Rassa hunched wearily over her mare's withers. Her father hated it when she didn't watch her posture, so she was glad that he was all the way at the front of their little caravan. Up where he belonged; with his wife and five legitimate children, leaving the bastard girl to ride with the servants.
Not that Rassa minded much. Riding with the servants meant she didn't have to wear a dress, she didn't have to watch her posture, and she got to talk to all the interesting characters serving under her father's house. Richard Arryn was a kindly man in middle age, who doted on any and every one that would have it. His servants hardly felt like servants and his bastards, Rassa and her younger brother Jorro, hardly ever felt like bastards.
Such was his way in his own little keep, with roofs and walls to hide his soft nature. Out here on the Kingsroad, where the entire world could see them, the servants rode behind their master and the bastards kept their heads down and their mouths shut. Rassa could only imagine what her father's wife would do if she were to trot up front calling "Father how long 'til we get there!". Bridget Arryn was kind enough to her and her brother, but she had her limits. I'd be shipped back to Braavos faster than I can blink.
Rassa was the result of an encounter in a Braavosi whorehouse more than twenty years ago, her brother the result of a second encounter in the same whorehouse, with the same woman. When she considered it, she could not help pitying poor Lady Arryn a bit. All wives lived with the possibility of their husbands fathering bastards on their adventures, but for one's husband to father two bastards with the same woman not three years apart – that must be humiliating. Still, when Rassa and Jorro had arrived on their doorstep on a stormy night five years ago, Bridget did not turn them away or have them killed, instead she gave them a roof over their heads and a hot meal every day and promised them she would not commit them to the whorehouse again. Rassa loved Bridget for that, but she could never quite trust her. There were moments when the woman would glare at her with unconcealed revulsion, times when she felt her eyes on her back; watching her every move. If Bridget sent the house guards to slit her throat in the middle of the night, Rassa would not have been surprised. She and Jorro were always on their toes.
Yet Rassa could not help but relax as they rode. It was the Long Summer in Westeros, the sun baked her back and the fields around the broad dirt road were a lush green. They were on their way to see the king – or her half-siblings were, at least – and she was very excited. Her father was the Hand's cousin, his favourite cousin, and he and his family had been invited to celebrate Jon Arryn's birthday in King's Landing and even the servants (and the bastards) would be permitted to stay in the castle for the duration of the celebrations. Just the thought of it sent her insides a flutter.
Ahead, her father gave a shout, snapping Rassa out of her reverie. Are we being attacked? Rassa saw that at this point the road was climbing a small, steep hill and her father had only just reached the top before he whipped his stallion into a gallop, with his family and guard following close at his heels. The servants' van followed soon after, and Rassa booted her old grey into a loping gallop along with the rest of them. As she crested the hill she laughed; before her lay King's Landing, the great walled capital of Westeros, its great banners of red and yellow blowing in the crisp afternoon breeze. Lannister and Baratheon, the lion and the stag, soon she would be among them.
Richard Arryn and his family were escorted through the main gate of the Red keep by four of the kings guard mounted atop enormous glistening palfreys. The servants were ushered around the back into a small stone courtyard, where they dismounted, fed, watered and cleaned their own horses before being led through a back door into the servant's wing of the castle. Rassa and Jorro were about to shuffle after the cooks and servers into the bleak lower chambers when they were stopped by a plump old matron.
"You're the children are you?" She whispered, not wanting to mention whose children they were, but Rassa took her meaning well enough; she had been addressed as worse things by the help in her few visits to other demesnes. She nodded. "You're not to be sent down into those dark rooms, your father said. Instead you'll be up with the guards and maids."
Rassa cast a guilty look over her shoulder at the rest of her company, who were squeezing down a narrow hallway to sleep in cold stone cells on straw-stuffed mattresses. She did not want to go with them, but she certainly did not want them to resent her because their lord favoured his misfired seed over the people who worked for him. Though at the same time, he had told her not to cause a fuss while they were there. Head down, mouth shut. Rassa took her brother's hand and followed the old lady upstairs.
Jorro was placed in with the guards and Rassa on the floor above him with the maids. She hated being so far from her brother, who was her best friend as well as her full-blooded kin, but she knew that placing a woman near a cohort of puffed-up palace guards was not a wise decision. So she memorised the path to his door and promised to steal down to him as often as possible.
Her room was almost as nice as the one her father had given her, with a narrow window looking out over the docks and the vast blue ocean, an acceptably large bed against the right-hand wall and an aged virginal upon the left. Her trunk had already been deposited on the floor by the door, with a note from her father on top.
I hope you like the room. You may come to the feast tomorrow night. In the meantime the castle and the grounds are yours to explore at your leisure. Try to stay out of trouble.
Rassa scoffed at his bluntness. He was even afraid of someone reading his little note to his bastard daughter; he had not even signed it. She could not help feeling a pang in her heart at the thought of it. Still, she would do as he said, she would go to the feast, she would explore the castle, and she would try to stay out of trouble.
It seemed the inhabitants of the Red Keep did not have much reverence for the Seven. Rassa noted with some relief that the Godswood was completely empty. She did not have much time for the gods of Westeros herself, but she had always loved the overgrown clustered of carved trees that made up their everyday place of worship. She took off her shoes walked around the wood for most of the afternoon, admiring each of its inhabitants in meticulous detail, feeling the earth and the grass that housed their roots under her feet, sometimes even pulling herself gingerly into their lower limbs, making sure not to harm any of the sacred trees, she apologised silently for her intrusion to each of them in turn before settling down at the roots of the heart tree with a book she had found in her room. It was some childish tale of a foolish knight, but she enjoyed it well enough, and took great pleasure in reading it, she sat there until she lost track of time, running her toes through the soft earth at her feet and giggling girlishly at Ser's antics.
Only the increasing abundance of gnats darting in front of her face informed her of how late it was getting. She looked up with weary eyes to see that most of the sun had already sunk beneath the horizon and the world was awash with a dim grey hue. She jumped up, worrying that perhaps her father might stop to visit her before he went to bed. She had promised Jorro she would go to see him, too. Damn it all. She dashed out of the Godswood and across the narrow bridge spanning the Blackwater Rush.
"Who goes there!" A gruff voice called, bringing Rassa to a halt. A man in black boiled leather stepped out of the shadows of the keep. He was tall and muscular, with a large sword strapped to his back. From what she could see, his face was gaunt, with piercing grey eyes and a heavy brow, framed by a mane of long black hair pushed over to one side. She hesitated.
"I said who goes there!" The man turned stomped towards her and it was only then that she could see the left side of his face, the ruined side. A mass of twisted scars covered that side, twisting his mouth into a permanent frown and extending down his neck and further back than Rassa could see. He had tried to cover some of the destruction with his thick black hair, but Rassa could imagine what was there, worse scars and a hole where his ear should be, for she knew this face. It was famous throughout Westeros. This was the face of Sandor Clegane. The Hound.
"I-I uh..." She spluttered. She had heard about the Hound, what he did to people, how he treated anyone that threatened the Royal Family. She knew she had to explain herself, but she could not for the life of her think how.
"What are you doing here, boy?" Clegane grabbed the front of her tunic and heaved her forward until she was only inches away from that face. She shook her once, twice, repeating his question, but all she could utter was incoherent sounds. Then he raised his fist to strike her and all she managed to do was whimper and close her eyes, waiting for the blow.
A blow that never came. Rassa opened her eyes. The Hound still had a hold of her, his fist was still half-poised in the air, but something else had caught his attention. His grip on the front of her tunic had pulled it down considerably, exposing the tops of her breasts. His eyes flicked systematically from them to her face for what seemed like forever before he let go.
"Get out of here." He growled.
"I'm Richard Arryn's daughter!" She finally blurted out. It was amazing how well her thought processes worked when she was not about to have her skull smashed in.
Clegane snorted. "Richard Arryn has two daughters. I saw both of them today. You don't look anything like either of them, girl."
"No, not one of them." She implored. "I'm the other one. The bastard."
Clegane blinked at her. "He brought his bastard to the Red Keep?" He laughed. "Spare me your stories, off with you!"
"It's true!" She threw her hands in the air hopelessly. "He brought both of us, my brother and I, we promised to pose as servants so he would let us come!"
"Servants?" He eyed her. "You look more like an urchin, all ragged tunics and dirty feet."
"Feet?" Rassa looked down and gasped. "I left my slippers in the Godswood!"
She turned and sprinted back over the bridge. She could hear Clegane bellowing after her and his feet heavy on the stones behind her. But she had to beat him to the heart tree. Her father had given her those slippers. And they were no urchin's slippers.
Rassa skidded to a stop under the gnarled heart tree, panting. She leaned a hand against its rough bark and pointed to the gap in the roots where she had placed her shoes. "There! See?" She called to Clegane, who was advancing menacingly.
"I don't see anything!" The Hound snarled, heaving her up entirely and hefting her over his shoulder. Rassa shrieked in protest and pounded at his back with her fists. She would have kicked him too, but he had the good sense to hold her legs tight.
"Put me down!" She roared. "Put me down you son of a bitch! They're right there. If you'd just look..."
He threw her down with a bellow that shook the wood. She landed hard against the tree and cried out in pain. The Hound loomed over her, seething. "You impudent little bitch! I ought to kill you right here! I'd rape you too, only I'd never be able to get hard with all the noise you make!"
Rassa had had enough. She had a temper too, and he had just unleashed it. She picked up one of her the fine shoes and heaved it at him. The Hound thundered a string of curses and grabbed her wrists as she picked up the other pump, with her arms disabled, Rassa employed the use of her legs, she swept them against Clegane's shins as he bent over her, bringing him down onto the ground. Clegane yelped in pain at his knee engaged with a protruding root and rolled over, letting go of her in the process. Rassa stepped over him and let loose with the other slipper, whacking him in the head a dozen times. "LOOK. AT. THE. FUCKING. SHOE!" She punctuated each word with a wallop. "IS. THAT. SO. BLOODY. HARD!"
"Alright! Alright! Alright!" Clegane raised his hands in surrender. "But if there's nothing convincing on it, I'll skin you alive and bugger your corpse!"
Rassa uttered a "HAH!" of success and handed him the shoe. It was a red velvet pump with a leather sole and low wooden heel, adorned with with a small bow on the front, which in turn was embellished with a round onyx. It certainly was not a beggar's shoe, but Clegane inspected it further, tapping the sole and the heel and bringing the jewel right up to his eye. "Look inside." Rassa suggested. Clegane turned the shoe and fingered the soft silk lining, then the inner sole caught his eye and he growled in dissatisfaction. There, stamped into the soft leather, was the moon-and-falcon of the House of Arryn.
Sandor escorted her back to the castle in silence. Rassa made no mention of what had happened. She did not want to infuriate the Hound again. Her heart was still pumping and her throat parched from their recent ordeal. She did make quite a point of tapping the heels of her slippers against the smooth stone of the narrow bridge, however.
They reached the narrow tower of the servants' wing and mounted the first two flights together. She hesitated on the second landing, wondering if she should keep her word to Jorro. Clegane eyed her suspiciously.
"What?" He barked.
"My brother's room is on this floor." She mused. "I wonder if he's still awake."
"Go to bed, girl." Sandor ordered.
"I'm not a girl, ser. And I don't take orders from you." She shot back.
"I'm no ser." He hissed, stooping slightly to glare right into her deep blue eyes.
"Are you trying to scare me? Because it's not working." She patted the left side of his face condescendingly. "Those scars might work on little kids and dainty women, but I am neither of those things."
Though he continued to scowl at her, his eyes changed when she touched his twisted face. She had shocked him. The satisfaction of that realisation made her bolder.
"My mother was a whore." She told him. "And one of her favourite patrons was a pyromancer. Your burns are nothing compared to him. His whole body was a mass of twisted flesh."
"His whole body?" Clegane was clearly disturbed by the notion, but he donned his hateful mask quickly. "And how would you know that, little whore?" He snarled, face twisting in a sadistic grin.
"My mother and her matron sold my virginity to him." She snapped. This time it was her turn to glare straight up at him. "I was twelve years old and I had to let that ugly lump of flesh writhe on top of me while I shuddered in revulsion, and humiliation."
Sandor lowered his gaze, clearly abashed that he had drawn something so personal out of her. "I-"
"You know what?" Rassa slipped one of her slippers off and brandished it. "I don't think I made my point properly before."
Her face betrayed her, and split into a grin before she could even finish her sentence. Sandor burst out laughing. His scraping chortle echoed up and down the stairwell. "No, perhaps not. " he managed. "But please, spare me the next lesson until the bumps on my head have gone down."
She giggled. "I make no promises."
A footfall on the staircase above them caught their attention. Rassa turned to see her brother descending the steps. "Jorro!" She exclaimed.
He looked up and beamed at her. "You never came! I went up to the maids' rooms to look for you myself, but you weren't there either."
"I'm sorry. I stayed in the Godswood overlong." She explained. "I fell asleep."
"Moron." Jorro rolled his eyes before nodding at Sandor Clegane. "What's he doing with you?"
"It was dark by the time I started to make for the castle." She told him before Clegane could explain himself. Her brother had a gentle nature, but he tended to be overly protective of her when it came to men. "Lord Clegane spotted me on my way over the bridge and offered to escort me back to my chamber."
"I see." Jorro eyed Clegane with unconcealed doubt. "I thank you."
"Yes." Rassa turned to Sandor and gave him a wink. "Thank you."
Clegane hesitated a moment before inclining his head. "A pleasure, Milady." He responded gruffly. He turned on his heel and trudged back down the stairs.
Jorro frowned at her. "Be careful who you walk with, sister."
Rassa scoffed. "I don't think he's a threat. Besides, Father would be furious if anyone harmed me, and I don't think a king's man would risk enraging the Hand's family."
"Just watch yourself." He urged. "I wanted to explore the grounds with you today."
"I'm sorry brother." She really was. "I promise we'll have a wander tomorrow morning before we have to start preparing for the feast."
"I'll hold you to that." He nodded. "You better not go off leading some hound around instead."
"Never." She swore. "Well, good night Jorro."
They kissed each other upon the cheek and went their separate rooms.
Rassa was not used to sleeping without her brother in the next chamber. The thought of him lying two floors below her made her feel cold, alone and uneasy. She tossed for hours, but sleep would not take her, so she padded over to her chest and dug Dunda out from among her garments. She had made him when she was a girl, from strips of fabric that she salvaged from the many torn dresses strewn about her mother's whore house. A large patchwork dog, with floppy ears and big, mismatched button eyes. She had learned needlework solely to make him, stuffed him with rags and taken him to bed every night to guard her from the bad men. Now that she was an adult she only used him when she felt most alone, but he was always with her wherever she went.
She crawled into bed and drew Dunda in close, nuzzling him and inhaling his scent. His dull, musty odor had always comforted her. She vaguely recalled that Sandor Clegane had a similar fragrance. She looked at the large tapestry covering the wall in front of her. Why I am I thinking about how the Hound smells? She asked herself. She smirked at the characters entangled in battle. He did smell nice, though.
The next day Rassa kept her word and accompanied Jorro around the castle grounds in the early hours of the blazing sun. They dressed well and kept quiet, so no one was alerted to the presence of Richard Arryn's bastards in the royal keep. They looked just like any of the other nobles that had come for the feast. When they were done with the castle, they wandered under the portcullis and took a long walk north to Rhaenys' Hill. There they admired the colossal dome that had once housed the Targaryens' dragons and Jorro banged on the immense bronze doors of the edifice, complaining that he wanted to see dragon bones.
When they finally returned to their chambers the servants were all scurrying about the castle in anticipation of the banquet that would be held in just a few hours. They had offered their services to their father's cook, but she dismissed them. "Your father told me you're to be treated like guests, even if you don't get to sit with him like his real family." She told them. "Do yourselves a favour and let people spoil you for once, it's a privilege most children of your ilk never get to experience."
Rassa appreciated the servant's insistence that she make the most of things as they were, but she did not feel right sitting in her room while everyone she knew was working themselves into a frenzy. She tried to take a nap but she was too fidgety. She tried to continue the book about Ser Stupid but could not concentrate on it. She slammed Ser closed and huffed grumpily. Her eyes fell on the sagging virginal opposite her. Her mother had taught her to play once, when she was very young. She felt an urge to see if any of her ability had remained.
The heavy wooden bench proclaimed its objections at being sat on after so many years unused, but it was a sturdy object and held her up easily. The instrument was a different story. The delicate wooden panelling was peeling off it, it was covered in dust, and when Rassa lifted its lid to inspect the keys she found that the leftmost hinges were broken, so that it tilted awfully and clattered backwards. She carefully lowered the front cover next and pressed a key daintily, then the next, working her lithe fingers quickly up the keyboard to find that it was only slightly out of tune, though the old, rusted strings produced a partially muffled sound.
Rassa righted herself and began to play. It was an old Braavosi tune her mother's matron had taught her, which she half remembered and half improvised. As she played the words came to her lips, so she started humming along, and then coyly whispering them to the walls, soon enough she was singing aloud as merrily as she had in the whorehouse when there were patrons watching her.
A shadow fell over her, making her start. She turned to see Sandor Clegane smirking down at her.
"Look at the little birdy I've found!" He teased.
Rassa felt the colour rise to her cheeks. "How long have you been there?"
"Long enough to hear how well you tweet. " He stepped up behind her and laid his heavy, mail-clad hands on her shoulders. Despite their weight, his touch was surprisingly tender. "Sing, sweet Birdy. I'd like to hear the rest of that song."
She did not move, but folded her hands stubbornly in her lap. "Go away."
"But you sang so willingly before." He brushed his thumb lightly against her neck. Rassa shivered in spite of herself, but held the sigh that rose in her throat firmly behind her lips.
"I wasn't singing it for you!" She grumbled. "I didn't even know you were there!"
"So pretend I'm not here now." He whispered in her ear. His warm breath and the scent of him so close to her face sent another shiver down her spine.
Confound this body of mine. "I can't… I can't sing if someone's watching me." She started to shake. Memories of the whore house came back to her. The leering men, the ones that touched her even when she did not want them, the way they licked their lips as they pinned her down. Her lip quivered and she lowered her head.
The bench creaked as Sandor eased his weight onto it. He put his hand under her chin and turned her head gently. "Come on Birdy. All I'm asking for is a song."
"Rassa." She said, her deep blue eyes on his face. His ruined face that could have been handsome, with high cheekbones and light eyes. "My name is Rassa."
"Rassa." He repeated softly. "I'm not trying to humiliate you. I really do want to hear you sing."
She smiled nervously and nodded. Her hands felt clumsy with him watching, but they found the right keys well enough. Her voice was harder to summon, but after humming along to the melody for a few moments she soon found that too. She sang the same song as before, all the while with Sandor's eyes on her. As she reached the final verse she looked at him and could not help but smile at his unabashed fascination. To her surprise, he blushed and smiled back.
The song ended and Rassa cut the melody short, mostly because she could not remember the perdendo. Sandor coughed nervously and tapped at the key in front of him. She nudged him.
He looked up and she raised her eyebrows. "Yes…that was…" He sighed as if it pained him to utter the word. "Nice."
"Nice?" She exclaimed. "You barge in and demand a song from me and when I give it to you all that you can say is that it was nice?"
"What should I say?"
Rassa gesticulated wordlessly, struggling to express herself. In the end she just laughed and shoved his shoulder. Sandor sniggered silently too.
"If I'm honest." He said when they had both recovered. "I really didn't think you'd do it. I thought you'd scream at me to get out and hit me with your shoe again."
"I had considered it."
"What changed your mind?"
"You asked politely."
"Only because you looked like you were going to cry."
"Because you were bullying me."
"I wasn't bullying you!" He exclaimed, taken aback. "I was…urging you. Is it so unbelievable that a monster might like a song every once in a while?"
"Oh come now." Rassa laid a hand on his arm. "I never said you were a monster."
"You don't have to. I know what I am."
Rassa put a hand to his cheek. His scars felt smooth and soft under her fingers. She gently ran her finger along one, tracing its path across his face. Sandor turned to look at her, brow furrowed and eyes questioning. "It's just a scar." She muttered. "All I see when I look at you is a man with a scar."
"You've seen worse." He repeated.
"Far worse. And on a much worse man."
"There's no one worse than me."
"Don't be silly!" She assured him. "How many times have I crossed you in the past twenty-four hours? And in that time how many times did you raise a hand to harm me?"
"I wasn't calm with you, neither, if you'll recall."
"I can forgive that." She kissed his scarred cheek softly.
Sandor breathed in sharply and turned to her. Rassa reached up and brushed his long black hair out of his face, pulling him closer to her. He responded in kind, placing his strong hands on her waist and drawing her easily along the smooth wood of the bench. Rassa pressed her lips to his, tentatively at first, then more confidently when she felt Sandor reciprocate. She covered his mouth in delicate kisses, breathing deeply when he sucked her lip greedily and pressed his mouth firmly against hers. Heat pulsed through her body and flushed her cheeks, leaving her partially breathless but Rassa cared not. Instead she coiled her arms around Sandor's neck and entwined her fingers in his hair. Sandor wrapped her in his arms and held her against him. His breathing was laboured to, and Rassa felt his low hum of pleasure as she tugged his lips and grazed his mouth with her tongue.
A sharp knock on the door made her spring away.
Jorro. Oh please don't come in.
"I'm getting changed!" She called. Could he hear her voice quaver?
"No!" She almost screamed, but Rassa willed her voice to stay calm. "I can't decide what to wear. Just head on down and I'll meet you in the Small Hall!"
She heard Jorro grumble outside the door. "Alright, I'll save you a seat."
Rassa sighed with relief at the sound of receding footsteps. She jumped up and pulled Sandor to the door. "You have to go!"
"But I want to help you undress." He smiled cheekily.
"Oh shut up!" She opened the door and shoved him out.
"Red." He said as she was about to slam the heavy wooden slab in his face.
"Wear something red."
She pulled as one of her deep crimson locks. "Don't you think that would be too much?"
"I think you would turn heads, if that's what you mean."
Rassa blushed. "I'll consider it."