Thanks to my wonderful beta reader, Underthenorthernlights, who supported me while I wrote this story.

Three months later...

Chapter 12: Older

"We'll soon be home!" Serrett exclaimed, as the shape of Casterly Rock appeared on the horizon.

A ragged mist wrapped the rocky spur standing against the greyish sky; on its top, the fortress looked impregnable. Is this place my new home? Sandor was skeptical; Casterly Rock had been a goal to reach when he had escaped Clegane's Keep, then a shelter. He doubted this place, no matter how beautiful it was, overlooking Lannisport and the Sunset Sea, would be more than a shelter for him. It's only temporary, this place doesn't mean much.

Sometimes, he wondered where he would spend the rest of his life: he knew he didn't want to end up in Casterly Rock's armory, like Master Symon, and Clegane's Keep belonged to Gregor. So where will I go? The only rational answer was to let Lord Tywin decide. Sandor was his squire, after all. The day he had collapsed in front of the gates of Casterly Rock, he had given up his freedom to get his liege lord's protection. The proud fortress looming over the sea was not his home; it was just a place where he could stay and be safe until he found something better.

Tywin's decision came the morning after their arrival, as Sandor fought not to rub his eyes. He now slept in what had been Banefort's room, near his master, and woke up at dawn, when Tywin required a basin of water to wash his face and a tray full of fresh food to break his fast. That morning, Sandor had left his pallet with a strange sensation, nearly a lump in his throat, but he couldn't figure out why. Yawning, he shrugged it off and walked to his master's bedchamber.

"You'll join me in the Golden Gallery, once your chores are done," Tywin announced him and Sandor immediately sensed it was some serious matter.

Sitting on the edge of his massive bed, the lord of Casterly Rock only had his breeches on, but the boy thought he didn't need to wear his best armor and finest cloak to look regal. Despite his drawn features, Tywin had a sort of determination in his eyes as if he had woken up with that idea and stuck to it. Sandor bowed and hurried to the kitchens, where he didn't see Fat Jeyne – he wanted to talk to the old cook, but he couldn't get the meeting with Tywin in the Golden Gallery out of his mind.

Still pondering on Tywin's decision about his future, he returned to his master's bedchamber then got rid of his morning duties – opening the window, emptying the chamber pot, cleaning the room, making the bed – before walking to the Golden Gallery. But why the Golden Gallery instead of some other place? The Gallery reminded him of Gregor's visit, when his brother had asked for his return to Clegane's Keep. Gregor was still in Casterly Rock, probably sleeping it off in some corner of the Great Hall. He might ask again for Sandor's return, but Tywin was not the kind of man who reconsidered his decisions.

Sandor knocked at the door of the Golden Gallery and came in once he heard Tywin's even voice. The Lord of Casterly Rock pointed to a spot three steps behind his cross-framed folding seat and told him to stay still. Brow furrowed, Sandor obeyed as Tywin sat down. His master let out a sigh and, from where the boy was, he saw him folding his arms. What is he waiting for?

All of a sudden, a knock at the door partly gave him the answer. The tall and graceful Lady Cersei appeared on the threshold, stepped in and cautiously shut the heavy door behind her. With an incline of her head, she greeted her father, walked to the armchair across his seat and only hesitated when she spotted Sandor next to the windows, in the back light. King Robert's betrothed finally settled down, made sure her blond braid rested on her left shoulder, then smoothed her skirts without trying to conceal her boredom.

"Come here, Clegane," Tywin said. "I want you to meet my daughter. I don't think you've ever met."

"Yes, Father, we met. I told your little squire how his secret attack impressed me when he fought these squires in the yard."

With that, she looked at Sandor and gave him her best sardonic smile. Remembering how she had humiliated him in the kitchens, months ago, he clenched his fists.

"Very well," Tywin went on, "very well."

Something in his honeyed tone suggested that his daughter's remark didn't fool him.

"As soon as we're ready, we'll ride to King's Landing, to celebrate your marriage with Robert Baratheon. But... I won't stay forever with you, my dear. My duty is to rule the Westerlands as the king confirmed my title and I intend to go back to Casterly Rock as soon as I can. Your Uncle Kevan delt with day-to-day matters, but you know him..."

He stopped talking and crossed his long legs, observing his daughter's reaction. Sandor still didn't understand why Tywin needed his presence. Standing behind his master, Sandor couldn't see his face but he looked at Cersei. The morning light provided by the large windows played on her golden hair and sent tiny sparks on the silver embroidery of her dress; her eyes narrowed slightly, as if she began to understand what her father had in mind, but still refused to believe it was true. She slowly shook her head.

"Why is your squire still here, Father?" she finally asked, her eyes on her lap. "Doesn't he have some work to do for you?"

Her arrogance barely hid her unease; Cersei suddenly smiled and locked eyes with her father, not without panache, for she well knew that, whatever he had decided, she would have to consent. Tywin uncrossed his legs and leaned forward, as if he was going to tell her a secret.

"I called Clegane because he will be your sworn shield."

The news came across like a bucket of cold water in Cersei's face. Her features stayed perfectly still but she took a sharp intake of breath. So this is it. Her sworn shield.

"No," she simply answered.

Her refusal seemed to embolden her and her green eyes shone with indignation. Sandor cleared his throat noisily.

"My lord, my lady... I should probably leave-"

Without turning around to look at him, Tywin lifted his hand in the air in a commanding gesture.

"No, Clegane, you'll stay."

"Father, do you think his presence will prevent me from saying why I don't want this boy as my sworn shield?" she hissed.

"What do you think? People always remind him he's burnt. He's thick-skinned, he can stomach whatever malicious words you're going to say."

A pawn, again, Sandor thought. But this time it's in the game he plays with his daughter.

"I will be the queen!" Cersei protested. "I will be the most influential person apart from the king and you want me to walk through the corridors of the Red Keep with him?"

With a flourish of her hand, she showed Sandor; her hand fell on her lap when she heard her father repressing a laugh. It was so unusual for her or for anyone who knew Tywin that her eyes widened in surprise.

"May I ask what is it you find so funny?" she asked after regaining her composure.

"Realizing you fancy yourself as one of the most influential persons of the realm, my dear. I thought you were smarter."

He stood up and leaned over her, placing his hands on either side of the back of her armchair, so that she looked like a trapped animal.

"You might be the queen in a few weeks, but you will always be my dutiful daughter. It means you'll follow my decisions. Clegane will stay in Casterly Rock until his training is complete. The day I'll say he's ready, he'll become your sworn shield. When I deprive myself of a loyal, obedient boy and a remarkable warrior, I expect a little more gratitude."

Cersei looked daggers at her father and Sandor, ill-at-ease, contemplated the boots he had bought in King's Landing before their departure. The dark pebble-grained leather contrasted with the polished wooden floor and its glimmering surface, reminding Sandor he was out-of-place.

"You think queens are influential persons, is that correct?" Tywin added, his tone exuding irony. "Pray tell, my daughter, when was the last time Queen Rhaella led her troops to the battlefield? What did she do for the Seven Kingdoms?"

"She gave birth to Prince Rhaegar," Cersei answered defiantly.

As her father slightly turned, Sandor could see his profile and noticed a half-smile on his lips. Bending over, Tywin's head was next to Cersei's but despite their likeness, their expressions were radically different; paler, the girl looked already defeated while he savored his victory.

"She gave birth to Rhaegar. Exactly," he said. "Queens give birth to a bunch of little princes and princesses. If you ever want to have a semblance of power in King's Landing, you'd better give Robert an heir. The sooner the better."

Tywin stood straight and went back to his folding seat.

"Who will be my sworn shield," Cersei asked, swallowing her pride, "until this one comes of age?"

"I don't know yet," Tywin confessed. "When I decided to give you Clegane as a sworn shield, I overlooked this problem. Still, many knights of the Westerlands will fight for the honor of serving you. I'll have an abundance of choices."

She nodded curtly and stood up to take leave.

"Clegane," Tywin called, "See Lady Cersei to her chamber. It will be your duty one day."

Sandor bowed slightly and followed Tywin's daughter as she left the Golden Gallery. Once in the corridor, she briefly turned and looked hard at him, wondering if he would dare to stay on her heels or not. If she thinks I will disobey Tywin, she's wrong.

With a furious rustle of skirts, she rushed forward, forcing a servant to move aside; whatever she did, hurrying in the corridor, Sandor's long strides enabled him to catch up with her. When he heard her ragged breathing on the top of the staircase leading to her bedchamber, he found the situation so absurd it was almost laughable. All he had to do to infuriate Cersei was let his footsteps resonating behind her to remind the girl of his unwanted presence. She gave out a sigh of relief when she reached the door of her bedchamber.

"My lady," he said tentatively, "your brother Ser Jaime asked me to tell you how much he's pleased to see you soon."

She froze, spun on her heels and for the first time, she looked at him straight in the eyes. Jaime had not told him anything about his twin sister, but Sandor wanted to see her reaction.

"So my brother talked to you?" she asked, raising one eyebrow. "Dear old Jaime... He has a knack to make friends with lame ducks and lost dogs."

His eyes narrowed until Tywin's lecture and Cersei's mortification came back to his mind. All of sudden, he remembered what Fat Jeyne had told her the day she had mocked his scars. 'Was your day that bad, my lady?' To her great surprise, he smiled a twitching half-smile.

"Have a good day, my lady," he said before leaving her dumb-founded.

His words strangely echoed Fat Jeyne's cutting remark. Down the stairs and across the corridors, he hurried to the kitchens. I need to see her, I need to talk to her.

He expected to hear Fat Jeyne grumbling under the pointed arch that led to the kitchens, but there were only the high-pitched voices of the boys and girls who worked under her orders. He came in. Smoke crept over the large room, making him cough. An army of boys and girls ran from the hearth to the never-ending table, cursing, shouting, jolting each other like mad hens in a poultry yard. His arrival caused even more confusion, when one of the youngest kitchen maids, a black-haired girl with a thin braid, ran to him.

"Sandor Clegane of Clegane's Keep!" she exclaimed. "I know you would come back. Remember me?"

"Willa of Pansy Mill, is that right?"

The scrawny little girl nodded cheerfully before turning to the others.

"Come here, Maria, he's back! Tomaz, Helory, bring me some bread and soup for him!"

Listening to this girl of ten giving orders made him realize something went amiss in the kitchens.

"Where is Fat Jeyne?" Sandor asked.

"Later," Willa replied, tugging at his sleeve, "sit down and eat."

The two boys working in the kitchens brought a bowl of soup and some bread. Sandor sat down on the bench and looked suspiciously at the blackened crust, while all the kitchen boys and girls gathered around him, taking the occasion not to work.

"Helory forgot the bread in the oven, but it's good once you dip it into the soup," Willa said encouragingly.

Sandor did as she commanded and swallowed the bite of soaked bread; the bread was overdone and the soup had a watery taste. Then, the kitchen boys and girls began to throw questions tick and fast.

"So what have you seen?"

"Did you see the Red Keep?"

"Did you see the king?"

"Is it true you killed a man?"

"No, he didn't kill a man! Talbert is a liar."

"Gods, let him taste the soup!"

Around Sandor, their ugly and somewhat grotesque faces formed a merry circle where he was but a stranger they admitted once in a while, because Fat Jeyne liked him or because he could be useful. They tolerated him, perhaps more easily than the other squires who were high-born off-springs, but he was a stranger nonetheless. If his horseman boots were out-of-place in the Golden Gallery, they also looked incongruous on the greasy red tiles of the kitchens. I don't belong here, he thought.

"You look taller," a feminine voice commented.

This one, dark-haired, older, and almost pretty for a kitchen maid, was Maria. He remembered a skinny girl, with bony limbs and a flat chest, who couldn't look at his scars, but Sandor wasn't the only one who had changed during the last months. A bit less gaunt, she had tits now and she held his gaze, unless he looked hard at her. Noticing how he leered at her, Maria blushed and Willa elbowed her friend.

"Older, mayhap," she went on, biting her lip.

They chuckled and one of the kitchen boys whispered to the other something that sounded like a saucy jape. Maria rolled her eyes, mimicking one of Cersei's favorite expressions.

"How old are you?" one of the girls asked Sandor, shoving Willa.


He stopped short of saying 'two-and-ten' when he remembered his name day just before leaving King's Landing. Nobody had greeted Sandor that day, because nobody knew. Why would my name day be different from the other days?

"I'm three-and-ten," he finally answered. "And you, girl, how old are you?"

Ignoring the blond-haired girl who had asked for his age, he looked at Maria.

"A bit older," she said, puckering up. "I'm four-and-ten."

"I know what it is," Willa exclaimed. "It's your voice. You don't speak like a little girl anymore. Your voice broke!"

Excitement made her talk faster; Sandor frowned and push aside the bowl of soup.

"You didn't notice it?" she went on, surprised. "Come on, say something!"

"I- I don't know," he said.

"Look!" Willa said triumphantly. "Like I said: his voice broke!"

He couldn't tell if his voice had changed during the past months and the members of the host who had spent their days with him had not mentioned it. Nobody noticed the transformations that happened from day-to-day; one had to leave people for a few months to measure the changes that affected them. The realization made Sandor wonder if this change was a good one, if his voice sounded better now, when Maria's question got him out of his pensive mood.

"Did you- Did you really kill a man?"

She glanced at him like she imagined a noble lady would do with knights and lords, except that she underestimated Sandor's despise for simpering airs.

"I killed several men," he simply answered, wiping his mouth.

"How many?" one of the boys eagerly questioned him. "What was it like?"

Sandor went silent and contemplated the bowl. Some soup, as watery as broth, remained inside.

"Dirty. It was pretty dirty."

He abruptly pushed himself from the bench, making a girl cringe, and looked around.

"So where is Fat Jeyne?" he asked.

"She's gone," Willa explained. "Ser Kevan sent her away."

"But why?"

"Oh, you know Fat Jeyne. She always says what she has in mind. Lady Cersei came here to complain, one day and Fat Jeyne put her in her place... Then... Lady Cersei probably told Ser Kevan to dismiss Fat Jeyne, for she left the day after."

"Where did she go? Is she in Lannisport?"

Willa shook her head.

"Don't think so. Fat Jeyne is not from the Westerlands, you see; she always said Lord Tywin had come back with her when he left King's Landing. Must be somewhere on the Goldroad."

He clenched his jaw, realizing he would most likely never see her again. I could have met her on our way back to Casterly Rock, but now it's too late. When he imagined her waddling along the Goldroad, her meager belongings in a bundle, he felt a lump in his throat.

"Another cook came," the little girl added, "an old man, he was. Didn't stay, though... So we're on our own and we do our best. Do you think my soup was good?"

Behind Willa, he saw the girls whispering and giggling. Two of them finally shoved Maria so that she ended up in front of Sandor, blushing.

"Can you help us?" Maria asked. "I mean... We need more wood for today's luncheon with the Bannermen. Can you help us and carry some more logs? Like you did, once."

By the way she positioned herself in front of his right side and avoided to look at his burns, Sandor knew she intended to use him without giving anything in return. She will smile and tilt her head and pucker up to get what she wants, but I'll always be scarred and ugly. He chuckled darkly.

"I have my own chores. I'm Lord Tywin's squire, now." Then he turned to Willa. "That soup is watery, girl."

Sandor was about to leave when he rued his bluntness. He liked the sensation of being in the kitchens, with people who didn't understand him but didn't judge him either. Fat Jeyne's absence wouldn't change that.

"Willa," he called, softening. "I'm sure you can do better than that."

The little girl's eyes widened as he walked to the door. Outside, squires were already training in the yard, listening to Symon's husky voice.

Since the day he had arrived in Casterly Rock, exhausted and starving, people had treated him like a pawn, like a freak, like a curiosity who defeated older boys. The squires rejected him; the maester wished to know more about his scars; Tywin wanted him to become a warrior – the Warrior made flesh, Symon had told him once. Even the master-at-arms who had shared so much with Sandor, saw the boy as a companion when he wanted to go whoring more than a comrade in arms. Among the keep's inhabitants, Fat Jeyne had been the only one to treat him like a child, sometimes unbeknownst to him. I didn't understand it at that time, but that was what she was doing when she gave me some food after the dungeon, or the day Cersei humiliated me. The day I told her I was leaving... He didn't want to think about that moment now and his nails dug deeply in his palms. These days are gone. I'm on my own, now.

He suddenly looked down at his boots standing out against the ocher sand; for the first time that morning, he could say that they didn't seem out-of-place. If he didn't belong to the Golden Gallery, nor to the kitchens, he certainly was at his place in the yard.

There was only one thing to do, now that Fat Jeyne had left Casterly Rock: carry on and not become attached to anyone. He had learned this lesson the hard way: people could vanish into thin air, or die, or simply disappoint you.

And the end, you're on your own.