Finally done with this chapter!
Again, I'm really sorry to be this slow, but I have been pretty busy with school recently. Anyway, I hope this chapter is worth the wait.
Thanks to all my readers and reviewers! You're all great! :D
As always, this would never have been as good without the help of wildsky_sheri, my very skilled beta!
It was the cawing of a big crow that woke Sandor, a little after dawn. Perched on a branch not far from him, the fat bird was peering down at him with piercing ebony eyes as he slowly regained his full awareness. The crow cawed once again and jumped on the ground with a snap of dry pine needles before bouncing toward the pine tree the drowsy man was still leaning against.
Eying the bird with annoyance, Sandor abruptly stood up and strode toward it. "We're not dead yet. Go feed in the Riverlands, will you?" he hissed as he was about to kick the animal.
The crow flew away just in time and disappeared toward the sunrise, its strident lament echoing through the valley all the while. Good riddance, Sandor mused as he followed the tiny dark shape as it merged with the sun. I hope you collide with the sun. We'll see if you caw so proudly then. Smirking at his own jest, Sandor's attention was suddenly caught by the stirring of the small bundle of fur that lay on the ground beside him. The girl was waking up. No wonder with all the noise that that damned bird made, he concluded as he stared down at his charge. Yawning and stretching, she appeared dazed for an instant but quickly averted her eyes from him and blushed when she realised that she was being observed so closely.
Scowling, Sandor grunted and turned around before stalking toward the creek. "I'll go feed Stranger. Get ready," he rasped simply.
The stallion was drinking water from the stream when Sandor joined him; he briefly raised his head to glance at his master but hastily lowered his muzzle to the water again. Distractedly, Sandor patted his flank before heading to a tree to take his morning piss. Sighing, he drew his head back and shut his eyes. Sleep had been neither long nor deep enough for him to truly be rested. The events of the previous night, although short-lived, had kept him awake for many hours. He had replayed their thread in his head at least a dozen times, trying to make sense of them.
The little bird had kissed him, taking advantage of his inattention to do so when Sandor was least expecting it. The feel of her plump lips as they lightly pressed against his had taken him right out of his doze and his eyes had instantly popped open to see the girl's beautiful face less than an inch from his. Her expression was so bloody peaceful that for an instant time had been suspended. He'd been too disconcerted to react and too absorbed by the unaccustomed softness of the gesture to immediately push her away. The girl's kiss had been like nothing that he had ever known. It was tender and sweet, innocent and chaste; a kiss taken right out of a buggering song. Sandor snorted at the realisation. The kiss of a maiden for her bloody knight, he concluded, shaking his head in disbelief as he uttered a short harsh laugh, the absurdity of it all too plain to stay completely serious.
Well, he had still taken it in the end, hadn't he? Sandor had not lied when he had told the little bird that his true desire was to hear her sing for him but a kiss was the next best thing and since he had always hated waste, he couldn't let this occasion slip by and not grasp it. Brutes like him wouldn't settle for modest pecks though. The girl had better learn that if she were to choose so poorly to whom she'd gift her kisses and be so generous with anyone who'd helped her. Stunning as she was becoming, knights, sellswords and even the lowest poxy retainers would line-up just to get a chance to assist her. If she didn't gain some much-needed judgement and kept on offering her lips so damned easily, a catastrophe was sure to happen sooner than later. Kisses weren't safe presents, few men wouldn't be tempted to take more than she'd offered once they'd felt the touch of those luscious lips against theirs. Sandor himself was not much better; for half a second as he was tasting her sweet mouth, he had considered tearing her dress open and taking her right there on the solid ground but had known better than to rape his own charge and thus let her go before his blood became too hot. It's going be hard to look at her now, without thinking of how fucking perfect she felt under my touch, Sandor mused bitterly, mouth twitching slightly as he handed some hay to Stranger.
"Do you have anything to eat?" a small whisper suddenly surprised him, taking him out of his reflections.
Turning his head around, Sandor's gaze fell on the girl. She was standing still and nervously staring at her hand, obviously petrified to address him after what had arisen between them the previous night.
Tossing Stranger's hay on the ground, Sandor strolled toward his saddlebags and searched through the jumble inside. "Here," he said after a few seconds, while throwing a wrinkled apple in the girl's direction.
The little bird's eyes grew wide as she hurried to catch the fruit just before it fell on the soil. Smirking at the spectacle that she made, Sandor's gaze met hers for a short instant but the girl quickly turned her back on him, her uneasiness plain as she hurriedly flew away while munching at the old apple.
Frowning, Sandor watched her as she disappeared into the woods but then snorted and grabbed his saddle in his arms. We're back to square one; a scared, mute little bird afraid of the coarse hound that guards her, he reflected sardonically before snorting again. I was just becoming used to her constant buggering chirping. Well, at least I know that she won't naively go on kissing men as if it had no fucking consequences. She learned a bloody good lesson yesterday, the hard way, he decided as he settled the saddle on Stranger's back.
The sun was getting higher by the minute, Sandor realised with concern as he put on his cloak and grabbed an apple for himself. "Hurry, little bird. Time to go," he flatly yelled in her direction. Contrary to what he had assured her the day before, Sandor was far from certain that they would make it on schedule for the exchange, and so he was adamant about making the best time possible today.
After a moment, the girl arrived, still avoiding his stare as she approached him. His scowl deepening, Sandor grabbed her by the waist with a bit too much force. A yelp escaped her lips and she tensed under his touch as he lifted her from the ground and settled her on their mount. Mouth twitching, the man jumped up behind her and kicked his stallion with his heels; the beast began to walk, continuing on with their long journey toward the Golden Tooth.
It was close to midday when a cloak of grey clouds began to cover the sun and the once pure azure in which it revolved. Although the light still pierced through, the darkening of the sky augured naught but inevitable rain in this season and thus Sandor continuously kept squinting upward as if his severe gaze could somehow keep the elements in check. His mood, as grim as the weather, was in fact truly a counterpart of the girl's demeanour, growing increasingly more morose as the hours went on and she held her tongue and systematically avoided his gaze.
"You're hungry, girl?" he rasped, as much to fill the void between them than to voice his own building craving for some food.
Wordlessly, the little bird nodded slightly while keeping her eyes on the pommel.
Sighing deeply, Sandor abruptly halted Stranger. Enough of this, he thought to himself with annoyance as he jumped from the saddle. The little bird threw him a puzzled glance as he circled his hands around her tiny waist but once he had set her down, her pretty blue eyes were already demurely lowered. Glaring down at her, Sandor grabbed her chin with gloved fingers and lifted her head upward. Her face was all flushed and her eyes were wide but she was finally gazing at him.
"Listen to me, little bird," he said dryly. "I don't know what in the seven hells got into you to kiss me yesterday but I wasn't the one to start it, you were. If you regret it, it's your own damned fault, so don't take it out on me. I told you before, I want you to look at me and I won't stand your silence much longer either, you hear me?"
For a short moment Sandor regretted his outburst for the girl seemed even more anxious than before, eluding his eyes - exactly as he had just demanded her not to - but only for a few seconds before she unexpectedly raised her gaze to look at him. "I'm sorry," she answered in weak voice. "I… I don't regret it; you deserved it, only… it was my first kiss," she added while blushing madly. "I shouldn't have avoided you as I did today. I hope you'll forgive me."
Releasing her chin, Sandor studied her for some time. Her first kiss, with a dog, he mused wryly, a smirk uncontrollably forming on his lips. She's shy as a maiden… naturally. "Whatever your reasons, I'll forgive you as long as you stop acting so bloody haughty," he rasped in a softer tone as he turned around to get some bread from Stranger's saddlebag. "Here, take this. We'll eat in the saddle. I don't like the look of that sky. We'd better get going."
Obviously more at ease than she had been throughout the whole day, the little bird acquiesced with a bright smile and let Sandor settle her into the saddle without flinching.
It was in a much improved atmosphere that they rode for the first few hours of the afternoon, though still in silence. The girl wasn't so tense anymore, her soft body had relaxed and was even leaning into him from time to time, but in those moments it was Sandor's turn to be tense. He couldn't help but look down at her curves, a nearly uncontrollable urge to fondle every inch of her skin overtaking him as he remembered how intoxicating it had felt to hold her in his arms. His lust for her had alarmingly increased, he realised with a hint of apprehension.
"I felt a drop!" the little bird suddenly cried out, as Sandor was distractedly breathing in the aroma of her luxuriant hair.
"Raise your hood to keep your face dry. I'll find us a place to spend the night, don't worry."
Peering at the horizon, Sandor quickly gauged the distance that separated them from the nearest mountains. They were relatively close but he had no unrealistic expectations; the chances that they could get to their base in time to find a shelter before the flood truly began were very thin. He would need to think of something else. Just as he was resigning himself to trying to reach the hills anyway, Sandor noticed that there was a descent not too far to his left. He could only hope that on the foot of that slope there would be some sort of cave or even a mere hollow where they could hide for the night. In a few hasty strides, Stranger had reached the descent and Sandor was relieved to see that it was neither too steep nor too high.
Jumping from his mount's back, he raised his eyes to the girl. "We're going down. It'll be easier for Stranger to descend that slope without my weight on his back. Stay there though, you're light as a bloody feather. I'll wager he doesn't even feel you're there."
Giggling lightly, the little bird blushed a pretty shade of pink and for a moment, Sandor wondered if it hadn't been for the best when she was ignoring him but he chased the idea away and began to descend while keeping a firm grip on Stranger's reins. The rain was still faint but the gloom of the clouds promised a torrent that would overtake the valley very soon and so Sandor hurried down the slope, following natural paths that weren't as precipitous as the rest of the hillside. The girl was quiet; he could tell that she was nervous, same as Stranger. A few murmurs of encouragement were enough to soothe the beast however, but when Sandor jerked his head around to see how the little bird was faring, he noticed that she had curiously been reassured by his soft words, same as the horse.
Once they were finally down, the man scanned his surroundings and was quick to find what he was looking for. Only a few paces from him, the mouth of a cave was visible, hidden behind a clump of trees. Perfect, he mused as he entered the dark opening. The cavern wasn't really deep but it was big enough for him to stand in its entrance and there was space enough for both he and his charge to sleep comfortably. They could even build a small fire if there was still some dry wood to be found nearby. Stranger, on the other hand, would have to spend the night under the pine trees, but it wouldn't be so bad; the stallion had seen far worse.
"It's no inn but it's better than soaking ourselves to the skin. I'll try to find some dead wood before the bloody deluge falls on us," Sandor rasped as he settled the saddle inside the cave.
The little bird was gazing around her with badly-concealed reserve, obviously apprehensive at being left alone but she nonetheless smiled at him and nodded.
Underneath the pine trees, Sandor found enough dry wood to light a respectable fire and brought it all back to the cavern in many round trips. In the hope of making the place as cosy as possible, he also collected some pine branches on his way and carpeted the cave's floor with it; it was no feather bed but anything was better than the cold cruelty of a cave's hard surface. After about an hour of preparation, Sandor was finally done. As he sat by the fire after setting his cloak to dry on a boulder not far away, the first thunder of the evening reverberated across the valley, its raucous din quickly followed by a flash of lightning and a sudden downpour.
"A storm!" the little bird exclaimed as she turned her head toward the cave's mouth. "I can't believe we made it just in time! We'll be dry tomorrow when we leave this place," she added with a broad smile while undoing her long braid. Her hair was extremely tangled and she tried almost vainly to work through it with her fingers for some time, quickly losing her grin and sighing at her lack of progress. "I'll never get through this. I lost all my things, my brush, my dresses…" she complained in a whisper.
Sandor snorted and twisted around from his place to search in the saddlebag. "Here, take my comb. I won't hear you complain all night," he told her as he handed her an old wooden comb.
Grinning, the little bird hurriedly grasped it. "Oh, thank you! My hair is in such a mess, I was getting worried that I would never unravel it," she chirped with as much gratitude as if he had given her a buggering golden necklace while a new flash of lightning lit up the cave. Standing up with glimmering wide eyes, she approached the cave's mouth while murmuring, "What a beautiful storm, it's been so long since I've seen one."
Beautiful, yes, Sandor thought as he watched her silhouette moving slowly away from him. The little bird worked patiently through her hair for a long time while gazing distractedly at the thunderstorm as it raged outside. Putting her long locks sideways, she caressed the curls with her fingers and the comb while humming an unknown melody to Sandor. Her pale neck was exposed to his thirsty vision and he was drinking from the sight of that pure skin with the same hunger than a starved man would gulp wine. His stare was getting too heavy for the girl not to notice; she glanced at him, seemingly disconcerted by its intensity. Nervously, she managed a faint smile before jerking her head around almost completely and resumed combing her hair as if nothing had happened.
No, little bird, something did happen. Yesterday you foolishly let me get a taste of you, and now all I can think about is consuming you completely. How was he ever going to make it to the Golden Tooth without taking her or at least touching and kissing her again? Some things are simply bloody impossible, he sighed to himself as he stood up and slowly approached the oblivious girl from behind. His heart fluttering, he lightly circled his fingers around her throat and pressed his open mouth to the nape of her neck. The little bird tensed and gasped as the comb slipped out of her hand but she stayed still. Breathing heavily, Sandor let his hand slide under the girl's dress to caress her shoulder and collarbone, his lips travelling to the side of her neck, licking it and biting it lightly but firmly while his free hand instinctively grasped her waist. Her breasts were heaving up and down at a fast pace, her cheeks were flushed and her eyes shut when he finally raised his head from the crook of her neck.
Is she scared? he wondered, his hands still possessively clenched on her. As he was about to let her go, the girl turned around and looked up at him. Her cheeks were aflame and her mouth was slightly opened in an expression of utter shock but her eyes were piercing as ever. They were boring into his with so much intensity that he felt as if she was seeing him for the very first time. Sandor stood motionless for an instant but then he felt it again; her plump lips reaching for his as softly, chastely and tenderly as the first time, in a brief and unexpected kiss.
Transfixed for a moment, he could only peer down at her, baffled as she suddenly left his mouth. "Why would you do that again, little bird?" he simply rasped.
Flushed and out of breath, she whispered, "I thought you might like it. You deserved it… again."
"Really?" he growled in a low tone. "Does that mean that you'll be kissing me every time that I behave?" Sandor muttered slowly. Caressing the girl's jaw, he snorted before adding, "As if I were a bloody hound for real, and you its master, rewarding it with kisses. Is that it?"
Breathing in, she lowered her stare and tried to recoil from him but he didn't want her to go and his grip was too firm. What is she trying to achieve with this? She was still so young, having just shared her very first kiss with him on the previous night. A maiden exploring her seductive might for the first time, that's what she is. Sandor was a toy, he realised, a wounded mouse thrown to a kitten by its mother so that it could learn how to hunt and kill. The thought brought a smirk to his lips. I'll be just that, if that's what you want, Sansa. I'm yours to play with. Sharpen your little claws on me, if that's what you will. I won't ever complain and you, you'll have to most faithful dog of them all. A hound never bites the hand that feeds him, he reflected, as he caressed her cheek with his fingers. At the feel of his touch, the girl's gaze rose; their eyes locked and she shyly smiled at him.
Right then, Sandor realised that he had just found his first true master.