?’

And all that was left was a muffled reply and Lady’s panting.

‘Are you planning to follow me to my room?’ said Sandor.

Lady lolled her head.

Perhaps he should get himself a wolf. He’d be happier for it.

*

It was first light when the pounding from his door materialised inside his head.

‘You are wanted by the King!’

Chapter Text

Robert I

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.

‘Of course.’

‘And… ghosts.’

‘Ghosts?’

‘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.

*

‘Clegane?’

‘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.’

Chapter Text

Sansa II

It was not the nightmare. No moon-grey eyes eclipsed by an unseen darkness, no woman’s scream, no blood-crazed barking, and no taste of salt and copper in her mouth. And for that Sansa was grateful.

Instead, there was a body, warm and alive. He smelt of leather, sweat, polished steel and pine. And wine too, but that couldn’t be right.  Her future lord husband should not smell so strongly of wine. But his presence was warm and comforting, and no doubt he was brave and gentle and strong.

Sansa sighed. She pictured the two of them sitting together in a garden with puppies in their laps, but his face was not fully formed in her mind.

Before she could snuggle closer into his warmth, there was a knock and she woke with a start. She scrambled to check the door, wondering who it might be, but there was no one. Perhaps she had imagined the knock.

Feeling strangely rested after all that had transpired at night, she picked out the dress that matched the colour of her eyes with a direwolf embroidered on the bodice. She’d need the bravery of a wolf to face the consequences of their action.

She’d expected the need to douse calming words on the king’s anger to protect his children – or perhaps they were Ser Jaime’s children – but nothing could have prepared her for the twinkle of amusement in the king’s eyes when they were finally summoned to the Great Hall. Perhaps there was anger and sadness buried beneath it all, but she was too struck by his words to notice.

A tournament. There was to be a tournament, and Rickon, Bran and Arya would have to take part. Never had she been so glad to be the elder of the two sisters.

And she wasn’t sure how what they’d done last night had led to this moment, but the king had given them a way out. She could be free from Prince Joffrey, and Father would be safe from the queen!

*

Robb and Jon surrounded Arya, so Sansa focused on the work at hand, knowing that she had no words of advice to offer on the topic of wrestling. As Father was preoccupied with entertaining the king and Mother was being led away by Maester Luwin again to recover from her shock in her delicate state, she directed the men to lift a table into the centre of the courtyard after Jory explained the nature of Ghiscari wrestling to her, and to set up seats in a circle so that the king and other men of import could sit to watch the match.

She’d already hugged Bran and Rickon and wished them both luck, and tied blue ribbons around their arms. Truth was, there wasn’t much more Sansa could do except pray. Until a moment ago, she’d thought that Arya would actually need to wrestle the prince in some state of undress. Before she could stop herself, she’d pictured her sister, arms bare and face painted, land a flying kick across Prince Joffrey’s face. She gasped at the unseemliness of her own thoughts. Thankfully they’d only need to hold their hands together atop a table, which was still highly improper, but not to the same degree. With a sigh, she sent a silent prayer to the Warrior for her younger siblings, especially Arya. Arya was strong for a girl, but the prince was three years older and taller than even Robb and Jon. She hoped that the Warrior could make her sister’s grip like steel. Or perhaps not quite steel, for she’d hate for Arya to break the prince’s arm.

Jon ended his words of advice with a ruffle of Arya’s hair, making it even messier than it already was. Normally she’d try to smooth it out, but now, all she thought was that it was good for it to be as unlike last night’s apparition of Lyanna as possible.

She engaged in a few outraged exchanges and gasps with Jeyne before the spot next to Arya freed up. She smiled at her sister with as much confidence as she could muster and made her way towards her.

‘Oh Arya! I know you’ll win,’ she said.

Arya grunted and said, ‘Should have asked for a proper duel. I won’t lose with Needle in my hand!’

‘But think of poor Myrcella then…’

‘Who cares about their stupid princess?’

Sansa wasn’t here to argue, so she pulled out her favourite handkerchief with two small direwolves embroidered in the corner. She’d meant them to be a representation of Lady and Nymeria, so it seemed perfectly fitting to tie it around Arya’s arm.

‘What are you doing?’ Arya hissed.

‘It’s a favour,’ she said.

Arya looked at her as if she’d grown wings, and maybe she had. ‘Seven hells, I’m not one of your knights from your songs, Sansa!’

‘No, but you can save us all the same,’ she said, giving her sister a last pat where the handkerchief had been tied. ‘I trust you will come out the victor. And don’t swear just because Mother isn’t here. Septa Mordane’s still watching.’

‘She can stuff that sour look on her face up her–’

‘Arya!’

Thankfully the Septa stood too far away to hear, though it did strangle a quiet gasp from Arya’s kitchen boy, who was now hovering a few steps away with Syrio Forel. The boy’s name was Mycah, Sansa remembered. They’d found him at the butcher’s on a Nameless Day five years ago. Arya had taken to dragging him out of the kitchens whenever Jon wasn’t about to practise sword-fighting together. They must be here to offer her sister advice as well.

With a nod at Arya, she left them to talk and sought out Princess Myrcella instead. After all, this match made them opponents, but not enemies, and she knew that the princess was of the same delicate disposition as herself. Even though all she had to offer were a few warm words, she’d offer them all the same.

She caught the princess’s eye and smiled. The princess wore a worried frown, but gave her a small nod, indicating that they were now free to speak. She hurried towards where Princess Myrcella was standing, but when she was only two strides away, a tall shadow appeared and started talking to the princess, pointing at his fingers as he did so.

Sansa froze. Sandor Clegane. Where had he come from? How could such a large man move so silently? Had he stepped in on purpose, to embarrass her? For now she was too close to pretend to have wanted to talk to anyone else, but if she were to join the princess now, it’d seem like she’d been rude, interrupting the princess’s conversation with the Hound.

‘Take your places! We’re going to start!’ cried Jory.

There was no longer any time to hesitate. She stepped forth and greeted Princess Myrcella. Before the princess could respond, the Hound growled at her.

‘What are you doing here? Spying on the enemy?’

‘You look… displeased this morning, Ser,’ Sansa offered.

‘Not a ser,’ he rasped, ‘and how would you like it if you’re forbidden to eat more than one piece of your precious lemon cake each day for the rest of your life?’

‘I…’ That wouldn’t be very nice at all. But more importantly… ‘How did you know that I like lemon cakes?’

For a moment, he truly looked like a rabid dog about to bite, but then it was replaced with a scornful twist of his burnt mouth. ‘Not hard to tell when you scoff down at least two slices of the bloody things every evening.’

‘I do not scoff down my food!’ said Sansa. She felt her cheeks redden at the thought. Surely she did not! She’d always picked at her lemon cakes with the grace and elegance of a true lady. Remembering the true purpose of her mission, she added, ‘And I don’t spy! I just wanted to wish Princess Myrcella luck. It must have been a terrible shock.’

‘Thank you, Sansa,’ Princess Myrcella said warmly, and her eyes flick a glance into the distance, most likely at the spot where Robb stood, for it was the princess’s turn to blush. ‘Do you think I… That is to say… Do you think it will be well-regarded for me to try my best?’

Sansa didn’t have the heart to say that the best way to be better-regarded by her brother would be for Princess Myrcella to turn her golden curls brown. Still, Robb wasn’t one to mind strength in women.

She clasped Princess Myrcella’s hands in hers and said, ‘Please give it your all – it would only look well for you, my princess. Not only so, Bran would be truly saddened should he find out that he had not been able to obtained a fair victory.’

Princess Myrcella nodded and took her hand as they walked over to the table, making light conversation about each other’s dresses, for the golden flowers around the neckline of the princess’s dress was truly beautiful, and the princess had embroidered them herself! Sandor Clegane trailed awkwardly behind. Served him right for his lack of courtesy earlier.

‘There you are!’ said the king, already seated on the temporary dais they’d arranged. He brought a goblet of wine to his lips, and suddenly pushed it away.

‘Was that not to Your Grace’s taste?’ said Father.

Vayon Poole hurried forth with another flagon of wine.

The king shook his head. ‘No wine for me this morning. Bring me some of that disgusting apple and honey nonsense that you gave to the children yesterday.’

‘At once, Your Grace.’

The king turned back to Princess Myrcella and waved his arms towards the right.

‘Queue up!’ he said. ‘You’re going second. Take your place Tommen!’

The crowd gave a cheer as Rickon bounded up, Shaggydog by his side, to take his place by the prince who was four years older and a full head taller. She gave Rickon’s shoulder a quick squeeze as she passed him and took her seat next to her friend Jeyne, who’d thankfully saved a few seats in the front row. It seemed that the whole of Winterfell’s household and the king’s entourage was out in the yard. She looked across the front row and breathed a sigh of relief when she saw Lord Tyrion next to her half-brother Jon, his view quite unobstructed by those of a greater height.

‘Ready!’ said Jory, and the two boys placed their arms on the table. Jory nudged Rickon’s elbows so that it rested closer to the centre, and nodded. ‘You may start once I count to three and say go. One… Two… Three… Go!’

Shaggydog gave a yelp as Rickon’s knuckles hit the table.

‘Victory to Prince Tommen!’

She clapped and waved Rickon over to sit by her side. ‘You did well. He’s just much older and bigger than you.’

Rickon shook his head. ‘What if you’d have to marry Joffrey because of me?’

‘It’s only because of you that I’ve been given a way out,’ she said, despite the sinking feeling in her stomach. Rickon’s defeat had been expected, but there was no room for loss in the next two matches. As if sensing her distress, Lady padded over from wherever she had been for the night to curl at her feet.

She ruffled Lady’s fur as she studied the cruel smile on Prince Joffrey’s lips as he muttered a few words to Prince Tommen, making Tommen’s shoulders slump as much as Rickon’s despite being declared the winner. Those wormy lips shifted onto another face where the eyes weren’t green but just as cruel, and the metallic taste of blood set off a buzzing in her ears that threatened to drown out the noise in the yard.

No, no, no, she could not marry him. But Mother had married Father after the death of Uncle Brandon, so surely she could… No, no, no… He was not Father. He was… was…

‘Have you heard of the Tears of Lys?’ she’d asked.

And he’d smiled that cold, cruel smile with his wormy lips. And she knew it’d been her fault, her fault for believing in only the happy songs, her fault that a good man was dead. And there was blood, so much blood. Sandor Clegane had killed his first man at the age of twelve. She’d been twelve too, when they died.

‘Sansa. Sansa!’ Somebody was calling out her name.

A lick to her hands, and the yard came back into focus. Jeyne was stroking her back, and Ghost nuzzled her palm with Lady by his side. She steadied the shaking of her hands and met Jon’s eyes with a smile. Not all bastard half-brothers were kind, she’d never forget, but she was all right now, and she had a match to watch.

‘… Three… Go!’

Their entwined fist swung in Bran’s favour, but Princess Myrcella pushed back, straining towards the other side with the whole of her body, and their hands quivered in the middle of the table, moving neither one way nor the other.

‘Go Myrcella!’ Lord Tyrion cried out, followed by hollering from a host of the king’s men.

‘Come on Bran! You can do it!’ cried Robb, and Winterfell shouted with him.

Bran gritted his teeth and leaned over the table, pressing Princess Myrcella’s fist closer and closer to the table, and the crowd grew louder until her knuckles finally touched the table.

‘Yes!! Go Bran!! Go Winterfell!!’ Jeyne cried, clapping wildly as Bran shook Myrcella’s hand.

Sansa found herself on her feet, clapping just as wildly despite the look of distain thrown in her direction from Septa Mordane, and the look of venom on Prince Joffrey’s face.

Prince Joffrey whispered something in Arya’s ear, and her sister’s steely gaze turned feral. Arya stormed up to the table, threw down her leather riding gloves and beckoned him over in the most unladylike way.

‘Try it, why don’t you?’ her sister yelled at the prince.

Cheers and boos whirled around them as Prince Joffrey sauntered up to the table and took his place, wearing his usual smug grin.

‘One… Two… Three…’

She saw the prince clench his fist. Arya winced but said nothing.

‘Go!’

The grin didn’t last for long, as her sister slammed his hand onto the table.

‘Victory to Lady Arya!!’

She did it! They’d won! Sansa felt like she was moving through water as Arya untied her handkerchief and waved it in the air.

But above the stomping and cheering, a whiny voice was growing louder, until she could finally make out the voice of the prince.

‘She cheated!’ Prince Joffrey was screaming to the king, growing as red in the face as the Lannister colour he was wearing. ‘I demand a rematch!’

‘I did not! You lost because you’re weak!’ said Arya. ‘Weren’t you going to break my arm? You don’t even have the strength to break my little finger!’

‘You cheated! Mother, Father, she cheated!’

The queen opened her mouth to speak, only to close it again. After all, Sansa knew that the queen had been most vocal about the betrothal of Prince Joffrey to, in her words, that little Stark witch, and from what Bran had overheard, the queen wasn’t too keen on the appointment of Father as Hand either. Yet on the other hand rested the humiliation of her beloved son at the hands of a girl.

It was the king who spoke first. He slammed down the boiled apple juice he was drinking in place of wine and bellowed, ‘Very well, a rematch!’

‘So be it,’ said Arya. ‘I’ll just crush you again. No one’s going to hear you roar. We’re all going to hear you whine like a baby!’

‘Arya, really–’ Father made an attempted to calm down her sister, yet the crowd drowned him out when Prince Joffrey jabbed a finger at Arya.

‘I’m not going to wrestle you again!’ he cried. ‘Your hands are dirty! I’m not going to touch it again.’

Everyone started shouting at once.

‘We can ask my daughter to wash her hands,’ said Father.

‘They’re not dirty!’ screamed Arya.

‘I’ll take my sister’s place,’ said Robb, ‘gladly.’

‘You’re not the next youngest, are you?’ said Prince Joffrey.

Oh. Oh no. He couldn’t mean…

All eyes landed on Sansa.

‘You want to wrestle… Sansa?’ said Father. He turned to the king, and Sansa’s heart sank when she heard him make the ultimate mistake. ‘Your Grace, you can’t possibly allow him to wrestle Sansa…’

‘Those are the rules, aren’t they Mother?’ said Prince Joffrey.

The queen shook her head. ‘Joffrey, I don’t think–’

‘Quiet!’ shouted the king.

The yard fell silent. The king turned to the prince and scoffed. ‘I’m surprised you didn’t ask to go up against the unborn babe in Lady Catelyn’s belly. Very well. Sansa, make yourself ready.’

Make herself ready? She wanted to tell the king to come back in a year, please and thank you, for she’d need to abandon needle works and harp-playing and train for at least a year with Jory to stand a chance at winning. Summer and Grey Wind padded over and nudged her feet. She drew strength from the direwolves and pulled herself stand to her full height. Time. She needed time. Time to think. Time to settle her nerves. Time to push herself to do her best, just as Princess Myrcella had done.

‘Your Grace,’ she said. He wouldn’t give her a year, but he’d give her a moment. ‘Might I be excused to change out of this dress? I am not dressed for the occasion, I’m afraid, and the sleeves are quite restricting.’

‘Of course,’ said the king. For a moment, all traces of laughter and anger drained from his face, leaving only the lines around his eyes and the broken veins in his cheeks, and the sadness in his bright blue eyes. ‘Let’s see what you can change, hey?’

*

A plain woollen dress in the darkest of greys, with only a hint of pink and red in the lining, hung at the back of her wardrobe. She ran her hands across the wool, coarser than any other of her dresses. At the back, where the dress had worn thinner against Thunder’s saddle, was proof that she could change. This was her armour, and she’d need to become her own champion after donning it today.

She flew down the steps, wondering if there was time to visit the sept and offer a candle to the Maiden and the Warrior. Noise from the crowd filtered through the walls that separated the courtyard from this part of Winterfell, which stood eerily empty. A crow cawed and took off, leaving her alone in front of the gates to the small sept that Father had built for Mother.  

Or so she thought.

Strong hands grasped her by the shoulders. For a moment Sansa thought it was Father, and when she turned, she shivered against the thought that it might be the ghost of him. No, the figure was too tall, his long, dark hair only covered half his head, and his eyes weren’t a quiet moon-grey, but, Sansa noticed for the first time, a darker, angrier grey. It was the burned face of Sandor Clegane looking down at her, his mouth twisted in a terrible mockery of a smile.

‘You are shaking, woman,’ he said, his voice rasping. ‘Do I frighten you so much?’

She steadied her breathing. The only ghost in Winterfell had been their own creation. Looking him straight in his eyes again, she said, ‘No, it is only the thought that I may end up being... an unworthy wife to Prince Joffrey that frightened me.’

He laughed, a sound like a saw on stone. ‘Going in there to ask the Warrior how to win a Ghiscari wrestling match? The gods won’t help you with that, little bird.’

‘Who will then?’ she said.

‘The altars are at the right height for wrestling though,’ he said.

She thought to object because it’d be sacrilege, but she was out of time, so she put her faith in the Warrior and prayed that he wouldn’t mind.  

Chapter Text

Sandor II

Sandor was feeling fuck loads better now that he’d made the decision to study the little bird closely. After all, when she’d questioned why he’d known about her preference for lemon cakes, realisation had struck: he’d been watching her. Of course he had. Only a blind man could fail to see beauty in those eyes coloured like autumn sky and hair like the sunset.

As if to prove his point, two soldiers nearby started making lewd remarks about her teats.

‘Shames she’s a witch though. Wouldn’t want to be sucked dry!’

‘I think you mean you do!’

‘Hahahaha!’

Yes, Sansa Stark was beautiful. So what? He’d seen beautiful women before. After all, he’d served the Lannisters when Cersei had been deemed one of the greatest beauties in the realm.

‘Just not like that Bastard of Bolton! They didn’t even have a body to bury in their crypt!’

‘Should have left his skin. Winter is coming, and old Roose would have appreciated a new cloak!’

‘Hahahaha!’

Yes, Sansa Stark might look like the Maiden incarnate now, if he was to believe in the gods, but the illusion would soon shatter. Behind those wide, blue eyes, beneath that porcelain skin would be nothing other than a creature that was vapid and shallow, or worse, cruel and unkind. The way she’d dragged Myrcella away from him this morning was a good indication of bad things to come.

‘Oh, have you heard what her left teat says to her right teat?’

‘What? What?’

‘You’re my breast friend!’

‘Hahahaha!’

Sandor could take it no more. The soldiers deserved to run a hundred laps in the snow for japes like that. Perhaps he’d find their words more agreeable after a flagon of sour red, but then he remembered the king’s words and growled at the soldiers instead.

‘Oh, Hound!’ said the bigger of the two, who was pock-faced. ‘We’re taking bets. You want in?’

He drew out his purse and threw them a few silver stags.

‘Arya Stark to win the last one,’ he said.

‘You’re betting against your prince?’

‘Not his dog any longer,’ he said, and it would have felt better saying so if his throat didn’t feel as dry as a dog.

He went in search of a kitchen maid, and soon spotted the one that the king had been eying the previous night. She flinched at the sight of him, and tried to walk past with her head bowed low, but he caught her on the shoulder.

‘Can you bring me some… whatever it is that your young wolves drink.’

‘Oh,’ she said. ‘Y… You mean Lord Rickon, Lord Bran and Lady Arya, ser? There’s boiled apple water sweetened with honey that I can bring you. Or do you mean the fizzed lemon with honey that Lady Sansa likes? There’s only a small jug left of that, I believe. I can bring that directly to her if she–’

‘No, bring me that one in a flagon,’ he said, and before she could voice her confusion, he added, ‘now!’

Served her right for butting into his conversation with Myrcella.

Once the flagon was in his hands, he found a spot near the back with a clear view of both the wrestling and the little bird. It was unoccupied save for Hodor, whose conversation would be easy on the pounding his head after all that sour red and sweet wine last night.

‘Hodor,’ said Hodor.

Good view, good company. What more could he want? He took a sip of the lemon concoction that was supposed to be the little bird’s favourite and nearly spat it out. Fucking perfect.

Or so he’d thought, until a bony hand closed around his wrist. It took a lot to sneak up on Sandor, but somehow the shrunken old woman had managed. Gods, she was almost uglier than him, with eyes that were hooded and shrunken, and hardly any of that wispy white hair left on her head. He wondered how much uglier he’d get with age. Not that a dog like him was likely to live to an age like hers. He planned to die fighting, and failing that, he’d most likely drink himself to death, or be stabbed while he was bleeding drunk. He just hoped it’d be quick.

‘Fuck. Where did you come from?’

‘Hodor,’ offered Hodor, pointing behind himself. ‘Hodor hodor.’

‘I hear you’ve been telling little Bran and Rickon stories,’ said the old woman, exposing her toothless gums. Her grip was surprisingly strong, and she pulled him towards her so he could hear her better. ‘Do you want to hear a story about Harrenhal?’

No, he did not. A cheer went around the crowd and the men in front of him rose to their tiptoes. He tried to pull away from the old woman so that he could rise to his full height and see, but she only pulled him closer and said, ‘Have you ever wondered whose eye is in the Gods Eye? Have you ever been to the Isle of Faces?’

He had not, and he had no plans to do so. He craned his neck to see, but all that was visible besides the cheering crowd was beacon of red that was the little bird’s hair.

‘Who won?’ he asked.

‘Hodor,’ said Hodor.

He only knew who had lost: him. With a sigh, he said to the old woman, ‘Tell me then, but make it quick.’

She didn’t. Make it quick, that was. She went on and on about some green men, who were certainly not green boys, but literally green with horns, or antlers, or were they riding elks that had horns, or antlers, as elks generally did? And all the time, he tried to see, as he’d bloody well not miss Myrcella’s match, so he nodded at her when she spoke of the Pact, of the weirwoods that had been cut down to build Harrenhal, of the silent judgement of the green men, of the curse for an act of such betrayal, of the hope that one day the blood of the First Men would return to break the curse, and of the belief that one that the castle would be occupied by giants.

She wanted to know if he’d want that, as if it had anything to do with him. All he wanted was to see Myrcella win, so at last, exasperated, he grabbed the old woman around the waist and lifted her onto his shoulders.

She squeaked like a young girl and gave his arm a squeeze. ‘My, you’re strong! You remind me of my grandson. He was killed in Pyke. You remind me of him, but alive.’

‘Got a good view up there?’ he said.

‘I can only see to the end of my nose,’ said the old woman, ‘but I suppose my nose was always my best feature.’

He grunted at that. No wonder the old woman hadn’t flinched at the sight of his face. At last, at his full height, he saw Myrcella struggle against the little wolf. Ah, he should have corrected her posture. Rather, he would have, had the little bird not interrupted him. At that, he forced down another sip of her lemon horror.

Next up, Joff stepped out to meet the she-wolf. What an idiot. He’d most likely never been down to the docks to see a Ghiscari wrestling match before, for he simply stood with both feet level at the table and leaned forward, reaching his elbow too far forward and tried to push the she-wolf before the man, Jory, even shouted go. The she-wolf, on the other hand, had planted one foot firmly before the other, and with a fluid roll of her hand, slammed his into the table.

Whooping and cheers went up at that.

‘What’s happening?’ said the old woman. ‘It’s so loud.’

He set her back down onto the ground and said, ‘Your northern girl won.’

‘Little Arya? Oh, she was always a little wolf. Ned thinks she’s like Lyanna, but Lyanna was only half horse. That girl is full wolf!’

‘So you’ve known them for a long time?’ She must know the Starks well to speak of Lord Stark without his title.

‘I delivered them all. Oh, you won’t believe how loudly she screamed when she was a new-born babe.’ She shook her head and said, ‘I’d hoped to deliver Sansa’s children, but then that poor boy died before anything could come of it. Shame, that. He was such a nice boy. A bit skinny, but a nice boy. Oh, I won’t live forever, so I’ll have to leave it all to you.’ She patted him on the arm. ‘You remind me of my son. He died in Robert’s Rebellion. You didn’t. You must keep her calm. That will always help. You know horses, so you’ll be fine. And tell the children about the green men. They should know. Yes, they should know!’

He didn’t know what she was talking about any more, and he didn’t know what was going on up front either. Seemed like there was some sort of a commotion around Joff. Perhaps the she-wolf had broken Joff’s arm. He just wanted the old woman to say something that made sense before he took his leave to find out for sure.

As if reading his mind, she said, ‘Sansa must be very fond of you.’

‘What?’ He took a peak at the little bird. She looked ridiculous, sitting there with five direwolves draped across her like some mythical queen.

‘She doesn’t like to share her lemon drink with many. Not like her sister, that one, but she will tear your heart out if you drink that without her permission,’ said the old woman, breaking into a toothless grin.

He downed the rest of his flagon and wiped the burnt corner of his mouth. ‘Right. I’d better go and collect my winnings. Placed a bet on the she-wolf, I did.’

‘Hodor!’ burped Hodor. ‘Hodor hodor.’

Sandor gave him a nod and made his way through the commotion.

He’d doubled his silver and was filling up his purse when he heard about Joff’s craven request for a rematch.

The little bird had hurried off to get changed, and he wondered if he should follow. It had nothing to do with the fact that the little bird would be getting undressed, that there’d be goose bumps across her skin as she shrugged off the blue dress that caressed her curves. Fuck. No. He could help her. He could give her a chance. After all, no matter how awful she was sure to be, she didn’t deserve to have Joff inflicted on her. He nodded to himself, suddenly glad that Myrcella had lost, and the betrothal could still be called off.

He’d just offer her a few tips, like he’d offered Myrcella. But Myrcella had still lost to Bran. So he’d need to be a bit more thorough with the little bird. Let her practise a few times. Correct her posture. That for sure. It was important that her hip should hug the table in all the right places.

*

Sandor had not prayed inside a sept for a lifetime; last time he’d lit a candle his face had still been whole, and he’d prayed to be the greatest knight in the Seven Kingdoms, to have a brave and gentle lady love to smile and smell sweet, to recite pretty little words, to love him and take him for her lord and husband. Fool that he was.

The little bird flitted about now, lighting candles for those unseeing gods to save her from having to take a lord and husband. Her hair shone brighter against her soot-grey dress, burning with a richer red than the flames she’d set on the altars.

When she rose to meet his eyes once more, it was with a determined frown between her brows.

‘You said… you’d teach me Ghiscari wrestling, my… s…?’ She bit her lip as she struggled to find a suitable form of address for him.

‘I can teach you another form of wrestling if you prefer.’

Her wide blue eyes grew even wider. ‘But… we are just having a Ghiscari wrestling match, are we not? I don’t think I could… could kick the prince. It wouldn’t be… I mean…’

He fought a now-unfamiliar urge to smile and said, ‘Ghiscari it is. Up you go. Show me how you’d stand.’

She wiped her hands down her dress and stepped up to the altar of the Warrior. Standing tall like the proper little lady she was, she set her right elbow down on the stone.

‘What the seven hells is that? Shall I give you a handkerchief so you can wave to the Knight of fucking Flowers?’

She flinched at that, and he felt a small pang of guilt as she said, ‘How am I going to become strong enough to win this match? Maybe I should start lifting that… that bucket over there. Arya says she trains by lifting heavy objects. Is it too late to start now?’

‘You don’t need to be the stronger of the two to win the match, little bird. You just need to know how to use what you’ve got,’ he said, willing his voice to take on a gentleness that it did not possess. ‘Joff doesn’t know a bloody thing about Ghiscari wrestling, so you’re both beginners right now, and I know for sure that he doesn’t intend to learn.’

‘What… what shall I do to win? Please, tell me.’

He peaked at her skirt, and could see nothing that indicated how her feet where arranged. There was just yards and yards of grey fabric. It could give her an advantage, an element of surprise. He waved her away from the altar and took his place at it instead, leaning forth with his right leg bent and braced against the stone. ‘You want to stand like this. That will let you use your body as well as your arm. Then you want to push your arm forth as much as you can without your man Jory calling you out, and push forth even more when he says go so your arm’s bent tight. Joff was pushing your wolf sister during his match. Make sure you don’t do that, because Ghiscari wrestling’s all about pulling. Just pull his hand til his wrist turns and then take him down, all right?’

The little bird wrung her hands together, looking at him as if he’d just asked her if she now knew how to lay siege to Casterly Rock with just one hundred men.

With a sigh, he said, ‘Come on, woman. It will be easier if you try it.’

She took her place opposite him, this time standing braced against the altar, and held out her hand.

‘Good. Is your right leg in front? Same leg as your arm.’ Even the she-wolf had gotten that wrong. It wasn’t a natural pose for any other sort of fight, but then again, the little bird wouldn’t know any different. ‘Now, when Joff went against your sister, he started pushing at her before your man said go. Your sister stopped him, of course. If he does that to you, give him what he wants. Go slack and let him win. Everyone will see you go down far too early, and it’s best for you if he underestimates you.’

She nodded at that, so he carried on. ‘Now hold the table with your left hand. Yes, like that. That’s your starting position. Remember it well. From here, you just need to think about three things: jut your head forth so he can’t lean in, push your elbow forwards, and pull your hand in towards your heart.’

They aligned their elbows and thumbs, and he smothered her hand in his, trying not to crush her in his grasp. Her hand was pale and slender, as was the wrist she exposed when her sleeve slipped back. The only thing that marred her skin, soft as silk, was a small bump on her middle finger: a writer’s callus. A studious one, the little bird. He pictured her, pen in hand, practising her letters with the same small frown of concentration that she wore on her face now. She followed his instructions carefully, so he allowed her to push him back, watching her blue eyes twinkle with hope and amazement as she forced him back, and back, and back. Just before his knuckles were about to graze the altar, he pulled on her hand and pressed her hand back into the stone as gently as he could.

There she stood, eyes bright and cheeks flushed. This time, he lost the fight against his urge to smile. And only when she coughed and lowered her eyes did he realise that he was still holding her hand.

*

He slunk to the back as they entered the yard, leaving her to her wolf pack.

‘Gods Sansa, where were you?’ said the she-wolf. ‘We were looking for you.’

‘I… I was in the sept.’

The she-wolf let out an exasperated sigh and said, ‘Now’s not the time to get married, Sansa.’

‘I wasn’t–’

‘Though maybe it’s not a bad idea. If you lose, we’ll just marry you to someone else before he can carry you off to King’s Landing.’

‘I volunteer,’ said the Greyjoy fucker.

‘Don’t you dare,’ said the eldest Stark boy. ‘I will geld you.’

‘As will I,’ said Ned’s bastard.

‘Can any of you think of a better option then? Best for her to make-do. And I’m not bad, you know.’

Sandor slunk back further and sought out the pock-faced soldier and laid all the silver he’d won from betting on the she-wolf and all three gold dragons in his purse on the little bird’s to win.

He watched as she let Joff slam her into the table before the man Jory had said go. The fucking prick made her knuckles bleed, but she just smiled politely and said that it must have been an honest mistake. Twice. But on the third attempt, she towered over the prince and bent him into submission in one fell swoop.

The crowd went wild. Even fat king Robert rose to his feet to give applaud her victory.

She didn’t need to make-do, the little bird. For the second time that day, he smiled.

Chapter Text

Robert II

It had seemed like a perfectly reasonable decision at the time. The smallfolk loved him; Cersei hated him. There were smallfolk in the winter town, and there was Cersei’s sour face and cold cunt in Winterfell. And he really didn’t want to see Joffrey’s face right now. Gods, the shame! To have someone who was supposedly his son lose against Ned’s hellion daughter was one thing, for small as she was, Arya Stark looked more like a boy than Tommen ever did. But to lose against the older of the two, who looked like she had never handled anything heavier than a sewing needle, was the final straw. His fists clenched at that thought again. Gods! He needed a proper drink. But there was only some piss water in his cup. He took a sip. What had he been thinking?

He’d watched as Winterfell’s maester tied his letters to those ravens, watched as they flew out of sight. It was too late to turn back now, and he had never been one to turn back once he’d started. Perhaps Cersei was celebrating with Jaime in her bed tonight, thinking she’d bagged the Tyrell girl for her son. He’d heard it said that the girl looked like Lyanna. At least she had dark hair, and must be a beauty judging by the looks of her brothers.

The Imp’s laughter brought him another stab of misery. There he was, red-faced and merry, throwing all that Lannister gold at some yellow-toothed wench. He sighed. He had to give that to Cersei. She rubbed her teeth with linen thrice daily, using some concoction made from powdered marble, salt, date pits, cinnamon and cloves to keep her teeth a pretty shade of white.

The Greyjoy boy was equally merry, slapping a redheaded serving wench on the rear with a little wave. ‘Hello Bessa.’

She turned around and batted her lashes at him. Robert would have thought her a sweet and beautiful thing with a flagon of wine down his throat, but as things were, he couldn’t help but notice that one of her brows, no doubt made of mouse fur, was falling off. And again, he had to give it to Cersei. She had her own fur for brows.

With yet another sigh, he turned to the only other man in the Smoking Log who looked more miserable than him. At least bringing Clegane with him had been a good decision. A king would not suffer alone.

Clegane was staring at the redhead with a grim look on her face, nursing the last sip of his second cup of sour red as if it was liquid gold. The man was really a more patient creature than Robert had expected, for Robert’s own wine had disappeared in no more than two or three gulps hours ago. There was almost something Ned-like in Clegane’s eyes when they didn’t look as angry as his scars. He wondered briefly if patience had been branded into Clegane due to hours on end of standing behind Joffrey and doing nothing, or if someone like that really had been born with it. A soldier like that would be good for a siege. Robert fucking hated sieges. Sieges were the worst part of wars, by far. He’d send Clegane to deal with the bloody things next time. Not that there would be a next time. As much as he’d love to bash a few heads in again, he’d married Cersei fucking Lannister to keep the peace, and he’d have the bloody peace. Though, maybe, if the Greyjoy brat was to step out of line…

Clegane’s eyes flicked over the redhead again.

‘It’s made of mouse fur,’ he said, suddenly feeling the need to impart this wisdom he’d gleaned from his favourite whore at the Peach onto the younger man. She’d been very proud of her natural brows. A skilful one, that woman. He could do with her in his lap right now, provided that she’d aged better than he had.

‘What?’ said Clegane.

‘Her brows,’ he explained. ‘They’re mouse fur, cut to shape and stuck on. That’s why one of them is falling off.’

‘Oh. Right you are, Your Grace.’

‘Hadn’t you noticed her brows?’ said Robert. He frowned at that. ‘Got a thing for redheads, have you?’

‘No, I…’ Clegane swallowed the rest of his wine. ‘I just thought she looked like… someone for a moment.’

‘So your whore back in King’s Landing’s got mouse fur for brows as well?’ he said with a chuckle. Of course, for a man with only half a face, a woman with no brows must be quite a catch. In fact, Clegane only had one brow himself. Robert tried to imagine the Hound with stuck on mouse fur brows and boomed with laughter. Being deprived of wine was becoming almost bearable.

‘I didn’t know Your Grace cared so damned much about the welfare of mice,’ said Clegane.

‘You should try Dancy at Chataya's,’ he said, patting Clegane on the back, ‘though her moss isn’t as green as her canopy. Last time I checked, her bird’s nest was honey gold.’

Then a horrible thought crossed Robert’s mind. For someone like Clegane, Chataya was sure to charge at least double to compensate her girls for overlooking that face. The olive cloak that was hanging off the back of Clegane’s chair was frayed at the edges. Worse, his armour, a warrior’s pride, was of an unadorned soot-grey. ‘We do pay you enough, don’t we?’

‘Enough to get by,’ said Clegane, all of a sudden glaring at the Greyjoy boy for some reason.

To get by? One of the greatest warriors in his damned kingdoms was merely paid enough to get by? Counting coins was tedious at best, and he’d been happy to leave it to Baelish, tight as the man was with his purse strings, as he’d never had to suffer through a session of looking at numbers since the man’s appointment. He could hear them now, soldiers huddled in the winesinks in King’s Landing cursing his name, which was well enough, but for keeping all of their purses thin, which was not. Damn Littlefinger. Damn him to the seven hells.

The wine spoke for the Greyjoy boy then. ‘Don’t worry about him, Your Grace! He’s won a heavy purse from championing both girls with his coin at Ghiscari wrestling.’

The redhead, who’d been keeping a wide berth from Clegane, suddenly found it within her to brush her fingers against his shoulders. Potent stuff, gold.

‘Spent it all already,’ growled Clegane, ‘on a horse.’

The wench scurried away.

‘A northern horse?’ Robert couldn’t help but ask. ‘The Reach has the best these days, thanks to the Tyrell cripple, they say.’

‘They’re fast, but not hardy, and too small for the likes of me,’ said Clegane. ‘I saw a blood bay courser the size of a destrier in Winterfell’s stables when we first got here, but it’s not for sale.’

‘Ah, bad tempered fellow?’ said the Greyjoy boy. ‘Got your eye on Sansa’s horse?’

Clegane’s good brow shot up. ‘Thought he belonged to the young wolf.’

‘No. Sansa’s constantly half falling off that horse. Pity she won’t sell it to you. It’s a terror. Nearly bit my ear off!’

Shame it didn’t, for the Greyjoy boy might need a few missing body parts to become better company.  

‘Well,’ said Clegane, ‘the men in the stables mentioned that he was bred at the Dreadfort. They sent a raven to ask if there were others from the same mare, and they have one they’d be willing to part with. A man came down with him today, and thanks to the winnings, I’d not need to press for a loan.’

‘That’s my gold you’ve managed to pocket,’ said the Lannister Imp. Turning to a passing serving wench, he gestured at his hardly-touched plate of stew and said, ‘More of that bread, and bring me a cut of that lamb.’

‘Is the stew not to my lord’s taste?’ said the wench.

‘As much as I am in need of friends, I am not in the habit of becoming closely acquainted with carrots,’ he said, no doubt pleased with his own wit, and turned back to Clegane. ‘Looks like I’d lost enough gold to buy you a horse as well as hair pins for your favourite whore.’

Clegane’s mouth twitched. ‘Careful who you call a whore, little lord. One is for Shireen. Another is for Myrcella.’

Gods. He really needed a proper drink. Surely the Long Night was not as long as tonight. With a sigh, Robert made a grab for the redhead and smoothed her brow back on. There. She was looking like better company than these men already. The Others take them all.

*

That too had seemed like a perfectly reasonable decision at the time, but now that it was morning, and Robert felt hollowed out. An empty wineskin, was what he was. To make the night worse than it already was, there’d been a rider from King’s Landing, sent by Varys. Daenerys Targaryen has wed some Dothraki horselord.

And who did he have as Warden of the East? He could not gift the title to Jaime Lannister now.

Here he was, a king with no trusted Hand, no trueborn heir, and a sickly boy who couldn’t even keep a bed dry to defend the east.

He swung onto his horse, beckoned Ned to his side and led the party south, leaving those grim walls of Winterfell behind.

Chapter Text

Sansa III (Part 1)

As always, it was an effort to get onto Thunder’s back, especially with her hand still bandaged from the scrapes and bruises that Prince Joffrey had caused from their Ghiscari wrestling match, so Jon helped boost her onto her blood bay courser. Truth be told, she’d have broken her neck a long time ago without her half-brother’s help, for Hullen was right, he really was the best rider in Winterfell, and had somehow made her a passable one. Granted, she’d never have half of Arya’s grace in the saddle, but some things were not meant to be, like Arya making a straight stitch.

Prince Joffrey took one look at Thunder and demanded to swap his own modest-sized blood bay courser for a larger mount, and as Sansa’s courser was the largest of the type, bred and raised at the Dreadfort for surefootedness in the snow and endurance in the north, he swapped to his buckskin destrier instead.

‘Its name is Bloodhunter,’he said, and pushed the horse to a reckless gallop. She watched the poor beast skid on a particularly icy patch and hoped that the prince would not break his neck.

Instead of joining Bran and Rickon at the front of the party, Sansa urged Thunder to fall to the back so that she could ride beside Jon and Arya. It had taken hours of Arya’s begging for Father to allow Jon south with them. Please, please, Father, it’s only for a few moons. You can’t leave Jon with Mother. Please, please! We’ll be good, I promise, I promise… Father had never been much good at denying Arya anything, and in the end Jon was allowed to come with them as long as he was to ride as far out of the king’s way as possible. Sansa was glad of it now, as it was also the spot that was as far away from Prince Joffrey as possible.

‘Is it true you’re thinking of leaving us after this to join the Night’s Watch?’ she asked her half-brother. In the songs, they were called the black knights of the Wall. She tried to imagine Jon fighting for the good of the realm along men like Uncle Benjen and thought it’d suit him well, though Arya would miss him most of all.

Jon shrugged. ‘You and Arya will soon marry heirs of other great houses and be mistresses of castles of your own. It should have happened sooner was it not for… those rumours. We’re men and women grown, and we must all leave to find our places. A bastard can find a place at the Wall as well as a trueborn son.’

It was true enough. Sansa knew that the reason Mother had been so willing to part with Father for a few moons with a babe in her belly was because of the king’s Tournament of the Hand. No one knew who’d be Hand, though Sansa hoped that the king did, but there’d be the greatest tournament the land had ever seen, and at the end, the king would announce a new Hand. All the great houses would attend, the king said, and he was sure he’d see Lord Stannis Baratheon travel back to King’s Landing, and Lord Tywin Lannister, Lord Mace Tyrell and princes from Dorne too, for none of them would want to miss the opportunity of being the new Hand. Uncle Edmure or Great-Uncle the Blackfish, neither of whom she’d met, were expected to attend on behalf of Grandfather Tully as well.

As much as she her heart leapt at the thought of meeting family, and as highly as Mother had spoken of her Great-Uncle, it was of other lords that Mother had focused on throughout the previous evening. For Sansa, there were Willas and Ser Loras of Highgarden, a serious possibility now that the prince was out of the picture. For Arya, Mother had thought of Prince Quentyn or Prince Trystane, and though Dorne was rather far from Winterfell, Mother claimed that they were more likely to tolerate women who could not embody Septa Mordane’s teachings. Perhaps she should go to Dorne as well, for she didn’t think Septa Mordane would approve of practising Ghicari wrestling in a sept.

‘I’m not going to get married!’ Arya said to Jon. ‘I’m going to take a ship across the Narrow Sea. You should come with me. We’ll board a ship to Braavos, and Syrio will help us find a place to stay. I can train properly there, and you can become the First Sword of Braavos! I’m sure they don’t care about stupid things there.’

Jon merely shrugged again and shifted the conversation towards Braavosi sword dancing. Sansa tuned out their voices to focus on the problem at hand: Sandor Clegane. She’d need to have a conversation with Sandor Clegane, and though she’d always been good at conversations, she was dreading it.

The first problem was the correct way to address the man. Calling him Hound to his face was surely as bad as it’d be to walk up to the king and say, ‘Hello Stag.’ But it was true that he was no ser, having never been knighted, and no lord, for even the first son of Clegane Keep was but a landed knight. He’d been the queen’s, then the prince’s sworn shield, but there was no title associated with the post, and now he wasn’t even that. Perhaps she should call him by his name? But he didn’t call her by hers, and little bird was surely an insult of some sort, for she’d heard him call her brothers and sisters by the names of wolves. Why was she, alone, some other sort of animal? Perhaps she should return the favour and call him giant dragonfly.

Sansa looked down and found that she’d picked so much at her sleeves that they’d frayed at the edges. Oh, confound it all. She should just marry him and call him her lord husband. How would he like it then? With a huff, she nudged Thunder forth in search of the man, and spotted him easily enough beside a riderless black stallion.

‘Good morning no-ser,’ she said, deciding to address him as what he claimed to be in her head, and stifled a little gasp when she realised that she’d spoken it out loud. As quick as she could, she added, ‘It is a pleasant morning for a ride, is it not? The air is so…’ From the look on his face, he did not seem to agree that the air was sweet, so she attempted to steer the conversation in another direction. ‘… so… good for your horse. Is that a new horse?’

‘Are you just here to repeat all the pretty little words they taught you to recite?’ he rasped. ‘Aye, he’s a new horse, though I doubt you are here to talk about my horse.’

‘I…’ she cleared her throat and tried again, making sure to meet his eyes as she said the words. Thankfully they looked less angry than his words sounded this morning. ‘I am here to thank you for… for your advice.’

His eyes flicked down to her hands, and when they met hers again, they’d filled with anger, and his laugh became half a snarl as he said, ‘Thank me? Aye, thank me for fattening my own purse. I bet good money on you besting Joff, you know that? I pocketed all the gold the Lannister Imp shat out while you stood up there having your pretty little hand battered and bruised. There’s your truth.’

She hated the way he talked to her, so harsh and angry. He’d not been like that telling Bran and Rickon their bedtime stories. Sometimes she saw him laughing with Arya, and there’d been no snarl in those laughs either. She’d hoped that now that their misunderstandings had been set aside, and now that he’d helped her and been not ungentle with her in the sept, they’d start anew and set all the hatefulness aside. Hoped, but not expected, which was why she’d dreaded this conversation to begin with.

Building a dam around her own frustrations, she simply pushed on with the rest of the conversation she’d planned out in her head.

‘Last night,’ she began, and realised that perhaps that wasn’t how she’d begun when she’d planned it in her head. ‘I asked Jez about…’ she began anew, then realised that he’d most likely not know who Jez was. ‘The maid from the kitchens told me everything,’ she tried for the third time, and realised that it sounded a little confrontational, so she added, ‘I am not angry about it, my lord. Maybe a little annoyed. You could have asked me first.’

‘And why’s that, little bird?’ For some unfathomable reason, the anger had drained from his eyes, and there was now almost a playfulness to them that she’d glimpsed in the sept. It made him easier to look at. She didn’t understand what had caused his mood to lift, but forged ahead with her task in case it’d disappear in a blink.

‘It’s just… certain things belong to me,’ she said, ‘and I don’t like it when someone else touches them without my permission. But what’s done is done, and–’

‘Nothing happened, little bird.’

What?

‘How can you say that?’ Whatever dam she’d built within herself broke at that comment. How dare he deny it? She’d almost snapped at Arya for it, thinking it’d been Arya who’d committed the deed. ‘You took it even though Jez told you it was the last of my lemon juice! I was saving it for my last night in Winterfell! Don’t deny it. It was definitely you, and… and…’

And she’d planned to thank him, for despite stealing her favourite lemon drink, he’d saved her from Prince Joffrey, which was surely worth more. She rummaged through her saddle bag and found the three pieces of lemon cake she’d wrapped for him in the morning.

‘There’s no more lemon juice, as you well know, but I thought… since you like lemons too, maybe you’d like some lemon cake, my lord?’

She’d thought that it’d make her attempt to thank him more sincere, and she’d hoped that it’d offer some comfort as he’d somehow been dismissed from being the prince’s sworn shield, but now, holding it out to him as their horses trotted alongside each other, she watched the piece to the left crumbled a little, along with her resolve.

He made no attempts to take the cake.

How long should she leave her arm hovering? Did he actually not like lemons after all? Or was it just lemon cakes that he didn’t like? Maybe she should wrap them up again and offer it later, as it wasn’t really the time of day to eat cakes right now. Why had she chosen to take them out now? Yes, she’d wrap them up and–

The riderless stallion neighed and dragged his tongue across the cakes.

Sansa prayed to the Maiden that she’d never need to talk to Sandor Clegane ever again.

*

There was no Maester Luwin here to teach Bran and Rickon their sums, but she couldn’t let them run wild in their moons away from Winterfell, so she took to riding beside them to make them practise daily. One day they’d be masters of their own castles, and they’d need to understand their own books.

Sadly, Rickon was as undisposed towards sums as she herself, and today Bran was riding with Father, so she tried to think of things that’d catch his interest and tailor the questions to him, namely: Ser Barristan the Bold, the Hound, and sweets.  

‘Ser Barristan the Bold starts with two silver stags in his purse, and he buys seven boxes of Dornish sweets for two pennies a box. How much does he have left in his purse?’

Rickon furrowed his brows and muttered, ‘So he would have spent… fourteen pennies, which is… Less than one silver stag.’

‘Yes,’ said Sansa, ‘so we can keep one stag, and change the other to pennies.’

‘So that’s fifty-six pennies, taking away fourteen, to give… forty-four pennies.’

‘Well done! And can we change any of that to copper stars?’

‘Yes… So that’s… Six copper stars? And two pennies?’

She beamed at her baby brother. This method was definitely working. ‘Well done!’ she said, and tried to find inspiration for another question. ‘Now… If the Hound wants to buy… as many lemon cakes as he can with two copper stars, and lemon cakes are two pieces a halfpenny. How many pieces can he buy?’

Rickon furrowed his brows and said, ‘Why would the Hound want to buy so many lemon cakes? He doesn’t even like lemon cakes that much.’

‘That’s…’ She really didn’t want to think about that. Why had she even mentioned the Hound and lemon cakes in the same sentence again? ‘He might not be buying them for himself. How many do you think?’

‘Even you can’t eat that many lemon cakes!’

‘And how many is that?’ she tried once more, but to her horror, Rickon nudged his horse forth and called out to the man in question.

‘Hound! Hound, what was the last thing you bought?’ he said. ‘I bet it wasn’t lemon cakes.’

That wasn’t the point, but if a more realistic setting could make Rickon do his divisions, then so be it. But those grey eyes, which had regarded Rickon with a degree of confusion, now turned hard and angry upon seeing her.

‘What does it matter to you, woman?’ he growled at her. ‘Have you been talking to the Imp?’

‘No I haven’t,’ she said, keeping her voice quiet and level. ‘And it really doesn’t matter. I was only using some real life examples so it’d be easier for Rickon to practise his sums. Come on Rickon, let’s go. We’re not wanted here.’

What in the name of the Seven did Sandor Clegane buy? Not that she was ever going to talk to him again, so she wouldn’t be finding out, and so be it, because she really didn’t care.

*

Father chose to bring Bran with him to ride with the king again the following day, and Sansa suspected that it had something to do with the king’s desire to foster her cousin Lord Robert Arryn with Lord Stannis. She’d overheard the king talking with Father about Lord Robert being of an age with Bran, and perhaps having the two boys together would make Aunt Lysa more willing to allow the boy to leave the Eyrie.

She sighed and turned back to Rickon. This morning, she tried a different approach with his lessons, eliminating the need for objects to purchase. ‘Ser Barristan the Bold is sixty-five years old, and has heard another knight mention that the Hound was half his age thirteen years ago. How old is the Hound?’

‘Hound!’ said Rickon.

Oh no… She rode after him, but it was too late.

‘Hound!’ she heard Rickon call out to the man, who was riding with Arya and Jon today. ‘How old are you?’

‘Rickon, you just need to take away thirteen and–’

Sandor Clegane turned towards them with the good half of his face. Thankfully, he looked to be in better spirits than he had been the day before. ‘Sums again?’ he rasped.

Rickon nodded. ‘It’s pointless. I can just ask him. He’s right here. How old are you?’

Why was he right here? It’d be so much easier if he was not. And how old was he anyway? She’d thought him terribly old before, because she couldn’t imagine him as a boy, but for a moment when they’d stood in the sept, his grey eyes had smiled even when his mouth had not, and he’d looked much younger. She liked him better when he was smiling.

But he wasn’t when he said, ‘Thirty three. And you should listen to your sister. Do your sums.’

So she’d been mistaken after all. To make his real age fit her question, she’d need to change–

‘I don’t like sums,’ said Rickon. ‘Theon said I don’t have to do them if I don’t want to. I’d just have to marry a lady who can.’

She’d never let Theon anywhere near her baby brothers again. She looked to Arya and Jon for support, and Jon spoke in his serious voice, ‘I know next to nothing about how to be a lord, but I do know that giving all the work you don’t want to do to your lady wife is not the right thing to do.’

Rickon stuck his tongue out at Jon and turned back to the Hound. ‘Are you married?’ he said.

For a time, all she heard was the click clack of the horses’ hooves.

Then the Hound said, ‘Do I look like the marrying sort?’

Rickon did his Jon-shrug. ‘Father married Mother when he was nineteen. Why aren’t you married yet?’

‘Why don’t we go find Jeyne?’ Sansa tried, praying that her dearest friend would forgive her for betraying her secret to Rickon, but these were desperate times. ‘She’s got a bag of candied ginger in her saddlebag.’

‘Yes, let’s go now! I’d like some as well! Yum yum yum!’ said Arya, making a grab for his reins, but it was too late.

Rickon opened his mouth again, and out came those dreaded words. ‘Is it because you’re really ugly?’

Seven forgive her. She had failed. As much as Sandor Clegane had mocked her courtesies, she didn’t think that he’d appreciate the exact opposite either. She thought she’d taught Rickon better than that. An image of Rickon asking the king if he knew that fat men made better candle wicks froze her in her place, and before she knew it, Rickon was speaking again.

‘It must be difficult to find a wife if you’re ugly,’ he said. ‘If you aren’t careful, your children will end up really ugly, so you’ve got to be really careful and find a lady who is beautiful enough. Don’t worry, I will keep an eye out for you and report back with any likely candidates. I’ll ask Bran to help as well.’

Jon yanked the reins from Rickon’s hands, and Sansa nodded at him. She tried to instil a touch of Mother’s voice as she said, ‘Rickon, you’re going with Jon and Arya, and Arya is going to take you through one hundred quick sums before lunchtime, and if you run away from your sums again, when we meet Ser Barristan the Bold we will tell him that you haven’t been good. Now, are you going to do your sums?’

‘Yes Sansa,’ said Rickon with a pout.

And as the three horses trotted away from them, Sansa wanted nothing more than to go after them, to run from the anger that she was sure to find in his eyes, but she’d run after her failure with the lemon cakes, and she couldn’t run again now, not when she was at fault for those hurtful words making it to his ears.

‘I’m sorry, my lord,’ she said, trying to meet his eyes, but he looked away.

‘For what?’ he growled. ‘Your brother told it true.’

‘But–’

‘I don’t want your pity, woman.’

It was worse when he called her woman. She wished he’d call her little bird again, insult though it must be. She tried to tease out the right words, for she wasn’t sure what she wanted to say to him either, only that she wanted to make things right.

‘Rickon only said what he thought,’ she said, ‘but that doesn’t mean it’s true. Your face is… striking.’

The Hound laughed, a sound much like the snarling of dogs in a pit. ‘Aye. Striking it is. Strikes fear into the hearts of men, it does.’

‘It scared me at first, my lord,’ she said, offering him honesty, as he seemed to prefer it, for it was difficult to find a compliment for the ruin that was the left half of his face. The cracks in that leather-black skin gleamed red and wet now, as his face formed another snarl. Still, she wanted to try. She searched the right side of his face, searched his heavy brow, large hooked nose, angry grey eyes. She offered him a smile when she found it, and willed him to feel that she meant it. ‘But you have fine cheekbones, like the Whents of Harrenhal. It becomes you well.’

He froze then, and the silence between them went on and on. She was sad for him, she realised, and wondered when he’d last received a compliment, for as much as he liked to mock them, compliments were not empty, and everyone should receive them, to feel cared for, to feel human.

They rode on in silence for the rest of the morning, but he did not break away from her company.

Chapter Text

Sansa III (Part 2)

By the time they’d arrived at the biggest inn Sansa had ever seen by the banks of the Trident, her hand had healed well enough to only show a tinge of yellow under the midday sun.

The real Ser Barristan had arrived to meet them from King’s Landing, bringing Lord Renly with him, and his presence had made Bran and Rickon quite awestruck. They were most likely now downstairs, begging the brave knight to recount once more how he’d climbed the walls of Duskendale, disguised as a beggar, and how he’d begged for the life of an innocent child named Dontos Hollard in return. That was their favourite out of the brave knight’s deeds, and Sansa loved it too, for what could be a greater deed for a true knight than saving a child’s or a lady’s life?

‘What happened to Dontos Hollard, ser?’ she’d asked after he’d told the story the first time round.

‘He is now a knight, and lives in King’s Landing.’

Oh! What could be a more perfect ending to this story? She hoped to meet Ser Dontos soon.

Jon had wanted to listen to Ser Barristan’s tales too, but had been dragged away by Arya, who was intent on riding upstream to search for Rhaegar's rubies. Surely someone would have found them now, if they were truly in the ford? Sansa had no wish to wade through the freezing waters, so instead retreated to her room at the inn and asked for her harp.

Now, sat at the window seat, overlooking the tents and pavilions that housed the soldiers and freeriders who couldn’t find board at the inn, she watched the sun dip lower. With Lady at her feet and her high harp in her hands, she allowed the room to fade away. Her fingers felt slow and ungainly after weeks without practise, but as they brushed against the strings, familiar melodies took form. She sang Jenny of Oldstones, and she sang Alysanne. She’d never liked sad songs, but these were his favourites, he’d taught them to her on his harp, and today was his name day. He’d be twenty-two today, had he lived, but he was only bones, and he’d be forever sixteen.

She wondered if his father was with him today, in the crypts underneath the Dreadfort. She wondered if Lord Bolton had ever blamed her for his death, or if he’d only blamed his bastard son, now also dead and gone. After all, Lord Bolton didn’t know the words she’d spoken to him at Winterfell. Those words were between her, Arya, and the dead.

You are so merry here, he’d said, looking at her sadly with those moon-grey eyes, with all your brothers about you. I miss Jasper, and Creighton, and Jon, and Mychel. It is just me at the Dreadfort.

Perhaps you can seek out your bastard half-brother? We have Jon living with us here, and he is as gallant and kind as any trueborn brother. Robb loves him dearly, as you can see.

But not all bastard half-brothers were like Jon. She should have known.

She was singing a song she’d written for him and his beloved courser when the door clicked. She opened her eyes, the room had become shrouded in dusk, and Arya slunk in.

‘Did you find any rubies?’ she asked.

Her sister padded over to the window seat and dropped something into her palm. It wasn’t hard and cold like a ruby, and when she looked down, she found a length of velvet ribbon in autumn gold, with a little black stone pendent.

‘Thought you could make it look pretty,’ said Arya, shifting awkwardly on her feet, worrying her lips. ‘Are you… Do you want to eat up here today? I can ask Father to send our supper up here.’

Arya remembered. Of course Arya remembered.

Her sister squeaked and squirmed as she caught her in her arms, but she only held her tighter. ‘Yes please, I’d like it if you ate up here with–’

There were three loud knocks on her door. They froze, both waiting for whoever it was to go away. Knock, knock, knock, went the intruder once more, and Arya strode over and flung the door open.

‘Might you be Lady Arya Stark? Is this were we might find Lady Sansa Stark?’ came a woman’s voice that she did not recognise.

‘What… uh…’

She thought Arya would send the woman away, but instead her sister hesitated. She craned her neck and glanced at the intruders, and understood.

A dark haired maid with a pug nose stood beside a… well… The other being in question was more heavily wrapped than Prince Tommen had been in Winterfell’s practice yard, and only sweat-filled brows and its red-rimmed eyes were visible. Sansa wondered how it had made it up the narrow staircase.

‘I’m Sansa Stark,’ she said. ‘How many I… help you? Do you want to sit down?’

‘No, my lady Ricia will stand,’ said the maid. ‘It is not easy to… get up again… once my lady sits down.’

So there was a lady buried under those layers of blankets.

‘I am sorry to disturb you,’ said the creature who was a lady named Ricia, voice muffled by two scarves pulled in front of her face. ‘I was hoping you’d… be able to help.’

Sansa ushered them inside and offered Ricia a spot near the window, where the cool air might offer some relief.

‘We have heard of your… powers,’ said Ricia. ‘And there is talk that Lady Sansa is the Red Witch, the Red Widow reborn. I’ve asked Masha to keep an eye out on the road, and she said you seem… kind.’

‘Just get on with it,’ said Arya. ‘What’s wrong with you.’

‘I… am made of glass, and I’m afraid it will be far too easy for me to shatter. I was hoping that you’d use your powers to turn me back.’

She exchanged a look with Arya. Sansa knew the feeling, of feeling as helpless and as delicate as porcelain, but Ricia was talking about something impossible, of being physically made of glass. Even Old Nan’s tales had only mentioned soldiers made from snow.

‘Let’s see it,’ said Arya, and swung Needle at the rope that bound the outermost layers together. Ricia shrieked, and her maid Masha tried to step in between the two, but Arya had already wrenched the layers of blankets aside, revealing a slender, shivering girl within. Her skin was flushed red from the tips of her fingers to the tip of her nose with the heat under the blankets that had smothered her, and looked nothing like glass.

Sansa took a step forth and brushed her fingers across Ricia’s. They were soft and warm, unmarred by the toil that thrust itself on the average smallfolk.

‘You think you will shatter?’ she asked.

Ricia nodded, desperately grabbing onto the blanket that had fallen about her and attempted to wrap herself in it again. The fear in Ricia’s eyes was real enough.

She tried to find the right words to say to give the girl comfort. Perhaps she should start from the very beginning. ‘When did you turn into g–’

With a crash, Arya careened into the poor girl, smacking her against the wall, then proceeded to tap her across the arms.

‘Arya, you can’t just…’

‘Look, she’s not broken!’

Even a normal girl could get a broken bone from being tackled like that. Ricia’s mouth was open in a silent scream. She pulled the poor girl into her arms and rubbed her back, like she used to when Bran and Rickon were younger and more prone to nightmares.

‘Shhh… Shhh… It’s all right. You’re all right. You’re not cracked, and you’re not broken. You’re all right… Do you… Do you believe in my powers? In the Red Witch?’

The girl nodded at that.

‘You’re no longer glass,’ said Sansa. ‘We’ve broken the spell and turned you into something much stronger, like steel. You should adjust yourself slowly. Go into the world without all that padding. Walk in the gardens. Let the sun forge you and the wind cool you. You will grow stronger with each passing day. Can you do that?’

The girl nodded. And Sansa hoped that it was true. That you really could grow stronger each day. That porcelain really could turn to steel.

*

When the tapping woke her, her sister’s bed was already empty. Arya must be practising with Jon again, as they were want to do out of sight before the crack of dawn. She threw a cloak over her shift and cracked open the door, only to find Ser Meryn standing outside, sparing her only a brief glance with those droopy eyes.

‘To what do I owe this pleasure, ser?’ she said.

Thankfully he did not ask to come in. Instead, he said, ‘You are wanted by the river.’

‘By the king?’

‘By the prince,’ he said. He did not need to explain which prince.

‘Please allow me to dress–’

‘By the time you’ve done that, Ice would be lost,’ said Ser Meryn.

‘Oh. Then Father must–’

‘Only you can save Ice.’

Only she could… His meaning sank in. It seemed that the prince had not forgiven her for his loss after all. She hurried to the Trident, then broke into a sprint as she saw Prince Joffrey standing over the Trident. He raised the familiar form that was Ice with both hands as she approached, and, with a smirk, dropped it into the river.

Ice. Their ancestral sword. It was as old as House Stark, and if it was lost, there’d never be another. She was a Stark maid. There had been many, and there will be many after her. There was only one thing to do. She jumped into the river before the water could swallow Ice and reduce it to nothing but a legend, like the rubies from Prince Rhaegar's breastplate.

The water was like ice, and she gasped for breath as it gripped her cloak. She fumbled for the tie around her neck and let the river take it from her. Mother had sewn that cloak for her. It mattered little now. There, above the sound of the waters, was steel against stone. She fumbled, trying to focus on any glint of steel under the pale morning light instead of the crushing cold. Her fingers brushed against the pommel, and she closed her fist, not daring to let go again, lest she should never find it again.

On the banks, Prince Joffrey was laughing, while Ser Meryn stared on, arms crossed, and stifled a yawn. She shivered from something more chilling than the cold.

Then Lady was bounding over to her, a low growl in her throat, sounding more like Nymeria than herself. She willed her wolf to leave Prince Joffrey alone, to come to the banks, where she was trying, trying to drag Ice to safety. Obedient at heart, Lady padded over to her, and with strength she didn’t know she had, Sansa threw Ice onto the riverbank. Lady gripped the pommel between her teeth and disappeared into the distance. Bring it back to Father, she willed.

She took a deep breath and gripped the banks to lift herself from the waters. Her shift weighed her down, like armour. Prince Joffrey and Ser Meryn sauntered to where she stood, and the prince placed a large tree branch in Ser Meryn’s hand.

‘Mother said it would not do for a prince to harm a highborn maiden. Ser Meryn, please do the honours.’

Ser Meryn extended the branch towards her, and a small part of her was relieved despite the cold anger that burnt within. She wanted to tell him that he was no true knight for allowing Prince Joffrey to throw Ice into the river, but now that he had proffered the branch, she was too weary to turn it away. She reached out her hand.

A sharp jab into her shoulder, followed by a cruel laugh. All of a sudden, she was floundering, caught in a strong current, pulling her away from the bank.

All she could see, through her stunned realisation that Ser Meryn’s branch had not been to help her, was Prince Joffrey’s mouth, frozen in a smirk. She’d thought that he might seek to bring her down for the humiliation he’d felt from her victory at Ghiscari wrestling, so she’d showered him with apologies afterwards and explained her victory away with luck. She’d thought, when she saw him dangle Ice over the waters, that he’d be satisfied with humiliating her in return, with laughing at her see-through shift once she’d crawled out from the river.

But this? She gasped, struggling to keep her head above water. What had she done to deserve this?

Those wormy lips morphed into another pair of lips she’d gazed upon a long, long time ago. You know what you’ve done, don’t you? You let the dogs eat me, so I’ll let the fish eat you. No, no, no… But Jon said it was just a dream. Just a very vivid dream. And the girl was so scared in that dream. So, so scared. Help! the girl had screamed in the dream, and Sansa had so desperately wanted to help, but the girl was so, so far away. Only Sansa’s intended was there. Brought to the Dreadfort and made Sansa’s intended now that Domeric was dead. Mother had found Father homely too, after Uncle Brandon. And Jon was kind and brave, despite being a Snow. She’d repeat those words to herself every day, and the only thing that drowned them was whispers of the Tears of Lys. You are so merry here, he’d said. Sansa’s intended was there. And Sansa had so desperately wanted to help. Wanted to help. And the dogs were getting closer. Closer. The taste of copper in her mouth. But Jon said it was just a dream. Just a dream. Ramsay was dead, eaten by his own dogs. That was not a dream. Now it was her turn, to be eaten by fish.

She wasn’t ready. She gasped. She ached.

She’d wanted to be first. Wanted to be loved by Mother as much as Robb was. But it wasn’t to be, for she and Arya were always destined to marry south, and Mother had built a wall of stone in her heart to make their leaving easier. She’d heard of the saying from the Riverlands: a married daughter was like spilt water. She’d hoped to love her own daughters as much as her sons. But perhaps she’d never have them. Mother, she was becoming one with the water. She kicked, and kicked, and kicked. The water was so cold. It pulled away her shoes and yanked her dress across jagged rocks. Would her flesh be soft and bloated when they find her body? Would Lady drag her from the waters, like she’d done to Ice? She hoped they’ve never find her, and they’d remember her pretty.

Pretty. She’d wanted to look pretty. She was loved, she knew, but not in the way that Jon loved Arya, not in a way that transcended duty, transcended oaths. When she was younger, she’d hoped for the same from Robb, but it was not to be, for Jon would lay down his life for Arya, but she knew in her heart of hearts that though Robb loved her well, he’d not do the same. She wouldn’t want him to. He was the future Lord of Winterfell, and she was a means to an alliance.

But she could look pretty, like the ladies in the songs. Knights loved them pretty, loved them true, loved them above all else. She could have that. Surely she could have that?

Driftwood snagged her hair; she’d always brushed it until it shone, to look pretty. Her blue shift fell apart with a rip that she could barely hear above the rushing of the river; she’d picked it to bring out her eyes, to look pretty. There was a branch hanging over the waters, so she made a grab for it, wincing as the bruises on her knuckles made themselves known once more, and a twig scratched her cheeks; she’d rubbed red raspberry seed oil to protect her fair skin and keep it ivory-white, to look pretty.

Surely. Surely?

The river water stung her eyes, or was it her tears, for there was warmth on her cheek that the river could not provide. And suddenly it was on her wrist too. Someone pulled her along the overhanging branch, onto the riverbank. A cloak fell across her shoulders, and she huddled beneath it on the ground, shivering. It smelt of leather, sweat, polished steel and pine, like the comforting presence in her dreams.

‘I’ve got you, little bird.’

‘What is the meaning of this?’ The Imp’s voice cracked like a whip in the distance. ’Is this your notion of chivalry, Ser Meryn?’

Ser Meryn simply laughed. He truly didn’t care.

‘Someone take the girl back to the inn,’ Lord Tyrion said.

Sandor Clegane scooped her up around the waist and lifted her off the ground, as if it was the most natural thing in the world.

‘You’ve lost your shoes,’ he rasped.

*

‘What happened here?’ boomed the king, while the queen trailed behind.

Father and Arya rushed to her side, and she had never been so thankful to sink into their arms.

‘I…’ Before she could figure out a way to explain what had passed without making the tension between Father and the queen any worse than it already was, Prince Joffrey stepped in and offered his own explanation.

‘She was stupid and fell into the river,’ he said. ‘I tried to save her, but she wasn’t able to grab hold of the branch I was offering.’

‘Is that what happened?’ the king turned to Sandor Clegane.

Sandor Clegane drew in a deep breath.

She couldn’t let him speak, though she didn’t know how much he’d seen. She couldn’t bear it if he was to take prince Joffrey’s side, but she couldn’t allow him to speak against the prince either. He might not be the prince’s sworn shield any longer, and the king might call him his own man, his own dog, but it was not so. Sandor Clegane was the queen’s man, a Lannister man, as much as Jory was Father’s man. It was easy enough to forget it, looking at his dark hair and grey eyes, but Sandor Clegane was of the Westerlands, and as long as Lord Tywin ruled the Rock, no defiance against his Lannister daughter’s blood would be tolerated. He was but a second son of a minor house. The Reynes of Castermere had been so much more.

So she spoke first, and hoped it was enough.

‘I slipped,’ she said. And it was true. She did slip, once Prince Joffrey had pushed her. ‘And I fell into the river. The prince and Ser Meryn found a branch, but… couldn’t get me out of the water…’ For they did not want to… ‘…so I was carried downstream, where I… was helped out of the river.’

‘And Tyrion slapped me twice for that!’ cried Prince Joffrey, pointing an accusing finger at Lord Tyrion. ‘I was only trying to help that stupid girl.’

‘Because,’ said Lord Tyrion, mismatched eyes narrowed, ‘you couldn’t get her out of the water even with a member of the Kingsguard to help you, dearest nephew. If you couldn’t even hold out a branch steadily enough for a girl who’d just fallen into the river where the water flows quite slowly by the banks, mind you, maybe a slap or two will help any fix any components in your head that have fallen loose. But I am glad you’re happy to admit that you’ve been slapped by a half-man who can hardly reach your cheeks, and twice, at that. The speed of your reflexes continues to astound.’

The queen shook her head and offered her a ride in the wheelhouse for the rest of the day, but just a glance of the queen made her think of what the queen had done, and the thought made her feel sicker than the prospect of spending a whole morning in the Trident would. So she curtsied her thanks, and allowed Father to lead her away, huddled under his arm, under Sandor Clegane’s olive-green cloak.

*

Father started acting strangely after the incident at the Trident, his brows furrowed and mouth pressed into a thin line more often than not, and Sansa wondered if he suspected the truth. She wanted to reassure him, to let him know that she could be careful, that she could bear it well, that it was only a moon or two before they’d be home again, so there was no need to confront the queen, no need to make a worse enemy of the prince.

She was determined to enjoy the south regardless, for she’d dreamed of the splendours, the knights, and the dresses ever since she was a little girl. She’d soak in a beautiful pool in the south, and she’d bring Arya and Jeyne with her, perhaps Princess Myrcella too, and she’d make friends with two more maids in King’s Landing for sure. They’d be six maids in a pool, and they’d all find their Florians.

What would Arya’s Florian be like? She wondered now, watching her sister sharpen Needle in the back of the tent they shared out of the corner of her eye. She’d tried to picture all sorts of knights, but could only picture Arya calling them stupid.

‘Sansa,’ said Father, dipping his head to enter their tent. ‘There you are. Do you have a moment now?’

She nodded. ‘I was just picking out a dress for tomorrow.’

It’d have to be her best dress, as they’d arrive in King’s Landing tomorrow, and she was intent on making an entrance. Yes, the south was fashionable, but she’d not have any ladies look down on what the north had to offer. She’d choose something distinctly northern but elegant, and have her hair done carefully to look effortless. Perhaps she could convince Arya to don a dress too, just for the day?

‘Good,’ said Father, ‘I have something to give you. I found a seamstress among those who have followed our party, and have commissioned a new dress for you.’

She froze. She trusted Mother’s choices in dresses, but Father? He had once worn an orange tunic in an attempt to incorporate more colour into his clothing at Mother’s request. Mother had never requested it again. A dress commissioned by Father would be grey, for sure, and would most likely have the neckline that a grandmother would wear, but she could still feign a happy expression.

‘I paid a little extra to have a picture sewn onto the front with some embroidery,’ he said, ‘and I think it came out well.’

Ah, it’d be a wolf. She didn’t mind another grey dress with wolves down the front. She was a Stark after all.

Father took the dress out of a parcel behind his back and shook it out.

Arya coughed loudly, trying to disguise a snigger that escaped her mouth.

Yes, the dress was indeed grey, but the needlework did not depict a wolf. An inhumanly long, white face had been sewn onto the grey silk, along with some strands of dark hair and a patchy beard. A pair of grey eyes was embroidered onto the face, though the left sat a little higher than the right. The expression on the face was far from peaceful; in fact it looked like the floating head had just consumed some particularly spicy Dornish food and now had a mouth on fire.

‘Is that… you, Father?’ she said. Surely he could not be serious.

‘I don’t like how some of the men have been looking at you,’ said Father, perfectly seriously. ‘This will do well to remind them whose daughter you are, as they seem apt to forget.’

‘Well,’ said Sansa, glaring at her sister, who was still rolling on the floor, ‘I don’t think I can wear it. I wouldn’t want Arya to feel left out, so–’

‘Please leave me out. I love feeling left out. There’s nothing more than feeling left out that I–’

‘Here!’ said Father, shaking out a second garment. It was a tunic with an even larger face than what was sewn onto her dress, and though the face looked less terrifying, the eyes did not point in the same direction. ‘I wouldn’t forget getting a matching one for you. You can put it onto those shift dresses you love so much. Make sure you wear these tomorrow.’

With that, he flew out of their tent, leaving the girls clutching their doom.

‘Make it better,’ said Arya, ‘please.’

She didn't think anything could make it better, save burning the atrocities.

‘Mine is worse,’ said Arya, flinging her tunic in Sansa's face. ‘He can't make us wear these! He can't!’

Arya was right about the first part. The face on the tunic wasn't only bigger, but there was a flatness about those eyes that made it look like someone had beheaded Father, and this was but a head rotting on a spike. She could hardly bear to look. Taking out her embroidery kit, she undid a few stitches and straightened the right side eye, then added some light grey threads to make the face come alive. There. Fixed it as much as she could. And the rest? Well…

‘Let’s try them on,’ she said.

It was worse than she’d feared. At least Arya’s tunic hung straight down like a curtain. Her own dress ate up her neck and hugged her too tightly around the chest, making the face on the front bulge at the eyes. She wanted to go back to the Trident and become one with the water. Why had Sandor Clegane fished her out?

With a sigh, she grabbed the muslin bandages in her emergency box. She’d need to bind her chest tomorrow morning. There were also clothes pins within, and she made Arya lift her arms to create a more flattering shape for her sister. Then she emptied her jewellery box onto her makeshift bed.

There’d be no point making the rest of their look normal, for the heads would only look more alien for it, so they might as well throw out all regards for current trends and look, well, bold. She pinned Arya’s grey skirt up so that it was shorter at the front, and added a dash of red with ribbons at the top of her riding boots, which were now visible. She shook down her sister’s hair and brushed it back, fixing it in a simple braid pinned up, up, up. Finding the largest plain ruby necklace from her collection, she wrapped it around her sister’s braided bun and stepped back. Perhaps with a little something to make Arya’s face draw the eye more than the one on the tunic, her sister would look almost handsome.

She opened her rarely-touched rouge, mixed it with the beeswax and painted it onto Arya’s lips.

*

The crowd roared as they rode past the Sept of Baelor, and men, women and children stared at them alike, pointing at Father’s head, then looking up to see their faces. Stark, she heard some shout, and Winterfell, from some others.

‘Seven above, that is the longest face I’ve ever seen,’ she heard a woman cry.

‘Aye, looks like a boat, it does!’ cried another.

Sansa rode tall and proud, pretending that she was wearing a gown of spun gold instead of the matching oddity with her sister that she was actually sporting. She smiled down at them from Thunder’s back, and hoped that they’d love her.

As they turned a corner and the Red Keep came into full view, the crowd surged and pressed a little too close, eager to get a better look. Ser Barristan nudged his horse a step towards the king, and Father ushered Bran and Rickon forth. A dark shadow fell across her and Arya, blocking them from the crowd. She looked up and nearly flinched, finding the black helm of the snarling dog instead of the burnt face she’d grown used to. The Hound was back in King’s Landing, and the helm turned his laugh into a hollow rumble.

Chapter Text

Sandor III

Sandor didn’t know what to do with himself.

In the past, what evenings he had to himself would be spent in winesinks. Now, he had not just evenings free, but most of the mornings and afternoons. While he spent the mornings pitting himself against other soldiers in the yard, the rest of his free time was fast becoming a nightmare. The limit of two cups of wine in a day made winesinks unbearable, and Silk Street worse.

For some reason, the king had also seen it fit to more than double his stipends. His previously generous pay was now half that of the Master of Coin, not taking into account potential winnings from the tournament to come. Without wine and whores to spend it on, he’d soon have a pile of gold dragons collecting dust under his bed.

Perhaps now was the time to find a sell-sword from Yi Ti and learn how to fight with their chain sickles. Sandor had always found them more deadly-looking than the average flail. And the rest? He had no interest in wearing fine silks or eating bird food from colourful glazed plates, which was the latest hobby that certain knights had taken up in the Red Keep. He’d already bought his third horse with the money from the little bird’s victory, and a fourth was unnecessary. What was more, now that he had Smith, his old grey charger, Warrior, his trusted destrier, and Stranger, his northern courser, he’d have to name his fourth horse Maiden. That was one way to ride a maiden, he supposed.

No, he felt as if he should do something with his gold. Something that’d give him somewhere to live that wouldn’t require ducking his head to pass through every doorway. As the second son to a minor house who’d left home too young, he had no idea what that would be.

Upon Stannis’s return to King’s Landing, he thought to seek out Shireen, the only child in King’s Landing who had not cowered upon seeing him for the first time, no doubt due to only having half a face herself. She was one of the only kind souls in this cesspit, and when he’d found himself lingering in front of a jeweller’s stall in winter town, he reasoned that while they were not particularly close, the only reason that his feet had dragged him to such a place must be to purchase her a hair pin, for the northern style would look well on her, as it would disguise those ears that she disliked so much. The silver flower pin with a simple blue gem reminded him of her, and he’d found one with green gems for Myrcella as well, but the jeweller was a crafty fellow, and he’d somehow ended up with a rose-gold hair pin depicting a little bird craning its neck. Fuck knows what he was going to do with that.

He might not know what to do with himself, but he knew whose dog he was, so he knew better than to fling his gift at Shireen, a Baratheon, before reporting in to his true master.

‘Lord Tywin,’ he said with a bow once the Lannister guard at the door stepped aside to let him in.

‘The younger Clegane,’ said the Lord of Casterly Rock and Warden of the West. Lord Tywin never gave him the chance to forget that he was but the second most valuable Clegane in their service. Throwing a letter down, Lord Tywin sat up straight and tall, looking as hard and as dangerous as he always did, as the king wished to look again. ‘I hear that a dog is now running with wolves.’

Of course Lord Tywin did not start with him no longer being Joff’s sworn shield. That would be too predictable. Sandor counted to three before replying in a level voice, ‘The wolf cubs are unruly and run wherever they wish. A dog is in no position to discipline them.’

‘A dog has also fished a wolf-maid from the river, it seems.’

He had rehearsed a few line for this, and used them now. ‘Joff pushed her in, though I doubt it was with his own hands. I should have put a stop to it before it became a threat to our relations with the Warden of the North, but the king has seen it fit to replace me with Trant. A dog is in no position disobey the king either.’

He was no liar, and even if he was, there was no lying to the old lion. Lord Tywin wanted to see the truth, even if the king did not, because truth could be power for those who knew how to wield it.

‘The Stark girl lied,’ said Lord Tywin.

It was not a question, so Sandor made no attempts to answer. Someone had already told him. The Imp, he’d wager. He hoped that there’d be no questions about why the little bird had lied. Such a damned bad liar she was too, and any king who’d actually cared for her wellbeing would have seen through it. Why? Why? He’d been sure she’d tell it all, and there’d been a dripping direwolf with a dripping great sword to back up her story. He’d seen it. The wolf had shaken its great head at him and nudged him towards the river. When the king had asked for an explanation, he’d been sore tempted to tell him so and let the king draw his own conclusions, damn the consequences. But the little bird had lied, had chirped out a tidy little solution that the king had liked so much.

In the small hours, denied his usual drunken slumbers, Sandor would replay those moments in his head. Not the sheer blue shift that stuck to her curves and made it impossible not to see, even if he was not to look. Not the way she’d settled into his arms, into his cloak, as if he gave her comfort. No, it was the look he thought she’d given him before she’d stopped him from speaking, before she’d lied. It had been a fleeting moment. Some nights he could convince himself that it had never happened at all. The little bird was a stupid little chirping bird. How would a stupid little chirping bird know, that should he have spoken like the king requested of him, his Lannister masters would have never forgiven him? And why would it matter anyway, in her world filled with pretty ladies and comely knights? She’d just been confused. Perhaps she’d hit her head on a rock. Thought she’d really slipped.

She was just a stupid little chirping bird.

‘The Red Witch,’ said Lord Tywin, picking up a letter from his desk. ‘The Red Widow reborn. The smallfolk talk of her turning porcelain to steel. Her first intended, the trueborn Bolton heir, died of a stomach ailment, but there’s talk of poison. Her second, the Bastard of the Dreadfort, was not so fortunate. They say that she and her sister spoke to his pack of dogs and turned them against him, so that when he hunted a peasant girl, they stood by and watched the dogs tear him to shreds.’

‘The smallfolk say many things,’ said Sandor. He was a good dog.

‘They do, don’t they?’ said Lord Tywin, flexing his hand. ‘Thanks to these rumours, talk of the prior Lady of Casterly Rock has started anew. Tell me, what have you heard them say?’

That the prior Lady of Casterly Rock, the prior Red Widow, Lady Rohanne, had taught her children the black arts too. That the present Lord of Casterly Rock and his deceased Lady of Casterly Rock, both her grandchildren, could turn their shit to gold.

‘Only lies, my lord,’ he said instead.

‘Perhaps they need to be put to a stop,’ said Lord Tywin.

How? For it was perfectly simple to start a rumour, but to kill one proved as difficult as remaining a maiden in a whorehouse. But… Perhaps in this case, it was not all that difficult. All it really needed was a husband to survive the lady wife.

‘But then again…’ Lord Tywin tapped his fingers on the desk. ‘How goes the training for the king?’

‘Well as it can, my lord.’

‘Good. Carry on with the wolves and stags. Prepare the king for the tournament. Make sure he is ready to take part in the melee, as I’m sure is his want. Report back to me if there is anything worth reporting.’

Sandor Clegane nodded. Best not to question why. He was a good dog.

*

That night, he was nursing his second cup of wine in the yard, trying to blot out all those conclusions that he was sure not to like when something crashed into him.

‘Get out of my way!’ growled the she-wolf.

He was about to swear at her when he saw the sheer anger in her eyes, so like his own.

‘What happened girl?’

‘Someone’s tried to poison Lady by hiding grapes in chunks of meat! The stupid Maester won’t help. Apparently he’s too busy fighting a raven… The kennel-master said she’s not a dog so he won’t go anywhere near her. I’m going to find some rope and drag him there!’

Sandor could make a good guess at who that someone in charge of the poisoning might be, and if he was right, tying up the kennel-master wouldn’t make the man more inclined to help.

‘Has she thrown up yet?’ he said, thinking of the hounds that had created the few happy memories he had of his family keep.

‘No… She’s… shaking.’ All of a sudden, the fight left the girl and her shoulders slumped. ‘Father’s gone to ask the Maester for help personally, Jon’s gone out of the Red Keep to see if he can find a medicine woman outside the Red Keep. Nym is keeping Sansa and Lady company. I… don’t know what to do.’

‘How long ago did she eat those grapes?’

‘Not long,’ said the she-wolf, shaking her head. ‘Sansa… felt her and ran to find her. It hasn’t been long.’

‘Come with me girl,’ he said, dragging her back into the kitchen.

‘But…’

‘Go fetch some clean water and a few lumps of cheese,’ he said.

He rummaged through the shelves, opening and closing tins and jars. He sniffed at one, and pushed the sugar away. The next, a small, earthenware jar, was unfortunately empty. With a sigh, he tried the other end, and found ornate drinking cups and goblets, then tucked away on a high shelf was a golden salt cellar depicting a golden stag rising from an ebony case. He lifted off the stag and dipped a finger in to taste the white crystals within. Salt indeed. Tipping the whole lot of salt into the empty earthenware jar, he shoved it into the she-wolf’s hands.

‘Where are they, girl?’

‘By the stables,’ she said.

He nodded. ‘Go to your sister now. I’ll find you soon enough. Just got to fetch something from my room.’

Good that he used to drown in sour red. He should still have a full jar of that burnt powder for wine-sickness.

It didn’t take long for him to run from his room to the stables. Whatever he might or might not think of the direwolf’s mistress, the wolf had shared his bed and licked his hands, had seen his ugly face turn even more hideous with laughter, and still she’d allowed him to rub her belly. She was a good girl. And there she was. He focused on that, so that he wouldn’t have to see the tears wobbling out of her mistress’s eyes.

Winter is coming. Those were the Stark words, and it should be accompanied by a running direwolf, not one trembling on the floor. At least those words were honest; those words were the truth. He wished he could rewrite the words to his own house. Never mind ‘Loyalty and Servitude’. He’d change it to a simple statement, ‘The World is Awful.’ Both he and Gregor lived up to that well enough. And how else could you describe a world where princes went around poisoning pet wolves with grapes? Lady deserved better.

He waved a few chunks of cheese at her, but she turned her head away. Putting those away, he grabbed a fistful of salt and realised that he was just about to stick his arm down a direwolf’s jaws.

‘Come on girl, you’ve got to open your mouth. This will help.’

She whined then, and licked his hand. Then, with a look that made it almost seem like she understood, she opened her mouth. He hoped he had not lied to her, and dropped the salt onto the base of her tongue.

She gagged then, and bit by bit, meat and grapes came back up.

‘You’ll be all right, girl,’ he murmured to her, running his hand through her matted fur. Wolves were stronger than dogs. He mixed the burnt powder with a little water that the she-wolf had brought from the kitchen, and as Lady’s shaking steadied and her stomach emptied, he offered it to her, followed by the chunks of cheese that she now agreed to eat, resting her great head in his lap as she allowed him to feed them to her.

‘It was Trant, wasn’t it?’ he said once the worst was over. He knew that Joff would not dirty his own hands to press grapes into chunks of meat these days. ‘Or was it Blount?’

‘They are no true knights,’ said the little bird. Her voice was hoarser than he remembered, no doubt from the crying. That was enough of an answer for him.

Still, he said, ‘There are no true knights, no more than there are gods.’

Before he could finish what he planned to say, the little bird shook her head, and the bright blue glint of her eyes momentarily robbed him of his words.

‘They are no true knights, but Bran will be a knight one day,’ she said, as if her saying so had already made the future so. ‘He will be a true knight.’

‘Will he be a god too?’ he mocked, but his heart was no longer in it. How could she speak such words with such conviction? For one day, a brother will be nothing more than a fucking disappointment.

*

The following morning, after the king’s training session, Sandor rehearsed the something that was worth reporting to Lord Tywin. He littered it with endanger us and must not happen again.

It took another week for Joff to be allegedly attacked by mercenaries outside the Red Keep, and for both Trant and Blount to have allegedly abandoned him, leaving him in the sole protection of the Kingslayer, who just happened to be there. The king stripped them of their white cloaks and threw them into the black cells on the grounds of treason and cowardice, and instated Ser Balon Swann and the Knight of the fucking Flowers instead. All of his own volition.

Chapter Text

Robert III

Choosing Clegane had undoubtedly been the right decision. Right now, it was chucking it down, and he could hardly mop his hair from his eyes fast enough to see where they were going. Worse, his lungs were about to burst and Clegane was screaming at him.

‘If you don’t hurry the fuck up I’m going to truss you up like one of your wild boars and spin you on a spit roast. Get to it!’

‘Fuck off,’ he said, picking up his pace. His legs groaned under the weight of his belly.

‘If you still have the breath to tell me to fuck off, go faster you fat cunt,’ said Clegane.

Yes, it had definitely been the right choice. Someone like Ned or Selmy would have told him to pick up some speed if he pleased, Your Grace. If they could scream him out of bed in the morning in the first place, of course.

Wetness creeped into his toes. Great, his shoes were leaking. And soon enough, they were making squelching noises with every step.

‘The only wet thing I wanted anywhere near me today was a woman’s cunt,’ he yelled back at Clegane, panting. ‘Not my fucking socks.’

‘Hurry up! At this rate it’d be faster to roll you up a fucking hill. And slow your breathing down. Slow and steady! You’re stealing air from people who deserve it more than a fucker like you breathing like you are,’ said Clegane.

Those words washed over him, cleansing him from all the threats and machinations cloaked in velvet and silk.

‘Fuck,’ Clegane muttered. ‘The rain’s gotten into my breeches.’

‘The only time you’re going to get your dick wet,’ said Robert.

‘Fuck off,’ said Clegane, ‘Your Grace.’

They fell into a companionable bout of swearing, and for the first time in years, he felt at peace.

But it was not to last.

He found Cersei in a frenzy in their chambers because she’d apparently commissioned a dress with Tywin’s face on it. Tywin, old bugger that he was, had chucked it in the fire.

Then things took a turn for the worse. The Spider was waiting with news that the Targaryen whore was with child. The small council meeting turned into a shouting match, and had he not been half-dead from this morning’s training, he’d have surely threatened to have Ned’s head on a spike for defying him like that in front of all those other vultures. He’d barely managed to reign in his temper to say that he’d think on Ned’s and Selmy’s words, and, he supposed, the only thing that had cheered him up was the look of disbelief on most of their faces as he’d said he’d think. Yes, yes, shock of the century: he could fucking think if he felt so inclined. Though to be honest, he really didn’t feel so inclined. Gods, he wanted to be out there in the fresh air, chasing after a boar and not some shadow of a dragon-spawn, wanted to have it all over and done with, but it was not to be. Soon, there’d be upheaval in King’s Landing, and after all of that… If he’d said to his small council that perhaps there’d be no need to kill the whore now, because he still hoped to cross the narrow sea himself once he could fit into his old armour again, they’d most likely think him mad. Well, Ned might be pleased, what with him nattering on about the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword and all.

*

Pycelle was the first to return to aid his ‘thinking’.

He studied the smudge on the letter that the raven had brought. What infernal bird had decided to defecate on such an important section of the letter? For the life of him, he couldn’t be sure if it said ‘dragons’ at the end of the line, or if there might be another word that followed, making it something harmless such as ‘three dragon eggs’.

‘Dragons? Are you fucking with me?’ The Others take him. The Others take them all.

‘Your Grace, I… Well, it may say dragon eggs,’ said Pycelle.

‘May?’ he said. ‘Oh yes, that’s perfectly fine then. You may get roasted to a crisp tomorrow, but don’t worry, you may be quite safe, depending on what lies beneath a bit of bird shit.’

‘It has never happened before,’ said the old fool. ‘In my forty-five years of service, it has never… I tried, Your Grace. I wrestled the letter from the other raven’s… grasp and I...’

‘You wrestled a bird,’ he said. ‘A true knight of the mind, you are.’

‘I tried to wipe the… the debris away, but I’m afraid the damage had already been done,’ said Pycelle. ‘That’s why I said it’s kinder to give her the gift of mercy so that tens of thousands might live. I… did not want to alarm the others, Your Grace, but the threat of dragon fire is too great to ignore.’

Robert sighed. More like he didn’t want to embarrass himself in front of the rest of the small council. What a bunch of morons. But it might have given him an answer to another of his problems. He dismissed Pycelle and turned to see which of his useless Kingsguard members was on duty today, and was greeted with a not-so-useless one: Selmy himself.

‘Selmy!’ Perfect. He needed the old knight away on a mission, and it might as well be this one.

‘Yes, Your Grace?’

‘Have you ever dreamt about going across the narrow sea to find a lost Targaryen heir? Knowing you, you’d probably turn up under a fucking stupid name. Arstan Sadeyes or some nonsense.’

‘I… Your Grace, I served King Aerys loyally until the end, that is true, but I have received your pardon,’ said the old knight. ‘If you wish to take back that pardon now because of what I said earlier, I’m not going back on my–’

Robert raised a hand to silence the old knight. ‘Enough of that now. I said I’d think on it, and I have. You’re going.’

Selmy stiffened. ‘Am I dismissed?’

‘No, but you’re going to see that dragon-spawn yourself. You will observe her on my behalf, and report directly back to me. I’m sick of depending on the whisperings of that Mormont traitor. You will go and do what you see fit, and that includes fending off any assassins, which won’t be sent by me, mind you, if you think that’s what’s best for these seven bloody kingdoms I’ve got under this Iron Throne.’

‘You… have changed your mind about putting an end to the Targaryens, Your Grace?’ Selmy’s brows shot up in surprise.

‘Don’t make me change it again,’ he said, and threw Selmy the purse of gold dragons he’d prepared. ‘You heard what Pycelle said. Go and see if she has dragons, or if she just has three decorative eggs.’

A voice in his heart boomed that they must be dragons. He could see it now, him muscled like the Warrior and as lithe as he used to be. The bards would sing songs about the sellsword king who slew three dragons and saved his kingdoms from the fire of the beasts. He’d have to settle everything in King’s Landing soon, before those dragons became too fucking huge. Oh, but what a hunt that would be! Greater than any boar, that was for sure. He’d preserve that dragon flesh and serve it at a feast to follow. Pycelle could have an extra-large portion, if the old fool would last until then.

He cleared his throat. ‘I’ll make an announcement that she’ll be taken care of if she and the child survive childbirth. Littlefinger will like that. No need to close your eyes to kiss an ugly bugger if she receives the Stranger first. In the meantime, you’ll prepare to leave this shithole. No one’s going to take it well if they know that I’ve sent the Lord Commander of the Kingsguard to the other side of the narrow sea. They’d claim that you’re supposed to guard me, and your sword won’t be long enough to stretch across the damned sea.’

‘And they’d be right,’ said Selmy.

‘Who else can I send?’ he said. ‘Ned? His wife is about to pop out another wolf spawn. She will not take it kindly. And what’s more, you are better at disguises.’

At that, Selmy took the purse.

‘Good,’ said Robert. ‘Now, I’ll need a reason to put you on leave.’

‘I will write in the White Book that I’ve had to ask for leave due to advanced age.’

Robert nodded. Gods he was tired. This morning gave him a full reminder of why he never attended small council meetings. All of that talking must have shaved ten years off his life. And there was still so much to be done! He’d been written to by the old bat Shella Whent, seeking an audience upon her arrival, so good thing she had yet to arrive. He really should see the High Septon this afternoon though. After all, he’d summoned the High Septon, saying that he’d need to discuss the cult that his tooth-grinding brother had taken up with. Getting into a cult had probably been the most interesting thing Stannis had done in his life, to be honest, though no cult was going to make his poor daughter anything less than hideous. Shame that the cult had to go.

*

He’d made up his mind to seek out Clegane again for a quick knock about, but apparently Clegane had turned up in the practice yard in a fouler mood than usual, and Trant had been unfortunate enough to be there at the same time. Trant was now abed with bruised ribs, and none of the men were sure where to find Clegane.

The only one of note still left in the yard was the Tyrell boy, and with him came a flock of giggling ladies, no doubt there to get their smallclothes soaked by watching the boy dance with his sword. Speaking of Tyrells, there was still an audience with the whole lot of them to arrange. Someone had need for a bride after all. Shame that Lady Olenna wasn’t one for spearing boars, so tea it was.

Robert was about to suck it up and consult the High Septon when he spotted Ned’s two young sons, fingers wagging, talking animatedly to two other boys – stable boys perhaps, judging from how they were dressed. Ned’s younger son had a thin braid in his hair, tied off with a blue ribbon, but still managed to look fiercer than Tommen had ever done.

The stable boys saw him approach and scurried off, and Ned’s sons greeted him with a solemn bow.

‘Never mind all that formality,’ said Robert, clapping them both on their shoulders. ‘What are you two doing here out on your own?’

‘We’re on duty,’ said the younger one despite the warning look that the older one shot him. ‘There’s much work to be done, Your Grace.’

‘Oh? And what errand has your sister sent you on?’ said Robert.

‘It’s not Sansa’s errand,’ said the younger. ‘But it is for Sansa.’

‘We’d better let you get on with your work now, Your Grace,’ said the older with a frown so like Ned’s.

‘I have time, don’t you worry about that,’ said Robert. If he couldn’t give his hammer a swing or spear a boar or two right now, then going on an adventure with some boys who didn’t hate him and didn’t cry every time he tried to show them how to parry a blow from his war hammer was good enough. He stared into the two pairs of bright blue eyes that were more like his than any of his supposed children’s were. These were the sons he should have had with Lyanna. He said with a sigh, ‘Maybe I can help you? What are you trying to do for your sister?’

‘Someone tried to poison Lady,’ said the younger. ‘We are here to make a list of all suspects. Have you seen anyone looking suspicious or acting suspiciously around Sansa, Your Grace?’

‘Who have you got so far?’ said Robert, rubbing his hands together. Ned used to love these games in the Eyrie, following clues and trying to figure out who’s done it. If anyone were to poison Robert before he could sort through this giant Lannister-shaped mess, he’d make sure that Ned could lead the investigation. Truth be told, Robert would have preferred a game of monsters and maidens, but this was still better than the High Septon’s company.

The children exchanged a look, and the younger hesitated for the first time. It was the older who spoke, treading carefully with his words, ‘I… We thought we’d add Lord Baelish to the list of secondary suspects, Your Grace, as he acts a little… strangely around Sansa.’

Robert roared with laughter at that. ‘If you’re going to make a list of everyone who looks at your sister like that, you’d best have half the Red Keep on that list of yours. But yes, Littlefinger… What are you going to do about him? ’

‘We were just trying to think of ways to… to annoy him a little,’ said the older. ‘Just a little. We mean no harm.’

Annoying Littlefinger was a hobby he could take up gladly. He could think of two ways to do so already. First was to ask for an extra fat purse as a prize for the tourney he was organising. Forty thousand golden dragons to the champion. Twenty thousand to the man who comes second, another twenty to the winner of the melee, and ten thousand to the victor of the archery competition. He could imagine Littlefinger’s exasperated sigh at the expenses right now, though spending the crown’s money was not as painful to the Master of Coin as the thought of losing some of what Littlefinger has lined his own pockets with over the years. Hence the second way: imply after his talk with the High Septon that he was favouring Stannis as Hand and was contemplating his brother’s proposal on brothels anew. That’d annoy Pycelle too. Bonus!

‘Of course,’ he said, clapping the boys again on their shoulders. ‘Do what you must! I wish you the best of luck.’

‘Thank you, Your Grace,’ said the older, fiddling with a leather badge with a wobbly picture of a sword entwined with a letter S that was pinned to his tunic.

Now that he looked beyond the younger’s hair ribbon, he could see that the boy was wearing a matching badge.

‘What is that?’ he said.

‘Oh… It’s… a badge for the Society for Sansa’s Protection,’ said the older. ‘Jon and Arya made it for us.’

‘Can I have one?’ said Robert.

‘Of c–’

‘Only if you pass the test!’ said the younger.

‘Go on?’

‘What’s Sansa’s favourite cake?’

How the hells should he know? ‘Sweet cakes?’ Myrcella liked those well enough.

‘What’s Sansa’s favourite song?’

Probably not the Bear and the Maiden Fair or A Cask of Ale. Most likely a stupid one that you’d hear at weddings. ‘Two Hearts That Beat as One?’

The children looked at each other.

‘What’s the name of Sansa’s horse?’ said the older.

Ah. She had ridden a huge brown courser that looked perfectly out of place with her on the back. How had Ned allowed the woman such a horse? ‘Dancer?’ he said, thinking he’d heard such a name muttered at Winterfell.

‘You got them all wrong,’ announced the younger, ‘so we can’t allow you into our society.’

‘It’s mostly for family,’ the older added hastily. ‘And we really appreciate your help, Your Grace.’

*

The following morning, Clegane turned up with a crudely-made leather badge pinned to his olive cloak.

‘Oh, for fuck’s sake,’ said Robert.

Chapter Text

Ever since Sansa’s flowering, it had fallen to her and Arya to arrange the Starks’ exchanges for Nameless Day. Father offered to shoulder the responsibility this year, to leave her more time to recover from the ordeal with Lady, but Sansa shook her head and reassured Father that she could handle the matter. After all, now that the Red Keep welcomed new arrivals for the Hand’s tourney daily, Father’s days had become filled with visitors. Lord Stannis was to be seen today, and as it once again required Bran’s presence, Sansa had a feeling that it was to do with the appointment of her cousin Robert Arryn as Warden of the East. She hoped that Father wouldn’t agree to Bran’s fostering with cousin Robert for the good of the realm, but her hopes and fears mattered little in this matter; Bran was not just her brother, but the third in line to Winterfell. He’d most likely never inherit Winterfell, but he still had duties to the smallfolk.

As did she. For Nameless Day was but weeks away, soon after the tournament, followed by Pact Day. Part of her still bubbled with excitement thinking of it all. The tournament would be like from the songs, but celebrating Nameless Day and Pact Day in King’s Landing would be no less special. Perhaps she would meet a knight as handsome and as gallant as Ser Loras at the dance, now that he was no longer an option, although the white cloak did suit him so.

‘What’s the plan?’ said Arya, dragging Jon behind her.

‘We could ride into the city and see if anyone needs help?’ she said. It wasn’t a very good plan, but she’d been distracted by other thoughts, chiefly that Sandor Clegane had saved her from the Trident, and had saved Lady’s life when no one else would help. Lemon cakes failed last time, so what could she do instead? ‘Whose turn is it to pick what we want to do?’

‘Mine!’ said Arya.

Oh no. Nothing good ever came of those years. Sansa’s safe pick was usually the bakers, so that Bran and Rickon could make dolls out of dough, but Arya’s picks were never safe when Sansa was concerned.

‘And…?’ she asked, preparing herself for the worst.

‘This year…’ Arya tapped out a drumroll on the table and announced, ‘it’s the blacksmith’s!’

Jon furrowed his brows at that. ‘You want Sansa to go into a forge?’

‘It’s my choice this year, and you know Bran and Rickon will love it!’

That was true. As would Jon, she imagined. And yes, it would be most unpleasantly hot, but then so was the baker’s.

‘And,’ said Arya, ‘I have a better plan than yours. Instead of going into the city and accidentally walking into a candle-maker’s instead, we can just ask someone who knows which blacksmiths are good.’

Sansa wanted to say that the candles hanging in front of every candle-maker’s shop usually stopped people accidentally walking in, but she huffed a breath instead and nodded. ‘Let’s go ask–’

‘The Hound!’ said Arya.

Which was not what she was about to say. ‘Arya! Father has already told us to stop bothering him all the time.’ And Father did not seem to like the man, although he had softened a little knowing what Sandor Clegane had done for Lady.

‘But he’s got loads of time,’ said Arya. ‘And it’s only a simple question.’

That was true enough. And she might find Lady with him, for her direwolf had taken to sneaking out of the godswood, where the king had ask them to keep their wolves during the day, to curl up by Sandor Clegane’s foot. As much as Sansa wanted Lady back by her feet, she could not begrudge Lady her gratitude. Not only so, observing him again could perhaps help her discover an appropriate display of gratitude for the man. Something permanent, because Lady was more lasting than lemon cakes. Something life-changing, because not being drowned had, well, changed her life.

She fell beside Jon as Arya led the way to wherever it was that the man could be found.

‘What’s the matter?’ she said softly. Her half-brother was far too quiet and solemn this morning, even for him, and here, there was no Mother to put him in a mood.

He flinched at her question.

‘Don’t tell me it’s nothing,’ she said. ‘Has… someone… tried to do something to Ghost?’ Surely not, for Ser Meryn and Ser Boros were both Sers no longer, and confined to the black cells for cowardice, and Ser Loras would never.

‘Oh, it’s nothing like that. It’s just… I met with a wandering crow, Yoren, and his recruits are… not what I expected.’

She saw the disappointment flash through his eyes. Could the black knights of the Wall been as bad as the white knights that had poisoned Lady? She gave his hand a squeeze. ‘There are other ways, I’m sure.’ He must not have told Arya yet, or their sister would be finding a way for them to stay together instead of buzzing with excitement at the prospect of spending two days with a blacksmith.

*

They found Sandor Clegane emerging from the stables, looking every bit unwilling to be disturbed. He sported the same crudely-made leather badge with the letter S inscribed on it as she’d seen on her brothers and sister. She wondered if it had something to do with the approaching tournament, judging by the sword pictured on the badge.

‘Hound!’ said Arya. ‘Have you chosen your exchange for Nameless Day?’

‘My what for what?’

Sansa gasped, and Arya looked at him as if his face was on fire anew.

‘Next you’ll be telling me you’ve never heard of Pact Day either,’ said Arya.

‘What day?’

This time, it’s her turn to gawk at him; she could feel her mouth fall half-open in the most unladylike way. ‘But… It’s only the best day of the year! Surely you have hung up your stocking?’

‘You think I’d own a stocking?’ he spat out.

‘I… You’ve never hung up a stocking? But… Oh.’ It was a time for family, and she knew nothing about his. Perhaps he’d never celebrated Pact Day. Before she could find the right thing to say, Arya forged ahead.

‘It’s not a stocking you wear, stupid. It’s a massive stocking you hang on the wall, and if you’ve been good, the children of the forest will sneak into your room and leave you presents. If you’ve been bad, then they will take a dump in your stocking.’ All of a sudden, her sister snorted. ‘One year, I hid Sansa’s presents and filled her stocking with horse dung, and she cried for hours.’

Sansa felt the heat crawl onto her face from her neck. ‘That wasn’t funny.’

‘So was!’

‘Was not!’

‘So was!’

Sandor raised his good brow at them, and she cleared her throat.

‘Anyhow, the best part is the feast! It’s no ordinary feast. Everyone must make cook something to bring to the Great Hall, including Father. He’d always make hot spiced wine, Mother would make her barley soup, Robb and Jon would hunt for game and roast it on the day, and me and Arya would make a batch of lemon cakes together.’ She frowned, remembering that Arya had usually made things more difficult by throwing eggs at her instead. ‘It’s then all laid out on the tables, which we’d arrange into a circle, so there can be dancing and music in the middle!’

‘And it’s actually bearable dancing,’ said Arya. ‘There’s even a bit where all the women line up on one side and all the men line up on the other, and you get to stamp your feet as hard as you can and head-butt the person standing on the opposite side! They’ll try to stop you, of course, and they’re supposed to pick you up and spin you around, but I always manage to head-butt the guy properly.’

Sansa fought the urge to roll her eyes. ‘That’s not… It’s supposed to be a representation of the First Men’s horses charging at the children of the forest. You’re not meant to actually run into the person standing on the other side.’

Arya scoffed. ‘You’re just saying that because you always get caught!’

‘No I’m not!’

‘You so are!’

‘I’m not!’

‘Prove it then!’

‘What?’

‘Prove it! See if you can head-butt the person this year.’

‘I… I could, but I’d never, because it’s unseemly.’

‘Excuses, excuses. You’re just weak and bad at dancing.’

Sansa’s lips pressed into a thin line. She was not bad at dancing, and Arya, of all people, had no right to say so. Before she could stop herself, words escape her mouth. ‘Fine. I’ll show you, Arya, you just wait.’

‘Sorry to disappoint you,’ Sandor Clegane rasped, ‘but you’ll find no such dancing in the south.’

Both her and her sister spun to face him. It couldn’t be… She’d been so looking forward to Pact Day! She’d imagined it bigger and better in the south, perhaps with more spinning during the dancing; she did so love to spin! But then again… Now that she thought about it, it was a celebration of the Pact between the First Men and the children, so perhaps…

She gasped at the realisation, and with dread, she asked, ‘And the stocking?’

He shook his head.

Her heart sank, but she had to know how bad it really was. Remembering the purpose of their visit, she found the strength to whisper, ‘And Nameless Day?’

‘What in the seven hells is that?’

Oh no… No, no, no!

‘It’s a day of the old gods, who are nameless, and children born on that day are to celebrate their namesday on Pact Day, which is the day that follows, instead,’ she found herself saying. ‘On the day, we are to swap places with our maids and help them dress… brush out their hair. We’re also supposed to find an exchange among the smallfolk beforehand, and on the day we are to help them with their work.’ She wrinkled her nose, thinking of the year they’d chosen the butchers. At least Arya had found a friend in Mycah, who had been assisting the head butcher that day. Sansa wanted to retch at the memory of carving the shoulder off a pig, which she’d taken on because Arya had said that she’d only be able to stomach laying out eggs in a pretty pattern. ‘In exchange, they will be given the high table during the feast, and we will serve them their meal and pour them their wine.’

Sandor Clegane barked out a laugh.

‘It’s not funny!’ she said, furrowing her brows. ‘It’s really important.’

‘I’m sure it is, little bird,’ he said. ‘But can you really imagine Joff making himself useful among gong farmers?’

His scars pulled as he laughed, oozing anew. She hoped that it was not as painful as it looked. Then the answer came to her. There was something she could do for him after all. All she’d need was a trip outside the Red Keep, though she’d need to be accompanied by a knight or man-at-arms, considering what had happened to Prince Joffrey in the company of Ser Meryn and Ser Boros. Jon was still silent and sullen, and even if he were not, he’d still reveal all to Arya, and Arya was likely to ask too many questions. Who? What? Why? No, there must be another option.

‘We’re going to do it anyway. It’s my turn to pick what we do this year! We’re not missing out on that,’ Arya was saying. ‘Do you know any blacksmiths?’

‘Go to Tobho Mott. You’ll find him at the top of the Street of Steel, girl. Just look for the stone knights in red outside his shop. One griffin and one unicorn. He’s the best around.’

And as Arya and Jon made arrangements to visit the blacksmith, Sansa made her way to Father’s temporary solar. Thankfully, he was alone, but before she could ask for permission to organise their Pact Day celebrations without the southrons, he looked up and frowned.

‘Sansa, you have an invitation to tea,’ said Father, ‘with Lord Tywin.’

*

She sat there sipping tea and felt Lord Tywin’s eyes on her. She was being examined like a wolf pelt. Not for the first time, she wondered what had made a man as busy as the Lord of Casterly Rock invite her to tea. Not the tea, evidently, as he had not touched his.

To fill the silence, she commented on the pleasant weather and the elegance of the Red Keep’s architecture, and the beauty of the Westerlands’ mountains, which she had only heard of second-hand, but would love to experience first-hand.

In response, Lord Tywin shook his head.

‘You can’t be anything alike,’ he said.

‘I… beg your pardons, my lord, but I don’t understand…’

‘There is talk that you are the Red Widow reborn,’ he said, fixing those cold green eyes on her. ‘But you are just a girl with red hair who likes to talk of the weather.’

Sansa set down her cup. Ah. The Red Widow. She knew of the rumours, of course. They were the very ones that made her own suitors so few in numbers. Lady Rohanne Webber, whose sigil was a red spider, was the original Red Widow, and was widowed five times in her prime. She then became lady of Casterly Rock. Sansa closed her eyes and pictured the family trees that she’d spent many hours of her girlhood studying. How did it go again on the page for the Lannisters? Gerold wedded Rohanne Webber, and begot Tywold, who died in battle, and Tion, who went on to marry her brother’s bride, a Reyne. No issues in that union, for Tion died in battle also. Two more boys for Lady Rohanne: Tytos and Jason. Tytos married Jeyne Marbrand, whose family’s seat was Ashmarke and blazon was a burning tree, and the eldest child of that union was sitting right in front of her. The Red Widow was his grandmother.

A flash of anger coursed through her. She should be finding a knight to escort her out of the Red Keep right now, but she’d come, thinking that perhaps Lord Tywin had wanted to apologise for Prince Joffrey’s behaviour in the past few weeks. Instead, she was being insulted for not being anything like someone’s dead grandmother.

‘Tell me,’ Lord Tywin was saying, ‘who started these rumours?’

‘Forgive me, my lord, but I do not know,’ she said. She wondered what he’d do to Arya if he were to find out that Arya had been the start of it all. The Red Widow had come later into the rumours surrounding the Stark sisters though. Perhaps it had been a drunken man in a tavern that had added that embellishment. ‘I am sorry if I’ve besmirched the good name of the past Lady of Casterly Rock.’

Then she schooled her face into the expression that Arya called blank-stupid. She never told Arya that she’d imagine a bed made of lemon cakes in order to summon this particular far-away look on her face. Now that it was in place, she said, ‘And I’m sorry that she disappeared before you could know her, my lord. I’m sure she’d have loved to teach her grandchildren ways to value children of their own.’

He pinned her in her seat with his glare, but all that was on display was her blank-stupid face. Still, she added, ‘It must have been difficult to be without a mother, as both my parents were.’

The ink on vellum had laid the name Joanna Lannister next to Lord Tywin’s own name: Joanna, the child of Jason Lannister, younger brother of Tytos Lannister. A marriage of first cousins. It could be no marriage born of allegiance, which could only mean that it was a love match.

Suddenly, all the anger drained out of her. As a young girl, she’d believed in the power of love, that by falling in love, terrible men could change into valiant knights. But she was older now, and in front of her sat the very proof of this not being true. Lord Tywin had loved Joanna, and must love her still to have never remarried despite having Jaime in the Kingsguard and no other heir apart from Tyrion, whom he seemed to despise. Still, he was not a good man.

Still, he was a man.

She tried to imagine how Mother or Father would feel if one lost the other. As he had still not spoken, she added softly, ‘I’m sorry that the Lady of Casterly Rock departed this world at such a young age. People say that Lady Joanna was very beautiful, and she would surely be proud that her daughter is now queen, and her son an illustrious knight.’ Though it was perhaps a mercy that she’d never find out what was between her golden twins. ‘She must have been truly great lady, with no others like her.’ She must have, to have been loved by Lord Tywin, and perhaps to have loved him in return. ‘I assure you, my lord, I have only heard of people comparing myself to the Red Widow due to the red colour of my hair and the untimely death of Domeric Bolton and Ramsay Bolton. My father has spent much time trying to quench these… unpleasant rumours, without much success, so I am well aware of their nature. The comparison never goes beyond that, and no one has ever mocked the Lady of Casterly Rock in association to these rumours. That title belongs to your late lady wife, and her alone. Should I hear of anyone using it with ill intent, I will be sure to let you know.’

‘Tell me true. Do you really want to quench these rumours?’

‘I… Of course.’

‘Then you only need marry a husband who will not immediately become deceased.’

‘And… who might that be, my lord?’

He smiled at that, and she felt the chill of it. ‘You are hoping for Highgarden or Dorne,’ he stated, echoing the words that Mother had once spoken, ‘but you and your sister will get neither under the… current… circumstances. Other husbands you take might not… survive for long.’ He paused, letting the implications sink in. ‘The husband I offer you has survived many hardships, as he is sure to tell you himself. I believe he might not be as repellent to you as he is to all other high born maidens, for he has helped you at the Trident.’

There was a buzzing in her ears. Surely it could not be so. Father would never approve. But then… if there was no choice…? She imagined them kneeling in the godswood, for he’d like a simple wedding, and Lady would be at their feet. Perhaps Lord Tywin could convince Father to give them a small keep in the north, where she could show him how they truly celebrated Nameless Day and Pact Day, and she’d make the smallfolk love them. It wouldn’t be so bad, for–

‘I know I have another son, but he was fool enough to take up the white cloak. Tyrion is my current heir. Give me grandsons, strong and whole, and I will find a way to make them heirs in his stead.’

The Imp. He meant her to marry the Imp.

‘You are close enough in age,’ he added. And yes, the Imp was closer to her age, but… but… ‘You will not find a better match. I trust you to understand that much and to convince your father so. I will not request a dowry from your father, and you shall have the gold of Casterly Rock at your disposal once you are wed. Who knows? Your sister may even find Dorne more… accommodating… Dorne would suit her, no doubt. And they say they take to bastards more easily there. Think it over and give me your response after the tourney. It would not be wise to make me wait any longer than that.’

She bowed her head and curtsied in response. As she reached the door to his solar, a page opened it and announced, ‘Prince Oberyn Martell and Lord Mace Tyrell.’

She hurried out. You are hoping for Highgarden or Dorne, he’d said, but you and your sister will get neither.

*

So lost in her thoughts was Sansa that she nearly walked into another lady when she rounded a corner.

‘Oh! You must be Lady Sansa!’ The girl said with a delighted squeak. Her soft brown hair fell about her face in gentle curls.

Sansa took in her dress. Despite the plunging neckline and the flowing, ivory silk, what drew the eye lay further down. It had a large floating head on it, like hers had done, except it was even more garish, for there were flowers of different colours embroidered all around the head, and worse, there was even a little man dancing to the side.

‘This is my brother Loras,’ said the girl, who could only be Margaery Tyrell from that admission. ‘I'm afraid my father's face does not lend itself to these things as well as yours.’

Sansa stared at those lopsided golden eyes. Never had she thought that being a leading force in fashion could feel so empty.

‘Lady Margaery,’ said Sansa, ‘I am pleased to make your acquaintance. Please call me Sansa.’

Margaery Tyrell smiled sweetly at that and took Sansa’s hand in both of hers. ‘My brother Loras speaks so highly of you. We must take supper together, or go out hawking. Do you hawk?’

‘A little,’ said Sansa. ‘It’s mostly the high harp and embroidery for me, though I am a little short on fabric and thread here.’

‘Perfect,’ said Margaery, clapping her hands together. ‘Loras will be off duty tomorrow. He can bring us to a fabric merchant’s together, and we can pick out what we need. Then we shall do a little embroidering and a little hawking, and you shall have supper with us. Say you will, Sansa. My grandmother would love to meet you.’

She smiled and nodded. Perhaps they still had Highgarden after all. And if not, she had at least found an escort out of the Red Keep.

Chapter Text

Sandor IV

‘Hound!’

Sandor had been about to peel off his sweat-soaked tunic upon the return to his room to clean himself with a washcloth, but dabbed his brows with the bottom of his tunic instead and yanked it back down.

He’d never been less glad to find a smiling woman in his bed. Not the right sister.

‘Bet you wish that hair grew on your head instead,’ said the she-wolf.

‘Get out!’ he said.

The she-wolf laid down and started rolling along the bed instead. ‘This is amazing! I can roll on it whichever way I want! I want a bed this big!’

‘Have you just come to steal my bed?’

Her face fell at that, and she groaned. ‘I’m going to die!’

‘All men must die,’ he said. ‘And women.’

‘Sansa’s going to kill me!’

His ears pricked up at the sound of the little bird’s name, and he decided against picking the she-wolf up by her ankles and throwing her out of the window. Instead, he raised his good brow at her and willed her to continue.

‘Or maybe Sansa’s going to die of disappointment!’

The thought irked him. ‘Just spit it out. Was Tobho Mott’s forge not to your liking?’

‘Oh no,’ the she-wolf said quickly. ‘One of his apprentices is stupid, but we’ve decided to do this year’s exchange with them anyway. It’s actually… Well. Sansa’s name day is in just over a moon, and Father was going to commission her a doll, but I know she doesn’t want another doll, so I told Father to get her an illuminated book of songs instead.’

Ah. He recalled a conversation overheard in Winterfell’s godswood. All of a sudden, he was five and bouncing with excitement.

Is it ready yet?

Not yet, Sandor. The scribe has just finished with the text. Be patient, love.

Is it ready yet?

Not yet, Sandor. Would you like to go and see? See? They’re burnishing today. Isn’t the gold beautiful?

Is it ready yet?

Not yet, my love. Look, they’re doing the rinceaux today. They’re those patterns in the borders, see? Isn’t that pretty?

Yes, I like the little red birds they’ve drawn.

Pretty little birds, aren’t they?

Is it ready yet?

Nearly, love. Look, they’re painting the figures today. Look at that blue on Jonquil’s dress. Oh, it will be worth the wait! So very soon now!

Is it ready yet?

Yes Sandor, and it’s yours. Be gentle with it, all right? Do you want to show Gregor? He can teach you to read it.

Gregor doesn’t like books.

No?

Does he… Are his headaches better today?

He’s been well today, love. Don’t worry, the Maester said he’ll get better soon, and he’ll be back to how he was. We’ll be back to how we were.

Then I’ll show him.

Good, but don’t show Father. He… will not understand.

I won’t.

‘Not going to be time for that, is there?’ he said, blinking the memories away.

‘That’s not the main problem,’ said the she-wolf. ‘She wants one from some guy from the westerlands called Bening Blue-Hands. Apparently he does really good landscapes or something.’

The man’s nose hovered far too close to the vellum, and Sandor wondered if he’d get a bit of that blue paint on the end of his nose too. Then would they call him Bening Blue-Nose?

‘But we’ve just found out he’s dead, and his son’s become a wine merchant. Father asked the Imp to see if we can buy a book from anyone’s collection, but the Imp said he only ever did illuminations of The Seven-Pointed Star,’ said the she-wolf. ‘And Sansa wants one with Florian and Jonquil in it.’

Of course she bloody does. She’d sung it enough times to her wolf after the poisoning, soothing the trembling wolf with her voice and a soft touch. Only a fool would fail to notice that it was her favourite.

‘So?’ he said.

‘So… help? You are from the westerlands. Is there anyone else? Rening Red-Hands or the likes?’

‘The Imp’s wrong.’ The words tumbled out before he could stop himself. ‘He didn’t just do illuminations of the Seven Pointed Star. There is a copy of a book of songs by his hand.’

The she-wolf broke into a toothy grin. ‘I told Father you’re much better than the Imp, but he wouldn’t believe me. Where can we find it?’

At the bottom of his trunk, was where. How many years had it been since he’d allowed it to see the light of day? Yet he couldn’t bear to part with the thing. It had been nearly burnt to cinders, once, when his father had found out, screaming out the amount of gold that had poured into those pages. Screaming at them until Gregor… Gregor had returned home, nursing another headache. The noise had been too much for Gregor, and their father had not, even for a boy of ten. He’d given their father a bloodied nose that day. And the book. He’d kicked the book, and it had landed with a thump by Sandor’s feet.

Gregor’s headaches never did get better, and Sandor never did show him the book.

‘I’ll think on it,’ he said to the she-wolf.

*

When he stepped into his room later that evening, the first thing he noticed was the fucking tent on his bed. His chairs had disappeared, most likely onto his bed. He should be thankful that his desk was still where he left it.

The she-wolf’s head poked out between where his spare green cloak and his blanket met.

‘Hound! You’re back!’

‘Why are you here again? And what the fuck is this?’

‘It’s an improvement. Your room was pretty bare and boring. It needed… character.’

‘Get out!’

‘Actually…’ said the she-wolf, rolling her eyes, ‘Father said it’s not seemly for me to come here by myself.’

‘And he’d be right, girl.’

‘So I brought…’

The pounding in his ears grew louder. Perhaps it was the little bird under that canopy. But another head soon peaked out of the makeshift tent to dispel that thought.

‘Bran!’ announced the she-wolf.

The little wolf looked at him sheepishly and said, ‘Sorry about the mess.’

At that moment, something jumped out of his wardrobe and he nearly slammed it into the wall before making it out to be another boy.

‘And Rickon!’

‘Fuck!’ he said. ‘Don’t. Ever. Surprise me again. Got it?’

‘Sorry Hound, we haven’t made much progress in our quest to find you a wife,’ said the wolf cub unapologetically. ‘Everyone says ladies from the south are great beauties, but it doesn’t seem to be true. I can see why you’d struggled so. We’ve looked everywhere and we can’t even find anyone prettier than Sansa.’

‘Told you Sansa’s pretty,’ said the she-wolf. ‘Stop calling her average.’

The wolf cub wrinkled his nose. ‘But she’s just Sansa. Have you seen her first thing in the morning?’ Sandor had not, and did not object to the experience. ‘She drools on her pillow, and before she brushes out her hair, it’s just everywhere. You can’t even find her face in it.’

‘That’s because her hair is thick,’ said the she-wolf. ‘It makes her pretty.’

‘It makes her an octopus,’ said the wolf cub, all of a sudden as solemn as his father. ‘Did you know,’ he said, ‘one of my wooden horses from the cavalry went missing. I looked for it everywhere, even under Mother’s skirt. She was angry with me for it. In the end, I found it in Sansa’s hair. It ate my horse. One day I would like to marry a lady who doesn’t eat my horses.’

‘I’m sure that will be possible,’ said the she-wolf, resting a hand on the cub’s shoulders just as solemnly.

The little wolf cleared his throat. ‘We didn’t come here to talk about who Rickon is going to marry. We are here to hold an emergency society meeting. Sadly Jon is absent today because he has gone into the city to talk to some men from the Night’s Watch again, but he sends his greetings.’

Emergency. Sandor clenched and unclenched his fists. ‘What’s happened?’

‘Actually… we’re not sure. She seemed to be recovering well and regaining her cheer,’ said the she-wolf. ‘And now, all of a sudden, she’s sighing all the time. We’ve asked her what’s wrong, but she said it’s nothing.’

‘Our first theory… well, Arya’s first theory… is that it’s mourning sickness.’

‘The… what?’

Mourning sickness,’ said the she-wolf, rolling her eyes. ‘You know, the one that half the maidens in the seven kingdoms are now afflicted with, now that Ser Loras the Knight of the Pretty Flower Gardens has taken the white. Jeyne was talking about it the other day.’

One of these days, the she-wolf would be the death of him, for she seemed perfectly capable of stabbing him in all the right places without him ever showing her where the heart was.

‘But the timing is wrong,’ said the little wolf. ‘She didn’t really look like she had mourning sickness…’

‘Seven hells, stop calling it that.’

‘…until this morning, or possibly last night. It could be a delayed reaction, of course, so we’ve tested it by mentioning a range of sensitive words in front of her, including Highgarden and Tyrell, and it does seem to make things worse, so there is some evidence to support Arya’s theory. Unfortunately, no one has any other suggestions. Well, Jon did think it was her moonblood, but Arya said it’s not, so that one’s out already.’

The wolf cub crossed his arms. ‘I still think it’s because she had tea with–’

Shhh…’ hissed the she-wolf. ‘Not here.’

‘But she said he didn’t give her any lemon cakes.’

‘Um,’ said the little wolf. ‘So, yes, there’s Rickon’s theory as well, which is she didn’t get lemon cakes with her tea yesterday.’

With whom, and why could it not be said in front of him? Surely she wouldn’t have gone with Joff? He’d seen Joff prancing about in a doublet that depicted himself lounging on the Iron Throne yesterday. Their lord father should know better than to let that happen. Not only so, the Knight of the fucking Flowers should have enough sense to keep the prince from the little bird, but… He realised with a jolt that it had been Balon Swann he’d seen with Joff both today and the day before.

‘We will continue to explore the reason for her distress,’ the she-wolf took over, ‘but in the meantime, we have come up with a new plan to cheer her up. It is called…’

She looked to her brothers, who cried out in unison, ‘Six Maids in a Pool!’

‘Sansa had always wanted to recreate six maids in a pool. Once, she spent so long soaking in Winterfell’s pools that I had to go and fish her out, but apparently none of that worked because there have to be six maids in a pool. I’ve never agreed to be one of those maids, but these are desperate times…’ said the she-wolf. ‘Then we found a problem, because we don’t know where to find some pools. Do you know where to find some pools?’

Sandor did, in fact, know where to find some pools, and right now he wanted nothing more than to turn them into wine and drown himself in them. Would the little bird’s children one day be like her pack of siblings? Not that it had anything to do with him.

There was a little quite glade just over an hour’s ride from this cesspit of a city, and the pools there glistened as blue as the little bird’s eyes. They weren’t heated, like Winterfell’s pools, but when the sun was out, they were pleasant enough to dip in. He told them where to turn off the road and how to find the spot.

‘Good!’ said the she-wolf. ‘Come with us the day after tomorrow! Sansa’s got her needlework session with Myrcella tomorrow, but we should do it soon, otherwise the tournament will be on us.’

‘You expect me to be there,’ he said, ‘with maids in a bloody pool?’

The she-wolf snorted. ‘We’re not actually going in the pool. I don’t love her that much. We’re just going to take a few tents, fill some baskets with cheeses and meats, and go and sup by the pools. You should come. We can go get some supplies now. Can you take us?’

It was good to find excuses to spend more time in the little bird’s company. In truth, his plan to find hateful things about her had not been going well. He’d need to make progress soon, for he had not felt quite such a bloody fool for any other woman before, but then again she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, so it was only natural for the process to be a little more drawn out.

So he agreed. Which was a mistake.

*

Or rather, it was not.

There she was, running her hand through a bolt of black velvet, smiling as she turned to the Knight of Flowers, eyes wide and twinkling with joy. She chirped to the merchant and asked for it to be wrapped up with four brightly-coloured silks. The blue of her eyes. The red of her hair. The green of the Tyrell’s field, and a golden-yellow like their roses.

Sandor turned to walk away. It would not do to disturb them. But the she-wolf spotted them too, and called out.

He saw the little bird flush as her gaze found her siblings, and blanch when she found him. Then she grabbed her bundle of fabrics with one hand and Loras Tyrell with the other, and fluttered away.

‘What in the seven hells was that?’ said the she-wolf.

He knew what it was. The little bird was not so glad to see an old, scarred dog now that she did not need a dog to bare his teeth for her.

*

He’d wanted to see, hadn’t he? Wanted to see that she was just like every other high-born cunt that had trailed after Cersei’s skirts, fawning over her golden twin. Wanted to see that she wasn’t all that different to every other low-born cunt that had trailed after the Imp’s gold, dripping with honeyed lies.

Now he wanted to close his eyes and never open them again. But even that was no fucking use, for every time he closed his eyes, he saw her smile anew. She’d looked so happy then, and he knew that it was not at the thought of him.

Chapter Text

Robert IV

‘Good morning, Your Grace!’

It was, actually, a fucking fantastic morning. The Tyrells were now in agreement after he’d satisfied their request to install the Knight of Flowers in his Kingsguard. Not only so, his meeting with the High Septon had gone exceedingly well, and there were mere days to go until his new life could begin. Every morning until the end of the tournament would be a good one, and one morning closer to the day when the only one who could be called the fat one would be the High Septon.

Then he realised that the voice who’d wished him a good morning was not Clegane, who was sullen and silent beside him. No, the voice was like crumpled parchment, female, and elderly.

He turned and was faced with a flurry of black silk. The lady’s face was generously wrinkled, especially around her eyes, which were nearly as dark as her silks. Her hair had turned silver with age, although there were still a few strands of flaxen among them, but Robert knew those cheekbones. Sharper than half of the Kingsguard’s swords.

‘Lady Whent,’ he said, looking her head to toe. Even the hairnet was adorned onyx. She’d always been a friend of the Night’s Watch, but seven hells, this was taking it a bit too far. ‘Are you in mourning?’

‘I am always in mourning,’ said the old bat, ‘for my lost youth.’

Robert chuckled at that. She had been young, well, younger… when he last saw her, at the tournament for her daughter, the tournament that threw the seven kingdoms into war, the tournament that later took his beloved Lyanna away from him.

‘I sought an audience with you,’ she said, ‘but it seems that as I am not a boar, I am nothing but a bore.’

‘And when did you learn to jest?’

‘When I turned old enough to be called a fool,’ she said.

No. Still no reaction from Clegane. Someone must have planted his head full of lemons last night, seeing how sour his mood currently was.

‘Go talk to your Lord of Riverrun,’ he said, hoping she’d go away. He’d already filled his previous days with blathering, not just with the High Septon, but he’d had to handle lunching with the Tyrells, being civil to the viper, breathing in the same room as the old lion, and, worse, having brotherly meals with Stannis and Renly. All without much aid from his old friend, the red. Endure those, he must, but the talk with the old bat would serve no purpose. He resumed his jog, only to find the old bat gliding along by his side. He presumed she was also jogging, but her dress did not bob up and down, and it looked as though she was moving on wheels.

‘Is it wise for you to run?’ he said.

‘No,’ she said, not a bit out of breath. ‘I may fall dead at any moment, really. My heart is not what it was, and neither is Harrenhal.’

‘This is about Harrenhal, is it?’ he said, and gave up his run. He’d gathered as much. It wasn’t as if the old bat would travel all this way at her age to talk about whether the Reach or the riverlands produced the best cheese.

‘This is about giving me an heir,’ she said.

‘Might be a bit late for that.’

‘I’m not planning to squeeze one out of my own body, Your Grace. But I did want to squeeze one out of another house. That will require bestowing the castle upon another, and the king will have to do it,’ she said, with a nod in his direction, just in case the Others had taken his head and he was no longer aware who was king, he supposed.

Robert sighed. There’d be paperwork for that, and because it was a seat like Harrenhal, there’d be droves of fuckers selling their own merits. After all, as burnt and cursed as the place was, the Lord of Harrenhal was no minor title to bestow; it’d make a man fit for marriage with the great houses of the seven kingdoms.

‘I have always served you well, Your Grace,’ said the old bat. ‘Are you aware of the viper infestation in the westerlands?’

‘Of course.’ He’d had enough grief about it, what with the old lion tightening his purse strings and making a threat to recall the debt the crown owed him.

‘Are you aware of the river shark infestation in Gods Eye river five years prior? Of the locusts that ravaged our lands two years ago?’

‘No…’

‘Precisely,’ she said. ‘It was dealt with. Without complaint. And we paid our due to Riverrun and to the crown, as we always do. I only ask for an heir who will be equally untroubling for the crown.’ Then she added, ‘Do you know our house words, Your Grace?’

Well, yes… It was the shortest in the seven kingdoms. Damned if he knew what it meant. ‘If?’

‘Yes.’

He waited for her to say something else. To explain. To elaborate. But no, she just stared at him with those too-dark eyes. Fuck. Why did every fucking thing about House Whent have to be so damned creepy? Not that Robert was an easily-intimidated man. No. But he had seen a real life ghost in Winterfell not so long ago. And the Whents… Well, everyone knew how ill-loved the black bat of House Lothston was before them, and instead of coming up with a friendly sigil like a bunny rabbit or the like, House Whent had upped it by adopting not two, not three, but nine black bats as their sigil.

‘Who’s the unlucky bastard?’ He might as well agree and get it over and done with. If she’d chosen Littlefinger, then that’s even better. The master of coin had been hankering after a greater title for years, constantly prattling on about how many damned coins he’s managed to wrangle for the royal treasury by prying them from the hands of dead men. A cursed seat would suit him well.

‘She–’

‘A woman?!’

‘–is, as far as I am aware, a woman, although my eyes aren’t what they once were, and I did mistake Ser Loras Tyrell for his sweet sister yesterday.’

Not Littlefinger then, for it’d take a completely blind man to overlook the beard on the end of his chin, as tiny as it was, much like the rest of the man. Appointing a woman to become the Lady of Harrenhal hardly bode well. Naming a married woman would be a slight to the husband, but choosing a maiden to inherit the seat would send every scoundrel and their dog after her hand.

‘Which poor sod’s daughter has offended you now?’ he said.

‘It’s simply a matter of blood,’ she said. ‘Though we helped to end their madness, we’d once served House Lothston, and have inherited a little of their blood. Now we look to those who bear our blood. Minisa’s line still lives. I cannot appoint Edmure Tully, for he and his line will one day inherit Riverrun. Of the two daughters, Lysa’s son is already Lord of the Eyrie and Defender of the Vale. Of Catelyn’s line, however… They have five children, with another coming, I hear. Give one to me. They can spare one.’

‘A Stark maid?’ he said.

Clegane had still not uttered a word, but was now studying the old bat with what would be furrowed brows, had he still owned brows in the plural.

‘That way, I’m leaving them three male heirs and more. Even if one was to get himself stabbed, eaten by krakens or kidnapped by wildlings, there’d still be others left to inherit Winterfell.’

True that. Winterfell would have to gain a darker reputation than Harrenhal for all three male heirs to perish.

‘And,’ she added, ‘the Stark girls have gained… a certain reputation. Both are flowered but unbetrothed. I know they still have their eyes on the likes of Dorne and Highgarden, but I am offering Harrenhal without need for a dowry.’

‘The younger of the two then,’ he said. The one that looked like Brandon had always been the bane of Ned’s life. Ned would be thankful for not needing to look for a husband that the girl won’t skewer with a sword.

‘I was hoping for the elder,’ said the old bat. ‘She has the Whent cheekbones.’

‘And she also looks like Danelle fucking Lothston,’ he said.

‘All they have in common is their red hair.’

Clegane was still silent, and it was disconcerting. If he’d wanted the company of a silent man, he’d have sought out Ser Ilyn Payne. Or had Clegane been taken ill? Maybe he should send him Pycelle.

‘Clegane!’ he said, ‘You’ve seen Lady Sansa. Don’t you think she looks like Danelle Lothston?’

‘I… have never seen Danelle Lothston, Your Grace.’

‘Of course not! You’d have to be over a hundred… But everyone knows Mad Danelle had long red hair.’

‘As do the Tullys,’ said the old bat, ‘and the family is well-loved in the riverlands. I have seen Lady Sansa myself. She doesn’t look the sort to sacrifice children and bathe in their blood in pursuit for eternal youth.’

‘You never know,’ he said. ‘Isn’t that right, Clegane? For example, Cersei doesn’t look like the sort either, and…’

Clegane’s face transformed into a mask right before him. He’d learned to read the man better nowadays, and whenever Clegane looked like he’d rather be a fucking statue, it meant that Lannister dog wanted no part in speaking ill of the Lannisters, but secretly agreed.

‘You think…’ he said.

‘I have served as Queen Cersei’s shield for many years,’ said Clegane. ‘I have never seen her do anything of the sort.’

What Clegane didn’t say was that finding Cersei bathing in blood and eating human flesh further down the line, in a bid to stay the young and beautiful, probably wouldn’t be a surprise. And of course, Clegane had that fucking badge, didn’t he? He’d never speak ill of Ned’s daughter, theoretically or otherwise.

He heaved a sigh.

‘Even if your people don’t take her for Mad Danelle,’ he said, ‘do you really expect a girl like that to take up a seat like Harrenhal? Her sister has a bit of Brandon in her. That’s the sort of girl who might take up the challenge of a curse. But Sansa? That’s the sort of girl you put in Highgarden. She’ll be happy surrounded by flowers and harps. You don’t give her a giant half-melted castle and expect her to make a home there.’

‘Harrenhal is a noble seat,’ said the old bat.

‘Of course it fucking is,’ he said. ‘Everyone wants it in their title, but don’t pretend to me you’d not rather live in Stone Hedge or Castle Darry.’

That shut the old bat right up. At length, she said, ‘The Gods Eye is very beautiful. In the autumn, the water is a beautiful blue. In the winter, it turns steel grey. You can see it from the castle.’

Clegane cleared his throat. Maybe he had a cold that was transforming into pneumonia. ‘It’s her choice.’

‘What?’

‘It’s her choice,’ Clegane said once more. ‘It can’t be decided here.’

Which was a point. He’d wanted to decide it right then and there to get on with the tedious paperwork, and, well, if it had to be done, it’d be best for the stamp to be already on the documents to quash any damned whining. But then again, if the heir wasn’t to be decided until after the tournament, then he could get his new Hand to draw up all the paperwork, and simply put his signature and seal upon it.

‘Give her until the end of the tournament to decide,’ he said to the old bat. ‘My bet is on her trying for Dorne or Highgarden though!’

*

They saw the girl make a pass on Dorne soon enough, at the end of his morning training. Both Stark girls accompanied the viper and his paramour, carrying their hawking gloves. Ellaria, Robert remembered. Not as easy as Cersei on the eye, to be sure, but surely much easier in the bed.

‘Is it true that bastards are treated well in Dorne,’ Ned’s younger daughter was asking, and for once her hair was smoothly brushed and braided.

‘I assure you that my daughters are not ashamed of being Sands,’ said the viper.

The girl smiled at that, as if the world had depended on the viper’s answer.

‘We hope to visit Dorne someday,’ said the elder of the two. ‘The lemon orchards must be very beautiful. We can only grow them in our glass garden in Winterfell.’

‘Never mind the lemons,’ said Ned’s younger daughter. ‘They have warrior queens! I named my direwolf Nymeria.’

The viper smiled at that. ‘I have a daughter of the same name.’

‘Is it true that some of your girls wear breeches and wield spears?’

‘Girl or boy, we fight our battles,’ said the viper. ‘If you plan to make a trip to Dorne, plan on a lengthy visit. Perhaps we have many matters to discuss.’ His eyes landed Clegane then. Without missing a beat, he added. ‘You know the saying. Northmen have blood of the First Men. Dornishmen have the blood of the Rhoynar. Westermen have the blood of knaves.’

Beside the Dornish prince, Ned’s younger daughter winced, and the elder drew in a sharp breath.

Robert let it go, for Oberyn was ever the viper. Deadly, dangerous, unpredictable. He, himself was still making amends with Dorne for what had happened at the end of the war by offering a hand in their vengeance. Not a good idea to tread on the viper.

Clegane had the good sense to walk on, but the redhead did not. If he hadn’t been looking at her at that precise moment, Robert would have missed it altogether, but her eyes, usually wide and dreamy, turned cold as ice. In that moment, all those accusations of witchcraft against her didn’t seem so far-fetched. She opened her mouth, as if about to snap at the viper, but in the blink of an eye, the moment was gone, and she merely dipped a curtsy at him and mouthed ‘Your Grace’ as she passed by, back to exchanging pleasantries with the Dornish prince.

*

Later, when he meant to check on whether Clegane really had developed pneumonia, he found a bewildered Clegane nursing his second cup of sour red, seemingly sound of body again.

‘Oberyn fucking Martell gave me an apology,’ Clegane said, in the way of explanation. ‘Said he’s fucking sorry for causing offense with his words and shouldn’t have let those rumours about Gregor affect his judgement of me. What the fuck.’

‘Are you sure he didn’t poison his words?’ Robert jested.

‘Oberyn fucking Martell…’

‘You might call her a little bird, but that Stark girl is a damned hawk, I tell you,’ he said.

Clegane started at that. ‘What do you mean?’

‘Hawks and eagles eat vipers,’ he explained. Surely he’d been clear enough with his meaning. ‘I suppose you can call her a mongoose if you like, but they aren’t birds, so hawk it is. Or eagle.’

Perhaps she could make winged mongooses her new sigil if she did decide to inherit Harrenhal. And perhaps the old bat wasn’t as batty as he’d initially thought, wanting to leave the place to a girl like Sansa Stark.

Chapter Text

Sansa V

Sansa pricked her finger for the third time that morning, and licked the blood away before Princess Myrcella could comment on her poor concentration. But Princess Myrcella seemed just as distracted, for the princess was currently embroidering a second tongue on a lion, making it look silly instead of fearsome. She wondered what was on the princess’s mind. Could it have been a supper to rival her own with the Tyrells last night? She could still feel a pounding headache at the thought of Butterbumps’s enormous belch and the way he’d thrown out his belly and bellowed, ‘A bear there was, a bear, a BEAR! All black and brown, and covered with hair…

It had been loud enough to deafen all those ears in the walls of the Red Keep, for sure. And as the fool sang, belly straining against his jester's suit of green and yellow feathers, the scent of rosewater and sour breath had wafted over to her as Lady Olenna leant in and whispered promises of Highgarden and extracted a truthful answer from Sansa.

What sort of man is this Joffrey, who calls himself Baratheon but looks so very Lannister?

What sort of man?

A monster, she’d whispered. They’d been persistent until she could no longer cover it up by praising the prince’s good looks. Had they seen the way she’d been avoiding the prince around the Red Keep?

And the reply still haunted her. Ah. That’s a pity.

What was a pity? Sansa knew well enough that Lady Margaery was the most likely bride for Prince Joffrey, now that Sansa’s betrothal to the prince was no longer under consideration, and perhaps she’d wanted to save Lady Margaery from a union that would be nothing short of unfortunate, for Lady Margaery had been nothing short of kind and courteous to her and, from Princess Myrcella’s words, to Prince Tommen too, getting Ser Loras to give him tips on jousting. Tommen had always been frightened of Sandor Clegane, she’d said with a sniff that’d told Sansa that she did not agree, and he’d always run from jousting lessons with him. But now, with Ser Loras praising his every move, he’s found a liking to it well enough.

So Sansa had called Prince Joffrey a monster, and the Queen of Thorns had called it a pity with a finality that frightened her, so she’d thrown them a list of kindness and sweetness associated with Princess Myrcella and Prince Tommen instead.

But there had been a promise of Highgarden, despite Lord Tywin’s words, and Dorne… Dorne… She’d nearly been short with Prince Oberyn, for the previous day had been long, and the night longer still, working on her token of thanks for Sandor Clegane, now that speed was of an essence after that encounter where he’d seen her clutching the very fabrics she’d chosen and the element of surprise was all but ruined.

She breathed out a sigh and pricked her finger a fourth time. Luckily it did not draw blood this time. She did not need a red stain on the green fabric.

‘What are you making?’ Princess Myrcella spoke at last.

‘Stockings for Pact Day,’ said Sansa, and held up the green silken stocking topped with white fur. She’d been sewing a letter T in gold on this one. ‘I heard from… heard that you don’t celebrate Pact Day here in the south, but in the north, it is the most important day of the year, and we like to give presents to family and friends, so I made you a stocking. It’s… Well. We put presents in the stockings, you see. This one’s for Tommen. I’d like you to celebrate Pact Day with us.’

At that, Princess Myrcella burst into tears.

‘You don’t have to!’ said Sansa. She’d been too presumptuous. Friendship did not come as easily as she used to think as a girl. Everyone had courtesy for armour, including herself. Princess Myrcella’s needlework sessions with her, and the acceptance of her invitation to the maids in a pool outing on the morrow that Arya had organised meant little. After all, how long had they really known each other? How long ago had it been when she’d first set eyes on them in Winterfell? The king, so far from her image of a king. Queen Cersei, with Princess Myrcella and Prince Tommen by her side, entering on foot as her wheelhouse was too wide to pass through the castle gates. Ser Jaime, hair as bright as beaten gold, a perfect picture of a knight. Prince Joffrey, tall, handsome and just as golden. And Sandor Clegane, hair brushed over his scars, though not enough to cover them.

Exhaustion caught up with her in an instance. She should have slept. Perhaps, tonight–

‘Oh no!’ cried Princess Myrcella. ‘That’s not it at all. I’d love to celebrate Pact Day with you, and I’m sure Tommen would be thrilled too. He loves presents! There’s nothing I’d love more than to… to… even become sisters by marriage, and… Oh! I don’t mean you and Joff. I mean…’ The blush that crept onto the princess’s face said it all.

‘Robb?’ she stated.

With a sniff, the princess said, ‘I… spoke to my father yesterday, as he seemed to be in a jolly mood. I thought, since he’d been eager to join our houses by marriage, that he might be glad to hear that I am… partial to a betrothal between myself and Lord Robb, but he… he… He said I might as well set my sights on your other brother.’

‘Bran?’ That would make sense, for Bran was only one year younger than Princess Myrcella.

‘No, your half-brother,’ said the princess.

‘Jon Snow?’ Bastards were not allowed to marry young princesses. That was how things were. How could the king even say so in jest, unless… Unless he still had plans to act upon what he’d heard in the crypts of Winterfell.

Princess Myrcella nodded. ‘And I only asked because I overheard my grandfather telling mother that he’d promised my hand to both Willas Tyrell and Prince Trystane Martell in secret. He said he’d wait until the end of the tournaments to decide which betrothal to honour,’ said the princess, with a complete disregard for the ears behind the walls that the Queen of Thorns had so feared. Or did the princess wish those ears to hear? ‘He said he was going to tell the house that would not be gaining my hand that it was due to my wilfulness, because you know how girls are in their teens. If only someone had told me.’

Sansa was glad that the princess had told her. Lord Tywin’s words to her made a little more sense now. Who would want a Stark bride suspected of killing her betrothed with witchcraft when there was a princess with no blood on her hands to marry? The thought irked her. The Queen of Thorns must have been suspicious of Lord Tywin’s offer and had used her as a backup bride. And Dorne had done the same to Arya.

‘Since girls our age are so wilful, maybe I can ask Father for his opinion on betrothing you to Robb? And I can write to Robb,’ Sansa offered. Did she want to help Princess Myrcella or help herself to Highgarden? Did it even matter? Did Highgarden even matter? She didn’t want it, even though she should. She wanted… No, no, no. She wanted to make Mother and Father proud. To find a match for herself that would be of benefit to the Seven Kingdoms, that would establish peace and stability. She’d tried once, hadn’t she? After overhearing Father worry over the strained relationship that had formed from the ancient rivalry between the Kings of Winter and the Red Kings, she’d sought out the heir to the Boltons and had fallen in love with him, though she had not even known him then, and she’d always hoped to go south before that. It was easy to feel a strange fluttering inside at the thought of an intended betrothal. That was what it meant to be a highborn maid. She’d love her lord husband, just like in the songs.

Though it didn’t go like that in Florian and Jonquil.

There were times, at night, when she’d think she was Lady, and the world seemed frighteningly simple then.

No. Ladies like herself and Princess Myrcella weren’t really wilful; the princess might wish to marry Robb instead of Willas or Prince Trystane, but she’d never allow thoughts of any man from lesser birth entertain her. It was not done. It was not right.

Princess Myrcella knew so too, for she shook her head. ‘I think I will talk to Prince Oberyn,’ she said. ‘I will explain that there’d been a misunderstanding with Highgarden. It is better to promise myself to Dorne, don’t you think? The Dornish hates my mother’s family for… for what happened to Princess Elia in the war. My marriage will bridge that hatred. And… perhaps you can wed Prince Quentyn, and we’d be sisters still?’

‘Arya wants to go to Dorne,’ said Sansa. So she could find a place for Jon.

‘Ah. So it’s Highgarden for you?’

You will love Highgarden as I do, I know it, Margaery had said. Once you see it, you'll never want to leave.

Would they allow Lady to roam free in Highgarden? Would she find her home among those fields of golden roses, blooming as far as the eye could see? Did it matter? Because what else was there?

*

She was making her way to the godswood to see Lady after a meeting with the Imp when she spotted the last person she wanted to see, a little too late. It had been a very odd meeting, though she was glad to have asked Princess Myrcella to speak with him about their intended marriage, for it turned out that it was only intended on Lord Tywin’s side, and the Imp himself was not aware of such a plan either. In fact, he’d said, reeking of a woman’s perfume too heavily tinged with pennyroyal, he didn’t wish to marry her. No lady would allow themselves to be dabbed with pennyroyal these days, for it was a sign that you feared the infection of fleas. She, herself, preferred washing with a blend of musk, cloves, amber and citrus blossom water.

He’d said that his father had been hoping to find him dead for some time. Or glamoured forever into Jaime’s twin, and I don’t mean my sweet sister. Marrying you would either kill me or give him heirs of a higher stature, and I’ll be sure to find myself quite dead after you’ve popped out a boy with matching green eyes or two.

She did not want to pop out any children with Lannister-green eyes and wormy lips, and was shuddering from the thought so much that she nearly missed the real source of her disgust.

Prince Joffrey stood with his back to her, swinging a longsword that gleamed blue under the sunlight. It was castle-forged and double-edged, with a leather grip and a lion's-head pommel in gold.

Ser Loras, who must be guarding him today, nodded along with a polite smile. No jousting lessons for Prince Tommen today then.

She lowered her head and picked up her pace, and was about to pass them when she caught sight of another figure swaying over to the prince.

It was an unfamiliar knight, perhaps here to prepare for the tournament. The tents were already being set up outside the Red Keep, and yesterday, Jeyne had gone with her to watch some of the knights ride into the city among the crowd. When Jeyne saw young Lord Beric Dondarrion, with his hair like red gold and his black shield slashed by lightning, she pronounced herself willing to marry him on the instant, especially when the men at the gates had shouted, ‘Here to fight in the Hand's tourney, my lord?’, and he’d answered, ‘Here to win the Hand's tourney.’ Oh, how the crowd had loved him!

This knight, on the other hand… Well, Sansa only knew him to be a knight from the breastplate he wore. Barry red and pink, with three golden crowns upon a blue chief. The coat of arms of House Hollard. Ser Dontos Hollard. The child that had once been saved by Ser Barristan Selmy. Sansa looked away, for unfortunately, the knight was wearing nothing save his breastplate. His legs were pale and skinny, and his manhood flopped about obscenely as he ran towards the stables and swayed right into Prince Joffrey’s path.

Sansa prayed that Ser Loras would push the drunken knight out of Prince Joffrey’s way before the knight could take another step, but Ser Loras merely stared at the man with a quizzical smile. And then it was too late. For Ser Dontos stumbled right into the prince. He swore, mumbled an apology, and tried to right himself. Except, at that moment, trying to form a sentence must have been too much effort to keep the wine down, for he threw up, right onto the lion-head pommel of Prince Joffrey’s sword.

Ser Loras’s eyes danced with laughter, but from where she was now, she could see the look on Prince Joffrey’s face, and it was a look he’d worn as he’d asked Ser Meryn to push her from the river banks at the Trident.

Prince Joffrey raised his sword.

Sansa heard herself gasp. ‘No, you can’t.’

Joffrey turned his head. His green eyes found hers. ‘You. What did you say?’

Sansa could not believe she had spoken. Was she mad? She’d planned to spend the rest of her stay in King’s Landing out of the prince’s way, hoping that he’d forget her victory over him. She hadn’t meant to say anything, only… Ser Dontos was drunk and silly and useless, but he meant no harm. And surely Prince Joffrey couldn’t do anything to her. Not with Ser Loras right here, and her family so close by. But his sword glinted a colder blue than before, and suddenly she wasn’t so sure. And even if he’d leave her alone today, he’d tried to poison Lady before. What might he do this time? For there were ones he could strike without consequence. Jeyne. Jon.

‘Please,’ Sansa said, ‘I only meant… it would be ill luck to, to hurt a man right before a tournament. You are fighting in the tournament, are you not? You’ve entered the lists, Myrcella mentioned? I wish you every success. I’m sure you will unhorse many a–’

‘You’re lying,’ Prince Joffrey said.

‘I don’t… it’s not…’ The words tumbled out, and she looked to Ser Loras to help steer the conversation, but Ser Loras merely looked at her with a frown of confusion, as if it was the first time he’d heard of such a saying, which, considering it was something she’d just said to avoid punishment for those who mattered to her, must have been the case. ‘It really will bring ill luck… terrible luck, even for a prince…’

‘My prince,’ Ser Loras spoke at last. ‘It has been a hot day.’ Which was true enough, but Sansa did not care about the hotness of the day right at this moment in time. ‘Lady Sansa is from the north, and they are more easily affected by the heat. Might I be allowed to escort her to her room?’

Oh. He meant to take her out of harm’s way, the way a true knight was supposed to do for a lady. Perhaps Lady Olenna had told him some of what she’d said last night, enough to know that she was not completely safe in Prince Joffrey’s presence. But… But… What of Ser Dontos?

‘Please,’ she said, ‘I feel quite well, I thank you ser. The tournaments… It really is…’

‘Walk with me anyway, my lady,’ said Ser Loras. ‘I have something to ask of you for the tournament, if it pleases you?’

It would please her more for him to ask for Ser Dontos’s company. Why did he not understand? Was it because the songs did not sing about knights saving drunkards?

‘It’s true!’ she said. ‘To… to punish a man so close to the tournaments will bring ill luck. It really is…’

Prince Joffrey scowled. The more she repeated it, the worse it sounded. The prince would never believe her.

‘She speaks truly,’ came a familiar rasp behind her. His voice was flat, as if he did not care a whit whether Prince Joffrey believed him or no.

‘Yes, quite true,’ came another voice, crisp as parchment. Sansa turned her head to see an old lady smothered in black standing by the Hound’s side. The old lady wore a bat carved from a night-black stone on a chain around her neck, wings as sharp as blades. It seemed to suck in all the warmth of the day. Obsidian, Sansa thought. ‘Not that summer children like you and you will know,’ said the old lady, who must be Lady Whent of Harrenhal. ‘Now, I have seen a fair number of tournaments in my life. Have you heard of the Golden Knight? And I don’t mean Ser Jaime, my child.’

‘I’m afraid not,’ said Ser Loras.

‘Just as well, for he was too eager to test his blade before a tournament, and earned his name by what escaped between his legs as he was kicked in the behind by his own horse. Quite an unfortunate accident. His family does not like to speak of it, lest he bring down the name of his house, but he was a Frey, so I doubt that’d be possible.’ Ser Loras laughed as Lady Whent pushed on. ‘Now, have you heard of the Crimson Knight?’

‘No, my lady,’ said Ser Loras.

‘Neither have I,’ said Lady Whent in a conspiratorial whisper. ‘Yes, let’s not speak of the Crimson Knight. It will be adding ill luck to ill luck, and you are all riding in the lists soon enough. It would not do to have that happen to any of you. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’d like to speak to Lady Sansa. Oh, I know you would too,’ she said, laying a wizened hand Ser Loras’s shoulder, ‘but as I am more likely to drop dead in the next hour than you, young man, please give me the honour. And my thanks to you,’ said Lady Whent, turning to the Hound. ‘Well found. I think I can just about find Lady Sansa myself now, from this distance, despite being as blind as a bat.’

The Hound nodded and clamped his hands about Ser Dontos’s shoulders. ‘The man needs some breeches before we all become as blind as bats. I will make sure that he is dealt with. Carry on with your preparations for the tournament. This needs not waste your time. Or your luck.’

So she found herself with Lady Whent’s grip around her wrist, almost gliding towards the godswood. Lady Whent never paused for breath on the steps of the Serpentine, and only when they’d entered the godswood did she slow her pace. Lady yipped when she spotted Sansa, and paid Lady Whent no mind.

‘You really are like your aunt Lyanna,’ Lady Whent spoke at last.

It must be true then, of her being as blind as a bat. ‘Do you mean… my sister Arya?’

‘I didn’t say you looked like her,’ said Lady Whent. ‘And you have a different way of fighting. But Dontos Hollard is no Howland Reed.’

‘I’m sorry, I don’t–’

‘Your father never told you about the Knight of the Laughing Tree?’

She shook her head.

Lady Whent brushed the aside some smokeberry vines that clung to the great oak that served as the Red Keep’s heart tree and sighed. ‘Let me tell you, my girl. Should you ever find yourself betrothed to another, and a man comes to you, offers to take you away, to keep you safe, don’t listen to your heart. Turn him down. No man has the strength to stand against a kingdom. If you go with him… There is already an ending written for that story, and it is not a happy one for the Stark maid or the man. He will die by the Trident. And the maid… You look like you have more sense than that. Some say that love makes you blinder than an old woman like me, but it should not be thus.’

Sansa didn’t know what to say to that. Was Lady Whent truly speaking about Aunt Lyanna? For hadn’t she been abducted? Everyone said so. History said so.

‘That aside,’ said Lady Whent, ‘I wanted to speak with you before your father speaks for you. Have you ever thought about giving up Winterfell?’

*

‘Lady Sansa!’

She really needed to speak to Arya after what she’d learned today, and had hoped to find her near the tents, practising against hedge knights who’d not know her for who she was, but the lady before her was definitely not Arya. The lady was light of hair, long of leg, full-breasted and wore a dress in dusky pink and bronze that made the fact perfectly clear. Despite the lady’s weak chin, she had an open and friendly smile that made her more than pretty.

‘My lady?’ said Sansa.

‘Oh, it really is you! In the flesh! I wasn’t sure, as you are not wearing the dress today, but you really are as beautiful as they say,’ said the unknown lady, twirling a braid of her honey-blonde hair around her finger. ‘Are you here to choose the knights to bestow your favour upon for the tourney as well?’

Sansa searched for a sign of her house sigil from her clothing and jewellery, but the only jewel she wore was a teardrop necklace that was swallowed up by her bosoms.

‘I… intend to wait for knights to ask for my favour,’ she said nonetheless, as was proper. ‘How should I address you?’

‘Oh! My apologies, I am Amerei Frey, here to visit my Pate. He is fighting in the melee. He wants to make a great name for himself. Please call me Ami.’

Sansa smiled at Ami, as courtesy dictated. ‘I am sure your husband is very brave.’

‘He is oh so very brave!’ said Ami. ‘You are so kind to say so, Sansa. May I call you Sansa? I feel like we can become bosom buddies,’ she said, with a jiggle of her own. ‘There are certain things that only ladies built like us can understand. Oh, yes, you’re hiding yours, but girls who know, know,’ she said with a wink that made Sansa blush. ‘For example… it shouldn’t be so hot when it’s so close to winter, but on days like these… Isn’t it just the greatest when your corset comes off? And it’s horrible how sticky it gets under, and between. Which is why I like to keep mine well-ventilated.’

Sansa giggled despite herself. It was somehow… nice to talk about something as innocuous as this after a day like this, when every other conversation had been cloaked in schemes and lies. ‘It also does not make horse-riding easy,’ she confessed to Lady Ami. ‘My sister Arya always urges me to go without a corset, but… that would be…’

‘Quite impossible,’ agreed Ami. ‘That’s asking for a black eye at anything more than a walk. Oh, I have always wanted to travel north, where the weather is quite cold and I’d get far less sweaty, unless I wanted to, with exercise.’

‘Are you taking part in the procession with the golden chains?’ Sansa asked. The king was planning to make this tourney the grandest ever, and under the influence of Highgarden, he had agreed to include a procession where each knight would be led by his lady love onto the tourney grounds by a chain of gold, peppered with roses. It sounded even grander than the songs. She’d been fairly sure that Ser Loras had been meaning to ask her to hold his chain earlier in the day. That would surely make her the envy of every other maid in Westeros.

‘Well!’ said Ami with a huff. ‘My Pate said only those who enter the lists must attend, and those who are taking part in the melee would need to pay a few coins to buy a chain, so he has refused to step out with me. But no fear. I will find a true knight to champion me all the same. I have drawn a list of candidates already.’

‘Many ladies are hoping to have Ser Loras wear their favour,’ said Sansa.

Ami chuckled at that, a deep and hearty sound. ‘Looks aren’t everything when it comes to the worth of a man. No lady can come to a… mutual understanding with the likes of Ser Loras.’

Sansa could not agree more. Her new friend seemed to speak truer words than half the court. Florian’s face had never been something to sing about, but his kindness and bravery had been worth far, far more. And hadn’t she just lamented the lack of understanding between herself and Ser Loras earlier in the day? She nodded eagerly and asked, ‘So who is on your list?’

‘I have talked to a good many people,’ said Ami, ‘for the tourney will not last forever, so it is far better to be selective when bestowing your favour. I have made assessed those with the advantage of size, stamina and skill. The best tourney experience lies with those who have all three.’

A lady who had studied the prowess of each knight in order to back a champion. Sansa had not given the matter nearly as much thought. Even Arya would be impressed. ‘You are a true lady, Ami,’ she said.

Ami sniffed. ‘Oh, Sansa! You will make me cry. So few ladies call me that. Lady Olenna called me far less pleasant names. I am just trying to have my fun, you know. The king does. Why mustn’t I? You know what. I will share my list with you. You can take your pick first, if you’d like, and I will work through the others. I swear it on… on Ami’s honour, for they say that Freys have none.’

Sansa wanted to give her new friend a hug. It sounded so unfair to judge such a sweet an honest girl thus. Her friend presently extracted a small folded piece of paper from inside her bosom and smoothed it out. At the top was written Prince Oberyn and Ellaria Sand, which was a fair enough assessment, for the Red Viper was formidable indeed, though Sansa did not understand why his paramour had been included.

‘Please don’t pick the first one,’ said Ami, putting on a pout. ‘Though I did say you get first pick, so pick them if you must. I will live with it.’

She scanned the rest of the list, only to find it comprised of many knights she did not know. There was a question mark next to Lothor Brune, and the name Bryce Caron looked a little familiar, though it was outshone by the name Ser Lyle Crakehall written under it in large letters. True to her word, Ami had not included Ser Loras on her list, and neither did Ser Jaime feature. Then, with a flutter of pride, she found that her good friend had included the Hound. Of course, someone as kind and gentle as Ami would see beyond his scars and deem him a worthy champion.

‘Anyone catch your fancy?’ said Ami.

‘I have not met most of these knights,’ Sansa confessed. ‘But…’ She brushed her finger over his name. It was a shame that Ami hadn’t really written his name. Still, she knew the Hound would win.

‘So it’s true?’

‘What is true?’

‘I’ve heard some rumours about…’ Ami inclined her head towards the name she was pointing at and cleared her throat.

Whatever it was, Sansa hadn’t heard.

‘Well. Rest assured. Both my lips are sealed,’ said Ami, with a wink.

Sansa felt as if she’d follow the conversation a little better with more sleep, so she made plans to sit with Ami on the day of the tournament and excused herself to her chambers. Perhaps Arya would already be back too. If not, then she could stay put, make progress on her needlework, and wait for her sister’s return.

*

He was leaving their room. His room. For it was bare in a way that their room couldn’t be. She’d fill the walls with paintings and tapestries, and there’d be a mirror on a dressing table, and fruits and flowers in bowls and vases, to brighten up the room, to make it smell sweet.

He was leaving, and she didn’t want him to go.

Lady whined from the corner of his bed, padded over to him and tugged his sleeve.

He looked down at her. At Lady.

‘Go back to the godswood, girl. The king will not be pleased to hear you’ve been roaming free again.’

No, she said. Lady whined again.

‘Then stay here if you must. Now can you let go…?’

No she could not.

Lady let go and followed him out of the door.

‘Seven hells. You can’t mean to follow me,’ he said.

She looked up at him. It was a long way up. Longer than she remembered.

He shook his head.

‘If these don’t scare them off,’ he said, pointing to his face, ‘you will. Now go back to the room, or the godswood, and–’

Lady sat on his foot.

‘Oh… for... never mind. I’ll go back. Does that make you happy?’

It didn’t. Not really. But–

*

It was a scream that jostled her from her dream.

Bran.

How long had she slept at her desk, needle in hand? She brushed her pincushion aside, feeling a prickle on her cheek. She’d deal with that later. Now, she ran into his room, to find her brother bolt-straight in his bed with the sheets strewn about him. His eyes were bright with tears.

‘I saw… I saw it all,’ he said, as his eyes focused on her. ‘I flew beyond the curtain of light at the end of the world, and then beyond that curtain. I… I looked deep into the heart of winter… It was… it was…’ It was then he’d cried out, afraid, and woken Sansa. The heat of his tears had burned on his cheeks. ‘And now I know… I know…’

‘Shh…’ said Sansa, rocking her brother back and forth like she used to so many years ago. It used to bring him comfort. ‘Shh… It was just a dream.’

But Summer howled in the distance, from his confines in the godswood, and they both knew it wasn’t.

Chapter Text

Sandor V

The red of the little bird’s hair was a beacon; he spotted her from afar as he waited in the yard with Myrcella and Shireen, who had arrived far too early, and was asking him, for the third time, ‘Do I really not need to bring anything else?’

With a surge of pride, he realised that it was his hairpin from Winterfell that Shireen sported today.

‘Arya and her bastard brother are setting things up. They’ve got the steward’s daughter with them as well. We just need to turn up,’ he reassured her.

‘Stop being so nervous Shireen,’ said Myrcella. ‘The sun is out, the birds are singing, and Joff’s not going to be around all day. Tommen wanted to come as well, but Joff said only children go on such trivial excursions, so he’s not coming anymore.’ She turned to him and said, ‘Did you know that you are more of a child than Tommen?’

He laughed. ‘A true honour.’

‘Oh look, there’s Sansa.’ Myrcella spotted the little bird at last. ‘And… Is that Rickon?’

The little bird inclined her head at Myrcella and Shireen and joined them atop Thunder, who had been strapped with one over-filled saddlebag. Stranger neighed at Thunder and shook his head. Did he recognise his half-brother still?

‘What happened to your face?’ Myrcella asked at once.

The little bird did look as if she’d slept no better than him last night. For him, it was the sight of the Clegane banners making it through the gates yesterday that had kept him up. For her, had it been the offer that Lady Whent had no doubt made her the day before? And… what the fuck had happened to her face? For though she’d powdered one cheek vigorously, there was still a crisscross of thin lines visible beneath.

‘I… um… I fell asleep,’ said the little bird, turning a bright shade of red on her unpowdered cheek. ‘But I was finishing up some… some needlework, so I fell asleep on top of my pincushion, and… and some pins fell out when I was waking up, and I managed to rub myself with them and scratch my face.’

‘Oh no!’ Myrcella and Shireen cried out as one.

The wolf cub broke into a fit of laughter behind his sister. Or… well, it had to be the wolf cub. Except his face had also been powdered, and his mouth looked stained with red, as if he’d been eating too many fruits from Highgarden.  Worst of all, he had a string of wild flowers woven into his hair.

‘Lady Margaery got called away by the king,’ said the wolf cub, ‘so I’m the back-up maid. Don’t I look pretty with flowers in my hair?’

Shireen stared at the cub as if she’d never seen a more terrifying sight, which couldn’t be true; he’d much rather meet ten Kingslayers in the night than one of that damned fool her father had employed to make her smile.

‘We’d best be off,’ he told them all. ‘Best not keep them waiting too long.’

They nodded at that, and he let Stranger fall into a walk by the wolf cub’s horse. Or was it the other way round? For the cub said to him now, in a loud whisper, ‘You have to let her put flowers in your hair today if she wants to.’

There was no question to who ‘her’ referred to. ‘I should think that those two will be enough for her to decorate,’ he said, with a brief nod in Shireen and Myrcella’s direction. Then, because he’d never been one for mindless chirping, he said, ‘What happened?’

The wolf cub straightened, and looked as serious as a boy who’d been painted into a maid could look. ‘We… can see things,’ said the cub.

‘That’s the benefit of having eyes,’ he said.

‘Things through other eyes,’ said the cub. ‘Bran can see the most, and… he saw a lot last night. Sansa stayed up all night with him.’

‘What exactly is a lot?’

In a voice as grim as their lord father, the cub said, ‘Winter is coming.’

In the silence that ensued, he heard exactly what he’d been hoping to avoid.

‘I wish Father hadn’t forbidden me to take part!’ Myrcella was saying. ‘I’ve got to sit next to Tommen and smile at everyone as they go past. Who’s your knight, Shireen?’

‘Davos has asked me to give him courage,’ Shireen said softly. ‘He says he has entered the lists, but plans to be unhorsed in the very first round.’

True, that. The onion knight had indeed signed up for the lists, and come think of it, it had been shortly after the king announced this farce about chains. It made sense now, looking at the sad smile on the girl with half a face. For a lady of Shireen’s status to be absent from the ceremony would make a fresh mockery of her, but for her to lead the onion knight… They could defend that. Say she was only doing her duty. Perhaps he’d try to give the onion knight a softer landing should they be matched against each other.

‘Is it true,’ said Myrcella, turning towards the little bird, ‘that your knight will be Ser Loras?’

He did not want to hear her say it. Turning towards the wolf cub, he–

‘Oh no, he’s not! I’m afraid his maiden still remains a mystery.’

What?

‘But… Then who are you going with?’ said Myrcella. ‘Surely many-a-knights must have asked you?’

‘It’s nothing like that,’ said the little bird, with a giggle. ‘Arya has found someone for the ceremony. Has she told either of you who it is?’

‘No…’ said Myrcella. ‘She hardly ever speaks to us. Isn’t that right, Shireen? Sometimes I think she’s more like a boy than Tommen! But what does that have to do with who you are going with, or Ser Loras? Unless… Oh my gods, she’s not going with Ser Loras, is she?’

‘No!’ said the little bird. ‘I mean… She… She could be, I suppose. She hasn’t told me outright, but she did say that it was a giant surprise, and I’d get such a big shock on the day that I’d fall right off my horse,’ she said, stealing a glance at him as Myrcella and Shireen followed suit.

Seven hells. If the wolf bitch was planning to be chained to him, then she’d certainly left it late to mention it to him. The bloody knights were supposed to bear their lady’s colours, just to make the whole thing more of a nightmare than it already was. No, the wolf bitch must have some other surprise in store.

‘So who are you actually supposed to lead?’ said Myrcella.

‘I’m the only other daughter of Winterfell,’ said the little bird. ‘Our captain of the guards, Jory, is taking part.’

‘Oh,’ said Myrcella. Oh indeed. ‘Is he handsome?’ she added.

‘Jory’s the best!’ the wolf cub piped up, all talks of winter forgotten for now. ‘He taught me how to fish for trout. I’m going to catch some trout in the pools today. Let’s have trout. We can roast them over a fire. It will be the best!’

*

There was no trout waiting for them at the pools, but a fuck load of people. Well, maybe not a fuck load, but two more than Sandor was expecting.

Jon Snow and the she-wolf hammered down the last stake for the tent they’d set up for shade, and the steward’s daughter flitted about, smoothing down a large rug she’d placed by the pools.

Sandor’s eyes narrowed at a skinny boy sitting next to another, muscled like a bull, stoking a fire and turning three small chickens above it. Who the fuck were these people? Somehow, both looked familiar. The floundering green boy with hair as thin as this autumn’s harvest was… Yes. He was the Imp’s squire.

‘What the fuck are you doing here?’ he said.

‘I… I… I…’ The boy seemed unable to look anyone in the eye, much less him, but managed to blurt out, ‘Lord Tyrion asked me to go down to the yard today, where I’d find a very pretty dark haired lady in need of help, and I was to help her carry everything and place it where she asks…’ Turning to the steward’s daughter’s feet, he said, ‘Did he not mean you, my lord… I mean my lady?’

‘Me? Why would Lord Tyrion ask anyone to help me?’ said the steward’s daughter. ‘I just thought… Well, you started helping me carry the food without saying a word, and I did need a hand, so I thought…’

‘Oh… no…’

‘It’s all right, Pod,’ said the little bird. How did she know his name and use it so casually? ‘It is Pod, is it not?’

The green boy flushed red in response.

‘I’ll explain it to Lord Tyrion when we get back. It’s been several hours since you helped Jeyne with our baskets, so the lady you were supposed to help must already be gone, but as you are here, you may as well lunch with us.’

And the other one… He must have seen the boy somewhere.

‘Sansa Stark,’ said the little bird. ‘Lovely to meet you. You are?’

‘M’lady,’ said the boy, and nearly dropped the chicken. ‘Arry, I mean… Lady Arya… said she’d need some help, and it was my day off, so–’

‘He’d be stupid not to come,’ the she-wolf finished for him. ‘This is Gendry. We’re going to help in his forge for nameless day! He’s going to make me a wolf helm, and it’s going to be better than your helm, Hound, because wolves are more fearsome than dogs.’

Ah. Tobho Mott’s apprentice. Never mind the boy. Sandor grabbed the she-wolf and dragged her off to the side.

‘What’s this about your mystery knight?’

‘Hmmm? Oh. Why are you… Oh. Do you…?’

‘Got my own plans. Just… this… knight you are chaining yourself to…’ He had to know. Had to make sure the she-wolf wasn’t making that grave a mistake. ‘Look, I don’t give a rat’s arse about who your mystery knight is. Just as long as he’s not wearing the same coat of arms as me.’

‘My knight is…’ Then the she-wolf’s eyes widened in understanding. ‘Oh. I’m not going with your brother!’

‘Good. And you stay away from him and his men. Got it? None of your nosing around with those fuckers.’

‘Yes ser!’ she said, in a way that she knew would annoy him. ‘Oh. And if your plan is asking Sansa, then you should know she’s leading Jory. They agreed on it ages ago.’

‘I heard,’ he said.

‘And…  I’ll tell you something funny.’ She lowered her voice and leaned in. ‘Ser Loras asked Sansa, thinking she’d jump at the chance, and she had to turn him down. Now he has no one to go with!’

‘I’m sure he will manage.’ Half the kingdom’s maidens would willingly line up outside the boy’s tent to volunteer.

‘Your plan had better be good,’ said the she-wolf with a nod. ‘The king’s hired singers to write songs about the very first ceremony of the chains, as he calls it. We can’t have boring songs of pretty ladies leading handsome knights, looking all merry and beautiful. We’ve finally got a chance to make our own song. It can’t just be the same old boring songs about love!’

The she-wolf’s plans had better not involve making a fool of the king, for the king loved songs almost as much as the little bird. Sandor’s plan only involved making a fool of himself, letting the Dornish have a laugh at his expense, and showing the old lion that he was still a man of red and gold.

Red. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Myrcella fan out the little bird’s hair to braid flowers in it.

‘You should ask her,’ said the she-wolf.

He snapped his head back and stared at the she-wolf.

‘Not to the ceremony!’ she added. ‘But about why she ran off the other day. ‘I asked and–’

‘Isn’t your bastard brother taking part in the tournament?’ he asked, throwing the first thing that came to mind at the she-wolf.

‘Oh. That. Father’s forbidden it. Keep your head down Jon,’ she said, mimicking her lord father’s grim and wintery voice. ‘Jon’s not even allowed to carry a sword during the tournament, in case he accidentally does something stupid, apparently. But Jon never does anything stupid!’

‘Just you then.’

‘Hey! I’m not stupid! Hey! Come back here! Ugh. You’re going to be so sorry on the morrow. My knight is going to grind you into the dust, you’ll see!’

*

It wasn’t until after they’d managed to devour everything the she-wolf and the steward’s daughter had packed that he let her corner him alone.

‘Arya said these are your pools,’ she said, sinking into the ground beside him. The flowers that Myrcella had woven into her hair were white and pink and… and fuck him if he knew what they were, but they weren’t daisies.

‘They don’t belong to me, little bird.’

‘They are lovely, and this is…’ She looked at the she-wolf, who lay in the grass with the smith’s apprentice, sketching out a design for a wolf helm; at Jon Snow, who had sunk into a deep discussion with Myrcella over what the Young Dragon Daeron could have done differently to escape his doom; at the wolf-cub, who had transferred all the flowers in his hair onto Shireen and was currently waving a piece of chicken in her face; at the steward’s daughter, who’d managed to coax the Imp’s squire to speak some words and remove his shoes to dip his toes in a pool. A smile played across her lips, and she said, ‘I don’t think any of our Florians, if they are out there, will dare approach us in such company, but this is nice. Thank you.’

It was nice. Here, the air smelt of autumn grass, and the stench of King’s Landing seemed so far away. Today, she was looking at him, not in the way she used to, as if rising to the challenge of looking at him in the eye, but almost lazily, as if it was no longer an effort, as if he had never been burnt.

He wanted to ask if it really had been her who’d squeezed an apology out of the viper, but when she opened her mouth again, she broke the spell.

‘About the other day… I’m so sorry I…’ Before he could think of a way to stop her, she said, ‘…sort of ruined the surprise.’

She clambered to her feet and drew something out of her saddlebag and shoved it in his hands. ‘There! It’s a token of my thanks for… for me and Lady.’

Colour him surprised right now. As far as he could work out, he was holding a massive, bloated green stocking with white trim at the top, and his name had been embroidered in gold.

‘Oh no! That’s just the stocking. It’s… you know. The stocking we were talking about for Pact Day. Arya and the boys said they wanted to give you presents on the day, so I made you one to hang up. The actual token is inside.’

It was already too good for the likes of him. The stocking was made of the green silk he’d seen her holding that day, and had been lined with a thicker fabric in gold. There, hidden within, was a… He curled his body over the stocking so that none of the others could catch a glimpse of it. It was made of a soft yellow silk in the front, where she’d embroidered three small black hounds in the corner, and the back had been sewn with three simple black velvet stripes. Not only so, it smelled of lemon and vanilla.

‘Maester Luwin said lemons help to slow your heart so that you can you sleep more easily,’ she was saying, staring at him with those too-blue eyes. Well, it wasn’t fucking working, was it? ‘You don’t… You don’t already have one like that, do you?’

‘No,’ he managed.

‘Oh good! I thought it might help, especially with the tournament coming up. Not that you’ll need it. I know you’ll win!’

Did she even know what it meant to give away a handmade pillow bearing her own scent?

‘Aye,’ he said instead. For in that moment, he felt as if he could win against his brother.

Chapter Text

Robert V

How in the seven hells had Jon managed to survive so many years of marriage to that crazy puff of paint and powder? That woman would be the death of him. Although he had survived just as many years of marriage to Cersei and, to be fair, and Lysa hadn’t been nearly half as crazy when she’d first moved to King’s Landing. Grief was enough to drive men mad, much less a woman.

He threw the letter at Ned and threw a bowl of fruit after it. A pomegranate bounced off the wall, and Mandon Moore, who was guarding him today, stepped aside to avoid it with hardly a blink of those dead, fish-like eyes.

‘Have you seen what she’s demanding now?’ he shouted. He didn’t have time for this. The greatest tournament of all time was about to begin. His men were readying those chains of love right now, and he couldn’t wait for the ceremony to start. So that he could leave this mess behind.

Ned picked up the letter and read it, his long face growing longer with each passing word.

‘I don’t think she understands,’ Ned said at last.

No shit. Because the letter was nothing like what he’d been hoping for. ‘Yes’ did not feature in it at all, and despite all the work he’d put in to reassure her that her young Robert, named after himself, of all people, would be fostered alongside Ned’s second son in Storm’s End, she’d simply replied, ‘The Lord of the Eyrie is gravely ill, and cannot travel to Storm’s End. Word has reached us that Sansa Stark has cured a woman of a terrible sickness that no Maester’s potions could cure. I request her presence in the Eyrie.’

‘Sansa’s not a Maester or a woods witch,’ said Ned.

‘I’ve noticed,’ he said.

The rumours about Ned’s daughters have taken on a life of their own. Even as the king, he’d heard from the men that Ned’s youngest daughter wasn’t just a slip of a girl who didn’t best like dresses, but was in fact an assassin in training, and was spending a ridiculous amount of time among the smallfolk because she wanted to master the art of disguises. It’s the rumours about the oldest one, however, that’d be giving his old friend the greater headache. She wasn’t just the Red Widow reborn anymore. Someone with a grudge against the poor girl must have spread those rumours; Margaery had called it Joff’s work. Apparently she had now taken a lover, in the form of the Hound.

The first time he’d heard it said out loud, he’d laughed so much that he’d knocked over his precious cup of red. Then he’d given the man a fat purse for making him merrier than any fool had done. From Clegane’s end, he could see the appeal. The girl was a beauty. More so than her uptight mother had been, because while her mother had a way of making lesser men scramble out of her way, the girl made some believe that they could be more. He’d seen Dontos Hollard going around calling himself Florian. She’d have made a good future queen. Shame, that.

From the girl’s end, anyone with the good sense not to fuck an Other could see that, should she really wish to ruin herself before marriage, there were other options easier on the eye. Still, there had been that look when the viper had thrown Clegane an insult. Shame that she wasn’t Ned’s son, or he’d make it his mission to encourage whatever there might or might not be, for someone in that frozen-arse family needed to have a little fun, beyond that hour that Ned had had with his bastard’s mother. Aleena… or Wylla. Yes. Wylla.

That was the kind of talk he’d really wanted to have with Ned. About Wylla. He wondered what the wench looked like, for everything he could see in the bastard’s face came from Ned, but instead, he returned to the matter at hand and said, ‘She’s your good-sister. Make the damned woman see some sense!’

Then he marched out of there, towards the new life that was awaiting him, to perhaps, gods be good, the last time he’d be chained to Cersei.

The smallfolk cheered as he made took his place for the very first ceremony of the chains that the Seven Kingdoms had ever witnessed. He smiled and nodded at Margaery as he passed her, sitting tall on her white palfrey, dressed in the green and gold of Highgarden, like he’d permitted her. Both of Ned’s girls were clad in grey, though he it took him a while to spot the younger, who kept swinging her chains of love as if it was a flail when she thought no one was watching.

He straightened his crown and announced to the crowd, ‘May the worthiest of knights find their ladies who will lead their way!’

The gates opened, and the knights who’d entered the lists poured through the gates, wearing their ladies’ colours. One by one, the ladies offered them their chains. Renly rode out and took the chain from Megga Tyrell, or was it Alla? One of Margaery’s hens, anyhow. The Kingslayer found Myrcella, who’d begged and begged once again last night to be allowed to take part, until Robert had said yes on the condition that she’d be leading her supposed uncle. Stannis’s daughter, more stone-faced than the father, offered her chain to the onion knight. Ned’s redhead daughter offered her chain to the Stark captain of the guards with a dutiful smile, while the younger one found a huge knight in a cobalt-blue armour and grey cloak and dragged her knight over to her sister.

‘Sansa, look! I found a real-life lady knight. She’s Brienne of Tarth. Lord Renly said she could go with me! Isn’t she amazing? Are you about to fall off your horse? You are, aren’t you? Hound! Look, Brienne is going to… What are you doing?’

Clegane had arrived on his bad-tempered courser, wearing reds besides his Clegane yellow, and was tying a metal flagon engraved with the Sunspear symbol on it onto his riderless destrier, dangling the chains between himself and the flagon of red.

The viper scoffed at that as he took his place beside his lover. ‘At least you know your wine. None of that red water from the Arbor. Or worse, their golds.’

The other Clegane rode in then, and claimed the chains from a poor, frightened girl decked in the Clegane colours, despite his request that the knights should wear the ladies’ colours.

Behind him came the Tyrell boy, his silver armour gleaming under the sun with its sapphires and twining black vines. He’d traded his Kingsguard cloak for a work of green leaves and golden flowers. Joff rode to his side, wearing a stag on the armour that he didn’t deserve, and rubies that were Lannister-red.

Both stopped in front of Margaery.

‘Why are you wearing Tyrell colours?’ shouted Joff. ‘I told you to wear my colours and–’

Margaery handed her chain to Loras. ‘You did tell me to go with you and wear your colours, but you never waited for my response. Which would have been no.’

‘But… How dare you!’

‘There’s presently no woman in my brother’s heart, so I will be leading him with my sisterly love,’ she declared, and the crowds went wild at that, screaming for the Knight of Flowers.

‘You! You think I’ll still marry you after this? Mother! How dare she?’

‘You can’t allow this!’ Cersei turned to him, fuming.

Not if Joff was his trueborn son. Instead, he turned to Tommen and said, ‘Go on. Go and save your brother before he embarrasses himself further.’

‘But I’m not a lady,’ said Tommen.

‘Could have fooled me. Go on then. You wanted to take part in the tourney, didn’t you?’

That was, perhaps, the best moment from the day’s tourney, for the melee would be on the following day. He prayed that Joff would need to ride against the Mountain. Would the old lion pay to have the Mountain wobble off his saddle in favour of his grandson? That’d be a sight to warm cold hearts!

But it was not to be. Instead, Joff rode against the onion knight, and the poor man fell among a shower of splinters and gasps from the smallfolk. For his second match, he drew Brienne of Tarth. Ned’s younger daughter leapt to her feet, only to be drawn back by her dour septa, while the elder one seemed to have earned the unwelcome attention of Littlefinger, and was now holding a stiff smile in place. The woman rode clean and fast, and unhorsed Joff with an efficiency that deserved applause, though gods, that woman was a bore! She should have worked the crowds, but instead, she hardly spared them a glance, and merely walked off as if she’d just been riding in a fucking practise yard instead of the greatest tournament of all time.

‘She’s a woman,’ screamed Joff, throwing his helm onto the ground. ‘She shouldn’t be allowed in this tournament!’

‘Then you should have taken her out of it with your lance!’ cried the younger Stark girl, and the crowd jeered, hardly helped by that idiot Renly shaking with so much laughter that he had to be helped off his horse just to calm back down.

Renly needn’t have bothered, for he faced Clegane now, and was helped back off the horse with a forceful strike right in the middle. One of the antlers on his helm broke off with a crack, and the idiot held it out to Clegane with a bow. At least Clegane wasn’t as oblivious as the Tarth woman, who’d have most likely just looked bewildered and tried to stick it back onto Renly’s head; Clegane had the good sense to toss it out into the crowd, and the crowd went wild, scrambling and fighting over that little piece of gold.

It was only when Loras pranced onto the field in his flowery armour that the crowd forgot all about Renly’s antler. He unhorsed the other members of the Kingsguard, one by one, proving just how fucking useless they all really were.

The viper rode well too, wild and fast, and took down rider after rider, though had no luck in meeting the Mountain, for the Mountain had drawn a different path to the final day of tilts, with his defeat of Balon Swann and some pour sod from the Vale, killed by a jab to the throat. Instead, the viper met his match in the Kingslayer, and after three bouts, he was finally unhorsed.

But the Kingslayer didn’t have long to celebrate. On rode the Tarth woman, and Ned’s younger daughter leapt up again. This time, the septa wasn’t around to stop her. Littlefinger had also buggered off somewhere, and the redhead now sat next to her bastard brother and her dark-haired friend.

‘Go Tarth!’ cried the girl. ‘Grind him into the dust and make him eat it!’

The woman stared uncertainly into the crowd, who stared uncertainly back at her, unable to decide whether to support the Kingslayer, usually a favourite among the womenfolk, or someone so… odd.

Well, the Kingslayer stared at her, looking as if he’d already eaten dust. She pulled on her helm, which made her easier on the eye, and charged. On a horse, all the awkwardness and gracelessness left the woman, and she moved the lance as if it was an extension of her arm. Both wobbled back from the first round, but on the second round, she caught the Kingslayer right above the heart, and down he went!

Half the crowd booed, and the other half cheered. Oh the Others take her. Did she not know how to reach her arms out towards the crowd? Pointing and nodding was also a sure way to get cheers. And a scream of aggression or two.

Robert bellowed above the din, and the crowd fell silent at the sound of his voice.

‘Here I declare the final matches, which will be held on the morrow!’ Cheering and whooping. That was more like it! ‘Ser Loras Tyrell…’ Yes, draw that one out. ‘… against Ser Gregor Clegane, the Mountain that Rides!’ Ha! The Mountain deserved those boos. ‘And Sandor Clegane…’ An uncertain response. ‘… the formidable Hound…’ Yes, that was better. ‘…against Brienne of Tarth. What a match that would be! Now, that concludes today’s jousting, but not today’s eating and drinking. Go forth and be merry!’

*

By the gods he needed to hit someone. He hadn’t had a merry night, despite telling others to do so. In some ways, luck had been with him, and everything had turned out exactly as he’d hoped, but still…

There was going to be a long day ahead, and he had to be patient. Gods, when had he ever had to be patient before? He’d better not ruin it all by unveiling the greatest celebration of all before the grand finale.

His men weren’t making it easy for him, for sure. They were all trying to forbid him to join the melee. Him! The king! Damn them all to the seven hells. Now Ned was here with Stannis, spouting all sorts of nonsense. When had he grown as sour as Stannis?

He was waving for the squire to fasten his greaves when Clegane entered his tent, already dressed in his soot-black armour.

‘Your Grace?’

‘There you are!’ This should settle it and get them out of his hair. ‘Tell them! Tell them I’ve been training for this moment, and the Others take them if they try to stop me!’

Clegane gave Ned and Stannis a questioning look, and Stannis spat out between clenched teeth, ‘His Grace means to fight in the melee today. It is not seemly that a king should ride into the melee. If something were to happen…’

Clegane merely shrugged and said, ‘Even His Grace has need of twenty thousand gold dragons to hand without the blathering of the Master of Coin.’

‘Exactly, even I… Wait, that’s not why I’m going to fight in the melee!’

‘No?’ Clegane raised his good brow. ‘Surely you mean to win the gold, Your Grace. Or do you imagine any of those freeriders, new-made squires and green boys would dare to strike the king?’

‘Clegane is right,’ said Ned. ‘There's not a man in the Seven Kingdoms who would dare risk your displeasure by hurting you.’

Robert flushed with anger. ‘Are you telling me those prancing cravens will let me win?’

He did not need to hear their response, but hurled his breastplate at Stannis in wordless fury. What was the point of organising the damned thing if he couldn’t even swing his hammer to his heart’s content? Only the thought of the new life that was surely awaiting him cooled his temper enough to speak again.

‘Clegane!’

‘Yes Your Grace?’

‘You’ll fight in the melee on my behalf.’

‘I’m in the lists,’ said Clegane, ‘and may need to kill my brother.’

‘That’s after the melee,’ he said, ‘and if it’s full of green boys, then it won’t be much trouble for you.’

Clegane bowed his head and strode out of the tent, into the start of all his troubles.

Chapter Text

Sansa VI

Although she was truly only looking forward to the second part of the tilts, it’d be her first time watching a melee, and Sansa felt a strange excitement bubble up within her chest nonetheless. She settled into her seat as far away from Father as she could manage without appearing undutiful, for both she and Arya had had a terrible argument, on the same side for once, against their Father. But this time, Father wouldn’t even budge with Arya’s pleading. No, Jon was not allowed to carry arms at the tourney, and he was to keep his head down as much as possible, so neither the melee nor the archery was an option either. And no, Sansa was definitely not allowed to be seen anywhere near Sandor Clegane, and just because both her and Lady would be dead already without him was not a reason good enough.

‘Fine!’ Arya had said. ‘Sansa’s going to be the heir of Harrenhal anyway, and I will go with her! We’ll take Jon with us too!’

Oh gods, she wished that Arya hadn’t have said that. Yes, she’d discussed Lady Whent’s offer with Arya in the godswood, away from the ears in the walls that Lady Olenna had feared, but she’d only said that she couldn’t do it alone. Arya was the one who used to mock her for her lack of ability to run a castle without a husband who knew what he was doing, so what how could she survive running a castle where the men who served it, in Lady Whent’s words, made Lady Whent feel like a girl yet unflowered in comparison? Harrenhal’s steward could only see roughly how many digits the numbers were in the accounts, and the blacksmith could only hold the hammer for an hour each day before the damp in his hands rendered every move an agony. Worse, their master-at-arms was currently carrying his sword buried beneath the ground. What did she know about the accounts, blacksmiths or how to find a good master-at-arms?

And now, Arya had gone and put her foot in it. How was she going to tell Father that they weren’t going after all? Oh gods… She wanted to speak with Arya again, but Arya and her brothers had oddly asked to sit with Lord Baelish instead, as they’d wanted to converse with Mother’s old friend. She was thankful that they’d not asked her to join them, for she did not want to feel Lord Baelish brush his hand against her cheek or his minty breath against her lips again. Presently, Arya rose and stomped past Lord Baelish, no doubt to make water. She wondered how much water her siblings had drunk this morning; both Bran and Rickon had clambered past Lord Baelish twice already, and the melee was yet to start. Seeing the wince on Lord Baelish’s face, she hoped that Arya had not stepped on his foot by mistake.

The horses thundered into the fray, kicking up clouds of dust and mud behind them. The Hound’s snarling helm towered above the other knights. Oh. She had not known that he’d be riding.

‘There you are!’ came a familiar voice, and her new friend Ami dropped into the seat beside her.

‘Ami!’ she clasped her friend’s hand in hers and beamed. Jeyne was still feeling ill from seeing the bloodshed at the tilts yesterday, just as a few other ladies were, including the queen, and she could not find Shireen among the crowds, so to find another friend to discuss the knights truly lifted her mood. ‘I’m sorry that Prince Oberyn has been knocked out already,’ she said, remembering that the Prince had been Ami’s top pick.

‘Oh don’t you worry about that!’ said Ami. ‘We did make sure he was well and truly knocked out last night. All this excitement brings the blood up, don’t you think? Speaking of which! I saw your knight yesterday.’

Jory? He did acquit himself well yesterday, unhorsing Ser Horas Redwyne and a relation of Ami’s, though the Frey family tree had grown a bit too thick even for Sansa to know by heart.

‘I can’t believe he’d tie himself to a flagon of wine,’ said Ami in a hushed voice.

Oh, of course, it was about the knight she’d chosen. Before she could stop herself, she said, ‘He’s not a ser.’

Ami pushed on regardless, with a sniff, ‘Everyone saw how he couldn’t bear to ask for the favour of another lady, even if it’s just for show. And he wore a red the same shade as your hair!’

Red. The colour of love. But Sansa was quite certain that it had just been a strange take on the Lannister red. It shows that he is still a Lannister man, Father had said. And truth be told, the moment when he’d tied the flagon on Warrior had seemed almost unreal. She’d be so sure that he’d be taking Arya’s chain, but there Arya was, with a lady warrior almost as large as he was, and oh gods, there had been a horrible moment when she’d both wished for the most beautiful lady they’d ever seen to offer him her chains, and dreaded it. She didn’t know how to explain it, but she’d felt a rush of relief when most of the smallfolk merely had the chance to looked bemused before Prince Joffrey drew all the attention away from him.

‘It was a shock,’ she said to Ami.

‘So you didn’t know he was going to do that either? Oh, that’s wonderful! Far better than crying your name in battle, I think. Many ladies find that gallant, but I’d rather not be the last word a stranger hears before meeting the Stranger. I think men should just roar in battle – nothing like a good roar! – and cry out your name in private.’ Then, out of nowhere, Ami said, ‘Are you going to marry him?’

‘I…’ Caught by surprise, she flailed for a response. ‘I couldn’t.’

I married someone far below my birth, and I didn’t even want to! See there? That’s my Pate!’ said Ami, pointing to one of the knights partially obscured by the Hound’s helm. ‘He’s but a hedge knight, and with my birth, my father had originally hoped to marry me to someone like Lancel Lannister. From Lancel Lannister to a hedge knight! Do you know how I did it?’

Sansa shook her head.

Ami lowered her voice further and said, ‘My father caught me in the stables with several groomsmen! Now I’m not saying you’ll need to do it exactly the same way, especially if he’ll mind if you do! Instead, you can explain it to him that I can entertain the grooms, and you’d only need your father to catch you in the stables, you see. I’ll hide in the hay when your father arrives. It will all work out!’

A lady’s honour was the most important thing that a lady owned, and her friend was somehow offering to compromise her own honour in order to help Sansa. No one had offered Sansa anything like it before, and though it was all a little confusing, she couldn’t help but feel touched. ‘That’s so kind of you, Ami,’ she said, ‘but I can’t ask you to do that!’

‘You’ll find another way? Do say you will! Well, if you still need me on my back in the stables, just let me know!’

Before she could reply, the gong rang for the melee, and two sides charged towards each other in a thundering of hooves, at least twenty horses a side. She lost sight of Ami’s Pate in the cloud of dust that blotted out all the knights who’d chosen not to ride in the vanguard. Only the Hound’s helm stood out. On the other side, the flapping red robes and shaven head of the man that Septa Mordane had identified as the warrior priest, Thoros of Myr, was unmissable; his sword writhed with pale green flames. Wildfire, Septa Mordane had said. The same he’d used as he’d scaled the walls of Pyke.

Other horses panicked at the sight of the flames, but the Hound rode on, and Stranger charged forth, unflinching. Sansa let out a breath she didn’t realise she’d been holding. He’d never said, in so many words, that he disliked fire, but his face had been burned, once, and Sansa knew that even for her, unscarred as she was from the Dreadfort, she heart would still skip a beat at the sound of hunting horns.

All will be well, she told herself. All must be well. But why would a man fight in the melee before the final matches in the tilts? It was madness.

Three knights in red and black surcoats charged towards the warrior priest too. The Kettleblacks, Ami said. As Thoros swung his flaming sword in their direction, something underneath their armour… exploded. The knights screamed, and one fell off his horse, knocking into the other horses. Pate’s horse reared and stamped at another knight. The crowd screamed too, as the melee descended into a hell of green flames, fallen horses and burning men.

‘Put a stop to it!’ the king was bellowing.

‘But it’s wildfire! Water won’t help!’ someone shouted beside them.

‘Oh my Pate!’ cried Ami, her voice sounding too far away. ‘I think he’s dead.’

‘I’m so sorry,’ said Sansa, all the while searching, searching, searching for him. He was so tall. It’d be impossible to miss him. But now, the flames had grown taller, and the smoke had painted everything the same shade as his soot-grey armour.

‘Don’t be on my behalf,’ said Ami, patting her on the hand. She hadn’t realised that she’d dug a row of red finger marks on her friend’s arm. ‘I’ll just have to find another husband. My father will weep, I’m sure. Look, I think your knight has made it!’

There he was, atop Stranger, with one of the now-motionless Kettleblacks thrown across the back of his saddle, meandering through the flames, cutting down a spooked horse that was about to trample a hedge knight. And there… Oh gods… His arm was on fire. He was beating at it frantically, but of course it did no good, for wildfire had to burn out. She scrambled to her feet, but found Father’s disapproving gaze.

‘Just go,’ said Ami.

‘But…’

‘All right, follow me then,’ said Ami, and began wailing loudly. ‘Ooooh!!! My Paaaate!!! They’ve KILLED him! Someone take me away from here! I think I might faint this very minute!’ And when Father tried to offer her the help of one of Winterfell’s men, she screamed, ‘I’ve just lost my husband! Ooooh… How could I let any man touch me?! And NO! You! Septa! No, get your hands off me! I’ve just lost my PAAATE!!! Where was the Mother when the Stranger took him??? Oh Sansa, help me!!! Take me awaaaay from here!!!!!’

‘I’m… just going to help Ami find a maester,’ Sansa said, and ran off hand-in-hand with her friend before anyone could protest loudly enough to be heard above Ami’s wailing.

They hadn’t gone far before they stumbled across the twitching, half-burnt form of the Kettleblack that must have fallen from Stranger.

‘Someone… help him…’ said Sansa.

‘Leave him with me,’ said Ami, waving down a large knight that reminded Sansa a little of the king. ‘Ser Lyle! Please! Did you see the melee? Someone commanded this man to kill my husband,’ she said. Her lips trembled, and tears rolled down from her brown eyes. ‘He had only gone to win glory for his name, but he was killed in the most despicable way.’

‘Evil work,’ said Ser Lyle. ‘Lady Amerei, you have my word. I will find the man behind it all and bring him to justice.’

‘You are a true knight, Ser Lyle, to help a lady in distress,’ said Ami. ‘Please keep this man alive, for he must be alive to talk!’

And with that, Ser Lyle hauled the Kettleblack over his shoulder, and Ami followed, giving Sansa a last little shove in the direction of Sandor Clegane’s tent.

It wasn’t the Clegane colours that gave the tent away, but the sight of Arya.

‘Is he all right?’ asked Sansa.

‘Help!’ said Arya, looking half-panicked and astonished. ‘He's crying like a little baby. I tried to take a look but he shoved me off. And I told him I’ll fetch a maester but he shouted at me and said the maester will only give him ointments, so he won’t see one. I’ve asked Bran to find one anyway, but… the fire injured too many people. Can you do anything?’

‘I’ll try,’ said Sansa.

Sansa took and deep breath and plunged into his tent, suddenly thankful for her first betrothal again, for she would have never taken lessons from Maester Luwin in the treatment of battle wounds had her betrothed not made her think of it. Mother had not approved, claiming that the whole purpose of employing maesters was so that all wounds could be treated by said maesters, but Sansa had wanted to help her future husband, and should she end up with daughters like Arya, she’d wanted to be able to treat their scrapes and pains herself.

It was like Arya described. Sandor Clegane was huddled in the corner of the tent, looking small for the first time. His eyes were far away, and seemed to stare right through her. His gauntlets and his snarling helm lay scattered on the ground.

‘Please,’ he rasped, cradling his arm. ‘I'm burned. Help me. Someone. Help me.’ He was crying. ‘Please.’

Please let him be all right. She steadied her voice and said, in the gentle way that used to comfort Rickon, that she was using with Bran more and more often nowadays, ‘It’s all right,’ and it didn’t seem right to call him my lord like this, for my lords would not wet their cheeks in front of ladies thus; he was certainly not the Hound right now, and she couldn’t bring herself to call him Clegane when the brother that he seemed to hate was also Clegane, so she whispered softly, ‘Sandor, I’m here to help. It’s all right Sandor, I’m here to help.’

Chanting it like a mantra, she crouched down and reached for his hand, praying that he’d not push her away. With a whimper, his eyes fluttered shut. She drew circles on his palm and watched his breathing slow to match hers before she said, ‘I’m going to untie your vambrace, all right?’

A small nod.

Her fingers fumbled to undo his armour and reveal the skin where he’d been licked by wildfire. She was not built for this. The smell of burnt flesh made her want to gag, and the blood and mangled flesh made her want to turn away. But she’d failed him once, leaving him open to the ridicule at the ceremony of the chains when she could have, should have checked, and neither of them was truly made of steel, no matter what they might wish for. She never wanted to fail him again.

There was a rustle behind her, and Bran’s voice interrupted her chanting.

‘I’ve brought a maester!’ he said.

At that, the Hound’s eyes flew open, wild with anger and terror.

‘No maester!’ he rasped, rising to his full height. The loosed vambrace landed by Sansa’s foot with a loud clang. ‘No maester! I said no maester!’ Sandor Clegane started to weep anew. ‘No more… No more fire. You said you’d help. Someone. Please. Please don’t let him burn me again.’

‘No maester, no maester,’ Sansa murmured, waving an arm at Bran so that he’d take the maester away. ‘Bring me water instead. As much clean water as you can carry, both of you.’ There was only one jug of it in here, but at least there was a corner filled with black powder, strong liquor and bandages.

Maester Luwin had mentioned that maesters had often argued at the Citadel over the best cure for burns, and many maesters believed that a wound inflicted by fire needed to be drawn out by fire, that a flame must be held near the wound for hours and hours, days on end. She wondered if the maester who’d treated Sandor’s burns in the past had forced this pain on him on top of it all, and her stomach clenched at the thought.

‘It’s all right,’ she said, reaching for his hand again, now that they were alone in the quiet of the tent. ‘No one would hurt you again, or I’ll… I’ll…’ She could not think of a suitable threat against anyone, really; no one was afraid of her, and there was so little she could do, in truth, so she offered weakly, ‘I’ll ask them to go away.’

He laughed at that, and for the first time since she’d entered the tent, his grey eyes met hers. Sinking down so that she might reach his arm more easily, he said, ‘So you will, little bird. Will you say please too?’

‘If you feel well enough to mock me,’ she said, ‘then you will excuse me for a moment while I shred my dress and fetch that jug.’

She took his knife to the skirt of her favourite pale blue dress and sliced off a chunk from the bottom, and, to her horror, now that the dress only hung above her underskirt, her feet where fully visible. In the rush to get dressed after a whole night of arguments with Father that had extended into the morning, she’d somehow managed to put on her grey slipper with embroidered flowers in winter-rose blue on her left foot, but her pale blue slipper where violets entwined with small red hearts on her right foot. It had never happened before! She turned red from embarrassment, but pressed ahead, for there were more important things at hand.

Her dress was made from a thick, silk brocade, and less likely to stick to his flesh than those thin bandages he’d set aside in his tent, in expectation of injuries from the tournament. But not this. Never this. She let her pale silks soak in the liquor, and turned to pick up the jug of clean water.

Taking his hand in hers again, she let the water trickle over his burns.

He hardly flinched from the pain that she must be causing him, but still, he said, ‘The Hound’s turned craven. Bet that’s what they are saying now. Is that what you’re saying to your friends?’

‘That’s unkind and untrue,’ she said. ‘No one could withstand those flames. And you saved him, didn’t you? One of the Kettleblacks. I saw. You went back and saved him.’

He laughed in the bitter way she hated. ‘Bugger that. I only wanted him alive to present to the king. Might as well burn to death, for all I care. Should have burned to death for what he did. Him and Thoros both. Bloody priest.’

‘You tried to help a hedge knight too,’ she said, shaking off his hateful words, ‘and you’ve been burnt before. That’s not craven, my lord.’

‘Back to that, are we?’

‘Back to what?’

He shook his head and rasped, ‘Haven’t you wondered how I got them? Did your bloody septa train you not to ask?’

She wanted to call him awful, for he was being awful. Just a moment ago, she’d thought that he’d understood, and now they were back to… like she’d said, back to what? But she looked down at the beads of sweat on his brows, and the bubbling flesh beneath that trickle of water, and she couldn’t bring herself to say anything of the sort. Instead, she said, whisper-light, ‘Will you tell me?’

He looked away, and he did. About the wooden knight. About the brazier. About his brother. About the maester, the ointment, the lies, until it faded to nothing but his ragged breathing and the drip-drip of the water, dyed pink by his blood.

The silence stretched on between them, and a realisation struck her. She grew afraid, for him, and squeezed his hand tighter, praying that she was wrong. ‘Will you… will you still face him in the tilts, with your injury?’

‘Someone has to ride him down, and it can’t be Brienne of fucking Tarth.’

Can’t. Not won’t. She was beginning to understand the weight behind his choice of words.

She’d feared for Brienne too when Brienne’d claimed her victory over Prince Joffrey. It was like her own against the prince in Ghiscari wrestling seemingly a lifetime ago, and the prince had not taken defeat by a woman kindly. As for Ser Gregor… The crescent moons on the young knight’s cloak had turned red one by one as he laid dying, a lance in his throat. To lose, for Brienne, meant death. But to win… To win meant worse.

What would winning mean for Sandor? She was afraid, but she was a Stark, and she could be brave. The jug ran dry then, so she set it down, untucked her handkerchief and dabbed at his brows.

‘Well,’ she said, trying to smile some brightness into her voice, ‘you’d better pick your queen of love and beauty now. It would not do to be caught unawares.’

His laugh was softer this time, and he searched in her eyes for something that she could not speak of, even in her own mind.

‘I have,’ he rasped at last.

They said, at the same time, ‘Myrcella.’

For it was the only choice that was right. They were both creatures of duty, him and her.

There was a rustle outside his tent, and all of a sudden, she saw his guards go up. He tightened his grip on her hand and drew her even closer. Too close. Not close enough. ‘The things I told you just now,’ he said, and she knew that he was not talking about Myrcella, ‘if you ever tell your sister, your brother… any of them…’

‘I won’t,’ she whispered. ‘I promise.’

It was not enough. ‘If you ever tell anyone–’

She didn’t want him to turn their last moment alone into something hateful. It didn’t need to be like that between them. So she set her courtesies aside and finished his sentence for him.

‘– then may no lemon cake ever pass my lips again,’ she said solemnly.

So when Arya and Bran set four fresh jugs of water by their feet, the burnt corner of mouth had twitched into a smile, and that was better.

Chapter Text

Sandor VI

Sandor. Seven hells. She’d really called him that.

He stole a glance at the little bird through the corner of his eye, now seated with her pack and, for some reason, once again with Gatehouse Ami. At least he wasn’t being as much of a fool as Brienne of fucking Tarth, who was openly staring at Renly as her squire checked the fastenings of her armour piece by piece.

He hated his name. But the little bird wasn’t to know that. After all, others liked theirs, didn’t they? They bore their names with pride. Bran, after the legendary Bran the Builder. Rickon, after a Stark heir of old whose bravery was immortalised in songs. Even her bastard half-brother was named after the honourable Jon Arryn.

The wolves called each other by name and made it mean things. Things like safety, warmth and home.

Sandor meant things to him too. Things like scrambling up the nearest tree and praying, praying, praying that the foliage would be enough to hide him from the blood and the bruises; like the fluttering in his heart when other children talked to him after the fire, followed by the flat and hollow feeling afterwards, finding that they’d only done it as a dare; like being too small, too weak, too unneeded to live in this world. Like everything he hated.

The Hound was none of those things; he’d created the Hound not to be. The Hound was the butcher, and others were all meat. So long as the Hound had a sword in hand, there was no man on earth he needed to fear, for they were all afraid of him. And people needed men like that. The old lion, the king, everyone. Even the she-wolf and her brothers cared for the men he’d killed at the age of two-and-ten and the skills he could show them with a sword or a lance. If the Hound were to meet the boy he used to be, he’d cut him in half at his master’s command, good dog that he was.

If the boy he used to be, still unburnt, head filled with true knights and maidens fair, could see the dog he’d become, he’d surely weep, and not for the scars. He’d make a fool of himself too, over the blue silks that the little bird had bound over his wounds, like a favour.

But who’d give a fuck about a boy like Sandor?

It’s all right Sandor, I’m here to help.

The she-wolf and her brothers had not left him. And the little bird had not mocked him for his weakness. Instead, she’d given him the sweet scent of flowers and lemons, the soft touch of her hands, and a promise.

No one would hurt you again.

Except her. If he let her. Wasn’t that the way it was?

‘Oh for fuck’s sake,’ he snapped at Brienne of Tarth, ‘what do you think’s going to happen to him if you take your eyes off him for one fucking moment? Reckon he’s going to be stabbed by one of Lady Margaery’s hens or his own bloody shadow?’

Tarth’s wide blue eyes turned towards him. The rest of her might be all warrior, but those eyes were ones that’d never seen true battle. And they were the eyes of a young woman who was far too trusting and guileless.

‘What are you talking about?’ she said.

‘Renly’s already out. Took just one pass, didn’t it? Straight down and broke his horn too.’ Tarth had a plain helm, and once she donned it, there was no telling that the rider was a maid. Thank fuck he’d only burnt his shield arm, else he’d stand no chance against the likes of her.

‘Are you trying to speak ill of Lord Renly?’ she said, eyes wide with disbelief, as if she’d never heard every the man-at-arms whose coin didn’t depend on Storm’s End or Highgarden make japes at Renly’s expense. Aye, Renly had the love of the smallfolk. King-Robert-come-again, they said. A pretty face and pretty words were enough to buy you that. But men who lived and died by their swords were a different breed. For them, there’d be no other like the king. Robert would soon be Robert-come-again; the king had always been dangerous, and these days he was starting to look it too. ‘Lord Renly has been kind to me. I will not have you speak ill of him.’

So that was it. One small piece of false courtesy and Renly had her eating out of his hand, because she’d never known anything better, judging from her face. Not nearly as unfortunate as his own, to be sure, but the world had always tolerated ugly men more so than ugly maids.

‘Speak ill of him?’ he said with a bitter laugh. ‘I haven’t even started.’ Did she know what he’d heard the night before, sitting in the winesink? Did she know that when the other men painted a picture of her with words, and her precious Renly had laughed along just the same? Absurd. Grotesque. They called the damned woman such names, but she was just an overgrown maid playing at knights, the same way that Renly was just an overgrown boy playing at the game of thrones. ‘If he’s so kind,’ he said, ‘why the fuck didn’t he ride out with you for the ceremony?’ Or Shireen? The onion knight was still abed with bruised ribs from Joff’s lance.

‘He found me Lady Arya!’ said Tarth. Aye, he’d heard some of Renly’s prancing knights speak of that too. A true knight for a true lady. ‘At least I did not have to ride out tied to wine.’

He stole another glance at the little bird. There she was, looking more the queen than ever, and… two ladies he didn’t recognise sitting a little way behind her suddenly took a knife to their dresses, sliced off the bottom and started trading shoes, so that they each had one in grey and one in brown. He shook his head. Despite spending half his life standing silently behind Cersei and her followers, there were still things about high-born maids he’d never understand.

But he did understand that it was not the same. Chirp as she might, the little bird’s courtesies were her truths. He tried to picture her laughing along to a mockery of his scars, but all that came to mind was the viper’s apology.

And that was worse. For he couldn’t scorn everything apart from her pretty face, like he’d wanted to. Lately, when he dreamed of her, it was no longer a flurry of soft curves and soft sighs, but cold, cold dread. She’d be sitting at the fireside, book in hand, reading to his mother and sister, or she’d be taking a walk through the flower gardens with them, smiling and pointing out the winter roses she’d planted. Then the men would come. Sometimes the men slit their throats ear to ear. Sometimes the men cut them clean in two. One time, they burned them alive.

Those nights, he’d sit up with a dying candle and stare at the illuminated book of song that he’d kept hidden for all those years, and, tracing his fingers across Florian’s motley armour and Jonquil’s silken dresses and silkier hair, he’d remember other gentler voices calling his name. With no wine to drown out the ghosts, they roamed freely.

Sandor, look what I’ve found! This stone looks exactly like you!

No it doesn’t. It looks like a dog, or a wolf.

I’m not talking about the shape, stupid. Look, it’s got a scowling face, like you, and… I’m going tooooo… tickle it right off of you!

Was it worse to remember or worse to forget?

Sandor… Is that a drawing of me?

Father said it’s not very good. He said it’s a waste of ink.

I think it’s very beautiful.

But the nose is wrong, and the mouth doesn’t look right, and… and…

Don’t burn it, my love. Won’t you give it to me? There. That’s better. I’ll always treasure it, you know.

He didn’t know, but he did know that his name hadn’t sounded so hateful from the little bird’s lips. Better than my lord. My lord was faceless, no-man. He didn’t want to be that to her.

The gong finally rang, and he dropped his visor with a clang. That was better. Out there, there’d only be the clash of lance on shield and the ring of steel on steel. A simpler world for what he’d become. He nudged Stranger into position, and watched Tarth lower her own visor and take her place at the end of the lists. They couched their lances, and urged their horses into a gallop.

The galley faded away, and all that was left was the point of his lance and the form that was fast-approaching. The throbbing in his shield arm threatened to distract him, but it was hardly the first time he’d ridden with an injury. He leaned forward, lance steady. There was no use raising his shield; he’d only carried one so that Tarth wouldn’t know that he could hardly bear to use it. So that Gregor wouldn’t know. He braced himself for impact, and hoped that it’d be Tarth who’d fall. So she’d need not cross paths with the likes of Gregor. But at the last moment, she shifted her seat, and his point merely grazed her oaken shield of quartered rose and azure.

Fuck. He gritted his teeth and gripped hard on Stranger’s saddle. Steady boy. Steady. Stranger shifted with him, until he was fully righted once more. There was no time for a sigh of relief. Instead, he jerked Stranger around to face Tarth one more time. This time had to settle it.

Tarth tossed down her broken lance and snatched up a new one, bowing her head at her squire almost apologetically. He waited for her to ready herself, then spurred Stranger forth at a hard gallop. This time, he saw. She was going for the same bloody trick. As if you could fool the same dog twice. With a snarl, he shifted too, and drove his lance home and true.

Both their lances exploded. He braced himself once again, and let Stranger take him away from the debris. Thankfully, the sight that greeted him was the damned woman’s cobalt-blue armour rolling in the dirty, a touch more dented than before.

His own haggard breathing echoed inside his helm, sounding louder than the crowds outside, but still, as he rode past where the little bird was sitting, he thought he heard her say to the she-wolf, ‘I knew he would win!’

Renly sat there too, not far from her, but his eyes weren’t even on Tarth; both Renly and the crowds had moved on, and he didn’t need to look over his shoulder to know that the Knight of Flowers had most likely pranced onto somewhere visible to them all.

He gave Stranger a hard nudge and left the crowd behind. Best leave the wooing the crowds to a knight who liked to play at gallantry. How many hours did it take some poor sod to weave real forget-me-nots into his cloak, just in case anyone could really forget that he was the Knight of – what was it again? – Flowers?

It looked like he wasn’t the only one doing the wooing. Gregor just about made it into the tiltyard, but his poor stallion was screaming and pawing the ground, shaking his head at the beautiful grey mare that the Knight of Flowers had chosen for today.

Playing at gallantry indeed. He couldn’t help but shake with laughter. In the blink of an eye, Gregor was falling. Falling from a horse he’d jabbed at too hard a few too many times. And the commons went mad. Even Tarth was cheering unguardedly.

Fools.

Fools, all of them.

He saw Gregor wrench of his helm and slam it to the ground. The dark look in Gregor’s eyes was all too familiar. It called for blood.

He pulled his sword out and made his way back to the tiltyard, but Gregor was faster; his pale-faced squire knew better than to be slow. With a single blow, the poor stallion that had once served him fell to his knees. And with another, the Knight of Flower fell to the ground. The stallion’s blood coloured the sapphires on his armour into rubies, and the cloak of flowers turned into a cloak of mud.

The Knight of Flowers stared up as Gregor lifted his sword for the final blow, as if he couldn’t believe it was all really happening. The fucking idiot. What did he think a man like Gregor would do? Congratulate him on his victory and give him a fucking pat on the back?

‘Leave him be!’ he shouted, and wrenched Gregor away from the idiot with as much strength as he had left in his shield arm. Which wasn’t a lot.

And the first blow came. As he knew it would. But a foolish part of him had still hoped… still hoped that it wouldn’t. He caught it, of course, because he wasn’t the boy he once was. Then came the other blows. All with Gregor’s unreserved strength. All with the desire to kill, kill, kill. He parried them, one by one, and knocked into Gregor’s armour the best he could, hoping that soon, his brother’s rage would ebb and... and then what?

And then he’d set down his sword and say, ‘Sorry Sandor, I got carried away. I never meant any of it. It was just the headaches. You know how they are. What I did was unforgivable, but I–

STOP THIS MADNESS IN THE NAME OF YOUR KING!’ boomed the king’s voice above all else.

He dropped to one knee as he heard the whoosh of Gregor’s sword cut through the air where his head had been. The Kingsguard and a near twenty other knights and guardsmen were upon them now. Gregor dropped his sword at the sight of that and glared at the king. Without a single word to Sandor, he turned and strode off.

And that was that.

But it wasn’t.

For the Knight of Flowers gave Sandor the victory and the champion’s purse for saving his life. And for the first time, the commons cheered him as loudly as they’d cheered for the Knight of Flowers. The flower crown for the queen of love and beauty was a wreath of large pink roses twisted with seven lilac saffron crocuses, all supplied by Highgarden. It would look more beautiful than the wild flowers the little bird had worn by the pools.

He rode past her and dropped it in front of Myrcella, and smiled as the princess’s eyes lit up.

And that was that.

But of course, it wasn’t.

For the king looked on almost sadly at Myrcella and clapped his great hands for silence. Then, in the booming voice that had stopped him before, the king bellowed, ‘I know everyone is waiting for me to appoint a Hand, but before we get to that, we have one last thing to settle. BRING THEM OUT!

He heard the gasps and jeers from the crowd before he saw them.

There, dragged along by a handful of knights from Dorne and Highgarden, was Cersei. Her golden hair hung raggedly about her shoulders, but did little to cover her; she was as naked as a busy whore. But it was the other golden form that drew most of the common’s gasps, for behind her walked the Kingslayer, just as naked. And, where his sword hand once was, was a bloody stump.

Chapter Text

Robert VI

‘Noooo!!! Boooo!!! Show us her teats! Show us her teats! Teats out! Teats out! Teats oooooout!!!’ cried the crowd.

So much for asking one of the Tyrell men to throw the Lannister whore a cloak, for the pink in Myrcella’s cheeks that had looked so well with her crown of roses had all but withered away.

To be fair, if those teats weren’t attached to the Lannister whore, he’d want to see them too, but right now, he’d rather see those droopy numbers on a toothless old lady who was pushing men half her age aside to get a better view.

‘You, boy, need to be shorter,’ said the old lady, elbowing a young man in the ribs. ‘Out of the way! I need to get a good look at the Kingslayer’s sword.’

‘He didn’t stab the Mad King in the throat with that,’ said the young man. ‘Or did he?’

The men around them jeered.

Robert tore his gaze away from Myrcella and Tommen. There were always casualties in war, and this, too, was war. The type he fucking hated. But necessary, nonetheless.

Most things had gone his way. Catching the Lannister whore and the Kingslayer at it after Robert had vacated their bed earlier in the night, pretending to be distracted by a kitchen wench who had, in truth, very distracting doe-brown eyes and a nice bit of hip, really gave them the edge. After all, a good bit of fighting always made blood run hot, and not just his. He’d expected to feel a great sense of satisfaction upon catching the two of them red-handed, for it’d make the accusations much harder to refute; what else could they be doing? Recreating scenes from their mother’s womb? When it really came to it, however, he’d flown into a rage, and, before he knew it, he’d sliced the Kingslayer’s hand straight off with the Kingslayer’s own sword. Thank the seven that the viper had the good sense to pull him back before he could finish off the Kingslayer altogether, else he’d not be able to fulfil the other half of the bargain.

The High Septon took his place beside him and gave him a nod, making that fat chin wobble. His own chin was taking shape again these days, and he could finally see his feet while standing up, thanks to Clegane’s efforts. Which brought him to the only part of his plan that hadn’t gone well. Fucking wildfire. The gold cloaks were going through the Kettleblack brothers’ tents for clues, not that any of them had a fucking clue. Maester Ballabar was with the remaining Kettleblack, waiting for him to talk. He’d made Stannis send his best man there as witness besides the Strongboar; the onion knight needed a maester for those ribs anyhow.

Robert raised his hands for silence, and the commons fell silent, one by one, until there was only the voice of that old woman, saying, ‘Ha! I knew it! He’s a shower, not a grower.’

‘Now,’ said Robert, using his battle voice. He hadn’t gathered the whole world to witness the downfall of the lions only for half of them to miss what he was saying. ‘I’m sure most of you are wondering why the queen is missing her dress today. We have only brought her and her twin out in the state we found them in last night.’ Uproar. He waited for them to quieten down. ‘By we, I mean Prince Oberyn Martell, Lady Olenna Tyrell and Ser Loras Tyrell of the Kingsguard. We were discussing matters related to the tourney, and couldn’t find my queen. Luckily, a Dornish guard had caught sight of her sneaking away, and here we are!’

‘Whore!’ jeered the commons, as they should. ‘Freak!’ cried some others. And, ‘Shame! Shame! Shame!’

He cried for silence once again, and beckoned the High Septon forth. ‘Before you think me a cuckold, the High Septon has some words to speak.’

The High Septon cleared his throat. ‘It has come to my attention, sitting with the queen after the events of last night to better understand her intentions, that there may be circumstances, unknown at the time to the king, that made the union between them unlawful under the eyes of gods and men. ’

A gasp when through the crowd. Damn it. He hated this part. Hated the lying and scheming. But please be kind to the children, the ghost had said. And he did not want to paint Myrcella and Tommen into monsters born through incest.

‘It has come to the High Septon’s attention,’ he boomed out to the crowd, making sure that they’d catch his every word, ‘that before her marriage to myself, Cersei Lannister had in fact married herself to Jaime Lannister. A most unnatural marriage, to be sure, but one that is nonetheless lawful in the Seven Kingdoms. As you can all see, there is no doubt that the marriage was consummated. So it turns out that I have been unknowingly cuckolding Jaime Lannister for many a-years, begetting three bastards on her! I hereby accuse Cersei Lannister of treason and adultery, and Jaime Lannister of treason! What do you have to say for yourselves?’

‘I…’ the shock had all but rendered Cersei speechless. ‘I… I demand a trial by combat. Both of us… both of us demand trials by combat!’

Thought so.

‘Very well. Select your champion from the Kingsguard.’ As a queen must. ‘Did you want to have your brother fight for your honour?’ he said, nodding at the missing sword hand. He’d sent old Selmy away, and the Knight of Flowers would yield on purpose. Who else was there for her to choose?

The Kingslayer leaned over and whispered a name in her ear.

‘Ser Mandon Moore!’

Robert nodded at that. Ser Mandon already looked like a corpse. Perhaps he’d soon become one, and stop putting Robert off his food with those dead fish eyes.

Ser Mandon drifted in, his steel plate as white as his cloak, set down his bright white shield and drew his sword, white steel icy bright.

‘Who do you name as champion, Your Grace?’ said the High Septon.

He was no Aerys. His champion would not be fire. Sevens be good, he only hoped that fire had not caused his champion too much damage. But he’d held his own against the Mountain. Endurance often separated a good solider from a dead one. If there was one thing Robert knew how to spot beyond a good lay, it was a good soldier.

‘Sandor Clegane.’

Clegane bowed his head and strode to the front, still in his soot-grey armour. His face was as unreadable as Ser Mandon’s, though his eyes were, as always, angry instead of dead. The crowd cheered their new-found champion.

‘Sandor Clegane,’ said the High Septon, ‘will you champion the king?’

Clegane stared at him, and he wondered if he understood why it had to be him. The love of the commons was not easily won, and the name of the Lannister dog was not easy to escape. But here, in front of all the lords and ladies, in front of all the smallfolk, was a chance for Clegane to serve the king, to serve the seven, to serve himself and become his own damned dog so that, after the lions are all but gone, there’d still be a place for him. Robert owed him that much.

Not just so, this was now, truly, the best path for Joffrey, Myrcella and Tommen. The Tyrells were so close to victory already, and Cersei had been brought so low, that should the trial by combat find Cersei innocent, and stamp her children as still-legitimate heirs to the Iron Throne, it’d be only a matter of time before they’d find themselves removed by other means. From the pinched look on the old lion’s face, someone must have understood perfectly well.

‘Aye,’ said Clegane, and drew his longsword. Dark, plain steel, honed to an edge to sharp to touch, only marred by notches from his fight against the Mountain.

The High Septon beckoned the two of them forward, one crisp and bright, and the other dark and stinking of blood and sweat, so that they knelt, facing each other. Cersei shuffled so that she was between them, and the High Septon lifted his holy crystal above them all, shattering coloured lights across their faces. The crowds held their breath, waiting for the prayer to come to a close. Robert sent the Warrior a prayer of his own, though, by the looks of it, not as fervently as Ned’s eldest daughter; her hands were clasped together so tightly that her fingers had grown as pale as Myrcella’s cheeks.

‘May the trial begin!’ cried Robert.

Ser Mandon raised his heavy shield, and Clegane turned to face him, making a show of throwing away his own shield. It landed on the ground in a cloud of dust. There were no testing blows; they’d seen each other often enough in the practice yard. There was no doubt that Clegane was the stronger, deadlier man. But tired too, after the melee then the lists, and Ser Mandon knew it. Speed had to be Ser Mandon’s greatest advantage, and he’d not have it heaving an oaken shield around, while Clegane’s was no longer weighing him down. Tossing his own away, Ser Mandon swirled away, just out of reach, and the shield wobbled and stilled, abandoned on the ground. A vainer knight might have been tempted to give chase, especially with the crowd crying, ‘Fight! Fight! Fight!’ But Clegane drew back and circled Ser Mandon instead, almost leisurely, examining every inch of his opponent. There was little to see. Ser Mandon’s squire had done a fine job securing his full plate armour.

But it was enough for Clegane. In a flash, he closed the distance between himself and Ser Mandon with two swift strides and swung his sword. Almost caught unawares, Ser Mandon took a step back, but raised his sword to meet Clegane’s, steel against steel. The two swords drew an arc around the knight, and with a flick, Clegane pushed Ser Mandon’s ice white blade to the right. Before Ser Mandon could bring his sword back in front of him or leap away, Clegane had turned his own sword around, gripping the blade with his mailed fist, pommel out, and, with a deafening clang, struck it against Ser Mandon’s helm. The crowd roared, and Robert with them. Nothing like a good bash on the head! Sadly it wasn’t with a war hammer, else Ser Mandon would be dead already. If Ser Mandon had not been deafened before, he had to be now. His sword swung uselessly in Clegane’s direction, but fell short, by speed and by reach.

And it was no longer the direction that Clegane was in. Faster than a man that size had any right to be, Clegane had circled around Ser Mandon, who was still trying to straighten his head and his helm. Turning his sword back around, Clegane gripped the hilt with his sword hand and the blade with the other. A thrust at the back of Ser Mandon’s right knee splattered an arc of red on the grounds. Ser Mandon groaned and tried to twist himself around, limping, but Clegane had taken aim again, this time right through the weak spot between Ser Mandon’s sword arm and breast plate. Ser Mandon had no shield to block it as the steel slid through flesh once again. His white Kingsguard cloak bloomed red.

The stab was not deep enough. Ser Mandon staggered back, scrambling for his discarded shield, but Clegane gripped the hilt of his sword with both arms and brought it down on Ser Mandon’s right shoulder. The knight barely managed to meet the blow with his own sword. But it was no use. The strength of the blow was too much for an injured sword arm. With a cry, Ser Mandon dropped his sword and fell back.

Still, Clegane did not slow. With brutal efficiency, he gripped the middle of the blade once more with his left hand and pressed the blade into the gaps in Ser Mandon’s visor, where his dead fish eyes used to stare out at the world. It most likely was staring at nothing now. But Clegane made double-sure of it, as only a soldier who’d seen a man presumed dead rise up from the ground would do. Kicking Ser Mandon’s arm aside, he sank his bloodied sword into the gap under Ser Mandon’s arm once again, this time sinking it far enough to reach the heart.

Mere moments had passed, and it was already over.

TRAITOR!!!’ screamed Joff, but it was drowned out by the cheers of other lords, ladies and smallfolk alike.

A few ladies even threw their handkerchiefs at him, but he merely stepped over them as if they were fallen leaves. Robert felt a stab of disappointment, seeing that Ned’s redhead daughter had not thrown her own handkerchief. Instead, she was now half-staring at the Kingslayer, carefully keeping her eyes glued to the top half of him, with a frown on her face.

In the din that ensued as he ordered the Lannister whore to be dragged away to the black cells, Janos Slynt’s ugly frog-face appeared, a silken handkerchief in hand. Robert was about to ask him whether he picked up one meant for Clegane when Slynt spoke.

‘Your Grace, we found this in Ser Osney Kettleblack’s tent.’

Robert unfolded the handkerchief. It was a familiar square of rose-gold with a circlet of vines in a darker gold, along with a flowery initial: M.

Ah.

‘Where in Ser Osney’s tent?’ he asked.

‘On his bedroll, Your Grace,’ said Slynt.

He waved Slynt aside. Others take him. Hadn’t it been Littlefinger who’d convinced him not to replace Slynt, because the next man could always be worse? The words he’d exchanged with Ned’s younger daughter and unruly sons right after the disaster of a melee came to mind once again.

‘Rickon saw with… with his own eyes…’ the younger daughter had said. ‘The queen was speaking with Littlefinger by the godswood. They were careful not to get too close to Shaggydog, of course, but still… Rickon saw with his own eyes! Littlefinger was jesting with her, saying how boring he was sure the tournament would be, and how only wildfire would make the melee a touch more exciting! We were sitting with him when everything went wrong, and he didn’t look surprised at all!’

But it was just a jest. So much so that Ned’s children hadn’t seen fit to warn anyone beforehand. Robert could not arrest a man for making a jest, else he himself would be the first to rot away in the black cells.

Still… This… Janos Slynt should not have found this handkerchief; Robert had already asked Ned’s children to look through their tents before he’d given the gold cloaks their order. He’d asked them to check the bedrolls, in particular, for anything that might belong to a lady, because Ned’s children had mentioned Cersei. They’d not come back with this handkerchief.

The old lion’s sour voice snapped him away from his thoughts. ‘Your Grace, I wish to provide a champion for Jaime’s trial by combat.’

Robert snorted. ‘As a member of the Kingsguard, I’d expect him to defend himself. But… seeing as he’s missing his most important member, name your champion!’

‘Ser Gregor Clegane,’ said the old lion.

‘Then,’ said Robert, breaking into a wide grin, ‘to champion the king, I name Prince Oberyn Martell of Dorne!’

The viper smiled back.

Everything was going just the way they’d planned.

Chapter Text

Sansa VII

This was not a song.

‘Elia Martell, Princess of Dorne,’ Prince Oberyn hissed again. ‘You raped her.’ A feign. ‘You murdered her.’ A screech against the steel of The Mountain’s thick plate armour. ‘You killed her children.’ A thump against the Mountain’s wooden shield. The shield looked to be near Arya’s height, crafted from heavy oak rimmed with black iron, yet the Mountain wielded it like a toy. The head of one of the three black hounds painted onto the autumn yellow field that she’d come to know so well splintered into raw oak against Prince Oberyn’s spear.

‘You raped her. You murdered her. You killed her children.’

It was not a song, but Prince Oberyn chanted those accusations over and over again, as if to make it one. Princes vanquished monsters and giants in songs, didn’t they?

‘SHUT UP!’ roared the Mountain.

But Prince Oberyn did not.

‘You raped her. You murdered her. You killed her children.’

Was it true? She’d heard of the horrors spoken before, but she’d also heard that the fault laid with another named Amory Lorch, who’d died in a terrible accident involving either a wolf or a bear. But to hear Sandor speak of the day he’d be burned, she could not help but believe that the Mountain was capable of such cruelty.

Round and round they went, dancing their deadly dance.

But this was not a song, for there, on the blood-soaked ground, was her reminder. The stain was the last mark that Ser Mandon Moore of the Kingsguard had made in life. Two guards had dragged his body away after, and it was easy enough to picture him as nothing more than an empty suit of armour, if not for the trail of red he’d left behind.

She never looked away. The conversations she’d had with Sandor often replayed in her head, and back in Winterfell, when she’d paid less attention to his words, hadn’t he asked her to look him in the eye? She wondered if it was about more than the scars.

So she never looked away, though she wanted to. The melee had been a great tragedy, and the way that the Mountain had hacked away at Ser Loras and Sandor had been more than alarming, but it had ended by the command of the king. But this… this was something different. She was glad that Jeyne was not here to witness it; the young Vale knight slain by the Mountain the day prior had been too much for her dearest friend, but this… This promised to be much worse.

She’d never seen two men, both hell-bent on fighting to the death before. Some songs told of great duels and battles won, but she’d not imagined it like this. New as this world was to her, it hadn’t been to Sandor; the way he’d fallen into the rhythm, as naturally as breathing, had been frightening. But she wasn’t afraid of him; she was afraid for him now.

Her brothers sat beside her, clutching Father’s hand. Before Sandor had turned Rickon’s age, his brother had burned him. And by the time he’d grown as old as Bran, he’d killed his first man. She could scarce imagine riding out to face swords and axes, everyone trying to kill you… Had it given him nightmares, like the ones that Bran would get from his visions? On those nights, she’d pull Bran into her arms and smooth away his tears. Had anyone done the same for Sandor?

Because knights are for killing, he’d said, when he’d told her how Prince Rhaegar had knighted The Mountain. The Mountain. She’d never call him Ser Gregor. He was no true knight.

The Hound was for killing too. Jory had praised his speed, strength and precision during the duel, but most of all, his calm, and before she’d half-understood Jory’s explanation of his strategy, Ser Mandon was already dead.

‘He wants to make Ser Gregor chase him. The weight of armour and shield will tire even the strongest man,’ Jory explained this time round. There was time this time round.

Hadn’t that been Ser Mandon’s strategy?

On and on Prince Oberyn jabbed and ran and shouted out his accusations. On and on the Mountain gave chase, roaring after.

‘He looks to be tiring,’ said Ami. Her new friend was made from sterner stuff than Jeyne, and merely watched it all with a grim resignation even after the loss of her husband.

A true lady must stay composed under all circumstances, Mother had told her after the death of Lord Bolton’s second son. I know it will take you a long time for you to think of it as such, but you can turn this terrible ordeal into your strength.

She could still feel Mother’s gentle touch, smoothing away the hair at her brows, then a soft kiss at the top of her head.

One day, you will need to become your lord husband’s shelter, and men... Men are born to walk with the Stranger. You must gaze upon it all and stay unshaken, for a man without a safe and warm resting place cannot brave the weather forever.

 And winter. Winter is coming.

ENOUGH!’ the Mountain cried. If he was tiring, his voice did not betray it. ‘SHUT UP!

Prince Oberyn’s back was to Sansa, so she did not see his spear meet the Mountain’s armour, but it must have from the wail of the steel. Then all of a sudden, the Mountain was beating at Prince Oberyn’s shield.

‘What is–’

‘Get back!’

Father’s strong hands pull her and Arya back from their seats. Jory hauled Bran and Rickon behind him, and the screaming of the crowd washed over them all.

It had only taken a moment for the Mountain to push Prince Oberyn back towards the grandstand, reeling. The Mountain’s greatsword rose and fell, slicing through the golden drapes, a hairsbreadth from where Sansa had been sitting. Lord Renly, who’d been but a few seats over, cursed, drew back and drew his sword.

But Prince Oberyn threw himself sideways, rolling to the right. Only that was where the barriers had been built, so that the smallfolk could see the tournament. The screams grew even louder now, nearly enough to drown out the Mountain’s roar. ‘SHUT UP!’

A mother was pulling a wailing boy away from the front of the commotion now, and when his sword went up, it was not aimed at Prince Oberyn, but the boy. The mother’s arms rose up to protect her child, but the Mountain’s sword took it off between elbow and shoulder.

‘SHUT UP!’ he roared at the child, who was screaming louder now. ‘You make my head hurt!’

He howled, and this time swung his blade sideways, at the boy’s head. But this time, he was met with a blade.

‘Leave them be! If you want to kill someone, try me.’ Brienne’s cobalt-blue armour gleamed under the sun, like her eyes. Her breaths came raggedly from her mad leap from the grandstand, where she’d all but sat by Lord Renly’s side.

To interrupt a trial by combat was a slight against the Seven, and punishable by death, but surely defending the innocent, like a true knight should, did not count?

She saw the Mountain hack away at Brienne, aiming once and once again at her head, unprotected by the helm that she’d had no time to don. She saw Brienne back away from the crowd, drawing the Mountain into the middle of the yard. She saw Prince Oberyn scramble once more to his feet, spear in hand.

She saw Sandor on the other side of it all, grabbing a gold cloak and jabbing a finger at the woman.

And the woman… The woman had picked up her arm from the ground, and her son was trying, desperately, to reattach it to her shoulder, as if all the horrors, all the blood that now covered their hands would just disappear if they could only get it to stick.

‘A maester…’ said Sansa, and her heart skipped a beat as she spotted Ser Davos pulling a maester with a round, pink face behind him. ‘Please…’

‘I will help you down,’ said Father, gripping the maester’s hands.

The maester nodded, but gave the crowd behind the woman a worrying stare.

The crowd… The crowd was panicking still. Hundreds of bodies pressed together, pushing and shoving at each other to escape. A head of straggly blonde hair disappeared beneath the throng, and did not resurface.

It had to stop. It had to stop now.

When times are hard, a true lady must become the smallfolk’s harbour, Mother used to say. When you stand before them, you must discard despair and fear, as if they were garments you do not choose to wear.

When you stand before them…

Sansa squeezed Father’s hand and brushed it aside and, for the first time, turned away from the clash between sword and spear. Drawing herself to her full height, she pressed herself against the very front of the grandstand, where the Mountain had left a scar against the wood, and looked upon the commons.

Stop! She wanted to shout. But what good was a shouted word among other panicking voices?

You have a different way of fighting, Lady Whent had told her.

Did she really? She was just a girl who loved the songs.

No, no, she must.

The king was bellowing for the Mountain to leave Brienne and turn back to Prince Oberyn now. Could she make her voice travel as far as his did?

Sansa filled her lungs and willed her throat to feel less dry, less tight. Her voice carried above the winds.

‘Gentle Mother, font of mercy, save our sons from war, we pray…’

A handful of the smallfolk turned to find the source of the song, and she prayed that it’d be enough. If she could get them to slow their pace a little… Just a little would be enough. Please. Please, she prayed, please don’t let them trample each other.

‘…stay the swords and stay the arrows, let them know a better day.’

The song grew louder, now that Arya had lent her voice to it, and Ami was humming along too. More were looking at them now. A few even pointed. Perhaps she was imagining it, but the screams seemed to quieten.

Gentle Mother, strength of women, help our daughters through this fray…

Jon, who never sang, sang with her. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the gold cloaks spreading along the barriers that’d previously kept the smallfolk penned out, but was now keeping the Mountain penned in. Please. Just a little more.

…soothe the wrath and tame the fury, teach us all a kinder way…

A few of the smallfolk sang along too, now that the gold cloaks had arrived to provide them swords to defend against a monster.

The screams had died down to a murmur. Just a little. Just a little more.

‘Arya,’ she said under her breath. ‘Can you make a jape?’

‘What?’

‘They need to laugh, and I’m bad at japes. You always said so.’

‘I… Jon’s funny. Jon, can you… Where’s he gone?’

‘I’ll do it,’ said Ami, and clambering onto a seat, she called out, ‘Do you know why I’d make the best Darry heir?’

‘Because your mother’s a Darry,’ cried Lord Renly, suddenly taking more interest in the whole affair.

‘Because I have the best backside!’ she said, and turned around to wiggle it at the crowd.

A few laughed, Lord Renly the loudest, but most jeered. Still it was enough, for the panic was gone. Brienne returned, but did not take her seat among the lords and ladies. Instead, she kept her sword unsheathed and stood beside the gold cloaks.

Sansa nearly breathed out a sigh of relief. Except it was too silent. The clang of steel and the shouts of ‘ELIAAAA’ was no more.

Peering out into the grounds once more, she spotted the hulking form of the Mountain easily enough. This time, he was the one on his back, right before the spot that they’d placed Ser Jaime for judgement from the Seven. Prince Oberyn’s spear jutted from the Mountain’s belly, and the Mountain’s greatsword was now in Prince Oberyn’s hand.

The Mountain groaned and tried to rise, but the spear had pinned him to the ground. Ser Jaime shifted a little closer to them, perhaps to take a closer look at his doom. Sansa kept her eyes firmly glued to Ser Jaime’s face, which looked gaunt and hollow now, quite unlike how he’d entered the grounds earlier, even stripped bare and without a hand, but still with a touch of pride, or was it bravado?

‘If you die before you say her name, ser, I will hunt you through all seven hells,’ said Prince Oberyn, no longer shouting, because there was no longer a need to be heard above the din. He moved closer, placing a foot upon the Mountain’s chest, and…

And Sansa really should have been looking at Prince Oberyn or the Mountain, but something about Ser Jaime shifted in that instance, and she couldn’t help but stare.

Yes, something had changed. They were all a beat behind in noticing it compared to the seasoned knight that Ser Jaime was. The tides. The tides of the fight turned once more, as the Mountain grabbed Prince Oberyn behind the knee.

All of a sudden, the greatsword had fallen away, crushed under the Mountain’s massive arm, and they were wresting in the dust.

‘Elia of Dorne,’ they all heard the Mountain say, reaching for Prince Oberyn’s unprotected face. ‘I killed her screaming whelp. Then I raped her.’ His steel fingers pressed into Prince Oberyn’s eyes, and Ellaria Sand wailed in terror.

But still, Prince Oberyn squeezed out, ‘Who gave the order?

Whether the Mountain was going to speak Lord Tywin’s name, they’d never know, for Ser Jaime had moved over them, and using the only weapon at the disposal of a knight with no clothing and no sword hand, he… Oh gods, Sansa could not look. He relieved himself over the Mountain’s face and wounds.

The Mountain gave a great roar, but his grip on Prince Oberyn must have loosened for an instant, and Ser Jaime yanked Prince Oberyn away, rolling him onto his back a distance away from the Mountain.

‘I piss on your trial,’ said Ser Jaime. ‘Cersei asked for this. I never. Just kill me and be done with it.’

‘Is he doing it to disinfect the Mountain’s wounds?’ she heard some whisper. And others, ‘He just wants to protect his own father.’

‘What a sword! He barely made it!’ japed Lord Renly, louder than the rest, but Sansa could not find it in her to laugh.

The Mountain was gurgling and dying. And beside him, Prince Oberyn lay bleeding, two holes where his eyes used to be.

‘The trial is not over until one of them yields,’ said the High Septon. ‘Or dies.’

‘Please!’ Ellaria Sand pleaded. ‘Please, my prince… Please yield.’ And she did not need to say that it’d not be the Mountain. ‘You’ve already got what you came for. You need a maester. Please don’t leave. If you leave me, who will make me laugh, write me songs, care for me when I am old and sick?’

The pools of red beneath both champions bloomed, and the king waved a group of maesters to the edge of the grounds, waiting, waiting, waiting.

Light as a dying breath, Prince Oberyn said, ‘Craven.’

‘Prince Oberyn Martell of Dorne has yielded!’ boomed the king, and the maesters rushed in.

The king and the High Septon shared a few whispered words, and the High Septon wobbled to his feet, straightening his long white robes as he did so.

‘The gods have given us a strange answer to our prayers, but we will let them guide us. Brienne of Tarth has interrupted the trials, but it as a result of unchivalrous actions of Ser Jaime Lannister’s champion, so we find her innocent of all charges. Ser Jaime has also interrupted the trials, but has been possessed to do so against his own champion. He has prayed for suffering, and he shall receive it. The Seven has deemed him innocent of his initial charges, but for his attempt to mislead the gods, I, the vessel of the Seven, hereby strip him of his knighthood.’

‘Jaime Lannister,’ said the king. ‘You are dismissed. And now, I’ve had word from maester Ballabar, under the witness of Ser Davos Seaworth and Ser Lyle Crakehall, that the Kettleblack who set off the wildfire at the melee has spoken, and his words are of treason. He had been coerced by Cersei Lannister to make an attempt on my life.’

The crowd gasped.

‘However,’ the king continued, ‘he wasn’t aware that the favours she’d given him and his brothers had been filled with wildfire. Neither was he aware that there’d be an attempt to implicate Lady Margaery of House Tyrell,’ he said, holding up a rose-gold handkerchief. ‘This was stolen from my lady’s person and left in one of the brothers’ tents.’ The crowd booed, and the king beamed, triumphant. ‘Due to his continued incompetence, I hereby remove Janos Slynt from the position of the Commander of the City Watch, and instate Ser Lyle Crakehall instead.’ Cheers rose up from the crowds, but nothing compared to the moment when he said, ‘The surviving Kettleblack also made it clear that Lord Tywin Lannister was aware of Cersei’s treasonous plot. I hereby charge Lord Tywin Lannister with treason. Escort him to the black cells!’

Sansa thought she saw Prince Oberyn smile as the maesters lifted him away, flanked by Ellaria Sand.

‘The rot runs deep in Casterly Rock,’ he king said, raising a hand to quieten the commons. ‘So I, Robert I Baratheon, King of the Andals, the Rhoynar, and the First Men, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms, Protector of the Realm, will hereby make House Crakenhall the principle house of the westerlands, and bestow the title of Warden of the West upon Lord Roland Crakehall. May he lead the westerland into a brighter future.’

Few of the westerland lords and ladies seemed distressed at the news; most merely clapped, and a few even smiled.

‘I must make it clear that I am not here to punish all Lannisters, but merely those guilty of treason. Now, I know that Lord Petyr Baelish has been working tirelessly as the Master of Coin. So much so that he has not even found the time to court himself a wife! I wish him the best of luck with that, and will give the burden of the Master of Coin unto Lord Tyrion Lannister. May he make the Seven Kingdoms prosper!’

Littlefinger’s mouth fell open at that, and Lord Tyrion looked a little ill.

Almost as an afterthought, the king declared that Lord Stannis was to become the new Hand, and would be working with the lords of the westerland to rebalance the lands among the houses there, but before the commons had even finished their half-hearted clapping, the king had already turned to the maesters who were overseeing the Mountain, each carefully keeping their distance.

They were shaking their heads as the Mountain groaned on and on. ‘A poison,’ they said. ‘Painful and slow-acting, but deadly nonetheless. There’s no antidote.’

‘Someone give him the gift of mercy!’

No one made a move, perhaps remembering what had happened to the last man who’d dared to venture too close, until she saw his soot-grey armour.

No.

No man was as cursed as the kinslayer, in the eyes of gods and men, no matter what his intentions were.

No, it must not come to pass.

‘Someone else…’ she said, but her voice trailed off as she saw Arya tighten her grip around Needle.

No. Not that either. Her sister was just a girl dancing with swords. She couldn’t really… couldn’t really…

‘I must borrow your sword for a tempering, little sister,’ said Jon, reappearing from wherever he’d been hiding, or been hidden, mussing her hair.

‘Jon, no!’ said Father.

But it was too late.

The thin blade slid through the gaps that the spear had created.

Jon drove Needle into the heart of the Mountain. For once, the king, the lords, the ladies and the commons all looked upon her bastard half-brother.

‘Isn’t that Ned Stark’s bastard?’ she heard a lady ask. ‘Who was the mother again?’

Chapter Text

Sandor VII

Sandor had wished to witness his brother’s end many-a-times. The world had chosen to grant him this wish.

This. This fucking wish out of all the things he’d wished for. Like no more gambling and shouting from his father. No more crying from his mother, and no more bruises hidden under her powder. Like a cure for his brother’s headaches. A way to heal his scars. Like for his sister to have all the pretty dresses she wanted, to smile and sing and dance and be carefree. For his sister to be alive.

For them all to be alive. And safe. And warm.

For home.

But it was just him now. Him with his half-ruined face. Some days, he didn’t know which side he hated more: the one that’d be branded by Gregor, or the one that still showed him the brows and ears and mouth he’d shared with his brother.

A fly buzzed around his room until it found the window and left him alone.

How long had he been lying there, staring at the ceiling, drifting in and out of unwanted memories?

What did it matter?

There was a soft brush of his door against its frame, and someone tiptoed in. He didn’t bother looking up. He could recognise her by her footsteps. A warrior’s instinct. At least that was half the truth.

She set a basket on the table and padded over to kneel beside him on the bed.

How many times had he wished for her to be right where she was? She wouldn’t always be kneeling, but he’d always be pressed into her, hard, and she’d sing for him with her rosebud mouth and tell him, tell him how much she wanted to be here. To be right here.

So the world had chosen to grant him this wish too. But he wanted nothing more than for her to go away, or better, for him to go away. He didn’t have the strength to answer her how are you feeling and I’m sorry about your brother.

But she said neither.

‘I… I’m going to change your dressing,’ she said, and fished out clean strips of what had once been her pretty blue silks. Had a day passed already?

What did it matter? The king had relieved him from his morning training duty. There was nothing for him to do.

She worked away when he made no reply. Her fingers were warm and her touch was feather-light. The pain that hit him as she unwound the bandages was almost a welcome change to the haze of pure nothing that clouded his mind.

‘I…’ she croaked, and cleared her throat. He braced himself for the meaningless questions, but they never came. ‘I was once betrothed to Domeric, trueborn heir to Lord Bolton. He was a true friend to me, and I could have made him a good lady wife. But he died of a stomach ailment. There was talk, though, that he was poisoned. Tears of Lys. There were also those who say it was me, but he wrote to me before… before it took him. He’d been visiting his bastard half-brother. Ramsay Snow.’

She tied the ends of the blue silks together and dabbed at his good cheek with her handkerchief. Blood. Whose, he had no fucking clue, but if it bothered her, she didn’t let it show. He also had no fucking clue where she was going with this, but, with a jolt, he realised that it was the first time she’d spoken at lengths about herself since they’d first crossed paths at Winterfell. When had he grown so used to mouthing off in her presence?

‘I didn’t want to believe it,’ she said, ‘because… because I’d encouraged him to call upon his half-brother. After his death, Lord Bolton legitimised Ramsay and I was betrothed to him in his brother’s place. Just like how Mother had been once promised to my uncle Brandon, but had found happiness with Father, I thought. But… But when Arya and I visited the Dreadfort, Arya told me horrible things about Ramsay. She said that Ramsay… Ramsay would… hunt women.’ Her words did not flow freely for once, but she gave up those words still, one by one, though they seemed to burn her as she uttered them. ‘I didn’t believe her. Back then, we weren’t really close. But… she dragged me from my bed. Wanted to show me. Make me see the truth. So we crouched among the trees and… and… There was a woman. He set his dogs on her. She was running past us, and… and her feet were bleeding. I…’

She swallowed and scooted a hairsbreadth closer to him. ‘We Starks are wargs,’ she said. ‘My brothers. Arya. All of us. I used to have wolf dreams. Used to see through the world through Lady’s eyes while I slept. That day, I… I wanted to do something, anything, to help. I don’t know how it happened. Next thing I knew, I was on four feet, fur on my body and the pack behind me. I could have just stopped running after the woman. Could have led the pack away. But everything was muddled together, and I hated Ramsay so much for what he must have done… for killing Domeric… Next thing I knew, I’d turned round to face him and… and I bit into his leg.’

He didn’t know what to say to that, but he knew how the rest of it went. The bastard of Dreadfort, torn apart by his own dogs. She wasn’t finished though.

‘Afterwards…’ she said. ‘Jon said it wasn’t me. Said that he’d just lost control of his dogs. But I knew it was. Arya said it was good riddance. Said that, if anything, I’d avenged Domeric. But it didn’t feel like a victory. Mother told me I was in shock. Said that time would heal. But for years, nothing made a difference. It was Old Nan who told me a story afterwards. You’ve met Old Nan, haven’t you? She’s the oldest woman in the world, and full of stories. It must have been the dullest story she’d ever told any of us.

‘It was about two giants who took a bath in a very cold stream in the Frostfangs. Ten years later, they took a dip in the same stream. The first giant became misty-eyed, and with a shiver and a smile he said, “Everything is just as I remember.” The second giant said, “The water feels warm to me now.” Then she asked me which giant I wanted to be… but I didn’t know. So she said, “You’re not a giant in a story. You can be neither, and both.”’

Just like the little bird. To share some fucking story with some fucking morals behind it.

She shifted again, this time further away, and he almost grabbed her wrist to keep her where she was.

‘I brought some bread, cheeses, cold meats, fruits and cakes from the kitchen,’ she said, rummaging through the basket she’d brought. ‘Will you sup with me?’

She carefully carved out a small lump of cheese, placed it at the end of a silver fork that looked smaller than his finger and held it up to his face. He turned away.

‘Not hungry,’ he said.

The same could not be said for the little bird. Her stomach growled and she went a pretty shade of pink. She started packing away her basket, and from the clattering of knives and forks, she seemed to have brought half the silverware from the kitchens into his room.

‘You eat,’ he said. ‘You’re hungry.’

She was now folding away an embroidered napkin. Was this a fucking banquet?

‘I told Arya I’d eat what you do,’ she said. ‘That’s why she’s covering for me. If I eat without you, it’d make me a liar.’

‘Seven bloody hells.’ Was she using his own beliefs against him? He heaved himself from his bed, reached over her shoulders, snatched a chunk of cheese ten times the size of the lump she’d offered him and popped it in his mouth. ‘There. Happy now?’

She turned, and a smile broke across her face. Her eyes lit up, like a lake on a summer’s day. Too bright. Too close. He took a step back and sank down into the chair. It didn’t seem to bother her. She simply flitted about, laying two leather mats down on his always-bare table, then knives and forks, and a napkin each, followed by plates upon plates. How had she even carried the bloody basket here by herself? She even took out a sugar shaker and dusted stars on top of that whole lemon cake she’d brought.

Together, they sat and ate. Him, biting and chewing, though he might as well have been eating charcoal, and her, cutting everything into tiny pieces and making pretty patterns on her plate. She made no further attempts at conversation, and that suited him just fine.

It was when he was making his way through the third chunk of cured meat when he felt a pang of hunger. After that, he demolished the rest of the little bird’s offerings. Exhaustion came next. He felt as if he could finally sleep.

‘I will need to go now,’ said the little bird. ‘Father will be looking for me. Arya will come on the morrow to sup with you, and Bran and Rickon will come with J… Do you… Do you hate…’

‘Your bastard brother?’ No. Hate was what he had for Gregor, for his scars, for their sister, for daring to leave without a word. But he was too tired to make her understand, so he simply said, ‘No.’

She breathed a sigh of relief, but turned back once more when she was at the door. ‘I… I also have a confession to make. I haven’t had a wolf dream since… since Ramsay, so I didn’t know if… if it was real. It’s when I see through the eyes of Lady in my dream, and… it’s not the first time I have seen this room. I’m sorry… If… If Lady comes to bother you again, and you think it might be me, you can shoo her away.’

He should have been angry. Would have been, if he didn’t need to sleep for days and days and days. Instead, he nodded, as if understood this world of giants and wargs, this world of hers.

*

It wasn’t the dream of fire that woke him. No. This went back further. Before the flames. Before the nightmares ate up everything. It was woven from what was left of his first memory, though he hadn’t dared think upon it for years.

Footsteps in the woods. He stumbled, but their mother caught him. There’d been a fair. A man had made a knight dance on strings. And now it was all over, and the way back to the keep was too long. He blinked, but it was becoming harder and harder to blink them open.

With a grunt, someone wrapped his arms around a neck, and suddenly there was a warm back to cling to, and the whole world rocked under someone else’s gait.

‘He can walk a bit further,’ said their mother.

‘Just let the runt sleep.’

So he clung on, and he slept.

When he woke, he found Lady at the foot of his bed. She raised her head, as if asking whether she should go. It made no matter.

He clung to her furs, and he wept.

*

Lady was gone when the next set of visitors came. It was not the little bird, but there was too much swishing of silks to be the she-wolf.

Myrcella? Shireen?

But the curls that invaded his room were neither blonde nor coal-black. It was a willowy girl with drab brown curls that he’d not seen before. Behind her came a woman in green silks with a square face who–

Fuck.

That was Sybell Spicer. He’d seen the woman pander to Lord Tywin often enough. What the fuck had drawn her here? Was it his champion’s purse?

‘Good day my lord,’ said the woman, and nudged her daughter, he presumed, to do the same.

‘How are you feeling, my lord?’

‘Fuck off,’ said Sandor.

‘We are… sorry about the loss of your brother.’

‘I said fuck off.’

‘I must say my daughter Jeyne was most impressed with how you rescued Ser Loras from your brother in the tournament. It was very brave, wasn’t it, Jeyne?’ Jeyne seemed as lost for words as her mother was able to find false ones. ‘And that fight against Ser Mandon. Most valiant! Jeyne just wanted to check if you’d been injured in the fight, because we haven’t seen you training in the courtyard. Most unusual, they say. It is a difficult time for the westerlands, and us westermen must stick together in this time of change.’

The woman gave her daughter a shove, and the girl grabbed his arm.

He hated being touched by almost anyone. The Hound’s armour had kept it all at bay, but he was not in his armour right now, and the boy he’d once been flinched.

‘Get your fucking hands off me,’ he warned, ‘else I’d make you’ll get a pair of hands between you and the Kingslayer.’

The Westerling girl scrambled out of the way with a cry. Fuck. What did they take him for? Some green boy who’d come undone at any pretty maid who offered comfort?

‘There’s no need to–’

‘This is the third time I’m telling you to fuck off,’ he said. ‘I will let my steel do the talking the fourth time.’

Sybell Spicer gave him a look of sheer disgust then, spun on her heels and dragged her daughter away, slamming his door behind her.

Something wasn’t right. The Westerling mines had failed years ago, and their castle was nearly as much a ruin as Harrenhal, but they were still old blood. They’d not set their sights as low as a landed knight, even one with a champion’s purse.

Sandor scrambled for that note from the king once again. There it was, dismissing him from training duties. And there it was, a request for a meeting with both the king and his new Hand on, he hoped, the morrow.

What the fuck was going on?

Chapter Text

Robert VII

By now, Robert firmly believed that should he place Ned and Stannis into the same bloody room, all birds would fall out of the sky and all flowers would wilt. He glared at his brother’s dour face – the brother by blood – and tried to imagine it smiling. It was easier to imagine Cersei as a damned septa.

Stannis was blathering on about finding a replacement for Ser Mandon right now, and Robert couldn’t care less. One useless name followed another, until…

‘Did you say Brynden Tully?’ he asked.

‘Yes, he is a good–’

‘Appoint him!’ The Blackfish made white! That was the kind of thing worth doing.

‘Right… Next, we have–’

‘Seven hells, can you look a little happier about being Hand?’ He’d even saved the announcement of his betrothal to Margaery Tyrell to the day that followed the end of the tourney, so that Stannis could have an evening of being the most celebrated man in the seven kingdoms. Stannis didn’t seem to appreciate it in the slightest.

‘I am glad of the appointment,’ said Stannis.

‘Well, you look like I’ve asked you to suck on an Other’s cock. If that’s your look of being glad, I have no idea how you managed to plant your seed into Selyse.’

Stannis somehow managed to look even less pleased than before. ‘Next,’ he said again, ‘we have the matter of House Clegane.’

Ah yes! Finally, something of interest. This was going to be the highlight of his day.

‘Have you done as I asked?’

Stannis pushed a map into his hands. ‘I have considered the geography of the westerlands, and…’

Geographies be damned. He asked for Clegane lands to be made, in his own words, fucking big for his services to the crown, because Clegane had been the one to bear the brunt of the melee fuck up, and had also been the one to drag the Kettleblack out from the fire to testify against the old lion. A look at the map showed a chunk of the westerlands, much larger than the previous Clegane lands, eating into the lands that had originally belonged to Casterly Rock in the north, stretching across the mountains in the south until it bordered on the lands under House Swyft. Shame that the shape of the lands wasn’t anything like a running dog, but was instead a boring lump that resembled absolutely nothing.

Stannis was rambling on and on about farmlands verses mountains for mining now, leaving the most important point untouched.

‘Have you got a name for it yet?’

‘A name for what?’

‘The damned keep, that’s what,’ he said. Only minor shithouses named their keeps after their own houses, else House Broom would have ended up with Broom Cupboard. No, the keep needed to be something a bit more poetic. Like Golden Tooth of House Lefford, Silverhill of House Serrett, Faircastle of House Farman.

‘Ah. That. I thought… in the same vein as Crow’s Nest and Griffin's Roost, we could name it Dog’s Kennel?’

Did Stannis just… No. No, it was not a jape. There was no twinkle in those grim blue eyes. ‘Seven hells,’ he said. In what song would a maiden fair be swept off her feet into the Kennels?

‘If you mis-like that one, then there’s also Dog’s House, or…’

‘Have you got anything without Dog in it?’

‘Hound’s Kennel, or–’

‘Let me guess. Hound’s House?’ The Others take him, he should have asked Renly to name it.

‘How about Hound’s Bay, Your Grace?’ said Ser Loras, who was guarding him today. ‘After the baying of hounds. I believe there is also a bay around the area?’

It was almost good, but nobody asked him.

‘Your Grace, Sandor Clegane is here to see you.’

He waved Clegane in at once. The man looked better than expected, considering reports that he’d holed himself in his room for the past few days. His hair, at least, looked washed, and his brown tunic looked clean enough.

‘Your Grace,’ said Clegane, then eyed Stannis with a degree of trepidation. Robert couldn’t blame him. Sevens only knew when Stannis would push for a ban on brothels all over again.

‘Save the Your-Graces for Margaery, once she’s queen,’ he said. ‘Let’s get straight to it. We’re rebalancing the westerlands, and after all sorts of meetings and discussions with Lord Roland…’ …which were thankfully undertaken by Stannis… ‘…we have expanded the lands under the governance of House Clegane.’ He waved at Stannis to pass the map. ‘Mind you, I’m talking about direct governance, the right to deliver justice on your lands.’

The look on Clegane’s face was less than pleased. Why were all the people around him so damned hard to please?

‘I don’t want a lordship,’ said Clegane.

‘Do I look like I want my kingship?’ he asked. ‘Look, Clegane, if I was to give your damned land to the man who wanted it the most, I’d be giving it to Littlefinger. I need someone to go to that accursed place, tell all of your brother’s unpleasant friends to fuck off – Lord Roland said it’s been going on for too long under the old lion – and I need someone to… Stannis, you explain it.’

‘As you no doubt already know, much of land under House Clegane are moorlands, and much like of the westerlands, the land is unsuited to growing crops. There is a small strip of cropping area around the bay, where I believe they are growing corn. The rest are grazing lands and mountains,’ said Stannis in a voice that made Robert want to jump in front of a boar. ‘Lord Roland is concerned that, with the approaching winter, very little had been done…’

‘And by that he means nothing,’ added Robert.

‘…in the area to stockpile grains and other supplies. The harvest will not be enough.’

‘Well. Fuck,’ said Clegane.

‘Exactly,’ said Robert. ‘Someone needs to go there and sort it out, and I know Littlefinger’s not going to be the one to do it, as much as I know you’d find no maidens in one of his damned whorehouses.’ That, and Littlefinger was most likely guilty of treason, but no one could find any proof for it, so there was fuck all he could do about it. He was no Mad King Aerys after all. ‘Also, you’ll need to rename your keep,’ he said, getting to the heart of the matter.

‘I was thinking of something with dog,’ said Stannis.

No. Stop thinking you thrice damned–

‘It has a wood around it,’ said Clegane. ‘We could rename the keep the Dogswood.’

‘Does it have a godswood?’ The godswood of the Dogswood. That was the kind of thing that gave Robert’s life meaning, save swinging his war hammer. ‘If it doesn’t, then you should plant one. The Dogswood it is!’

‘The good news is…’ said Stannis, as if it wasn’t good news enough that Clegane was now a lord with a castle called the Dogswood. ‘Are you aware of the viper situation in the westerlands?’ Everyone was aware of the bloody viper situation in the westerlands. Clegane grunted a response, and Stannis carried on. ‘The mountains south of your keep had been previously unexplored due to the… unsavoury… reputations of your brother. However, some of the miners decided to leave the viper-infested mountains around the Rock and look for their fortunes elsewhere. They found gold there. A man representing the miners came here, originally in search of Lord Tywin, hoping he’d help them talk your brother into getting a good cut for them… something reasonable with the taxes… but he ended up speaking to Lord Roland. With your new lordship though, Lord Roland and I advised him to speak with you instead. You will need to–’

‘Your Grace, Lady Sansa is here to see you.’

Thank fuck. Only Stannis could make gold sound dull.

‘Sansa! Come in!’ He beckoned Ned’s eldest daughter in, and nearly chuckled at the look of confusion on both her and Clegane’s faces.

‘I am here to discuss the agreement we’ve come to on Harrenhal with Lady Whent, Your Grace,’ said the girl. ‘Am I too early?’

‘Not at all. I’m sure none of us mind you being here! Here, take a seat!’

‘Thank you, Your Grace,’ she said, swishing into the room in her grey silks and, Robert was pleased to note, a velvet ribbon in yellow with an onyx pendant. They were Whent colours, he knew, but still.

He watched her carefully as he announced, ‘We were just giving Clegane a lordship, weren’t we?’

The corners of her lips curled up, and she covered her face with her handkerchief to cough. Yes! There was something there. She was happy, wasn’t she? Yes, of course she was happy.

‘I must offer you my congratulations, my lord,’ she said, dipping into a deep curtsy with her head bowed, though she hardly needed to, with her station being what it was. ‘My lord you must be overjoyed.’

‘Stop that,’ Clegane growled under his breath.

‘Stop what, my lord?’ she said, turning away to cough into her handkerchief again. ‘Please excuse me, my lord, my throat seems a little dry…’

Whatever was happening between the two of them, it was definitely something. The rumours hadn’t been all lies.

Robert beamed and said, ‘How big is the land that will be governed under House Clegane?’

‘Roughly eight hundred and sixty thousand acres,’ said Stannis.

Good. That sounded pretty damned massive to him. ‘How big are the lands under the governance of Harrenhal again?’

‘Three million and seven hundred thousand acres,’ said Stannis.

Fuck. How could it be so much bigger?

‘The lands under the governance of Harrenhal are very fertile. They grow wheat, barley, oats, sugar beets, apples, carrots, butternut squash, cucumbers…’ Who the fuck cares? ‘…parsnips, leeks, pumpkins…’

‘Your Grace, Lady Whent is here to see you.’

Double fuck. He hadn’t even told the girl that Clegane was going to plant a godswood in his Dogswood before it was all over. The old bat floated into the room and nodded at Clegane.

Stannis handed a piece of paper to Clegane, the girl and the old bat and said, ‘Now that you are all here, we can talk about the potential trade we can establish between Harrenhal and the Dogswood.’

‘What trade?’ cried Robert.

‘Hound’s Bay sounds better,’ Ser Loras muttered.

‘It does sound better,’ said the old bat. ‘Don’t you think so?’

Ned’s eldest daughter nodded along, and Clegane didn’t even put up anything resembling a fight.

‘We can call it Hound’s Bay if you like,’ he said.

‘Right. As I was saying, we can establish trade between Harrenhal and Hound’s Bay. That’s why you overlapped Lady Sansa’s visit with Clegane’s, is it not?’ No, you grim-faced bell end. ‘Since you are already on good terms, I’m sure we can work out a trade arrangement beneficial to both Harrenhal and Hound’s Bay.’

Trade. TRADE for fuck’s sake. Did Prince Aemon the Dragonknight say to his beloved Naerys, ‘Let’s trade some potatoes and barley?’ The answer would be no, by the fucking way. And… oh… the old bat was talking about how some of her harvest had gone bad due to the dire state that Harrenhal was in. Nothing more romantic than rancid wheat. Worse, they’d moved onto wool, and how the smallfolk would need quality wool to get through the winter, and yes, they both had sheep. What a fucking revelation. Except, and Ned’s daughter got a serious look on her face as she said this, the yarn made from westerland mountain sheep was softer and warmer than the same from the riverland breed, and the staples, whatever the fuck that was, was shorter in westerland wool. Had he died and gone to the seven hells, where the only source of amusement was knitting?

He slipped a glance at Clegane, wondering if he was also thinking it’d be less painful to be speared by a boar, but Clegane merely nodded along at the girl’s words. He’d been right. The man was patient. He’d make a good lord too, if he set his mind to it.

He glanced at the map before them to distract himself from the drone of their discussion. It was almost like those days of war, there he’d study the bloody map for paths his troops must take. Getting his soldiers from one place to another was half the battle. There she’d be, among her lakes and turnips, and there he’d be, among his–

Fuck fuck fuck. There was seven hundred miles between Harrenhal and Hound’s Bay. He knew that, of course, but… but… Fuck. It’d take a man over three weeks to ride between the two, though a raven could fly it in two days.

Robert groaned and threw his crown against the table. It bounced off, but not before making a dent in the oak. Why in the seven hells was his Seven Kingdoms so damned massive?

Chapter Text

Sansa VIII

The thought that Sandor would soon be taking dance lessons for pact day, thanks to Arya’s perseverance, was about the only thing that was getting her through her day. Sansa hoped he’d find it a good distraction too.

Choices. She’d made a choice. In doing so, there, in the godswood, kneeling beside Father and Arya and Jon and pretending to pray, she’d had a moment where, right after the rain, the world had looked washed and new, crisper and clearer than before, and she saw for the first time that she wasn’t made for choices.

‘Jon, it’s time we talked about your mother,’ Father had said to the three of them, with Ghost, Lady and Nymeria circling around, keeping watch. ‘I promised her I’d bring you up, keep you safe, but now… Now you are all grown, and perhaps knowing would keep you safer than not. After all, others who lived through that war may come to guess. Lady Whent, for one, has been making hints at me, though she has also promised to be a friend. She was there at the tourney where it all started, after all. It was her daughter’s tourney.’

‘Should… Should I step aside for a moment?’ Sansa had asked. It seemed too private a name to utter in her presence, even if she was now closer to her bastard half-brother than she’d once been as a girl.

‘When the snows fall and the white winds blow, the lone wolf dies, but the pack survives. The same blood flows through all of your hearts.’ He’d sounded like a man who’d shouldered the whole world then. ‘Yours too, Jon. Remember that. You are a wolf too, and this is your pack, even though your mother is…’ Father closed his eyes. He was right there, in front of them, but also leagues away. ‘My beloved sister, Lyanna.’

Jon’s face was blank, but Arya looked like she’d just bitten into a slice of lemon cake only to find that it was turmeric.

Sansa cleared her throat and broke the silence; someone needed to. ‘So… Who… who’s Jon’s father?’

‘Prince Rhaegar,’ said Father.

‘As in… Prince Rhaegar Targaryen?’ she blurted out. Arya was right. She was stupid. Of course it was Prince Rhaegar Targaryen. Rhaegar wasn’t exactly as common a name as Pate.

‘Thank fuck for that,’ said Arya.

‘Arya! Language. You’ve spent too much time in the Hound’s–’

‘Let’s not go through this again, Father,’ said Sansa.

‘And this is serious. If the wrong person finds out–’

‘I know,’ said Arya. ‘I just thought… Never mind.’

Father sighed and turned to Jon, resting a hand on her bastard half-brother’s, no, cousin’s, Jon’s shoulder. ‘Your mother… Lyanna… loved you with all her heart. Her last thought was to keep you safe. She knew Robert, better than Robert knew her. She knew that Robert would have had your head, child or no, such was his hatred for the dragons. I brought you home. Raised you as my own – and you still are in my heart, know that… But I know Cat hasn’t been easy on you. I never told her. To have her treat you as anything other than my bastard would have sent tongues wagging.

‘There were other things too… You won’t remember, but you liked to sing and dance as a child. You’d look so much like your father in those moments that I took to belittling your singing and dancing until you hated it. When you sang at the tournament for all to see, I…’ Father shook his head. ‘You have a fine singing voice, Jon. And Sansa… I never found you a teacher for the high harp – refused to buy you a high harp despite years of your begging and pleading until your mother commissioned one for you instead – not because they were hard to come by in the north, like I’d said, but because Jon should never hold a harp in his hands. For that, I can never make my amends to you, I–’

Sansa threw her arms around Father, like she used to do when she was a girl. There was no need for amends. Arya pulled Jon into their embrace too, and they huddled together in front of the heart tree, like wolves bracing themselves against the winds of winter.

‘You only did what you needed to,’ said Jon.

‘What do we do now?’ said Sansa. Highgarden was out, but Dorne could still be safe. Arya’s marriage to Prince Trystane looked promising once more, now that Princess Myrcella was no longer a princess.

Myrcella. Gods, it was as if Myrcella and Tommen had become ghosts, for the king had asked for them, and for Joffrey, to remain in the Red Keep, though in a much more threadbare room than before. When Sansa went to visit them with Shireen, she’d found them in rough-spun clothes; all their fineries had been taken away, though Myrcella had been allowed to keep her crown of flowers. Queen of love and beauty. The beautiful roses and saffron crocuses from Highgarden hung on her wall, a memento from a previous life. Myrcella and Tommen kept their heads down wherever they went, always accompanied by a Tyrell guard, even if it was just to break their fast among handmaidens and manservants. Not that they had a need to, for none of the other lords and ladies, once full of pleasantries around them, would even look them in the eye. Joffrey did not keep his head down. He screamed, and shouted, and raved about his treatment, but it made no matter; no one looked his way either.

‘Dorne…’ said Father, ‘…could try to use you. They have no love for Robert. Perhaps this matter with the Mountain has settled years of resentment, but perhaps not.’

Then there was really only one answer. It was the right thing, and she wanted to do the right thing.

‘Harrenhal,’ said Sansa, and made her choice.

*

She wanted to speak with him in the free moment she’d snatched between discussing Jon and Arya’s stay at Harrenhal with Lady Whent and writing to Aunt Lysa regarding her cousin Robert, if only about moving excess potatoes, but Lord Roland swept him away instead.

‘Why the sad face?’ She turned to face her friend Ami instead. ‘Is it because he gave the crown to Myrcella?’ said Ami.

‘Of course not! I just–’

‘If it’s about the Westerlings,’ said her friend, ‘then you need not worry. I will send some Walders and Olyvar on their way and with grandfather’s gold to distract them. Come now, won’t you walk with me? We can go to… I know what! We can visit a woods witch! I am in dire need of some guidance now that I’m short of a husband, after all.’

‘A woods witch?’

‘She’s related to a famous witch from Lannisport. One of Lady Sybell’s distant relatives.’ Ami wrinkled her nose at the mention of Lady Sybell. ‘They say that her love prophecies are most accurate! So much so that the queen… previous queen… Cersei… tried to have her tent removed.’ There was now a spring in her step. ‘And she is telling fortunes at a discount now that the tourney’s over!’

‘Why? Does she only tell you half the truth now?’

Ami laughed heartily at that and patted Sansa on the hand. ‘A walk will do you good. You need a little colour back in those cheeks! It is not far. Her tent is still up near the tournament grounds!’

Indeed it was, though the scent of cinnamon mixed with a something fetid and rotting assaulted them before they saw the green and white striped tent around the corner.

Though the day was clear and bright, inside the tent, it was nearly as dark as night. At the far end sat an old woman who must have been the witch, a stocky, square woman wrapped in a green and yellow robe. She was sat on a large tree stump, and her eyes were closed.

‘We’re sorry to disturb you,’ said Sansa, raising her voice barely above a whisper. ‘The tent flap was open… Should we come back later?’

The old woman’s eyes shot open, just a small crack among a canvas of wrinkles, and to Sansa’s horror, they were crusty yellow and bloodshot. Did woods witches have need for maesters? She could speak to Maester Ballabar for an ointment. They were now well-acquainted, as Sansa had been visiting Essie; the maester was testing out a new method of reattaching severed limbs, and Sansa prayed to the Mother that it’d be met with success.

‘Do you need an ointment or a wash for your eyes?’ Sansa said before she could further debate whether it’d be courteous to mention the old woman’s eyes, for helping her was surely more important, if her eyes were in pain? ‘Honey and cloves, or…’

The old woman gave her a toothless grin. ‘Ah, the unwidowed red widow arrives. Shall we trade seats?’

Sansa could feel her skin flush all the way up to the top of her head. ‘Oh no… I didn’t mean to… I just wanted to make sure…’

‘Yes dear, I know. If you look into the future as much as I do, your eyes will be in no better shape,’ she said. ‘Is that not the reason why you are here? For a foretelling?’

‘Well… yes,’ said Ami, ‘but not if it’s going to make you blind.’

‘The knights you love so much sell every inch of their bodies. I just sell what’s in here,’ she tapped her temple, ‘and what these eyes can see. Leave your coin and give me a taste of your blood,’ she said, waving a jar and a dagger at them, ‘then you may each get three questions. You first, red widow.’

Sansa dropped her coin into the jar, like the old woman asked, and bit her lip as she nicked her thumb with the point of the dagger, but her mind went blank as the old woman sucked away the blood.

‘What do you wish to know?’

She wished to know whether she’d fail her family, whether she’d fail her people, but those were not things that anyone else could answer for her.

‘Have I… have I made the right choice?’ she asked. Not that it mattered. She’d made her choice, and she’d make the best of it. If it was a choice at all. Sometimes, in the evenings before she’d breathe in his scent in Lady’s form, she’d wonder if the only choice she’d really made was Domeric. Mother and Septa Mordane had never drilled her with numbers, and though she’d never taken naturally to them, she could have, perhaps, been passable if it’d mattered. It mattered to a lady helping to run her lord husband’s castle and lands; it didn’t matter so much to the queen. The blood within Joffrey should have united the stormlands and the westerlands, and the blood within her would have brought him the north and the riverlands. In those moments, she wondered if her life had really been a straight, unbending path leading to Joffrey, when others were born in the middle of a maze. Except now, an avalanche had destroyed her path, leaving her floundering in a landscape she did not recognise. Her feet were soft and made for dancing. She did not know how to make her own trail among the wilderness.

But she wanted to.

Did she?

Didn’t she?

That was why she’d set off the avalanche, that day, in the sept that Father had built for Mother, learning to wrestle at the altar, wanting, needing to win. Wasn’t it?

Will you,’ said the old woman, and her yellow eyes gleamed with something that almost looked like concern. ‘Your choice is yet to come. There is queenship in your future, and a crown you may have, a beautiful crown made of Valyrian steel, set with sapphires and rubies.’

Sansa frowned. How could that be? She’d never marry Father’s friend, and the next in line was Lord Stannis. Moreover, there had been no crown made of Valyrian steel since Aegon I conquered the Seven Kingdoms. Perhaps it was some foreign king in her future, a king from beyond the Narrow Sea. But still, it didn’t sound right.

‘Will I… Will I have the love I’ve always dreamed of then?’

‘Your people will love you,’ said the old woman. ‘Your people will rise up for you. For the smallfolk, there will be none more beloved than you. You can have everything you’ve ever dreamed of as a girl. The price is small, so it seems to me.’

‘What is the price?’ she asked.

‘Just the memory of a kiss.’

That would be a small price indeed. With a hollow relief, she realised that couldn’t think of any kiss she cared to remember. There’d been many sweet kisses shared between her family, of course, but there’d been so many of them that one would hardly make a difference. There’d been others underneath the weirwood branch for pact day, but she’d be quite happy to forget the way that Theon had slobbered over her.

Perhaps it’d even be that horrible, cold kiss that Ramsay had placed on the back of her hand, the way that not even Domeric had done. She shuddered and said her thank you, then motioned Ami forth.

‘For you…’ said the old woman. ‘Ah.’

‘Will I marry Ser Lyle?’ asked Ami.

‘Not Ser Lyle, nor any other man whose blood runs red.’

That… didn’t sound good. But Ami only giggled and said, ‘Didn’t think so. Not after his family became so… elevated. Father was nearly in tears! So… Will I marry Lancel?’

The old woman’s toothless mouth fell open. ‘I just told you… Nor any other man whose blood runs red.’

‘Well… I’ve not seen Lancel bleed. For all I know, his blood could be blue. His veins look blue!’

‘It… Never mind. No. You will not marry Lancel. Your future is filled with cold fingers around your pale white throat, choking the life from you.’

Things were sounding worse and worse for her friend, but instead of looking worried, Ami only beamed more widely. ‘This is everything I’ve ever dreamed of as a woman,’ she said, giving Sansa a wink. ‘I can’t think of anything else to ask, really. I wasn’t planning on marrying anyone else.’

‘Then you may forfeit your last–’

‘Oooh, who will the Hound marry?’ said Ami.

Sansa’s heart caught in her throat. She had to leave. Had to leave the tent now, because–

‘You’re having your morrows told, girl,’ said the old woman. ‘If the Hound wants a foretelling, he’d have to offer me his own coin and his own blood.’

‘But… I was hoping to attend the wedding,’ said Ami. ‘Can you not see me at the wedding then? That’s not my question though. My question is still about who the Hound will marry.’

The old woman groaned and rubbed her eyes with the heels of her palms. ‘I… This is not…’ She breathed a deep sigh and turned her yellow eyes to Ami, then Sansa, then back to Ami. With another sigh, she shook her head and said, ‘Once your friend here places the crown on her head, Clegane lands shall return to the crown at the end of his life.’

That didn’t sound right either. A family would make him happy. A family to replace the one he’d lost, and never quite had. She was sure of it, seeing the way he’d set Rickon on his great shoulders, seeing the way he’d let Bran hold up an apple for Stranger. He should have a daughter, all gentle and sweet like Myrcella, and another like Arya, dark-haired and grey-eyed, who’d tell him that her mother was boring, that she hated embroidering, that he was her favourite and she’d rather spar with him.

‘What does that mean?’ said Ami.

‘That’s it,’ said the old woman. ‘I’ve answered your questions. You don’t have to like the answers. Now let me catch some rest. I won’t have long before they ask me to take down my tent.’

Sansa gave the old woman her thanks, and dropped another coin into her jar. ‘I hope your eyes get better,’ she said. There was something else too. ‘And I hope Ami will be… happy?’

Perhaps it was the light, but the lines on the old woman’s face looked softer then. ‘She looks happy, doesn’t she?’ said the woman. ‘Your morrows are sometimes what you make of them. Now run along, my lady. Go where you must, or go where you want, it makes no matter to me.’

They picked a muddy path back, if it was a path at all. The mud on her shoes and the bottom of her dress would have horrified the girl she’d once been, but for a moment, she’d felt reckless and near as wild as Arya. It led them back to the Red Keep, where she needed to be, and soon, the mud would be scrubbed away, as if it had never been.

Chapter Text

Sandor VIII

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?’

Another tug.

‘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?’

‘Aye.’

‘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.

‘Seven hells…’

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.

‘About what?’

‘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.

Hadn’t she?

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.

Chapter Text

Robert VIII

Every man knew the perils of marrying a younger woman; they were pretty enough to look at, but when your cock couldn’t keep up with your, much less her mind, a fuck could truly kill you. It was with that in mind that Robert kept his in shape and in practice.

The handmaiden, who was no maiden, had had a pretty, rose-bud mouth, and was now nowhere to be seen. Robert dusted the hay off of his breeches, and… heard voices. Two female voices, neither of which belonged to the handmaiden.

He squinted across the stables, and found Ned’s daughters sat at the far end, idly brushing the older daughter’s beast of a horse. He was about to greet them, for eavesdropping was not his way, when he heard the younger say, ‘Have you ever thought that… that… Lord Renly might be… mad?’

Seven hells! Renly was an idiot, no doubt about that, because only idiots couldn’t appreciate a warm cunt around their cocks, but madness? That would be going too bloody far.

‘I can’t say I have,’ said the older one. Precisely. ‘Why?’ she asked. ‘What has he done?’

‘He’s… he’s… You have to promise not to tell Father.’

Better and better.

‘Of course… but… he hasn’t done anything horrible, has he?’

If he had done something horrible to one of Ned’s daughters, then Robert would make him afraid of his own shadow.

‘No… He’s asked me… to marry him.’

Seven. Hells. Ned’s younger daughter did look like a boy and prefer breeches over skirts, but still… But the older daughter had other concerns.

‘As in… asked you? Not Father?’

‘Exactly.’

‘But… why would he do that? He’s a good match… Lord Paramount of the Stormlands and master of laws. Father would be more than happy to bless this union…’

‘That’s why you can’t tell Father! He might agree to it, and then I won’t be able to go with you and Jon!’

‘Well… You did look very becoming at the tournament. He must have been very taken with you to ask for your hand without discussing with Father first…’

‘When he… proposed, he said it’d just occurred to him, and I was wearing breeches at the time, with dirt smeared across my face.’

Arya!

‘I know… I know… I cleaned up before we supped, didn’t I!’

‘What were you doing?’

‘I was… I met Lord Renly at Tohbo Mott’s. He was having his helm repaired, and I was… just getting my wolf helm started. Gendry’s done lots of work on it already! We can finish it on Nameless Day, then we can take it with us when we leave King’s Landing! And… Lord Renly just looked at me, laughed, and said, “Lady Arya,” and I tried not to glare at him and carried on working on my helm, which is going to be much better than his helm – it looks like Nymeria!’

‘Then…?’

‘Then… he left at the same time as me, and told me that the gods had just shown him a way to beget a trueborn Baratheon heir for Storm’s End. “Because heirs don’t beget themselves,” he said. And apparently marrying him would give both of us what we want… except I don’t want to marry him! He’s stupid. I want to stay with you and Jon, and… Oh, did you ask Lady Whent about the blacksmith?’

‘Yes. It would please Ben Blackthumb very much to have Gendry’s help, as he’s been trained by Tohbo Mott.’

‘That’s settled then!’ said the younger daughter, clapping her hands together. ‘But… What am I going to do about Lord Renly?’

‘Was he… was it a jape?’

‘He said he’s serious.’

‘Then… ask for some time to consider it. Say I will need your support to learn my new duties, and you will not leave me until I have settled into my new home, without any other family or a lord husband by my side. Say you will write to him from Harrenhal, and if he still means to have your hand in marriage in a year or two, then perhaps you can discuss the terms anew.’

‘But I don’t want to marry him!’

‘Arya! He saw you smeared with sweat and dirt and still wanted to marry you. Perhaps he’ll not try to turn you into someone you’re not. Perhaps he won’t care he you never touched a needle again, save your Needle. He did have your lady knight, Brienne, in his circle, and–’

‘He was mean to Brienne! He told her to go away!’

‘Did he? Really?’

‘Well… he told her that he wasn’t in danger, but the smallfolk were, because… for example there was the viper infestation in the Westerlands, and no one was dealing with it… Now Brienne’s left! She was going to teach me how to fight with a helm on, once I got my wolf helm, and now she’s left!’

Ned’s older daughter heaved a sigh. ‘Sometimes people go their separate ways, and it’s for the best.’

‘Is that what you tell yourself?’

There was a sharp intake of breath, and for a moment, there was nothing but the whinnying of horses, and the constant brush, brush as Ned’s older daughter worked through her horse’s rump.

‘You know,’ the younger daughter spoke again, softer than Robert thought the girl was capable of, ‘Rickon told me he’s going to stop trying to find the Hound a lady wife. Why don’t you just ask Father?’

The older shook her head. ‘It’s not… I don’t…’

‘You don’t what?’

‘I don’t think I can do what you want me to do, Arya. I know you think it’s stupid, but… the Westerlands needs stability, as does Harrenhal, and winter is coming. Bran’s visions… If they are true, and the Others really do exist, and they’re marching south, then…’ Others take him. What were they saying? ‘Then we need to prepare for a longer and harsher winter than anyone has ever seen. It will take time. Two years. Maybe three. And by then, if winter’s set in, travelling will become treacherous. A long a cruel winter. Six years? Maybe even longer, since we’ve had the longest summer our kingdoms had ever seen. That’s eight, nine years. I cannot hold anyone to that.’

‘But maybe you’ll be able to sort everything before winter sets in.’

‘And I cannot hold anyone to a maybe either.’

‘Then… what? You’ll say you’ll write?’

‘There are no ravens trained to fly between Harrenhal and Hound’s Bay,’ said the older daughter, as if she was reciting the sigils of all the damned houses in his seven kingdoms. ‘We’ll have three ravens trained to fly to Riverrun, one to Maidenpool, one to Pinkmaiden, and one to King’s Landing. Lady Whent has sent word to train another two, one for Winterfell and another for the Eyrie. The only raven they’ll have in Hound’s Bay will be trained to fly to the Rock. If we wanted to send a message to that keep, then we will need to send a raven to Riverrun, then have grandfather Tully send it onto Casterly Rock, and have the maester there strap it to a third raven.’

‘That’s…’

‘So say whatever you need to say before we leave King’s Landing,’ she said, picking a strand of hay from her sister’s hair. ‘I know you’ll miss him too.’

*

Pycelle hobbled into his chambers at a half-run, his bald head looking even spottier than usual, and his sleepy eyes looked even redder and beadier, most likely because he’d been woken up in the middle of the night.

‘Your Grace? Is everything well? They said I was to come at once!’

‘Oh, I just saw a monster in my bed,’ said Robert.

‘A monster?’

‘A firewyrm, I thought.’

‘A firewyrm!’ said the old fool, and whatever was left of his sleep was chased away.

‘Don’t worry. It was just my cock. It had just been too damned long since I could look down and see it directly,’ he said, patting where his belly used to be.

‘That’s… May… may I leave now, Your Grace?’

‘Since you’re here anyway,’ he said, ‘I need you to train some ravens.’

‘Right now?’ said the old fool.

‘Can you train them right now?’

‘Well… ravens are not nocturnal, Your Grace. They are all sleeping now.’

‘So train them when they wake up.’

‘Of course, Your Grace. What would you like them to do? I can train them to tap a small ball into a groove, and it can then spiral down into a glass chamber, so that–’

‘Why in the seven hells would I want that?’

‘But… I thought… for your wedding…?’

‘I just want ones that fly directly between Harrenhal and Hound’s Bay. Five of them,’ he said. ‘How long will they take to train?’

‘You will need new chicks to train then. Once they are past one month of age, we can start training them, and we will need to release them further and further from their nest at–’

‘It is the middle of the damned night!’ cried Robert. ‘By the gods! I don’t need you to tell me all about how to train your damned ravens!’

‘But… I…’

‘How long?’

‘A year, usually, and–’

‘Too long!’

‘But…’

‘I’m giving you a month.’

‘I… I suppose I can instruct the maester to retrain the raven to Pinkmaiden, as it’s already half way there… But that’s just one raven, Your Grace. The other four will take longer.’

Robert waved the old fool away as he was babbling on about how it might be possible to train them in a shorter period of time if you were to start with twenty chicks and accept the possibilities of bird loss. He didn’t give a damn about bird loss.

When sleep took him, it was to the sweet dreams of the Lannister whore’s head rolling down the steps in from of the Great Sept of Baelor, like it would on the morrow.

*

Unfortunately, the actual day did not get off to such a sweet start.

‘By the gods, Ned, do you ever talk about anything else? Why shouldn’t I use Ilyn Payne? I pay him, damn it.’

‘The man who passes the sentence should–’

‘I know, Ned. But I’m not a swinger of swords, am I? You’d rather me swing my hammer at her? That won’t be a pretty end, I assure you.’

‘You were still married to her for near eighteen years,’ said Ned. ‘Look her in the eyes before you kill her. See her tears, hear her last words. You owe her that much at least.’

‘Fine. Give me your sword then. I’ll swing the bloody thing and end the whore myself.’

Ned’s older daughter stepped forth, looking every bit the heir of Harrenhal in a sombre, black silk dress with silver, iris brocades. ‘Your Grace,’ she said, ‘I have some good news.’

He bloody well needed some. ‘Out with it!’

‘I have written to my aunt… and she has agreed to foster my cousin Robert with me at Harrenhal.’

Robert clapped the girl on the shoulder. Finally! What did it take? A woman’s touch? ‘Well done! What fostering fee will you take?’ He was willing to give her anything! Finally! The sickly child was out of that impossible woman’s grasp.

‘Aunt Lysa will be sending Harrenhal a fostering fee,’ said the girl. ‘I do not wish to ask for gold, Your Grace. I only…’

‘Out with it!’

‘Harrenhal has need for more able-bodied and able-minded men… and women. The maester is so busy training ravens nowadays that the library is quite neglected. I thought… perhaps… if I can take Myrcella and Tommen with me, then they can help with reordering the library, and recording our stock for the winter…?’

A larger cage for Myrcella. Ned’s girl did seem fond of her. But Highgarden…

‘Lady Margaery thought it a good idea,’ said the girl, ‘as long as Joffrey is able to stay by your side.’

Of course Margaery would agree. But what the Queen of Thorns had to say was another matter entirely. Still, the Queen of Thorns was no true queen.

‘Very well,’ he said. ‘You may take them with you as long as the Tyrells are satisfied with Joff. I hear he’s giving them trouble.’

‘Oh, he’s apologised this morning, and promised to do better,’ said the girl. ‘It’s the shock of… of what’s to come today. He said he will do better. Said it won’t happen again.’

A fucking miracle, if that was true. He nodded, nonetheless, and waved them all on towards the Great Sept of Baelor, where thousands upon thousands of smallfolk had gathered, hurling rotten fruit and vegetables at the Lannister whore.  

The Tyrells clustered around the door of the sept, and Olenna’s thin-lipped mouth twisted into a smile as two gold cloaks dragged the whore past where Clegane was standing, with Joff, Myrcella and Tommen besides him, eyes downcast, in front of where the High Septon stood.

Robert waited for the tolling of the bells to trail to a silence, but nothing could silence the crowd.

‘Speak!’ he told the Lannister whore.

She must have truly lost it, for she cackled with glee and screamed in Olenna Tyrell’s direction, ‘Do you see me now, Maggy? Do you? I won! I won, so piss on your prophecy, old woman!’

The High Septen waddled to kneel before him, and said, ‘As we sin, so we do suffer. The gods are just, and have seen fit to take this woman’s wits. It would be a mercy to unite her with the Stranger.’

Robert nodded, and the crowd cried out, even louder than before, screaming, screaming, screaming for the whore’s damned head.

He lifted Ice above his head, light as a feather compared to his hammer, and gave them what they wanted.

Chapter Text

Sansa IX

Sansa pulled on a pair of Arya’s leather breeches. They looked ridiculous, and worse, wouldn’t slide over her hips. Next up were Jon’s spare ones. She rolled up the bottoms, tightened all the laces, and pulled them up. They sagged and slid off her waist immediately.

Leaving them in a puddle on the floor, she placed her head in her hands and groaned. Why hadn’t she considered this before? But no… There she was, days away from their visit to Tohbo Mott’s for Nameless Day, and she had nothing suitable to wear; her silks were likely to snag on every sharp piece of metal around, and it’d be impossible to lift her arms and hammer into a piece of armour or whatever it was that they’d give her to work on.

Oh gods… Who could she ask? Sandor? No. If Jon’s breeches had been enough to swamp her, she might as well wear Sandor’s as a dress.

She pulled on her simple woollen dress and made her way through the Keep, then knocked on her friend’s door.

The door flew open, and Ami smiled out at her with a flash of teeth.

‘Sansa! Just the person I wanted to see. I’m trying to find you the perfect Pact Day present, but I don’t know enough about your… preferences. What do you like?’

‘Oh…’ Just embroidery and songs. ‘Nothing out of the ordinary.’

‘Hmm… True aloe and thunder god vine? Acacia? They are always handy, but not really all that… special.’

Sansa wasn’t sure what they had to do with songs or embroidery. Wasn’t true aloe used for clearing any redness to the skin? She wasn’t sure what the other items were for.

‘I… was wondering if you might know someone who had breeches in my size,’ she said. ‘I cannot wear my dresses to the forge, you see, and you seem to know a good many people.’

Ami giggled at that. ‘Oh yes. Do you need a tunic too? Though I do prefer those on the larger side… I believe there’s actually an outfit in this chest that’d fit you perfectly!’

She beckoned Sansa so that they were both standing in front of a cedar chest with an engraving of four oxen pulling a plough. Lifting the lid, Ami threw out all sorts of… unusual items of clothing. There was a rough-spun dress, though far too short to cover anyone’s ankles, with a plain white fabric to cover the head that one might find on a farm girl or milk maid. There was a piece of chainmail, though when she lifted it, it felt too light to be made from real brass. A dog collar, with spiky metal studs, fell to the ground with a clang, and beneath it, Ami pulled out a snowy linen tunic, a pair of white wool breeches, and a gold belt to hold it all together. There was also a silk cloak with a golden pin to hold it together, but it’d be far too hot to wear in a smithy.

‘Try it on,’ said Ami.

‘But… I might get it dirty at Tohbo’s.’

‘That’s hardly a problem. Try it! You’re taller than me. I think it will fit.’

It did. She twirled around in front of the mirror, missing the swish of her skirts, but the woollen breeches fit around her legs almost like a second skin, and felt soft and warm, but not stifling. And she did look very becoming in white, although she had a strange feeling that it all looked a little familiar, though she couldn’t quite remember who she’d seen it on. She let her hair tumble down her back in a mass of lazy, red curls, and buckled the belt around her, accentuating her slender waist.

‘Oh! You look like a prince from the songs!’ said Ami.

She did, didn’t she? Like a younger, more beautiful version of Robb. If it was not for the swell of her breasts through the tunic, she’d believe her reflection perfectly capable of rescuing maidens and vanquishing foul beasts.

‘Thank you Ami,’ said Sansa. But that wasn’t the real reason she was here, was it? She could have sent for a maid to find instead, but no… she was here because she wanted to see her friend again.

‘I still can’t believe you’ll be leaving King’s Landing so soon!’ said Ami.

‘So will you. You said you’re being sent back to Darry, aren’t you? That’s only a day’s ride from Harrenhal. Please come to visit often,’ said Sansa, and meant it too. That was one bond she’d not have to sever.

‘Oh I will! You will be sick of me before long,’ said Ami, taking Sansa’s hands between hers. ‘We can even ride to Maidenpool together, if you can have two, three days away from your duties. We can go and see Fool’s Gate and Jonquil’s Tower.’

‘I’d like that,’ she said, and smiled at the thought of Arya making faces at the pink stone walls that Sansa had wanted to see since she was a child. They could have another day by the pools, with Arya, Jon, Myrcella and Gendry, and this time they’d bring Ami and Tommen with them. And the ones they won’t be bringing with them…

She swallowed, and shook her head. It would not do to dwell on things that couldn’t change.

She’d wanted to see her friend again, and she’d wanted advice; there was no one else to ask, and perhaps there’d be no one to ask for a long time.

‘Can I ask you a… a personal question,’ she said. What would her lady mother say if she was to know that Sansa was talking to another lady thus?

‘Ask away! I love personal questions. Non-personal ones are so boring. You could ask those to anyone.’

‘Then… How did you…’ Sansa cleared her throat. ‘How did you…’ Oh gods. There was really no way about it but to speak the words. She blurted it out, so that it came out like a single word. ‘…loseyourmaidenhead?’

‘I was three and ten,’ said Ami, looking as if Sansa’s just asked about when she’d embroidered her first proper handkerchief. ‘There was a boy – Addam – a year or two older than me. He was the head-cook’s son, and he’d bring me sweetcakes from the kitchens. He had soft, brown hair and a gap between his teeth, and he was too low-born for me, of course, but… I thought I couldn’t possibly live without him. Turns out that he couldn’t possibly live without his darling Darla, and his pretty little Perra, and the joy of his life Jocey. Also turns out that Jocey gave him the great pox. He died from it last year. I am living quite well without him.’

‘Oh,’ said Sansa. It didn’t sound very pleasant at all. ‘Do you regret it?’

Ami snorted in the most unladylike way, but then this whole conversation was most unladylike. ‘There are more things to regret in life than a little piece of skin between my legs. Some ladies even lose it riding horses.’

‘And did it… did it hurt?’ Septa Mordane had told her that it would, but then Septa Mordane had never been in the marriage bed.

‘Not as much as a broken heart,’ said Ami. ‘And it only took a couple of months before things stopped feeling so sore, which, again, can’t be said for the heart. Why do you ask?’

Why did she ask?

Part of it was just… the fear of not knowing. It gnawed away at her more and more each day, because ever since she was a girl, it’d been instilled in her by Mother and Septa Mordane that that was one of the most important parts of her. And now, everything was being stripped away. She was no longer a Stark of Winterfell, and if that was the case, then where should she draw her courage? She was no longer to be made a prince or a lord’s intended bride, and if that was the case, then whose words should be her command? All she had left, unchanged, was that most important part of her, and the more she tugged at the thought of it, the more she feared. It was like a loose thread on a fine silk curtain they had on the litters here in the south. She knew that if she kept tugging at it, the whole thing might unravel, and what then? Would she no longer see the world, painted gold through the yellow of the silk? And would it be so bad to see the world for what it was?

Because it was beautiful, regardless.

‘Did you feel… different… afterwards?’ she asked. ‘Apart from sore, I mean… Was there a… a revelation?’

Ami sighed and dragged a brush through Sansa’s hair, the way that Mother used to do. The way that it dragged across her scalp was comforting, even though a part of her knew that the words wouldn’t be.

‘I used to think there would be too,’ said Ami. ‘I thought… it was going to be a key to the greatest secret in the world. I thought… if I knew what it was, then it’d unlock all the answers I’d ever need. I thought… I’d be a true woman then, and women knew the right paths to take, more than any little girl ever would. But… it was just like getting my moonblood. I was frightened, I ached, and at one point I thought I was going to die, then at the end of it all, the only answer I had was a bed full of dirty sheets. I guess yours was much the same.’

‘My…?’

‘When you lost your maidenhead,’ said Ami.

‘I…’

She tried to will her cheeks to cool, but it was no good, for the heat had spread all the way down to her neck.

‘By the gods!’ cried Ami, looking shocked to the core.

‘Yes, actually, I–’

‘You lost your maidenhead to the Hound?’

The words froze on Sansa’s lips. What… Why... But… The rumours… It must have been the rumours, but… but…

But her friend pushed ahead, taking her silence as an act of admission. ‘Well, you must have thought you were going to die more than once then. Oh… My poor Sansa! If only you’d come to me beforehand! I could have helped!’

‘With what?’ said Sansa. Curiosity got the better of her in the end.

‘I might not have the answer to most questions in life,’ said Ami, ‘but trust me, I know what I’m talking about when it comes to this! I could have told you ways to make it less sore, and what to… Please say you know to always break water after? Wait! Are you taking moon tea? Tell me you’re not taking moon tea?’

Sansa shook her head. In truth, she knew about none about breaking water either.

‘Thank the gods! Because you might as well stab yourself in the womb. It’d probably be kinder to you than pennyroyal. And… Oh gods… You always smell of lemons. Is that just your scent?’

‘What else could it be?’

‘Lemon juice is… well… it is quite an effective way of making sure that a man’s seed cannot get you with child. Just… don’t use it when you’ll tear, because that would not be pleasant. True aloe, on the other hand, is your friend. Oh gods… Sansa… Are you still sore?’

When Sansa did not know how to answer, Ami patted her on the head and said, ‘Worry not, I know exactly what to get you for Pact Day now. Just… don’t open it in front of your lord father!’

Before she could protest, there was a knock on Ami’s door, and Lord Bryce Caron strode in, though Sansa had only paid attention to him because he’d been on Ami’s list for the tourney. He raised a brow at Sansa, and Ami shook her head.

‘Sorry Sansa, prior arrangements,’ said Ami.

‘But… the tunic and breeches…?’

‘Wear them back to your chambers. Here! With a cloak over it, no one will notice!’

She did, and fell into her bed with Ami’s words playing over and over again in her head. She wondered if she’d fall asleep with his scent in her dreams once more, but instead, it was Bran’s screams and tears that filled her night.

Other words played in her head then. Words that she’d written down in her diary, to better remember them by.

Your future is filled with cold fingers around your pale white throat, choking the life from you.

*

They were bleary-eyed, all of them, waiting for the others to arrive, despite how long they’d looked forward to this moment. Rickon yawned widely enough for the whole world to see all his teeth, and Arya scowled at the door. Jon merely let Bran huddle against him on the long bench, so that Bran might catch a few moments’ rest where he wasn’t flying beyond the Wall.

Shireen arrived first, followed by Myrcella and Tommen, looking as haggard as Sansa felt. Arya dragged Shireen to the side, and Sansa took Myrcella’s hand. Not wanting to disturb Bran, Rickon took his place beside Tommen.

‘Kick, hop, kick, hop, skip, hop,’ Sansa was saying, and smiling as Myrcella followed the sets perfectly, when the door swung open again.

Her heart hammered away. They were only missing one name from this dancing session.

‘Clegane,’ said Jon, setting Bran down gently. ‘You are supposed to learn from me… if you don’t object?’

Sansa held her breath. She’d suggested Jon for Sandor, because as much as she wanted to spend what time she had left close to him, it’d not do to leave the killing of Ser Gregor unspoken, between him and Jon.

Sandor shrugged his great shoulders. ‘Spare me the twirling and the merriment, and you’ll find no objections from me.’

But the twirling and the merriment were the best parts. Sansa was about to tell them so when Jon shrugged back and said, ‘I hate dancing enough as it is. Any more twirling than necessary and I’d rather twirl into the pointy end of a sword.’

Oh gods. What had she done? The two people in her life who hated dancing the most had now walked off to their corner of the hall to dance. They set their swords down, side by side, and looked as if they were ready to step into their own world filled with dark thoughts and misery.

‘The first part is easy,’ said Jon. ‘Imagine your enemy in front of you. Kick him in the shin with your right foot, then your left, and then knee him in the groin. Now that he’s down, you want to stamp on him as hard as you can, then with your hands… you’re holding a spear in both hands, and you want to swing it down to stab him in the head. He’s now dead. It’s time to move onto the next man, so you turn around, and kick this one–’

‘Jon!’ she cried, and heard Myrcella trying to stifle a gasp of her own. ‘That’s not how you… the dance is… is very graceful and… and peaceful.’

‘I’m just describing the steps as they are,’ said Jon, and danced the steps perfectly. Sandor followed, without making a single mistake. ‘See? We’re only a short way into this battle of pain and suffering, which is based on the battle between the First Men and the Children of the Forest, but we will make it out alive at the end.’

Sandor barked a laugh. ‘Little bird, you can do worse than appoint him as your master-of-arms.’

‘But…’ But this was dancing! And surely… surely…

‘For this bit, you need to twist your body and – all right, this part will be a bit more difficult for you – imagine your opponent is taller than you. You want to slam your elbow into their eyes. Right elbow. Left elbow. Once you’ve done that, finish them off with a right hook… though this is actually when you end up linking arms with a lady, so don’t actually punch them with a right hook,’ said Jon. ‘If you do, then tell my lord father that it was Sansa who taught you how to dance.’

Sansa glared at them, and swore she’d dance with neither of them on Pact Day.

Chapter Text

Sandor IX

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.

‘The Point?’

‘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.

‘But…’

‘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.’

‘But–’

‘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.’

‘You–’

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!’

‘What?’

‘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.’

Fuck that.

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…

Fuck.

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.

Chapter Text

Robert IX

From the way Ned had explained it, Robert was sure that Pact Day was supposed to be a day of merriments, so why in the name of the seven had Ned’s older daughter asked for a present that would, literally, be full of shit?

‘It is also a day of forgiving those who had harmed you,’ said Ned, ‘and promising yourself that you’d be a better person.’

That sure as the seven hells didn’t sound like merriments to him. The Others take that forgiveness nonsense; the only way to deal with a man who’d harmed you is a hammer to the chest. Ahhh, what a sweet moment that had been. The way that the Targaryen bastard’s rubies had scattered into the river, glistening like blood…

‘Did I tell you about the final blow?’ said Robert.

Ned’s older daughter blinked her blue eyes at him, looking as if she’d hardly followed the conversation. Poor girl. She had a lot on her mind, if the way she’d been muttering under her breath was any indication. Probably rehearsing what she was going to say, when she finally got to see the cunt she’d asked to see.

‘I’m sorry Your Grace,’ she said. ‘You were… speaking of your wedding?’

Ah, yes. He had been speaking of his wedding, hadn’t he? Only because she was asking about the damned thing. There was to be no tournament. NO TOURNAMENT! The Tyrells had said so, because the previous tournament had been so eventful that no other would compare. Instead, there was to be flowers. Yes. Flowers. They’d sent him a ten-paged list of fucking flowers to sign and approve for the wedding. Would it not be enough to simply say ‘ten thousand roses of white and gold’? Apparently not. Instead, there was to be Alerie Sunsets to line the windows, because they were of the same name as Margaery’s mother, and each of the selected roses must have more than forty petals and measure precisely three inches across.

‘Less than half a cock then,’ he’d said, and Lord Oaf had called the comment inappropriate for the ears of a maiden.

That had been the comment that’d left him fuming, so much so that he’d offered to personally escort Ned’s daughter to the black cells.

He told the girl about it now.

‘As if any maid of ten and nine, if she is a maid at that, would still be in the dark about the length of a man’s… manhood,’ he said, choosing his words carefully, out of respect for the girl’s more delicate constitution.

‘And… the last blow…?’ she said.

‘Oh that! There was enough blood to colour the Trident red!’ he said. ‘It was the greatest moment of my life.’

The girl looked suitably horrified and impressed.

They padded past Rugen, the supposed undergaoler who had charge of the black cells, who Your-Graced him and fell into step by the poor girl’s side, giving her a stronger dose of the sweat and sour wine smell that the man carried with him. How could a man stink so strongly of sour wine when he was no friend to wine or whores – in other words, a damned bore? Robert should bring it up with Varys next time. Damn that Spider. Probably took him for a fool, thought he didn’t know.

As they shuffled towards what must be the old cunt of a lion’s cell, the stench grew stronger, not from Rugen this time. Damn him, he should have stayed with the Tyrells to talk about roses. But then fourteen sketches of the bouquet that Margaery was to carry during the wedding flashed through his mind. Which one do you prefer, Your Grace? Evidently, he preferred to smell Tywin Lannister’s shit.

Rugen raised the torch, and swept the light across the dingy cell.

There he was, still sitting tall and proud despite the greyness of his cheeks and the squalor that surrounded him. The Lannister red and gold that he’d been wearing upon his arrest was smeared with grease and dust, yet he still looked every bit a lord. May the Others bugger him.

‘My lord,’ said Ned’s daughter, looking suddenly at a loss now that she was faced with the exact scenario she’d asked for. Begged for, even.

‘Your Grace,’ croaked Tywin Lannister, sounding more frog than lion. ‘Lady Sansa. To what do I own this pleasure?’

‘Lady Sansa wished to speak with you,’ said Robert. ‘I just wished to see how well you were rotting.’

The girl drew herself arrow-straight and said, ‘I… just wanted to let you know that I’ve accepted Lady Whent’s offer, and I’ll set off to Harrenhal in the new year.’ The stinking mess of a man made no reply, so she carried on. ‘I’ve asked for His Grace’s permission to take Myrcella and Tommen with me. He’s granted his permission, and… They are of your blood, so I just wanted to let you know that I will look after them.’

The old lion shifted in the cell, but made no response.

‘To this I swear,’ said the girl, dead set on wasting her breath.

Finally, the old lion spoke. The torch flickered, lighting up the sweat beaded on his brows. The thought that it hurt him to speak made Robert resolve to drag this damned conversation on for as long as possible.

‘Is Harrenhal…’ said the old lion, fighting the need to pause between his words, ‘so short of gold these days that it… must beg a man in… the black cells… for it?’

‘What… I… I am not…’

‘Will their… father… not provide for them?’

Well, Jaime had buggered off to gods knows where, and… With a jolt, Robert realised that by the way he’d shaped his own claims, Tywin was referring to him. The Tyrells would not be pleased to see him spend the crown’s gold on bastards that were most likely not even his, and, well, he’d been busy looking at drawings of rose bouquets, so much so that it’d slipped his mind. They’d looked well provided for during Cersei’s execution, hadn’t they?

‘They’ve been provided for,’ said Ned’s girl. There was a solemn look on her that had no place on such a Tully face, and for a moment, there was a set to her jaws that he’d seen often enough on her sister. ‘Not by His Grace,’ she said, ‘but they have been generously provided for.’

‘By whom?’ he said. Fuck. He’d wanted to make the cunt Tywin say the words, but they slipped out of his mouth before he could stop himself.

‘Lord Stannis has made provisions for Tommen to make a life at the Citadel, if he should so wish, and has provided a dowry for Myrcella, both from the gold he’d once received from Lord Steffon before… before Shipbreaker Bay.’ Well. Fuck. Trust Stannis to… to just… Fuck. ‘I have… also been… been entrusted with the champion’s purse from the Tournament of the Hand to spend on… creating an environment of comfort for Myrcella and Tommen at Harrenhal.’

Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.

Well… In truth, the champion’s purse was from the crown, so he had provided for the two of them already.

‘An environment of comfort,’ said the old lion.

Robert clung to those words. ‘Oh yes,’ he said, ‘I’m sure those were Clegane’s exact words.’

Her words came so quietly that he almost didn’t catch them. ‘You really don’t care, do you? He told me you wouldn’t, but… I thought…’

He wasn’t sure if they were meant for the old lion, and she gave him no time to dwell on them. Away she strode into the darkness, from whence they came. Rugen’s torch bobbed uncertainly between them, before Robert, too, followed her away from the stench.

*

More flower designs awaited his sign and stamp. Worse, there sat three sketches of Margaery’s wedding dress, needing his opinion. They all looked the same.

Damn them all.

Margaery was no Cersei, but still his days rolled along, in a gaol of parchment and seals. The rush of his victory against the Lannisters had all but faded now, and he wanted… wanted out.

But for now, he wanted to share his suffering. There was one man who deserved to suffer for overstepping his duties.

‘Call Clegane at once!’ he said.

Clegane arrived soon enough, in a well-tailored dark olive doublet that made his shoulders look even broader than usual.

‘Is that new?’ said Robert.

‘Your Grace? The boy said it was a matter of urgency.’

‘Ah. Yes.’ Robert threw the sketches at Clegane. ‘Identical, I tell you.’

Clegane’s eyes roamed over the pages, and his face betrayed no distain – well, the good half, for the burnt half was always frozen in distain. At last, he said, ‘The first one sleeveless, paired with a short train. A young bride’s dress, closer to the style she’d normally wear. It will make the difference in your ages more noticeable. The second has straight sleeves, and she’s asked for a heavier velvet. The traditional, safe choice. Might be she’d think it dull. The third has dagged bombard sleeves, a court train and a slightly shorter front to be paired with pointed shoes. The regal choice to make her look older yet fashionable. She’s added ivy there. Stands for marriage and fidelity. Wants you to pick that one, most like.’

Robert braced himself against his desk and took a good long look. No. It was definitely Clegane. Both his size and his half-face weren’t to be found on any other cunts he knew.

‘What,’ said Robert, ‘has happened to you?’

Was it Ned’s girl? If so, perhaps he shouldn’t be adjusting the seating plan so that they could sit next to each other at his wedding.

‘I was Cersei’s shield for seven years before she asked me to watch over Joff,’ Clegane said flatly.

Well. Fuck. A husband could spend as much time as he wished away from a wife, but a shield? Any ills he’d harboured towards the man vanished in that instant. No man deserved the pain of knowing the meaning of a dagged bombard sleeve.

Robert tried to imagine himself standing sentry for Cersei. It’d take just a day for him to stand sentry over Cersei’s dead body instead. Seven. Years. Seven fucking years. He was certain he’d just discovered the form of one of those seven bloody hells.

He placed a hand on the poor man’s shoulder to let him know that his sacrifice had not been in vain. ‘The third dress it is. I’ll even ask for them to make the whole damned train covered with ivies.’ Then, almost as an afterthought, he said, ‘Was she… was she more pleasant before she became queen?’

‘No,’ said Clegane.

Robert nodded at that. Somehow it was a relief to hear, even though the question had hardly been one that’d haunted him throughout the years. ‘You may go now,’ he said.

Clegane nodded back.

‘And…’ said Robert, freezing the man in a half-turn. ‘I hear you’ve given away your champion’s purse?’

‘Aye.’

‘You have… my thanks.’

Clegane nodded again, and looked ready to leave before he stopped himself this time. ‘They are not their mother,’ he said. There was a faraway look in his eyes, almost as if he was repeating words he’d heard from another. ‘And they are not their brother.’

‘No,’ Robert agreed. ‘They are not.’

*

Blood. What was blood anyway. Ned was more of a brother to him than any he had by blood. The times he’d spent with little Mya in the Vale, throwing her up and catching her as she giggled her way down… Had it not been the same with Myrcella? Oh, she’d loved to be swung onto his great shoulders and brush her fingertips against the candelabras that swung from the ceilings, before Cersei had taken her away to make a lady out of her.

And the times he’d spent visiting Edric Storm every year, teaching him how to swing a warhammer, just like his own… He’d tried the same with Tommen, once, before Cersei’d screamed at him for allowing her precious baby anywhere near a weapon made for killing. But… there’d been other moments too, huddling in the kitchens, stealing applecakes – could a king even steal? – wrapping an orphaned fawn in a thick, wintery blanket, watching it lap up the milk they’d offered it in a bucket. In the end, the fawn had not survived long enough to become a stag. Skinned by Joff for a jerkin he did not need.

There was a set of ornate ivory and onyx pieces shaped like horses, elephants and dragons, set across squares of jade and carnelian and lapis lazuli. A game from Volantis. Cyvasse. He had no patience for the game, but he’d seen way Myrcella had watched those pieces sway across the board when the Red Viper played against his paramour, before he’d lost his eyes.

Robert made his way past the Queen's Ballroom, which had started to thump with northern music and stamping feet. For once, he entered the scullery, not for the maid, because the maid in question had lost half her teeth, which wasn’t always a bad thing, but also half her hair, and most years of her life. Damn him if he could remember her name.

‘You,’ he said, which always worked. ‘Where’s that fat black cat?’

The maid turned her eyes torwards him, one good and brown, and one milky as her hair. ‘It was pregnant, Your Grace.’

‘That’s what I meant. Did it have kittens?’

‘Near two moons ago now,’ said the maid. ‘Already weaned from their mother.’

She waved him through a doorway and pointed inside a mewing box. There they were, each with fur as black as coal. Their clear, blue eyes stared up at him, though one was almost green. He wondered if they were brothers three. He’d need to fashion them a cage for the journey. Something with plenty of space, to go on the back of a cart.

‘Do you wish to take them, Your Grace?’

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I do.’

Chapter Text

Sansa X

If there was one thing that could take away the bitter taste that the visit to the black cells had left in her mouth, then it was the opening of presents. What was more, this year, she’d not only have the presents in her green stocking, which she’d opened with her family, but two additional parcels waiting next to her bed. One was from Ami, because she’d removed her present from Sansa’s stocking and asked her to open it in private. The other was from Sandor, and she’s pressed it and shaken it, deducing that it was made from fabric. It’d remained behind because it was too large to fit in her stocking.

A smaller present from him now sat in her hair, carefully pinned. It was a simple, northern hair pin shaped like a little bird, as he liked to call her. She brushed her fingers against it now, pretending to smooth down a stray strand of her hair.

Bought it in Winter Town, the note had read in a lazy, rugged cursive. Now seems like a good time to give it to you.

It was a piece of Winterfell, and she treasured it all the more now that she was to make her home elsewhere. And… he’d thought of her then. All the way back then.

It was impossible to tame the smile on her face as she filled a plate full of applecakes and sweetcakes they’d baked together for Myrcella and Tommen. She beamed at Tobho Mott, and almost mistakenly dipped a curtsey at Gendry – oh, he did look like Lord Renly now that he was dressed in the finer clothes they’d gifted them in exchange for the time they’d allowed her family to spend with them on Nameless Day.

The greatest source of her joy was actually the present from Arya, because for once, it hadn’t ruined her dress or stained her hands. It was simply a toy wooden hammer, labelled, For use on those who are too thick in skull. The temptation to hit Arya with it had been too great, and Father had called her name in a tone that had made her feel quite ashamed.

She spotted Arya now, beaming just as widely as herself, dragging Sandor behind her, who was… not beaming, but was dressed in an olive doublet with a light gold pattern that she’d never seen on him before. It made his shoulders look even broader than usual, and it took her a moment to look down and realise that he was holding a brown paper parcel in his hands.

‘I said,’ said Arya, ‘he’s going to open my present now!’

‘Right…’ said Sansa, as a different kind of fluttering took over her heart. ‘Why here? Why now?’

‘You know how you’re always saying he should smile more?’ said Arya, craning her head to look at him. ‘I agree. And not the I’m-going-to-cut-you-in-half kind of smile. Your face is already ugly enough without it. In order to help you smile more, I’m gifting you the funniest thing ever.’

‘A book of japes?’ he rasped, tearing through the brown paper. Gods, the book looked tiny in his hands, barely the size of his palms.

‘Better than that,’ said Arya, with a sly grin that made Sansa’s own palms damn with sweat. Nothing good had ever come to her when Arya had that look on her face.

A corner of blue leather poked through the wrappings, and Sansa felt her mouth fall open in the most unladylike way. It couldn’t be. Oh gods. No, there were many books with leather covers that shade of blue… and embossed with a picture of a wolf that looked a bit like a dog… and, when you opened it, had the–

‘Arghhhhh!’ All of Sansa’s courtesies fled her mind as she reached for it. By some warrior’s instinct, he raised it above his head. She hopped up, but oh gods, he really was so tall, and there was a twinkle of amusement in his eyes that made her lose her balance and crash straight into that too-broad chest. He steadied her, not ungently, on the shoulder, and for a lingering moment, Sansa thought he might brush his fingers against her collar before his touch faded away.

‘Give it back!’ Sansa remembered to say, red-faced and failing to slow her breaths.

‘What’s in the book?’ he rasped, raising his good brow.

‘That’s mine!’ she said, turning to Arya because she’d already made enough of a fool out of herself. ‘You stole it! Give it back!’

‘That’s Sansa’s old diary,’ said Arya, ignoring her. ‘It’s the one she used as a girl. It’s hilarious.’ Making her own voice higher, Arya mocked, ‘Mother said I may be queen one day. She promised that a queen can have lemons even in the winter. I would like to be a good queen so that all my brothers can have as many lemon cakes as they want. Arya can’t have any because she laughed at me. I think she is a bastard. How can Mother even be sure that Arya is HER child? I hate her.

‘I hate you,’ said Sansa, and wished that she’d kept Arya’s hammer strapped onto her dress so that she might hit her sister over the head with it right now.

‘Not as much as I hate you,’ said Arya affectionately. ‘Well, if Sansa says you can’t read it, then too bad. My present is actually her reaction. Wasn’t that the funniest thing ever? Instead…’ She drew out another diary, this one with a grey cover, and said, ‘You can have my diary. It’s nowhere near as fun to read though.’

‘Because it’s empty,’ said Sansa, snatching it out of Arya’s hands and flicked through it to show him those snow-blank pages. ‘You never bother to write in any of yours!’

‘I don’t record my weaknesses for my enemies to read,’ said Arya.

Sansa found herself snorting before she could regain her ladylike composure. ‘You’re just lazy.’

Sandor cleared his throat and held the diary out to her, forcing her to look into his eyes once more. She felt the blush creep back onto her face anew. ‘Want it back?’ he rasped.

She did, but… but how long did they have before they’d need to leave for Harrenhal? And after, how many moons, how many days would it take for him to forget a chirping little bird he’d met one autumn, when the leaves turned yellow? She wanted him to remember the sound of her voice, the colour of her hair. She wanted to sit with him, whether it was on a cold winter’s morning or a crisp spring day, and tell him stories from her girlhood, of the day when Arya had thrown an orange and stained her dress, but there’d be too much distance, and too little time. If all she could leave behind was her name and a reason to smile, it’d be enough. So she swallowed all her wants and said, as if it meant nothing, ‘You can keep it, but you mustn’t laugh.’

‘That’s basically a form of torture,’ said Arya.

The music swelled, then, and she let the rhythm of the dance swallow her, spinning, skipping, laughing, trying not to dwell on whether it was him who’d linked his arm with hers, who’d snaked his large, warm hands around her waist to lift her up, up and up.

It hadn’t mattered before. It shouldn’t matter now.

*

It was nearing the hour of the bat when Sansa allowed the night air to cool her cheeks and fill her lungs. She stumbled back as she found him striding out of the very doorway she was trying to enter.

It wasn’t a real weirwood branch, and had instead been cut from the oak tree that served as the Red Keep’s heart tree, but its function was clear enough.

If it had been anyone else… If it had been anyone else, she’d have enacted the sealing of the pact already; she’d done it often enough on Pact Day. It hadn’t meant anything before. It shouldn’t mean anything now.

But he was so tall. The top of her head barely reached his shoulders. She’d have to stand on her tiptoes just to reach, and even then, she’d only be able to kiss his neck. That would be… far too indecent.

‘When did you turn sentry, little bird?’ he was saying. ‘Not going to let me pass?’

Perhaps she should just let him pass. Sandor knew nothing of Pact Day save the food and the dancing, so he wouldn’t know what it meant to stand beneath the branch, together. Instead, she found herself saying, ‘I can’t.’

‘Why’s that?’

She practised a few small bounces.

‘Have you turned into a real little bird, hopping up and down like…’ Before she could change her mind, she placed a hand on his shoulder and closed the distance between them. She should have aimed for his lips, but if she did… If she did, the last of the haven she’d built in her own heart would come crashing down. ‘…that.’

A quick brush of her lips against the leathery skin of the burnt side of his face, just above the spot where his skin no longer covered his bones, and it was over. She hoped she hadn’t hurt him.

Drawing a shaky breath, she said, ‘Please take more care when you pass under this branch, my lord. Just… make sure there’s no other lady passing under it next time.’

With that, she pushed past him to let the music drown out the thundering in her ears.

But it was no good. Everything fell apart, until her wants and her needs tumbled into one big hollow within her chest, but she skipped and hopped and laughed on anyhow. She didn’t look for him at all, but she knew that he never returned to the dance that evening.

Chapter Text

Sandor X

It didn’t take Sandor long to work out the purpose of the weirwood branch.

He stood in the shadows for a while, the same thought looping through his head: Had she really…? There’d been a pressure on his scarred cheek, but apart from the near-constant tightness and aching that served as a constant reminder that the weak would not survive in this world, and he must be strong, strong, stronger, there was really very little feeling left in the melted half of his face. He cursed it more than ever, because he might have lost the only chance to feel if her lips were really as soft as he’d imagined, brushing over his own, as the northmen and their ladies gathered beneath the branch to do.  

There were other kisses on the cheek under the weirwood branch too, and a few who’d suffered fates that’d made Sandor wince. Tobho’s apprentice was one, for having the misfortune of running into the she-wolf there, and had been reprimanded for lingering there to take advantage of unsuspecting young ladies. The she-wolf’s style of reprimanding someone consisted of kneeing them in the groin, except she was too short to reach, lost her balance, and ended up falling into the young smith’s arms instead.

He shook his head, hoping to clear it of unwelcome thoughts, but the voice was an old friend, and it’d kept him safe over the years. A kiss on the cheek. Yes, there had been others, like the kiss that Myrcella had given the onion knight. Did he appear as old as that to the little bird? Just an old, scarred dog who–

Someone placed a hand on his shoulder, and he spun around to face the only Stark he’d be happier not seeing.

‘Lord Clegane,’ said the Lord of Winterfell.

‘Lord Stark.’

‘Walk with me.’

At least Ned Stark hadn’t asked Sandor to dance with him. They found a quiet spot by the corner of the ballroom, next to one of those tall windows. There were a few chairs scattered about, but Lord Stark made no move to sit, so stand they did, and Lord Stark studied his face until the whole of the Queen’s Ballroom seemed to fall eerily quiet.

‘Lord Clegane,’ he said at last, ‘although others will no longer know Sansa as the daughter of Winterfell, she is, and always will be, my daughter. I have promised to find her a good match one day, and I will.’ Sandor felt his breath catch, as if he was about to ride into battle. ‘I know Robert, for whatever reason, has given you a lordship, and I know that my other children are all fond of you, all of which makes you a passable match. However, I have also seen your anger. Then there’s the wine… the whores… neither of which would make my daughter happy. They tell me you are honest though, so tell me, can you make Sansa happy?’

Could he? It wasn’t a question he’d ever dared to ask himself. What did he have to offer her, save his sword and his gold? ‘She’s too good for the likes of me,’ he said, because it was true.

Lord Stark seemed to ponder upon his answer, or perhaps he was waiting for Sandor to speak again, but as the moment drew on, he shook his head and said, ‘I didn’t think you’d say yes.’ Lord Stark rubbed his temples, and spoke once more. ‘You’re a man made for fighting. Tell me… If you wanted to send a man to kill an outlaw, would you ever send a man who claims that the outlaw is too strong for him to kill?’

‘No,’ said Sandor. ‘Never.’ The man who fears losing has already lost. He’d learned that long ago.

Lord Stark nodded. ‘Then you must already know that you do not have my blessings.’

Sandor knew that those could have been the only words waiting for him, but still… Still, the boy inside of him that should have been burned to cinders by the fire had dreamed of a good-father who’d tell him, You’re a good man, I’m proud of you. Like his own father had never done.

Lord Stark looked ready to leave Sandor alone, but at the last moment, turned back and said, ‘How much have the children told you about my marriage?’

What was there to say? That Lord Eddard of Winterfell, Warden of the North, was one lucky bugger to have found joy in his marriage?

‘I guess they didn’t tell you about the first year. They couldn’t have known,’ said Lord Stark. ‘I did everything I could think of to make her happy. Wanted to make it up to her, for not being the man she’d been intended for. A man taller, more handsome, better at conversations and at dancing than myself. I gave her pretty jewels. Built her a sept. But we were miserable… You see, I’d lost the father who’d raised us after the loss of our mother, and the old brother I’d always admired. I tell my children that the Mad King beheaded them both, but the truth is, King Aerys burned my father. Roasted him, in his armour. My brother Brandon was tied to a noose, and strangled himself, trying to free my father from the flames.’

Sandor felt the bile rise at the back of his throat.

‘We rode into war when the King asked for my head, and Robert’s, and Jon Arryn would not give it to him. People died in that war. Smallfolk, soldiers, lords. You fought in that war too, did you not? Killed your first man?’

‘Aye,’ said Sandor. He could still taste the dust in his mouth and feel the pounding in his ears as the plain-faced solider sank down to the ground. The ring of steel and the trample of horses around them had been so loud that it had all but swallowed up the man’s scream. There’d been no fear. No fear of death. Not from Sandor. But there’d been an ache, hadn’t there, for not having truly lived.

He remembered thinking, knowing, that if he was to die then, there’d be no one to know, no one to care, and if there was someone to come back for their bodies and dig them a grave, then it’d be after maggots had eaten their faces away. Who’d recognise him then, by his scars? He’d laughed at that, as he cut down the next man, and the man after that, and the man after that...

How many had he cut down by now? And had he truly lived?

‘Not a place to build happy memories,’ said Lord Stark. ‘And at the end of it all… I lost the most important woman in my life at the time: my sister.’

Dark hair. Grey eyes. A smile that knew no ills in the world.

‘I tried, but I could not save her,’ the voice rang in Sandor’s head. ‘Still I see her in my dreams, and every time, she’d slip through my fingers, bleeding.’

‘After that,’ said Lord Stark, ‘the only brother by blood I had left in this world became a brother of the Night’s Watch, and the man I’d come to think of as a brother stayed south and became my king. I had lost everything that’d ever mattered, and all I had left were things that I did not want, like the lordship I’d never asked for, that should have never been mine, and a castle filled with ghosts.

‘Then one day, the lady wife I’d never wanted must have felt exhausted by the cries from our young babe, and lost her armour of courtesies. She shouted at me. She told me I’d never be able to make her happy, because the person I spent the most amount of time with was me, and I couldn’t even make myself happy. And she said I’d only lost everything that’d ever mattered because I wouldn’t let anything that I still had become something that mattered. She then tried to throw her shoe in my direction, but missed, and stamped her foot in frustration, but stubbed her toe instead. It all made her even angrier. She blamed it on me, and told me that the only way to solve our disagreement was for me to stub my toe as well.’ Lord Stark smiled fondly at the memory despite it all. ‘Cat always had a tendency to be unreasonable. But then, she also had a tendency to be right.

‘Pact Day is the most important day of the year in the north. My children invited you to celebrate with us, but there is more to the day than presents, food and dancing,’ said Lord Stark, glancing out into the middle of the ballroom, where the little bird flew around again and again, on the arms of any who’d cared to make her take wing. ‘Pact Day is a day of change, and it gave us peace between the First Men and the Children of the Forest. On this day, we northerners seek to make pacts with ourselves. We seek to change and make peace. It is… not easy, else we’d not have need for it every year.  But that is what living is, is it not? I bid you good evening, Lord Clegane.’

*

The roof of Maegor’s Holdfast had always been his favourite spot in the Red Keep. Up here, the wind could drown out the music from the Queen’s Ballrom. Up here, the air was colder, sweeter. Up here, the twinkle of the torchlights seemed as distant as the stars. The stars. He used to like looking at the stars.

Some nights, with his body pressed against the cold, rough stone, resting his arms between the merlon, half-remembered words would come back to him. The Sword of the Morning twinkled sure and bright, just as it had done to the boy who’d once dreamed of being as brave as the knight who’d wielded it. The Moonmaid always followed. The fairest of them all, safe in the protection of her one true knight. But that’s not true, because one day, you will find a maid even fairer than the Moonmaid, my love. And he would never hurt her. And she will love you so. I know she will.

And Gregor?

He will too. You’ll see. I promise.

Two dead wives, was what Gregor had had.

Promises were worth nothing in the end.

But… But there was a maid even fairer than the Moonmaid. She was kind and gentle too. The way she’d looked at him, by the weirwood branch, was the way that other maids looked at the Knight of the fucking Flowers. Not at an old, scarred dog.

There was a chance. He knew it, in a tiny part of him that was still soft an un-calloused. He knew it. And though he might be wrong, he knew it. He did.

Promises needed the living to keep them. Wasn’t that also what living was? He was a stronger man than Lord Eddard Stark of Winterfell. All of the Seven buggering Kingdoms knew it. If they didn’t… he’d prove it to them.

Hadn’t there been a moment, a lazy moment by the pools, where he’d been, at least, at peace? No wine. No whores. Just a maiden still fool enough to dream of meeting her Florian, and children, perhaps as wild as the wolf cub, as stubborn as the she-wolf.

Turning back to the steep, spiralling stairs, he braced himself to re-join the merriments. He’d catch the little bird again. Lift her high, like he’d done earlier in the night. Spin her around. Make her laugh. Make her happy. He could… He could… be happy.

He sank into the shadows, and froze at the sound of footsteps. No one ever came to the roof while the moon was up, save him. It wasn’t worth the dark and cold just to be just a few hundred feet closer to the stars.

Her breaths were ragged from the long climb to the top, and strands of her hair had become undone from the dancing. The moonlight glinted against the hairpin he’d given her for Pact Day. He longed to touch it, to drag his hand through the softness that was her hair, but it’d not do to startle her up here, when she was leaning precariously over the edge of the roof.

Just then, the wind caught her, and she swayed. Too close. He grabbed her arm to steady her.

‘Let go of me!’ she cried. ‘Let… Oh…’

He wanted to say something to set her at ease, but there’d been no time to rehearse his words. ‘Little bird thinks she has wings, does she?’ he found himself saying. ‘What are you doing, flying up here in the black of night? Here to give a dog a proper kiss?’

If she’d looked just a touch relieved to see that it was him before, it was gone now. Her eyes widened, and she took a step back. Seven buggering hells.

‘I… I… But I did…’ she said haltingly. ‘I did… give you a proper kiss.’

He felt his mouth twitch. ‘A proper kiss would be one you could actually feel. I can feel just about bugger all here,’ he said, waving his hand over his scars.

‘Oh…’ she said. She was closer now, somehow. Had he bent down, so that she could lift her hand and cup his cheek? ‘Nothing?’ she said.

No. He could feel the faint pressure of her fingers there, and a desperate need to keep her there. ‘Not much,’ he said, and closed his own hand over hers.

She did not draw away. They stayed like that for an age, his calloused hand dwarfing hers. It could be enough, just for her to look at him like this until the first light. But that’d be a lie in itself.

‘A proper kiss?’ she whispered, her lips dancing with the words, so close to his own.

He took it for a request. He could never deny her anything.

She was soft and warm, like he’d dreamed of. He tugged at her hair to press into her lemon scent. She tugged at him too, drawing him closer, closer, until their dance of lips and tongue and teeth left them both gasping for breath. Until there was nothing proper about the kiss anymore.

‘A proper kiss,’ she said.

That had to be all. It was nearing the Hour of the Eel. If she didn’t leave him now, he’d keep her until the Hour of the Wolf. He waited for her to blink away the haze in her eyes.

‘Oh no!’ she said. ‘We made a terrible mistake.’

His heart sank. Of course, it was too much to hope that–

‘It needs to be under the weirwood branch! They were clearing the ballroom when I left, and I’ll need to return to my chambers soon… but the weirwood branch is still above the doorway.’ she said, sneaking a smile at him, winding her fingers around his. ‘It needs to be done properly, my lord.’