The deserted barn looks as good as another place to spend the night in spite of one collapsed wall and the missing tiles on the roof. At least, the walls and the framework will protect them. She became shy after the last events and refused to look for an inn. Perhaps she'll soon admit Dondarrion was right when he told them not to go North. But she's hardheaded... She won't change her mind easily. The stubborn little girl comes back from the wood carrying kindling, her hair damp, avoiding his gaze. She says she found a stream down the hill and bathed. The place seems peaceful, she adds in the civil tone she never gave up in King's Landing and he disliked so much. Does it mean she wants him to go out there and give her some space? Does she rue the lie she repeated to save his life? She can't take it back but maybe she wishes to do so.
He's as embarrassed and as confused as he was on the first days of their journey: but she didn't know he loved her when they spent their nights by the fire, unable to speak. He feels weak and stupid now that she knows everything. Perhaps she did it on charity and doesn't want me to believe a single word. As usual, he gulps his food – brown bread and cheese given by some peasant woman – while she takes her time and keeps her good manners. As a result of his gluttony, he soon has nothing to do and gives the cracked wall a blank stare, waiting for her to finish her meal. Unable to bear the silence anymore, he clears his throat.
"We have to talk," he points out. "If you regret the things you said back in the village-"
"I don't regret what I said!" she protests. She leaves the warm spot where she sat to kneel beside him. "How can you think-"
"Why are you so cold, then?" He feels so lost at this moment that he looks at her without trying to conceal his feelings: his fears, his affection for her are visible but he doesn't care. She shakes her head.
"So you will never trust me?" she asks, on the verge of tears. "You think it's easy for me? All this is new. And I don't know what will come next. The truth is, I'm scared. It felt easier to speak my mind out there, even in front of dozens of people."
"You were playing a part," he says ruthlessly, staring at the flames.
When he meets her eyes again, she looks incensed.
"How can you doubt my word after all we've been through?" she asks. "I don't regret what I said. I didn't lie, except when I told Lord Beric we were married."
Her blue eyes are full of tears and he can measure her efforts to stay calm.
"Why are you torturing me like this? I thought you would reassure me but instead of that, you're as awful as you were in King's Landing... You're supposed to be the grown-up."
Her reproaches are well-founded and he's conscious of his despicable behavior. Getting on his feet, he leaves her by the fire and sits on the collapsed wall of the barn. At dusk, all he can see is a bunch of trees with their bare branches shivering in the cold wind on his right. In the distance, there must be the stream she bathed in. All of a sudden, there is a little hand brushing his shoulder, lingering on his upper arm.
"Talk to me."
"I'm no good with words," he answers, ashamed.
"It doesn't matter. Let me have a look at your arm."
As it's almost dark, she leads him back to where they ate a while ago and gently rolls his sleeve up. In places, the fabric sticks to the burnt skin, making him wince. She cleans it with fresh water, then shifts to scrutinize his swollen lip. The blow he received right after Stranger kicked out and injured a member of the Brotherhood left dirty marks on his face, on the evidence on her concerned look. Kneeling in front of him, she uses her handkerchief to apply water on his lower lip. When he puts his hands on her hips instinctively, she freezes.
"You trust me now?" she asks.
Repentant and shamefaced, he nods.
"I- I never doubt you," he explains. "It's just that... I don't deserve-"
She cuts him off. "Say it, please. Say you trust me."
He suddenly realizes how young she is, in spite of her motherly attitude.
"I trust you. And I love you." He tightens his grip on her.
"Will you marry me?"
"If you want to marry me. But you know what it means: I don't own any castle. I don't own anything. I can't even promise you a decent wedding. Neither pretty clothes nor a feast-"
"I was given a pretty dress and a feast and, trust me, it was one the saddest days of my life. I'd rather eat stale bread. And I prefer the blue dress I was wearing the day you stole me."
"I'm not a good match for you."
"Don't talk like that," she protests, brushing his lip again. Her gesture is not meant to soothe his pain; it looks more and more like a caress. He cups her face and kisses her hungrily. She lets him do as he pleases, leaning against him, her arms wrapped around his neck when she suddenly tries to break with him. At first, he thinks she's out of breath and needs a second or two before he can kiss her again, but she lowers her gaze and blushes.
"What's wrong?" he asks. "Did I- Did I hurt you?"
She shakes her head, ill-at-ease, brushing his collarbone. "I loved it. I was wondering... what's next? What will happen tonight?"
His answer surprises her so much she raises her head and locks eyes with him. The flames are flickering yellow and orange on her face, giving life to the turmoil of her inner thoughts: images churn in her head and she's struggling with them, trying to understand what he said.
"We have plenty of time," he adds, with as much confidence as he can. If nobody takes you away or kill us before.
Her features seem suddenly very serious as she pats his shoulder before burying her face in his neck.
"I thought you would like... I mean I want to be your wife, which involves-"
"Which involves nothing. You're exhausted and so am I. Besides, you don't know what you want."
"I know what I want!" she protests, trying to escape from his arms.
As far as he remembers, the moments when she loses her temper invariably awaken something wolfish inside him, something he has to restrain for now. He stands up and helps her get on her feet, then points at the heap of straw some crofter left in the corner of the barn long ago.
"Time to go to bed, girl."
They spent the night curled under his cloak. As usual when he wakes up, she has her back to him; this routine in itself pleases him, like something completely natural and obvious. She stretches her limbs, then pats his hand resting on her waist.
"Did you sleep well?" he rasps.
From where he is all he can see is her high-cheek becoming round and pink: a proof that she smiles.
"Where are you going to find a septon?" she asks.
"In a sept. That's a good start."
Her burst of laughter delights him and he seizes the opportunity to hold her tight.
"I owe you an apology," he adds. "You damn know what you want."
She squirms to face him and her red cheeks suggest something embarrassing. Embarrassing for both of us.
"I've been thinking and there's something else I want," she says in a low voice. "I- I don't want to wait."
His silence ruffles her; the blue eyes peer at his face, waiting for his reaction.
"No, not now."
"Why?" she asks. In her vehement tone, he can recognize the spoiled little girl she once was.
"Not accustomed to contradiction, huh?" he mocks. "There's no need to hurry and... I want a true wedding night. Unlike you, I never got married." And I feel as awkward as you are.
She stares at him then lowers her gaze, chewing her lip. Her expression amuses him and, for a heartbeat, he thinks of staying here all day, lying on the straw, looking at the worm-eaten beams of the barn while a howling wind would make the inhabitants of the Riverlands shut themselves up in their hovels. All of a sudden, she shifts and kisses him on the temple. You're a lucky man, Clegane.
As the rest of the Riverlands, war devastated Saltpans; burned shops and ruined alehouses shocked her when they arrived, so that he didn't need to remind her of raising her hood. Her pretty face disappeared under the brown fabric and she stayed so close her shoulder kept brushing his arm while they walked through the streets of the harbor, looking for a place to spend the night. A square keep cast a shadow on the grim buildings and even that seemed ominous.
Despite the gloomy atmosphere and the difficulties he foresaw, he rapidly found a ship sailing to White Harbor on the following day and a decent room in some old tavern. The place was almost deserted, but the few sailors hanging around and swilling ale made her shy. She asked if she could stay upstairs, have a bath and wash her clothes while he would listen to the men's conversations in order to learn the latest news. Once he has had enough of murders and slaughters told by sailors who like to go into detail, he climbs the stairs that lead to their room and finds her washing his filthy clothes. She ignores him when he protests: she explains it's almost done and suggests he could ask for some more hot water, so that he can take a bath.
Another room, another wooden barrel used as a tub, another awkward moment when she reaches the only window to stare at the sullen streets weaving at the foot of the castle.
"I know you won't look at me," he teases. "You're not the kind of girl who spies on a man taking his bath. Your septa raised you well."
She doesn't answer and he sits opposite the window; this way he can see her. After a long day on horseback and several nights under the stars, hot water soothes his sore limbs and he grunts his approval. I'm getting old. Time flies. Sooner or later, every long ride will become an ordeal and every time I lay on the ground, I'll look more and more like a recumbent statue. When his left forearm reaches the water, the sting comes back and he curses. She slightly turns her head and asks if he's all right, then keeps quiet until he gets out of the tub and does a pair of breeches.
"That's better," she comments with a mischievous smile, grabbing his tunic and hiding the white fabric behind her back before he can pull it on. As she's standing before him, he realizes how difficult it is to restrain himself. Shadows creep over the room now that the sun goes down. A man they called the Hound would have found her mouth-watering and would have taken advantage of the dark. He almost did it once, when he was in his cups and broken by a battle on the shores of the Blackwater. He could have hurt her with his dagger that night. I didn't need a dagger to hurt her, though. I was the dagger, sharp and unsheathed. Trying to bring back together the bitter man he was and the one he has become during his stay in the woods and his journey with her, he stops in front of the pale girl whose smile vanished as he was brooding on his past. He pushes a lock behind her ear then kisses her so eagerly she gasps. His fingers on the back of her neck tangle in her damp hair and he embraces her. She's standing on tiptoe but he finds it quite uncomfortable so he breaks with her and makes her lay on the bed.
"I said I wanted a true wedding night," he whispers. "Doesn't mean we can't play games."
"Still playing games, are we?" Her voice reveals a mix of apprehension and curiosity. She smiles as he lies down by her side and doesn't protest when he kisses her neck and collarbone; her skin is fresh but doesn't have the salty taste that drove him mad a few days earlier. When she shivers, he feels lost and unable to stop all the same. Once he has reached the neckline of her dress, he pauses and begins to undo the laces. She puts her small hand on his, a puzzled look on her face.
"Promise me something, first," she says. Her pale fingers contrast with his tanned and rough hands.
"I swear I'll eat every charred rabbit you'll cook for me, if it makes you feel better."
"Stop making fun of me, please!"
He gives a sigh and looks at her straight in the eyes, trying to ignore his need.
"I've been thinking," she says, "and I know we're going to a dangerous place. Not that I want to go back, but I'm conscious of the threats we will have to face in the North. What happened with the Brotherhood convinced me that we ought to make a pact. If we can't go to Winterfell, we'll go back to the Thistle and try to help Ella. But if we fail..."
Her voice suddenly breaks.
"Hush... I'll protect you."
"They could have killed you," she answers stubbornly. "And at least, we could talk with the Brotherhood. It's not the same if we run into Lord Baelish's men. I just- I just don't want to be a prisoner again and I don't want to survive you. That's why, if it turns out badly, I want you to make sure I won't be anyone's prisoner. The Tarbecks did the same when Tywin Lannister besieged their castle and they refused to yield. We're somehow facing the same situation, with so many enemies, and we should act in a similar way: no surrender."
"Have you lost your mind?"
"On the contrary, I've never been so clearheaded. Maybe I can't fight but I can die bravely. If you love me, promise you won't let me be a prisoner again. Promise you'll kill me before facing whoever attacks us."
She's so young, he realizes. She has her whole life in front of her. She doesn't even understand a prisoner's life is still a better choice for her than a quick death. How can I reason her? He can't follow her wish but she seems so tough-minded he suddenly have doubts on his ability to convince her. The blue eyes stare at him, waiting for his answer, determined not to yield.
"Ask me whatever you want, but don't ask me to kill you. I love you-"
"If you truly love me, you have to promise," she says, choking back tears.
As he doesn't comply, he can read frustration on her face then she shifts and draws him close to her.
"Swear you won't leave me behind," she whispers, kissing his neck in spite of his beard, her hands running down his torso. She goes on, speaking softly and brushing his bare skin, making his heart beat wildly. No woman ever touched him like this; he can't ignore his arousal and can't restrain himself for long. As soon as he begins to kiss her back, she stops him.
"Promise," she commands ruthlessly, ignoring his need.
He hesitates, looking at the laces he tried to undo a few moments before. Her gaze almost challenges him, if only because she knows his weaknesses. A man who tied her to a tree not to hurt her can't resist for a long time. This dress Ella gave her has a low neckline and he knew from the beginning it was a bad idea. Now it seems that her breasts are going to pop out of the bodice.
"I'll do whatever it takes to protect you," he rasps. "But if I can't protect you anymore-"
"If I can't protect you anymore, I'll make sure nobody steal you from me. I'll do it and die right after that."
Her lips meet his and their kiss seems so desperate he's sure he never experienced something like this. His heart is pounding as he fights with the laces of her dress, deepening his kiss, but he can't let himself go. There's this haunting question he can't simply overlook, in spite of his need for her. What have I done?
Four days after they left Saltpans on a galley called Brave Borcas, they see White Harbor. At least, they hear a sailor yelling that they are approaching the seat of House Manderly. To have a look at the white city wrapped in the mist, they should have gone on the upper deck instead of staying in the captain's cabin. The small, dimly-lit room where he banged his head every time he forgot to bend has been their refuge since they sailed; she made it clear she didn't like being on the deck. The sailors' inquisitive and bawdy gazes annoyed her. Another result of our forced visit to the Brotherhood: every man becomes a potential enemy. She decided to spend the voyage sheltered from the crew's curious looks and never agreed to go for a walk on the deck without him.
"After all, I don't like ships and I have better things to do," she commented. Like kissing him or hiding his tunic and his boots so that he couldn't leave her. She turned out to be more waggish than he would have thought. Behind the well-behaved child of an ancient house lied a mischievous girl enjoying the power she had on him. During four days, they stayed in the cabin, chatting and sleeping curled under a pelt, kissing each other. Their game went on, as well. He liked to scrutinize her face as she was in his arms: the auburn hair growing on her temple and her blushing cheek when she woke up after a nap were worthy of the past months and their procession of hardships and interrogations. Her pale breasts justified the sufferings he endured for her. Neither her curves nor her soft moaning when he touched her made him forget the stupid oath she had extorted from him in Saltpans, though. When he wandered on the deck, glaring at the sailors who dared to ask him if the young lady would join them someday or why they were heading towards White Harbor, he felt guilty about it: he should have refused without compromise. He should have shut his mouth the night he told her the story of House Tarbeck, to begin with. Young and naïve as she was, he made a mistake in telling her how a noble family had agreed to die instead of kneeling. He used to mock her love for chivalry songs but the Tarbecks were his own version of Florian and the Dragonknight. A darker, bloody version of legendary knights, thanks to Tywin Lannister. Their story struck her mind and now she wanted to die with him. Foolish girl. Happily, he didn't taught her to use weapons. Every time he ducked into the small room, his guilt remained but it lessened as she embraced him. Remorse nevertheless haunted him even when he slipped his hand under her skirts. Soon she would be his wife; she even pressed him to find a septon.
When a sailor bellows he can see White Harbor, they are in the cabin, half-naked, still playing their game. He growls, swings his legs over the side of the bed and looks for his tunic while she gives a sigh. His bad feeling about their journey in the North never left him and he wants to take a look at the harbor before landing. She hurries herself as soon as she understands he's anxious and follows him on the deck, tightly wrapped in her brown cloak, unsteady on her feet because of the swell. At the same time as he offers her his arm, he catches the sly look of a sailor-boy: the only woman on board always draws attention on her. She stays close to him and they watch the coast; meanwhile, the crew bustle about shouting and cursing before Brave Borcas's arrival in the harbor. The Bite's pale green waters seem cold under the North wind; it's a rough weather with frothy manes on top of the waves. Stoically, she observed the landscape and the white buildings of the city. She's coming home, in a way, and he sees her wiping a tear on her cheek. Is she filled with emotion or is it the cold wind that makes her cry? He can't say. No matter how much time he spent with her: sometimes her behavior is like the riddles of his childhood, beyond understanding and poetic.
There are war galleys in the inner harbor; perhaps two dozens. He frowns, wondering why Lord Manderly would gather so many vessels. After a while, he turns to his left and notices a small boat. He never gave a damn to the different types of boat, but this one is probably used for coastal navigation. In spite of its ordinary appearance, there are banners flying in the blasts of wind. On the gray fabric, he can see two blue towers united by a bridge. Seven buggering hells. House Frey.
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