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Sandor Clegane had been in King's Landing for a little more than a month when he heard there would be a tourney for young prince Joffrey's first name day. He had been told that King Robert Baratheon was fond of tournaments and would hold them for any occasion, but this was the first he was witness to. He was a man grown now – although most had thought him such years earlier – and eager to break a lance in such august company, so there was no question in his mind as to whether he'd enter the lists. After brief consideration, he put his name down for the melee as well.

Gregor wasn't even in the city, so there was no chance of facing him in a joust. Though he doubted the master of the games would have allowed that, even if the Mountain were here; all the tourneys Sandor had entered at Casterly Rock and Lannisport had denied that conflict. Not at all mysteriously – everyone knew the brothers hated each other, even if none knew the exact reasons why. One day, Sandor swore, one day a steward would slip up and the match would take place, and then... he would have justice at last. He was certain of it.

But on his fourth round, he did get to face Jaime Lannister. Sandor's lip curled. Again, there was no mystery in this; he'd been matched with his liege lord's eldest son several times before. It always provoked higher wagers when a sworn sword faced his lord, and he knew smallfolk and highborn alike would be betting on whether the dog would bite the golden hand that fed him. Well, he would try...

After three tilts and six broken lances, he finally unhorsed the Kingslayer, for the first time in all their encounters. A thrill went through him when he heard the crowd gasp. Some even cheered, but it was one woman's cry of disbelief that gave him the most guilty pleasure. And though Sandor himself fell in the next round, he was still exhilarated from the earlier victories and slept easily that night, needing hardly any wine to dull the memory of fire.

The next day's melee went almost as well. Almost. The rules were simple – they would fight on horseback, with blunted swords or the like; no teams, just every man for himself. Perfect, Sandor had thought when he heard, though he itched to see how each man would react when faced with proper weapons. That was the only trouble with tourney melees, he thought, knightly chivalry claimed to prefer bruising to blood. He knew what the commons wanted to see.

King Robert had entered the melee, and fought with a warhammer – not the famous one that had staved in the chest of Prince Rhaegar Targaryen on the Trident, but one without spikes. Still nearly as deadly, and most men avoided him... though whether it was because of his weapon or for fear of striking the king, Sandor could not tell. But after two hours, not many men were left ahorse, and he found himself holding off Robert's attacks. And as his defensive parries changed to more offensive sword thrusts, he grinned under his helm – it was said the king wasn't quite the warrior he had been four years earlier, but still, this was the sort of battle he'd dreamed of once, and he wasn't just surviving, he might even win...

Until that bloody bastard red priest with his fucking flaming sword came up behind him. The crowd had shouted approval when Thoros of Myr dipped his blade in a tub of wildfire and set it alight, making the horses around him rear and scatter. But Sandor had cursed and cursed, and spent as much of the melee as far away from the man as possible. And now with less than half a dozen men on the field... He saw the flames in the corner of his eye, flinched violently just as his mount spooked, and Robert's next blow missed him entire... because he'd fallen off his bloody horse. He hit the ground with a thump that shook him to the bone.

"Seven hells," Sandor groaned, lying in the dirt, feeling stunned and dented. He couldn't hear any laughter... gods, he was glad Gregor wasn't here... though at least his helm would have kept anyone from seeing his face. And then he did hear cheering, wild and loud and lots of it – someone must have won the melee. In a moment he'd have the strength to get up and see who.

But then a strong arm was pulling him to his feet... his head swam, but he could make out an antlered helm, eyes that could look in his directly... oh gods, it was the king himself.

"Clegane, am I right?" Robert boomed, after shooting a glance at the battered shield that miraculously still clung to his arm. "The one they call the Hound?"

Sandor nodded dumbly. He needed a better helm, something that would tell the world it was him, so he couldn't be mistaken for any other... If he had any prizes from his victories in the lists, he decided he'd use the gold to have one made. "Yes... sire. Your Grace."

The king roared with laughter and slapped him on the back. Sandor nearly fell again; for all they were of a height, Robert still outweighed him by at least three stone. But he thought he might still be growing, so the gods only knew how much that would change in the coming years.

"You fought well today, man! And knocked the Kingslayer down yesterday, that was a sight to see. My wife was beside herself," Robert guffawed. "They may call you a Lannister dog, but you're one with teeth."

Some of those teeth felt a little loose. Sandor didn't remember being hit in the face at any point, but he needed to get his helm off and see if there was any damage. Any further damage. Best to make his excuses, catch his stupid horse, and leave.

"Thank you, sire," he said haltingly. The words were hard, but the king's respect was unduly pleasing. And it seemed Robert hadn't noticed his shame, which was an intense relief. "My pardons, Your Grace, but now that the tourney's done, I must go report to my commander, Ser Tygett." More correctly, to his lieutenant, as Sandor was still but an upjumped squire and had not yet officially earned the red cloak of a Lannister man-at-arms.

"You serve my good-uncle?" Robert exclaimed. "Come to my feast tonight, ser, he'll be there. And the wine will flow... and the girls will be willing..."

I'm no ser, he wanted to growl. The word, here, struck harder than any of the king's blows had. And it made no matter how willing the girls were, they would be court ladies, stupid and insipid and prattling, and he knew none of them would dare look him in the eye. But the wine sounded tempting... and after, he could head down into the streets, find a brothel, maybe the one he'd been taken to years ago after the sack of the city, the one with the pretty blonde...

He nodded agreement and Robert clapped him on the back again. Hidden under his helm, Sandor winced. Or mayhaps a woman could wait for tomorrow.

For all that he was seated below the salt, this was still the finest table he'd ever had the privilege of attending – as a guest, not as a boy to fetch and carry – and Sandor felt stupidly proud to be there. King's Landing had been the right decision, he thought, and in time as the memory of the Sack faded further, he would be able to venture out of the Red Keep without receiving so many sullen stares. Though not the usual looks of revulsion, but he was long since used to those, he told himself.

His dinner companions were remarkably good at hiding their own reactions, and the insincerity was only bothering him a little. To their aid, Sandor was wearing his best tunic, and his hair was brushed carefully over the bad side of his face – although on his good side, a bruise was flowering on his cheekbone. Nothing else, thankfully.

For his own benefit, Sandor carefully avoided looking at the woman who sat next to the king. But soon into the feast she left, no doubt to do something with her son. Robert didn't waste a moment before he had a serving girl in his lap. Sandor merely blinked... so much for that aspect of so-called chivalry, so much for Robert Baratheon's legendary devotion... and drowned his thoughts in another cup of wine. And the wine was good, far finer than he was used to, and it did flow freely, toasts being made to the king, to the young prince, to the absent queen, to the victors of the tourney – one of whom was the king, but nobody seemed to be bothered by the duplication – and he soon lost track of how much wine he'd drunk.

And drunk was the word. Hours later, Sandor was heading back to his quarters, only slightly reeling, when Jaime Lannister stepped out of the shadows and laid a hand on his arm.

"Sandor Clegane. Can we speak?"

We are speaking, Sandor almost said, his lips twitching. "Yes, my lord?" was what he did reply, with overstated courtesy, and followed that up with a deep bow that nearly sent him sprawling down the corridor.

Jaime regarded him a moment, but simply said, "Follow me," and Sandor perforce did. He was a little too dizzy to pay close attention to where they were going, but as they passed a round room with white walls and white woolen tapestries, he began to sober up. Very quickly. This was the White Sword Tower, the home of the knights of the Kingsguard. Once, he'd dreamed of this place. Once, he'd learned the names and histories of almost every Sworn Brother since Aegon's day. Once, he'd been a fool.

They stopped in a small spare cell with little furniture but a bed, a chair, and such, which Sandor realized must be Jaime's sleeping quarters. Jaime shut the door and pointed to the chair, which Sandor took. The Kingslayer sat on the bed, and for a few minutes they just stared at each other.

Jaime was the first to break the silence. "You've been serving my family for how long now?" he asked.

"Six years, ser. A page at Casterly Rock, then squire. And after the war a squire for your uncle Lord Gerion, and for your uncle Ser Tygett's guards, in Lannisport and now here." Surely this was information Jaime Lannister ought to know already, Sandor thought. If he cared. He probably didn't.

"Hmm. And as loyal a dog as any Lannister could want. Tenacious, fierce – that nickname of yours is very apt."

The expression on the Kingslayer's face was impossible to read. What was he playing at? Some kind of reprisal for his defeat yesterday? Sandor warily replied, "Yes, ser?"

Jaime looked him over, then said, "You did well in the melee today. Facing down King Robert... most men wouldn't dare—"

"With a sword in your hand, he's just a man himself, ser." As the Kingslayer should know.

"Indeed." Jaime regarded him once more, eyes flicking over his face, before saying abruptly, "I'll soon be leaving King's Landing for a short time. I'm going home to Casterly Rock, my lord father wants to talk and it's been a while since I've seen my little brother. While I'm gone, I don't intend to leave my sister and her son unprotected."

Sandor raised an eyebrow at that. "Isn't it the Kingsguard's responsibility to protect the royal family?"

Jaime laughed bitterly. "Oh, believe me, I know exactly how well the Kingsguard protects the royal family. No, what Cersei needs is a personal guard, loyal, unyielding, sworn to her and not her status as queen or anything else." He paused. "I think you're the best man for the job."

He blinked. Me? And gods be good, Cersei?  Sandor blurted, "Are you mad, Lannister?" And bit his tongue, wanting to curse himself for the outburst, for the familiarity.

But Jaime just grinned, and said, "Not especially, Clegane, why do you ask?"

Why? Why? Gods... There were so many things he didn't dare say, and but a few he could. The easiest... "For one, ser, I'm but six-and-ten."

"Really?" Now it was Jaime's turn to blink. "With your height and all, I would have sworn you were older, closer to my age than Tyrion's. But it's no matter, I joined the Kingsguard at fifteen. I'm certain you're up for this at your advanced age."

He rolled his eyes. Pompous arse. "I'm lowborn."

"Of a knightly house, famously loyal to my family for three generations. Perfectly suitable."

"Seven bloody hells, I'm not even a knight!" Shit, that was a reason he hadn't meant to speak aloud. Damn the wine. He resolved to be more careful, or the gods only knew what else he might let slip.

"Not at all a requirement." Jaime said casually, "And I could fix that, if you like."

Any knight could make a knight... "No. You couldn't," Sandor rasped. He had decided that the day Rhaegar knighted Gregor for fucking valor in a tourney, even after everything. And when Ser Gregor had repaid the late prince by raping and murdering his wife, and dashing his infant son's head against a wall, Sandor hadn't known whether to laugh or... well. But it had only confirmed his beliefs and his choice. I was a fool once. I know better now.

Though his brother's atrocities brought up another objection. He ventured, "Charging a Clegane to protect the queen and her babe might be considered—"

"—Inappropriate? Ironic? Oh, indeed." Jaime chuckled. "I expect my lord father will be furious when he hears, but I imagine I'll be able to appease him."

It was rumored that Lord Tywin Lannister had commanded at least some of Gregor's actions in the Sack of King's Landing, but that was a subject that Sandor was not going to raise with Tywin's son, not for all the gold in Casterly Rock. Far more likely that the man would be angry that one of his dogs had dared to be close to his daughter and grandson. There were many reasons why Sandor had much preferred to serve under his liege lord's brothers, after those first few years.

Jaime continued, "But to make you sworn shield to my sister shouldn't be too much of a challenge. It's not like I'm suggesting you should be a knight of the Kingsguard, after all."


"Of course not."

"That would be true madness."

"Ser Barristan barely tolerates me. I can't imagine what he'd make of you."

"Can't imagine," Sandor repeated, hollow-voiced. Once, he and his sister's childhood games had revolved around the great deeds of the legendary Ser Barristan the Bold... but that was a long time ago, and besides, the girl was dead.

"Frankly, Sandor, I'm rather surprised you're protesting this much." Jaime said lightly, "Most men would positively leap at a chance for the honor in protecting Cersei Lannister day and night."

Most men would not have already encountered Cersei as he had. Another thing Sandor wasn't ever going to speak of with Jaime, or anyone else. Gods, he could see it already – sworn shield to the golden queen, that beautiful lioness, so proud and cruel – standing by her every day, looking at her every day, remembering, feeling as hungry as a dog in a butcher shop... He suddenly wondered how much of Jaime's choice of the man to guard his beloved sister was due to his appearance. Best not to speculate, as it had only seemed to make things worse, before.

"Honor isn't everything, ser." The Kingslayer had certainly proved that four years ago. "But... it wasn't so much a protest as I was... hesitant... to accept your offer. Though... I do," he said hoarsely.

Because even though he hesitated, he couldn't help but want this, this recognition by his lord.  And how could the Lannisters' dog do any less? He owed them everything, they had taken him in after he had to flee his home, showed him that not all castles were filled with threat and terror, given him a purpose beyond his vengeance, and in return he would be their loyal Hound until the day he died in their service.

"Good. Good. Kneel, please." Jaime stood, and drew his blade.

For half a moment Sandor's resistance sprang up again. This was close, too close, to the vows he was never going to take. Then he cursed himself for a fool – I already swore to his father, I practically begged to serve – and knelt.

With the knight's sword on his shoulder, Sandor Clegane pledged to obey and protect Cersei Lannister and her son, to keep them safe from all hurt and harm, to give his life for theirs. "I will be their shield, I swear by the old gods and the new," he finished. Gods he couldn't quite bring himself to believe in anymore, but those were the words he had learned once, when he'd been a boy with a head full of stupid dreams.  He kissed the blade.

As he returned to his feet, he could see that Jaime looked palpably relieved. Well and good, though it suddenly struck him that Cersei might not even be aware of her brother's decision. If so, Sandor wasn't sure he wanted to be there when Jaime broke the news...

"When will you be leaving, ser?"

"Tomorrow or the next day, I think. We'll need to get you cleared from my uncle Tyg's men, and then set you up with Cersei and Joff – and Robert too, of course. And after that, it's back home to the Rock for me. Tyrion is just thirteen and far too homebound. My brother needs some adventures," Jaime smiled.

He nodded. Sandor had been compared to the Imp more than enough – most unforgettably by Cersei – to be entirely comfortable with Lord Tywin's ugly dwarf son, but the worst you could say of the lad was that he was too bookish and occasionally too mouthy for his own good. Getting out in the world certainly couldn't hurt.

Jaime continued, "After I return, your duties may be lessened. Though you won't be entirely excused, since I'm afraid my Kingsguard vows must take precedence over my sister. But when Joffrey's older, I'll have you swear to him directly. You'll still be Cersei's, but her son will need a bodyguard by then." He muttered, "Especially if he's anything like his father."

Now, this was something Sandor could look forward to. He could hold out a few years as Cersei's dog for a chance at serving the heir to the throne. For all he'd said honor wasn't everything, he couldn't repress the part of his soul that still ached for some. And surely the boy would be easier to deal with than his bloody mother.

"Well. Best I head off to my quarters, then." And perhaps pick up a celebratory flagon on the way. Sandor turned to the door, then looked back at Jaime Lannister, and clasped his forearm. "I'm... grateful, my lord. It's rare that someone of my status has a chance to serve like this..." His words trailed off.

Jaime's eyes glittered with amusement, and he patted Sandor's shoulder with his free hand. "I'm sure your leal service will be the stuff of legends."

Sandor grinned. "Aye, mayhaps even of song."