In Doran Martell's opinion, there was no better place to escape from the heat of the Dornish sun than the shade under the blood orange trees on the terrace of the Water Gardens. The breeze came from the sea, cool and smelling of salt, and the sound of water lapping in the pools and children laughing as they played in the water was a balm to the soul.
His joints throbbed. When his gout troubled him too much, his maester gave him milk of the poppy for the pain, but Doran hated taking it; it clouded the mind, and Doran's mind had always been his strength.
Today, though, it had been necessary. It was wearing off now, and Doran could feel the throbbing ache in his joints returning as his mind cleared. The maester had offered him another dose, but Doran had refused; his riders had brought him strange wild stories of strangers sprung from the sands of the Dornish wastes, and Doran wanted his wits about him.
Particularly since now, as the sun dipped lower towards evening, his guards reported that at least three hundred strangers were approaching the Water Gardens.
That had been at least an hour ago; the strangers should be arriving at any time. Doran had ordered that the leader of the strangers should be brought to him.
No one can cross the Dornish wastes in force without my scouts knowing of it. And yet three hundred men appear overnight, and my men tell strange stories of magic, even as stories come from the East of a Targaryen princess hatching dragons.
Fifteen years you've been dead, Elia. But I haven't forgotten. Oh, never. And perhaps the gods have heard me.
"You should turn them away." Hotah rumbled.
"We don't even know who they are." Doran said mildly.
Hotah frowned, but said nothing. Doran watched the big man flex his fingers on the haft of his axe.
Off in the halls of the Water Gardens, Doran heard the sounds of a sudden commotion. Hotah tensed.
"…The Prince is in delicate health!" Doran recognized his maester's voice just before the man himself appeared, hurrying after ten guards and five strange men, and Doran had never used the word 'strange' so aptly before. "He said that your leader should be brought to him, but I cannot allow…"
"You're the one giving him opiate painkillers for gout." The stranger…who had dark skin like a Summer Islander, but the resemblance ended there…sounded just as disgruntled as Prince Doran's maester. "I'm sorry, but I'll form my own medical opinion on his condition, assuming you haven't caused too much damage." The stranger caught sight of Prince Doran; his eyes narrowed, and he made a beeline towards Doran and Hotah, opening the bag he carried as he moved.
He was wearing strange clothes the color of sand, with red crosses sewn to the breast and either shoulder. He was wearing glass lenses over his eyes, and he moved with the absolute authority of someone used to getting his way. A smaller man was only a step behind him; pale skin, an even more outlandish outfit of red, with white crosses. Doran wondered if perhaps the cross was the sigil of their house, but the two men couldn't possibly be related.
Hotah stepped in front of Prince Doran. The strange man drew up short and looked up at the big Norvosi.
"You shall not touch the Prince." Hotah rumbled.
The stranger's eyes narrowed. Behind him, another of the strangers…this one wearing strangely patterened green trousers and a strangely shaped green helmet, and Doran saw tiny gold stars glinting at his collar…cleared his throat. "Doc…"
"With all due respect, General, there's a sick man here." The dark-skinned stranger didn't move. "And he," A finger jabbed in the direction of Prince Doran's increasingly indignant maester, "Doesn't know what the hell he's doing from the sound of it."
Prince Doran felt his eyebrows rise. It made sense; he'd seen many, many maesters and healers since he'd begun suffering from gout, and all had carried themselves much like this man, if perhaps a little less so. "You're a physician?"
The stranger met his eyes. "Yes."
"I've seen maesters and healers aplenty." Doran lifted a shoulder. "None have been able to give me much aid."
"They weren't me and Lifeline." The man called Doc didn't even blink.
Prince Doran nodded. "Very well, then. Hotah, let them pass."
"And if they cause me even the slightest harm, then kill them."
Hotah stopped scowling.
"Is it just me, or does he remind you of…" The shorter, more slender man with Doc spoke for the first time. He was eyeing Hotah with a funny sort of expression.
"It's not just you." Doc pulled several strange things out of his bag and the pouches on his belt. "Beach, I think we've found your long-lost brother."
One of the other strange men…one wearing a bulky vest that must have been terribly hot in the Dornish sun, and of all things a mask of what appeared to be knitted wool, gave a deep rumbling growl that did remind Prince Doran rather of Hotah.
"Right." Doc shook four small tablets out of a tiny white bottle. "These are ibuprofen. They'll help with the pain." He popped one into his own mouth and swallowed. "Not poison, see? Won't make you feel all foggy like poppy juice will. Just swallow them down, and I'll have a look."
Bemused, Doran swallowed the little tabs while Doc and his…assistant? Doran wasn't sure…examined him. He'd been examined many times by healers, and he watched the two men with mild bemusement. The attached a strange contraption to his arm and pumped it up, and the one in red proclaimed his "Blood pressure to be normal." They poked and prodded and used words that Doran didn't understand at all, but they seemed to know what they were about.
Somewhat to his surprise, after a few minutes the ache in his joints began to ease as the strange little tablets began to take effect. And, as promised, his head remained clear.
At last Doc produced a tiny glass vial of liquid and a strange little packet that he peeled open to reveal a very strange needle.
"You've got probably the worst case of gout I've ever seen." Doc carefully drew some of the liquid out of the bottle into the needle. "Though to be fair, I don't often have to treat it in G.I. Joe. You're not overweight, which is good. You're lucky I keep the infirmary stocked. What kind of diet do you usually follow?"
Hotah tensed when he saw the needle. Doran waved him back. His joints still ached, but the pain had receded greatly. "Whatever the cooks prepare, I suppose. Beef. Fish. Vegetables. Wine. What was that you gave me? The pain's not so bad."
"Ibuprofen. Lifeline will give you a bottle. Cut back on all of that but the vegetables. Particularly the fish and the wine. Try chicken and poultry instead, and no preserved or salted meat or organ meat. Lots of vegetables, lots of water. No alcohol at all, it makes symptoms worse." Doc held up the needle. "This is a corticosteroid injection. It will help a great deal very quickly. It will not hurt you, I promise."
Doran nodded. Doc wiped his arm down with a pad that smelled strongly of alcohol. There was a brief prick. "No maester has ever said not to drink wine or eat fish."
"I'll bet that none of your maesters have a degree on their wall from Harvard that says they know what they're talking about. Watching your diet is going to be a big step in managing this."
The one in red…Lifeline…held out a small white bottle. "You can take up to three of these every six hours." A pause. "You have hours here, right? That'd be four times a day." He popped the top off. "Just twist and pull to get it open, like I just did." He fished around in his bag, and pulled out several odd looking packs. "Icing your joints down would help too, but I don't suppose you have freezers around here. Have some cold packs. Just squeeze them, they'll help a lot."
Whatever the clear liquid in the needle had been, Doran could, to his immense delight, feel the pain receding still further. He took the bottle. "I'll speak with the kitchens." He flexed his ankles, and to his delight it didn't hurt to do so.
Lifeline saw him do it, and smiled. "Kicking in already, aren't they?"
"I don't know where you came from, but I thank you both." Prince Doran picked up his wine cup, looked at it for a moment, and set it back down. "Hotah, send for some boiled water for me. Wine for our guests, I think. You, then." He directed this at the man in mottled green pants with gold stars at his throat. "You are the leader of these men?"
"I am." The man extended a hand, and Prince Doran shook it. "General Hawk."
"Then come, sit and tell me how you came to Dorne." Prince Doran smiled at the two men still standing back a few paces. "Your bodyguards may sit too. I mean none of you any harm, particularly since your healers have aided me more than any maester has managed to in many years.
General Hawk's eyes glinted with amusement at the word 'bodyguards'. "I would be glad to."
It took awhile.
Prince Doran had heard some wild stories over the years. This one was far and away the wildest.
Prince Doran was a good judge of character. He was good at telling when a man spoke the truth and when a man lied, and he did not think these men were lying. The fact that his joints hurt almost not at all by the time General Hawk finished speaking perhaps did more than a little to sway his opinion of these strangers as well.
"Well." He said when General Hawk had at last finished speaking. "I seem to have little choice but to invite you and your men to stay here until I decide what else to do with you. I will provide you with supplies and aid you in deciding what to do next."
General Hawk blinked. "I have three hundred and twelve men and women camped outside."
"Yes, I know." Prince Doran gripped the edges of his wheelchair. It took a few minutes, and there was pain, but he stood under his own power. "But I have not stood on my own feet without the aid of Hotah or a cane, General Hawk, for near on five years. I owe you this much, at least, for the loan of your healers. The Water Gardens are large. In years past, Princes and Princesses of Dorne hosted parties of five hundred and more in these halls. We've room enough, and besides." He smiled again, but this time there was the hint of an edge to it. "I think, General Hawk, that you may be able to help me."