- Rough Draft
- *No Site Warnings Apply
- Alternate Universe
When the royal procession was finally announced Ned was more relieved than anything else. For all of the frustration the King’s sudden descent upon Winterfell had caused, Ned was glad to finally have it at hand rather than the constant worry about what would happen. He and Benjen had managed to come quite far in their training while they waited for the fallout of the coming visit. It didn’t feel like nearly enough time to have themselves in order and everything to be prepared. But it would have to be enough.
Ned directed the final preparations and kept track of where his children were as he surveyed the incoming court and accompaniment. He was displeased to see just how many people Robert had dragged to his door. Not only was the journey a hard one for so many, but it was also a strain on his lands and people they could hardly afford to add such a large and unnecessary burden when winter was coming. What an impractical waste of resources. Still, Robert was his friend, and he would greet him as a brother as well as a king.
When everything was as ready as it could be he called his family to the courtyard and lined them up together. Benjen stood to the back, hidden amongst the household staff and guards. Ned had tried to convince him to join the family properly, but his brother had declined. He wanted to be able to observe everyone unobtrusively and get a feel for the mood of the crowd. The children had been made aware that they were not to speak of the Sentinels until their Lord Father gave them an okay, but Ned had doubts the younger ones could keep their discretion. Yet another worry for a later time, there was enough to concern him at hand.
When Robert finally rode into the Castle courtyard Ned found himself frowning at the bulk of him. The king had grown fat in their time apart and he could hear the man’s heart laboring slightly under the strain of dismounting. A strange sight from the vigorous man he remembered from just nine years before, strong and fierce on the battlefield. The distraction was enough to carry him through his formal greetings but broke at Robert’s japing at him for his serious demeanor. The teasing reminded him that this was his friend and not an enemy to be evaluated.
Still, when Robert asked him to accompany him to pay his respects he could smell the anger from the queen and hear the frustration in both their voices. The Court was probably tired and short of temper after traveling so long. This would make things more difficult than he had hoped. Ned caught Benjen’s eye as they passed him and tilted his head slightly toward the queen. His brother would do what he could to distract the crowd.
He loved Robert for wanting to pay his respects, loved him more that after all these years he still genuinely cared enough to do so, but there was something bitter in Robert’s scent profile that made Ned frown while Robert waxed lyrical about what should have been. He could not help but feel like there was a falseness to it all. The words hung with a hollow air even though he could detect no actual lies. When Robert turned the conversation to Jon Arryn, Ned felt urgency overtake him and he interrupted the king to ask him to have the conversation elsewhere. The king seemed startled out of his whining for a moment before scowling and following Ned out of the crypts and into the Godswood, complaining that he didn’t see a reason why they had to relocate.
It only took a moment to bring them through the entrance to the center of Ned’s home. Once they were in the cool shadow of the trees that watched over his territory Ned felt more in control of the sense of foreboding that had accompanied Roberts’s complaints of the courts. Here he knew he could hear whatever point his friend was trying to make and stand by his convictions. Long had he followed Robert, but there was too much at stake to do so blindly now. Robert may be king, but he had been given this calling by his gods. There was no chance that he would go back on his word to them after making his choice. It had been his decision but the split in loyalty was painful and tore at Ned’s sense of duty. In the end, it did not matter and the best he could hope for was that he could make his friend understand.
“Have we gone far enough to suit you then Ned? I don’t understand why we had to go traipsing off into the damn woods all of a sudden. I was getting ready to ask you an important question.” Robert huffed, irritated and a little out of breath.
“We have your highness. Ask it of me now.” Ned replied. But he would prefer if he did not ask. Ned had a good idea of what Robert wanted and he did not want to show his hand so soon in the visit. He wished it had waited until later so they could have at least enjoyed their reunion a bit.
“I would ask you to be Hand of the King” Robert proclaimed. But before he even finished Ned was shaking his head.
“You Honor me, your grace. But I must decline. I’m sorry Robert. It is not possible for me to leave the North right now.” Ned did not kneel or bow, but he did keep his eyes lowered. The shame of denying his friend and king ate at him even if he knew it was necessary
“What the blazes do you mean you can’t leave? Have you gotten your wife pregnant again? That’s not a good reason, women whelp without their husbands on hand all the time. Gods damn it Ned I need you at my side!” Robert half-shouted.
Ned did not flinch from the King’s anger, but he kept his face and tone cold. “It is a matter of the god’s Robert. And depending on which you ask I may indeed be damned. I have heard the calling, and I am not the only one. The old gods have brought the Sentinels’ of the First Men back to the North, and I cannot leave until we know why. “
“You speak madness! There is no such thing as Sentinels. I will not have you fobbing me off with fairy tales!” Robert was already storming away as he shouted his denials. His fury was taking him at a quick clip back towards the keep as he continued to rant viciously. “I will not have it, do you hear me! I expect this sort of nonsense from the idiots in my court, but not from you Ned.”
“If you would but listen to me Robert I would explain it all to you. It is not madness, I can give you proof. You know me well enough to know that I would not indulge a superstition and wild tales for any reason unless I knew it to be true.” Ned tried to slow the king’s pace, hoping to keep him away from the still populated areas, but Robert simply shook him off and continued forward angry and loud.
“I did indeed think I knew you better! But instead, I find you telling me wild tales and acting as though they are serious matters! I will tell you what a serious matter is. I asked you to have my back, to stand with me, and provide me a presence in my court I can trust! I gave you a great honor and this is how you repay me? By jesting about Sentinels and mysteries and Gods. It is foolishness, all of it. There are no sentinels and I will not be taken in by this madness!” by then they had reached the bailey at Robert’s furious bellows had alerted everyone in the keep of their argument.
Many of the king’s procession were trickling back outside despite their wariness to see what the commotion was. Already they were tittering at the spectacle and eager for gossip. The residents of the North however were wary and on guard. They stood ready to take action should things turn ugly and the king’s guard sensing the tension from Winterfell’s inhabitants were becoming cautious in response. Angling themselves into positions where they could defend the king if needed.
“It is not a Myth Robert, I speak to you truly and I can prove it. The Sentinels have returned to the north and I cannot leave until I have uncovered why.” Ned knew his entreaties were falling on deaf ears with the king and titillating the wrong people by way of the courtiers but didn’t know what else to do. To his surprise, Robert did finally stop and turn back towards him.
“You would have me indulge this madness and listen, fine. You say you can prove it and I will give you one chance to do so. Well, then where is your precious proof?” Robert sneered.
“You wish for proof your majesty.” Ned felt the tight anxiety in his chest ease and be replaced by the warm and reassuring presence of his guide filling the place in his center where the Direwolf now resided in him. The steady sense of something about to happen and the intention offered fueled his next words, “The old gods will provide it.”
At the center of the courtyard, there were suddenly alarmed screams and everyone turned to find two huge Dire wolves standing like great sentries watching over the gathering. They stayed where they had suddenly appeared but turned their heads in sync to look at the king. The greater Black one was nearly a head taller than its grey companion and both were larger than anything seen in nature for more than a thousand years, but most startling of all was the transparent quality of their appearance. Like ghostly apparitions that were sent to haunt the dreams of the people from the South. Still looked straight at the frozen king the Great black beast raised its enormous head and letting loose a deafening howl.
The grey wolf beside it joined a second behind and every person who heard them for miles around could feel the sound echo in their very bones. The haunting note reverberated in their heads and left them aching and alone with the understanding that they had been touched by something Other and incomprehensible to them. A very few of those people felt something slightly different, instead of alienating them they felt bereft, a slight pull that made them long for more. But not yet. The Call cut off abruptly and the wolves that everyone had been staring at in stunned silence were simply gone as suddenly as they had appeared.