Chapter 5: The hunt
Ignoring the curious eyes of the kitchen maids, Sandor came in and rued the bright sun that made the kitchens so dark in comparison; after a few heartbeats, his eyes got accustomed to the dim light, he found the place where the wood was stored, on the left of the big hearth, and put the heavy logs on the ground.
The girls were whispering when he turned around to seek Fat Jeyne's eyes. None of them could carry as many logs as him and the two boys working in the kitchens boasted themselves but couldn't either. It didn't prevent the boys from blowing their own trumpet in front of the maids, but Sandor shrugged at that thought. He didn't care for girls: he only wanted to help Fat Jeyne.
Not to help her, not exactly; do her a favor because she gave me some food. And there will be more favors because she intends to feed me for a while. Being beholden to someone, even to Fat Jeyne, made him sick. I'll fight for Tywin Lannister because he welcomed me in his castle. And I'll carry those damn logs because Fat Jeyne didn't let me starve when I left the dungeon.
"What can I do, now?" he asked Fat Jeyne who considered the pile of logs with a smug smile.
She hesitated, visibly surprised he didn't walked out already, and turned her round greasy face to him.
"Well, the young lady asked for green peas and she likes green peas with onions and carrots so you can lend us a hand. Have a seat."
He sat on the bench across the whispering maids, who elbowed each other while podding peas. Fat Jeyne put a dozen carrots and a blunted knife in front of him then grinned.
"Cut them to pieces, Sandor. Here's your sword," she mocked.
Sandor had thought of some task requiring strength rather than meticulousness, something more masculine; he nevertheless complied. He didn't like the whispering girls, nor the mix of dirt and juice sticking to his palms once he had peeled the carrots, but there was something soothing in the atmosphere of the kitchens; while he usually felt like he didn't belong to Casterly Rock, this sensation disappeared in a few seconds when he passed the threshold. Just like the impression of being blinded when I come in: I step in, my eyes get used to the half-light and suddenly I can see every greasy stain of the kitchens. The smell of hot bread elicited a smile at the corners of his lips.
Skirts rustling on the tiles of the corridor made the kitchen maids stiffen suddenly and Sandor's gaze settled on the door frame as Fat Jeyne gave out a heavy sigh. A tall and slim blond girl stepped in and he knew instantly who she was. Cersei Lannister. Tywin's daughter. The one King Aerys rejected for his son. The girl for whom I'm peeling carrots. Sandor didn't know anything about women's attire and would have been unable to describe how she was dressed or how her golden hair was done, but she did look beautiful and elegant. The most beautiful girl in the Westerlands, mayhap in the realm, they say. Well, it's true. But nobody told me she looked so fierce.
Cersei Lannister stepped forward, her haughty gaze flying from the trembling maids to the long wooden table covered with vegetables, jugs and dishes, then to Fat Jeyne and himself. They all stood up very straight, waiting for an invitation to sit down again that would never came. She let her green eyes linger on them for a few heartbeats, taking perverse pleasure in the girls submissive look.
"I will have cabbages for my supper. Boiled," she said, without greeting them first.
"The girls just picked the green peas in your lord father's garden, my lady. They're as fresh as possible. I thought green peas were your favorite-"
"You thought? You don't work in the kitchens to think or to plan anything, old woman. I'll have cabbages because it's good for my skin. And oysters, for the taste."
"Summer is not a good season for oysters," Fat Jeyne replied.
"Surprise me, then," she answered coldly.
They all thought Cersei was about to walk away and the kitchen maids were almost sighing with relief, when Tywin's daughter pointed at him.
"You. I saw you in the yard, fighting with Serret and Peckledon. Defeating them."
Her remark made Sandor feeling ridiculously proud, not because the compliment came from a beautiful girl – he was too low-born for her and she was old, really old, probably seven-and-ten – but because she was his liege lord's daughter. She can talk to her father about me. And if a girl who only cares for her skin or for her power over kitchen maids acknowledges my skills, I'm better than I thought.
He looked at her straight in the eyes and nodded curtly.
She smirked and, in her handsome face, there was suddenly something devilish.
"What an ugly face! Sheltering crippled boys doesn't look like my father. Is this the way you won over the squires, showing them your dreadful face?"
He was shaking with rage but held on the edge of the table, while the youngest of the kitchen maids, a girl of ten, frantically shook her head as if she was telling him not to react to Cersei's provocation.
"Still making fun of everyone," Fat Jeyne growled. "Was your day that bad, my lady?"
Cersei's green eyes opened wide; she didn't find anything to reply and frustration made her chest raise slowly up and down, just like she lacked air. Spinning on her heels, Tywin's daughter finally walked away. As soon as the sound of her offended footsteps faded outside, the youngest kitchen maid leaned over the table to talk to him, not understanding he only wanted to be left alone.
"Lady Cersei is always like this," she explained, shaking her long and thin black braid. "Today, it was just your turn. She uses to call me 'Rat tail'. Because of my braid."
He didn't give a damn about how Cersei nicknamed her and looked back at the little girl angrily.
"What's your name?" he asked her.
"Willa, from Pansy Mill."
"Get back to your peas, Willa from Pansy Mill," he told her in a threatening voice, making her and her companions shudder. "Unless you want me to crush your face like I did with Peckledon."
"Come here, Sandor," Fat Jeyne grunted. Once Cersei was gone, she had waddled to the larder in order to pick what kind of meat the Lannister family would eat for supper; something in her tone suggested she had heard his answer to Willa. He pushed himself from the bench and walked to the larder.
"Don't ever talk to my girls like you just did," Fat Jeyne whispered, pointing a pudgy finger at him. "Willa was just trying to help. Now go tell her you're sorry."
Sandor didn't understand how she did it, but the old cook always managed to make him do what she wanted even if he disagreed: he dragged his feet to the long table, looked at the girls who were as scared of him as they feared Cersei's wrath and planted himself in front of Willa's tiny figure.
"I'm sorry," he said flatly.
I don't really mean it, he mused. Behind him, in the larder, Fat Jeyne cleared her throat noisily.
"Won't talk to you like that again. Don't push me, though," he added.
He sat down, grabbed his knife and lowered his gaze on the carrots, determined to avoid the kitchen maid's eyes. When he was almost done and when his blood stopped running wildly in his veins, the smell of hot bread tickled his nostrils again; his reward would come soon. Unless Fat Jeyne didn't like my apologies, but I would already know. Someone suddenly slammed the door open, startling the poor girls again, and Kevan Lannister appeared on the threshold. Instead of the boiled leather he usually wore during the afternoon, when he attended the squires training, he had done a fresh doublet.
"What in Seven Hells are you doing in the kitchens?" he barked at Sandor.
"He's skilled with a blade, Ser," Fat Jeyne retorted in a playful tone. "Besides, I heard Lord Tywin wants him to become a hefty young warrior. I would have given him something nourishing for the care given."
Kevan glared at her and motioned him to the door.
"Quick, boy. A squire's place is not in the kitchens, with women," Kevan hissed.
"I'll save some bread for you, Sandor," Fat Jeyne promised, and it sounded like a provocation to her lord's brother.
Kevan silently hurried himself to the part of the keep where they lived, taking two steps at a time and striding along the corridors, but never looking at his squire.
"Dress properly," he commanded Sandor when they reached the room he shared with Tybolt. "Your brother pays us a visit."
You can do this. You defeated two older squires, and one of them was almost a knight. You beat them when they attacked you at night. You spent five days in the dungeon for nothing and you didn't complain. You lived for a week in the woods, on the run, starving, still you managed to climb and reach the gates of Casterly Rock. You escaped him. You survived. You survived them all.
He should have been proud and invigorated when thinking of the last weeks, so why did he feel so weak and frightened? Terrified, rather. I'm no craven, but I'm terrified. The prospect of meeting Gregor again, here, in the Golden Gallery of Casterly Rock, sent shivers down his spine and sickened him. When he thought of his older brother, he saw blood puddles on the dirt and on the reddish tiles, recalled the stench – a mix of sweat, mud, blood and gods-know-what. He couldn't remember the screaming, though, neither his father's nor the young servant's a few months before. How long did she stay with us? Three, maybe four months. Her name was Ivy and she laughed at me, calling me her savior. I tried to protect her, I swear, but I couldn't do anything the day he came for her.
As he tried to wipe away the servant's face lingering in his memory, anxiety took hold of him at the thought of what Gregor could do to the keep's inhabitants. He suddenly felt more scared for the stupid girls who worked in the kitchens than for himself. I should have warned them. Warned Fat Jeyne to be careful. He even felt worried about the nosy little girl who had tried to comfort him. The only women for whom he wasn't anxious were Cersei and the stupid woman Kevan Lannister called his wife; Gregor was not clever, but he was smart enough to choose his preys.
Kevan looked back at him and frowned, not understanding why Sandor hesitated before crossing the threshold of the Golden Gallery, so he came in on quavering legs. Tywin was already there, casually sat on a cross-framed folding seat whose back and armrests were of gilded leather, his brother Gerion by his side, facing their guest's massive figure.
The Golden Gallery took copper tones in the afternoon; large windows provided a generous light sent back by the brocade curtains, the polished wooden floor and the gilded furniture displayed in the room. Everything was golden inside, except the red sigil of House Lannister visible on a huge banner at the end of the gallery. It boasted several golden candelabras, so uncommonly large and wide they were taller than the servants who saw to furbish them, but that day the candelabras seemed small and frail, compared to the man planted in front of Tywin; Tywin Lannister himself looked stunted on his armchair.
As he walked in and left behind him the heavy doors adorned with bronze and copper, Gregor had his back to him and wasn't aware of his presence; Sandor noticed the hulking form, his legs like columns, his arms strong enough to crush anyone. His brother looked gawky in the fresh clothes he had done to meet his overlord, yet determined; he stared Tywin down, without understanding it was a mistake. For a while, this realization distracted him from his queasiness, until Gregor turned to him. Sandor's heart skipped a beat and Gerion must have sensed his uneasiness, for he left his brother's side to stand beside the boy.
"Brother," Gregor flatly said, narrowing his eyes, "you look in good shape."
His honeyed words didn't hide his devious smile, though, and he made few efforts to conceal his true feelings; dissimulation was never familiar to him. In the meanwhile, images churned around in Sandor's head: the woods, his father's last hunt, the servant. Her name was Ivy, she was my friend and you destroyed her. When you were done with her, I knew we couldn't give her back to her family, not like this, so I asked one of the peasants to help me bury her. Hiring her was a mistake, Father should have known, but it doesn't change anything. She was good to me and you slaughtered her. You made me clean your mess.
"Seven Hells, boy! Say something to your brother," Kevan commanded him, exasperated by his silence.
Sandor looked back at the new owner of Clegane's Keep and mumbled something inaudible. For a few heartbeats the room remained silent, only filled with the growing tension between the two siblings.
"I just asked Lord Tywin if you could come back to Clegane's Keep," Gregor finally said.
No. Please don't. I didn't do what I did to be sent away like this. He swallowed hard and beads of sweat appeared on his forehead, soon slipping down his temples. Though he kept staring at his brother, he saw Gerion leaning toward him in his peripheral vision.
"Don't worry," he whispered to Sandor, but what followed was directed at Gregor. "Do you think we can't take care of young people like him? We've got plenty of pages and squires here!"
Gregor tried to apologize and began to justify himself. He never meant this, never ever thought something like this; his confused explanations elicited a half-smile on Tywin's lips. The lord of Casterly Rock didn't utter a single word since Sandor's arrival, observing everyone, especially the Clegane brothers, as if this meeting was a game with sophisticated rules he was the only one to know and the people in front of him pawns he could play with. He slowly shifted on his seat, elbows rooted to the arm rests and looked at them over steepled fingers.
"Why not discuss these matters during a hunting game?" he suggested. "Tomorrow morning. The five of us."
"I love hunting," Gregor replied, and he turned slightly to his brother.
A seething rage took hold of Sandor, but before he could do anything stupid, Gerion placed a heavy hand on his right shoulder.
Sandor only thought about throwing himself on his brother, though he knew he wouldn't have the upper hand, when Tywin sent away everyone. His anger focused on his liege lord, who knew what had happened to his father the last time he led his hounds in the woods surrounding Clegane's Keep. Tywin didn't know what kind of game Gregor intended to play with his brother after he ran away from home and hid in the forest, but that, the death of his father, he couldn't ignore it. Sandor could only read this hunting game as a provocation directed at him and felt betrayed. As they all retreated from the gallery, he was more bitter than ever, following obediently Kevan who courteously talked to Gregor.
"Stay here, boy," Tywin called.
As far as he knew, he was the only boy exiting the gallery, so he stopped and spun on his heels.
"Shall I close the door?" he asked coldly to the man still sat on his leather gilded armchair.
Tywin didn't reply instantly, waiting for his brothers and Gregor to walk away.
"Don't ever look at me like you did, boy. I know what I'm doing."
His tone was curt and peremptory; Sandor nonetheless granted him with a dark stare.
No, you don't know anything.
His father always told him hunting games in Casterly Rock looked like expeditions, with dozens of dogs and an army of men driving deers and boars towards Tywin Lannister and his guests. Father would have been disappointed. They were only ten: the Lannister siblings, Gregor, himself and five beaters, wandering in the woods. The area located on the east of Casterly Rock abounded in stags, deers and hares, Kevan had said, as if four-legged game still captivated Gregor.
Sandor had barely slept the night before; when Kevan had dismissed him, he had visited Fat Jeyne – to warn her, but she already seemed to know and she had tried in vain to make him talk to her – then he had shut himself in his room refusing to come down for supper. He had to think about what he would do, that night and the day after. When he understood he wouldn't sleep, at least not in this room where Gregor could easily find him and finish what he had begun, he sneaked out, stole a sword in the armory and finally took refuge in the stables. Gregor wouldn't look for him there and the presence of so many horses – stallions, mares and draft horses – was comforting enough; short after the middle of the night, he fell asleep and only woke up when an astonished stable boy found him lying on the straw.
Kevan had spent his entire morning chiding him – because he was late, because he smelt of the stables, because the hares had deserted this part of the woods. At noon, Tywin decided they should part; Kevan and Gregor, who were talented hunters, would go with the three more seasoned beaters while himself would stay with Gerion and Sandor.
"We'll talk about your brother later," he told Gregor, "on our way back to the castle."
Tywin was already getting tired of the hunt, Sandor noticed. Because it's not for real. War is the only thing he really cares for. War and ruling the Westerlands.
As soon as Gregor and Kevan began to canter through the woods, their beaters running desperately to follow them, Tywin contemplated the slender tree trunks, the changing green of the leaves when rays of light played through the foliage.
"Joanna loved this season," Gerion observed, guessing what was in his brother's mind.
Tywin nodded, his gloved hands pulling the reins. Progressing slowly, they started to talk about Lady Joanna, to recall ancient memories, half forgetting about the squire they had taken with them; the remaining beaters themselves seemed lost in the thick woods. Sandor realized it was his only chance and put some distance between him and the Lannister brothers first; then, when he was sure they didn't even remember his presence, he spurred on his horse and hurried himself to the pond where Kevan had said he wanted to go.
The woods were silent around the marshy area of the pond; no trees had taken root in the damp soil, so that he could clearly look around and his brother wasn't there. He had not really decided what he would do; it was more an impulse than a conscious resolution. He couldn't put up with the idea of letting Gregor breathe and walk freely after what he had done. And since Tywin doesn't give a damn... he probably wants to get rid of me, too, or else he would have told Gregor to fuck off. If he was ever alone with him, Gregor wouldn't let him escape like he had done in Clegane's Keep. He won't make the same mistake and think I'm too sad or too weak to run away. And I'm the last one, the only one able to resist him, so he'll take his time with me.
He was riding around the pond when he spotted Gregor, a hundred yards away, shouting at a beater; he let his horse feel his spurs, once again, and grabbed the handle of the dagger Symon, the master-at-arms, allowed him to take for the hunt. As the distance narrowed between Gregor and him, different images churned in his head – Ivy's grave, in the orchard, under the apple tree; his father's corpse, lying across the saddle of his own horse, tied like a dead stag at the end of the hunt. He was only thirty feet away from his brother when Gregor turned to him, saw him alone and immediately understood what he planned to do, if the perverse smile distorting his lips was any indication. Someone was galloping behind him though, someone who had escaped the half light of the woods only to dive on him; Sandor was aware of his presence, yet didn't stop, hoping the intruder would arrive too late. He was wrong.
His horse reared up when Gerion appeared on his left and made him stop suddenly.
"What did you had in mind?" a breathless Gerion bellowed, seizing the reins of Sandor's mount.
He didn't answer but stared at his brother, then glanced from time to time at his massive figure once Gerion forced him to turn around and go back to the woods. When he finally stopped looking at Gregor, he heard a disturbing laughter behind him.
The stag was a beautiful beast; Tywin nonetheless found it was too young to die and Gregor mumbled something about a biggest animal the beaters had let escape. They were drinking out of their wine skins, around the dead stag, ready to go back to the castle.
"I'd like to take the antlers as a present for my wife," Kevan said thoughtfully.
"A present for your wife?" Tywin exclaimed. "The laws of hospitality tell us to let our guest decide about that. What do you think, Ser Gregor?"
"I would say Ser Kevan can take the antlers and the rest if I can have my brother back," Gregor replied with a fake playfulness.
"What a strange bargain!" Tywin put away his wineskin and Sandor read it as the beginning of the more serious discussion. Please, tell him to fuck off.
"Well, it seems to me that a young knight now in charge of a keep and good lands such as yours is quite busy. How will you find the time to take care of this... rather unruly boy?"
"That's what I thought," Gregor sighed, shaking his head. "Always getting in trouble. I hope you chastised him well enough, my lord."
"We saw to it."
"Let me take him back to Clegane's keep, my lord, and he won't bother you again. My little brother can be such a nuisance sometimes."
"Am I already drunk," Gerion jested, "or did you forget to answer my brother's question? I don't understand how you will take care of this boy with all your... activities."
Gregor took a gulp of wine, pondering his answer.
"He belongs to Clegane's Keep," he finally said. "Besides, what will you do with him? Look at him, his voice didn't even break!"
Tell him to fuck off. Please don't send me away. Tywin tilted his head.
"As a matter of fact, he can be useful. He already proved his skills, with a sword and wooden shield. It would have been perfect if he had not ruined this squire's face, but... your brother is gifted."
"Do you know what our father Tytos would have said?" Gerion added. "Never underestimate a Clegane. I'm sure you agree with that."
Gregor couldn't do anything, except showing his acquiescence and gratefulness.
"So we agree on this; your brother will stay here with us so that you have plenty of time to take care of the lands my father gave to your family. Oh, and you can have the antlers, by the way."
Tywin walked away and one of the beaters instantly brought him his horse, as Gregor, white with rage, stared at the antlers. Tywin's way to tell him 'Fuck off', Sandor mused.