Here's a new fic inspired by a Maracuyakongeen prompt from last summer's comment fic. She has filled it herself lately with her very funny 'The pyromancer potion' and here's my take on it. I hope you'll all enjoy!
Eddard was bowed over a pile of documents, rubbing the bridge of his nose between his forefinger and thumb. The small headache that had shyly started tickling his brow a couple of hours ago was now getting increasingly hard to ignore, still he couldn't put his work aside just yet. His overview of the realm's finances was far from over and with every new parchment he unrolled, he stumbled over more and more disquieting irregularities. Were the Seven Kingdoms so badly governed that mistakes were that common in paperwork or were there people voluntarily perpetrating them for their own benefit? And how long had it gone on like this? Finding answers to these questions would be crucial in the moons to come but the scale of the effort it would require was both mind-blowing and discouraging.
Sighing, Ned braced his back and looked out the window. It was well past noon by now and he hadn't had a bite since dawn. He could send a servant to fetch him some food but the prospect of going to the kitchen himself and stretching his legs at the same time greatly appealed to him. It was true that taking a small walk would delay him in his work but it would also help increase his concentration when he returned and thus, in the long run, render him more efficient and allow him to save time.
His decision made, Eddard left his solar and went through the long corridor that led to the stairs. On his way, he saw Sansa sitting by a window and practicing her scales on the new high harp he had gotten her on her last name day. At seeing him, she grinned sweetly without halting in her exercise but Ned only managed a faint, little smile in return. While he felt guilty for his lack of warmth, he simply had no energy left for his daughters these days and sadly, there was no way he could change the situation as long as he was Hand of the King. His family couldn't come first when the realm's wellbeing was at stake after all, no matter how much it pained him.
In only a few minutes, Ned descended the stairs, crossed the Small Hall and exited the Tower of the Hand. It was a beautiful, cool and breezy day outside and as soon as he got out, he itched to go for a long stroll in the city - no matter how dirty and noisy its narrow streets could be – however it would be impossible if he truly wished to complete the tasks he had assigned himself before dusk came. Sighing in resignation, Ned entered through the kitchen's open door and looked around him. The place was empty of any cooks or scullery maids but being used to eating at odd hours, he knew exactly where he was going and headed for the larder where the salted meats and cheeses were kept. Inside, he found a long dried sausage and a piece of soft cheese that would do perfectly and from a long working table not far away, he picked up a loaf of bread that still remained from the previous meal. As he was searching for some linen he might use to carry his food, Eddard considered the idea of eating outside instead of going straight to his solar. There was no denying that he was highly tempted. His work was important, yes, but there was no reason he couldn't have lunch in peace every now and then.
"My lord Hand!" the agitated voice of a man interrupted Ned's train of thought just as he had found what he was looking for.
Turning toward the sound, he saw a small man with a white beard scurrying in his direction. Judging by his garb, he was probably one of the few pyromancers that still resided at the Red Keep.
"Have you seen a wineskin? I left it there on the bread table earlier today," the man asked, totally out of breath while pointing at an empty spot next to the few loaves that still remained.
"No, I didn't. But why should you be so upset about your loss? There is plenty of wine to be had in the cellar."
"Oh but, my lord! That wasn't just any sort of wine in that skin…" he began in a queer mix of enthusiasm and awe, before halting when he saw the other man's expression sour.
"What have you put inside?" Eddard asked warily, unable to keep the newborn irritation he felt from showing in his voice. "Is someone in danger?"
Eyes grown wide, the pyromancer shook his head with a little too much ardour. "Oh no! Not in danger, my lord! Don't you worry," he insisted. Then, mouth pulling into a forced smile, he added, "It's only a ... philtre I've concocted, an experiment I may very well have succeeded in-"
"An experiment?" Ned repeated, both taken aback and horrified. "Why by the old gods would you put the product of your experiment - as you call it - in a wineskin and leave it in the kitchens of all places? Couldn't you surmise that someone might mistake it for wine?" Ned snapped disbelievingly, forgetting himself for an instant. He had never liked those pyromancers; they were a vestige of another era and it was a true wonder that Robert hadn't eradicated their guild a long time ago.
"I didn't leave the wineskin intentionally, of course!" the pyromancer hurriedly retorted. "I forgot it an hour ago, when I came to fetch myself some lunch. I went to my laboratory afterwards with my food and sadly only realised my neglect once I was done eating. I ran here as soon as I could but it appears that it's too late already..."
Passing a hand through his hair, Ned shook his head in despair. He had other things to do and plenty at that! Yet, who was to say what sort of poison the pyromancer had hidden in his wineskin? "What is this potion of yours supposed to do?" he asked more calmly, all the while distractedly looking out the window and trying to figure out how he should deal with the situation.
"It's a... ah... love-philtre, my lord," the pyromancer murmured, lowering his head as if he was expecting a blow.
"A love-philtre? By the gods!" Ned exclaimed, incredulous. "What does it have to do with fire? I've always heard that was all your guild has ever cared about."
"Well although fire is our main subject of study, we are still allowed to research other subjects on the side, Lord Hand," the small man explained, obviously relieved that his revelation had not triggered the ire he had feared.
"I see," Ned replied absentmindedly.
While he couldn't bring himself to believe in something as absurd as a love-philtre, Eddard couldn't disregard the possibility that the pyromancer's concoction might be poisonous - no matter what the man pretended. As much as it pained him, resuming his overview would prove impossible today and he would need to let the documents pile up on his desk a little longer. For now, the priority was to find whoever had drunk the wineskin's contents and pray that no ill had taken them yet.
"Bring me more wine. And some of that Myrish cheese I ate earlier as well," the king was asking one of his footmen.
Bowing politely, the servant immediately left while another bent discreetly from behind Robert to refill his tankard with what wine still remained. Grunting with satisfaction, the latter gulped thirstily at his beverage.
Once he had had his fill, the king turned in his armchair to eye Ser Barristan Selmy. "Perhaps we should call the rest of your fellow Kingsguards, Barristan," he began with unhidden mirth. "If any of them has drunk the philtre, we'll see then whether duty or love has more value in his eyes!" he roared, laughing heartily at his own jape.
A weak, tired smile curving his lips, Ned glanced at his old friend from the modest throne he was installed in. Robert was sitting in a regular cushion chair by his side and although Ned had insisted that he take the throne, the king had refused, arguing that they were in the Hand's Small Hall and that even with his status as head of the realm, he had no right to occupy the place.
"I don't think that will be necessary, Your Grace," Ser Barristan replied, visibly ill-at-ease at the king's implication. "At the time the incident took place, those of my brothers that weren't on duty were at a meeting with me in the Round Room. Thus none could have been to the kitchens."
"Mmm, oh well, we could ask Jory to fetch a few of the noblemen and women instead," the king proposed.
The young Northerner jumped slightly at being named and gave a nod to confirm his willingness to follow whatever orders he might be given.
"This is going to get trickier though," Robert supposed, raising concerned eyes toward his friend. "Those proud bastards won't appreciate being dragged over here to be interrogated in the least."
"I'm afraid you're right, Your Grace," Eddard muttered flatly, all the while trying to find a strategic way they could proceed.
They had already interviewed every handmaiden, cook, footman, or whatever other servants the Red Keep contained, without result. All the goldcloaks that had been off duty around noon had also been brought in for questioning but none of them had taken a wineskin from the bread table. Logic demanded that they now called the nobles but it was obvious the latter would react more poorly than their retainers had. Ned glanced out the window; it was already well dark. What time was it exactly? he wondered, discouraged.
"Adelardus? I just thought of something," the king suddenly told the pyromancer, jerking his head to look at him. "What will happen if more than two people have drunk your potion?" His eyes were shining with curiosity. Unlike him, Robert obviously enjoyed every second of the enquiry.
Albeit Ned hadn't planned on informing the king of such a small matter. Their paths had crossed by chance in an alley not long after his meeting with the pyromancer. When Robert had heard about that alleged love potion, he had been so amused that he had insisted that he help with the interrogations. The idea that he would be so interested by a wholly insignificant concern while there were hundreds of infinitely more pressing things to be dealt with was more than slightly infuriating to Ned but he knew well enough that complaining wouldn't lead anywhere.
"Your Grace, if I may, the philtre is meant only for two persons," the pyromancer began, bowing low from where he stood at the king's side. "Only the two first to have drunk it will know any effect."
"Interesting," Robert muttered, scratching his beard.
Without meaning it, Ned sighed audibly. He rarely showed contempt for anyone but today, he found it increasingly difficult to control himself. "How can you know all these details about your concoction's effects? Most of all, how can you even be sure it works?"
His hands nervously clasped before his chest, Adelardus quickly started explaining himself. "I have given small doses to a variety of animals. In all cases, after having drunk the philtre, the said creatures have… have… " he suddenly hesitated, apparently unsure of how he should phrase his thoughts. Then, gulping, he resumed: "They have constantly copulated."
At that, the king's booming laughter resounded in the Small Hall. "And have they not stopped since then?" he managed to breathe after a few long seconds, tears pearling in his eyes.
Gazing at the king, the pyromancer chanced a small shy smile but he promptly regained his dismayed expression when his eyes darted to Ned and he saw the depth of his frown. "N… no, Your Grace," he replied, staring at his feet. "Some have already bred a few litters-"
"Oh, this is too good!" Robert roared, laughing even louder. "Can you imagine that, Ned? This is the most hilarious event to ever happen in the Red Keep since the beginning of my reign! It's even more perfect now that we know one of our very dignified nobles will most likely fall victim to this potion."
"Myself, I have to admit that I'm not very amused," Ned spat darkly. "Besides, I don't believe in love-philtres or any similar trickery."
"Then why are we here, Ned?" the king asked, visibly puzzled.
"Because I fear this charlatan might have poisoned someone!" Eddard answered a little too roughly, pointing at the pyromancer. He immediately regretted his outburst but with the throbbing nightmare his headache had become, it was getting increasingly hard to control his temper. "I'm sorry, Your Grace. I didn't mean to-"
"Oh, forget it, Ned. I didn't come all the way to Winterfell to ask you to become my Hand so that you would pour honey in my ears. We'll find out soon enough who has drunk the potion anyway and see if the pyromancer is telling the truth then." Furrowing his brows, he added, "Don't you think the reaction of the animals Adelardus has tested is revealing though?"
"Animals don't need any medicine to couple, Your Grace," Eddard countered.
"That's true enough," the king admitted, apparently annoyed at the notion that the elixir might not have its presumed effect. "Oh well," he exhaled after a moment, rubbing his hands together. "We still need to continue our inquiry, don't we? Who should we ask Jory to fetch this time?"
Ned was far from certain but he was nonetheless about to chance a few names when the outside door abruptly slammed open. Every eye in the room darted toward the threshold to see Sandor Clegane enter, shortly followed by a terrified looking footman carrying the wine the king had demanded earlier. Ned's frown deepened at the sight; there was no love lost between him and the Lannister's dog.
"Your Grace, I've been told you were here by your footman," the scarred warrior rasped in that very specific hoarse voice of his. "The Queen wants to have a word with you and has asked me to seek you."
At that, the king let out an annoyed growl. "What does that woman want now?" he complained to himself but then, his expression changed and he laid interested eyes on his son's sworn shield. "Clegane, come closer, will you? The Lord Hand and I are presently carrying on an investigation and while you're here with us, I think it would be foolish if we didn't take the time to ask you a few questions also." Robert gazed at him expectedly, drinking a long gulp from his tankard.
"As you wish, Your Grace," the Hound replied, clearly on his guard. Still, he did as he was bid and walked toward them at an unhurried pace.
Once he was standing before him, Ned sighed and began. "Did you go to the kitchens around midday?" he demanded dryly.
"I did but I don't see why there should be any problem with that. I'm entitled to eat, I should think," the man grunted a little too roughly for Eddard's liking.
Still, he kept the thought to himself and continued. "And did you perchance drink from a wineskin that had been left on the bread table?"
At hearing the question, Sandor Clegane's face twisted into a perplexed scowl. "Aye," he answered with some hesitance after a couple of seconds. "Was it really that important that you need to question half the castle about it? The wine wasn't really that good anyhow. Had a strange taste."
The Hound had not finished his sentence before Robert choked on his wine. "You! You, Clegane! The last person I would have pictured! Imagine that, Ned!" he exclaimed between fits of coughing and laughter.
"What's so bloody funny?" the Hound snapped angrily just as soon. "What the hells did I drink?"
Seeing how the king could hardly catch his breath, Eddard took over. "The pyromancer Adelardus here has left a… a potion on the bread table around noon and you have apparently been the one to drink it."
"A potion? What sort of potion?" Sandor Clegane hissed between gritted teeth, taking a step toward the pyromancer. While he had not raised his voice, his stance and burning glare made it very clear that rage was boiling under the surface.
Shrinking at least a few inches, the little man tried to back away but the king was too near and he was forced to stay in place.
"Speak, Adelardus," Ned ordered, rubbing the bridge of his nose between his fingers.
"It was a… a love-philtre," he whispered, eyes glued to the floor and hands folded in a trembling mass of fingers.
"A love-philtre," Sandor Clegane repeated, making the words sound like curses. The burnt corner of his mouth was twitching and his eyes were gleaming so menacingly that even Ned felt slightly bad for the smaller man. "What by the fucking Stranger is that supposed to mean? Uh?!"
"Well, it's a love-philtre, ser! The name says it pretty clearly-"
"I'm no fucking ser! And no, I don't bloody understand. Explain!" The king's muffled chuckle could be heard in the background and the Hound glanced his way, evidently irritated at being the butt of the joke, still he quickly fixed his stare on Adelardus again.
"If anyone other than you has drunk from the philtre… then… you and that person will be… madly in love." With every word the pyromancer said, Sandor Clegane's expression became more wrathful and the little man flinched at the sight. "But if you have been the only one to consume the concoction, there will be no effect!" he hurriedly added. "Was it still full when you drunk it? And did you leave it empty?"
Adelardus' suggestion seemed to calm the Hound very slightly and he paused to consider what he had told him. "I drank it all," he rasped after a moment. "It wasn't good, but I was thirsty. It wasn't full when I took it though. It was missing at least a glass."
"Oh," the pyromancer let out, dejected. "Then you'll be… in love with the other person. And they with you."
"They? What the fuck do you mean by that?"
"Well, se… my lord, contrary to what most believe, sexes have naught to do with love. There is no reason the other person couldn't be a-"
In less than an eye blink, Sandor Clegane had run to Adelardus and grabbed him by the collar. The small man squeaked and both Ser Barristan and Jory rushed to protect him but the Hound turned his back to one and pushed the other aside while raising the pyromancer off the floor.
"Are you implying that I might be in buggering love with a bloody man? Are you truly telling me that?!" he yelled in Adelardus' face.
"But you wouldn't mind it, my lord!" the pyromancer justified, his voice quivering with fright. "That's the whole point of the philtre! Once you laid eyes on him, you'll love-"
"Will you shut that buggering mouth of yours or do I need to crush your ugly head against the stone wall to silence you?" the Hound snarled, violently shaking Adelardus.
Both Ser Barristan and Jory were trying to get to him but the Hound kept turning and moving away, shoving them with his free arm and elbow. In the corner of the hall, the king's two footmen were following the spectacle with wide eyes, seemingly torn between excitement and unease at witnessing such an event.
This needs to stop, Ned mused once his surprise had faded. No matter how much Sandor Clegane was entitled to his rage, he couldn't let him execute his threat. With that in mind, Eddard opened his mouth to shout an order, however at the same instant, the inner door of the hall opened, which was certainly strange considering that solely members of the Hand's household could come that way. His gaze flying to the door, Ned raised an eyebrow at seeing Sansa standing motionless in the threshold.
"Oh!" she exclaimed at beholding the scene she had interrupted. When they heard her cry, every man in the hall froze to stare her way and the young girl seemed totally petrified at becoming the centre of attention of such a dissolute party. "Father," she whispered after a long and awkward moment. "I didn't mean to disturb you but…" she trailed off, falling silent.
"What is it, Sansa?" Eddard asked more irritably than he usually liked to be with his children.
Impatiently, he gazed at her, waiting for an explanation, but he quickly realised something was amiss by the bewildered look she wore. Her mouth was open as if in shock and she was staring at something before him, her utmost attention grasped. In an eye blink, Ned's annoyance morphed into concern and he followed her gaze with his, his bemusement only increasing when it landed on none other than Sandor Clegane. Fixing her with a gaze of the same dumb intensity, the man dropped the pyromancer to the floor at the same instant – just as if he had completely forgotten he had been clutching at his collar – and took a step over his squirming and moaning body to slowly walk toward Sansa.
Hastily, Eddard jumped from his throne to interpose himself between her and the Hound. Once he reached her, his heart skipped a beat as an idea suddenly struck him, cold fear shrouding his mind. "Sansa?" he asked, seizing her by the shoulders. "Have you been to the kitchens today?"
"Y… yes, father," she answered, glancing his way but shortly jerking her head to peer behind him. "Why?"
"Have you drunk from a wineskin that was left on the bread table?" he demanded urgently, lowering his face to hers in an attempt to catch her gaze.
The stratagem worked although she seemed very distracted - almost nervous in some queer sort of way. "I… I did, Father. But I thought it was sweet wine and after a few sips I realised it was far too bitter and threw out the contents of my glass," she explained, her eyes darting from his as soon as she had finished.
"Oh gods…" Ned sighed in total despair, glancing at the ceiling. He still didn't want to believe in the pyromancer's philtre and yet, as he glanced behind him and saw Sandor Clegane's large shape standing as immobile as a statue, he dreaded that he might have been wrong after all. "Jory, take her to her room, please," he murmured wearily.
"Of course, Lord Stark," the Northerner promptly answered, visibly ill-at-ease. Quickly he walked to Sansa and laid a hand on her upper arm. "Come, Lady Sansa. It's getting late."
The girl gave a small nod and let him lead her to the stairs, yet she kept obsessively turning to peek behind her. The Hound wasn't much better; he was openly staring at her and even went so far as to take another step forward as Sansa left the Small Hall but Ser Barristan grasped him by the arm and stopped him.
Once the door was shut, Eddard let out a long and deep sigh and spread both his hands over the sides of his face, massaging his scalp with his fingers. His head felt as if it was about to explode at any instant.
"Well, Ned, at least we found them," Robert hazarded after a few long, awkward seconds of silence. Leaving his armchair, he walked to his friend. "Adelardus will surely find an antidote to his philtre very soon. Am I right?" he asked, looking at the small man with commanding eyes.
"I'm not sure that…" the pyromancer began but at seeing all the frowns he got, he corrected. "Oh, yes, of course, Your Grace. I will."
"It's settled then," the king concluded a little too cheerfully, heading toward the Hound. The corners of his mouth were tense as if he was fighting not to grin, still he managed to keep a blank expression and Ned appreciated the effort. "Clegane can be trusted to master himself. Am I right? You're a headstrong man. You won't be bothering that young lady until our friend here, Adelardus, has found a cure for this potion, won't you, Clegane?"
A hush fell over the Small Hall as everyone in the room laid eyes on the tall, scarred warrior, holding their breath as they waited to hear his response.
"Aye," the Hound rasped very unconvincingly after an endless moment.
"All is fine then," the king roared, slapping Sandor Clegane on the back.
Ned wasn't persuaded in the least, still he grunted his approval and took his leave an instant later, adamant about not leaving it as it was.