What a shit day it had been.
The pissant little prince was now a king, and the whole city was rejoicing. Well, the whole city was being forced to rejoice. The small council had the Watch trot along the royal family’s route, forcing the smallfolk out to the cobblestones and promenades to wave and shout blessings to their new king. He had watched the Goldcloaks scurry out of the Red Keep shortly before the royal family, to be sure the procession met with crowds waving and cheering on the way to the Great Sept.
As if the gods would listen. As if the gods existed.
Joffrey didn’t seem to notice the weary eyes in gaunt faces that gave their adulation halfheartedly. The crowd waiting outside the Sept was marginally more enthusiastic, filled with lesser nobles and the wealthy of the city still unsure what this new reign would bring, but smart enough to know kissing the bratty boy's arse was not optional.
The procession stopped, and Sandor Clegane dismounted, moving to where the boy sat astride a large white gelding. Grooms gathered about to hold his mount and bring around the stepstool so the prince about to be crowned wouldn’t risk a spill when he dismounted. He couldn’t give two shits if the brat fell on his face, but it was his duty to guard the wretched boy, and guard the wretched boy he would.
While he stood by waiting for the king-to-be to dismount his horse, Sandor turned his fearsome helm in the direction of the gilded carriage. The rest of the royal family was safely ensconced inside. Several grooms rushed to help the queen mother and her younger children carefully step onto the paving stones, followed by the delicate figure of Joffrey’s betrothed. Her pale blue silks hugged her slender body, and her hair glinted in the sun even more than all the Lannister blonde surrounding him. It looked like golden fire, haloing her face.
He hated fire.
“Come, Sansa. Come, dog,” Joffrey's command was sharp. Without a word or hesitation, Clegane had turned on his heel and followed the boy up the steps into the Great Sept.
That evening had been better than the coronation ceremony. The celebration meant wine flowed freely, even in the barracks. Patrolling shifts were kept short for the Watch, so they could participate in the festivities as well. The King's Hound had enjoyed the night off and the wine. At first. But after several hours, the chaos and raucous irritated Sandor, and when the firebreathers were sent down after performing in the throne room, he'd sought an escape from the flames and cacophony.
Escape seemed near to impossible though, for every hallway and balcony was filled with revelers and their drunken singing, mostly the Lannister song despite the fact their new king bore the name Baratheon. When indoors afforded no peace, the hulking man tried the gardens, which were no better. With a growl and an uttered curse that sent those nearby scurrying, he veered towards the last possible place of refuge: The Godswood.
It was a lonely place, this little bit of forested wilderness within the Keep's walls. Darkness enveloped him within a half dozen paces, and the noise from the festivities fell away. He sighed, making his way deeper into the copse.
As he approached the little heath where the heart tree grew, he saw a shadowy form kneeling beneath the branches of the great oak. All he could see was a dark cloak spread about the figure. He'd have to get closer to see who it was.
Sandor crept across the carpet of grass, his footfalls softened by the turf to near silence. As he closed the distance between himself and the kneeling figure, he saw it was female, and she was whispering what sounded like a prayer. Curving around to the woman's left side, he caught sight of a lock of auburn hair peeking out from the hood of her cloak. The tall man straightened with a grunt.
“What are you doing out of your cage, little bird?”
The woman started, the opening of her hood swinging toward where he stood. She pushed the fabric back and he saw her blue eyes clearly in the moonlight. Hesitantly she stood, her eyes darting away from him to look somewhere over his left shoulder. He didn't blame her. He knew Joffrey enjoyed setting him to long hours guarding her, to make her uncomfortable with his imposing, scarred presence. Few could look him in the eye. None of those that could were Ladies.
Sansa seemed to gather herself before offering a mousy reply. “I was praying, Ser.”
Sandor snorted and replied gruffly, “How many times do I have to tell you I'm no Ser? I'll never be one of those Knights from your stories.”
She stiffened but didn't say anything in response. He looked at her. He knew why she was in the Godswood, why she was praying. The newly crowned king was to pronounce judgment upon her father tomorrow. Her father kept to the old gods, so of course she'd be praying for him here. Not that it would do any good.
The Hound sighed.
“Come along. I'll take you back to your rooms.”
Her feet seemed rooted to the ground, so unmoving was she. He rolled his eyes and with tight lips offered her his left arm. That seemed to free her feet, and she stepped over to rest her fingertips against his elbow.
Sansa Stark wore the same pale dress as she had to the Sept, but her hair was down and she was no longer adorned with jewels and gems. As they walked, she seemed to float, and the paleness of her skin and the gown made her seem almost spectral. When they reached the entrance to the Godswood, she pulled her hood back up. The gesture brought a question to mind.
“How did you get here?” He asked. She still didn't look at him, her eyes drifting from the foliage to her feet.
“Everybody was celebrating. Nobody noticed me on the way here. I just wanted quiet. And to pray,” she spoke so softly he found his head bowed towards her just to hear her low words.
He said nothing in response, and his silence didn't go unnoticed. Still not turning her eyes towards him, she posed him the same question, “Why did you come to the Godswood tonight?”
His gray eyes glanced toward her. Her eyes were fixed straight ahead at the Keep rearing up before them.
“Same as you. For the quiet.”
“Not to pray?”
“No. There are no gods.”
When her step faltered, he reached his right hand around, expecting to have to catch her. But she turned to face him, shock written plain as day on her face. Her blue eyes were wide and staring directly at his broad chest.
“How can you not believe in the gods?”
His eyes narrowed. Such a pretty, innocent little daughter of a Lord, who had never known the realities of life. She had never had to hunt for her food, to sleep under a hedge. She had never spent a day marching through the mud and muck and cold only to fight a grueling, hot battle at the end of it. Her face had never been splattered by the blood of a slain enemy. Her face had never been burned.
Sandor was surprised to discover he was growling deep in his throat.
“Look at me,” he barked. Shining blue eyes rose hesitantly to his half-ruined face. He took a step forward, looming over her, peering down as his lips bared his teeth in a farce of a smile.
“Do you think the gods would let this happen to a boy?” He gestured to the right side of his face, twisted and scarred. When she didn't say anything, her blue eyes only staring tremulously up at his gray, he continued, “What gods would see fit to scar a seven year old child in such a way?”
The girl swallowed, but to her credit, her eyes stayed on his. More than most could do, when facing his snarling, maimed visage. He took a breath and turned to march to the Keep, pulling her along in his wake.
The few revelers still out and about quickly vanished when they saw him coming, paying no mind to the cloaked figure he escorted. When Sandor Clegane looked ready to do murder, everybody in the Keep tread lightly and stayed out of his way. He was grateful for the girl's silence, and watched her out of the corner of his good eye. Sansa kept her face downcast, apparently trying to avoid drawing the attention of those they passed. When the passageways were empty, he was startled to see her eyes turned back up to his face. Only his perpetual scowl kept his surprise from showing.
Sandor's booted feet thudded against the stone as they ascended the stairs to Sansa's apartments. Her slippered feet made almost no sound at all. The hulking man shoved her door open and held it, facing her as she paused before him.
“Back in your cage, little bird.”
He watched her hesitate, her eyes flickering into the dim room. His brow knotted. What was she waiting for? A written invitation?
Confusion turned to astonishment as she placed a hand on his bicep and raised up on her tiptoes to brush a kiss across the ruined flesh of his cheek. With wide eyes, he stared down at her as her heels dropped back to the floor.
“Thank you for your escort Se-, I mean...Hound.”
And with that, she turned and vanished behind the door of her apartments.
Shortly after midday, Sandor found himself climbing the steps of the Sept again, heeling the King and Queen Regent with Sansa following. A flock of white-robed Kingsguard trailed her. He wondered if they were to protect the King, or to keep the girl from fleeing. It made him uneasy. Just what did the boy have planned?
The royal procession made its way out to face the statue of Balor, assembling themselves to the right of the King upon a stone outcrop. As the Hound moved behind the royal family, he shot a dark look towards Lord Baelish's back as Littlefinger placed himself beside Sansa.
Only moments later the crowd erupted at Lord Eddard Stark's appearance. He was dirty and haggard, his eyes more sunken and his face less fleshy than they had been. From where he stood, Sandor could see Sansa offer her father an encouraging smile as the guards forced him past her to stand before the crowd. Shouts were quickly silenced as the Lord of Winterfell began to speak his confession.
Halfway through, a stone struck the side of Lord Stark's head, causing him to stumble. Sandor reached out a gauntleted hand, catching the man before he could fall. Once Lord Stark had found his footing again, Sandor turned to resume his place by the brat King but not before he caught Sansa looking at him. A tentative but grateful smile graced her lips just briefly.
The disgraced Lord finished what he had to say, and Maester Pycelle offered his wisdom, speaking of mercy. Then Joffrey spoke, and everything went straight to Seven Hells.
Ser Illyn moved as Sansa screamed for someone to stop him. The crowd shouted and swarmed close to the raised stone as the great Lord Eddard Stark of Winterfell dropped to his knees, disbelieving eyes scanning the unruly crowd. Sandor placed his sword hand on the hilt, moving to stand before Joffrey and his mother Cersei. Something inside of him wrenched at Sansa's cries for mercy.
As he watched, Eddard's head lowered and he began to whisper. Something was mumbled, something about a promise, spoken so softly Sandor wasn't sure he heard the doomed man correctly over the crowd’s thunderous roar.
And then Ser Illyn swung.
The Hound felt something thump into him and nearly drew his sword, until he realized the impact came from behind himself. Turning, he saw Sansa collapsed into a heap of blue silk and auburn hair.
“Sansa.” He said softly, reaching through the mass of hair and silks to try to shake her shoulder. Instead his gauntlet touched her face and she shifted, her cheek pressing against his hand. Her bright eyes were shut with unconsciousness, her lips still parted from unheeded pleas. So pitiably naive.
A member of the Kingsguard, one of those Sers he paid no mind, came and scooped the girl up roughly as her father's head was raised above the crowd. Deafening screams echoed up the plastered walls. The common folk jostled their way to the front of the crowd with kerchiefs and rags, soaking up the blood running down the stones as souvenirs of the King's judgment. The small council and royal family turned to leave, and Sandor kept pace behind the brat, though his eyes watched the guardsman cradling Sansa closely. She might have lofty ideas from her stories and songs about Knights being brave, noble and true. He knew otherwise.