If Lord Jonos' observation was correct they still had a full day, more likely two, before this hodgepodge of a medieval army passed out of the Riverlands and into the Crownlands. Though he'd often portrayed great leaders of men, warlords even, the actor had never actually managed much of anything beyond his career; let alone twenty thousand some odd homicidal maniacs bent on revenge. Luckily he was a wide ranging reader and had a wealth of seemingly relevant stage and film roles to draw upon. So he well remembered that George had had Rob, his not son, ride with a different lord each day on his long march from Winterfell, down the Neck, over the Twins, and on to Riverrun. A lesson Sean smartly imitated, even if today's choice, the head of House Bracken, was proving to be an egotistical blowhard. Regardless, whenever an outrider, a messenger, or an aide from not Ned's new model army staff would ride up with news or a question, the actor would politely ask his noble guest's opinion of the situation and then more likely than not order Lord Bracken's suggestion to be implemented.
The trick seemed to work. While the senior lords had their share of quirks and foibles, invariably including an inflated sense of ego that would make a Hollywood star appear a mere piker in comparison, they did know their shit when it came to the art of war. Thus, while the actor benefited from keeping his army moving relentless forward, his noble banners happily observed that not only did the inestimable Lord of Winterfell listen to their advice, but he valued and followed it too. Sean did worry a bit that one of the touchy bastards might someday think to take advantage of his approach. For that very reason he kept a wary eye in particular on that traitorous snake Roose Bolton; however, in the main he trusted to his well-practiced icy look and the steely reputation of his predecessor in this role, the late Eddard Stark, to keep the unruly, selfish, bickering lords of the North and the Riverlands in line.
At the moment, the brown haired and eyed Lord Bracken was regaling for the fifth time that hour yet another outrage perpetrated on his House in the distant, but still very present to him, past by his untrustworthy, honorless neighbors, the Blackwoods. Beyond the normal talk of horses, swords, and battles, the morning's ride down the kingsroad showed Sean's thick shouldered companion to have a limited range of interests beyond disparaging the black flock of Raventree Hall. First, and perhaps burning even more hotly than his hate for the Blackwoods, was the man's desire for revenge against the Lannisters for the sacking of his seat at Stone Hedge. The actor had pleasantly discovered in the ten days since his new army first combined at Darry that those Riverland Lords, honor loving knights all, whose castles had fallen to or been burned out by the Westerlanders did not begrudge him his sin in the defeat of the Old Lion by the Green Fork; and this fact held true with Jonos Bracken as well.
The second and third acts of the man's conversational repertoire played straight to the hearts of the Stark family. Though evidently not present at the inn when Lady Stark captured the Imp, Lord Jonos took great pride in expounding, frequently, on how three of his faithful men-at-arms had willingly sacrificed their lives to see his liege's daughter, and her Lannister abomination of a prisoner, to the safety of the Vale. Likewise, this father, afflicted with the Westerosi curse of having only true daughters, took great pleasure in observing that one of his many daughters, usually the second one, Jayne, would make a wonderful wife for the Starks' poor, crippled by the Lannisters son, Bran.
Luckily for Sean, he had another companion on this day, on every day's ride. A companion well attuned to the thoughts, traditions, and histories of Riverland lords; a ravishing, auburn haired beauty who at a young age had taken on the responsibilities of the mistress of Riverrun: the Lady Catelyn Stark nee Tully, his not wife. She filled the silences with tact and insight when he knew not how to respond to a lord's political maneuverings or testing of his knowledge. The actor knew she must have some niggling doubts and suspicions about him, not Ned; but for now she blindly accepted his fantastically story and glowed like a new bride in the presence of the husband she thought dead.
As Lord Jonos blathered on, Sean noticed Cat ever so slightly slowing up the grey and black mare she rode. Very early in their week together on the kingsroad they'd developed a trick for catching each other's eye without that day's guest noticing, though surely each lord's squire and not Ned's aides riding behind them did. In response to his not wife's cue, the actor pulled lightly back on the reins of his massive war horse, causing the black beast to ease up on its gait. As her sparkling blue eyes came into view behind Bracken's matted brown mane, Sean dropped a very un-Ned like wink. She crinkled her face in amusement at her not husband's antic to the prattle issuing forth from the lord's mouth.
Just then Jonos Bracken started to swivel his head to look at the Lord of Winterfell. Sean put overmuch spur to his horse in response and as the destrier surged forward, the resulting movement and wind blowing open the cloak wrapped around the actor.
"That's as fine a plate as I've ever seen, Lord Stark," Lord Bracken commented, spying the set of armor not Ned wore. "It's unadorned, but it almost shimmers like Valyrian steel," he said with evident envy.
The actor smiled. "It served me well on the Green Fork."
Jonos Bracken nodded sagely in agreement. The defeat of Tywin Lannister was already taking on an air of legend with those unlucky enough to have missed that day beside the Green Fork. "But where be the wolf's head emblazoned on it, Lord Stark? So that your foes may know fear when they see the Lord of Winterfell coming to cross swords with them?"
Sean patted the chest plate absentmindedly. "'Twas a gift ... a gift from the Old Gods," he muttered as his mind began to drift back to that day, that place, when and where he'd received the armor. A present not Ned had worn every day since. "I would not show the Gods of the North disrespect by changing a single thing about it."
The final day of filming had ended for the tenth and last episode; and even though his last shot had come the episode before in "Baelor," he'd stuck around Belfast to watch the season wrap up. The crew and cast turned out to be an amazing group of blokes; and only Georgina and a solicitor wished Sean back in London, to sign the paperwork ending their marriage, his fourth. After the final call of 'cut!' he, like the rest, had bolted out of the sound stage at Paint Hall Studio and piled into the vibrantly piss colored pub right next door that David and DB had rented for the cast's goodbye party.
Inside the vile yellow row house, one of the original waterfront stone buildings not torn down in the Titanic Quarter's rush to redevelop and gentrify for stock brokers and chartered accountants, he'd had a few pints, chatted some with Lena, Aidan, and Rory, and also individually thanked Brian, Daniel, and Alan for their work directing the show. Finding himself in a lull with no one to converse with, he spotted the attractive, thirty something key grip and moved over to say 'hello.' That had gone well enough and they'd soon found a dark corner of the pub to chat in. With a bit of flirting, she'd even pulled up her long black hair to display part of a dragon tattoo after he'd shown her his bit of Middle Earth ink. Things had been about to progress further when Clint, the American born sword master, and Harry, the stunt coordinator, spoiled the mood by intruding, a jumbo sized package between them.
"You always die," Clint cheerfully blurted, interrupting the hobnobbing couple.
"Well them's the roles I get mate," he responded through gritted teeth. "A man's got to eat. Besides, I was Zeus just last year. Can't kill a Greek God, now can they?" he asked rhetorically, hoping they'd now go away and leave him to the bird.
"What are you filming next?" Harry asked with some excitement.
"Uhm, I think my agent's lined up a mercenary ensemble pic and also a spy thriller; not sure which shoots first."
"Nothing more … medieval?" Clint asked equal parts hopeful and despondent.
"Sorry, no. Don't think so." The pair looked crestfallen at the news. "What's the problem, mates?"
It was then that Dalia, he thought her name was Dalia, grew unhappy with being ignored and took her body art to another part of the pub.
"Well … we made up a present for you. For your next film. Something …." and Clint broke down giggling.
"… tee-hee, to make sure you make it through … alive for a change," said Harry, finishing up.
And with that pronouncement they opened their big box.
"Ha ha arseholes," he barked, looking down at some shiny prop armor; a breast plate and a black plate.
"No, no, it's not what you think," Clint proclaimed.
"I know a guy," Harry insisted. "That's real stuff. Steel alloy with tungsten and chromium and moby … mobyled … molybdenum. It'd stop a bullet, serious."
"Or a sword," Clint agreed.
Harry's eyes got big with excitement. "Even a Valyrian sword," he gushed.
"We went the basic grey so your next prop master can paint it whatever color the shoot needs. Greek, Roman, Viking, whatever," Clint explained.
Harry tittered, "Who knows, maybe George will write Ned back in before the end of the series."
Sean crinkled his face in annoyance; he'd lost his chance at the bird when he didn't put an immediate end to this little show. Well what would he have done with her anyway? Take her back to his hotel? He had an early plan to catch back to Gatwick anyway. Besides, Clint and Harry were alright blokes, just taking their GRRM love and his own doomed Internet reputation a tad too seriously. In fact on set he'd spent many an hour describing to them how Peter's coordinators had run the sword works down in New Zealand. So with no visible discouragement from him, the target of their affection, nothing would satisfy the pair but he put their gift on. Foolishly, he agreed.
He knew he wasn't the friendlist chap on set, but he didn't want to develop a reputation as some big nob. 'I'm just a lad from Sheffield,' he thought. 'I learned how to weld for Christ's sake,' he told himself as they ensconced him inside the contraption. Then no sooner were the straps tightened and the fitting announced as complete, than Niko, Iain, Rich, and Rory were pestering him, giving him shit. And with every pint thrown back, someone else had to pound on the plate to prove to themselves it wasn't the usual foil wrapped chicken wire found on set. When he finally complained that his ribs were starting to hurt, Clint explained that that was why real knights wore thick doublets beneath their plate.
"Then where's the rest of my kit?" Sean complained. "The padding? And how about a helmet, leggings, arm guards, gloves?"" he prodded.
The pair had the decency to look sheepish. "Sorry," Harry muttered. "Guess we didn't think of everything."
Clint thrust another pint at him. "Hope this'll makes amends for our forgetfulness." Then his face brightened as Sean accepted the mug, "And its medieval pain medicine too!"
The actor remembered downing the bitter, foaming medicine, but not much more beyond that.
A cold wind blew down from the North, of course, swirling up and under his thick grey cloak; cutting through the chain covered gaps in his armor and sending a deathly chill up his back. The Riverlands at least were warmer than the so called late summer weather of the North. The night before they'd departed Darry a white raven had arrived from the Citadel, proclaiming the start of Autumn. Today, the odd frigid northern gust notwithstanding, the temperature felt more like a Christmas holiday he once took in Lisbon or a late October day at home in Sheffield. He looked up at the sky, 'At least the sun's out.' Sean was no longer a young man and he had quickly found that riding inside sodden armor through the rain was not his cup of tea. What he wouldn't have given for a hot cup of tea.
A month earlier, just setting out on this mad adventure, the actor wouldn't have dared try this maneuver, but weeks in the saddle atop mighty chargers and powerful destriers had done wonders for both his equestrian courage and dexterity. He shifted with hardly a conscious thought, adjusting both his wolf cloak and where his plate rested against his torso. The damned American had been correct, properly decked out in a padded doublet and pants, and with experience wearing the contraption, he hardly felt the weight of the armor anymore; well … at least while on a horse he admitted. He knew he'd groan uncomfortably when the time came to dismount at the end of the day. But the shiny grey steel was now like a second skin; though one, grabbing a glance at the vibrant Cat as she smiled politely at some bon mot attempted by Lord Jonos, that he didn't at all mind stripping out of at night.
He started calculating how many hours of travel were left before they needed to make camp for the night. Outriders under the command of the Blackfish were due to return soon with word on whether there was a friendly manor or available holdfast for the army to pitch its tents around. By the length of day light hours, accepting as a premise that George's magic wasn't strong enough to mess with a planet's axial tilt, and using an approximation of an earth like rotation and orbit, he judged the time of year to be a month or so after the winter solstice. The constant movement southward, if only at a horse's pace, made his rough calculations problematic, even while using the latitude of London as a constant for Riverrun. 'Nice tip that, George,' he thought.
He looked forward to reaching King's Landing, and not just for improvement in the weather. Though if his guesstimates at latitudes were correct, he'd be pleased enough with Paris like winter temperatures; even if he prayed for something closer to the Cote d'Azur. The first big hurdle in his plan to save Westeros, and thus himself, had already been cleared, for better or for worse, by the Green Fork. The sooner he dealt with the murderous fucks in the Red Keep the quicker he could confront all the other homicidal crazies and ice zombies lining up to personally rip the actor's handsome head off and shit down his precioius neck. Saving Westeros, and by extension his own life, wasn't going to be easy, but he had a plan. And at least nothing from here on out looked like it would be near as dangerous as what he'd already experienced. A quiet retirement to the ice palace of Winterfell didn't appeal much to Sean, even if he had Cat to keep his bed warm; but it beat dying, hands down.
Sean looked up to the sky for reassurance. Burning brightly … high, high above the clouds floated the Red Comet. Praise the Seven, the Old Gods, and George; that at least had appeared more or less on time, bolstering the wizardry of his all knowing fortune telling amongst his northern host. Too bad the damned slow arsed Riverlanders hadn't arrived at Darry to hear his prediction before the Red Messenger started to blaze a path across the heavens. He sighed. He thought he knew what the omen of blood and Targaryens and dragons meant, but with George, whom before shooting he'd had an hour long private conversation with, you could never really be sure; the tricky bastard. "R + L = J my arse!" he whispered into the wind.
Something brushed against him, waking him from a troubled, very odd slumber. Sean slowly, painfully lifted the lids to his eyes. His skull ached, the mother of all hangovers. The weak sunlight of a new day greeted his gritty, tired eyeballs; trickling more than shining in through an old smoky window set into the wall against which he found himself slumped. He pushed a mangy dog, the likely cause of his awakening, away from his leg, where it sniffed curiously. At least it hadn't peed on him. While the lights were off, someone had started a smoky blaze in a fireplace he hadn't remembered seeing the night before. He groaned as he gingerly shifted his sore body, stiff neck, and throbbing head. He desperately needed aspirin, a whole bottle of them. His day was not starting promisingly.
More movement caught his eye. A few members of the crew, clearly foolish enough to have drunk as much as he had, were still lingering about the pub. All of them had apparently gotten into the spirit of things started by Harry and Cling and dressed up as if they were part of the cast still on set. Sean looked down at his wrist to see what time it was, he did have a flight to catch out of Belfast International. "Bugger," he swore disgustedly; someone had nicked his watch while he was passed out. "What time is it?" he called out. A couple of faces in the draft room turned to look at him, but said nothing in response to his questions. Surprisingly the actor didn't recognize any of them, he was usually good remembering faces.
Frustrated, he slowly dragged himself upright, his armor weighing him down; and then headed for the door. Coming closer to the surly pub patrons he noticed how rank and dirty they were, literally wearing rags. "Taking the whole bloody peasant thing a bit far, mate," he muttered to one in passing. Reaching the door, he felt in his pockets, at least no one had pinched the keys to his rental. It was time to get back to the hotel, shower, change, and check the Internet for the time of his flight. He stepped outside and squinted.
"What the fuck!" he burst. The sound stages of Paint Hall Studio were missing, replaced by a massive castle that looked like Caernarfon or Harlech. The multistory apartments and stores of the Titanic Quarter were gone; in their place stood a thick medieval wall and buildings more appropriate for a scenic Bavarian village minus the men in leiderhosen. Though every single person walking down the cobblestone street beside the docks wore clothing fit for a RenFair or SCA event; sailors, wenches, merchants, city watchmen, fishermen, knickknack traders, and food sellers. The waters of the Lough appeared transformed, now populated by an immense rock, sailing ships, and galleys instead of with the familiar sight of barges, container ships, and power boats. What's more, the harsh unexpected smells of smoke and urine, livestock and shit mingled with the scent of fish and sea air in his nostrils instead of the expected boat and car exhaust. The world spun. He snapped his head back around to look at the yellow pub, the only god damned thing that looked the same as before.
Two hard bitten greying men, long spears resting on the shoulders of their well-worn surcoats sporting a faded green merman, stopped, eyes a goggle at him. "My lord," they said in unison and sketched him quick bows.
"What?" he asked with wild confusion.
"May we help you, my lord?" one chirped uncertainly.
"Who … who am I?" he stuttered.
"My lord?" the other guardsman posed.
"Who am I?!" he demanded louder, near ranting.
They looked confused. "L-l-l-lord Stark, my lord," the first choked out.
His stomach heaved. It couldn't be. This was a sick joke. Rory or Niko was putting them up to it. "Where am I?"
"White Harbor, my lord," they echoed each other
With those words everything weirdly clicked in the actor's brain; the sights, sounds, and smells all made perverted sense. He knew where he was. And at that, Sean Bean, master of film and stage, portrayer of more than a score of hard, violent men, lost all control and wet his pants.
"Lord Stark?" a gravelly bass rumbled.
"My Lord? My Lord, scouts are returning," a sweet voice prodded.
Sean drew himself out of his memories, what triggered the start of this crusade … this madness. It was surprisingly easy to let the constant, repetitive four beats of his charger's walking gait hypnotize him, take him back to that other, saner world. "My pardon, Lord Jonos, my thoughts were a thousand leagues away," not Ned apologized. 'Even farther, actually.'
"'Tis a long road you and your banners have ridden from the North, my Lord. And a tiring one, I dare say; but at the end of it lies the last of the Lannisters, and justice," the vengeful lord of House Bracken intoned with deadly seriousness. "Don't you agree, Lady Stark?"
Not Michelle smiled politely addressing him. "This day and every day I pray the Seven bring me closer to my daughters' safe return, Lord Bracken. For that, so long as my lord husband were by my side," and here her smile blossomed, "I would travel to the ends of Westeros and challenge the Others themselves. Justice and the Lannisters I will leave to you and the other lords."
"You have a lady wife full of wisdom, Lord Stark," Jonos Bracken proclaimed with unexpected smarm. "I can well see why my three men-at-arms so readily took up arms on her noble behalf."
'Give it a rest,' Sean thought, trying to keep his face icy calm and restrain his eyes from rolling.
"I remember when I first accepted Kurkelet into my service, a piggish man I admit, but I recall thinking at the time he had steady eyes. I always say to judge a man …"
"Will they have word of Arya, do you think?" Cat cut in.
The actor sighed softly. He'd told his not wife back at Darry that her youngest daughter was hiding as a boy in a Night Watch caravan heading north and then promised her they would soon be reunited. To continue passing himself off as Ned Stark, not Ned needed not Michelle's full and unwitting support; so the actor had to keep her happy and charmed. "Quite likely, my Lady. But if not today, then tomorrow. Every day brings us closer to our daughter," he reassured her, while trying hard not to remember his own three daughters now lost forever to him.
Lady Stark unsuccessfully tried to hide the frown of disappointment that curled her lips.
Watching her, Sean feared the longer his promise went unfilled the less slack she'd cut him for the miscues and slip ups the real Ned would never have made to her. Despite appearing identical to the Lord of Winterfell, for those who truly knew him, there was likely only so many times he could fall back on his reincarnation by the Old Gods story for not remembering this or that before they became suspicious. Best to use that 'magic' as sparingly as possible.
As not Ned spurred his destrier forward to meet the returning outriders, Sean thought yet again how this was his role of a life time, quite literally; and hopefully a very long life time. At the Green Fork he'd physically and mentally survived his first deadly challenge, if just barely. Knowing the first season's script by heart, having browsed most of the books, and hearing much of the on set speculation about characters and story arcs, the actor figured he could handle all the destructive plot lines interwoven through the very deadly fabric of Westeros. Better to kill than be killed. Though the lingering Arya issue was the most pointed reminder he lacked infallibility; and he did worry how his already bolloxing the story board would come back to bit him in the arse. If he'd learned nothing from the books, as well as from his own annoying Internet meme, it was bad shit happens. Could he ad lib enough to survive the unexpected curves bound to come his way? 'Gods George,' he thought, 'what a fucked up world you created.' He laid a hand on his armor, feeling better, a bit safer, for the steel protecting him from all that the Game of Thrones would undoubtedly throw at him.