Sounds of weapons being hauled from one end to the next, grumbling of just about every man in King's Landing and the stench of horseshit surrounded him completely.
His armour hung heavy around him, the only safety he'd known. That and his sword and half a hundred daggers stoved away in boots, soles of said boots, saddlebags; anywhere a dagger could fit, he kept one.
Sandor spat on the ground. Killing was the sweetest thing there was, but getting ready for said killing was a much hated prospect. You had to make sure all your things were in order - armour, saddle, weapons - or it was your own damn fault you got killed. It required an eye for details and a mind for correction. After sixteen years of doing this, he had adapted but it still very much went against Sandor's impulsive nature.
He believed in doing, not planning. Probably why no one had ever given him any position of command other than leading sorties. Or a position in the van.
Until today, that is.
Viserys Targaryen was coming, bringing a Dothraki hoard - nearly forty thousand riders. The sister he had sold to the Khal didn't make it past one year of her marriage, how he'd convinced the Khal to ride west, no one knew.
But he was coming, that much was certain.
War brought out the stupidest feelings in people, he'd noticed, now more than once.
Lady Stark for example, always so stoic and straight backed, was a mess today. She hung around her husband by the stables, sneaking in kisses and hugs when she thought no one was looking.
Not that he was looking, just that they were canoodling by the knives.
Almost every knight, squire, armourer and everyone in between was wearing a ribbon.
He felt his scars twist with his expression of disgust at the sight of them. The twitch was back, with a vengeance, after being gone for more or less - how long was it? Since he and the girl started getting along.
It was only because he talked Joffrey out of killing her wolf, he knew, but nevertheless, they were friends.
'Fucking idiots. As soon as they sniff out a brothel those favors will be in the dirt at its entrance.' He thought, scowling some more for good measure.
He almost wished he'd not disillusioned the girl about knights. Might be a favor was nice. Might be he wanted one from her. 'Not that she'd give you one. Dogs get collars, not favors.'
In any case, it wouldn't have ended up in the dirt, he knew.
"Clegane, Throne Room, now," one of the generals called.
He went, his new squire - a blacksmith boy who'd pissed off the wrong person to be saddled with him - in tow. The boy held his banner in one hand and his bull's head helm in the other.
All the greatlords of Westeros huddled around a large map. Stannis had planned the attack and was giving a final run through.
"... Here, here and here," he pointed to Tarth, Sunspear and Dragonstone. "He'll likely come land here. Tarth is unlikely but I want it covered in any case, Ser Jaime-"
"Take a quarter of the Lannister army to the Stormlands, join your men and sail to Tarth."
"Yes, Lady Brienne, will receive you." Ser Jaime nodded and stepped back. Commander Stannis assigned Sunspear to Oberyn Martell, and he himself would go to Dragonstone.
"Clegane," he said to Gregor, "you will lead quarter of the Lannister army to Harrenhall. Find any Targaryen supporters, you lock them up. I want a final count at the end of the war."
Sandor frowned. This was Gregor's work, torturing peasants for kicks and Stannis just gave him the best Nameday present of his life.
"Why bother? Not like the small folks can do much except sing songs and pray," he blurted out before he could stop himself.
"Worse comes to worse, we need their loyalty. He'll do as I say, as will you."
"Clegane," he said after a time, turning to Sandor. "You'll take a quarter of the Lannister army -" he stopped prompting him to continue.
"To Lannisport and keep tabs on the Iron men."
Stannis gave him a curt nod.
With that out of the way, he let his thoughts wander. The girl hadn't even come out to see him. Or at all. He hadn't seen her for days now. An unfamiliar emotion tugged at his heart. He shook off the feeling.
"Clegane… Clegane! What the hell do you think you're doing? Have you not listened to a word I've said?" Stannis thundered, his voice was perfectly level but it was thundering nevertheless. "Prince Oberyn has requested Ser Gregor be sent with him. To Dorne. So you'll be going to the Riverlands. Lord Tywin will take Lannisport."
Sandor could only gape for a second before composing himself.
The Riverlands? All fighting eventually came to the Riverlands. It was a high honour.
"Yes, Commander," he said, feeling absurdly elated.
"Lord Stark," they continued. He paid attention this time.
"All port cities are secured, Commander."
"Loras and Joffrey, you're with Renly. Renly you will keep the Tyrell army ready. Go wherever there is trouble."
Once the big matters were settled, they hung around the room, till it was time to go while the Commander left with his brothers to check the provisions.
He had a queer feeling this was the last time he'd be here in the Red Keep. He looked around taking it in.
Princess Myrcella glided in glittering in her pale pink gown and diamonds and shyly went to Oberyn Martell.
"My lord, for Prince Trystane," she said holding out a pink ribbon, matching her dress with gold embroidery.
Prince Oberyn smiled as he took it, "of course, my dear." He kissed the top of her head and off she went.
Sandor's mind dwindled back to the favors, now that he was aware of them again, they were everywhere. Prince Joffrey had one from Margeary Tyrell, a green one. He felt offended on behalf of the little bird, they were still officially betrothed, even though Joffrey had managed to court the Tyrell girl.
He wouldn't mind a green favor from Sansa. It was his favorite colour. Wild green of the forest, pale green of her dress when he told her about his scars, holy green of the Godswood he'd go to to watch her play with Lady, deep green of his cloak he saw her eyeing time and time again.
Loras Tyrell was covered in favors, literally. Both hands up to his elbows and the half a hundred strapped by his waist like tassels.
Ser Jaime had almost enough to rival Ser Daisy. Apart from the choice few, everyone had something.
Lord Stark's was Tully blue peeking from his gauntlet, Ser Davos had a small grey one, Ser Boros had a white one, similar to Ser Meryn's.
Even fucking Gregor had one. It looked merely a thread on his monstrous wrist, but it was there, a deep red, velvet strip.
The squires and stable boys of age were trying to discretely show theirs off, raising their arms and grabbing things unnecessarily.
Sandor's squire was no different.
He had a raggy brown one, it was tied around his wrist and he kept stroking one end between his palm and thumb, as if to remind himself it's real.
Lovesick fool, he thought. Damn me, if she gave me one I'd not believe its real either.
"It's a favor," the bull said.
"Aye, from a proper little Flea Bottom whore," he said, half jealous, half mad. The boy should have more sense than getting tangled in this air headed shit.
"She's not a whore!" He cried. "She is a proper little lady-" he said, then snapped his mouth shut, like he'd said too much.
Sandor raised a questioning brow. "Ha! As if I'd believe that. Don't get messed up with high borns boy, won't end well for you," he said darkly, just in case it was true. The boy was comely enough to get some ditsy maiden's attentions.
'Couldn't be her favor, it's much too dirty,' he reasoned with himself.
"Waiting for a favor of your own, brother," Gregor slapped him on the back in passing. How he knew just where to strike where it hit most, Sandor would never know, but it stung.
Because that's exactly what he was doing. Staring at the gates of the throne room waiting for the girl to appear. Favor or not, he wanted to see her before he left.
A ripple of laughter went through the men at arms around him and he was fifteen years old again.
"Didn't have time to scare someone into giving me a blood stained rag," he hollered at Gregor and his buggering red cloth.
Gregor narrowed his eyes minutely and Gendry pulled Sandor away, years of hammering giving him enough strength to actually succeed.
"Please, Ser," he said.
Before the brothers Clegane could go head to head, the chatter around them died suddenly and hushed murmurs rippled instead.
Sandor turned momentarily and then stood open mouthed, gaping.
The crowd parted as Sansa's direwolf entered the hall, clad in bronze and steel armour, complete with a spiked headpiece, belly and body armour and even vambraces for her giant wolf legs.
Her tongue lolled out to the side like an overgrown puppy and she trotted more than walked, right to him.
Gregor backed off instantly as did everyone surrounding them. Even more than before.
Everyone used to say Lady was small for a direwolf but she reached his shoulders now. Still she occasionally pounced on him insisting he carry her around like a puppy.
Behind her was Sansa, wearing her deep blue dress with opals in her hair, looking like some other worldly Goddess he wasn't allowed to pray to.
"What's this Sansa?" Lord Stark asked, stepping forward.
She flushed, looking down, almost ashamed. "She would have gone anyway," she replied. "I thought it best to make sure she was safe."
"Gone? Where? To war? Sansa-"
"Yes. I know she would've. I've been feeli- I know."
"I see. And who is she going with?" He asked.
She coloured even more if possible. The King entered while she was stuttering and took her father with him.
"We'll talk about this," he promised, as he left.
Sandor tried to ignore her. Her hair and her smell and her giant fucking wolf in the middle of the fucking throne room.
She steeled herself, wrung her hands and exhaled deeply.
"My lord," she whispered close to him.
'The fuck does she want now? Looking for her prince, perhaps. Or her true knight.'
He looked down his nose at her, determined to make this - whatever this was - as difficult for her as it was for him.
"What?" He barked, anger making him louder than necessary.
"Will you… will you… please…"
"Will you promise you'll bring her back safe?" She said handing him a small stuffed wolf.
"This?" He held it with disgust, certain he was being mocked. "What in the Seven buggerin-"
She held up her hands, palms out, in surrender. "It's Lady's. She never goes anywhere without it, just give it to her when you reach your camp. And the armour is easy to remove, if you have time I'll show you. And she'll hunt on her own, but don't let her wander too far, she'll come when you call… I've trained her well…" she babbled on.
"The little wolf. For me?" He asked, pointing to himself involuntarily.
"Yes," she breathed, all the time looking at the floor.
"Look at me," he said, trying to keep his tone even.
She did. Her eyes were fearful, her cheeks pink and her lips… It took every ounce of self control he had to not kiss her senseless then and there.
"Promise me," she said offering her hand.
"I promise," he said, taking it, without thinking.
She smiled. He stared at the pretty little hand in his, then as if it was the most natural thing in the world, lifted it to his scarred mouth, pressing a soft kiss on it, the world be damned.
She blushed even redder, colour rivalling her hair. Then gently pet Lady behind her ear, "you'll keep him safe, won't you?"
The wolf eyed him as if she understood and licked Sansa. She giggled and hugged her. "Good girl," she said.
Her other hand was still in his.
The whispers around them dissolved like smoke in air, he stroked her wrist gently, like Gendry and his favor, and much for the same reason.
Another thudding sound finally alerted him to his surroundings. Lord and Lady Stark were glaring daggers at him. He considered letting her hand go, but fuck it he could be dead by the end of the year. He'd have this, Others take them all.
Then it happened. The wolf girl came in with her direwolf, armoured much like Lady but without the spikes on the head and back pieces.
"Arya…" Lady Stark started to say.
"Nymeria wants to go too," she said resolutely.
That's when Lady decided to play, she wagged her tail at her sister and came forward to nudge Sandor with her head like she usually did.
"Seven hells, little wolf, can't do that in armour," he said, laughing despite it all. She lifted her paws to his shoulders and howled. Her sister joined in.
Whenever they did this, it was inevitably followed by dogs barking. So they joined in too.
"Where did you girls-? When?" Lord Stark blurted out.
"I went to the armory, father. One moon ago." Sansa said. "I didn't know Arya wanted to too. It was supposed to be a secret, I never thought she'd also-"
"Well, you shouldn't have gone to Gendry then," the wolf girl said.
"Who's this Gendry? And why is he armouring wolves?" Lady Stark demanded.
"I am, my lady," Gendry stepped up, gulping and ashamed.
"Another Clegane?" Lady Stark asked eyeing the banner he held, lips pursing so tight, they nearly disappeared.
"What? No! He's Gendry Waters," Arya said, defending him like she insulted him.
Isn't too far off from an insult, though, Sandor admitted.
"A bastard!" Lady Catelyn exclaimed.
A chuckle escaped Sandor at her expression.
Lord Stark looked ready to faint just then.
"And who is Nymeria going with?"
"You said wolves can't go to Dorne with you, so she'll go with Gendry. He's my friend."
It was the Hound's turn to be shocked. Highborn indeed. Although I never pegged the she wolf for a romantic. But what do I know about girls, he reasoned.
"Hound," the wolf girl said, "you owe me for not tattling on Sansa about the armour. So you have to keep Gendry and Nymeria safe too along with Lady. If you lose any one of them, don't bother coming back." She turned on her heel and stalked off to Gendry.
He laughed then. I'll bring them back, wolf-girl, he thought.
Lord Stark sighed for so long, his lungs might've just popped out.
Gendry checked Sandor's armour once again and lowered his Hound helm over his head. The Hound dropped his visor and stepped out into the yard, Stranger following.
He stood to face the Red Keep and his King one last time, banner flowing behind him, and two armoured direwolves at his side. The wolves howled again. It sent goosebumps up and down his body.
He bowed, mounted his horse and turned once again to find the little bird. She stood on the balcony, wind blowing her long hair away from her face, so it billowed around her face. 'That's what she'd look like under me.' The thought came unbidden.
He burned how she looked then, and the feel of her hand and her taste and her smell and her voice, into his memory. This burning, he revelled in.
The city gates were opened. The people cheered on the streets for the soldiers but at the sight of his Hound helm and the armoured wolves, they went beserk.
As he rode only her thoughts blazed in his mind, I have to go back to her. I can't die. And I have to keep the wolves safe. And the boy.
His will to win had never been stronger and he had a pretty strong will, so that's when he decided that maybe favors weren't so stupid after all.