Stomach taunt with anxious nerves, Sansa moves through the path made for her by the courtiers who have come to witness their boy king's notion of justice. They take care not to touch neither her nor the fabric of her fluttering silk gown, as though afraid a traitor's blood may be passed through contact.
Few of them are brave enough to catch Sansa's gaze. When they do, she smiles and tips her head in greeting. A cold, hard part of her – a part that is snow and ice and entirely Stark – says, I hope it shames you, how you flinch from the eyes of a powerless girl like me.
Ahead of her, Joffrey sprawls on the Iron Throne, lacking both grace and dignity. He looks a spoiled little boy playing pretend, and it gives Sansa a small measure of strength she desperately needs; he may appear to be a foolish brat in cloth of gold and a stupidly crooked crown, but she is a lady in truth. He is only a mummer's farce of royalty.
“Lady Sansa,” Joffrey calls, his worm lips wisted in a smirk that makes Sansa's stomach cramp painfully. “We are glad to see you've come to humble yourself before your King.”
“It always my pleasure to do so, Your Grace.” Curtsying deep and low, with a straight back and arms held just so, Sansa burrows down to find the numb spot inside her chest. It helps her keep her tongue in line and tears at bay.
Looking up, Sansa can see the Queen, stiff and thin lipped, with hands knotted angrily in her lap. The sight makes hanging onto the numbness hard. This is the look the Queen wears when Joffrey has defied her commands, and there is nothing to be done for it; she had made him into what he is, and now not even she can control him.
It should make Sansa happy to see the Queen suffer after all her cruelties, great and small. Instead it only scares her, right down to the very marrow of her bones. Whatever has so angered the Queen cannot be good for Sansa.
“Do you know, Lady Sansa, that my small council has spent hours and hours debating over what should be done with you? You are no longer my betrothed; instead you live off the kindness of the crown and my family, even though you are the daughter of a traitor and should by rights be in a cell to ensure you are not allowed to go the way of your father.” Joffrey's smile is sharp and brutal, green eyes glittering with malice as he laughs. “It's absurd, in all truth; you nothing more than a stupid little girl, and yet you cause such trouble for my advisers.”
Terror crawls up her throat, thick and acidic. Wetting her lips with the tip of her tongue and grappling for words, Sansa's fingers twitch against her skirts. She wants to cling to them as she has nothing else to hold. “I am sorry, Your Grace,” she says, voice gone thin in fear. “I am unworthy for you or the council to think on. I know that, and I am ashamed to have caused you displeasure.”
They are pretty words. Words that reassure Joffrey of his power over her make him happy.
Sansa knows this well, and when she flicks her eyes up, she can see it in his smug gaze. He sees her fear, and it pleases him; he knows that under her fragile restraint and well-trained courtesies, she is far too close to falling apart.
“Fortunately, I am quite willing to settle the matter for them. I have decided –”
Lord Twyin steps forward, bending ever so slightly. His face could be that of statue's, blank and emotionless, if Sansa hadn't been able to see the throb of a very red vein at one temple. “My Liege, I think it would be best if we discussed this –”
“I have decided!” Joffrey snaps, narrowing his eyes and puckering his mouth in a way that is both cruel and impossibly childish. When my advisers bicker over simple tasks, it falls to me to judge what should be done, in my infinite wisdom as the King. Return to your post, Lord Hand.”
Stiffly moving back into his place just behind the throne, Lord Twyin Lannister has a look in his eyes that suggests he may well begin belching dragonfire from the force of his fury.
“Since you were once my lady, before your family shamefully turned against the throne, I will be merciful, Lady Sansa –”
Gods be good, Sansa thinks desperately, her ears beginning to buzz, he's going to kill me like he did Father.
“Since you came south to be wedded and bedded, you shall be. Though instead of the King, you will be wed to his dog.”
For a moment, no one speaks. Instead, Joffrey watches Sansa, grinning in anticipation of her reaction. The crowd at her back has gone completely silent. Not a single whisper emerges through their shock as as the eldest Stark daughter is given to the second son of a minor lording that isn't even a knight.
Her eyes turn to the Hound. A new white cloak adorns his broad shoulders, replacing the one he left Sansa on the night of the Battle of the Blackwater. He stands, as always, at the foot of the throne. His eyes are as wide and shocked as Sansa's, his mouth parted as he attempts to absorb what he has just heard.
Twisting, cloak swirling and armor clanking, he barks, “The fuck did you just say?” Then, grudgingly, he spits out, “Your Grace.”
Joffrey – who has an inordinate amount of fondness for this scarred, brutal, and brutally honest man that has always done his best to shield Sansa from the very worst of the King's violence and rages – bursts into laughter. The queen swells like an angry bullfrog and Lord Tywin's entire head has turned the color of his crimson doublet, but Joffrey is laughing so hard he's got an arm around his stomach. He bends so far that his crown comes close to falling off, and the whole time Sansa watches, lightheaded and strangely … hopeful.
As his laughter winds down, Joffrey stands, wiping tears of mirth from the corners of his eyes. He makes short work of the steps leading down from the throne, and soon has his hands tucked behind his back while he circles his faithful servant.
“Did you think I never saw?” he asks, voice low enough that only the nearest courtiers – including Sansa, and the King's small council – will hear him. But that is enough, Sansa knows; soon his words will spread across the whole of Westeros. “How you watch her. How you skulk after her like the dog you are. It is pathetic. Your actions at the Battle of the Blackwater disappointed me, dog; in truth, they were as pathetic as the way you lust for the Stark girl. The only explanation is that her traitor's blood has infected you. Well, here is the cure. You'll take this northern whore in hand and see her for what she truly is.” Joffrey appears positively thrilled with the idea – so much so that his eyes have gone fever bright, his cheeks flushed and his breathing rapid.
Sansa knows little about the marriage bed, but she knows this look. Joffrey wears it when he has his Kingsguard beat her, when he is cruel and she cries; most especially when she bleeds. He thinks the Hound will hurt her, Sansa realizes, perhaps badly enough to kill her.
He has no idea how wrong he is, and while Sansa is suddenly gulping back tears, she knows they won't be seen for what they are. Relief and joy and thanks, to both the old gods and the new. She will not be a princess or a queen, and her husband will be crude and rough and drunk … but he won't hurt her. Not like Joffrey and his knights would.
The Hound looks to Sansa, mouth so tight she imagines she can hear his teeth grinding together. He is angry, so angry, and she wants to reach out to him and gentle his rage. She wants to tell him how happy she is, how thankful; he is not the knight of her childhood dreams, but that is a good thing, she thinks.
“What say you, Hound? Are you pleased with my gift?” Joffrey smirks up at massive man. “You'll be removed from the Kingsguard, of course, but you never did take your vows. I don't suppose it will matter much.”
“As Your Grace commands,” the Hound finally says. His eyes are on Sansa, and she can hear his voice in her mind – bugger this little fucker, he's out of his mind – and just thinking of those words makes her face go up in a blush so hot and bright she wonders if her skin will burn away.
Rounding on her, Joffrey moves in, far too close for comfort. “And you, Lady Sansa. Tell me of your pleasure for this match I've made for you.”
Fighting back the urge to flinch away, she curtsies, keeping her head bowed. He mustn’t see her true feelings. Anything that brings her even the slightest glimmer of happiness is nothing His Royal Highness wants. “I am well pleased so long as Your Grace is happy,” she murmurs, a little bird singing from her gilded cage – and just this close to finally escaping.
“Stupid girl,” Joffrey whispers, his words for Sansa alone. “He's going to rip you apart. I think I may watch him bed you the first time; in fact, I may have you after.”
Joffrey laughs his way back onto the Iron Throne, eyes once again wet with tears of amusement.
Tywin Lannister is not a kind man, so this is not the reason that Sandor Clegane goes to him on the evening his betrothal is announced before the court. No, he seeks an audience with the Hand of the King for the simple reason that the man is both pragmatic and power-hungry; if there is any way Sansa Stark can be saved from marriage to a landless, title-less brute of a warrior, it is through Tywin's desire to keep her an easily accessible pawn in this game he plays so well.
“Clegane,” the Hand greets with dispassion. Unfurling a hand in the direction of a chair, he watches Sandor with unreadable eyes as his man-at-arms bows before taking a seat. He pours two generous goblets of wine, passing one to Sandor, before reclaiming his own chair; it is as straight, hard, and unyielding as the man himself.
“I suppose you have come to discuss Joffrey's latest folly,” says the Lord of Casterly Rock, his green eyes unblinking as they dissect Sandor.
“Aye,” Sandor confirms, the ruined side of his mouth twitching hard as he fights back a snarl of rage. Strong fingers tighten on the goblet, and it is only a supreme act of will that keeps him from hurling it across the room in a show of rage.
In the hours since the announcement had been made, Sandor has hardly been able to breathe past his wrath. If the boy were not the king, if Sandor did not know that doing so would sentence his little bird to death, he would have torn Joffrey limb from limb in front of the entire court. In truth he still aches for it; he longs to feel the cruel bastard's blood hot and slick across his face as he his sword clean through the boy and spills out his guts.
He can imagine the look on the boy king's face as his faithful Hound betrays him. As well as the wails of that cunt Cersei. Few things could bring him greater joy.
“When the unwashed masses revolted and attacked on the day little Myrcella was sent to Dorne, you saved the girl.” Tywin speaks with the same precision that he always does, head tipped ever so slightly as he studies Sandor.
Scowling, Sandor downs the rest of his wine. At a gesture from the Hand, he refills the goblet, fighting hard not to shout. “Aye,” he finally answers tersely. “Someone had to.”
“Tyrion ordered your then remaining brothers of the Kingsguard to go out and find her. They refused, claiming their orders came only from the king; Joffrey refused as well, out of spite. Or so Tyrion tells me. And yet you were already outside the gates of the Red Keep, hunting her down. An intelligent move, on your part; had Joffrey's negligence allowed the Lady Sansa to be ruined as the Stokeworth girl was, her value would have been diminished. Not that it matters now.” Tywin drinks, still watching his family's well-trained Hound.
Again Sandor's self-control is tested; spitting in Twyin Lannister's face would not aid his cause at all.
“The Kingsguard guards the royal family,” he rasps instead, “at the time the girl was Joffrey's betrothed. I did my duty, nothing more.”
“Mm,” Lord Tywin answers wordlessly, eyebrow lifting in the imperious way only high lords and royalty can manage. “That is how it appears, doesn't it? And yet...the Spider and I spoke at length in regards to Joffrey's plan to wed you and Lady Sansa. He informed me that you have many times done what you could for the child in the face of my grandson's humiliation of her. More than that, he claims that you have, quietly and privately, attempted to guide the girl in the best way to handle both her position at court as well as Joffrey. Wisely, he said; I believe his exact words were, 'he told the sweet Lady Sansa to sing brightly and prettily in her gilded cage.' I could be wrong, however; when the good Lord Varys finds it in him to wax poetic over his whispers, I have a habit of imagining cutting out his tongue as his cock was cut off, and enjoying the silence.” Tywin's smile is small, merciless, and only faintly amused.
He does not wait for Sandor to reply before continuing on. “It was even brought to my attention that when the girl flowered for the first time – panicking so badly that she attempted cut the stain from her mattress – it was you who calmed her and brought her to the Queen. A fact that I find most interesting. You see, Clegane, Varys believes the Hound has fallen in love with this Stark girl. Or is infatuated, at least. I found the notion ridiculous, and told our Lord Spider as much. And do you know what he said? 'I could be wrong, of course, but if that fearsome dog comes to speak to you, attempting to snarl and bite his way out of a marriage that would be most fortunate for a man of his position and holdings, then I do believe you will have the answer for yourself.' Just as Varys predicted, Clegane, you have given me an answer indeed.”
Rage and something quite close to fear makes Sandor hum with tension, a buzzing in his ears briefly deafening him to anything else. He knocks back the remaining wine, a much better vintage than he used to although it is utterly wasted on him. He cannot even taste it in his current state.All he can do is glower back at the high lord whom he serves, furious and utterly unable to do anything.
“If you believe that whoreson eunuch, then you're getting soft in your old age,” he snarls. “I've been your man for more than half my life, my lord, and I should think you would know me better than to believe me stupid enough to – love,” he sneers, “useless trash.” It isn't a lie. The romantic drivel the bards praise is useless claptrap. A mummers show made up of tin crowns, built with magic that is nothing more than clever little tricks and sleight of hand.
He does not love Sansa Stark. He rages for her. For all that he has allowed to happen to her After all the evil he has done in his life, she is the one thing he must protect.
“Love. I would sooner eat shit and call it a feast before I would sink to such idiocy.”
A rare sight: Tywin Lannister laughs, eyes crinkling and mouth curling as the unexpected mirth is thrown forward. The sound is short-lived, and though he doesn't smile afterward, there is something amused and mocking in his eyes. “And yet here you are, which does lend some credence to the Spider's words.”
“The buggering hell am I supposed to do with a wife? Much less a highborn one?” Barking out the words in absolute frustration, Sandor's palms itch and ache to wrap around any available throat and squeeze. “I will end up breaking the child before she can be of any use to me.”
A lax shrug lifts the lord's shoulders. “Your brother has had three wives, now. Or four, I may have lost count. There is little point in keeping track. Take the wealth and titles the Stark girl affords you, and if she does end up broken, find another more to your liking. Or not.”
Bile bubbles in the back of his throat. Your brother has had three wives, now – aye, and those poor highborn cunts are all dead. He can clearly imagine the horrors they experienced before death, and it makes Sandor too ill to think of them. Now when he thinks of Gregor's wives, each and every one of them a different version of his precious and fragile Sansa Stark. He imagines the torture and pain and indignities. A girl like his little bird would be ripped to pieces, crushed beyond recognition. Imagining that, he comes far too close to vomiting across his Lord's table.
“What Joffrey needs is to be strapped bloody, until he realizes it is in his best interest to obey his elders. In lieu of this – ” here Tywin frowns. “ – we give in to a few of his desires to get what we truly need. I need him not only to marry the Tyrell whore, but to rein in his less becoming impulses. To keep him from harming her until she is well wedded, bedded, and has given the kingdom an heir. Your marriage to the Stark girl is one way I will appease him, and my mind will not be changed, Clegane. Do not bother with trying.”
He nods, obedient above his skin, roiling with fierce rage and a kingdom crumbling disgust underneath. “As my lord commands,” Sandor intones, just ashe has on too many occasions to count.
“Think of it this way,” Tywin adds as Sandor stands to leave. “If Joffrey's treatment of the girl has displeased you, at least now you will be able to offer her some measure of protection.”
Tywin Lannister is not a kind man. This is not why Sandor had come to him. However, he does remember when the Lady Joanna had died, and how Sandor's late father had hung his head and sighed.
“It may be our sweet Lady Joanna they're putting in the ground,” Father had said, “but it is Lord Tywin's heart that died.” Sandor remembers this and hears an echo of the widower's words – at least now you will be able to offer her some measure of protection – and thinks maybe, just maybe, the cold son of a bitch understands. At least in some way.
“Some measure of protection,” he repeats scathingly, one hand on the door latch. “Doesn't matter if she married you instead of me, Lord Tywin; she'll never be safe so long as she's in King's Landing. Good evening, my lord.”
Shae comes too close to pulling a knife on Sansa's future husband when the Hound – Sandor, she thinks, ashamed that she must make these mental reminders, his name is Sandor – enters her room following a quick knock. Ignoring courtesy as he always does, Sandor does not wait to be invited. Her maid is breathing like a winded bull, eyes bright and truly fierce, as she tries to block him from entering the small bedchamber.
“What do you think I'm going to do, woman, fuck her?” Clegane growls, the ruined side of his face twisted as he bares his teeth. “I'll be having her maidenhead in a fortnight, anyway, so get out of my bloody way.”
“She is a little girl!” Shae hisses, jabbing a finger angrily at the not-a-ser that Sansa has grown so terribly fond of. “And the king may yet change his mind. Now get out!”
“I need to speak with her.”
“Whatever it is can wait until tomorrow, when she can be properly chaperoned.”
“Seven bloody hells, you buggering bitch, I will throw you out this gods damned window if –”
“Enough.” A lady does not shout, and Sansa always does her best to be a lady. Instead she attempts to mimic the snapping whip of her mother's voice when she had growntired of listening to Sansa and Arya bickering (gods, what she wouldn't give to fight with her stubborn little sister again), or when the boys had grown too rowdy. Her voice isn't as terrifying as Mother's had been, but it is close enough that the eyes of both her betrothed – I'm looking at my husband! – and her maid snap to her.
Shoulders pulled back and hands curled gracefully in front of her, Sansa takes a step forward. “Shae, wait outside. As it happens, I wish to speak to my lord, as well.”
Though her eyes and scowl are utterly mutinous, Shae gives a truly messy curtsy before stomping out of the room. She doesn't slam the door behind her, but only because she has no desire to draw attention to her lady.
“She's very protective of me,” Sansa hears herself explaining once the door is shut, gesturing weakly. Is she blushing? It feels as though she is; gods, sometimes she thinks she really is as stupid as Joffrey and the Queen claim. “The way...the way Joffrey is to me, how he has the Kingsguard...what he makes them do...she doesn't want to see me hurt.”
“I suppose you'll be wanting to keep her.” Clegane sighs. Through his exasperation, Sansa notes a sort of approval in his eyes. “Sit down, little bird. We need to speak.”
She successfully resists the urge to scamper to the nearest chair. The subject of Ser Dontos and their meetings in the godswood, his promises to be her Florian and take her away weigh heavy on Sansa's mind. The knight turned fool had done nothing to truly aid her in all the time they have been meeting, and she has now decided to tell him that she wishes to obey King Joffrey and marry. The worry that Dontos may resist her choice is a pervasive one, however, making Sansa pull up her courage so she can explain Ser Dontos's plot, and ask Sandor for advice on freeing herself from it.
Her husband-to-be is exceedingly clever, his mind as sharp as his sword blade, though few have noticed it. That in combination with all his many efforts to aid and assist Sansa over her time in King's Landing reassures her that he help her find the correct path.
Oh, the Hound is not kind to her in ways she'd once thought were kindness – in truth, he can be hateful and incredibly crude – but he has always given her nothing but the truth. It is a rare gift for anyone to be truthful at court, Sansa is learning. More than that, he is gentle. Roughly so, which is odd and contradicting, but it makes sense in a way that is unique to this man, and Sansa likes it.
After the Blackwater, when he'd come to her in the night and asked to take her away – Sansa had wanted to go. She had. But the Queen's men would have found them. They would be drug back to King's Landing and thrown before Joffrey...oh, Sansa couldn't have endured to see him beheaded as her father was. She knows they would have made her watch. And after...they wouldn't have killed her. Not at first. Joffrey would have kept her, a toy to be used and discarded at his whim. He would hurt her, more than he ever had, and that would be worse than death.
So she had sung Clegane the Mother's Hymn, humbled and awed and so very sad when tears ran down this brutal but terrified man's cheeks. After, as she'd wiped away the blood and tears and soot, she'd quietly begged, “Fight, my lord. Please. They'll kill us if we run, you know they will. If Stannis wins … Ilyn Payne has been ordered by the Queen to take off my head. She won't let Stannis take me alive. I am … I am sorry to ask, but I … I don't want to die.” More tears had come, burning Sansa's already raw eyes.
He had kissed her. Quick and hard, his lips on her own, his tongue brushing across her lower lip and making Sansa shudder even while her knees had threatened to turn to jelly. He had then left without a word, and it was only later that Sansa had learned he had obeyed her request, bursting back into battle with a ferocity the Hound had rarely shown before.
It is the only reason he hadn't been executed as a traitor.
“If it wasn't for Clegane, the Mud Gate may well have been breached,” Tywin Lannister had said to Cersei during a private, 'family' dinner; Joffrey and his little brother, Cersei and Twyin...and Sansa, who had been only days away from (thankfully) being replaced by Margaery Tyrell.
Since that night, since he had stayed and fought on Sansa's behalf alone, her feelings towards him have been...difficult to define. He is no knight, but now she remembers that her father had not been a knight, either. Ned Stark had been the most honorable, respectful, kind, generous, and gentle man Sansa had ever known, and no ser had come before his name; in this Clegane is like her father, and that is a nice thought. He is honorable in his own way, though he would probably become apoplectic with rage if she told him so.
“I am sorry, little bird.” His words draw Sansa's attention. When she looks up, she finds him glaring a hole into the wall above her head. He looks out of place and uncomfortable in her room, awkwardly perched on the frilly little chair that looks like a toy. When he finally returns her gaze, he appears almost as defeated as he is angry. “Lord Twyin refused to change Joffrey's mind.”
“You...went to Lord Twyin? You asked him to break our betrothal?” To her own ears, Sansa's voice is terribly weak, a china cup cracked, though not yet fully fractured. Something in her ribs aches horrible.
“Stupid girl,” Sandor snaps hatefully, big hands balling into huge fists. “Of course I did.”
Tears come. Her despair is almostas thick and choking as when she had seen her father's murder. She had been so pleased at the thought of marrying Sandor Clegane; oh, the little girl she had once been would be horrified, but the woman Sansa is becoming … she treasures the thought of safety. Her parents marriage had been arranged. She had thought that maybe, in time, she and her husband could become what Ned and Catelyn Stark had been: devoted, loyal, adoring, passionately in love. Now she hears this, and it is yet another beautiful dream cruelly shattered.
“You don't want me?” Despite Sansa's best efforts, a tear escapes, rolling down her nose before dripping off. It lands on her hand, which clutches its counterpart in her lap. The dam breaks.Tear after tear spills free, and sobs strangle her. Sansa abandons her flawless posture to curl her shoulders, and buries her face in her hands.
What she does not see is this: Sandor Clegane, mouth agape, with hands outstretched and hovering in mid-air. Horror widens and fills his eyes, as well as disbelief at what he sees and cannot fully comprehend. “Stop crying,” he orders desperately.
Her sobs are small and gut wrenching, more childlike than either of them would care to admit.
“No buggering crying!” he roughly begs.
His chair bounces off the floor, toppling as he stands. One step takes him around the little table, and a half step more brings him in front of Sansa. She looks up when he takes her hands in one of his own, but with such gentleness that it only makes her want to cry harder.
Crouching down in front of her, hunching his shoulders and back so they are on eye-level. It is a first, given how utterly massive Clegane is. His free hand takes Sansa's chin and forces her to look at him. Not in anger, not to make her face his scars, but to see him.
“There isn't a man alive that wouldn't want a sweet little bird like you for a wife,” he says in an even deeper rasp than usual. Though his face is forever trapped in the dusk ofa nightmare, and though he is still crude and rude and mean, Sansa finds him rather handsome in his own strange, rough way. “But you deserve much better than a dog like me, girl. Do you understand? You deserve so much better.”
“A prince?” she asks, turning her hands in his grasp, clinging to his thick fingers and wide wrist. “To become a queen? I wanted that once, my lord. I received that wish, and found the songs are not as sweet as I was led to believe. I was humiliated, beaten, bloodied, stripped before the entire court; that is the life of a queen-to-be, and I do not want it. I want to be safe, my lord. I feel I am with you. You said yourself, you will not lie to me, and you have always been as kind as you possibly could. You're the only one who tried to make me see what Joffrey, the court, and this life really is.”
“I am no knight from one of your fucking stories, my lady.”
Realization dawns, bright and heady for Sansa. Sandor'sanger is how he protects himself, a protective shield that is much the same as her courtesies.
“My father was no knight,” she answers gravely. “He was the best man I've ever known.”
For a moment Clegane only watches her, lips parted, the burned side of his mouth twitching. He whispers, “Little bird,” and it is an endearment to Sansa's ears. He releases her chin to wipe the wetness from her cheeks with rough fingertips … and he is as gentle as he knows how to be. “I'm going to do everything I can to keep you safe.”
“I know,” she answers. It may only be the firelight from the room's tiny hearth, but it almost looks as though the Hound has tears in his eyes.