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No Ensnared Bird

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For generations the Clegane family had been the very definition of beauty and grace. With an immense amount of wealth, numerous titles, and property spanning across several territories, anyone lucky enough to bear the name had been privileged from the moment they were conceived. The last two generations had added to the appeal, both physically and politically, of the family by going against the social norms of noblemen and training to be proficient in combat. Although they certainly had no intentions of ever reducing themselves to a lowly knight, they were physically capable of doing so, and were considered to be worthy opponents in sparring matches. The brute strength of the men also made them popular among women, and most noble families wanted to marry a daughter off to one in the hopes that those traits would be passed on to an heir.

Marcus Clegane, who had inherited the title of Duke and was well-known for his good looks and charming personality in his younger years, had been one of only a handful of male Cleganes born in his generation and the only one to actually bear the Clegane name. Having descended from a long line of equally attractive men, combined with the enormous wealth and power the House gave him access to, as well as the rigorous physical training that his own father pushed him through as a young boy, he had the luxury of being able to choose who to marry as opposed to being forced into an arranged marriage. The Cleganes had not participated in the practice for at least two centuries by then, but it was still commonplace and there was a steady influx of hopeful fathers of noblewomen from foreign territories who wanted to negotiate a marriage contract between their daughters and Marcus.

He had developed a reputation early on for being more than a little flirtatious. Wooing any girl or woman he felt like wooing in that moment was an activity he would happily partake in. Occasionally he did it to impress friends, or to stoke his own ego in front of the masses, or even on the rare occasion just to see what shade of pink the object of his attention would blush at his words, but the majority of the time he did it simply because he wanted to; because the lady had caught his eye.

His reputation had been that of a flirt, but not a heartbreaker – at least, not an intentional one. He was known for being kind enough to never allow his flirting to go beyond that. His interactions with women never dragged on long enough for any of them to develop a real attachment to him. A few of the younger women had been so thoroughly wooed that they became infatuated with him and struggled to let go once they realized he was not genuinely interested, but Marcus would try to persuade them to move on as gently as he could.

He remained a bachelor for many years, but by the age of 28 he had begun to feel the pressure to marry and produce an heir. Two years earlier he had already made his decision on who he planned to marry, though he had not acted on his feelings then, choosing instead to indulge in the freedoms of an unmarried man for as long as he could. The woman he chose to marry was a mild-mannered, almost timid, but exceptionally beautiful young woman named Anne. Her family had been of a lower social rank, but the union had been supported by the Clegane family on account of the land her family owned, particularly a 6000-acre stretch of fertile fields ideal for agriculture. Marcus’s mother, Adelina, had also favored her due to Anne’s more “traditional” behavior; unlike the other girls and women Marcus had spent his time with over the years, her virginity had never been a question.

As soon as the engagement was announced, they had been dubbed a darling couple by high society. The union had ignited anticipation for equally attractive heirs, with frequent talk of what features the boys would inherit from either parent.

The first decade of the marriage had seemed promising enough, if only Anne could have produced a child capable of surviving. As the years passed, there were growing concerns that she had inherited the so-called curse of her mother’s family: her grandmother had produced over a dozen children, though all but Anna, her mother, had been too sickly to survive infancy. Anna had just barely survived her childhood, plagued by sickness after sickness; a pattern which repeated itself through her adulthood as well. Anne herself had been the first live child born to her parents following at least four recorded miscarriages, and it seemed that she was following in her mother and grandmother’s footsteps.

The first Clegane child, a son named William, was born within a year of the marriage but quickly fell ill before his half-year and died. A second son, Gregor, was born three months premature and clung to life for less than a day. Their first daughter had been stillborn; Adelina had adamantly opposing the naming of stillborn children, believing that it would only make the loss more painful, but Anne always referred to this daughter as Isabella. Two more daughters, Maria and Marden, had followed in quick succession, although Maria died before her fifth birthday and Marden did not live past the age of three. A fourth daughter, Beatrice, was born two years after Marden, conceived around the time Marden fell ill, but seemed to thrive, despite nearly costing Anne her life during childbirth.

Feeling trapped in a constant state of mourning from the loss of so many children so close together, Marcus and Anne had been grateful for Beatrice’s survival and considered her to be a welcome blessing. However, the pressure to produce a son, the only child who would be able to inherit the entitlements of the family and produce an heir of his own to continue the Clegane line, had only continued to grow.

Unfortunately, following the birth of Beatrice, Marcus and Anne experienced several years of unsuccessful attempts at conception. There had been numerous attempts, each one more degrading for Anne than the last as the elder Cleganes began to insist on servants being posted outside the door to ensure that they were in fact trying, but there were no signs of a pregnancy. Concerns grew, and some members of the royal court began to suspect that Anne had been rendered barren from the difficult birthing of Beatrice. A life-threatening illness that lasted for over a month in her late-30s had caused Anne to stop menstruating altogether for a year, which had initially reignited hope of a pregnancy, but effectively extinguished it when she failed to show any other symptoms.

Another pregnancy finally occurred a few months shy of Anne’s 40th birthday. It didn’t take long for her to realize that something was different; after experiencing the ordeal seven times before, she knew what to expect.

Unlike his siblings, who had all shown movement in-utero, this child had not been energetic in the womb. Anne only felt a few kicks here and there during the final weeks of her pregnancy, and while the lack of movement seemed to improve slightly before the birth, it was still significantly less than normal. This caused enough fear and anxiety for Anne that she began to wish for movement, even if it meant having her bladder kicked at the worst possible moments. She would have happily accepted the humiliation she had experienced during her pregnancy with Maria and had an accident in front of her servants and husband again over the chilling feeling of placing her hand on her stomach and not feeling a single twitch from the fetus.

The size of the fetus had also been a cause for concern, even though it was the only reason there was no doubt that it was alive. At only four months she was already much larger than she had been with any of her previous pregnancies, looking closer to a woman in her sixth month. She had been rendered almost completely immobile by the end of the eighth month due to the size of her stomach and the pain she experienced. Her abdomen had distended to the point that it was purple, far heavier than normal, and felt as though it would tear off of her body if she stood up.

The final days leading up to the birth had been the most challenging and frightening. Anne was more scared than she had been during childbirth, terrified of the agony she knew she would feel and the uncertainty of what would happen with the child after it was born, fearing that the situation would end up similar or identical to Gregor or the stillborn daughter she called Isabella.

To everyone’s surprise, the birth had been strange in the sense that it was uneventful. If Anne hadn’t already been suspecting something was wrong, she knew it without a doubt when she went into labor and, within only two hours of feeling contractions, the child was born. It had not been an easy birth by any means: she had been in excruciating pain and had truly feared that she would die, but it was over quickly. The strangeness of the birth was only rivaled by the fact that the babe did not cry; instead, he only made soft gurgling sounds.

Chaos ensued immediately after that. The midwife was unable to control her facial expression upon seeing the newborn’s features. The look of disbelief, horror, and disgust had been clear as day to Anne, which only served to confirm her belief that something was terribly wrong with the child. Although the midwife had been quick to recover and even quicker to loosely wrap the infant in an oversized blanket and turn away from her, Anne had gotten a glimpse of his abnormality. The too-loud hiss of Compose yourself, wench! directed at a servant girl who gasped and covered her mouth was further confirmation.

The child’s face was horribly disfigured. She had only gotten a brief look at it, but she knew immediately that it was ugly. She could not stop the sob that crept up her throat and threw one forearm over her face to cover her eyes. At that moment, she could not bear the thought of seeing the full extent of the deformities, if there were more. She did not lower the arm until the midwife offered her son for her to hold, and even then she kept her eyes shut. The trembling in the midwife’s voice had been just as noticeable as the way her hands trembled when she passed the newborn to his mother.

“My lady,” the midwife had whispered shakily, “I feel that I must warn you… The child is…” She seemed to be unsure, or unable to continue her sentence, but it did not matter. Once Anne finally opened her eyes and saw her son, she screamed.

Marcus, who had not been present at the birth at his wife’s request, was alerted by her screams. Fearing that she had given birth to another stillborn, he rushed into the room, prepared to comfort his wife and deal with his own grief. He had been expecting to see Anne holding a dead baby, perhaps clutching it tightly to her chest as she had Isabella, but instead he was greeted with the sight of his wife sobbing hysterically and desperately trying to shove their child into the arms of someone else.

After quickly taking the child from her so that she would not drop the infant on the floor in her despair, it only took a single look for Marcus to understand why she was so distraught. He had not been prepared to pull back the blanket which had been tossed up over the silent infant’s face as though to hide him and see the almost mangled face that the child possessed. One side appeared to have been formed perfectly: a soft brown eyebrow, thick eyelashes, a dark bluish-grey eye that was oddly free of the usual tears that newborn babes shed, a gently rounded cheek and nostril, and proportionate lips. The other side, however, was a frightening mess of twisted tissues: the eyebrow was completely missing along with the eyelashes for that eye; the eyelid seemed to be malformed and the eye appeared to be set lower in the socket than the other. The nostril had the appearance of something that had been stabbed with a fork and twirled around the tines. The corner of the mouth drooped as though the infant had already suffered apoplexy.

These features, which Marcus had been quick to deem “monstrous” and “offensive,” resulted in the baby, who would eventually be named Sandor, being handed off to a wet nurse immediately. The first few weeks of his life were spent entirely with this young woman as no one else was willing to volunteer to relieve her of her charge for even a moment. Neither Marcus nor Anne wanted to have to look at him, but they also did not want to throw him out on the streets; not because of some deepfelt, secretive sense of parental love for the boy, but because of the fear that he would be the last son.

This fear proved to be the reality, as future attempts at producing a “healthy” son proved futile. Not that it came as a surprise to anyone. Anne was well past her childbearing years, and no amount of pressure from the elder Cleganes would change that. With no children to name as their heir, they had no choice but to choose Sandor.

His childhood had been complicated, to say the least. The first couple of years of his life were spent with his wet nurse; the deformity of his lips hadn’t spared the inside of his mouth, causing him to be slow to graduate from milk to solid foods. As soon as he was able to eat enough on his own without becoming too malnourished, the wet nurse quickly passed him on to the governess who had been employed by the Cleganes specially for Sandor. She did not last long, too repulsed by the child’s appearance to stomach teaching him, and he spent the next three years being passed off to numerous governesses, often in quick succession.

After his fifth birthday, which had been spent in the company of Martha, the only governess who had been able to adapt to his appearance and did not abandon him, Anne began to have second thoughts about abandoning her son. She had been watching him in secret, initially because she was unable to wrap her mind around his deformities, but eventually she began to do it out of genuine interest in his life. After witnessing the dejected expression on the good side of his face every time one of his governesses would leave, she decided that she would take on an active role in her son’s upbringing.

This was not the normal practice of noble mothers at the time. The upbringing of children was considered a joint effort performed by the house staff, with very little interaction between the children and their parents. Anne and Marcus had both been raised by governesses and servants, and they had participated in the practice with their own children up until then.

The more time she spent with her son, the more Anne genuinely bonded with him, and her feelings towards him eventually shifted from disgust and horror at his appearance to an intense feeling of maternal protectiveness over him. Steadily, these feelings progressed to the complete and undeniable love for her child, which was rivaled only by the love she had felt for her own governess.

Once the bond was established, Anne did her best to ensure that Sandor remained unaware of his affliction for as long as possible. He had been separated from Beatrice his entire life, as ordered by Marcus who wanted to spare his daughter from what he believed would traumatize her. This effectively meant that he was quarantined to only a specific area of the estate where his only contact with other people had been with the members of the house staff who were given the duty of raising him. Whereas Beatrice was permitted to have a mirror in her chambers, Sandor had never been allowed that privilege; his servants were given strict instructions very early on to make sure that any mirrors he could have gotten to were hidden during the day. Servants were ordered to sculpt cups and bowls from clay and plates from wood specially for him to decrease the chances of him catching his reflection.

A number of other great lengths were taken to protect Sandor from his appearance, including shielding him from the public. He had already been exposed to the shock he elicited from others by his appearance, but the extreme measures that were taken to prevent him from seeing it for himself also prevented him from knowing the reason why they reacted that way. The servants had long since become accustomed to the boy’s looks by the time Anne decided to step in, but threats of violence that had been used to ensure that they never spoke a word to him about his looks and did their best to make him feel “normal” when he was younger had played a major role in this.

Although Anne grew to love her son, Marcus did not. He grew more and more disgusted by the existence of Sandor, and as the years went by, he became disgusted with his wife for caring for the boy. He would refuse to listen to her talk about Sandor’s achievements with his tutoring, how intelligent he was or what his interests here. Every time Anne would try to talk to her husband about their son, Marcus would change the topic to Beatrice. Eventually, he forbade her from talking about Sandor in his presence altogether.

When Sandor was around the age of six, he made a fateful mistake. Martha left him alone for only a brief moment to collect some papers for his tutoring which she had left in her chambers, and Sandor used that moment to sneak away and wander through the halls as quickly as he could in search of his mother. Essentially made a prisoner in his own home, more or less walled off to one part of the castle, he had never ventured beyond the so-called border to his domain and so he did not know what any of the doors opened to or what the rooms in the estate were used for.

He made the mistake of bursting into a meeting that Marcus was holding with several of his peers, none of whom had ever seen what the youngest Clegane boy looked like. The horrified expressions that instantly took over their faces, combined with one man’s disgusted exclamation of My god, Marcus!, and the pale but furious expression on his father’s face caused an unsettling feeling to twist in Sandor’s stomach.

Moments later, before Marcus or Sandor could utter a word, Martha managed to catch up to the boy and whisked him away quickly, apologizing profusely. Sandor had just barely been able to hear the softly muttered apology his father directed at his guests.

Martha’s apologies had not been enough to stop Marcus from reaching his breaking point. Following the meeting, which ended not long after the interruption, he stormed to the room where he knew Sandor and Martha would be, remembering the schedule for Sandor’s tutoring that he had developed together with the governess, and grabbed his son by the arm in a tight and painful grip before dragging him away. He marched Sandor to his mother’s chambers, where they found Anne sitting at her own mirror and brushing her hair.

The sound of the door suddenly openly had startled her, causing her to nearly drop her brush. She looked at them through the mirror, and the frightened and confused look on their son’s face instantly alerted her to Marcus’s intention. Despite her efforts to stop it from happening, Marcus carelessly shoved her aside when she tried to block her mirror with her own body and shawl. Anne attempted to pull their son away, desperately trying to wrench him out of Marcus’s grasp, but to no avail.

“Get out of the way, Anne,” Marcus had bit out harshly before lifting Sandor so that he was high enough to see the mirror. He hardly flinched when the boy screamed at the reflection.

“You mother may feel it necessary to shield you from the truth, but I will not allow this fantasy to continue,” he spat through gritted teeth. “Take a look at yourself, boy. Look at what you are.” He shook the child as if to prove his point and only tightened his grip when Sandor struggled to get away from him. He adjusted the child so that he was holding the boy tightly against him with an arm around his abdomen and used his free hand to forcefully turn Sandor’s face so that he had no choice but to continue to look at himself.

Following this incident, Sandor spent weeks hiding whenever he could. He became combative with Martha, refusing to obey orders from her or the other servants. Whenever it was time for meals, he would refuse to come out of his chambers, even going as far as to jam the door so that John, one of the larger servants who had been a fighter for an illegal gang before redeeming himself and joining the Clegane household, was forced to break down the door just to retrieve him so that he would not starve.

Anne did all she could think of to brighten his spirits, spending more time with him and attempting to rebuild his now destroyed self-image by reminding him of the person he was, but it was no use. The damage had been done, and it had cut deep.

At night, Marcus and Anne would fight about what had happened.

“You think pretending he is not hideous will help?” Marcus would shout. “What do you plan to do when he decides to try to socialize? When his condition becomes public knowledge because he walked up to someone – a goddamn girl – and frightened them? We are lucky enough that the men who were present that day are all honorable men who keep their mouths shut, otherwise everyone all over Westeros would know!”

“He is a child, Marcus!” Anne would always say, at a loss for how else to defend her son from her husband’s violent and cruel disgust. “He cannot help the way he looks.”

“No, I suppose you are to blame for that, aren’t you?” Marcus had begun to blame Anne for Sandor’s appearance, accusing her of anything he could think of that could have caused the deformities, regardless of how unlikely or unrealistic they were: that she ate too many sweets while pregnant, that she had not eaten enough red meat, that she had been dabbling in witchcraft, and even that she had intentionally deformed him in the womb.

“You cannot expect to keep him locked away forever.”

Except that was precisely what Marcus tried to do. Sandor’s privileges were greatly reduced: he was moved to the northern-most facing side of the estate, where the windows were visible only to the private garden of the grounds. A towering stone wall surrounded this garden, and beyond it lay nothing but dense forest. The only reason he was allowed to open the curtains during the warmer seasons was because of the isolation of that section of the estate which provided no room for an accidental sighting, as Marcus had taken to calling it. To prevent Sandor from venturing beyond the boundaries of his wing, armed soldiers were assigned at any and every possible exit point, equipped with their swords, brute strength, and orders to physically restrain Sandor if he were to try to get past them.

In addition to this, Marcus also forced Sandor to train as a soldier. He used the tradition of his grandfather, his father, and himself as the reason for this, claiming that he believed if Sandor was strong enough it might help secure a marriage for him in the future. In reality, Marcus forced the training for a very specific reason: to prepare Sandor for battle enough that he would not make a mockery of the Clegane name whenever Marcus decided to send him off to battle with secret hopes of his son being killed.

This continued for many years. Gradually, Anne’s visitations with her son became less frequent due to Marcus becoming more controlling over her. He eventually assigned guards to closely monitor his wife’s activities while he wasn’t around. The visitations were permitted for a while, but once one of the guards informed him of a conversation that he overheard Anne having with Sandor, in which she had promised to find a way for the two of them to run away, Marcus once again snapped.

A catastrophic fallout followed. For the first time in their nearly three-decade long marriage, Marcus beat his wife – brutally. She was able to hide the bruising around her neck from everyone but her maid by wearing high-collared gowns, and the bruises all over her torso were completely hidden from everyone including her maid as she never allowed anyone to see her without her slip on. The bruises on her face, however, were impossible to hide: they were large, dark, and took nearly two months to fully disappear. Her right eye had also hemorrhaged during the beating, and it was especially unnerving to the point that Marcus temporarily forbade his wife from being seen by anyone but the house staff.

His message had been loud and clear – that Anne was never to visit their son again – but to ensure that she would not attempt to disobey him, Marcus increased surveillance on her. She was followed by at least three soldiers everywhere she went, and similarly to her son, she was quarantined to one portion of the estate which was opposite to Sandor’s.

The beating had not been well hidden from society. Anne’s sudden absence at all formal and casual events was immediately noted. Rumors spread quickly, fueled by Marcus’s overly-casual excuses for his wife’s newfound reclusiveness. The rumors were eventually confirmed after a month, when Anne made an appearance at a formal feast before the facial bruises had fully healed; despite putting on several layers of powder to try to hide the lingering green and brown splotches around her eyes and jaw, the discoloration had been visible enough that all of the attendees had seen it.

The cause of the sudden cessation of his mother’s visits was not kept secret from Sandor. A younger servant by the name of Eleanor had been assigned to his wing of the estate as a housekeeper, and while she was cleaning out the fireplace in the inner ward she overheard Sandor attempting to get information from Martha. She waited until the older woman grew tired of the teenager’s questions and refusal to do his lessons and abandoned him in exasperation before catching Sandor’s attention by loudly whispering across the room.

“Come here,” she said, motioning him over. Once he was close enough to hear her, but not too close to give away that she was talking to him in case one of the soldiers happened to peek into the room to see what was going on, she motioned for him to stop.

“What is it?” Sandor asked in a whisper.

“I overheard you pestering Martha,” Eleanor said, smiling just a little so that he would know she was only teasing. “I hope you know she is only trying to protect you. That’s why she would not answer your questions.”

“Protect me from what?”

There was only the briefest moment of hesitation from Eleanor before she said, “You deserve the truth, sir.” And then she told him about the beating and the extent of his mother’s injuries.

Sandor had been shocked, devastated, and most of all, furious. At just barely 14 years of age, he believed he was capable of taking on his father to defend his mother, but he was quickly reminded just how foolish this belief was and the reality that he was, in fact, just a mere child: incapable of making it farther than a foot past the guards posted at the entrance to his wing before they jumped him, violently tackling him to the ground and beating him until he was too weak to stand before dragging him back to his chambers. After being carelessly tossed onto his bed, he laid there in pain from the numerous contusions covering his body and wondered if the beating he had just sustained was similar to the beating he now knew his mother had received at the hands of his father.

Two months later, Sandor and Anne were handed a welcome blessing: an aggressive bout of consumption killed Marcus, effectively freeing his wife and son from his abuse. To their surprise, Marcus had failed to rewrite his will, which had been originally written shortly after his and Anne’s marriage. Upon his death, both Anne and Sandor inherited the family estates that Marcus held claim to, and Sandor inherited the title of Earl.

Although Anne had never held a significant amount of political power, she was permitted to retain what little she did have. This power included the duty of securing a marriage for any of their heirs and their daughters. She had been quick to assume this duty, beginning the process of opening marriage negotiations with other noble families only a few days after Marcus’s death. Within weeks, she had successfully married Beatrice to a wealthy prince in Braavos, and she was able to focus solely on securing a marriage for her son.

This proved to be a difficult task for two reasons. Due to Marcus’s extreme disgust for his son, Sandor’s mere existence was unknown to most people. Many of the noblemen were surprised to hear that there was an heir to the Clegane family, as the official announcement following Sandor’s birth, unbeknownst to Anne at the time, had been that the “unnamed child” had been stillborn. In addition to this, negotiations tended to end very quickly upon the discovery of Sandor’s appearance. The majority of the noblemen Anne spoke to were unwilling to marry their daughters to someone who they referred to as “grotesque” and “repulsive.”

There were two betrothals that initially seemed to have potential: first to a young girl named Mary, and then to a young woman named Eithne shortly before he turned 30, but both fell apart before any steps were taken to officially marry. Sandor had insisted that the portrait that was to be painted and sent to his potential betrothed be as realistic as the painter was capable of. Mary had taken one look at the portrait and adamantly refused to be married to him, threatening to elope with an elderly and low-ranking soldier or slit her own throat to prevent the marriage. Eithne had been somewhat calmer, initially agreeing to the wedding and attempting to ignore Sandor’s appearance, but as time passed and the wedding date drew closer she backed out.

Sandor was not surprised by their decisions, but his self-esteem hit a new low, and even lower after he and Anne had a heart-to-heart and she informed him of how many negotiations had fallen through before those two. The fear and realization that there was a very high probability of Sandor never being able to marry was a heavy weight on their shoulders, but Anne refused to give up and spent almost two decades trying to find a noble family willing to marry into House Clegane. Failed negotiations were so common that she stopped keeping count.

Over time, Anne acknowledged that there was no hope in a marriage to a lady of a high social class. She began trying for a marriage to lower class nobles, including those who had poor reputations and had fallen out of favor among the other noble families. It was through this act of desperation that she finally secured a marriage for her son: his wife-to-be was a young woman named Sansa, the eldest daughter of House Stark.