In the slope of the shallow bank moss had overtaken and in its intensity the green was almost black. No light broke here, and so the autumn turn had come early to the creek, scented strong and tarry, wet leaves dissolving into themselves, sinking under him, seeping their brown-black liquor into his footprints. Around them heavy drops fell through the haze, and it was not until an acorn bounced up from his shoulder that he registered what they were; his last winter had been so long ago.
At the center of the darkness the creek was a bright loud ribbon, and he followed her down the bank, after pulling from her hands the branches she held aside for him. A strip of rock, chalky limestone broken into planks, ran alongside the shallow, and she pointed with the toe of her slipper to the shells left scattered between the rocks by birds. The water, high and turbulent at the bend, smoothed to moving glass in the shallow. Just underneath the surface, another smaller stream ran: minnows, silver and green, and the dark discs of perch sliding beneath. He felt his nausea subsiding, and bent to pull off his boots.
"Didn't see or hear anything while you were walking, did you? Those men drinking at the inn have to live somewhere. And they all hunt." He took care to keep censure from his tone.
"No, I was as quiet as I could be. And I waited here," she pointed down to a patch of grass beside them, folded over by her skirts into a wave, "before I came out in the light." Satisfaction hummed in her voice. She was pleased with herself, learning the customs of this new court, and he couldn't help but grin at it. At the edge she caught up her hem, balanced toe at heel to push off her slippers, and stepped up barefooted to a wide rock slanting out over the water. "At first, I thought I heard voices, children's voices, but then I realized it was water, and through the trees I saw all of this." She turned back to smile at him, proud of her discovery.
"Pretty," he assented, nodding to the far bank winking in the sun, and watched her settle herself from the corner of his eye.
He pulled off his tunic and tossed it behind him to the rocks, rubbing behind his shoulders where the salt made them itch. The creekbed was silty and uneven; wading out he sank heavily into the smooth pebbles. When the water reached his thighs he stopped, squinting past the blinding surface to the shadow of the bed beneath. The minnows came in a cloud to peck at his breeches, quick darting pecks at the traces of blood. Dragging in the back of the cloud was a minnow curved like a scythe, its kinked tailfin beating furiously beneath it. He watched its hitched progress, batting through its brothers, to a shadow where it stilled; the shadow of himself, standing over it.
Blinking, he refocused and saw his own face in the water, the scar shadowed by his hanging hair, showing only the glisten of his eye. His good side was dark, shining with dirt and sweat, a thin line along his jaw where he'd rubbed blood away. Below it was his body, bright in the tilting light, the hollow in the center of his chest deeper now, the long compact muscles of his thigh packed cleanly over the bone, the hard press of his stomach, bent forward, a curl holding up his chest, his shoulders, their shadow wide in the water. There was less to eat now, but his was still the body of a soldier; this new spareness he accepted as a reflection of his autonomy.
His eyes narrowed, judging, tapping his knuckles against his stomach; then he came back to himself, and looked up.
The girl was sitting in the sun and was watching him.
He felt his nakedness suddenly and strangely. He set his jaw, frowning, and stared back, but she did not turn away. Her eyes held his and stayed; then dipped to his tensed shoulders, to his hand on his stomach. He knew, standing there, what he was: the Hound, his worth the sum of his utility. But his sword, his hauberk and plate lay in their bag back with the horse and his tunic was on the rocks behind him, and in his hand was only a stick; under her gaze his identity was dissolving. Naked and streaked with dirt, sweating in the sun, he was simply a man being watched by a girl. She smiled then, a faint half-smile widening her lip, her eyes at him warmer than any woman's had been.
He shifted, recalling how he had caught her wrist as she had come running down the steps of the Serpentine, flushed and breathless in her laced dress, and how he'd frightened her, how she'd stammered under his attention. Back then it'd been she who had borne his grinning appraisal. He shifted again. This inversion was uncomfortable, and yet he found himself deeply pleased; he couldn't name what he felt.
"Why not those?" She was watching him, languid on her rock, pointing down at the minnows. Curled as she was, he could see her legs; long, nettle-stung, lovely. He realized that his own form must be as familiar to her as hers to him, and this realization jolted him. Knowing her had meant seeing his world of death and duty through her eyes, and now through them he saw the total of himself. Her stare was level, it was too much; he lowered his head.
"Those? They're tiny." Stripes darted around his bare feet, nibbling. His eyes unfocused and took in again the dark face, turned closed and wary, reflecting up at him from the water's surface gloss.
Then she laughed and turned over on her elbows, away from him. Quickly he wiped away the smear of dirt from under his eye and pulled a hank of his dirty hair back over the nub of his ear, and fished.
When he was done, he waded over to her rock to put before her the last of his catch in the pen. She'd been impressed in the fish, mainly for their trick of hanging on to life. "It still swims, and look at it, it's cut to pieces," she'd said, wrinkling her brow at him. And yet, she'd then thanked him for their dinner. Smiling down at her, he extended the spear.
"I need to wash. Fly back to camp, little bird, and take this."
Oily clots still gleamed on the spear tip and she hesitated before accepting it. Her face settled into a grimace of irked resignation, the very image of her father's. From the moment the young new Lord of Winterfell rode through the gates to find the crimson banners had preceded him, the strain of his reluctant tolerance had showed in his expression, and the Hound grinned now at its replication in miniature. You'll wait until I'm out of sight before you wipe it off, won't you, proud little thing? He laughed at her, a low rumble, both mocking and appreciative.
Her fingers tightened on the sapling and she half-rose to stare up at him. The rebuff in her eyes caught him off-balance. Smile dropping, he turned from her, the prickly flush he derived from goading her draining away. From its twitch, his face had betrayed to her the effort he'd needed to bury the smart of her rejection.
The girl turned and walked, her shoulders drawn back enough that a shadow lay between the blades, the spear as tall as she, her chin raised. Watching her go, he wondered how often her anger had been mistaken for haughtiness by those who knew her less well; she was so young to have learnt to cloak it in grace.
When the Hound was sure she was far enough, he stripped from his breeches and waded out to the deep of the creek. There, chest-high in the cold water, he lifted his heels and floated. The movement recalled to him afternoons in the millpond to the north of his home, though swimming there had meant first ducking under the skin of bubbled green muck that edged it. Opening his eyes underwater the first time had shown him, to his intense gratification, the stems of waterlilies snaking down, and a sediment-covered wagon overturned in the bottom of the murk. Rolling over and opening his eyes, now, showed him only the pebbled bed and the small fish bumping at his ankles. He was glad to see no sign of the men he was certain must hunt here, and relaxed, and swam upstream in a lazy loop.
Back at the rocks, he took the lump of tallow soap from its rag and sat down hip-deep in the shallow. Clouds of dirt billowed from his hair in the clear water and the minnows darted away from them in one wave, like a sheet being snapped. With the last of the lump he scrubbed the breeches and his stained tunic against the pebbles of the shallow until it melted to a smear in his palm. Clean, his scalp tight and the cuts on his hands stinging from the lye, he lay back in the cold water and felt its faint tug at him to go downstream. There's too great a risk in making for the Young Wolf's camp, wherever it is, and I haven't many choices. Any little mistake would do for us. Above him two hawks spun in slow circles about each other, tiny and wavering in the high current. He watched them, squinting. I'll bring her to her mother's people and she can make her home there. Even as he assured himself, he couldn't help but think of Lord Tywin on the march, of a besieged Riverrun; nor could he help but think of the cold that would come for him when he had let her go.
Walking through the shallow, he stumbled back from a sharp jab in the ball of his foot. Kneeling to dig after it, he found caught between the rocks a slender leaf, chalky green and white, half the length of his hand, the sharp edges crumbling with decay. It was foreign, crude but still handsome, barbed at the bevels. Scratching the crust against a rock brought out a stripe of dull bronze. At first it reminded him of the black arrowshaft in the wood. Then, stirring, he remembered something else, a remark the little bird had made to him. For some time he knelt in the water, staring down at the leaf in his palm.
Then he rose and whipped it downstream; the leaf skipped a long way across the surface of the water before it sank. He looked around the empty valley of the creekbed and sighed, and stretched out on the flat dry rock to let his cold-numbed body warm in the sun. The wind was up and clouds raced overhead, the sky emptied of birds. He closed his eyes and turned over the new idea, inspecting it as it revolved.
Absently, he ran his hand over his chest until he touched the knot where an arrow shot through his mail years ago and left behind a pinched, smooth divot in the joint of his shoulder, that had healed slowly in spite of Pycelle's efforts. He'd never seen the archer. He remembered well, however, the long angry week restricted to his side, grinding his teeth in his sleep while the wound wept and pulled itself together into a scar.
"There's your first ribbon," Gerion had said of it at the time, and he'd worn the respect it had garnered him like a ribbon for true, but he had been very young then. Now the sight of it only made him feel tired. Under his fingertips, it was nothing at all.
The girl had seen this, of course, and had smiled. Throughout his life he had come to anticipate approval for his size and for the scar, for the evidences of his ferocity. But her smile had been different, had been for the whole of him; had been unfamiliar, devastating in its power and in the reaction it had pulled from him.
As a boy it was impressed upon him that his worth was his body, its strength and skill. The reverberation that followed in Barristan Selmy's wake as he strode through the yard, the master-at-arms' shouted harangues, the casual daily raillery of men at one another: all in his world affirmed this. It had never been disproved. In his thirteenth year he'd grown very tall, very quickly; he'd needed a whirlwind of new boots and the aches in his legs woke him at night, but it was his recompense. A few years later, fed on the bounty of the Lannister wealth, he'd become the icon of the Lannister training yard, a figure of fear, and to Lord Tywin a point of pride in ownership. Was the offered white cloak sweeter, taken as it was from Selmy's shoulders in favor of his? Yet, cloaked and at the apex of his service, his lord's Hound had remained just that.
His body had become the best of him and he was proud of its strength, but it remained a tool and only that, and his face was what it was. But the memory of how the girl had watched him made his chest warm; the image of the look had settled itself in the core of his mind where all of the heaviest things came to rest. There sat his reasons, his convictions, his hates and needs, his pride. There too was the remembrance of the way she had looked up at him when he'd found her during the riot; how she'd reached, clutched at him, and how he'd been pleased by it, and how he'd mocked himself for being so pleased. Underneath his bitter satisfaction—she was safe, wasn't she, and hadn't he done as the knights had not, found and brought away the King's little betrothed?—there had been another, helpless satisfaction, still bitter, and yet he'd savored it: the tension of her arms around his chest.
Now, alone, he allowed himself thoughts of her, and to let these flood him. He lay for some time in the sun with his eyes closed, saturated, sliding into the haze that comes before sleep. First through the haze came his memory of her, beneath him in the dark. Then began the involuntary construct of his mind: her breath rapid, her hip shifting against his, turning, the fine weave of her dress dragging against his bare skin, her cheek cold against his, but her unsteady heart hot in his mouth.
His own heart woke him then, fast and suddenly loud in his ears, and he sat up trembling in the weak sunlight, the creek rippling quietly at his side.