Ned slowly became aware of a strange noise, and reluctantly let it draw him out of his deep slumber. It wasn't particularly loud, but seemed rather out of place for his bedchamber. He opened his eyes and immediately regretted it; bright sunlight assaulted him, feeling like a thousand hot lances piercing his skull. Ned groaned in pain and regretted that as well. The noise echoed inside his head and made him feel dizzy. Damn Robert, he thought. Whenever Ned woke up feeling like this, it was always Robert's fault.
Ned tried to roll over onto his back, planning to bury himself under his furs and silently curse Robert until his wine sickness passed, but he encountered something warm and soft that barred his way. Turning his head slowly and peeling his eyes open carefully, he met a pair of smiling dark eyes set in a pretty face. The pretty face of a pretty girl, with black curls falling messily out of her septa's head scarf.
Ned's eyes widened in horrified realization, and he shot up out of bed, far too quickly, and fell backwards with a shout and a few colorful words.
“M-m-my lady! I-I....you, you're...!” Ned tried to compose himself and stood quickly, noticing too late that he was dressed only in his smallclothes, and had a brief debate with himself whether it would be more appropriate to approach the bed to grab at the furs to cover himself, or stay away and remain half dressed, hoping his hands would be enough to shield his morning...situation from the poor girl. He blushed furiously, but the girl seemed indifferent to his distress, and only smiled wider.
She was sitting up in his bed, half-dressed and very obviously a septa, given what he could see of her partially discarded clothing. Septa Neryssa, that's her name, Ned suddenly remembered. Septa Neryssa was in his bed, wearing only a plain linen shift that was alarmingly see-through, and with half of her distinctive head scarf crumpled and falling off her pretty hair. And she was smiling.
“Good morrow, my lord! Today will be a beautiful day!” She gestured towards the sunlight streaming from the window, and Ned had to wonder why septas were allowed to wear shifts that were so revealing. “May the Seven bless you today as you compete in Lord Arryn's tourney, and for all days to come for your honor and virtue!”
She stood up and began to gather her clothing from the floor, and Ned nearly forgot to avert his eyes as she put her dress back on, and adjusted her head scarf. Honor and virtue? Gods, what could she mean? Ned's head was swirling with confusion and blinding pain, not to mention the irritating buzz of that noise he couldn't identify. Before he could make any sense of the unaccountably cheerful words from a half-dressed septa, she was unbarring his door and saying goodbye.
“Thank you Lord Stark for your generosity last night. You were wonderful. I will never forget my time with you my lord, truly! May the Seven and your old gods alike smile upon you always!”
She closed the door much harder than Ned felt was truly necessary. His head still pounded, and thinking on why a septa would thank him for dishonoring her was not helping the pain. He wondered whether it was a good thing that she seemed to know his name, when he finally discovered the source of that strange noise.
There was a mule in his bedchamber. Probably one of the mules from the waycastles, used to travel up and down the mountain pass between the Eyrie and the Gates of the Moon, and it was tied to his bedpost and chewing noisily on the rushes. How it came to be in his bedchamber was as much as mystery as Septa Neryssa's cheerful presence, and Ned had a feeling that somehow Robert Baratheon was behind both mysteries.
Ned began his search for answers with Robert's bedchamber. The door was slightly open, and he expected to find his friend still abed with ailments similar to his own, but was instead shocked beyond words when the door opened fully.
Robert's bed was occupied, but not by Robert. Prince Oberyn Martell lounged there instead, with a pair of blondes draped over him, naked as their name day, with only the bed furs and their long hair to preserve their modesty, such as it was. The one situated between his legs, enthusiastically bobbing her head up and down in the Prince's lap, appeared to have the curves of a girl. As for the one twined around the Prince's torso and kissing him fiercely, it was harder to say. Ned vaguely remembered that one of the minstrel groups providing entertainment at the feast last night was a golden-haired family from Lannisport, and decided that Prince Oberyn was far too occupied to know or care where Robert could be found. He closed the door and continued his search.
Ned's next attempt was more fruitful. He came upon Robert and Brandon in Robert's study next door, breaking their fast. The smell of food was powerfully enticing, despite the queasy feeling in his belly, but first Ned wanted answers.
Robert was drinking directly from a flagon of wine, and Brandon was whispering into the ear of a redheaded serving girl, while she giggled and squirmed in his lap. Ned realized suddenly that of his companions from the night before, only Elbert remained missing, the groom-to-be whose upcoming wedding they celebrated. It would put quite a damper on the tourney planned for later that day if the guest of honor could not be located.
“Ned my boy! About time you got out of bed!” Robert's booming voice made Ned wince, but did nothing to distract Brandon from his new plaything. “Here, eat something, drink something, you'll need your strength for today! Your brother, the louse, says he'll beat me in the melee but we both know that's a lie! The honor of House Stark is upon you, Ned, you'll have to do well enough in the jousting to make up for his pathetic loss!”
Robert laughed loudly and sucked down more wine, and not for the first time Ned was amazed by his friend's seemingly endless appetites.
“Little brother, good morrow!” Brandon managed to greet him without leaving the neck of the serving girl in his lap. “Sit, we'll get you something to eat...Sweetling...Dancy, was it? Dancy, be a love and get my little brother something to eat, yeah? And another flagon for my friend Lord Robert? Hurry back and maybe I'll tell you that story I promised.” Brandon sucked on her neck once more before pushing her off his lap, and she let out another giggle as he smacked her on the bottom and sent her away.
Robert smirked at him. “A redhead, aye Brandon? Any particular reason russet-haired girls catch your eye lately?”
Brandon grinned back. “I tell you there's something about red hair, my friend. Ever since I met my betrothed, the lovely Lady Catelyn, neither dark nor light hair will suffice. Kissed by fire are the only ladies that interest me!”
Ned rolled his eyes. No other ladies should interest you, he thought, but knew voicing the thought out loud would be futile.
He took a seat and tried to ask his brother and his friend about the previous night, hoping to piece together what he had misremembered, and more importantly, locate their friend and the man of the hour. The two of them were disturbingly unconcerned that the future Lord of the Vale seemed to be missing.
“Relax, Ned, you need to stop worrying. Elbert will turn up soon. He's probably sleeping it off somewhere, poor lad's never had Dornish Sour before has he?” Brandon slapped Ned on the shoulder and handed him a cup of said Dornish wine, known throughout Westeros as one of the strongest and most potent vintages.
“Seriously, Ned...have a turn with little Dancy when she returns. She's got a lovely soft mouth and softer hands, and she wants to hear about the dragon that lives under Winterfell!” Brandon winked and Robert roared with laughter, but Ned was only horrified. Dancy must be quite a bit younger than she looked to fall for that story!
“Come now, little brother! Don't look so disapproving! Little Dancy's never been North of the Neck, poor thing, and I was telling her all the ways northern lords keep their ladies warm...I'm sure you could show her just as well as I!”
Robert wiped tears of laughter from his eyes, and Ned noticed for the first time that his hand and arm were all torn and bloody from apparent knife wounds. What in the seven hells went on last night? When he asked about the ragged wounds, Robert only shrugged and laughed.
“Ah, that was when you were off with your septa. I played five fingered knives with some of the Vale knights, beat them all soundly, the buggering braggarts, didn't I?” Robert and Brandon burst into laughter once again, and Ned realized that they were still drunk from the night before. This is going to be a very long day.
Dancy returned, this time with a brunette friend to help carry the platters of food and flagons of wine, and Robert promptly pulled the brunette into his lap, while Brandon had Dancy straddling his lap in a heartbeat. Ned tried to ignore them and their murmurs and sighs while he ate. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn't remember any more details about the previous night. Perhaps Prince Oberyn would know where Elbert was. Ned vowed to find him and ask, hoping that he would be finished with his blonde companions by then.
“What's this I hear about you and a septa, little brother?” Dancy was giggling again, as Brandon fed her slices of melon.
“You know the one, Brandon,” Robert interrupted, his hands busy with the front lacing of the brunette's dress, “with the pretty eyes and the big teats. Nala! Septa Nala! Your little brother spent the night with her!” Robert boomed in laughter and Dancy and her friend exchanged glances and laughed, too. Ned's cheeks burned in shame, and knew every servant in the Vale would know of his indiscretions by midnight. He hoped Jon wouldn't send him away because of it.
Brandon was laughing too, and Ned should have known his big brother would be impressed rather than horrified by such a story. “I remember her, she was a pretty one! But wasn't it Nella? Or Nayla?” Ned just wanted to crawl into a hole and hide forever. He had always known Brandon and Robert were shameless, but this was too much. The two of them were debating the name of the poor woman he dishonored (“I'm sure it was Layla or Lena, not something with an ' N '”), while groping two inappropriately young serving girls at the same time. Neither cared one whit where their companions from last night had got off to, Oberyn cavorting with traveling bards in Robert's bed, and Elbert who-knows-where!
Ned left them finally, a full belly giving him new determination to unwind the mysteries of the previous night, and to finally locate Elbert. Every person Ned encountered on his search was another who had no clue as to the young lord's whereabouts. Ned knew that Elbert was a man grown and needed no keeper, but still he felt responsible. Especially because neither Robert nor Brandon could be bothered to care.
Ned was truly starting to panic, thinking this day could not get any worse (they had lost the future Lord of the Eyrie!), when he turned another corner and found himself face-to-face with Septa Neryssa and her septon, a tall, broad man with a long white beard and a look about him that said he hadn't always been a septon. Septa Neryssa was thankfully fully clothed, but unfortunately she was chirping enthusiastically again about how wonderful Ned had been last night, and how the Seven had blessed her to send him to her. When she made a point to note how Ned insisted that she stay with him last night, Ned just wanted to die. But then the stern-looking septon shook his hand, and thanked him gravely for protecting the virtue of a young and defenseless septa, and walked on. Ned stared after them in shock, with his jaw hanging open like a halfwit. He was blinking in confusion as to what had just happened, when Septa Neryssa looked back, just before they turned the corner, and winked at him.
The morning dragged on in this fashion, with no improvement in Ned's memory, and no clues as to the whereabouts of Elbert Arryn. Prince Oberyn was no help, as the second time Ned came upon him was in the hallway outside the granary, up against the wall with one of the Redfort twins. She was gasping and panting, pressing the Prince's head into her cleavage, with her hands tangled in his black hair in a way that looked a bit painful to Ned. The desperate movement of the Redfort girl's hips (he couldn't see whether it was Melynda or Myranda) made it clear where the Prince's hands had wandered to, although Ned was thankful he couldn't actually see anything. Ned doubted either of them would be able to say if Elbert Arryn stood right next to them or not, they looked quite occupied.
Finally in defeat, he returned to Robert and Brandon, the two of them still eating and drinking, but this time without any female company. Robert had his arm bandaged, and was bragging about his conquest the night before with one of the Redfort twins – hopefully a different one from whoever Prince Oberyn was currently entertaining – but Ned supposed that neither man would mind either way.
Jon Arryn walked in, and Ned was glad he missed his wards and the heir to Winterfell entertaining half-dressed serving girls and septas. Jon was all smiles and full of thanks to the three of them, for entertaining Prince Oberyn and for looking after his nephew. Ned's cheeks were aflame with embarrassment, but Brandon and Robert only smiled innocently. Then, noticing Robert's full cup of wine, he joked that they shouldn't overindulge, lest they topple off their mules on the descent to the Gates of the Moon for the tourney later that day.
Suddenly, Ned remembered how his day began, hearing a mule chew on the rushes of his bedchamber floor. He rushed to the winch room of the Eyrie, cursing his brother and his best friend for drunken fools on the way. Memories came flooding back of a challenge amongst the five of them, involving their relative abilities to climb down to Sky unaided, and Ned wonders how none of them died last night, heads dashed against the stone walls of the Eyrie in their drunken folly.
After cursing the winch hands and guards for their ineptitude, Ned ordered them to haul up all the baskets, and finally found what he'd spent the day looking for: Elbert Arryn, nephew to Lord Jon Arryn, heir to the Eyrie, future Lord of the Vale and Warden of the East, was curled up fast asleep in the bottom of a basket, thankfully safe and sound.