A/N: The comfort of my readers is of foremost importance to me. Despite the description of forced marriage, please be assured that there is no non/con or dub/con in this story. I make it a practice to not include such elements in any of my stories, and if there are mentions of any potential triggers, I always tag it and put asterisks next to the paragraphs. I hope you enjoy it!

Chapter 1 Called Before the King

Sansa hastily brushed out her hair and smoothed her bodice carefully while trying to ignore the fearsome man waiting on her. Nervously she drew a deep breath and cast a sideways glance at Sandor Clegane leaning against the wall of her chambers, his cold gray eyes studying her every move.

"I am almost finished, my lord."

The Hound snorted and Sansa watched his eyes roam her body before finally settling on her shaky hands awkwardly fumbling at the lacings of her gown. "The longer you keep him waiting, the worse it will go for you," he warned her, his rasping voice somewhat tempered.

Outside her chambers, Ser Boros and Ser Meryn stood wooden like, their ugly faces blank and foreboding. What could possibly have happened that the king would send three members of the Kingsguard for me while he held court? And why would he send the Hound to watch me dress?

Sansa longed to ask the scarred man but something in the way the Hound stared at her chased the words from her throat. Swallowing her apprehension, the young woman moved beside him. "Please Ser, tell me what I have done."

"I'm no Ser," he sneered, tilting her chin up to him. "And this isn't about you. It's about your honorable father, the great Lord of Winterfell, the Hand of the King Eddard Stark."

His words thundered in her ears, and Sansa felt as though the Hound drove his mailed fist into her stomach. Mind racing, she thought back to the evening meal and recalled hearing the queen say that her father had made inquiries about Joffrey's claim to the throne. Certainly, such questions were bound to displease the king but still, such a trifle did not warrant the show of force Joffrey sent to her quarters.

Nausea tore at her stomach, threatening to make her ill. Moving away from the Hound, Sansa held a small vial of smelling salts to her nose and sank back onto the bed. "I had no part in whatever he did. I am loyal to my beloved Joffrey."

"Save your chirping for the King," the Hound pulled her to her feet, not ungently . "Do as you're bid, child. Dress."

"Y-yes, of course. Forgive me." When she was ready, Sansa discreetly moved to the Hound's left as he led her into toward the audience chamber. Boros and Meryn fell in behind them. Flinching, she shivered and turned her face back toward the Hound.

"That one is nothing to fear, girl," the huge man laid a heavy hand on her shoulder. "Paint stripes on a toad, he does not become a tiger."

Ser Boros lifted his visor. "Ser, we must make haste—"

"Fuck your sers, Boros. You're the knight, not me. I'm the king's dog, remember? Walk in front where I can see you or lose your head, one. Makes me no difference but I'll not have you frightening the king's betrothed."

Sansa saw the fear flicker through both members of the Kingsguard's eyes, and without a word, the men moved in front of them.

Strong fingers gripped her arm tightly. "They trained you well, little bird," he rasped low into her ear. "Chirp your words well, for both our sakes."

For both our sakes? What does he mean by that? "Please, tell me what he wants," Sansa abruptly stopped and clutched Sandor's bicep tightly, her nails digging into his arm. "I cannot bear the suspense."

"He wants to hear you recite all your pretty little words the way the septa taught you," the Hound sighed heavily. "Joff wants you to fear him, as he fears the truth."

She had only a moment to puzzle over this, for soon they arrived at the entranceway to the throne room. At their approach, Ser Barristan Selmy opened the leaved doors. "Be brave, child, for your father," he whispered, squeezing her arm.

Another shiver of dread went through her but Sansa remembered her courtesies and she bowed at the knight before Sandor led her toward the throne. The eyes of the court and spectators weighed heavily on Sansa as she warily took her place, never taking her eyes off the king. Joffrey simpered at her as he waited for Ser Boros and Ser Meryn to take their positions behind them.

The Hound did not move from her side as the others, and resting his hands at his sides, he stood at attention, avoiding her questioning glance.

"Step forward," Joffrey beckoned to her.

"Your Grace." Sansa fell to her knees and then glanced over at the Hound. Why is he still here? Shouldn't he take his position next to the king?

"Kneeling won't save you now," the king said. "Either of you."

Beside her, Sandor Clegane's face twitched into an expressionless mask. His hand flexed at the king's words but otherwise the scarred man showed no emotion.

Joffrey's shrill voice cracked like a whip. "Stand up, Sansa. You're here to answer for your father's treason." The king's wormy lips curled into a sneer as he watched her take her place.

She had never seen him as vicious as he looked then, not even when Robert ordered Lady executed. It became clear that her life depended upon the king accepting her words as true and Sansa put on her best face.

The faint whispers of the lords and ladies assembled faded into the background. I am a Stark. I can be brave. "Your Grace, whatever my father did, you know I had no part in it. You know that."

"I do, my lady, I do. That is why you are still alive," Joffrey licked his lips and leaned forward on the throne. "Tell me, my lady, what is a king to do when his betrothed's own flesh and blood betrays him in open court?"

Stunned silence settled over the throne room. Schooling her expression, Sansa bowed her head. "Forgive me, Your Grace; I know not of what you speak."

"Your Father just stood in that very spot you occupy and ordered my mother and me taken into custody!" Joffrey screeched, the sound setting her teeth on edge. "He claimed that I am not the rightful heir of Robert Baratheon."

She knew it would do her no good to refute the king's words in open court. "As it pleases the king, I ask for mercy for my father, Lord Eddard Stark who serves as Hand of the King."

"Serves, you say? He serves no longer!"

"Treason is a noxious weed! It should be torn out, root-" Grand Maester Pycelle began. Beside her, the Hound ground his teeth, his eyes gleaming with a frightening rage that fairly poured off his heavily muscled body.

Somehow Sansa understood she had nothing to fear from him.

Cersei noticed Sandor's demeanor and exchanged a knowing glance with the king. "Let her speak."

"If you insist, Mother," Joffrey waved his hand dismissively. "Yes, I want to hear what she says-it might be good for a laugh."

"Thank you, Your Grace," Cersei tersely replied. "Lady Sansa, you will answer all enquires made by the court about this manner, is that understood?"

"Yes, my queen," Sansa bowed.

Petyr Baelish stepped forward. "Do you deny your Father's crime?"

My mother's friend. "No," she faltered, glancing toward Sandor Clegane. Flicking his eyes toward her, the man slightly inclined his head at her. Chirp your words well for both our sakes, his words echoed in her ears. The Hound is right. I am just a little chirping bird, repeating the words they taught me.

Steeling herself, Sansa held her head high. "No, Lord Baelish, I know he must be punished. To allow such a matter go unpunished would do harm to the king." The words bitterly stung her mouth. "All I ask is mercy. I know my lord father must regret what he did."

"He said I wasn't the king," Joffrey leaned forward. "Why did he say that?"

"He must not have been himself," she quietly offered, flashing a withering look at the old maester. "It is the only explanation I can offer. I understand he was badly wounded when taken into custody. Perhaps Maester Pycelle's treatment weakened his mind."

"Treason is treason!"

Sansa pressed onward, ignoring Pycelle's bleating. "He loved Robert. You all know he loved Robert as his king and more importantly, as his friend."

Levelly she gazed into the eyes of Lord Varys, Lord Baelish and the queen, carefully stilling her expression into one of quiet confidence. Remember, Sansa, a lady must always use her words with confidence. If you believe them, others will too.

"He never wanted to be Hand of the king. Your Grace, I am confident he would never have agreed to serve if not for this love," Sansa cast her eyes downward. "I ask mercy, not for myself but for my father, out of deference to the affection he and the king held for each other-such regard as is not found even among brothers. If you have any love in your heart for me still, please, do me this kindness, Your Grace."

Simpering, Joffrey rolled his eyes. "Mercy? I must send a message to the realm that such behavior will not be tolerated."

"Your counsel neither considers it wise nor in the best interest of the realm for you to continue your betrothal to Sansa Stark, a girl whose father, by his own mouth, is condemned of treason. I beg you, set her aside," interjected Cersei. "The shame alone is punishment enough for her."

Feigning ignorance, Joffrey gaped at his mother. "But I have taken a holy vow. A king must keep his word."

It was all Sansa could do to refrain from laughing in his face. Grand Maester Pycelle stepped forward once more. "Your Father, the gods bless his memory, made this pact before the Starks revealed their falseness. I have consulted with the High Septon and he assures me that Lord Eddard's crime against the realm free you from any promise you have made to them in the sight of the gods."

Folding her hands, Sansa bit the inside of her lip to remain silent.

"The gods are good," Joffrey smirked approvingly. "I am free to follow my heart and hereby end my alliance with House Stark."

A loud murmur went through the crowd. "As it pleases you, Your Grace," Sansa curtseyed low.

Joffrey raised his crossbow and aimed it squarely at her heart. "Killing you would send the realm a message."

It will all be over soon. Whispering a prayer to the old gods, Sansa kept her eyes fixed on the ground until someone beside her caught her attention: it was the Hound moving closer to her, quiet as a cat, with his hand gripping the pommel of his greatsword.

The audience drew a collective gasp until the king's laughter echoed through the chamber. Cersei leaned in and whispered into Joffrey's ear, her words pulling his face into a tight scowl.

"I considered taking your life in the place of your father but my mother insists on keeping you alive," he lowered the weapon and jerked his finger at her. "Stand."

No longer devoid of emotion, Sandor's face twitched sharply and he kept staring at the king. Rising to her feet, Sansa glanced between them uncertainly.

"Mother, what should be done with Lady Stark?"

"I am certain your decision will be just and fair," Cersei offered, the alarm in her voice mounting as she spoke.

"I think I'll give her to the Hound," Joffrey suddenly laughed and clapped his hands. A din of confusion went up from the audience. "Make her your bitch, keep her as a bed warmer-it makes me no matter."

Panic stricken, Sansa's eyes darted between the queen and Joffrey. He glared at her, his beady eyes gleaming with malice as he added, "Or better yet, marry her-I'm sure she'd hate that. Sleeping in my dog's bed, being fucked like a bitch in heat, whelping his ugly pups."

"Your Grace," Maester Pycelle began reprovingly. "Lady Sansa is a highborn. It is hardly appropriate-"

"Silence, you old fool!" The king barked, "If I wanted to hear you speak I would have addressed you." Straightening his doublet, Joffrey then turned his attention back to the Hound. "What say you, dog? If you don't want her, I'll just let Meryn and Boros have her and then put her head on a spike."

The Hound stood clenching his jaw, his fist tightening around the hilt of his weapon while a small trickle of blood leached from the corner of the burned side of his mouth. "I will take the Stark bitch, teach her what dogs do to wolves. She'll be mine to deal with from now on."

"A wedding it is!" Joffrey crowed, clapping his hands. "Meryn, make her ready."