In 1887, Kingsland, Texas was a prosperous little town, as towns went in that place and in that time. The land upon which it stood had first been claimed by the Targaryens, an enterprising clan from Boston, forty years earlier. It lay empty for almost a decade, the Targaryen-built shops sitting vacant on the dusty main street, but then some aristocrats newly arrived from Spain by way of Mexico saw the value of land which, even if not arable or grazeable, would still need to be owned by someone, somehow.
The Martells bought everything the Targaryens hadn’t, and soon had made themselves a fortune by selling the bottom land around the river to the Tully family, and the lush area out by the lake to the Tyrells. Half of the massive rocky outcroppings of granite and sandstone (and, it was rumored, gold) was bought by the Lannisters and the other half by the Arryns. Anything left was snatched up for the purpose of farming cattle by the likes of Starks and Baratheons. The empty shops filled up, as did the Targaryen coffers, and soon everyone was prospering and happy.
Well, most everyone, at least. There would always be those for whom prosperity was not enough; they had to reach ‘prosperity’ and then go another mile or two past it to ‘obscenely wealthy’, and even then, it might not suffice.
Then there were those for whom mere money was a negligible asset. No, they were after power, holding the fates of others in their hands. Those were the truly dangerous ones, because if you take away the money of the greedy, they’re rendered impotent, helpless. They don’t know how to function without the lubrication that wealth provides. The powerful, though… once power is gained, it is much harder to lose. Fear is a masterful weapon, and the powerful know well how to wield it.
Thus it passed that the wealthy (Robert Baratheon, rancher) and the powerful (Peter Baelish, circuit court judge) made the acquaintance of a man who was both: Tywin Lannister. As the star of the Lannisters waxed and that of the Targaryens waned, ultimately leaving only one frustrated, irritable, and lonely daughter to govern the entirety of her family’s interests in Kingsland, Tywin’s influence grew and grew.
He was a widower and the father of three children, two possessing an almost unworldly beauty and the last being a misshapen little goblin who made it his life’s work to vex his sole remaining parent at every opportunity, a goal he pursued with fervent enthusiasm. When Tywin observed how his daughter, Cersei, had caught the lascivious attention of Robert Baratheon, he saw an opportunity to expand both his influence and his bank accounts, and took it.
That his daughter, barely sixteen, was passionately opposed to the match was irrelevant. Tywin was positive she would get over any maidenly vapors she might have felt, and get over them she apparently did, surprising him when a grandson wailed his way into the world with such eagerness that he arrived only seven months after his parents’ wedding. The next child, however, took five years after that to make her debut, and the third, five more after that.
Feeling secure that his family’s legacy was duly preserved, at least for the present— his elder son’s recalcitrance to find his own bride was a less pressing issue that could wait for a later day— Tywin formed a shipping business with the middle Baratheon son, Stannis, and hied himself away to San Francisco to live in refinement, leaving the Kingsland mining interests to his sons.
The younger, one Tyrion Lannister, despised the dusty Texas village even more than his father and hastened to travel east, professing a desire to acquaint himself with his mother’s people, but really to get an education he could rely upon for the inevitable day when Tywin disinherited him. Tyrion went to university, then law school, then established a practice in Charleston, and tried his best to forget the awful half of his family while still managing to maintain relationships with the others, whom he actually rather liked.
No less fecund than the Lannisters were the Starks. Eddard Stark had arrived with his new-married wife to stake a claim, built her a shack and the cows a corral, then went south in search of his missing sister. He returned a year later with no sister, a half-Mexican bastard in a papoose on his back and a refusal to discuss any pesky details about how said bastard had come into existence.
His wife, it need not be said, was not best pleased. She had her own son to tend to, born while his father was jaunting around the desert and seemingly partaking of the generosity of various senoritas. In solidarity with one of their heritage, the Martells sent over a wet nurse to feed Jon both milk and love, and teach him Spanish so he would not forget the other half of himself, and time passed.
More children were added to the Stark family: two daughters, two more sons. The Northpoint Ranch flourished. The Starks gained a reputation for fairness and honor, in— ahem— stark counterpoint to the shady dealings for which the Lannisters and Baratheons had gained notoriety as the decades rolled on and customs became entrenched in the dirt below and sky above Kingsland.
More families arrived: Tarlys to man the post office and, in time, the telegraph machine; Boltons to serve as abattoir and butcher as needed; Greyjoys to run a stagecoach company (and then decide it was more profitable to rob their competitors’ vehicles at gunpoint rather than use their own to transport passengers).
Tarths arrived, all four of them tall and rawboned and ugly as homemade sin, boasting nothing more than remarkably beautiful eyes in various shades of blue and the sort of ironclad conscience and honor that put a body in mind of Starks, but without the bastard problem lingering like a fart in church.
But the Tarths were not a lucky family, for all that their goodness and decency seemed like it should earn them a free pass from suffering. First Miz Tarth died, then her son Galladon, and then Mr. Tarth had himself an apoplexy and had to spend his days in a wheeled chair on the porch of their homestead, after that. It left his daughter Brienne, the last Tarth, to not only care for him but keep house, garden, and tend the cattle as well.
She managed it at first, for a few months. Then it came time to drive the cattle up to St. Louis. Their herd was modest, but Pa and Galladon had always moved the herd while she and Mama stayed home and waited for them to come back. It had gotten harder when it was just Pa, him being older and not as easy in the saddle for twelve hours a day as he’d been in the past. Now that he was poorly, however, it all fell on her, and as time grew shorter before she had to make her decision about how to proceed, Brienne felt the first stirrings of despair.
“You should ask Father,” advised Sansa Stark, one of the few friends Brienne had managed to make in Kingsland. “I bet he’d drive your cattle up to St. Louis and let you pay him later, from the earnings you’ll make selling your herd.”
Brienne had no doubt Ned Stark would not only agree, but be happy to do it. He was a lovely man, in her estimation, far nicer than his snooty Tully wife. Brienne understood Catelyn’s offense at being presented with a bastard almost the same age as her own legitimate son but… people made mistakes, didn’t they? It was over two decades later, and the mistake had not been repeated, it would appear; there was every indication that Ned had maintained the strictest fidelity ever since his return from Mexico. Or at least no other bastards had presented themselves at the Northpoint in all those years. Was it not time to let bygones be bygones?
Jon seemed like a nice enough young man, and hardly deserving of how Catelyn refused to let him sit in the Stark pew at church, or take meals with the family, or even live in the house, making him sleep in the bunkhouse with the ranch hands. It seemed unnecessarily cruel, especially since it was not as if Jon himself were responsible for being born in such an ignominious status.
Sansa herself was a bit puzzled by the situation. She adored her mother and looked to Catelyn as her role model in all things. If Catelyn curled her lip at the very sight of Jon, and treated him like a particularly smelly and homely servant… well, then, Sansa would, too.
Except it made her feel horrible afterward, and more often than not, she’d cry, to the contempt of her sister, Arya, who suffered no such conflicts, since she was excessively fond of her half-brother.
“You should feel horrible,” said Arya flatly, upon finding Sansa wherever she’d tried (and failed) to hide herself for the very reason of avoiding yet another lecture by her younger sibling. “Mother is wrong, and you are wrong. One day, you’ll be sorry you were awful to him.”
It turned out to be a prescient statement, because that day came, and far sooner than anyone might have expected.
And when it came… boy howdy, it came.
Kingsland would never be the same.
And for some, that could only be a good thing.
Pod watched, quiet as always, as the dark shape moved along the back of the house. He did not raise any hue or cry— he knew better than that, after fifteen years with first the Lannisters and then the Baratheons after Miz Cersei married Mr. Robert. There was always someone creeping around, whether it was Mr. Robert and various of the Mexican girls employed on the ranch, or Mr. Jaime coming to visit with Miz Cersei— though that hadn’t happened since before Master Tommen had been born, come to think of it— or Master Joffrey slipping out to go to the saloon and rough up a whore or two.
His friend Sam was sweet on one of the girls, Gilly, and she told Sam the worst stories about Joffrey, and Sam told Pod. It was terrible, but Judge Baelish owned the saloon, and Sheriff Clegane was known to be on the Lannister payroll, so everyone knew nothing would happen.
This was different, however. This person was a man, so that eliminated Rosalita and Manuela; shorter than Mr. Jaime, but fitter than Master Joffrey. He moved with purpose, as if he knew exactly where he were going, and came to a stop directly below a particular window.
The window slid open with excruciating slowness. A long masculine leg was thrust from it, then another, and then the rest of the body was lowered down. The person clung to the sill for one heart-stopping moment before dropping to the ground, ten feet below, and rolling.
“You alright?” whispered the sneaking man, reaching down to help the falling man to his feet. He was shorter than his companion, and his dim silhouette appeared to have curly hair.
“Fine. Everything ready?” The falling man was, if Pod recognized the voice correctly (and he always recognized a voice correctly) that of Renly Baratheon, youngest brother to Mr. Robert and vocal opponent to anything Lannister.
That meant that Sneaky was no other than Loras Tyrell, long-time favorite and close friend of Mr. Renly. Everyone whispered about the nature of their relationship, and to be honest, Pod did not want to think too closely about what those sly murmurings indicated, but Mr. Renly had always been nice to him, or as nice as a Baratheon ever was to a ranch hand.
It was none of his business, of course, but Pod admitted to a certain amount of… professional curiosity. He lived on the Double B, didn’t he, so it concerned him if there were underhanded goings-on. And so silently, stealthily, he followed after the two, all three of them keeping to the shadows.
“Did you tell him?” asked Loras as they hastened down the long drive.
“Yes,” replied Renly. A crash sounded from within the house. “He’s taking it about as well as expected.”
Another crash, this time the tinkling of shattering glass.
“Do you have the letter?” asked Loras.
“Right here.” Renly patted the breast of his jacket, indicating its pocket.
“Good. We’ll mail it from Austin,” Loras said. He glanced at his companion, frowning at the expression of concern on his face.
“I’m not sure I should have told him. I think it will only stir up trouble that didn’t need to be stirred up. It feels… mean. Spiteful.” Renly let out a sigh. “I don’t want my brother unhappy. I don’t hate him or anything. I love him. I just… don’t like him very much.”
“Believe me, I understand.” Loras’ grin was a flash of white even in the gloom. “But what’s done is done.”
Pod wondered which of his family he meant; having observed various Tyrells, it was very possible he could be referring to any (or even all) of them. Every one of them had great capacity to be irritating. Though Miss Margaery was somewhat less so than the others. He thought that might be because she was very pretty.
Out on the road, where a dense little copse of trees kept the bright moon from revealing too much, the men climbed up on the two horses that were tied up there. Back at the house, a woman cried out in pain, loud enough to make Pod flinch even at that distance.
“Should we… tell anyone what’s happening?” Loras asked, peering worriedly toward the house.
“Who would we tell?” asked Renly, rhetorically. “Jaime? His presence would not make it better, believe me. Bobby is drunk and will only get drunker. He’ll get bored and tired and pass out. It will be fine.”
But, as Pod was to learn upon his return to the house once Loras and Renly had gone, it was not fine, and never would be again.
Sansa stood quietly by with hands clasped at her waist as her fiancé, Joffrey Baratheon, berated Sheriff Clegane.
“You’ve been wanting a lead for days, Clegane! And now you have one, and won’t do anything with it? What does my grandfather pay you for?”
Joffrey thrust the pages of the letter into the sheriff’s face, which seemed a perilous risk due not only to the massive difference in size between the two— Joffrey’s modest height and sylph-like build in radical contrast to the other man’s tall and very robust frame— but the expression on Sheriff Clegane’s unlovely face. He was grimacing, the scars making his lips seeming to pull back to reveal a snarl. It appeared like he was very close to biting Joffrey.
Or perhaps it was not merely the scars… perhaps the sheriff really did want to bite Joffrey. Sansa had felt the urge herself, more than a few times, so she could not blame the sheriff, not one bit.
“I’ll do something with it,” the sheriff growled, and the deep, rough timber of his voice made Sansa’s stomach feel hollow and tight at the same time. Odd. It also gave her the feeling that what he was going to do with the letter was not something Joffrey would enjoy.
“Joff, dear,” Sansa began, voice soft and placating in the way she’d learned from long practice was least likely to make him react poorly. “Perhaps if you would let Sheriff Clegane see the letter, he could use it to—”
Joffrey whipped around to face her with a menacing expression of his own, his hand automatically raised, and Sansa shrank back before he regained control over himself and lowered it once more. He would not forget himself enough to strike her in public, but she had gotten so accustomed to trying to evade his wrath in private that she could not hold back a flinch.
A low rumble sounded in the shabby front room of the jail, and Sansa turned her head toward its source to find it was emanating from the beefy chest of Sheriff Clegane himself. She blinked and lifted her eyes from said beefy chest, past the rumpled collar of his shirt and thick dark beard to where his angry, angry eyes— a lovely cool gray, she noticed for the first time— were trying with all their might to eviscerate Joffrey where he stood.
“Your grandfather doesn’t pay me enough to stand by while you hit a woman,” the sheriff ground out. “If I see you do it, or hear of you doing it, your life won’t be worth a nickel. You can count on that.”
He snatched the letter from Joffrey.
“Now get the fuck out of my jail.”
Sansa found, as she left the jail at Joffrey’s side, that she was trembling. In horror of her fiancé’s awfulness being revealed to another person, she was sure, or perhaps at the sheriff’s crude language and brutish demeanor. It was one of the two. Perhaps both.
Whichever one it was, it was definitely not because Sheriff Clegane‘s anger when Joff threatened her. It had nothing to do with being defended by a huge, dangerous beast with magnificent shoulders—
Sansa stumbled on the board walk, blaming a nail working its way free of the wood to lurk in wait for the unwitting pedestrian. Joff hauled her upright, his gaze fixed straight ahead and the beautiful angle of his jaw clenched tightly in fury. She thought she’d better escape him while they were still in public, rather than letting herself be led anywhere private that he’d be able to slake his ire on her. She gazed across Main Street to where Margaery Tyrell was still stirring up a ruckus in front of the post office.
Robert Baratheon’s death a week earlier threw the town of Kingsland into chaos. Miz Cersei had presented a fragile-but-brave façade until senile old Doc Pycelle had decided it was a murder, concluding that Robert’s head was bashed in by the hand of another rather than as the result of just tripping and falling while on the tail-end of a three-day whisky bender.
It seemed that this decision was the result of Sheriff Clegane commenting, upon observation of the corpse, that the big dent in Robert’s skull was rounded and shallow, in the same way as the big smooth river stone used as a paperweight on his marble-topped desk. Wouldn’t it be sharp and deep if he had, as declared by his grieving widow, tripped and struck himself on the corner of said desk?
Miz Cersei had flounced from the doctor’s waiting room in an affronted huff. An hour later, unbeknown to anyone else, she fled the Baratheon ranch and, even days later, had not yet been relocated. Also missing was one Osney Kettleblack, the Double B’s foreman and, it was whispered, Miz Cersei’s latest ‘particular friend’. This left the Baratheon offspring alone on the ranch under the command of the eldest, Joffrey. This in many cases might not be reason to fret, but in view of how Joffrey was unpredictable at best and thoroughly unstable at worst, it provided plenty of reason to fret.
And fret Sansa did. Without Joffrey’s parents in charge of the Double B, what would become of it? Not that she cared much what happened to Joff, and since she intended to break their engagement as soon as possible, it wouldn’t really affect her, either, but she actually liked Myrcella and Tommen. She didn’t want them to suffer because their idiotic elder brother ran the ranch into the ground and left nothing for them to inherit or live on.
Telegrams to San Francisco and Charleston had been sent; Tywin and Tyrion Lannister summoned. Jaime Lannister had left his foreman in charge of the Lannister mines to take his niece and nephews in hand and provide some much-needed stability and adult supervision. He had been seen just once since Miz Cersei absconded with Kettleblack, and his face had been described as ‘dazed’ and ‘distant’ in addition to the usual ‘gloriously handsome’.
People whispered and whispered, frantic with curiosity about how Robert had died and who killed him, but there were no suspects besides Miz Cersei, and with her gone, there was nothing. Telegrams had been sent to all the nearby towns and even a few of the less distant cities, warning authorities in those places to be aware of a woman and man of her and Kettleblack’s description, but… no one had any hopes of this helping in the slightest.
Then, just minutes ago, Sansa and Margaery had entered the post office for their daily task of fetching the mail for their respective families. Margaery fostered high hopes of something from her brother Loras, providing an update to his situation. She had been aware of his dealings with Renly, and awaited only confirmation that they were well and progressing speedily on their journey to France, where they were sure to receive a warmer reception for their particular brand of affection than they might in the stodgy and puritanical United States.
Margaery was mightily surprised, then, that the letter she received was from Renly, and it said little about his journey to Europe with his forbidden lover but much about a certain delicate situation concerning Miz Cersei, her children, and their uncertain parentage. Sure, there were mutterings over the years, about how little the children resembled their supposed father, and how in certain poses Joffrey was the spit of Jaime twenty years earlier, or how Myrcella bit her lip in the same playful way as her uncle, or how Tommen tilted his head just as Jaime did when pondering something.
It had— mostly— been accounted as natural for the children to resemble him, especially as he was not only their uncle but their mother’s twin. Now, however, with the revelation held in the pages of Renly’s letter, the truth was out: Jaime was not their uncle but their father, and they had been conceived in lustful incest with his own sister. Renly had witnessed an incriminating scene years earlier, put together a few errant pieces, and drawn a spectacular conclusion.
He had not, however, revealed this conclusion right away, nor for a decade thereafter, feeling it prudent to save his information for such time as he might have need of it. Leverage was always welcome in dealing with Lannisters, he had found.
But then, on the eve of absconding to freedom with his lover, he had felt the need to unburden himself of his secret (or rather because Loras would not stop demanding some sort of revenge against Jaime for rebuffing his amorous advances at a certain prior moment, thus causing the younger man a great deal of embarrassment and consternation, in a particularly mocking and cruel fashion).
Thus it was that Renly had revealed everything to Robert. And to add insult to injury, his letter warned that if anything untoward befell Robert after said revelation, the blame was to be placed squarely at the feet of the Lannister twins.
Margaery’s appalled shock had drawn Sansa’s attention; she had taken the letter, read it, and exclaimed in amazement, drawing Joffrey’s attention from where he stood by the livery, admiring Robb Stark’s dappled grays with blatant envy. Joff had read the letter and marched right across the street to the sheriff, eager to get Jaime out of the way.
He had just gotten free of the restrictions placed upon him by his parents; he’d be damned if some uncle was going to hold him back from what he wished to do. He did not give a fig for the accusation in the letter. The mad claim that Jaime was his father was ludicrous, preposterous even, and ultimately would be proven false, but until then, he wanted his uncle prevented from interfering in Joffrey’s rightful stewardship of the Double B.
“I must go to Margaery,” Sansa said, detaching herself from Joff’s side and nimbly dancing out of range of his fists. She was sure her dancing teacher had never imagined all those lessons would be put to this sort of use. “She’ll need me to… recover from her shock.”
Without giving him time to argue, she turned and hurried back the way they’d come. Her shoulders straightened, losing some of the psychic weight they carried when in Joffrey’s presence, and her chin lifted. By the time she was striding past the jail once more, she felt quite herself again, and thus smiled easily when she met the piercing gaze of Sheriff Clegane through his dirty window. He did not smile back, of course, but his eyes followed her as she walked by, and she knew— she knew— that he kept watching her as she crossed the street and approached her friend.
He watched her, too, as she conversed with Margaery, and as they said their farewells, and as her brother Robb helped her into their buggy. Then he watched them ride out of town in the direction of their ranch, the Northpoint, and Sansa was sure she could feel the touch of his gaze right between her shoulder blades, even through the dust kicked up by their horses as they left Kingsland behind.