Actions

Work Header

The First Sparks

Chapter Text

Rhaegar Targaryen had been smart as a boy. Multiple tutors and later masters had told his mother more than once (and she him in turn) that he was one of the most remarkably intelligent children they had ever met. It had driven him to read through tome after tome when he was younger that most noble-born children his age wouldn’t bother with. Not until they were well into their later life as a lord or a lady. It allowed him a vivid imagination which in turn helped him understand the various historical accounts that present epics and ballads arose from.

This in turn granted him a foundation to try creating songs and stories of his own that his people might enjoy in future. His delicate silvery gold hair and his lilac eyes were often subjected to light snickering for how feminine it made an already slight and willowy boy look even if he was the crown prince. He knew he was laughed about for his disdain of the more physical aspects to ruling. He much preferred negotiation and compromise to the thought of war and bloodshed. He liked the study of culture and stories more than he did the tactics of commanders past and tournaments that had come before. Others could mock him for his harp playing and his singing all they wanted, but to his mind it was often the songs and the stories people told of great men, great women or great events long after they were gone that lived on more so than any sort of any intentional legacy on their part.

But all of that had changed when he discovered the original purpose to the Targaryen family practice of in-breeding and the source of their family words.

It had been a positively ancient book. Whatever color the binding had possessed was long since been worn away to nothing from sheer age. On top of that, it was a thin volume. Barely larger than the palm of Rhaegar’s hand. He had only managed to find it by accident, hidden as it was inside a larger collection of scrolls that documented the private history of the Targaryen family: main and branches.

But the first pages gave a clue as to what it was. It was written in a female hand and spoke of growing up on Dragonstone, of hearing stories about the destruction of Old Valyria via the Doom. There was sadness in that tone in the beginning of the book, questions of what to do about regaining a homeland that she herself had never seen. But near the middle, something had changed in the mind of the writer. It had started small, with her discovery that if she spoke her prayers and her thoughts to the morning dawn, she could often feel the breeze and the clouds and the light of the sunrise itself move as if it were trying to answer her.

And then it spoke more about her brother Aegon, the first of his name.

How she had planned by his side the conquest of this land they had seen everyday upon their table but scarcely interacted with themselves. She wrote how it had all begun when she had been looking to the fires of her chamber one evening. Torn by indecision, she needed to decide where she should try to convince her brother to begin his war of unification. She spoke of being entranced by the dancing tongues of the fire and as she pondered to herself. In return, she’d been granted a vision of a figure shrouded in flame standing amidst the smoking ruins of Old Valyria. How the smoke had risen from the ground itself to try choking the figure, blasts of fire and gusts of angry wind blowing the raging battle between the land and the man this way and that. How even as the waves that crashed upon the shore inexplicably began to freeze where they landed to create hazardous spike of icy death, the ground itself was unaffected and still visibly smoked and crackled like a blazing inferno raged just beneath the surface. She wrote of how when she came to, she had heard words not her own echoing within her mind.

‘When the world of what was becomes wreathed in a crown of ash, the divine fire shall blaze a way through the destruction. When the smokey death of what is lies heavy upon the air, the blood of the sun shall burn all the brighter in the midst of chaos. And when the light of what may be at last illuminates a new world, it shall be held in the hand of the Prince: he who is promised to the world of the mortals by the will of the eternals.’

She had taken the vision to heart. Drawing inspiration from it, she encouraged her brother to take his dragons, his army and his sisters to conquer seven kingdoms to remake as one. She had convinced Aegon that he must keep the Valyrian traditions alive through polygamy even if it meant alienating those they meant to rule. They would do this in the hopes that the fire of their spirit and the blood of their line would run true and at last create this prince her vision had spoken of. She was convinced this figure would one day return to Old Valyria and cleanse the land of the evil that had infested it since the time of the Doom.

Rhaegar had retired to his room soon after finishing Viscenya Targaryen’s diary: when it ended by speaking of her son’s birth and how she so hoped that she could see Valyria again within her lifetime. That left a bitter taste in his mouth, knowing her hope had been in vain.

Knowing that the Targaryen dynasty, they who had taken Fire and Blood as their family words, either did not know or worse did not care about the full meaning behind the phrase and what a responsibility that left on their shoulders.

As he reflected on this, Rheagar remembered that Viscenya had felt a connection to the sun and had only received her vision by staring into the heart of a fire. As he did, he realized that there were two things he could do to realize the prophecy of the Prince Who Was Promised. He could improve himself so that he would be able to provide the best possible instruction to his children when they grew old enough to be made aware of their responsibility to their once homeland and to the Prince himself. (Assuming one of them did not prove to be the fabled Prince of course.) And he could actively seek the same guidance that had spoken through the hearth to one of the first Targaryen queens.

The next day, he had approached his father’s master-at-arms Ser Darry to learn how to be a warrior as well as a scholar.

Years later, he managed to become an accomplished swordsman in addition to a renowned poet and singer. On his own, he devoted more and more time to the study of fire worship. Both in the history of Westeros itself and in the lands to the east that had once housed Old Valyria. He sought out places that had been touched by fires of unusually intense strength. The Dragon Pits. The Red Keep’s Catacombs. Harrenhal. As well as the Field of Fire.

He had even chosen his wife Elia Martell based on her kind motherly nature rather than her beauty as others thought he should’ve with Cersei Lannister. But Rhaegar wanted to be sure that if he found the Prince in his lifetime, he would be unashamed to have his queen stand beside him when it came time to tell the Prince of his destiny.

She hadn’t been entirely convinced when he had first declared his son Aegon the Promised Prince. And he had to admit later that she was likely right. That he had let himself get carried away since any sign that would lead to him actually finding let alone raising the foretold Prince that Viscenya’s vision had spoken of was a remote and distant possibility at best.

That was, until he met Lyanna Stark at the Harrenhal Tournament. The day was sunny; the energy of the crowd had brought the festive atmosphere to a fever pitch. And in the midst of it all Rhaegar had become acquainted with and befriended (he liked to think so anyway) a wild Stark girl who had given him advice on how best to unseat his Royce opponent in the joust.

Without her advising him that Yohn Royce leaned slightly forward and to the left when he was charging his opponents, Rhaegar could not say with certainty he would’ve noticed the unconscious habit in the veteran warrior.

When she initially pointed this out to him, Rhaegar had promised that if her advice proved true that he would repay her for her help. And he was nothing if not a man of his word. He rode past his sickly but loving wife and awarded the crown of love and beauty to Lyanna Stark. As he gave her the flowers, he bowed his head toward her to let her know he had fulfilled his promise. He was sure not to smile least his gesture of respect be mistaken for something more.

But his effort was unsuccessful.

As he later tried once again to explain to Elia that he had simply promised to repay Lyanna Stark for her role in his victory, he saw a shadow move out of the corner of his eye on the darkening tournament grounds.

He moved to the tent flap to see what it had been, his intuition telling him that something was happening. Something that he needed to see.

Near the jousting grounds half hidden by the sunset, there was the girl Stark. And standing by her side was a man with hair the color of newly settled ash. He had never seen that kind of hair color on any who were not in some way related to his family.

He hurriedly excused himself from Elia, ignoring her calls to return. He needed to see who this person could be. Was it an as of yet unknown family member that had come to the tournament? Someone who intended to reveal themselves in the midst of his father’s belief that the world hid all sorts who constantly conspired against him? (Including but by no means limited to himself, his mother, the highborn lords, the lowborn smallfolk, the gods, the faith, the Hand, the Master of Coin, the Master of Whispers and just about everyone but his Grand Maester.)

As he moved out onto the grounds without encountering anyone, he saw Lyanna Stark and the unknown man walking toward him. He slowed his pace so that he could seem to encounter them by chance, wondering how the presence of royalty might affect the tone of the conversation they were having.

But the unknown man gestured for him to join them without even looking in Rhaegar’s direction.

Lyanna had quickly whirled toward him in surprise, obviously unaware of who it was the man was gesturing to. When she saw Rhaegar, she tensed further. She was visibly unsure how to address his being here; a first for Rhaegar’s limited interactions with her. As he came closer the ashen-haired stranger at last turned to face him.

“At last we meet you face to face Rhaegar Targaryen.” He greeted with an enigmatic smile on his somewhat thin lips. Rhaegar was surprised to note how young and light-hearted his voice was. Young but crisp, like a lordling complimenting a junior officer among his sworn swords.

His eyes were such a dark brown they could easily be mistaken for coal black, but they seemed to have no trouble seeing in the semi-darkness or the shadows at all. His skin was bronze by torchlight and somewhat weathered from exposure to the elements. He had the build of a warrior, with calloused hands and a wiry strength in his every movement. Rhaegar seemed to vaguely recall seeing this man compete in the melee earlier in the tournament.

But none of that was what truly caught the crown prince’s attention about this man.

The thing Rhaegar noticed most of all was the sense of just how large he felt. The sheer force of presence that he exuded was almost tangible in the air, as though he was standing not in the company of a human being but a force of nature. He wondered briefly how it was no one else had noticed this man before remembering that obviously Lyanna Stark had.

“What an occasion this is! To at last see the lone Targaryen who searched for us before our very eyes.” He said. His toothy smile was at once welcoming and foreboding.

“Who are you?” Rhaegar asked guardedly, his left hand inching toward the dagger that hung at the small of his back. His gut told him that it wouldn’t matter if this man really wanted to attack, but he preferred to be caught ready as opposed to unawares.

“Oh, we’ve had so many names in our time.” The man answered easily. He clapped his right hand to Rheagar’s shoulder, as though unafraid of the possible consequences to a lowborn for touching one higher in station then themselves.

“Lord. Father. Sun.” He continued, as Lyanna appeared to be asking him with her eyes to stop talking to Rhaegar. She seemed afraid of what he might say. “But our favorite is perhaps the most personal we have been given in this world.”

“And what name is that?” Rhaegar was unable to resist taking the bait.

Lyanna pulled him away from Rhaegar as he began to open his mouth to answer.

“What does it matter what his name is?” She demanded defensively.

“There is no need dear one.” Came a deeper voice with a slight rasp from behind her. Rheagar almost couldn’t believe his ears.

There was such a marked contrast between the two voices that he would’ve sworn they were separate people. But he had been looking right at this man as he spoke in the second, older and more serious voice. So he knew them to be one and the same logically. He began to think that perhaps this was actually a demon of some kind. He had read of such things in his stories when he had been young, but had never thought to actually encounter them.

“The king-who-would-be has sought an audience with us for some time now.” He said, stepping around Lyanna, whose gaze sharpened and looked at Rhaegar with new eyes.

“You seek the Prince we once spoke of.” He stated. “The one your song of fire and ice was written to honor.”

Rhaegar forgot how to breathe for a moment. He hadn’t revealed that song to anyone but Elia and his extremely young children. How did this absolute stranger know about it? Was he an agent of Varys? Of his father? Of the Faith? Or someone else entirely.

“Alas, our young flame still requires the first sparks to kindle him.” The man said, holding his hands up in a gesture that Rhaegar took to mean fond resignation. A gesture that seemed to ask the rhetorical question: what can you do about it?

“What are you talking about? What prince?” Lyanna sharply asked the man, spinning to face him. He only grinned in the face of her confusion fueled irritation.

“Have we not given our name as R’hllor dear one?” He asked, deep voice tender for a moment as his right hand gripped her left.

“You. You’re-” Rhaegar didn’t know what exactly he thought to say here. To be in the presence of one such as this, a god descended the mortal realm…

“A great many things.” R’hllor finished, turning to face the awestruck prince while holding his right hand out to Rhaegar to shake.

Rhaegar’s hand found this man’s, a barely noticeable tremble in his limbs.

“But most of all,” The man who called himself a god continued. Lyanna leapt back in alarm as a fire sprang up where their hands joined, covering them to the wrist. It lasted only half a minute at most before it was gone as quickly as it had come.

“We are family.” He finished, his grin becoming genuinely friendly as he pulled Rhaegar close for an unexpected hug.

The crown prince was caught completely off-guard. The royal family was not one for shows of open affection. And while he loved his wife dearly, she too was reserved in how she expressed her loving feelings for others. (Though that was perhaps just around his own family. He had seen the love she expressed toward her Martell brothers firsthand after all.)

“Come.” R’hllor said, clapping his hands enthusiastically as the hug ended. “Walk with us descendent. We would speak to you away from prying eyes and ears.”

Lyanna looked from one man to the other; seemingly unable to comprehend the exchange that had occurred between the deity and the Targaryen prince.

R’hllor glanced at the Stark in their midst with amusement twinkling in his eyes.

“Do you intend to continue imitating a statue dear one, or do you intend to walk with us?” He asked rhetorically as he chuckled a bit.

She shook her head quickly before drawing alongside him.

“So why didn’t you tell me you could do…” She gestured vaguely to his hand.

“This?” The self-proclaimed R’hllor finished, igniting his hand again as he held it up for their inspection.

Rhaegar couldn’t look away, watching as the fire seemed to span the spectrum of colors as the disguised deity’s fingers shifted and moved.

“We prefer to draw the most fire we can from the smallest possible spark.” R’hllor answered as he closed his right hand into a fist to snuff out the fire. He let his hand drop to his side again before continuing. “And if that meant allowing you to merely think us a mortal who speaks strangely, than it was an unimportant yet worthwhile thing to accept in the long run.”

His smile grew slightly wider before he added onto his statement.

“That and it amused us greatly to see how you treated a…how did you put it again? Ah yes:” His voice shifted into an almost exact copy of Lyanna Stark’s. “A strange little man with an ego that just begs to be punctured.”

“Prick.” Lyanna swatted his shoulder in annoyance.

“We much prefer Bastard.” R’hllor answered, unfazed by her physical chastisement.

Lyanna laughed, nodding her agreement with his classification, as though remembering a private joke between the two of them.

‘Any moment now, I half-expect Lord Varys will sashay in proclaiming himself King of the Whores.’ Rhaegar thought numbly, his knowledge of the old myths and legends failing to help him comprehend this distinctly surreal situation.

As the private walk between the god, the prince and the northerner (and didn’t that sound like the start of yet another one of Arthur Dayne’s rambling jokes?) continued, Rhaegar was forced to revise his opinion on how surreal the situation was.

R’hllor wasn’t there to observe or just to tell Rhaegar the Prince was not yet come. No, he was there to court Lyanna Stark. With a jolt the separate pieces clicked into place for the Targaryen scion. Rhaegar at last realized that R’hllor had chosen the tournament for a multitude of reasons.

He had used it to reveal his true nature to both himself and Lyanna. He had used it to observe the warriors said to be the greatest in the realm. He had used it to tell Rhaegar to keep faith in the promise he had made to his family all those years ago. And most importantly, he had used it to tell Rhaegar that the Prince was almost here. The Targaryen realized that descended god had even slyly introduced Rhaegar to the woman he was sure was intended to be the Prince’s mother.

With that Rhaegar knew what he had to do. As the walk wound them back around to the Prince’s tent, Rhaegar came close to them both as a bright smile lit up Lyanna’s face in the waning light as she listened to a story about the lands across the eastern sea R’hllor was telling. As they were both turning to face him, Rhaegar took R’hllor’s left hand and Lyanna Stark’s right in-between his own palms.

He noted that the combined heat from their joined hands would’ve had most normal men’s palms sweaty within the first minute or so of holding them.

“Lady Stark,” He started, looking directly into her grey eyes. “Lord R’hllor has been kind to my family even as they have lost their view of his light. And he obviously considers you a friend. Any friend to Lord R’hllor is a friend of my family.”

Rhaegar took a deep breath before swearing the oath he knew Lord R’hllor and the rules of making promises to powerful beings expected him to.

“I hereby solemnly swear upon the blood in my veins and the honor of my house that if there is ever anything I can do to assist you in anyway, you need only ask it and it shall be yours. And should you require a sword or a shield, you shall have it. By my life or death I so swear.”

He finished, kneeling before them as he kissed the joined hands at the knuckles. First Lord R’hllor, then Lyanna.

“I…I thank you for your words Prince Rhaegar.” She answered, caught off-guard by this sudden solemnity to his demeanor and his vow. She looked to R’hllor, a question in her grey eyes.

The hidden god simply smiled at them both.

“Let us hope it does not come to that young princeling.” He said, nodding his head to indicate his acceptance of Rhaegar’s oath.

As his blade clashed against Robert Baratheon’s shield and the current of the trident river thundered around them, all of that seemed a lifetime ago. Almost like another man’s memories of a time that he had only been barely involved in.

Now he was growing tired. His armor was well-wrought, but it was cumbersome. He had expected to face Eddard Stark. He had expected an opponent he could be reasonable with. But it had been so long since he had told anyone the entire truth of the things he knew that he wasn’t sure he’d even know where to begin even if they were inclined to let him speak. He wondered for a moment if that was what men like Lord Varys felt like when they woke up every day.

“This is where you die Targaryen bastard!!” His black-haired enemy screamed. The Warhammer once again crashed into his shield, this time damaging it beyond repair. Rhaegar threw it at him in an effort to gain some space between them. He was so very tired of the fighting and the strife.

He couldn’t help but feel guilty about all of this. His oath to protect Lyanna however he could and his neglect of the situation with his father during his years of searching for signs of R’hllor and by extension the prince had combined to ignite the entire countryside in the fires of rebellion. He should’ve been in King’s Landing more. He should’ve kept a closer eye on his father. He should’ve done more with the court’s politics. He should’ve-

A crunching impact on his breastplate. He felt more than heard his chest cave in beneath his armor. He flew backwards, landing on the muddy bank as the rubies flew out of their fixed positions on the now broken dragon that reflected its owner’s pitiful condition.

He felt his breaths grow short and his heartbeat slow even as his mind raced. He knew this meant he was already dead. His body just had to finish catching up.

The sun reflected off the reddened waters as Robert Baratheon strode toward him, savage gleam of triumph in his eyes. Rhaegar looked directly at the ball of fire in the sky. He so wanted to reach for it, as if his outstretched hand would be the cry to Lord R’hllor to come to his aid. To help him as he had promised to help the god and his lover in turn.

But he was becoming too weak to breathe let alone move his arm. As he began to fade, he caught one last glimpse of his surroundings. As the darkness encroached on his vision, he thought he saw a flash of ashen hair above him.

And then Rhaegar Targaryen was gone.

Chapter Text

Jon Snow was sure the world meant to drive him insane.

Obviously it wasn’t enough for him to be the bastard son of Eddard Stark. Obviously it wasn’t enough for him to be ‘the lone stain upon the honor of such a righteous man’ as he constantly heard when no one thought he could hear them. Obviously it wasn’t enough for him to be just as good as his half-brother Robb at all the matters that involved being the heir to Winterfell when it was made clear to him that it would never make any difference because he had made the grave mistake of being born from the wrong snatch.

Now in addition to that it had added over two years of hearing legions of whispering and cacophonies of voices whenever he was near open flames that had driven him into two separate panic attacks when entering the fully lit great hall. He didn't know how or why it had started. He hadn't dared ask Maester Luwin directly, opting instead to ask Old Nan and see if he could find any sort of reference to speaking flames in the books of Winterfell's library. He had no luck of course.

And now things had reached their breaking point with Arya contracting a violent illness that had her wasting away. When she tried to eat she would inevitably vomit it back up. When she was asleep she would toss and turn in the midst of feverish nightmares, crying out in pain and fear. When she was awake it had initially been a fever and hallucinations. Now she could never tell the difference between reality and illusion. Now she was in such constant pain that she could barely speak; her voice having been worn away to almost nothing from screaming.

He had initially been forbidden from seeing her by the express orders of Lady Stark. That hadn’t stung so bad initially since Maester Luwin had at first forbidden anyone except for the lord and lady of Winterfell from seeing her while she was being treated. Out of concern of whatever she had being contagious. But as he tried more and more remedies, the restriction had gradually being lifted for most everyone of the household. Jon had desperately hoped that might be a good sign, that it meant Maester Luwin was making progress on his little sister. But now…

Now Maester Luwin had given up hope of Arya recovering. Jon could see it in his eyes, in the way he seemed to be more mechanical than anything in his motions to help her. As though there was no real belief left in him, only the certainty that he was delaying the inevitable.

And still Catelyn Stark forbade him from seeing her daughter.

Arya was quite literally his best friend in Winterfell despite the age difference between them. Sansa was too afraid of not appearing the proper young lady to her mother to ever be defiant enough to be outright kind to Jon let alone friendly. Robb, despite his jovial nature, had proven to Jon he always had the fact that Jon was a Snow in the back of his mind. Bran was a great boy, but he wasn't as close to him as he could've been.

The less said about Lady Catelyn, the better.

The household servants of Winterfell may have pitied him if they got to know him, been vaguely annoyed by him if they were only aware of him through his escapades with Arya. But almost universally they looked down upon him for being a lord’s bastard and seeming to put on airs beyond his actual station in life. The children of noble families such as Theon Greyjoy and the Umbers or Karstarks looked down upon him for being a noble lord's bastard and being inherently less than his betters no matter how much he tried to disguise it.

But perhaps the most hurtful one was his father, the honorable lord Eddard Stark. He had brought Jon to Winterfell after the war, claimed him as his own, and raised him in his own household. But he had never once spoken of legitimizing Jon as a Stark. Only intervened for Jon’s behalf toward Catelyn if she grew outright vindictive toward him. Had always maintained a distance from Jon he did not toward his trueborn children. And refused to tell Jon anything of who he was and where he had come from. It apparently having never once occurred to him that perhaps a small child whose worst crime was to exist would’ve wanted to know if there had been someone, anyone who had actually been gladdened by his birth.

It was a hard thing for Jon to accept: that if it hadn’t been for his honor or intervention by his mother (where or whoever she may be), the righteous Lord Eddard Stark would’ve never willingly brought Jon to Winterfell to be raised by his family. Jon loved his father despite all this because he was raising him in a higher station than many boys of similar heritage ever got to know. He just wished he could know just once that his father felt the same.

But Arya was not like any of them. She had accepted him as her brother, her sibling, her family from the day she had been born. It was one of the reasons he had always volunteered himself to look after her. Why he had done all he could to encourage her interests and ideas no matter what they were. He had sung songs of heroes for her despite his singing voice being better suited to imitating the dogs growling. He had told her the truth when others would lie because she was young, she was a girl, she was different. And he had never once denied her any acceptance and love he could give. Because she had never denied him. They were the only two Starks of Winterfell who actually resembled Lord Eddard with their grey eyes, dark hair and solemn faces. It had helped them relate to each other in a way they couldn't with their other siblings.

But these last few days it had been harder and harder to stay inside the walls of Winterfell. Lately he would take roam the woods where all the voices he could hear was his own internal voice and the voices of the wild life that surrounded the keep. But this day, he had entered the sept. The only reason he could give himself as to why was because he heard a clear voice whispering to him. It sounded so much like his own, he could almost mistake it for an older version of himself, of his father.

As he entered, he took no time to admire the moonlight shining through the seven pointed star in the window. He moved past the wooden furniture inside to find the Alter of the Mother. There was a flickering candle burning inside of it.

‘Lady Catelyn was here recently.’ He figured idly to himself.

“Not the elder red-headed woman. The younger one.” The voice that had once been an errant whisper spoke up.

Jon yelped in alarm, whirling around to see if anyone had seen him.

“Who goes there?!” he called stridently, right hand instinctively gripping the dagger at his side.

The voice had the audacity to snicker at him. Jon kept whirling again to see where it could be coming from.

“By all means, keep twirling in place tiny dancer.” The voice encouraged, continuing to snicker. “That should convince any who come to see you yelling at nothing that you’re not insane.”

Jon stopped moving, his mind racing as he slowly turned back to the flickering candle.

“Ah, figured it out have you?” the voice said, a definite note of pride in its voice as it spoke from the center of the small flame. “Very good. It usually takes longer than that.”

Jon could barely breathed. The voice speaking to him through the flames, it wasn’t simply sputtering and whispering at him like the others. It was intelligent. There was something in the fire that was speaking to him. A demon? A spirit? Perhaps a multitude of them? It would certainly explain the odd reverberation and echoing voices he heard just behind the primary speaking voice.

“What are you?” Jon whispered fearfully, hand gripping his dagger in a white knuckled grip that was more for keeping himself from screaming than for protection at this point.

“One who would help you save what you love.” It answered, its tone serious and businesslike where once it had been joking and playful.

“Wh-wha…” Jon sputtered, unsure of what he even wanted to say.

“The girl wastes away by the hour child.” The voice told him, the previous voice seeming to shift into a different one altogether over the course of that single sentence. Now it sounded closer to what he imagined a wizened old seer would sound like. “They speak of giving her milk of the poppy to ease her passing even now. If you do not act soon, she will be gone and her spark will return to the fire.”

Jon fell to his knees before the fire, the shock temporarily preventing him from controlling his legs.

“No.” Was all that brokenly escaped his lips. He didn’t want to contemplate a world where his little sister was dead.

“It need not be this way child.” The voice urged, its conviction lending Jon the strength to look into the heart of the flame.

“What do you mean?” The bastard Stark asked. If he was going insane, he may as well gain something from it, he resolved. If embracing madness meant saving Arya then so be it. Jon knew she deserved more life than this: to be struck down by a wasting illness like this when she hadn’t even begun to reach her potential. To show what she could do to the world at large.

“Are you willing to follow instructions? To do what is asked of you? Even if you do not understand how or why it shall change things for now?” The voice asked him, the fire seeming to grow somewhat brighter in Jon’s grey eyes.

None but the spirit of the flame and Jon were present to hear him answer.

“Whatever I must do to save Arya, I will.”

Three days later, he was ready.

‘Dead and Living Wood of the Old Gods, Alter and Idols of the New Gods. When the blinded eye of the sun opens in three night’s time, place her upon the alter and use the symbols taken to stroke a new flame into power. When you have done this, I shall return to instruct you further.’ Jon’s memory supplied for the thirtieth time. He had gathered the deadwood of the Old Gods, never taking that which the Weirwood had not already discarded. After two nights, he was sure he had enough for the inner part of the Sept near the simple stone alter the Septa used for services.

The hardest part had been making sure the aforementioned woman was not inside when he needed to array the gathered materials around the central alter. But luck was with him this night as Septa Mordane left the house of worship to find her way into Winterfell. Jon didn’t know why and so didn’t know how long it would be until she attempted to return. He hurried through the silent halls as the full moon’s light illuminated patches of the stone on the corridors as he hurried to his little sister.

As he had made his way to Arya’s chamber, he couldn’t help questioning whether this was the right thing to do. But every time he passed another torch that spoke whispers with every flicker, his resolve was renewed. He heard what he heard. And he would accept the consequences of his actions so long as there was even a small chance that he could help his favorite sibling.

Jon snuck into her room and saw her for the first time since she had taken ill. He knew she and Sansa normally shared a set of rooms. Looking at the emaciated, feverish form that occupied the bed, Jon honestly couldn’t blame his father and step-mother for wanting to keep Sansa from having to watch Arya become this night after night with no reprieve.

As it was, Jon could barely stand to look at the young girl this way. She was normally so full of life, so curious and active that to see her like this…it seemed like sacrilege against all that Arya was. As he approached the bed, he instinctively smoothed her sweat-soaked and lank hair so that it wasn’t in the way of her eyes. They cracked open, but they weren’t looking at him. They appeared to be looking beyond Jon like they couldn’t even see he was there.

“Mother? “ She whispered through cracked lips, her grey eyes dull and barely able to stay open as she appeared ready to drift back to fitful sleep.

Jon picked her up in his arms and hurried down to the Sept, praying that the voice wasn’t his fear and grief playing his wits for a fool. He was careful not to jostle her any more than necessary, even in his haste to attempt his insane mystical cure. As he had brought her into the Sept, he dropped a heavy bar across the door before placing her on the stone alter. The moonlight that shone through the universal symbol of the Seven cast one of the most colorful shadows he had ever seen on her slight body.

But Jon was not here to admire the house of worship.

He needed to hurry if this was going to have any chance at succeeding. He pushed a pew in front of the door, grunting and straining as he did. It was a heavy thing, carved from a solid piece of oak. But he had come too far to be interrupted now. The deadwood and carvings of the seven figures surrounding the alter made him morbidly think of funeral pyres. But if this worked, it would instead be a flame of rebirth.

He lit the fire, leaping back in surprise when it roared to life and quickly sought to engulf all that stood in its way whether flammable or not. The voice called to him from inside the fire.

“Hurry child! To her side now! If she is to be saved, the healing cleanse must be directed before it consumes her entirely!”

Jon hurried into the fire, not heeding the clothes he wore that lit up when exposed to the burning element. He reached Arya’s side, and instinctively placed his ear to her chest while trying to cover as much of her as he could with his arms.

He was shocked to find that Arya was sweating, but not from any of the heat. It appeared her body was struggling to eject something from itself, her muscles twitching and her voice a mere sighing wind even as it seemed she wished to be louder in expressing her displeasure. Jon desperately tried to think of what to do but couldn’t, his panic at her rapidly deteriorating condition and instinctive fear of the fire making his thoughts cloudy and race too fast to keep track of them all.

“Do you trust us to help you?!” The voice called, sounding eerily like Eddard Stark.

Jon could only nod rapidly, eyes darting everywhere as he frantically tried to figure out what it was that he was expected to do. He felt the heat on his bare skin, saw the tongues of fire lick his body. And yet he felt nothing but his own rising panic.

Abruptly his body stilled and his heart-rate calmed. His own mouth opened without his permission to speak words not his own.

“Watch and see.” His own voice instructed as his body gripped the sides of Arya’s head. He could see there was some kind of heat being channeled through Arya’s body. He peripherally noticed a crow had been ousted from its nest in the rafters but could not seem to escape the building inferno. As the fire spread further, it began climbing the supports and the walls whether wood or stone.

Jon felt he was justified in feeling afraid at this moment.

He opened his mouth, drawing a deep inhale of burning air as his splayed hands pressed more forcefully into Arya’s temples. He could feel sweat beading at his brow from the effort of whatever the voice was doing, but he couldn’t tell what precisely it was.

Without any warning, Arya’s mouth wrenched open in time with the trapped bird letting out one last tremendous screech. There was silence from the bird but a growing scream from Arya as her body thrashed and moved beneath his leaning torso.

Jon was very frightened now. It was like a demon was being exorcised from his little sister. But what exactly was performing the exorcism?

Smoke erupted from her mouth as her body visibly grew more and more healthy. Jon felt the smoke enter his own mouth before tunneling forcefully into what felt like the center of his body or perhaps the deepest pits of his soul.

He cried out, hands holding his abdomen as it fluctuated wildly, the burning inside him making the growing fire outside feel as nothing. Arya was up and yelling something at him, trying to quickly make her way past the fires.

He shouted as a violent energy pulsed through his body, blowing the windows of the Sept out and blowing apart the wooden door he had previously barred shut. He whirled to Arya of his own accord, the presence now gone as the pain inside grew and grew in proportion.

“Go now!!” He raggedly screamed, bile ejected from his mouth a moment later as he fell to his knees. He was sweating profusely as the last remnants of his clothing burned to nothing and the energy inside him conflicted what felt like his very being. Cracks were forming in the walls and the beams were already starting to groan under the previously supportable roof.

“GOOOOOO!!!” He shouted one last time as another pulse of energy forced its way through his body, knocking Arya back several feet toward the door even as she tried to get him to move. She tried to yell something back to him as she bolted for the open door.

Jon looked up just in time to see the support beam nearby him break and the stone begin to cascade downward. He saw Arya get through the doorway. The rubble crushed him, he could feel it weighing down every part of his naked body.

But he had to escape not the weight, but the unbearable burning. He dug upward and out trying desperately to escape the smoky fire inside him by perhaps reaching the cold chill of Winterfell’s perpetually frosty air. Sooner than he expected, he managed to burst through the ruins of the Sept, stumbling blindly out and toward someone anyone who could help.

As he managed to make a faltering effort at walking somewhere away from the burned husk of a building, his strength abruptly deserted him and the burning with it. With neither pain nor relief left to offer him, his body chose to fall unconscious so that he might better recover.

As he briefly came to rest on his knees before falling face forward, he noticed Arya watching him unerringly, no sign of her sickness in any part of her demeanor or appearance.

Before he was dead to the world, Jon Snow had one last thought cross his mind.

‘I don't know what you did. But whoever you are…thank you.’

Chapter Text

It had been weeks since the Stark’s second daughter had been taken ill. And still there was nothing to be done for boyish little Arya Underfoot.

Mikhal Luwin (better known to the children as Maester Luwin) knew that the Lady Catelyn had implored each of the seven gods for help, even praying before the shrine of the Stranger that it was not her daughter’s time yet, that she was too young for the gods to require her life to end. Just as he also knew that Lord Eddard had spent more and more time in the Godswood seeking the guidance of the Old Gods who remained as silent as the Seven on the matter.

Mikhal could offer no comfort of faith to bolster their spirits. All he could do was what he had been doing: treat the spirited young girl with herbal concoctions and in the meantime send the ravens to consult with the citadel back in Oldtown.

But to his sorrow, it was all to no avail. The last few days he had been reduced to simply easing her pain where he could. As he made his way into her room, the first thing he noticed was the silence in the room. Normally the girl would twitch as though she longed to thrash and sigh as though she longed to moan. The pain and fever robbing her of even the strength to make the full extent of her pain known.

As he drew to her bed, he saw she was gone, the covers drawn back as if she had awoken to sneak down to the kitchen with Jon Snow yet again.

He looked around frantically, trying to see if perhaps she had fallen off the bed and he merely hadn’t seen her with no luck in his search.

He hurried out of her sickroom and made his way to the Lord and Lady’s chambers, heedless of the clanking his extensive chain made or the jingling of the materials he stored in his robe sleeves for just about any possible occasion. Without any consideration for their state of decency, he banged on the wooden entrance to their bedroom. Impatient to begin the search, he decided to enter before they could respond.

“My lord, my lady! Young Arya is gone from her bed!” He exclaimed, opening the door without waiting for a response.

“What?!” They exclaimed in unison. He could see Lord Eddard’s eyes tighten, another wrinkle being added to many that lined the face of a man old before his time. Lady Catelyn’s fiery red hair was disheveled, her blue eyes red from tears she had doubtlessly been shedding in private before he came bearing more bad news.

“I came to check upon her this evening and she was gone.” Maester Luwin told them, his fingers nervously gripping and releasing the edges of his robe’s sleeves in an unconscious gesture of worry.

As Lord Stark opened his mouth to speak, one of his men ran into the balding Maester from behind. He had evidently been in such a hurry that he’d not noticed him standing there until it was almost too late.

“Fire!” the guard gasped, taking great gulps of air to offset his frantic run to the Lord of Winterfell’s chambers. “Fire in the Sept m’lord!”

“Go, help the others put the flames out!” Ned exclaimed angrily, waving a hand to indicate his impatience with the new recruit still being there after having gotten the message to them. "Why are you here instead of there?!"

The man kept catching his breath. “The men,” He continued while trying to get more news to them. “They think your bastard’s inside sir!"

Eddard’s face turned pale before he quickly moved to dress himself, Catelyn not a moment behind. Maester Luwin quickly moved toward the courtyard, the much younger guard and somewhat younger Lord and Lady of Winterfell overtaking him in their haste. The four had only made it to the area across the courtyard from the Sept when the heat washed over them like a rolling wave. The guards already present could barely stand approaching to throw water on the fire, some of them visibly overheating in their lightest leather and furred armor. Even so, Mikhal attempted to brave the discomfiting heat of the flames to draw closer. From inside he thought he could hear what sounded like a crow frantically cawing.

Before anyone could react, the flames flared still higher, the following shock of increased heat causing many of the surrounding crowd to lose their footing; Catelyn Stark herself among them.

And then they all heard a girl screaming. Mikhal’s heart stopped beating for a moment. What was going on here? Jon was in the Sept, the Sept was burning and a young girl’s voice was yelling inside the fire. Simple logic would say that the unspeakable was happening. It would say that he was killing the youngest female Stark.

Lady Catelyn had evidently had the same thought as he. Heedless of the fire, she tried to rush toward the Sept.

“Arya!!” Her voice cried frantically, knowing her child’s voice as only a loving parent could. “Arya!!” She repeated before being restrained by a set of strong arms around her middle. She struggled against the arms, clawing and swiping at the person pulling her away from her daughter’s voice even as Lord Stark appeared ready to throw up at the implications of Arya’s young voice calling from inside the fire.

“Cat, you must stop!” He yelled, grip tightening despite her efforts.

“Your bastard is killing her Ned! Stop him! Stop him!” He heard her cry desperately, her tears drying on her face from the heat. Mikhal didn’t want to believe it. He had grown to love all the Stark children as a surrogate uncle, though he could never say as much to them without their getting into even more mischief than they already did. He would never have believed Jon capable of harming a hair on Arya’s head, let alone condemning her to a particularly cruel and painful death that was entirely too similar to her grandfathers for anyone’s comfort.

Before he could think more on this line of thought, something inside the Sept exploded with such force the doors blew open on their own; throwing splinters and sparks chaotically into the air.

As Mikhal’s eyes readjusted to the open flames, he saw something that could not possibly be happening. He saw Arya Stark sprinting out of the Sept in her somewhat burned sleeping gown. She was yelling something at them all before zeroing in on her mother and father. She ran faster than the guards who attempted to catch her and get her to safety, faster than the people who surrounded them in the crowd, faster even than Luwin would have thought possible for Arya even before she had contracted her illness. She was babbling something even as Lady Catelyn pulled her to her to hold on to her in gratitude and relief. Mikhal looked back toward the flames, calling to the nearby guards to keep working to put the fire out.

But his voice was still the third loudest behind the patriarch of the Starks and his youngest girl as Arya continued struggling and shouting. When Luwin finally listened to what she was saying, he was scared for Jon Snow’s safety.

Lady Catelyn and Lord Eddard’s faces held a combination of mounting horror and concern as their eyes turned to look to the burning building of the Lady of Winterfell's southern faith while her daughter was screaming: “Help him help him someone help Jon help Jon please!!” in multiple variations over and over while visibly struggling to get back to her bastard sibling.

Her beseeching grey eyes alighted on Lord Eddard, frantically pleading with him.

“Father please! Jon’s inside, he needs us he needs us now!! Help him please!” She babbled, trying to escape the safety of Lady Catelyn’s arms for the danger of the flames Jon Snow had likely been consumed by now. Luwin knew it was possible that he had survived the blaze. But then why hadn’t he emerged if that was the case?

There was a great groaning crack from inside the Sept. Before anyone could react, the roof and the walls began to cave in, the building falling inward on itself in what had seemed minutes but was truly only moments since Arya had left the building sized pyre.

“NOOOOOOOO! JON!” Arya shrieked, kicking her mother and successfully getting her to let go. Before Lady Catelyn could make a move to stop her, Lord Stark had gotten to the young girl and pulled her back even as she fought like a wild animal to try and reach the now surely dead base-born boy.

Before the gathered crowd’s disbelieving eyes, the entire Sept finished collapsing into a burning pile of rubble. One last anguished howl arose from the building before the debris appeared to snuff out the last of the open flames. Then all was silent but for young Arya’s sobbing. Mikhal was simply too shocked by all that happened in these rapid moments to take it all in.

As some guards stiffly began moving toward the remains of the Sept, there was a shifting in the stone before a figure emerged from the rubble, smog erupting from underneath the opening in the cooling debris to obscure them. The soliders backed off in alarm, some instinctively leveling their weapons at it as it shuffled out of the broken stone and suffocating smoke like a child first learning to walk.

It determinedly made its way toward them, its destination unclear. Arya had ceased crying and had an unwavering stare fixed upon the figure, her wet eyes looking as though all her hope in the world rested upon it. And when the figure’s identity was revealed in open air, there were was only shocked silence to greet it.

It was Jon Snow. His clothing was entirely gone, his pale skin soot stained and visibly smoking. But in the midst of it all, he impossibly appeared to be stronger, more vital than he had been.

As his vision line came to rest on Arya, the boy's stormy grey eyes lit up with such relieved happiness Mikhal couldn’t help but feel his own lips curl involuntarily in a more subdued smile. But then the young man abruptly collapsed to his knees, the energy seemingly gone from his body before falling face-first to the ground so bonelessly that Winterfell’s resident Maester couldn’t help but think he had died before their eyes.

For a moment there was silence. And then, there was pandemonium. There was movement and shouting in the yard as the people around them solider and worker alike all calmoured to make their voices heard, their questions and their statements an indistinguishable but almost deafening din in contrast to the usual silence of the northern nights. Arya at last managed to escape Lord Stark’s arms and had reached Jon’s side in scarcely the blink of an eye: shaking him vigorously to try and wake him up and calling for someone to help her, her posture tense as a drawn bowstring. Luwin made his way to Jon’s other side before checking the side of his neck for that steady pulsing vein that meant his heart still pumped blood through his prone body.

He grabbed Arya’s shaking hand and smiled as reassuringly as he could at her.

“He’s alright child.” Mikhal said. “Only sleeping for now.” He said, mostly to quell her expression of fear but also to calm his own racing thoughts. Now that he could think on what had happened in the Sept, he could think of nothing like it he had ever seen or heard of before. And it left only more questions rather than answers in its wake. He stood, looking to Lord Eddard who was taking command nearby: ordering everyone to disperse and for some of his men to help Luwin get Jon into the castle while Lady Catelyn slowly made her way over to the two Stark children he was kneeling by.

“Come along Arya.” She asked quietly, the minute trembling in her hands Mikhal noticed gone by the time they touched her second daughter’s shoulders.

“But I need to stay with Jon!” The willful girl exclaimed, her eyes never wavering from Jon Snow’s unconscious face even as the guards managed to get him onto a board to carry him to Luwin’s chambers. “He healed me, I have to stay with him until he wakes up!” she continued, rising from her kneeling position to follow her bastard sibling’s carried body.

“What you need to do is rest young lady.” Mikhal said sternly, right hand alighting on her left shoulder as she attempted to brush past him. “We don’t know how or why you’ve recovered, but-”

She spoke up before he could finish. “I’m telling you it was Jon! In the fire, he breathed and he pulled smoke out of me! And when it was gone I was better and he was hurt!” Her unshed tears betrayed that the irritation in her tone was worry about her favorite sibling’s condition being a result of helping her to his old but sharp brown eyes.

“Which means that until we are certain he will be alright, we should make certain that his efforts are not undone simply because his patient is too stubborn to let his work settle, shouldn’t we?” He asked in return. The girl began to worry her lip, obviously thinking about what he had asked of her.

“For now, we need to see what might be wrong with Jon. And until we know that, it is safer for everyone if he is kept where he can be undisturbed. Much like you were.” Mikhal continued. She still looked ready to attempt breaking away from his hand on her shoulder to follow him.

He went down on his knees so that he was eye level with her, though it somewhat pained him to do so twice in so short a time period with how hard the ground of Winterfell could be. “I promise you Arya:” he said. “That as soon as Jon is well enough to have visitors, you will be the first I tell.”

Her grey eyes, so much like Lord Eddard’s, gazed into his for a long moment. Her gaze dropped to the ground in reluctant acquiescence.

“As you say Maester Luwin.” She whispered stiffly. As Mikhal rose again and Lady Catelyn took his place while placing her arms around her healthy young girl, he knew that this wasn’t over. But it was the best he knew he would get from her for now. As he hurried to his chambers at a slightly faster walking pace than he was used to, his mind wandered back to the questions that had started arising at the scene of the burning Sept.

How had Jon managed to create a fire so intense that it could collapse the building within the course of a night? Yes, it was possible for him to take a torch to every wooden support in the place, but even if he had, unless the fires had already been burning for hours already through part of a day, it would’ve taken a fairly long time to eat through enough of them to cause the thing to collapse. And for that matter, what material had he been using that could’ve possibly set the stone alight as well? The only materials he knew of that could burn solid stone so badly was pitch, wildfire and dragonfire. But there was no evidence of pitch being used, it was far too controlled to be wildfire and well, unless Jon had managed to smuggle a dragon egg into the Sept and then hidden the resulting live dragon somewhere in his posterior, Mikhal very much doubted that it was the third option. And why was Arya convinced that Jon had healed her by bringing her into the fire? If anything, the smoke from the burning wood and the heat combining with the flames alighting the clothes on her skin should’ve harmed her even worse than she was, even outright killed her from her limited capacity to breathe.

But instead, she was here: swifter than the wind and looking as though she had never been sickened in her life, let alone days away from knocking upon the door of the Stranger. The teachings of the Citadel in Oldtown had prepared him for many things in the forging of his chain, but this…this made him feel as though he was that same awestruck boy leaving the Riverlands behind for using his mind in loyal service to Westeros all over again.

As he reached his chambers, he cautiously opened the door. He felt unsure whether or not Jon would answer any of the questions he asked the boy. Perhaps he should request Lord Eddard speak to the young man first, see if he could coax any answers out of him first so that Mikhal might have a basic idea of what Jon claimed had happened to work with. He found his medicines within moments, all the while pondering what Jon could have possibly done in there. As he entered the room, he was struck by the sudden heat in the air. Winterfell was normally a temperate castle despite the consistently cold weather due to its construction above a heated underground spring. But the inside of his chamber was almost as humid as the glasshouse where the plants were tended by the servants.

As he continued to Jon’s side, he noticed that the room’s temperature was hotter the closer he got to the boy’s bedside. But he would do his duty and discover the truth. He turned the bastard Stark’s head left and right, checking his unconscious physical responses. He opened his left eye to see how his pupils reacted to light. He was startled to find that Jon’s pupils had now completely encompassed his normally grey irises so that it seemed his eyes were pitch black. The boy’s lips were moving as if he were speaking to someone, only the faintest whispers of sound emerging.

Maester Luwin felt a shiver at the possibility of Jon being trapped within the confines of his own mind. A physical ailment was one thing. But an ailment of the mind…That was a beast of an entirely different nature. Setting his materials down beside him on the table, he squared his shoulders and resolved to have news for the Lord and Lady of Winterfell before morning’s dawn.

‘Perhaps by then I shall have a better idea of Jon’s ailment.’ He had thought with cautious optimism. By the morning’s light he had no news for Lord and Lady Stark. As well as even lesser certainty about what could be wrong with the boy than he’d had the night before.

For the first time in a long while, Mikhal Luwin knew he was facing something that was not entirely known. Something that was not entirely natural. Something other Maesters had been stripped of their office and their chains for attempting to study.

For the first time in a long while, Mikhal Luwin felt cold fear in the pit of his stomach.

Chapter Text

The first sense Jon regained was his sight. It did him no good however. The pitch black he awoke to was absolute. His eyes couldn’t decide whether he was in a place so deep that no light could reach it or if he had just completely lost the use of his eyes after using what remained of his drained strength to escape the collapsed Sept. As his mind slowly shifted from insentience to awareness, his other senses cataloged what sensations they could. His skin told him that he was naked as the day he had been born, his back resting upon a smooth surface that was unlike stone or steel or soil or any solid material he had ever felt. His ears told him that the only disturbance in the still air came from the shifting of his body into an upright position.

As he braced his hands against the ground and bent his knees to push himself upright, Jon’s ears picked up on something else. Faint murmurs. Countless whispers that came from everywhere around him. And yet, there was nothing moving. Not even the smallest shifting of the wind to indicate anyone was even alive in this empty place, let alone speaking.

Being effectively trapped and blind, Jon wasn’t sure what he should do. He cautiously stood up; the thundering of his heartbeat behind his ribs almost threatening to drown out the whispers that came from every direction and no direction at once.

On instinct, his right hand pressed to his chest to try and calm the racing organ. Without warning, a light began to shine under his hand where it touched his chest. Jon had only a second to look at his hand in astonishment before someone spoke as though directly in front of him.

“Very good young one.” It said: its voice sounding like a highborn-woman of Lady Catelyn’s age.

Startled by the sudden intrusion, Jon’s hand dropped as he quickly moved backward. He looked everywhere he could think. His right side. Left side. Even up where he assumed some sort of sky must be. Still the impenetrable darkness shrouded his eyes. Jon looked to where his hand told him it was. He slowly flexed the fingers, clenching them into a fist before relaxing them into an open palm. Slowly his hand came back into contact with his chest above his beating heart.

The light shone again and the voice returned.

“Are you prepared to listen now?” The voice asked, its tone speaking of amusement at his startled reaction.

Jon knew there was no mistaking it now. This was the presence in the flames. The other voices speaking in concert just below the surface of it, the shifting quality and echo of it even as it attempted to steady itself. This was the one that had told him how to save Arya.

And the voice was coming from the light in his chest.

“That would depend on what you wish to say.” John answered, heartbeat slowing as he remembered what the voice had done to help him with the ritual that had tired him so much prior to waking up in this place.

“You have done what was asked of you.” The woman’s voice said. “Now, you face three trials. A trial of the mind. A trial of the heart. And a trial of the soul.” There was a pause before she continued. Her words carried a tone of warning and sadness, much as Jon imagined a parent sending their child off to battle yet unsure if they would return unharmed might.

“Be wary young one. This realm is shaped by forces both external and internal. If you pass the tests, your spirit and your power will be stronger for it. But if you fail like so many others before you, you will die.”

Jon felt a chill in his heart despite the light emanating from it beneath his hand. He was in a realm distinctly not mortal. With strange powers he hadn’t truly acknowledged until three days ago let alone accepted. While being told by an unseeable unknowable voice that unless he passed unknown tests he had been thrust into without any warning at all that he would die.

‘Yes, I think these odds certainly qualify as bad ones.’ He thought as he tried to get his rising sense of helplessness under control.

“Remember this: the tests are of your own devising.” The voice continued. “Use that as you may. And good luck.” It concluded as its voice began to fade out.

Jon called aloud: “Wait! How do I find my way?!” If he was going to be facing death, he at least wanted to be able to see it coming.

An old crone’s cackling answered him. “How do you use a burning torch to light a darkened one?” was the only response he received before the presence was gone.

Jon called for minutes on end, his glowing hand remaining over his heart in a stubborn attempt to contact the being that had left him stranded. But after so much futile effort, he had to conclude that he was on his own.

So he paced, hand remaining over his heart as the faint rays of light that shone past his fingers served to very faintly outline a foggy ground that for all appearances seemed to be smoke made solid. As he glanced at where he was walking, Jon pondered the voice’s question.

‘Use a burning torch to light a darkened one? That’s simple: all you have to do is hold the fire to the other torch and it…will…catch.’

Jon stopped where he stood. Somehow, he had to transfer the fire beneath his chest into his hand. A simple solution complicated by his being entirely how to go about doing so. He tried to move his hand around his chest to catch his hand. He tried to push his hand into his chest only to feel pressure on his ribs instead of light filling his grip. So then he decided to try thinking of it. He pictured the fire underneath his fingers. He pictured its crackling warmth. He pictured the pretty oranges and yellow lights that caused shadows to dance upon the walls. His hand felt warmer, but the light faded as soon as he tried to take his hand off his chest.

The appendage was warmed as though he had thawed it after a day of snowball fighting with Robb in the courtyard, but that was hardly going to help him to see. Jon tried again, this time dredging up every memory of fire that he could. The chamber maids stoking the coals in the dying embers. The flickers of ash and spark that leapt for a brief moment into the air before snuffing out mid-flight. The smell of cooking and burned meat. The painful feeling of holding his hands too close to the fire. Of falling asleep in front of the fire and waking when his skin felt like it was slowly blistering under the heat. Everything he could think of, he did as he placed his hand back on his chest.

Without warning, there was a flare on the back of his hand. As Jon’s left hand instinctively raised to shield his eyes, he paused. Slowly, he lowered the unencumbered appendage. There before his disbelieving eyes was his hand. But where once the light had shone underneath his chest, now it was an open crackling flame on the back of his hand. He the aflame right hand away from his naked chest.

As it was allowed space, the flame seemed devour the surrounding still air to grow until it encompassed his entire hand. Jon watched it awestruck as he experimentally flexed his fingers, watching the shimmers of heat and tongues of flame as they shifted and moved with his every twitch.

Despite being naked and unarmed, Jon felt warmer. He had this fire that came from within him. And come what may, he would face it with the clarity of light. He looked down at his feet, noticing that there was a path of deep red underneath him. Jon looked into the distance, his hand thrust out in front of him to illuminate his way. Wherever the light of the flame touched, Jon could see the path lit up.

‘Every journey begins with a single step. Jon recalled Maester Luwin telling him once. Now that he had found the path, it was up to him to follow it. Jon took a deep breath and started walking.

The further he walked, the earthier and more familiar the ground became. As Jon continued, he looked around, seeing that as he moved, it was like he was walking through an underground passageway now, the darkness visibly constricting around him. But still he walked on, the path clear in the light he cast if he would but follow it. Soon his hand touched upon a wooden door. With nary a moment’s hesitation Jon pushed it open and discovered that he had entered the training area of Winterfell’s courtyard. He spun around in place, seeing that the great keep appeared to be deserted. He looked down at himself, noticing that he was now in his leather training clothes, a wooden sword at his hip.

“Something catch your attention brother?” Robb’s voice inquired behind him.

Jon spun around in surprise. There before him was Robb. But it was not the Robb he remembered. This one was older. He was taller and more solid, his clothes that of a high lord, his red hair and full beard contrasting the streaks of grey that had begun lining them. This was not Robb the heir. This was Robb the lord. Just as Jon had always imagined him.

“Robb? What-” Jon began to ask before he noticed Robb had both hands atop the pommel of Ice, the Stark family's ancestral Valeryian longsword, which was stuck in the ground tip first in front of him.

“As I seem to recall, it was your challenge to me for the right of Lordship that brought us to this impasse.” His brother said, warmth in his tone but a great resignation in his eyes.

“Challenge of what?!” Jon exclaimed in shock. All his life it had been made abundantly clear to him that Robb was the rightful heir to Winterfell. That as Lord Stark’s eldest trueborn son, the inheritance of the title automatically flowed to him by the laws of gods and men alike. Why should he have challenged that?

“I wish I could convince you to give up this selfish quest Jon. But I cannot abide the possibility of a usurper. You understand I hope.” Robb continued, hands now gripping the hilt as he inexorably drew Ice out of the frost covered ground. Winterfell was silent as a grave but for Jon’s heavy breathing and the sound of Robb’s first cautious but sure steps toward his half-brother.

Jon couldn’t believe this was happening. He couldn’t fight his brother, he couldn’t! He hadn’t wanted the title of Lord of Winterfell. Why was this to be his test?

‘Liar.’ His traitorous mind whispered, remembering their childish game of titles and swordplay. Remembering when he tried to claim Lord of Winterfell. Rembering Robb bluntly telling him he wasn’t allowed to because he was a bastard.

Jon didn’t have time to get lost in his memories however. He obeyed the combat instincts screaming at him as he desperately rolled to the right as Robb’s overhead cleave with the valeryian steel blade impacted the ground he had been standing not a moment before with enough force to leave a gouge in it.

‘How did he get so fast?!’ Jon thought incredulously, leaping backward as his brother followed up with a thrust. He was already panting hard, feeling hyper-aware that he only had his leather practice clothes while Robb had what appeared to be partial plate underneath his furred cape as well as chain mail adorning him.

But he already knew why Robb was still faster despite the handicap of better armor. Robb was bigger. Robb was older. Robb had a longer reach. And Robb was showing absolutely no hesitation even as his mouth spoke the words: “For what it’s worth, I will always love you brother.” It was a hollow comfort.

Jon kept back-peddling, rolling, spinning. Anything to keep his momentum and prevent Robb from hitting him with the sword. He had seen Ice behead a man many a time before. He doubted his few layers of boiled leather and cloth padding would stand in the way of that if he stood still for too long.

The first shock of the fight came when Jon decided that he may as well use the wooden sword for however long it may last. As he drew it from the scabbard, he remembered his burning hand and wished with all his heart he could use his power now. The sword lit up as though it had been soaked in oil. Robb stopped briefly, hesitation making him instinctively look at the bright light that had flared so suddenly near Jon.

Jon quickly capitalized on his brother’s distraction, the flames leaving a brief glowing trail in the air as he swung it toward Robb’s left leg. Robb used Ice to parry the sword by bringing it down to the ground, the tip hitting the dirt before it reached the Lord of Winterfell. But where the blade touched the ground a fire flared up. Not strong nor bright but constant.

Robb made Ice slide up along the back part of Jon’s lit practice sword to try and strike him. With reflexes he didn’t remember having before, Jon leaned forward while keeping the flaming sword on Ice, his body corkscrewing so that he controlled the longsword’s ascent to pass in an arc over him and to hit the ground on the other side while his fiery blade left more blazes on the ground where it touched. As Jon closed in, he angled his right side to shoulder check Robb and deliver a violent shove back. As soon as he felt his brother’s body react to his unorthodox tactic, Jon swiped his blade through the ground at their feet, leaving a blazing trail connecting the two points of fire between them.
Robb regained his footing as he moved backward, swinging defensively at Jon. Jon moved back as well, burning sword at the ready in front of him. He and Robb eyed each other as the flames merrily danced on the ground and on the wooden practice sword, oblivious to the struggle taking place in this empty mockery of Winterfell.

“Just tell me why Jon?” Robb called as they circled each other, the flames between them both as the ground crunched beneath their boots. Their breaths puffed in the air as Robb asked again: “Why do you so want to claim the Lordship of Winterfell? Why do you desire it so?”

"Because I am not just a bastard!" He called back in answer, allowing himself to answer this imaginary Robb in a way he had always wanted. Some long repressed anger seeped into his voice as he continued. "I am as much worthy of being father's legacy as you! I am his blood too! Simply because I was not born to Lady Catelyn does not merit me being branded as his shame instead of his son!!" He shouted even as his eyes were taking in a curious sight. As they had circled each other across the flames, occasionally Jon would feint forward in different directions to try and create an opening in Robb’s guard. Robb meanwhile would feint forward to the left or the right, but never straight. Not when the flames where in front of him.

"Do you truly think that matters to the world? To anyone who does not know you?" Robb softly reproached even as they continued prowl.

Jon's heart hurt at the question. He remained silent, instead deciding he needed to test his theory’s validity as to Robb's avoidance of the flames. As Robb feinted to go to the left around the flames, Jon recklessly dove straight through them: his sword swinging at Robb’s head. Startled, his red-headed brother brought Ice up to parry. But this was merely a distraction, for as soon as the wooden sword touched the edge of Ice, Jon had brought it straight down before using it to draw a semi-circle in front of Robb’s feet.

Robb jumped back as though he had been scalded. But still, the ancestral Stark sword flashed toward Jon’s head. In less than a moment Jon had taken three steps back, his eyes on Robb. Suddenly Robb moved around the flames, coming in for a wide swing. Jon back pedaled in an adrenaline fueled haze, his left hand pulling him back toward a weapon rack that was nearby them. As he spun away from Robb’s downward slash, he noticed something else.

Despite the force behind Robb’s blow, his sword stopped inches from the weapon rack as though an invisible force prevented him from touching it. Astonished, Jon quickly pushed the rack toward his brother, who jumped away. As his brother moved around the fallen equipment, Jon stepped onto it, his fiery sword flashing toward Robb’s legs yet again.

His brother moved away, stopping as though hitting a solid wall when he almost touched a wooden post that supported the overhang and balcony above. Jon drove the sword tip forward at Robb’s midsection, thinking to end this in one blow.

Robb spun away as Jon’s blunted tip impossibly sunk into the support and set it ablaze in an instant. Jon was forced to let go of the wooden sword as Robb’s hands attempted to separate his hands from his body at the wrist. Even as his hands moved back, Robb had brought the pommel to bear and smashed it into Jon’s face before kicking him in his stomach so hard he flew backward two feet before landing on his back with a loud thud.

Jon let out a muffled cry into his hands as they covered his almost certainly broken nose. The pain was a sharp reminder of the voice’s warning about his danger. Jon scrambled backward as his aged up half-brother stalked toward him, his right hand blindly thrusting outward as his memories of the fire in the Sept rushed to the forefront. A gout of bright red flame erupted from Jon’s outstretched hand, scorching the ground in front of him in wide cone toward his attacker, who had swiftly moved back again.

Jon’s breath was ragged, his every intake and exhale bringing a fresh wave of pain from his ruined nose. The blood dripped steadily, forming a small red pool at his feet as he stood up. His mind was racing as he attempted to puzzle out how he could use Robb’s weaknesses to win.

‘He can’t pass through my flames. And he can’t harm Winterfell itself. I can understand my fire, but why can he not strike anything of Winterfell? Is he not the lord of it?’ Jon wondered as Robb edged his way around the flames. Unbidden, a memory of something their father had once said sprang to mind. ‘The man who forgets leadership is a burden as well as a privilege will find it melts away in his grasp like a snowflake in the palm of his hand.’

And then it occurred to Jon what that might mean. That Robb Stark was as much constrained by his title of Lord of Winterfell as he had been elevated by it. That Robb had been born into a cage that he had no hope of escaping. A comfortably lined cage no doubt, but a cage it was none the less. Jon Snow on the other hand, had been trained by expert warriors and educated by a dedicated scholar. From an objective standpoint, he had choices open to him that Robb would never know.

As Robb came around the fire and started to swing his sword down at Jon again, Jon remained standing where he was. From his position, he spoke.

“I don’t need to fight you Robb.” He said calmly, heart beating rapidly as the blade stopped inches from his dark hair.

Robb simply looked at him, frozen in that position he had been in when swinging the sword.

“I don’t need to fight you.” Jon repeated, amazed at the feeling of a weight lifting that accompanied his declaration.

“You may be the Lord of Winterfell, but you have no choice.” Jon continued, the words spilling from him without conscious thought. “I have learned to be a lord. Or a warrior. Or a scholar. No matter what I may become, it will only ever be my choice.”

He looked around this abandoned Winterfell one last time, seeing the hills and walls, his imagination supplying the view of a fire trapped within a pit, trapped and able to be extinguished with a single errant shovelful of dirt.

“I choose to be free.” Jon said as Robb lowered his blade, blade sinking into the ground as his hands rested on the pommel again and the fires and destruction began to reverse itself. “I choose to go where I wish, not where I am bidden.”

He smiled at Robb, his teeth bloodstained from his now clotted nose. “Goodbye brother.” He said, turning toward the gate of the keep. As he approached, it opened to reveal the night again. Jon brought the flame to mind again, his hand once more burning. Taking a single last breath, he stepped out of the familiar grounds and back into the shadows.

One down, two to go. He thought to himself as his nose gave a pained twinge.

Chapter Text

Catelyn Stark was in a position many of the Winterfell household would call unusual. She was at Jon Snow’s bedside, watching over him while Maester Luwin attempted to discover the cause of his current lack of consciousness.

But Catelyn felt that it was perfectly reasonable for her to be here. She may still be resentful of Eddard for bringing his bastard son back to Winterfell to be raised alongside his trueborn heirs, but she loved her husband. Even in spite of her continued resentment at his decision and his constant refusal to ever explain his reasoning, she loved him. And just as she managed to both hate and love her lord husband, so was Catelyn able to both hate and pity Jon Snow.

She knew in her heart that he had done nothing to foster her resentment of him save to exist. And she knew he was not the one truly deserving of her dark feelings, but a product of those who were. It was why she had been by his side when he had taken ill as a babe: because despite everything her jealous heart and her upraising as a proper lady told her, she knew it was not right to feel such poisonous vitriol toward the one person in the whole affair who was entirely innocent of any wrongdoing.

And after he had done something beyond Maester Luwin, Septa Mordane or even Eddard Stark’s understanding of what was possible to heal her little Arya, Catelyn could easily acknowledge she owed him this much. Family. Duty. Honor. Those were the words of Riverland’s ruling family the Tullys. Her house before she had come north to marry the middle Stark brother who had never thought to be Lord of Winterfell, let alone lead a rebellion against the Iron Throne. While Jon’s actions had clearly called upon unknown powers whose intentions they could not be sure of, it had also lead directly resolved the question of Arya’s sickness positively when neither medicine nor prayer had managed to. That was worth consideration no matter who or what you were to her mind.

So she would stand vigil by his bedside as she had when he was still a baby. Provide a washcloth for his burning brow, shift and tend him as the Maester instructed and hold his hand even as she winced from the physical discomfort of his heated palm on her own feeling as though it was burning her if she held it too long and the humid air of the chamber felt like it was trying to suffocate them both with its oppressive weight.

All of her children were made aware of what had happened to Jon by the morning after the fire and acted as if he would ultimately be alright. Robb, Bran and even young Rickon had requested that she tell Jon’s unresponsive form about their training and the boyish adventures he had missed during the days to follow. She complied every time, unable to bear refusing the fragile hope on their faces when the boys had asked her so earnestly. Sansa had offered more than once to help Catelyn care for Jon whether by application of medicine or prayer. (Though considering the number of candles Septa Mordane told her the eldest girl had borrowed thus far, it seemed Sansa was fulfilling the prayer part of it just fine without Catelyn’s prompting.) And it had been a constant challenge just to get Arya to attempt her lessons ever since the fire in the Sept. If not otherwise prodded, she would spend most of her waking moments trying to sneak into the sickroom adjacent to Maester Luwin’s chambers where the boy was being kept to be at her bastard sibling’s bedside.

Catelyn was not inclined to allow her to do so in the face of the circumstances. Not because she didn’t think that Arya would catch anything from the boy she was so (inexplicably) close to. But more because despite their calmness in front of the children and the servants, no one aware of Jon Snow’s true condition had the first idea what could possibly be going on within the boy’s body or mind. As recently as two days ago for instance, she and Maester Luwin noticed that Jon Snow had somehow managed to break his own nose sometime in the night despite not appearing to move more than the occasional twitch or the barest movement of his lips. Catelyn may not have understood the unusually close relationship shared between her youngest daughter and her husband’s bastard son, but she knew it would do neither of them any good to let her see him like this. She had instead been gently prodding her willful Arya into going about her lessons by telling her she needed to do them. That way when Jon awoke she would be able to tell him the things she had done with Sansa and the Septa. Arya had sullenly answered each time that nothing the Septa ever taught merited sharing with Jon. But she always reluctantly complied for a few days when Catelyn suggested it.

Her lord husband, in between running Winterfell and telling any bannermen who might inquire that they were dealing with the aftermath of a fire in the Sept while treating some injuries that had resulted, had meanwhile taken to observing Jon Snow from the doorway of the room where his unconscious body was kept. He never seemed to sweat despite the heavy heat in the room, his eyes always seeming so far away when he did. His gaze told her that he wasn’t simply seeing Jon lying there, but answers and questions he had not even realized existed until that moment.

Catelyn had observed he also spent far more time in the godswood than usual these days. Though to what purpose she and Maester Luwin could never quite fathom.

But that was how things had been moving around the castle walls of this frozen part of the world while Jon Snow appeared almost literally frozen in time, his body barely responsive while his normally grey eyes were now severely bloodshot and consumed entirely by his irises. More than once Catelyn wondered if she should fashion yet another prayer wheel as she had when he had been ill or should she retrieve the one she had made back then?

She shook her head softly, jolting out of her reverie as the door began to softly swing open. Today was the day he needed to be washed. Since Sansa had recently asked again about how to help her half-brother, Catelyn had decided she should be allowed to do so. She had sent a servant girl to fetch her red-haired daughter so that she might join her mother in caring for her illegitimate sibling. While it would certainly serve as a valuable first experience for Sansa creating for a sick man, Catelyn had also thought in the back of her mind that perhaps if the New Gods looked upon this as a sign of Catelyn seeking to build better ties between her husband’s baseborn and trueborn children they would lend him what aid they could spare.

‘Heaven knows I may not deserve to be heard by them,’ She thought as her lovely fire-headed girl entered the chamber, her blue eyes unsure as she took in Jon’s still form and sweat already beading at her hairline as the humid air rushed to greet yet another victim. ‘But surely what he has done for my family is worth their consideration. And perhaps if they do not wish to hear my plea, they will hear Sansa’s.’

As she began to instruct her eldest girl on how they were going to be treating to Jon’s unconscious state, Catelyn could only hope that whatever was happening to him, that he would not suffer for doing the right thing by her family.

Sansa placed herself in a chair by Jon’s head while Catelyn’s was right in the middle of the bedside, Jon’s covered torso facing her as she was asked what it was she needed help with. It was a fairly simple process. The young bastard was currently wearing a long sleeping tunic that almost reached his knees, being slightly taller than most Starks were at this age. And while she would wash the boy’s legs and feet while working her way up to his hips, it would be Sansa’s duty to wash his brow, his neck, his arms and his chest before they met in the middle.

“Why can Jon not be moved to a tub mother?” Sansa asked, her sky-blue eyes speaking to her uncertainty as to what the purpose behind washing him by hand was. She appeared uncomfortable to have asked a question that implied her mother or Maester Luwin didn’t know what they were doing with her bastard half-brother. Catelyn smiled so as to reassure her she didn’t mind the question.

“Maester Luwin is not certain we could keep track of him in the tub. If we clean him by hand, there’s little possibility for a moment of inattention leading to his death by drowning.” She told her, left hand on her shoulder as she leaned in to kiss her daughter’s forehead. “But I am proud of your concern Sansa. The Seven smile on those who show such compassion to others.”

Sansa’s tentative and hopeful smile allowed her to express one of her own. “Now take the bowl of water and the cloth there.” She continued, pointing it out on the table nearby. “Once you have it, start with his face before moving to the neck.”

Sansa nodded, a determined set to her face now. Her delicate fingers wrung the cloth a bit before she brought it to bear on Jon Snow’s head, as lightly as the touch of a feather. Catelyn watched her for a pair of moments as she cleaned him before she lifted the covers to the end of the bed and brought Jon’s right leg up off the bed. As she washed the underside and top of his leg, her mind wandered.

Maester Luwin had informed her and Eddard that first morning that he had no idea what was wrong with the boy. Not as in he had no idea what the specific ailment was. More as in Jon Snow was perfectly healthy and yet his body was only barely subsisting itself, his mind seemingly gone but for the slightest registers of activity from twitching eyelids and responses to physical stimuli.

It was a mystery of one of the highest orders, one he hadn’t been certain whether he should ask the advice of the Citadel on or not. When Catelyn and her lord husband had expressed their incredulity at Maester Luwin’s reluctance at involving his order, he had been quiet for a short time. He lowered and raised his eyes at them as he alternately contemplated them and the stone floor of Eddard's solar, visibly struggling to find the words to say what he needed to.

They were both respectful of his need to gather his thoughts, waiting patiently for him to speak his peace.

“My Lord, My Lady.” He began quietly. “If I report Jon Snow’s symptoms to the Citadel, I fear the measures they will ask me to take. Measures I do not think will be to anyone’s liking.”

Her husband asked the question for the both of them. “And why might that be Maester Luwin?”

“Because my lord,” He answered, looking Eddard dead in the eye so that he would know how utterly serious Mikhal was being when he said this. “I fear that they may ask me to slip Jon the Essence of Nightshade to ease his passing.”

Catelyn and Eddard both drew breath sharply. To ask such a thing of Maester Luwin…

“What is it you are not telling us Maester Luwin?” Catelyn asked. “Why would they ask this of you? Jon Snow is not dying is he?”

Catelyn was ashamed of herself as a more primal side of her being briefly flared pleasurably at the thought of Jon Snow’s accursed presence gone from her life. She reminded herself sternly that she had been down that road once before. No matter what her worst impulses told her, she was not going to wish him dead a second time. Not when it led to such unnecessary suffering and pain. He may not have been a babe now, but he no more deserved such a thing wished on him than he had the day he’d been struck by the fever.

“No my lady, he is not dying.” Mikhal responded. “He is in fact, healthier than I can recall him being. But that is not what would concern the Citadel.”

Ned’s grey eyes narrowed slightly.

“You speak of the fire in the Sept.” His statement was certain.

Mikhal nodded. “I do Lord Stark.” He said. “If I tell them of Jon’s current state of unconsciousness, I will need to explain the circumstances of how he came to be knocked out. And in the eyes of the Citadel, what Jon did is likely a magical ritual. One that resulted in destruction and has affected him to an unknown degree.”

Catelyn could feel a headache coming on.

Maester Luwin continued. “Maesters have been stripped of their chain and banned from Westeros for pursuing this sort of matter before.” Mikhal looked pensive before he pursed his lips, obviously disagreeing with the position he was about to speak. “The Order takes a very dim view of those who meddle in inherently volatile matters such as this without following the Citadel’s guidelines; no matter their intentions. It is one of the primary reasons there was such bad blood between the Citadel and the Alchemist’s Guild back when they were a powerful force in the south.”

Catelyn noticed her husband’s knuckles whitening as he gripped the edge of his desk.

“They would ask you to murder a young boy for this?” He asked.

Mikhal didn’t have the heart to say the word, only bowed his head in confirmation.

Catelyn stood up abruptly. “Than the solution is simple, is it not?” She said. The two men looked at her, curiosity reflected in their gazes. “We help Jon Snow as best we can. And we keep the Citadel out of it entirely.”

Maester Luwin looked unsure, clearly torn between his duty and his heart.

“My lady-” he began before she interrupted him.

“In your opinion Mikhal, does Jon Snow represent a threat to the realm?” She asked.

He shook his head in the negative.

“Than that simplifies it immensely. Until he awakes he is more a danger to himself than to anyone else.”

Maester Luwin looked to her lord husband for confirmation.

“My lady wife speaks for us both Maester Luwin. See to Jon as best you can. We will only revisit the issue once he has awakened.” He ordered.

Maester Luwin looked relieved at not needing to choose between the realm and the Stark family for now. Her husband’s eyes had shone with such gratitude for her speaking on Jon’s behalf that she felt somewhat guilty that she was only doing so to repay her debt to him for helping her family.

Her thoughts were interrupted as Sansa let out a shrill scream.

Dropping his left leg, she swiveled her head to take in a macabre sight. Her daughter had fallen backwards out of the chair, the bowl of water forgotten on the floor and the cloth still on the bed and stained red. Her face was white as a sheet, her body shaking like a leaf as she appeared to be transfixed at her bastard half-sibling’s visage.

As she looked at Jon Snow’s face, she saw something she had never thought or wanted to see. Where before his eyes had been half-lidded and almost asleep now they were wide open. But the eyes themselves were gone, only empty bloody sockets left. He was moaning softly, the loudest noise Catelyn had ever heard him make as tears of blood leaked down his cheeks and the side of his face as though the eyes had just been crushed into a pulp.

She quickly moved toward her daughter, stepping in front of her line of vision so she wouldn’t need to continue looking into the gaping holes where his grey Stark eyes had once been. She urgently grabbed Sansa by the shoulders.

“Go get Maester Luwin Sansa! Go now!” She urged her, moving her toward the door without moving out of the way of her eyes. Sansa’s legs were shaking as she hurriedly made her way to the door, eyes wide and afraid. Catelyn made sure she was gone before she moved back to Jon Snow’s side. She quickly moved the cloth to his still moaning face. With a jolt, she realized that if his voice was any louder, Jon Snow’s moans would’ve been screams.

Catelyn Stark knew then that Maester Luwin was right. This was something unnatural. This was something beyond anything they had prepared for. She thought of praying to the Seven for help. But where would she begin to ask their guidance on this matter?

Catelyn Stark felt a chill down her spine as she cleaned the blood on Snow’s face eyes, trying not to make his pain any worse. ‘Where there are gods, there are surely demons.’ Her mind whispered to her. The question was, which one would hold sway over Jon Snow when he awoke?

Chapter Text

Jon couldn’t tell how long he had been walking. It might’ve been an hour. A day. A night. Even a week for all the passing of time could be marked. His only company was the flickering orange light that currently engulfed his outstretched right hand. The red path stretched out endlessly before his eyes, a streak on the ground that led to an unseen horizon. One that could either hold a new dawn or setting sun. The beginning or the end. But Jon had already vowed to himself he would pass these tests no matter what it took.

‘Then again, when my only choices are pass or die…’ He thought morbidly. He idly traced patterns through the air as he walked, his eyes still kept on the path where the light shone. As he continued on, he wondered what was happening to his body in the real world. Who was tasked with taking care of him? Maester Luwin was the most logical choice. Old Nan might watch him in the night for any dramatic changes. But it was unlikely that anyone outside of Lord and Lady Stark would be allowed to check on him.

For that, he was glad. He didn’t want to see his brothers or sisters to see him like this.

He felt a change in the air again. This time it felt as though he was shifting from naked to being clothed in light leather and chainmail armor. Heavier but more solid than his simple training armor. As he continued forward, the path began to feel like hard packed soil with a thin layer of loose shifting yet infinitely tiny grains of earth atop it. He wasn’t sure what to expect now as he’d never experienced sand before in his life even if he had heard of it when Maester Luwin had taught them of Dorne.

Soon enough he came to a set of heavy stone doors. Straining to push them with both his arms, right hand still lit, he managed to push them open enough to slip through. What he stepped into was something else entirely.

It was an arena of some kind. That much was obvious from the surrounding seating that went higher up and farther back as a giant circle. The stone appeared to be weathered but had obviously been grand at one time. Jon looked to the sky.

’Can it rain in this place when it only exists somewhere in my head?’ He wondered to himself, taking note of the darkened storm clouds that occasionally echoed with the sound of thunder and constantly shifting air that threatened a downpour at any moment.

“It does not matter.” A deep voice answered from what Jon had thought at a glance to be an empty royalty box to his left. Jon quickly turned, hands reaching for a weapon that he did not possess as he took in the figure that he could’ve sworn wasn’t there a moment ago.

It looked to be a robed man, all of his face obscured but for a dark beard that extended beyond the shadows that his hood created. His voice sounded distorted, as though he were speaking through a haze or underwater. He stood up and in the blink of an eye, large torches were lit along the walls of the center of the arena and circular ones large enough to fit several men comfortably within them lit at the fringes of the arena walls, seemingly oblivious to the coming storm as a loud crack of thunder echoed like a whip wielded by the hand of the gods.

When Jon looked at the box again, the man was gone. But before he could ponder where the figure could’ve possibly gone, the man spoke from inside the arena to the right of where Jon was.

“Whether the storm comes or goes, you must still face what lies ahead.” The man said as if he hadn’t somehow just disappeared from several hundred feet away and appeared again directly behind Jon.

Jon jumped, his constant calling and use of the inner flame causing it to spring to his right hand on instinct as he landed away from the figure with his open palm outstretched threateningly.

The figure only chuckled. “If I were you, I’d worry more about him.” He said, right hand gesturing to a changing form that was getting closer and closer with every step.

Its appearance was like nothing Jon had ever seen before. The legs and tail looked at first glance to be those of an upright dog though easily large enough to belong to a Direwolf. The fur was a deep red that made one think of a rich wine or a bloody wound. It was so dirt crusted and stained however that it almost appeared to be brown. In sharp contrast, its torso and arms were scaled all in pitch black and glistened like a still pond as the light from the surrounding torches reflected off it from multiple angles. Its hands were roughly shaped like a man’s though it only had three large fingers: a thumb and a pair of padded fingers the thickness of two of a human’s tied together. All capped with talons that looked able to cut a man to the quick. Topping its thick trunk of a neck was the head of a dragon that had an almost lupine snout and canine eyes that glowed an eerie amber color in the torchlight.

The shoulders were capped with fur while the tail appeared to have spines ridging it all the way down to the tip. All in all, it appeared to be a creature that was born from an unholy union of dragons and wolves. Jon momentarily felt an absurd stab of pity for the she-wolf that had been forced to bear this abomination and birth it.

It stopped just short of the hooded figure’s hand, its height more than making up for its less than bulky stature. Jon knew however that he could ill afford to underestimate such a foe, no matter how strange and ungainly it may seem. Concentrating with all his might, Jon forced an unfamiliar second flame to occupy his left hand while he shifted into the basic fighting stance Ser Rodrik had drilled into his head over the course of countless hours on the Winterfell training grounds: his hands up around his head, right fist clenched nearby the corner of his mouth while his left fist hovered at eye level.

The creature growled at him in what could’ve been greeting or warning. It was a deeply foreboding voice, with a nightmarish scratchiness to it that sounded as though some cruel god had mashed two competitive means of communication between predators into one being which made it wound up making it sound as if its vocal chords were battling themselves with every sound it made. Jon gave a short nod while never letting his eyes leave his opponent.

“Let us see how you fare.” The hooded man rasped before taking a step back again and disappearing into the central watcher’s box once more. “Begin when ready.” He announced grandly as a clap of thunder boomed in the sky directly overhead.

Jon barely had enough time to start moving back when the thing had charged him at the word ‘Begin.’ But it was proving too fast for Jon already. Its left fist had hammered into Jon’s right side twice and with such force behind each blow that his bottommost rib had audibly broken with the second strike. The pain of the second hit distracted Jon’s aim, causing his left hands blast of fire intended for the things chest to only glance of its shoulder.

It roared defiantly at him, a right hook slamming into Jon’s nose so hard he saw stars even as he attempted to let loose another large cone of fire from his right hand that missed the creature entirely. The thing was simply too fast for him.

Every time Jon thought he had it, the thing would duck under or leap over his fire or it would simply not be where he sent the flames. Growing desperate, Jon attempted to use the torches around the arena by summoning them to him so as to catch the thing off guard. But it never allowed him enough of a break to concentrate in order to do so. The creature circled him as he tried once again to send a blast of fire at it, sweat beading his head as he struggled to breathe through broken nose and ribs, his bruises feeling as though they had bruises while his muscles screamed at him for trying to go at speeds he couldn’t possibly keep up.

Jon charged the creature, feinting to the left before going right, his hands lighting up to fire off simultaneously. The creature simply moved under the fire and hammered his sternum with its right fist so hard he was blown back a foot by the force, coughing and wheezing as he fell to one knee as his lungs desperately worked overtime in an effort not to lock up on him.

The figure in the stands called out to him: “You have eyes and yet you refuse to see! Do you think that there is mercy in this place? If so, you would be gravely mistaken.”

There was a sinister pause in the air as the wind picked up briefly, this inner world seeming to hold its breath.

“Or perhaps,” The figure pronounced to another deafening crack of thunder. “You simply lacked the incentive to use your sight to its full potential.” It gestured to the creature. “Give him a reason to regret his choice.”

When the creature charged him to get in close, Jon unleashed another blast of fire at point blank range that splashed against its scaly chest, setting the surrounding fur alight. It roared in fury as it gripped his head in its hands, aborting his hasty attempt to stand and get back. Without another sound, it ruthlessly plunged its thick thumbs talon and all into Jon’s eyeballs.

Jon Snow began screaming.

His brain almost couldn’t cope with the catastrophic amount of pain his body was telling him he was in, the reptilian thumbs crushing what remained of his ruined eyes as the talons felt as though they were scraping any remains of his orbs that might’ve been left away. He flailed against the monstrous arms in a futile and panicked attempt to get it to stop.

Abruptly, it let go of his head and allowed him to collapse to the ground. Jon’s hands instinctively covered his ruined and bleeding sockets as he continued screaming while his body curled into a ball to try to protect himself. Over the sound of his own hoarse and desperate cries, he heard the unseen man call out.

“Enough of this!” it said. “If he will not let himself see, than he is not worthy of the power he wields!”

Another clap of thunder as his command was given. “Finish him now!”

Jon could hear the creature coming toward him, could feel the heat, could see the flames licking its fur in his mind’s eye. His mind raced as he realized through the haze of adrenaline and pain that even without his eyes he could see the flames inside his head.

He rolled away from the creature rapidly, his sense of the fire able to see the shape it took even with his face turned away. The shoulders were not those of a monstrous creature, but those of a young man. The head was a simple wolf’s pelt head no different than what one might see on a warrior of one of the mountain tribes in the Vale or the North. The legs and the back were furred because they were leather greaves and a wolf-skin cape respectively. The heat washed over a set of heavy scales that seemed to transmit heat to the body underneath through some weakened areas that provided a clearer picture.

Jon’s mind raced as his gut drove him to take whatever means necessary to understand why the form before him felt familiar. He managed to block out the pain as he ignited his hands again, focusing the power in them on his sockets to reduce the pain to a more dull yet insistent throbbing instead of the mind splitting sense of all-eclipsing pain it had been.

As the figure charged him from behind, he could sense it coming: the body heat outlining every move it was making in a strange riot of colors while it came at him. He flared his left hand as it blocked a swipe from the figure’s right before making it impact the distinctly human jaw underneath the dead wolf’s. His right hand flared as he grabbed the figure’s throat, the sound of sizzling flesh clearly audible to his sensitive ears even over the boom of thunder. His knee struck the young man’s sternum multiple times in short order, drawing pained grunts each time before he lifted the figure by its still burning throat and slamming it back first into the ground.

The ground crunched underneath his feet as the body impacted. Jon straddled the figure’s chest, knees on the biceps before it could recover from the shock. Jon felt his rage and pain guide him as he let his right hand release the throat before his fiery fists impacted the figure’s face over and over and over again, pouring his physical exhaustion, his new-found power and his fear into each strike of his blurring fists upon its visage.

As it grunted in pain at the constant strikes under his relentless assault, Jon suddenly understood why this figure was so familiar.

It was his own. A doppelganger perhaps, as the imaginary Robb he had faced was, but it was unmistakeably himself.

Jon’s fist stopped just before his double’s jaw, its labored breathing disturbing the broken skin and still wet blood that was now a fixture on his knuckles. Jon sensed the figure in the stands stand before taking a single step and managing to be just behind both sets of himself.

Jon almost shivered in its presence, a small concentrated flame buried beneath what felt like a veritable mile or more of ice. The frozen aura of this figure spoke to nothing but death and destruction. It spoke to him on a disturbingly fundamental level.

“What are you waiting for boy?” It asked him, a smile in its voice. “End it. Now.”

Jon tried to think through the pounding in his skull that came from his empty and aching eye sockets as his newly awakened senses kept track of the fires and hot winds he could sense simultaneously.

‘This thing…it’s not me. It’s too feral, too wild. But is it right to kill something that seems to only be able to follow its instincts?’ Jon could feel the animalistic version of himself twitching, attempting to get its strength back. Every fiber of his being told him to finish off the prey in front of him now while he had the chance. That he wasn’t going to get another opportunity to end this.

As he suppressed that primal killer’s instinct, the figure groaned sharply. When it did, a stray possibility played itself out before his mind’s eye. Jon decided to see one way or another if his sudden wild hunch would pay off.

“No.” He answered, right hand returning to the figure’s neck again as it squirmed from the heated though no longer burning hand, skin cracking and sloughing from his touch while his left hand gripped it punishingly by the hair.

“My instincts are my own.” He continued, willing the creature beneath him to submit. Its struggles intensified for a moment. “No matter how strong they may feel, no matter what they may tell me, they. Do not. Control. Me.” He concluded as he slammed his animal instincts into the ground by its head with each punctuation. It quieted its struggles, recognizing his dominion at long last as he sensed the heated blood in its veins leak onto the sand below them.

“I control them.” He finished breathlessly, standing on shaking legs as the adrenaline faded and the pain in his eyes returned threefold. As he staggered and started to lose his foothold, a pair of arms grabbed him by his side, lifting him so that his left arm was across its shoulders.

It was his primal instincts. The figure faded to ashes and smoke before flowing into Jon’s pores. As it did, he felt strength return to his limbs, his remaining senses sharpened to heights he had never previously imagined. The remaining other chuckled to itself.

“Very good.” It praised, a faint edge of what Jon thought was mocking in its tone. “Any simple creature can act and kill. It is men and gods that think and create. Remember that boy. Or the suffering you have inflicted upon yourself here will be far worse for you and for those you hold dear.”

As it faded from Jon’s awareness, so too did the arena. Jon’s hands lit again, this time without his conscious thought. As the pain of his last two tests returned to him, his pride and his will to survive pushed him to continue onward: the fires in his hands illuminating the path ahead like a river of lava in the blackest of nights. He placed his right foot forward upon the road of red beneath him, allowing his momentum to carry him as he winced with every movement.

‘Two down, one to go.’ He repeated to himself grimly, the mantra allowing him to continue walking when his body told him he needed to stop to lie down to rest.

Chapter Text

Arya Stark was not one to take no for an answer.

One of her most vivid memories came from when she was first learning to walk. She had toddled determinedly after Jon and Robb as they made their way to Maester Luwin for their lessons one day. Why? Because they had told her they had to go and she had to stay here to wait for her lady mother and her older sister.

Even at that young age, she knew she wanted to learn the things that her brothers did. She didn’t see why she should be left behind simply because Jon and Robb were going somewhere they said she wasn’t supposed to. If only because it sounded so much more fun than the things Sansa talked about learning from the Septa.

Robb had laughed when she tripped over her own feet trying to race into the room before the oaken door closed and Maester Luwin had been visibly exasperated with her following the boys to his chambers without her lady mother’s permission. But what she remembered most had been Jon’s reaction. How he had simply picked her up by the armpits, sat down while he quietly placed her on his legs and then held her there while asking Maester Luwin as politely as he could to continue the lesson.

Maester Luwin hadn’t been happy about that. But Jon had promised she would be good for the time she was with them. When Jon had looked at her to prompt her agreement with an unspoken: “Isn’t that right little sister,” she’d nodded her head quickly. She did not want to be kicked out after managing to get in and procure such a comfortable seat.

She couldn’t remember the lesson itself years later now, though it was likely material that Septa Mordane was covering again now that she was getting to be a young lady. But it was still one of her fondest early memories. One that if anyone had asked her she would’ve likely cited as helping Arya make up her mind about Jon being her favorite sibling.

And of course now it had spurred her even harder to figure out how to sneak her way into Jon’s sickroom the past few days. To at least settle her churning stomach that had been uneasy ever since Sansa had come back from tending Jon alongside their lady mother with a frightened look in her blue eyes and nightmares that left her thrashing and screaming about demons before she jolted herself awake.

She thought Arya was a sound sleeper these days, recovering from her sickness and all that. And so she attempted to stifle herself when she realized what she was doing. But the truth was that Arya’s head rested upon her pillow as lightly as it ever did. She simply found it easier to learn things others didn’t want her to if they thought they could whisper them while she was sleeping.

She’d heard mother and father discussing Jon the second night after Sansa and their mother’s disastrous attempt to tend Jon. She kept still as they tried to calm Sansa, tried to get her back to sleep.

“I can’t sleep, I just can’t.” She had whimpered to them, still trying to keep quiet so as not to wake her newly healed sister even as her voice thickened with tears.

“Every time I try, I see what that thing did to his eyes. And then I feel something watching me. Waiting for me to sleep before it…it…” Sansa interrupted herself with a dry sob. She heard one of their parents move and then Sansa’s voice was muffled.

Her mother made general noises of sympathy and comfort as she simultaneously heard the covers of Sansa’s bed to shift. “Why don’t you go find Septa Mordane, she’ll likely have a prayer that can help keep you safe.” She suggested while Sansa kept emitting distressed noises as quietly as she thought she could manage while muffled into their lady mother’s embrace.

‘Keep her safe from what?’ Arya wondered to herself, daring to crack her eyes the slightest bit open to see that her mother was gently getting Sansa to stand while her father was close at hand, obviously wanting to comfort his daughter but lacking the faintest idea where to start in such an unusual situation.

“Go now.” Her mother gently prodded, kissing Sansa’s forehead. Her sister shuffled out of the room, her shoulders stooped with exhaustion and her face lined with tension while only an occasional sniffle leaked out now.

As soon as she was gone from the room, her mother sat heavily on her sister’s bed, her father sitting down beside her. They were silent for only a short time before her mother spoke again.

“We have to do something about this Ned.” She said quietly.

“I know Cat. But what can we do? Whatever Jon called upon to save Arya, it’s undoubtedly responsible for his injuries. Soon we will not be able to convince Maester Luwin to keep from informing the Citadel. And when he does…” Her father trailed off ominously.

Arya felt her breathing get a little faster as she tried to figure out what they meant. Jon had healed her she knew. She had seen him breathe in the smoke that came out of her mouth during the fire in the Sept. But now it was apparently hurting him. Against her will, her eyes moistened. It was clear from this that Jon was being hurt by whatever was responsible for healing her.

And yet the question of why remained. Why would it want to hurt Jon while he had gotten it to help her?

She saw her mother lean into her father’s shoulder, drawing comfort from his presence. Arya recognized the gesture as one she herself had initiated with Jon before: when dealing with Sansa and Septa Mordane and her mother got to be too much for her.

They stood after some time had passed while Arya kept her breathing as even as she could, occasionally shifting her shoulder or her legs to give the impression of being deeply asleep. Her father moved toward the door while her mother made her way toward Arya’s bed. She immediately shut her eyes completely, not willing to chance her mother seeing the small sliver of space between her eyelids that would allow her to observe what they were and had been doing. Her mother leaned over her, kissing her forehead. She smelled of something sweet but slightly burnt, as though she had been by a burning hearth while tending her brother.

Arya wasn’t sure what to make of that.

Her mother bid a whispered “Sleep well Arya” before it sounded as though she was walking toward the doorway. As soon as the door shut, Arya cracked her eyes to see if her mother and father were gone yet. Seeing the oaken portal to her and Sansa’s shared sleeping quarters firmly shut, her eyes shot open as she threw off the covers. She quickly threw made her way to the door, listening at it before pushing it as gently but steadily as she could.

She knew from previous experience that the door creaked if it was opened both too slowly or too quickly. The very first time she and Jon had attempted to sneak down to the kitchens for some bread, Sansa had been woken up and tried to chase Arya back to bed.

She moved hurriedly down the corridors, taking the path to Maester Luwin’s chambers that was familiar to all of the Stark children whether through lessons with him or having him take care of the various ills that afflicted the residents of Winterfell; high and lowborn alike. The waning moon was reflecting through the few windows she passed by, presenting an eerie contrast to the few torches that were lit up here and there.

She moved ever onward, not willing to be separated from Jon when he was being hurt. She knew there was nothing she could do that Maester Luwin couldn’t, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t be there for her brother. He had helped her get better. The least she could do was be by her side. It had been weeks since the Sept burning and her recovery, but still no one would allow her to see Jon. She had played with Rickon, she had explored with Bran and she had even managed to exert a modicum of effort whenever her mother prodded her to attend the lessons with Septa Mordane that were always so much more dull than whatever Jon and Robb happened to be learning from Ser Rodrik or Farlan or Father.

She had thought that if she followed her mother’s word and behaved as well as she could, they would let her see her brother sooner. But it had not happened. Even now that he was injured and needed more hands tending to him, they would not allow either her or Sansa to help look after him. Sansa had frankly seemed grateful not to have to go back to tending Jon, but Arya was frustrated and worried about her sibling.

Whatever it was had proven bad enough to give her sister nightmares and no one was telling any of them anything about how or what or why.

As she drew up to Maester Luwin’s chambers, she listened at the door to see if he was here. She heard gentle snoring being emitted by someone inside, so she could only hope that meant he was in. As she crossed her fingers and hoped to herself that this would work, she knocked loudly on the door.

There was hardly a break in the snoring. Arya knew it was essential that he awaken and try to discover who was calling on him if the door was to open. She had discovered through her repeated attempts to see Jon that it was locked when he was out and that when he was in but unwilling to come out, the door was barred so that she could not push her way in.

So that meant she would have to be good with the timing of this. As soon as he looked to open the door, she would need to hide behind the door as it opened. After that…

As she knocked hard a second time, she abruptly realized she had not actually planned how she was going to get in if in fact he actually opened the door for her. As her mind started to race to think of something, she heard a snort from inside and a bleary voice call: “Who goes there?”

It was Maester Luwin alright. He was awake now. If she retreated now he would either go back to sleep or dismiss it as someone rethinking their decision to see him. There was nothing to be done now. She would simply have to do as Jon had taught her during their games of come into my castle. Wing it.

She pounded upon the door a third time.

Maester Luwin called to ask who it was again. As her mind raced, Arya was struck by inspiration. Thinking of one of her mother’s handmaidens, she tried to imitate her voice as best she could.

“Lady Sansa is having trouble sleeping again Maester. Lady Stark requests that you give her something to help her.” She said, keeping it brief so that she had less chance of being recognized even in the older man’s half asleep state.

“Where is she?” She heard from inside.

“She sent her to see the Septa, Maester Luwin. Shall I tell them you’ll be coming?” She inquired, crossing her fingers that he would say yes.

“Yes, yes. Let her know not to leave the Septa’s side so I can get to her.” He answered distractedly as Arya heard the clink of jars and the shuffling of papers.

“Yes Maester.” She answered just behind where the door should swing toward the wall when it would open. Now as long as he didn’t look behind the door as he left, she might be able to slip past him into the chamber.

She heard him coming closer. She held her breath as she tried to make herself as flat against the wall as she could, the way Bran had showed her and Jon to when inching their way across ledges. The door opened, coming closer and closer to her face as Maester Luwin emerged.

She closed her eyes as it came closer. She hoped and prayed that it wouldn’t squish her and so reveal her where she stood before she could see her brother. To her relief, she felt it push into her nose a bit before it stopped. She opened her eyes quickly as Maester Luwin started to walk past her, seemingly in a half awake daze. She knew an opportunity when she saw it.

She darted around the edge of the door and made her way inside the Maester’s quarters as quickly and quietly as she could. She moved toward the room housing Jon even as she heard Maester Luwin turn around, muttering softly under his breath.

She opened Jon’s door only as big a crack as she needed to slip inside before quickly pulling it shut behind her. As she leaned on the wall immediately adjacent to the door, she heard the door to the outside room shut completely followed shortly by a rattle of metal as she guessed Maester Luwin was locking it behind him.

As her eyes adjusted to the dim light of Jon’s room, she at last noticed the heat that came close to sweltering. She saw there was no visible heat source aside from the candles that burned brightly around the room. And at last she took in Jon’s form on the bed.

The first thing she noticed was the stillness of his body. If she hadn’t known her mother and father would never have been able to lie to them this long about it, she would’ve sworn they were keeping a corpse beneath the sheets. The second thing she noticed as she drew closer was that the heat in the room seemed to be centered on Jon himself. She grew alarmed at that, especially when she catalogued the heavy bandages over his eyes that appeared to have some dried blood crusting on the bottom edges of it. She hurried over to his side, her left hand find his right above the blanket.

She winced from the heat his flesh gave off even as her eyes trained themselves on his chest to reassure herself that she could see it rise and fall with the steadiness that meant he was still breathing one more moment.

She breathed deeply, bowing her head and closing her eyes as tears welled in her eyes. It was starting to sink in now, just how badly off he was by whatever he had done to help her. She didn’t know who to pray to. The Old Gods? The New Gods? The Unknown other Jon had invoked? The Old Gods kept mostly to the forest to her mind. The New Gods had just seen their place of worship burned down. The Unknown was the one responsible for hurting Jon, so that was right out as well. Which left what?

Arya prayed to Jon, prayed that he would hear her silent plea. Prayed that he would listen to her as he always had. Prayed that he would feel her there and know that he needed to come back.

‘Please Jon.’ She prayed without words. ‘Please wake up. I haven’t gotten to say thank you yet.’ Her mother and father had always said that it was rude not to thank someone when they did something for you. Jon had to wake up so he could hear her say thanks.

As she drifted into sleep in the chair by his side, she squeezed his hand in hers. She would stay by his side and wait for him as long as it took. Just as he would do for her.

An hour later, his hand weakly squeezed back while she slept.

Chapter Text

Jon had been walking for such a long time now. His empty eye sockets were still throbbing, his body was so far past the brink of exhaustion that it was practically numb and his spirit was feeling worn from constantly maintaining the flames that engulfed both of his hands and reigniting them when they occasionally sputtered out. But still he continued following the path. Telling himself with each step forward that with this last test it would be over.

‘One way or another.’ His subconscious chimed in. Jon couldn’t deny the truth of the statement. Though he didn’t like to think about the implications of failure.

Still, at least he still had only this one test remaining. Even if he had to wonder how he was going to function with only his sense of fires and his ears to guide him through the real world.

Without warning, the path ended. Jon’s improved hearing could hear something forming. Even with his newfound sense of heat and flame, he could barely make out what it was. He flared the fires in his hands to create both a brighter source of heat and a hot breeze that might tell him what the area around him was becoming. As far as his functional senses could tell, it was a long grand hall with columns that lined him on either side. But there was always something just beyond the range of his fires that was moving.

He did not feel clothes form themselves on his body as it had the previous two tests. The lack of any protection and the knowledge of the dark presence put his nerves on edge. Whatever the thing was, it always managed to keep just beyond the reach of his mundane and extra senses. It acted as though it knew he was looking for it. Jon moved behind the closest column on his right, holding his flickering palms to the surface. As the column heated up on his bare back, he heard the thing shifting all around him.

It sounded like nothing either animal or human. It was more of a dark mass that radiated malice and sounded akin to some cordlike material being dragged across the floor. Jon decided he had to flare his hands again to keep it away.

As he did, there was a sharp crack followed by a stinging stripe of pain across his chest. He cried out as a strange series of someone else’s memories flashed across his mind’s eye.

A small urchin shown no kindness by the passing knights and lordlings. As rain fell on his head and his stomach gnawed at him, he hates these pompous cunts who sleep in their houses of stone and iron that looked down upon people like him and didn’t give a flying rat’s arse cheek about them unless it affected their lordship’s comfortable lifestyle

Jon’s left knee hit the stone floor as he held his burning hands to his head in an effort to soothe the pain in his empty sockets and his mind from the foreign images. There was a shift in the darkness. He tried to roll to the side, but it still managed to graze his shoulder.

A highborn young woman raucously stripped and manhandled on what was meant to be the most wonderful night of her life. As she was shoved unceremoniously into the room by the rowdy crowd, she nervously places herself on the bed to await the man she has been arranged to marry. When her husband arrives he is drunk, though unfortunately still able to perform the act. He pushes in without a care as she stifles her cries of pain and discomfort. As he falls asleep atop her, his breath smelling of wine while her loins and her pride ache, she hates this society that treats her as a piece of meat to be bought at the highest price only so long as she’s fresh enough.

His brain was starting to pound and the whispers were getting stronger. They spoke of death. Of fairness. Of justice. Of vengeance. All of these things and more they spoke. Jon managed to slide away as the next whip strike impacted the tile he’d just been, the stone floor audibly cracking in response to the force behind it.

He tried desperately to get a sense as to what these things could be a part of and how they moved. But before he could even begin to figure it out, another sharp crack echoed as another strike landed on the broken ribs on his left side.

A bannerman who dared speak his mind. He watches as the banner that had once belonged to a kind well-meaning lord pass to the power-hungry war-mongering hands of his ego-obsessed whelp. He sees the soldiers who slaughter his family without question or humanity. And as he dies, he hates that there is no justice to be had that is not found at the point of a sword. And more often than not, the greatest monsters are also the ones who possess the least hesitation in wielding a blade.

Jon felt his temper rise to the surface. What is the point in showing him these images, these things he can do nothing about? To show him that the world is not inherently just? He had known that from the moment he learned what the word bastard meant.

This time, he heard it before it came. He leaned his body so that it is partway coiled around the column. The sting of the impact cracked where his chest would’ve been as the displaced air blew mightily in his face. He flared the fire in his right hand at the thing, trying to light it up. All that resulted was an angry shriek from inside the shadows as it cracked yet another whip like appendage across his open palm, cutting him almost to the bone.

A sellsword hired to supplement some highborn prick’s limited forces. As he wanders the bloody carnage that is always the aftermath when the highborn take their games of intrigue too far yet again and knows he will be derogatorily looked down upon by the so called knights and lords without whom this death and destruction would not exist, he hates that being an honest vulture is considered less honorable than a braying ass who drapes themselves in finery and then call themselves a noble stallion.

Jon tried to scramble out of the way of the next strike as he cradled his right hand to his chest, relying almost entirely on his ears now since the darkness had proven all but impenetrable to his fire. The whip cracked across his back, opening the skin from left shoulder to right hip. The shock of the sudden strike causes him to fall forward, his left hand only just managing to catch him before his face kissed the floor.

A bastard son of a noble lord. As he hears almost every person of his noble father’s household in and out of his hearing remark at one time or another how lucky he is that his father took him in at all, he hates the trueborn family that always looks to him as an outsider. He hates the household that calls him unnatural because of his father’s weakness. He hates that he has no other family that he can turn to so that he may leave these wolves who would leave him to die alone in the cold without hesitation were it not for his highborn sire’s half-measure shows of favor and affection.

Jon cannot deny he has felt that hatred before. That he has felt so strongly against Robb, against Lady Catelyn, against even his father Lord Eddard Stark. As he admits that, the darkness encroaches further. But he also feels the fires of his hands become drawn to the darkness around him, showing him a way of repulsing them at last.

As Jon let go of the emotional restraints he had placed upon himself, the fire in his hands flared again. Without his eyes, he couldn’t see that it had changed color to suit the fuel that fed it: dark and grey. The color of smoke and ash, the utter blackness of the central flames around his palms made it seem as though they are shrouded in the surrounding shadows.

As another extension of the darkness cracked toward him, he abruptly pivoted his body sideways so that the whip would hit the ground instead. Before it could retreat again, he brought his left foot down on the tip of it. His right hand rises toward the source his sense of the shadow had discerned before he let a blast of his darkfire loose.

A poor man turned brigand. As he and his men are caught poaching simply to feed their families, they are sentenced to execution. As he awaits his turn with the headsman, he discovers a newfound hatred for these high-born cockholes that don’t give a damn who starves so long as they get what they want. As the blade cleaves his head from his neck, he curses their name and the day they believed themselves so much better than all the rest simply by virtue of their being born into the world.

He felt a visceral satisfaction at the squealing he heard from the thing and heard it scuttle backward in a clear retreat even as the tentacle beneath his foot dissolved into nothing. Jon let loose another blast even as it scampered, allowing his own rage and hatred to dictate his power. He heard them strike again and again. Just as he heard that thing squeal in pain and fright each time. As he exorcises the memories of hatred, apathy and anger, Jon feels the flames grow stronger and stronger: their fuel source continually renewed through his reliving the memories and dredging up the feelings.

And then the whips returned.

They were much faster now while still almost impossible to predict, but Jon dug deep within himself to find those resentfully destructive thoughts that he’d kept firmly in check ever since he’d come to the conclusion that Winterfell as a whole would just as soon pretend he didn’t exist. He continued hurting and injuring it with each movement and blast, his pride and his ever-growing wrath forcing him to keep up the onslaught regardless of the cost.

Yet for all the times he struck at the shadows the whiplike extensions would strike him in turn, cutting deeply enough to draw blood and expose muscle and bone. And each vision it presented would serve only to feed his flames and thus feed the whips in turn.

A young slave who enters the grave having never known freedom. A grieving parent whose children are struck down by illness and war one by one until only they are left. A maester who serves the assassins of his lord because of his order’s oath of neutrality. All of these and more flash as the whips crack across his skin, beating down his will to continue on even as he tries to rally himself.

Jon screamed in impotent fury as he unleashed his accumulated rage and darkfire in one humongous blast radiating outward from his body. It succeeded in driving back the beast. But at the cost of destroying and weakening the columns lining the place that were nearby him. He fell to his hands and knees, his breathing coming in heavy pants as he felt his energy desert him.

Jon thought he would feel triumphant at driving the darkness away. Instead, he felt emotionally empty. He had relieved so many of the worst thoughts he had ever had cross his mind. Forced himself to experience numerous others in the process. And for what? All too soon, he knows the answer. For nothing. And so he begins to despair. For the creature is returned. And his newfound sense of the shadows tells him truthfully that it is stronger than ever.

The voices are all perfectly clear now; their combined contradicting noises a cacophony that could only be imagined in the rankest pits of the seven hells. A figure stepped out of the darkness, the countless extensions writhing off it like sentient tendrils of death. As it approached, Jon heard its voice.

He supposed it was meant to sound like Lady Catelyn. But yet, it clearly wasn’t Lady Catelyn. Where Lady Stark’s voice could be gentle or harsh as needed, it was always fairly pleasant to listen to. This sounded as though a serpent had taken control of Lady Stark’s tongue and made no secret of what a forked tongue it had.

“So, have you at last learned the truth of yourself now bastard?” It hissed angrily, right hand roughly grabbing his chin.

Before he could respond, two more tendrils wrapped around his prone arms before pulling them in each direction. They pulled until it felt like they would rip them from their sockets. When his arms were at their limit, the tendrils grew spikes that stabbed directly into them from every angle the tendrils touched his skin.

Jon was too tired to scream anymore. He could sense the shadows creeping further and further into his blood, corrupting him. Too late, he realized what had happened. By giving into his worst impulses, he had made it easier for this thing to take control of him. And now, he was going to become something else. Something twisted. Something angry. Something born of darkness. The poisonous shadows continued to creep through his veins, causing the previously coherent memories and visions to become garbled and chaotic, overwhelming his already taxed mind.

“Hush little baby.” She cooed in a sick parody of the soothing tone Lady Catelyn had used to calm her trueborn children when they had been babes. “Soon enough it will all be over. Embrace the shadows of your fire, and never again will you be alone.”

It was a tempting thought. Jon could feel his arms growing numb as the poison spread to the rest of his body. Coming all this way, only to fail because he wouldn’t let go of his own hatred…

‘Arya will never forgive me.’ He reflected, his sense of fire watching with a profound sadness as it began to encroach on his heart. As he thought of his little sister however, the fire in his heart flared for a moment, driving back the shadows a few inches.

Hope flared inside him, causing the fire’s strength to grow. Despite the visions and the shouting that echoed from every part of the shadows, he concentrated as hard as he could on his memories of Arya. How she had sought him out for games she could play. How she would smile for him when he warned her not to tell Sansa about another of their secret adventures around Winterfell.

“What do you think you’re doing?! Stop it!” The shadowy Catelyn shouted, her grip on his jaw tightening. He ignored her as he thought of his other siblings as well.

He thought of Bran. Of his boundless curiosity. Of his natural inclination to explore. Of his laughter when he joined him and Arya in finding entertainment for themselves in Winterfell.

He thought of Robb. Of his willingness to embrace him as a brother despite his low birth status. Of his vocally desiring that Jon be treated as one of the family whenever Lady Catelyn acted too overtly toward him. Of his ability to express so much with a simple hand on the shoulder.

He thought of Sansa. Of her unwillingness to disrespect him despite his bastard status. Of her speaking to him of the minds of women and girls without judgment nor lies when he asked her advice. Of her inherently gentle nature that lent her a certain delicacy in every movement.

With each memory of laughter, of happiness, of love, his flames grew stronger. The tendrils and the shadows sought to escape the newfound bright blue fires. Before the whiplike things could leave his arms, he grabbed them with his hands held them fast as he embraced the creature that was pretending to be Lady Catelyn.

He willed the flames to spread their joy in the darkness that so desperately needed illumination. Without question they began to consume everything that surrounded them. Pillar and shadow and creature alike. The Lady Catelyn struggled in his arms as the fires of his happy memories spread to her body.

“No, no! Your shadows are strong! Why have you rejected them?! They will follow you no matter where you go!!” She shouted desperately, her hands attempting to reach past his bear hold on her to strangle him in a last ditch effort at preventing the inevitable.

He did not respond to her. The warmth of the love his siblings had shown him was enough to drive away the darkness and the despair for now. However, he knew she was right. So long as there was a fire to illuminate the darkness, the shadows would always return.

The trick was not to seek the emptiness of the places without light, so as to avoid being burned. But to instead seek the horizon for the coming of a new day that drove away that starless night. He internally acknowledged that so long as he could feel passion, he would always be capable of holding hatred and rage in his heart. But that did not mean he had to define himself by it.

The creature let out one last hideous screech before the fires returned to Jon, burning him away from all of this. It was a soothing burn: like the last of the deadwood being consumed so that the forest would not choke itself on its own accumulated debris. Instead leaving it free to create new life and see new growth.

As the creature disappeared from his arms, another body replaced it. It was an adult female, at least half a head taller than he was. As her arms encircled him, he felt as if he were a small child coming home to a mother’s embrace after a very long day.

His eyelids opened fitfully as he slowly registered that his body was now whole and unmarred. He gasped in astonishment as he pulled away slightly from the mystery woman only to look into a face that was unmistakably Stark in its solemn longness, dark hair and distinct grey eyes.

His first thought was that the imitation Lady Catelyn had been replaced by a grown version of Arya. He had always imagined the little sister Sansa’s friends snidely called Horseface would one day grow to be more beautiful than them all. His thought immediately following was that he was glad to have been proven right.

His eyes raked up and down her form. She was dressed in a simple combination of leather riding pants and woolen jerkin, her dainty feet bare. Her dark hair came down to the middle of her shoulder blades in waves that emphasized the roundness of her face and the structure of her graceful arms. Jon gulped in his mind. She was by far one of the most attractive woman he had ever seen. His mind told him that this couldn’t be Arya, only a Stark woman who looked like her. But if she was of obvious Stark blood, the only other female Stark who had been close to Lady Catelyn’s age would’ve been Lord Eddard’s sister Lyanna. The Stark that Arya had been whispered to resemble before.

Her eyes drank him in, a happiness in her eyes that made her seem to radiate an inner light that he couldn’t resist smiling in the face of. She embraced him again, pressing his face into her chest as her right hand rested on his back and her left hand soothingly stroked his hair.

“I could never stop looking at you my baby boy.” She whispered, pressing a soft kiss to the top of his head.

Even as his arms had once again embraced this woman, he pulled back abruptly to really look at her. His eyes felt comically wide, yet he couldn’t bring himself to care about that. If she had called him son, then that meant…

“Mother?” He whispered, not caring if he sounded a young child again.

Tears sprang to the corners of her eyes as she nodded. “Yes little Jon.” She answered.

He threw himself into her arms again, not resisting his urge to cry into her tunic. Years of wondering, of hoping, of dreaming. Even if this was not real, even if she was dead, he didn’t care. He felt he was justified in being selfish and wanting this to himself even if it meant he had lost Lord Eddard as his father and his siblings as his brothers and sisters.

Jon didn’t know nor care how long they had stood there: Mother and Son simply holding each other in this in-between place as they had never been allowed in life. Eventually they drew apart with extreme reluctance.

“I suppose you have questions?” She asked him, left hand wiping at her watery eyes just like Arya would when she didn’t want anyone to know she had been crying.

“You suppose rightly.” Jon answered, not bothering to hide his own shining eyes.

“Where should I start?” She asked, sitting on the ground that had become the clearing in the Godswood at Winterfell. She patted the ground beside her in invitation.

“The beginning would be good.” Jon answered, taking her up on her offer without hesitation. As he sat down on her left side, her arm rested across the back of his shoulders. He could feel her smile into his hair as she kissed his head again while he leaned into her solid warmth. “If you’re my mother, than Lord Stark is not my father?”

“No Little Jon. The Stark family has never been one to practice Targaryen traditions.” She said. “Your father is the one who brought you here.”

“The voice in the flames?” He asked, honestly surprised and unsure how to feel about the revelation. He had thought perhaps it was an unknown power that had taken an interest in him for some purpose or other, but to think that it was his father. It changed everything about what had just happened to Jon yet at the same time changed nothing about it at all. Because unless he could talk to this hitherto unknown sire himself, he couldn’t even begin to ponder all the possible reasons and justifications behind all of this.

“That is often the stand-in name mortals use until they can decide what they wish to call us.” A male voice answered from in front of him, a distinctly mischievous tone to his words.

Jon jolted where he sat, eyes locking on the figure who hadn’t been there a moment before when he and his mother had settled under this imaginary Godswood. He instinctively tried to move in front of his mother but her arm held him fast to her side even as she chuckled to herself at his attempt to protect her while the man gave an appraising look paired with an enigmatic smile.

“Well met young spark.” The man said. Jon could hear the faint whispers of other voices underlying his words, the conflicting undertones and the odd contrast they made to any given voice by now a very familiar sound to his ears.

Jon’s eyes focused intensely on the man once this mystical figure inadvertently confirmed his identity to him, Lyanna Stark’s proclamation that this person was his father acting to increase his interest. Jon had always known he was a Stark even if he was a bastard. Now that he knew it was mainly his mother he took after, he couldn’t help but be curious as to what he might’ve gained from his sire.

As he came closer, Jon saw that his father was tall: likely a small amount taller than Lord Stark at just a bit over six feet. His hair was a dark grey that reminded Jon of the ash that gathered by the cooling embers in guttered fireplaces before the household servants had managed to light a new one. His skin was bronzed and weathered, with some visible scars on his fingers and forearms as though he worked with his hands for a living. His tunic and his pants were darker in color, with reddish undertones that highlighted the tone of his muscles and simultaneously made him seem both garish and dangerous. Much as the most colorful creature is often the most whimsical or the most deadly, as Maester Luwin would say.

His eyes however distinctly gave him away as being inhuman. They were almost reptilian in appearance: narrower than most men with amber where most humans had white and pitch black pupils that possessed the beginnings of slits at the top and bottom with only a small rounding in the center instead of just circles inside of a darkish brown iris that was closer in color to the pupils than anything else Jon had ever remembered seeing from another person.

Jon couldn’t help the thought that crossed his mind at that moment.

‘He looks like a dragon trying to play dress up as a human without any idea how much he shows through.’

As his father came closer to the Godswood, he knelt in a gesture of respect and to be at around level with his own and his mother’s heads.

“The young pups are kind indeed to allow you the use of their image for this meeting dear one.” He murmured dryly as his right hand reached out to touch the ground, fingers splayed to seemingly get a feel for the grass.

“Only for a short time my Wicker Man.” She laughed in acknowledgement.

Jon looked at his mother akenstance, unsure of how to inquire about the nickname for what was apparently a supernatural entity powerful enough to sire children with a human woman. Or if he honestly wanted to know.

“When we hinted at our shell’s abilities to your mother, she thought it made us be as though we were made of candle wicks to become enflamed so easily.” His father explained while smiling, having clearly caught the confusion in Jon’s expression. He turned his head to look directly in his mother’s eyes. “Though we have always so enjoyed it when you use our mortal name.”

“By your leave R’hllor.” She nodded, kissing Jon’s hair again. Jon was still unsure how to deal with the being in front of him, especially since the name she just used for him felt familiar for some reason. His mother didn’t seem concerned however, her arms still firmly attached to Jon’s shoulder as though if she had her way, they’d be here for as long as she could have them.

Rather like Arya the few times she had actually wanted to just be held and be still with him, Jon absentmindedly reflected. His little sister really was a lot more like her aunt than he had known.

“Lord…R’hllor?” Jon stated tentatively, feeling unsure about confronting this being of obvious power and unknown intentions about the tests he had recently endured. He knew he must, if only so he could know their context and so see what his father thought of him. But it didn’t lessen his trepidation any.

“Yes young spark?” The man asked, now sitting cross-legged on the ground in front of them, his smile unfazed as his eyes alighted on Jon as though he too was taking in his child’s appearance for the first time.

“Why did I have to undergo those tests?” He asked outright. Jon knew there was probably a better way to ask that question. But he couldn’t think of it here and so would just have to be forthright and hope that if his father was not the same with him, that his mother at least would be able to shed a bit more light on his motivations and thoughts.

His mother. His father. Though he had only just discovered the truth of who they were, Jon felt he could never be tired of that feeling that came from knowing. From being sure enough to call them his own even if it meant that he could no longer call himself brother to Robb, Sansa, Bran, Arya or Rickon.

“Your power has been awake for some time now young spark,” R’hllor began explaining. “But in the House of Stars, you did not have the control or the understanding necessary to do what needed to be done without destroying yourself. So we did what any concerned parent would do. We showed you the way. And then set you the task of discovering how to do so for yourself.”

“But how-” Jon started, only to have his father interrupt him.

“To fully awaken and then direct the power of the flames child, one must understand every aspect of them. Good and ill alike. Else their wielder shall only ever hold incomplete knowledge of their workings. And that young spark, can be even more dangerous than ignorance alone.” R’hllor softly told him.

“We have seen it far too often where some foolish tender of the light thinks only of the danger or only of the benefit and so does not use it to full effect. Great and ignoble similarly.” His father continued. “Did you not find it so when you called the fire to your hand?”

Jon recalled how he had warmed his hand by only thinking of the positive sides of fires. How it was only once he remembered the pain and the danger and had as complete a picture of the flames as he could that he could call it to his hand.

“Yes.” Jon answered simply, waiting to see where his father was leading.

“And did the tests grant you a greater understanding of yourself?” R’hllor continued as Lyanna continued holding him at her side.

“Yes.” Jon answered again, thinking to his imagined Robb, his animal instincts and his twisted reflection of Lady Catelyn.

Confronting Robb had allowed him to acknowledge his mixed feelings on being denied a place in the line of responsibility for the North simply because of his birth. It would take him some time to truly accept the idea the fight had planted in his head, but it was worth exploring what else he could be outside the confines of Winterfell.

Being pushed to the brink of death by his most basic instincts had forced him to understand that while an enemy could be destroyed with such force if he simply gave into that desire to dominate and to annihilate them, it was the ability to direct and focus that kind of ferocity that made it into a truly formidable weapon in any arsenal.

And his use of multiple types of fire against the accumulation of most everything negative he had known to be in the world had allowed him not only to vent his own demons against it, but shown him that his love and compassion could always overpower that darkness if he was willing to endure the hardship it took to reach it.

He shivered a bit as he recalled the phantom whips that had stripped him crimson only a short time ago.

Lyanna kissed the top of his head again in a gesture of motherly reassurance.

“Good.” R’hllor stated with obvious approval. “Now you are ready to begin your lifelong journey.”

“My what?!” A startled Jon exclaimed.

“For all your life, you will need to constantly work at improving your control over your powers. Do you imagine you will be satisfied with keeping them a secret, only using them to occasionally cook your meat or light a hearth?” R’hllor asked, eyes twinkling in amusement.

Jon had to admit that he did not see himself not using these powers, if only because of the potential they represented as a whole.

“So what then has to happen?” Jon asked, looking from his mother to his father and back again.

“As of now, you are not ready to wield them openly.” His father said bluntly. “You have made progress young spark, but you are not where you must be if you are to act as your own shield from the ills of the closed world.”

“Where are you known Lord R’hllor?” Jon asked, thinking he might be able to learn more of his abilities and the beliefs of those who knew of his father.

“Your father is worshiped mostly across the Narrow Sea Little Jon.” His mother told him. “But unless you intend to leave everything in Westeros behind, I would not suggest it.”

“What, why?” Jon asked. “Would I not be able to return?” He didn’t understand. Surely it was not so unusual for a bastard to seek to make his fortune outside of the Seven Kingdoms. Why then was it such a bad idea for him to do so under similar pretext?

“Because of our descendants that live across the water in the lands of shadowed sun.” R’hllor answered.

“What your father means, is that the last Targaryens are across the Narrow Sea as well.” Lyanna interjected, rolling her eyes at Jon’s father. “If you go across the sea: it will be assumed that Ned sent you for his reasons regarding them, not that you are going for your own.”

“Well, then do I go south?” Jon asked. “If you said mostly across the Narrow Sea. Does that mean I could go there to find places of worship for him and learn there?”

“If you would be unsafe seeking our origin across the sea far away from your enemies, what makes you think you will be safer placing yourself upon their plate and offering yourself for the meal?” R’hllor asked dryly.

“Well, all that leaves is the Wall or the North.” Jon answered him. “Somehow I don’t think the Night’s Watch will be too happy to let me go to the North to train powers I barely understand myself. And I imagine the wildlings will be even less sympathetic than that.”

“Which means you must stay here in the North.” Lyanna said. “But you must strike out on your own. Learn to use your powers outside of Winterfell where you can be easily found and where the other Houses could learn of you if you make one mistaken flare.”

“While your mother does not wish her child to sever his ties to his remaining family guiding her decision, she is right to suggest this. But you must not allow your mortal family to know of your plans.” R’hllor stipulated, his voice changing from youthful to rough and gritty within the time it took him to speak the sentence.

His mother was visibly unhappy about that.

“Do you imagine Ned would put Jon in danger R’hllor? He has tried to keep him safe all these years even thinking that he’s a Blackfyre!”

“And yet your brother cannot force others to adhere to his honor dear one.” R’hllor responded, his expression barely changing from the thin smile it had slid into during the discussion of what Jon was to do now. “If the young spark is to become a young blaze, he must learn to seek his own fuel.”

“Outside of Winterfell, he’s in danger! The hill clans, the other houses of the North, the bandits, the smallfolk, the animals! He has some training but he is still a boy of fourteen!” She objected, her left hand reflexively gripping Jon’s shoulder.

“That will not matter to his enemies.” Was all his father had to say.

“I’ll do it.” Jon resolved quietly, startling both of them with a small jolt. His mother started to say something, but he quickly cut her off before he could lose his nerve to say this. “I…I think this is for the best mother.” Jon said, his insides twisting a bit at the thought of leaving Winterfell like this, but his memory of his duel with Robb telling him that sort of feeling that he should be trying to overcome. “I need to find who I am outside of Winterfell’s safety. Unless I go to the far North beyond the wall, this is the best way to do it.”

As she looked from her son to her child’s father, Jon could see the wheels turning in her head, could almost feel her disagreement with his decision. But he also saw conflict in her eyes, as well as pain. He imagined the conflict was feeling that Jon was siding with the father who had placed him in these tests instead of her, but what pain could she feel at disagreeing with him?

“She wanted you young spark.” R’hllor quietly spoke, causing Jon to look at him with narrowed eyes at this apparent non-sequitur. “Your mother loved you even before you were born. She has been in this place inside of us for so long, hoping against hope that she would be able to see you. To speak to you. And now that she can again, she finds you talking of leaving the safety of her brother’s keep to venture into the unknown.”

Jon pondered that thought, asking: “How would you know this?”

R’hllor’s smile turned brittle in the blink of an eye.

“We are not the first nor the last. We are but the next in a line that stretches endlessly from the original abyss heading towards the final horizon with naught but the comfort of the voices of those who have been for comfort.”

The god paused.

“We are called the Many Faced God for a reason child.”

The three present were silent as the branches above them whispered for a moment in a non-existent breeze. The shadows lengthened as they sat there.

“Your time of allowance here is coming to an end young spark.” R’hllor said, slowly standing even as he bowed his head toward the Godswood.

Jon and his mother began to reluctantly stand as well.

“If ever you should seek our voice, hold the heat of your soul forth to the fires and speak.” He advised before turning and walking away. As he left, Jon thought he saw a faint outline of a tattered belt flow behind him much like the dragging tail of a lizard.

“Tell your uncle to let Arya learn a bit of horsemanship, see if she takes after me in more than just looks.” She joked, face brightening for a moment before her expression grew serious again.

“And please remember this Little Jon.” His mother said as the shadows grew longer and a wind started to pick up. She kissed his brow one more time as her eyes grew misty at their imminent parting. “No matter what the world may bring: You are my precious son. And I will always love you.”

“I love you too Mother.” He said, his face muffled in her jerkin as he tried to hold onto this feeling of holding her. Of being with her as he would never be allowed in waking life.

“Time to go back.” She said, giving his shoulders a gentle shove as the ground beneath him faded away. The last thing he saw before he fell through darkness was her watery smile.

He fell for a long time.

As he felt was about to reach some kind of bottom, he jerked awake with a sharp gasp. He immediately noted the wrappings that covered his eyes. Yet he found that if he concentrated, he could look over to see a small human form emitting heat from its curled form taking up a chair by his bedside like a dozing kitten.

He sniffed the air, detecting a faint scent of Winterfell’s grounds mixed with some faint hints of more flowery scents he had come to associate with Sansa. Yet the form was too small to be her, leaving only one option for who it could be. He reached out with his right hand to ruffle the sleeping head of what he believed was Arya. As he moved his palm rapidly around in her bedraggled hair, she swiped at his hand with sloppy half-asleep movements.

“Quit it Jon.” She mumbled.

“As you wish little sister.” He answered, a grin forming on his face as her voice gave her away. It was so good to be back in this world Jon thought as he mentally counted to see how much time it would take. He didn’t have long to wait.

He heard her head shoot up and saw though the shifting of her body’s outline as it swiveled to lock onto him.

“Jon?” She whispered, her tone plainly telling that she couldn’t decide whether she was still dreaming or not.

He opened his arms. Even with bracing his back, she managed to knock him flat down to the bed as she shot into his arms faster than a crossbow bolt. Her arms were squeezing him so tight that he knew if his ribs had been in any way injured, she would’ve broken them all over again with her steel grip.

She hugged the breath out of him for a few minutes before letting go and having her fists begin impacting his chest. As his hands caught her wrists after a few clumsy misses, he tried to have her look at him so she could say what she meant to say.

Her face turned upward to face him as her body heat joined with his own even through the covers. When she spoke, her voice was blazing with a multitude of unnamable emotions.

“Don’t you ever ever ever scare me like that again.” She commanded as she gently lay her head on his chest over his beating heart.

“I will do what I can.” He answered honestly, drawing her into a soft embrace again. She curled up against him as she had when she had still been a babe, plainly happy to have him back again.

The door opened to reveal a distinctly male and female form. The male one uttered a soft oath of: “By the gods!” in Maester Luwin’s voice while the poultices and bandages slipped from what he assumed by extension to be Lady Catelyn’s suddenly nerveless fingers.

“I think someone should fetch Lord Stark. I have much to discuss with him.” Jon remarked.

Chapter Text

Eddard Stark hadn’t been sure what to expect when Jon had awoken.

He had looked to the Old Gods for guidance in this matter, now that he had no idea what was true regarding the anomalous Stark of Winterfell anymore. No answer presented itself before the chambermaid Catelyn had sent informed him that Jon was awake and asking for him.

When he had discovered Lyanna on that bloodstained bed, he had honored the promise he’d made to her.

He’d suspected at first that the boy was the result of an affair between Lyanna and the Crown Prince, making him Rhaegar Targaryen’s bastard son. But his exclusively Stark coloring had thrown that into question in his mind. He still didn’t dare tell Robert about Lyanna’s only child though. For what Robert learned would inevitably spread to the rest of the seven kingdoms the first time his old friend began his third goblet. And while he himself had been reasonably sure of Jon’s non-Targaryen parentage, he was not willing to chance the Lannisters, Tyrells, Martells, Greyjoys, Baratheons and countless other houses great and minor all coming to the same conclusion. So he claimed the boy for his own, assured of Howland Reed’s silence regarding this. What did his honor matter if it meant keeping the promise he’d made to his dying sister?

As Jon had grown, Eddard had agonized constantly over when/how to tell the boy. But where to start to explain something like that when he wasn’t even sure who Lyanna had taken to her bed? He loved the boy like his own son, but he knew he could never legitimize him without the story he had concocted falling apart at the seams. And while he believed Jon to be mature for his age that did not mean he was willing to trust him with such a dire and precarious secret.

He could also never tell Cat the truth. His wife was many things to his mind. A loving mother, a devoted lady, a pious woman. But a convincing actress was not one of them. If he was to carry on the charade that Jon Snow was his illegitimate son, he had to maintain that story even to his wife and his children. Yet now…

When he had entered Jon’s sickroom, he had been shocked to see the boy looking healthier than ever despite the bandages that covered his eyes and his demeanor making him appear older than his fourteen years of age.

His lady wife stood by the doorway as Arya was curled into Jon’s chest while the recently recovered boy held her in his arms under Maester Luwin’s watchful gaze by the opposite wall, eyes very obviously cataloging every movement of his adopted son’s body.

Eddard noticed that despite his silence in entering the room via already opened door, only Jon had fixed his covered eyes firmly on him, Cat and Luwin only seeing him when they looked to follow Jon’s line of non-existent vision. Unsure of where they were supposed to go from here, Ned said the first thing that came to mind.

“I am glad to find you whole again Jon.” He greeted, walking toward the boy’s bed.

Jon flashed a brief smile at him before he looked down at Arya. Cat had given a respectful curtsey as befitted his station while Arya had only turned her head and chirped a brief greeting at Ned before burying her head in Jon’s chest again. She had not even bothered to move her arms from their position around his nephew’s sides.

Jon spoke to the younger girl. “I need you to give me some alone time with our lord father.” He prodded, rubbing her back soothingly as he did so.

She shook her head without looking at anyone. “I won’t interrupt.” She preemptively countered before anyone could speak up.

“I know you wouldn’t.” Jon said, right hand ruffling her hair. “But I need to explain everything that happened in the Sept in addition to why. And unless the Lord of Winterfell permits it, I cannot in good conscience speak of it with others before I talk to him about the matter.”

Eddard was on guard now. Very rarely had Jon used his title when referring to him. When he did, it was generally because he was distressed about something and using highborn protocol to create emotional distance between himself and the matter in question.

“Can’t you at least look at me when you say that Jon?” Arya asked quietly.

Catelyn inadvertently drew a sharp breath as her youngest looked up at Jon’s face beseechingly. Jon had never been able to say no to Arya, especially not when he looked her in the eyes. But what would he say now that his eyes were gone? If Arya was to see that-

“As you wish little sister.” Jon answered. “But I’ll need you to remove the bandages for me.” He continued, leaning his head down so their brows were touching while Arya’s hands moved up to begin undoing the bandages.

“Stop Jon!” Mikhal exclaimed, moving toward them. “Your eyes-”

“My eyes are fine Maester Luwin.” Jon firmly cut off, his form unmoving from his position in front of the youngest Stark girl. For a moment, Ned thought he sounded like his brother Brandon when he was not going to brook any more argument about whether or not he could use his leg after falling from the tree. Though Eddard was fairly sure gouged eyes were somewhat more severe than a broken leg.

By this time, Arya’s nimble fingers had undone the bandages in the back and begun pulling them off. Catelyn had strode forward to Jon’s bedside now, her hand flashing out to keep the bandaging in place.

“Mother!” Arya exclaimed, upset that Cat was apparently stopping her from removing the bandages from Jon’s eyes. The poor girl had no idea what lay beneath the cloth else she would not have objected to Cat keeping it where it was.

“You cannot simply remove the poultices without Maester Luwin’s permission Arya!” Catelyn answered in a scolding tone even as Jon seemed to inaudibly sigh. “You have to-Ahhh!” She was interrupted by Jon firmly tugging the bandages off his face.

Ned had heard tell of miracles before. For the most part, he had privately dismissed them as tricksters and carefully exaggerated illusions. But there was nothing exaggerated or illusionary about Jon’s storm grey Stark eyes looking back at Arya’s. There was no trick or sleight of hand that could allow a man to regrow that which simply was not there any longer.

Cat was shocked into silence as she took in Jon’s very whole eyes, her face turning a pale shade as she whispered: “Impossible…”

Mikahl appeared awestruck, visibly restraining himself from attempting to move Arya and examine the medical mystery Jon now represented.

Jon and Arya’s identical Stark eyes were locked for a few moments before Jon spoke again.

“I need to speak with Lord Stark alone Arya. He and I need to talk privately before anything else happens.” His tone was gentle, but firm. He was not going to be yielding on this matter, that much was clear.

Ned gave himself a little mental shake and steeled himself. This was not going to go over well with his lady wife or his maester, but there was no doubt that he needed to speak privately with Jon now.

“Jon is right.” Ned declared, allowing his mask as Lord of Winterfell to come to the front. His face morphed into a thing of stone as he instructed: “Leave us now. All of you.”

Arya protesting his decision was not a surprise. Luwin and Catelyn joining their voices to hers even less so. The three expressed their displeasure with his granting of Jon’s request to speak alone for varying reasons: Arya didn’t want to be parted from her favorite sibling so soon after his awakening, Luwin ostensibly wished to examine Jon to be sure he had recovered from his unconsciousness (while really attempting to figure out how he had managed to regenerate his previously destroyed eyes) whereas Catelyn objected that before any sort of questioning took place that Maester Luwin should be permitted to look over the boy.

“This is not up for discussion. Leave. Now.” He commanded in a warning tone, taking a seat in an empty chair nearby Jon’s bedside. Mikhal and Cat quieted at his slight increase in volume though his lady wife had looked positively mutinous. As they went for the door, Jon had kissed Arya’s forehead and gently took her by the shoulders to give her a small push toward the exit to his sickroom.

“This shouldn’t take long Arya. I’ll be out soon.” Jon reassured, swinging around on the bed to face Eddard. Arya crossed her arms suspiciously, visibly unhappy that both her father and her brother were denying her the chance to stay with them.

“And you’ll tell me what was so urgent it couldn’t wait a few hours?” She prompted in a leading tone, even as Cat placed her hand on her right shoulder to steer her out of the room.

“I can’t promise that.” Jon responded. “But I can certainly promise I will be out soon.” He continued, smiling brightly in that way he only ever seemed to around his most constant companion in Winterfell. Arya stomped her left foot, displeasure evident even as she came back up to the bedside to give her brother one last rib-cracking hug.

“I’ll hold you to that.” She swore as she pulled back, trudging toward the door as though still half-tempted to turn around and plant herself obstinately in the room.

“I expect nothing less.” He responded, throwing the blanket off his legs as Lady Catelyn shut the door firmly behind the three.

Immediately, his adopted son went from smiling to frowning. Eddard showed no external reaction to the change in attitude, content to let the boy begin the conversation on his terms even as he itched to question him about his regrown eyes.

“Let us be honest with each other Lord Stark.” Jon said abruptly, standing up with no apparent issue. He avoided looking at Ned as his eyes scanned the room, looking for clothing that could be worn outside the sickroom. “We both know who my mother is. But only I know who my father is. Are you willing to exchange a favor for the name?”

“You aren’t speaking sense Jon. You know I am your father.” Eddard shook his head, the answer flowing automatically to his lips.

“That’s where you’re wrong Uncle.” Jon said in return, his back turned to Eddard as he appeared to continue to hunt for clothing to wear. Eddard in the meantime felt as though the breath had been knocked from his lungs. He had been sure to never speak of Jon’s parentage with anyone. He had barely even acknowledged it to himself least he feel the accumulated guilt borne from years of deception. He kept himself composed, unwilling to give too much away.

“What are you talking about Jon?” The Lord of Winterfell asked, shifting in the chair to better face the dark haired young bastard.

Jon glanced at him through his peripheral vision as he found a simple pair of leather breeches. With a tone almost as dry as Dorne, he said: “Unless the Starks have a lot more in common with the Targaryens then Maester Luwin is willing to admit I find it doubtful that you’re both my father and my uncle.”

“And what makes you so sure I’m your uncle?” Eddard shot back, trying to figure how Jon knew something only two living people did. Perhaps the boy was simply trying to bluff him into revealing the truth of his mother to him.

Jon faced Eddard entirely as he pulled off his oversized sleeping shirt. He idly noted that Jon’s skin appeared as unblemished as it had the day he’d been born. The minor scars he’d accumulated from rough-housing and exploration around Winterfell had disappeared. It was yet more alarming evidence that his recent bout of unconsciousness and subsequent healing had been influenced by a power not of this world.

Jon’s eyes met his own when he spoke the simple yet impossible answer.

“Lyanna Stark told me.” He said matter of factly.

‘He thinks he spoke to Lyanna?’ Eddard thought in alarm. In all his years as Lord of Winterfell, the patriarch of the Stark family had believed in the Old Gods, had seen Catelyn’s belief in the New Gods. But he had never heard of the dead speaking to someone from the realm of the living. But then again, before today he hadn’t believed it possible for a man to regrow plucked eyes while sleeping.

“What else did she tell you?” He asked, keeping his voice level in an effort not to hint he wasn’t sure whether Jon’s sense was fully intact or not. If Jon had spoken to something that claimed to Lyanna, who was to say it honestly was her? That it wasn’t some other spirit taking on her form for his benefit? Though Ned honestly couldn’t see what the point of it would be. Jon had never known Lyanna when she was alive and so would have no context or previous connection for the spirit to exploit by taking on her form if that was the case.

“Mother said that she thinks you should let Arya try horseback riding. She said it would be amusing to see if maybe she has more in common with her aunt Lyanna than just looks.” Jon answered, pulling on a woolen shirt as his lips curved upward in a smile, likely a result of contemplating Arya getting dedicated horse riding lessons. Ned could only imagine the sort of mischief the girl would get into with the mobility a fully trained horse could provide her.

He had to internally concede though, that Jon’s statement sounded like something Lyanna would say. And only a few of his own generation had been aware of Lyanna’s love of riding. He knew he and Cat had certainly never told the children anything about it. But he would reserve full judgment on Jon’s claim when he had heard the rest of his story.

“Why don’t you explain to me what happened in the Sept?” He asked, moving onto another subject. He didn’t want Jon to distract him from the central issue he had supposedly needed to talk to him alone about.

“I want you to first promise me that you’ll grant the favor I ask at the end of our discussion.” Jon stated, sitting down across from him on the bed now that he had finished changing. His grey eyes were focused and sharper than Eddard had remembered them being previously. “I can tell you nothing until I have your word.”

“If you do not fully explain everything and give me compelling reasons why I should, I will not grant the favor you ask.” He warned, unwilling to make a blind agreement even with Jon. “But if you can fulfill both those requirements, than I would honor your request to the fullest extent of my power.”

“I suppose that’s the best I can expect from you, isn’t it Uncle?” He breathed ruefully, eyes closing as his head dropped a few degrees. His eyes opened again and his face returned to its original position as he sat upon the bed before Eddard could respond. “No matter. Ask what you will.” He continued, clasping his hands in front of him as his forearms rested on his knees.

Ned thought carefully about what he wanted to ask first. He would have to start simply and work his way up to the questions that would require more explanation. He decided on his opening salvo of questions, thinking they were straightforward enough that Jon would have no chance to lie or obscure answers from him.

“Did you light the fire in the Sept?” He asked.

“Yes.” Said Jon with an unflinching expression.

“Were you the one who took Arya from her room?” He continued.

“Yes.” Jon said. Not a moment’s hesitation in his answers. So far he seemed to be telling the truth.

“Why?” Ned asked, leaning forward to hear the boy’s explanation.

Jon exhaled shakily as though considering how much to tell. As he began, Ned could guess he was expecting a negative reaction from him.

“Because the voice in the flame told me it would work.” He started. He rushed to continue before Ned could say anything, whose mouth had automatically begun to open and demand Jon explain what he meant by the voice in the flames.

“I came into the Sept to try to clear my head three nights before the fire. There was a candle burning at the altar for the Mother. A voice spoke to me from the flame. But it was different from the rest, it was-“

“The rest?” Ned interrupted, his tone a definite request for clarification. Jon had tried to gloss over in his explanation, but had only raised more of a question about it. What voices in the flames?

Jon looked down to his left at that. When at last he spoke again, he did so in a slight whisper, as though it pained him to admit this.

“I’ve been hearing the fires around Winterfell speak to me for two years now.” He confessed.

Ned couldn’t help staring at him. His mind raced as he contemplated what this meant. Jon had been hearing voices that only he could for over two years and confided in no one about it until Ned had pushed him on the circumstances of the Sept fire just now. Why had this not been brought to his attention before today?

Jon gave him a sad smile in exchange. Evidently he had asked the question aloud without realizing it.

“I’m already the Bastard of Winterfell. It’s one thing to be born to the honorable Lord Eddard Stark out of an affair, but then to have addled wits as well?” Jon shook his head. “No. Who could I have trusted telling this?”

“You could have told me.” Eddard gently admonished. Surely their relationship was not so bad that Jon felt he had to hide things like this from him. That he felt he couldn’t come to him with his problems. Yes, he hadn’t acknowledged the boy as a true-born Stark, but he had done as much as he could to make him feel a part of the household. He had raised him alongside his own children, he had allowed him to know the workings of the castle, to receive an education that many bastards could never hope for. Was that not enough to prove he cared for the boy?

Jon let out a brief laugh. It was not a pleasant sound.

“And what would you have done if I had?” He asked, the curiosity clear in his voice as his face returned to face Ned’s again.

Ned was silent for some time as he tried to honestly think what his response would have been if Jon had come to him claiming that voices were speaking to him from the fires. His gut clenched uncomfortably as his mind automatically leapt to Aerys Targaryen. Or as the people of Westeros knew now him: the Mad King. Could Ned honestly tell his bastard nephew that he would’ve believed him? That he wouldn’t have looked at him any differently? Or been wary of Targaryen madness beginning to show itself in him at an early age? Even as it was, Ned was thinking more and more that the boy was a Blackfyre with an unusually strong connection to the element the dragon kings were famous for.

“I don’t know.” He admitted slowly, not willing to lie to the boy about it. It stung him a bit to realize that he couldn’t honestly say he wouldn’t look at him without suspicion or wariness. It wasn’t fair certainly, but who could blame him after the strife the Mad King had put his family and by extension the realm through?

Jon apparently let the subject drop. If he hadn’t been watching his expression so closely, Ned would’ve missed the brief flash of hurt that had crossed the young man's face.

“The voice told me of a ritual I could perform to save Arya’s life. I was to place her upon an alter surrounded by weirwood from the Old Gods and wooden idols of the New Gods. I picked up the fallen wood from the Godswood grove and waited until the night of the full moon to get them to the Sept and move the idols of the Seven into position. I brought Arya to the Sept and placed her on the Alter. After that…”

He paused, seemingly lost in the memories of the night. After a few moments of silence, he continued without Eddard’s prompting.

“I lit another candle to hear the voice’s instructions. It told me to light the weirwood, to let the fire spread to the idols. It told me to get closer to her so that I could act. But when I did…” Jon paused here, a look of shame appearing on his face. “When I did that, I panicked. All I could feel was the fire. So the voice asked me to trust it. I did, and in return it used me to draw some kind of smoke out of Arya. When it did, she got better. But the smoke was drawn into me. When she recovered fully, I began to feel afflicted with her illness. I remember coughing, vomiting and a burning sensation inside my stomach. After that, I was unconscious and I dreamed.”

Jon stopped speaking, looking at his own clasped hands as though they held the words he needed to speak but would not. The silence hung heavy in the air as Ned wondered if he should ask about the dreams or the presence. He decided to compromise.

“Tell me about what happened while you were asleep.” He commanded, now needing to know if the voice that spoke to Jon was also responsible for his injuries while unconscious.

Jon’s expression took an edge of caution and contemplation to it Ned wasn’t sure he liked seeing on his normally straightforward if taciturn child. It was an expression that spoke to a decision that would lead to him attempting to lie to Ned and downplay or outright lie about what happened. After all that he had been told, the Lord of Winterfell was not going to abide partial or falsified information now.

“The whole of it Jon.” He warned, a stern rebuke toward his adopted son.

“I simply was thinking you’re more likely to believe a demonstration than anything else I tell you.” Jon answered, his eyes narrowing at Ned in an expression of teenage rebellion Ned was startled to recognize from Lyanna’s face when their lord father Rickard Stark had declared she would not be learning swordsmanship alongside himself and Brandon.

“Besides, the trials I endured were meant to be…personal. They are difficult to speak of even if they were effective teachers.”

“Then show me what these trials taught you.” Eddard quietly challenged, unsure how much of the trials had truly been personal and how much was simply Jon not wanting to reveal everything that had been shown to him via mystical means.

Jon stood up abruptly and walked toward a lit torch near the door. He held out his right hand over the flame, palm facing down as his left hand moved to absently rest at his side. Even as Ned began to wonder what Jon was trying to do, the boy clenched his hand into a cupped claw hand over the flames, the fire seeming to rush to fill the small circle his palm and fingers created. He stepped away from the torch, the light still burning inside his palm.

Just as Ned wondered what was happening to Jon, he flattened his right hand so that the fire was on the flat surface of his open palm. Without warning, the fire hurriedly engulfed his right hand, stopping at his wrist. Ned jerked back in his chair, startled by the spontaneous combustion of his nephew’s hand. He watched in morbid fascination as Jon slowly and methodically flexed each finger inside the fire before tracing his hand through the air, making various motions via finger and wrist rotation to prove that his hand wasn’t being harmed by the fire that continued to flicker and dance merrily as though it were simply in another hearth burning away more fresh wood.

Eddard couldn’t find the words for this. What was he even seeing?

The fire abruptly disappeared from Jon’s hand. He looked to Ned’s belt where he kept the dagger and gestured toward it. Ned handed it over in a trance, morbidly fascinated to see his nephew would do now. Without a word, Jon brought the dagger to his left palm and slid the blade across it with no hesitation and only a grimace to show for the pain. Eddard moved to his feet faster than he had thought possible. To do what, he wasn’t entirely sure but Jon dropped the dagger and ignited his right hand again before he brought it over the cut in the span of less time than it had taken Ned to inhale sharply and stand. Before the Lord of Winterfell’s disbelieving eyes, the cut rapidly stopped bleeding and knit itself back together leaving a faint scar for only a few moments before even that faded: leaving the skin whole and unmarred as though nothing had happened. The Jon kept the fire lit for a while longer around his hand before he clenched his fist and placed his palm to the stone floor, producing an audible sizzling noise that gradually died out as his hand cooled off by burning a faint impression into the stone in front of him.

He stood up, eyes still locked on Ned’s as though daring the man he had believed his father for so long to look away now.

The two men to meet each other’s eyes, both projecting an aura of forced calm. The one awaiting judgment, the other attempting to process the fact that he had witnessed several things he had never imagined he would see in his lifetime. It was Eddard who broke the silence first.

“That definitely lends a certain…credence to your claim Jon.” He said carefully. He thought on how to get the answer he wanted before he decided the blunt approach would serve him best. “Was your father the voice that spoke to you?”

Jon nodded his head, eyes unblinking as he watched for Eddard’s reaction.

‘Jon’s not fully human.’ Was the first instinctive thought that occurred to Ned, followed shortly by: ‘What would happen if the rest of Westeros found out?’

The various scenarios involving the various houses of Westerosi nobility that all attempted to crowd each other out in his mind were universally chilling. And that was without factoring in what the High Septon, the Maester Order, the Night’s Watch and other assorted groups might make of him. Before he could continue that line of thought, Jon spoke.

“As I am, I don’t stand a chance.” He stated. There was no self-depreciation or pity in his tone. A simple statement of fact. “I need to train, develop myself. And I need to do it away from prying eyes; mother and father were clear on that point.”

Ned was forced to concede that. Even disregarding Jon’s claim of having met both Lyanna and his mystical father face to face, there was definite truth to that. As soon as Jon flared in a way that couldn’t be hidden or in view of anyone that wasn’t his immediate Stark family, there was a good chance word of it would reach King’s Landing and all the wrong ears that listened there. And then the vultures would begin to circle.

“I need to leave Winterfell.” Jon continued, the look in his eyes showing how much the idea pained him even as the rest of his face was kept as close to blank as he could make it.

“I cannot allow you to do that.” Eddard immediately objected, not believing for a moment Jon would be any safer outside of Winterfell than he would be inside. Here he was among the rest of the Stark pack. It was never the pack that suffered so much as the lone wolf. If the pack was hurt, they could hurt those who tried in turn. But the lone wolf had no such help. They were always alone when they dealt with huntsmen and predators alike.

“Can you guarantee that word of what I can do will not leave Winterfell?” Jon riposted.

“Here you are safe, you are among family. You are protected staying here.” Eddard reasoned.

“Here I am known, I am watched. I am exposed, along with everyone who stands with me.” Jon responded. His head drooped, his dark hair covering Eddard’s view of his eyes. “Believe me Uncle, if you know of a way I can stay here and not be discovered I am more than eager to hear it. But until then” His head came up again, eyes sad but overall expression one of resolve. “I need to leave Winterfell and figure out what I'm capable of.”

“Where would you go? Do you think you would not be seen no matter where you tried to go in Westeros?” Eddard asked him, unwilling to let his nephew leave without a fight. He had promised Lyanna he would look after the boy and by the Old Gods, this did not absolve him of his responsibility toward his charge.

“Perhaps…” Jon appeared hesitant to keep speaking. He visibly shook himself before he continued his thought’s original path. “Perhaps I should go across the Narrow Sea. Discover more of what people believe of my father.”

“People know of your father across the Narrow Sea?” Eddard asked. He had been willing to accept that Jon’s father was perhaps not entirely human. But a full-fledged demon or spirit?

“They know him across the sea by various names. The Red God. The God of a Thousand Faces. The Lord of the Fire. Or more commonly as R’hllor.” Jon ignited his right hand again, absently rotating it while his eyes watched the flames flicker. “His followers might hold answers.”

Ned was astonished he didn’t make the connection before. The Red God. The same Red God that mad priest Thoros of Myr worshiped, the one he claimed allowed his sword to be lit on fire when he entered battle. Ned mentally admonished himself. He should’ve thought of that before his nephew had spelled it out. But then again, he and numerous others had grown so used to thinking of Thoros as a sort of walking joke (‘the only man to outdrink and outwhore Robert Baratheon and live to tell the tale’ was a common insulting compliment depending on who used the phrase) that it was easy to forget that he had been a man of an actual faith behind the strange tricks he used on the field of battle.

There was silence between the two Starks again as Jon clenched his fist to put the fire out. Ned tried to think of what he could say to keep his nephew here where he could look after him. Finally, when he could deny no longer that he couldn’t think of any feasible alternatives for Jon to learn of his heritage and his potential, he bowed his head briefly.

“I do not like any part of this idea Jon.” He said. “I dislike your leaving the walls of Winterfell to go to a strange land to find potential answers to questions you don’t know how to ask. On top of that, it will pose a serious problem to find anyone in Winterfell with even a passing familiarity with the lands across the Narrow Sea.”

“I must do this alone.” Jon said, eyes not leaving Ned’s for a moment.

“Absolutely not!” Ned thundered, verbally drawing the line in the sand. “If you go alone, I have no way of knowing what will or will not happen on this half-mad quest of yours.”

“And you have no man who is familiar enough with the lands across the sea that could be more than a hindrance to me.” Jon countered. His expression and his voice was steady, his conviction showing with every word he spoke. “If I go alone, I am a glory seeking young bastard who thinks to make a name for himself in another land. Perhaps as a sell-sword, perhaps as a simple traveler, perhaps as something else altogether. If you send even one man with me, it will be suspicious. Seem as though you’re attempting to build alliances across the world for an unknown purpose.” Jon’s expression was grave as he continued. “Mother and father have told me that the last of the Targaryens lie across the sea. If you send men with me, the Southern Lords will take it as a sign that you are attempting to court the remaining Targaryen heirs.”

In that moment, Ned hated that Jon had these visions whether they were real or not. They had given him ideas and advice on political maneuvering and intrigues that he would’ve expected to hear from the Lords Lannister or Tyrell. Not his sister’s son. It was not something he had ever wanted any of his children exposed to, let alone one who had already been forced to deal with the uglier aspects of human nature simply because of the story Eddard had been forced to give about his birth.

But once again, Jon’s reasoning was solid even if he didn’t agree with it. Still, Ned needed to be sure Jon understood the problems he had with this. Not as a Lord of Winterfell or Warden of the North, but as the boy’s guardian of the past fourteen years.

“If you go alone, there is no way to be sure of where you are. No way of calling you home. No way of allowing us to even know if you are alive or dead.” Ned stated, leaning on the chair back and crossing his arms in disapproval.

Jon’s face showed a ghost of a smile. “Isn’t that the point?” He asked rhetorically. “Please Uncle.” He implored, fire igniting in his right hand again. “I need to do this. No matter how much I want to stay and be with my brothers and sisters, I have to go. It’s the only way to keep them safe. Until I gain some measure of control over what I can do, I will only be a liability to Winterfell and the Starks.”

“You are a Stark as well.” Eddard reminded him. Jon’s eyes began to water.

“I know. I’ve met my mother, remember?” He said shakily, running his left hand through his hair as the fire went out in his right hand again.

Ned allowed his nephew to recompose himself before he asked his next question.

“When do you intend to leave?” He asked: a suspicion strong in his mind that Jon already had a solid idea as to when and how.

“I intend to be gone within two days and catch the next ship I can out of White Harbor. And from there…” He paused. “I shall have to go where the fires lead me.”

“Are you certain there is nothing I can say to convince you to stay Jon?” Ned asked, his voice quiet now. If he forbade him, Jon would be as like to sneak out of Winterfell to go anyway. And then what? He dragged him back for imprisonment? Sent him to the wall? Placed him under guard? No. He wouldn’t do that. The boy may not have been his son by blood, but he had been raised as such. If this was truly Jon’s decision, than it would be his to make. For good and for ill.

Jon shook his head. “Believe me Uncle; I hate the idea of having to leave. But my head tells me that if I’m to have any chance at all that I need to do this. No matter how much it hurts now.”

Ned stood, seeing there was nothing more he could do today to talk his nephew out of his determined course of action.

“What will you tell the others?” He asked as he placed his hand on Jon’s shoulder in a small gesture of support. He didn’t agree with the boy’s idea and plan of action, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t show the boy he still loved him even in the face of their disagreement. He was not as cold as the southern lords liked to believe him. He loved as fiercely and as well as any other man. But he also knew his love would have to be tempered by his position no matter how much he hated for it to interfere with his family. This was one of those decisions he had hoped to never be forced to make regarding his children.

Jon’s left hand automatically covered Ned’s. His response was measured but strained, as though he didn’t wish to think too much about it.

“That I need to find answers I won’t be able to in Winterfell.”

As Ned strode away toward the door, he made a request of Jon. “If you’re going to tell them, do it soon. The longer you put it off, the more it will hurt when they learn what you intend.”

“I know.” He heard Jon’s whispered affirmative as he began opening the door.

He didn’t see Jon’s right hand briefly clench at his chest in a gesture of pain as he opened the door to admit Cat and Mikhal.

‘I hope you know what you’re doing Jon.’ He thought as he cast one last lingering glance into the room. Somehow, he couldn’t shake the feeling that something would happen if he allowed Jon to go. But as of now he couldn’t see a way to force him to stay and also keep him safe. All he could do for now was seek the guidance of the Old Gods and hope they would be merciful enough to allow him to find a way of helping his nephew. But with winter truly coming, who knew if even that would be enough anymore?

Chapter Text

Catelyn Stark was a confused and upset woman. Both of which were due to the actions of her husband’s increasingly baffling baseborn child Jon Snow. After his still unexplained actions in the Sept, his honestly frightening display of mystical self-healing and his subsequent conversation with her lord husband (that Eddard still refused to discuss with her), Jon Snow had announced the night of his awakening that he would be leaving Winterfell for an unknown amount of time.

This announcement had been met with dismayed confusion from all of her children. She had known that Arya and Robb would not take it well, having become the closest to him growing up in spite of her personal wishes. But it had been a surprise to her when Bran and Rickon had joined Arya and Robb’s pleas for Jon stay. Or failing that, to explain why he was leaving. And while Sansa had not audibly spoken, Catelyn had been further shocked to see that her eldest daughter was exhibiting visible discomfort with the idea of her older half-sibling leaving Winterfell.

When asked why, the bastard Stark would only ever repeat one answer. That he was seeking answers he couldn’t find in Winterfell. He refused to elaborate on what answers he was seeking, what questions he was trying to solve, why he wouldn’t find them in Winterfell or how he knew either of those three things to begin with. But in any case, he had been resolute in his conviction that he had to do this.

After the boys had retired for the night, Catelyn noticed the next day that while they carefully didn’t mention the Snow’s departure date after, they seemed to have accepted what evidence he had presented behind closed doors well enough that they were not inclined to openly try changing his mind. Sansa had not protested or spoken to the boy about the matter that Cat knew of. But she had recently seemed to be given to lapses of silent contemplation more often than Catelyn had known her to be before.

Yet the one who had taken it the worst by far had been Arya.

Catelyn had always known in her mind that her wild daughter and her husband’s bastard were thicker than thieves. But she had never realized the extent until she had, entirely by accident, overheard them arguing in one of the corridors of Winterfell. Not playfully bantering, lightly teasing or fondly name-calling as she had seen them do before. This was genuinely hurt and angry feelings being aired between them.

She didn’t know how long they had been having this discussion. But when she had been turning the corner she had heard Arya’s voice. It had been angry in a way she could scarcely remember hearing in her youngest girl. In response, she’d instinctively moved back so she was around the corner from the noise; invisible to them if they may look to see if they had watchers.

“Why can’t you trust me with this?!” She heard echoing down at the corridor intersection.

“It’s not a question of trust.” The bastard’s voice had answered, sounding truly regretful even muffled by distance. “It’s a question of safety.”

“How am I going to be unsafe knowing what’s happened to you? Just explain that to me!” She heard Arya exclaim.

“I cannot tell you! Why do you ask this of me?!” She heard the boy snap. “I cannot tell you Arya! By the gods, do you think I haven’t wanted to! That I enjoy having to leave the only family I’ve ever known?!? But I do not have a choice in this!!”

She was about to turn the corner to break the two up when she heard Arya’s answer.

“I ask this of you because it feels like I’m losing my brother!” She was surprised that underneath the righteously fierce anger, there was a distinct waver in Arya’s voice. It sounded to Catelyn’s ear as though she was trying to remain angry so as to not allow herself to feel sadness. “First you get knocked out for weeks after doing some weird magical thing that you still refuse to tell me! I’m not allowed to see you, but I see Maester Luwin come and go with bloody bandages all the time. Then Sansa of all people is brought in to help mother care for you. After trying to help once, she comes out convinced that you’re being tormented by a demon! A demon Jon! She never tells me what she saw to convince her of that, leaving me to assume the worst!!”

There was a pause during which neither of them spoke. Before long Arya resumed her venting.

“Then I finally sneak past them all so I can stay with you. You wake up; tell me to leave so you can talk to father! You never tell me what you talked about. Then, that night you announce that oh by the way: you’re going to be leaving Winterfell for an unknown amount of time to go gods only know where to answer questions you refuse to tell us because the answers you don’t know aren’t going to be in Winterfell! Everyone can see something’s happened to you!! But instead of getting help from any of us, from the family that would do anything for you, you refuse to explain anything that’s going on! You act as though you’ve got something to hide and you…” Her daughter didn’t go on, the waver now more pronounced in her voice.

“I act as though I’m hiding something because I am hiding something Arya.” He answered. The tone of resignation was strong in his voice. “I don’t hide it by choice. I hide it by necessity. I discussed the matter with Lord Stark, and he agreed that until I…did what I had to do, I shouldn’t tell anyone if I can avoid it.”

“So if you can’t tell me, why can’t you take me with you?” She asked quietly, the sounds from down the hall making it seem as though she had shuffled closer to him.

Catelyn couldn’t breathe for a moment. Jon Snow was a bastard boy of fourteen. He was still a bit young for her to think he could make a life for himself outside the confines of Winterfell, mature for his age as she could grudgingly admit he was. But Arya…She knew conviction and willfulness when she heard it. And her chilled heart could tell that the small ten year old girl truly meant to go with Jon Snow if he would but say the word.

Unable to bear the silence, Catelyn peeked around the corner to see what was happening. She saw the bastard had drawn Arya into a hug, his arms solid around her shoulders. His expression plainly told of the conflict he felt inside at her offer.

“Because you belong here.” He whispered into her hair. Even as she tried to move away from his apparent rejection of her offer to stay with him, he held onto her. “Because I need to know you’re safe. If I could take you with me, I would in a heartbeat.” Cat felt herself move forward on instinct as if to stop him from doing so.

“But I can’t promise I could keep you from harm if I took you on this mad journey.” He finished. His face told Cat of how sour the words tasted in his mouth.

He moved his half-sister back so she was at arm’s length. She deliberately wouldn’t look at him, her eyes cast toward the ground. He continued, his body language telling how he felt he needed to get this out before his courage deserted him.

‘Courage in the face of a ten year old girl’s sadness.’ The thought crossed Catelyn’s mind. She found she could empathize with him. It was never easy to hurt family, even if the hurt was unintentional. Her sister Lysa’s teary face upon seeing newborn Robb flashed for a brief moment in her memory.

“And until then, Winter Is Coming. We both need to do what we can to help prepare for the storm.” He let out a forced chuckle. “Besides, without one of us here, who would keep Robb and Bran in line?” He asked rhetorically.

Arya hiccupped a tiny laugh that sounded hollow to Catelyn’s ears.

“You’re really going to go, aren’t you?” She asked, as if she had refused to admit it to herself until that moment.

“Not by choice. But yes, I really am.” He said, drawing her against him again as her arms lifted to hug him back. They stood there a while.

“I don’t want you to leave.” Arya whispered.

“I don’t want to leave.” Jon agreed wholeheartedly.

Feeling she was intruding on a moment that was meant to be private, Cat had left. Her thoughts had been jumbled and unsure for some time afterward. She had taken out her frustration on Eddard in private that night for refusing to speak to her about what it was the boy had told him in his sick room. She had tried to get him to say anything about what he and Jon Snow had said to each other to prompt his bastard to leave.

“Ned, this is insanity! He speaks to you after waking once and you allow him to cross the Narrow Sea?! By the Mother, the boy burned down the Sept! He won’t admit to how or why he did it to anyone else!” Catelyn raged in their bedchamber, pacing like a trapped animal. She knew raising her voice at Eddard was not likely to convince him of anything. But on rare occasions when she felt so overwhelmed like this, she fancied shaking him on just the off chance that the rattling would bring him around to her point of view and maybe tell her something that would actually settle her mind instead of amount to a nice version of: “I’ve made my decision and you shall simply have to live with it.”

She had grown to love her husband dearly, but his stubborn stillnesses could be so maddening.

At the moment Ned was seated on the edge of their shared bed, forearms resting on his thighs and hands clasping each other as he watched her move back and forth, not uttering a single word or making a sound as he simply waited for her to finish what she had to say. His grey eyes tracked her every agitated step, taking it all in but giving nothing away.

She leaned against the stones nearby the door to their chamber’s balcony, taking deep breaths to calm herself.

“I apologize for my ill temper my lord.” She said softly, the highborn protocols she had grown with coming to the forefront and calming her somewhat. “I find myself frustrated and at loose ends regarding this situation. I don’t understand why Jon Snow is leaving or why you are allowing it in the face of what has happened here.”

“I know Cat.” Ned answered, at last standing as he moved toward her. He stopped three steps away. Close enough to let her know he wasn’t angry with her. Far enough to tell her he wouldn’t cross that last threshold to touch her unless she willed him too.

Catelyn thought of Brandon sometimes in moments like these. Most who had known them both could only think of how different the two brothers were. How loud Brandon Stark was in the face of Eddard’s silences. How aggressive he was in comparison to his little brother’s level head. How tempestuous he was in contrast to Ned’s calm. But what no one really seemed to really remember about the most compared Starks was that they could both say so much with their gestures when they spoke no words at all.

It had been that realization that had allowed her to begin to love him for who he was, that link between himself and his family that showed who he really was behind the stony silence and the implacable face.

She turned to him, crossing that last distance between them.

“Why can you not tell me what is happening Ned?” She asked him softly, hands alighting on the back of his neck as her arms rested upon the slope that connected his neck to his shoulders.

His hands remained at his side as his grey eyes darkened for a moment. His eyes darted briefly to the right, debating what he could tell her. He decided on what he had been saying already.

“It is not my place to tell you this Cat. It is Jon’s and Jon’s alone. When he is ready, he’ll return and he will explain himself in full. He has promised me.” He said, tone firm and unyielding like the Wall his brother Benjen had taken the black to protect.

Catelyn Stark closed her eyes as her forehead came to rest against her husband’s. She was once again frustrated, exasperated and admiring of her husband’s stubborn honor and belief in the honor of others. She supposed she had no choice in this anymore than she had when he’d come home with a guilty look on his face and a newborn Stark babe in his arms.

It was funny in a way she supposed. For so long she had wanted Jon Snow gone from Winterfell.

And now, the day of Jon Snow’s departure had come. Yet it came without the feeling of a weight lifting off her chest that she had always imagined, without a resolution that she had so desperately sought for the aberration that was his inclusion in this life they had.

He had been given a good horse, some weeks’ worth of supplies, a bow with new quiver of arrows as well as a short sword and dagger set that had come fresh from Mikkan’s forge. He had bidden each of her children as well as herself and her lord husband goodbye at the gate. The children with a hug and a brief exchange of whispers. While her lord husband had gotten a firm handshake and she a formal bow. Soon enough he was mounted and off.

They had watched as he made his way out of the gate. They had watched as he went further and further down the road. And as soon as he was out of sight from where they stood, Arya had raced toward the wall alongside Bran, no doubt to climb the parapets and perhaps catch one last glimpse of him while Rickon had stayed firmly in her arms and her eldest children Sansa and Robb had followed her and Eddard back to Winterfell.

Only a few days had passed since that morning and already the castle seemed…different…without the bastard boy around. Maybe it was because he had left when things were so uncertain and in such upheaval. Or perhaps that was simply due to her constantly seeing the people whom his departure had affected the most day in and day out. Whatever it was, it certainly did not grant her the peace of mind she had imagined she would find now that he was gone for the foreseeable future.

So now here she was: lying in bed while her husband slept beside her, wondering if perhaps she should’ve joined her voice to Rickon, Bran, Robb and Arya’s in requesting he stay.

As Cat turned on her side and attempted once more to close her eyes in an effort to beckon the coming of dreams, she supposed all that was left to let time tell.

Chapter Text

Weeks turning into months had passed since Jon Snow had left Winterfell.

He was now working his way through the forests that lay nearby the Hornwood keep. He was sticking to the shadows, traveling when he had the energy and resting when he had gone far enough to need to rest. He had discovered early on that the more time he spent absorbing the rays of the sun, the longer his stamina could last. He had recently begun to experiment with how his ability to call and use the flames was affected by absorption of the sunlight.

The results had been encouraging to say the least.

But it was nightfall now and the darkness was coming. As he began to settle down for the night, he reflected on whether he should’ve at least told Lord Stark the truth of what he had intended to do. Though he had tried to tell himself he hadn’t actually lied to the man who had been a surrogate father to him literally since the day he had been born.

It was true that he could learn more of his father and the beliefs that had sprung up around him across the Narrow Sea in Essos. Just as it was also true that he could speak to his father through any open flame if he was able to concentrate enough.

‘If you must have your enemies know something, have them know something which might be true. Do this and you shall allow them to convince themselves of their own cleverness.’ R’hllor had told him in White Harbor when he had asked his opinion.

Jon wasn’t so sure it would work. If these enemies of his and his fathers were truly determined to find him, couldn’t they discover that he had indeed made it to White Harbor but that no captain or ship had any record of him boarding with them?

His father had reassured him that even if his enemies took that step they could never be sure he hadn’t boarded one as a cabin boy, as an oarsman or as something else entirely inconsequential to captains who just wanted warm hands to help them leave port.

When given a choice between two lies men often preferred the slightly uncomfortable to the comforting. Believing that he had boarded a ship as an oarsman was a slightly uncomfortable thought, but it was also a much less severe line of thought than that there was no way to know where he had been after getting into White Harbor after all. And the most convincing lies were the ones people told themselves.

But his father had been concerned with a more practical teachings as well.

‘If you are to illuminate the darkness, you must first learn to see within it.’ He had said when Jon asked what exactly he was supposed to learn by sneaking through the alleyways and finding his way around the guard patrols of the docks.

That had turned out to be a mystical way of telling him he needed to learn to sneak, remain hidden and be the shadows he encountered among the trappings of civilization when he had the chance. In the night, R’hllor had him learn to become one with the darker areas off of the streets. To appear to belong to them. To let them cloak him as a well-worn garment. His memories of Bran’s climbing served him well here, the memory of his little brother’s nimble fingers finding the smallest handhold and feet following closely but not too closely after to give him just the right balance between caution and speed.

He had been spotted several times in the beginning. But always he managed to lose his pursuers even as the city watch grew restless with the whispers of a prowler lurking in the streets at night.

Step by step, stride by stride he had been improving within the city limits. Now he was in the wilderness on his father’s instruction, having held onto the underside of a trade wagon as disinterested guardsmen had waved the unwitting merchant through. After rolling out from under the wagon during its first stop on the way to the Kingsroad, he had been relying on his wits and everything about hunting he remembered from Farlan and both his Uncles to find food and be sure he wouldn’t leave too obvious a track.

Should he be caught doing any of these things he needed to learn to survive now, he would be rightfully labeled a poacher, a thief of the wilds. And considering he was a bastard to begin with…Well, Stark bastard or not Jon wasn’t sure he should rely on the kindness of nobility when they discovered him hunting game that rightfully belonged to them.

He had asked his father why it was he needed to live out in the wilderness. Would he be required to survive without civilization from now on? He had been floored when his sire’s voice had answered with a tone of amusement that it honestly didn’t know. He had paced the same line in front of the campfire again and again, unable to help the feeling that the merrily crackling flame was watching him in the darkness of the newly fallen night.

“How can you not know?” Came the question, tumbling past his lips without his conscious thought.

“How can you not know the movements of all of the wolf packs that hunt in all forests?” His father asked him in turn.

Jon stopped short at that. It was impossible for even a skilled hunter to predict how every individual pack of wolves was going to move. Sure, they could have an idea of general migrations and how a great many of them would move from hunting ground to hunting ground. Or perhaps if they were focused on a singular individual they could predict their behavioral patterns with some time. But from there, it was all a question of trying as best you could to understand the wolves as a species and hoping either the gods or luck was on your side.

“That’s not the same thing.” Jon objected as he settled in front of the fire. He had sat close to the open flame both because the heat washing over him gave him a sense of comfort and out of not wanting to give the impression he was more focused on his pacing than on what he was being told. Despite the odd echoes and shifts of voice in his sire, Jon felt he could still read the general tone. And despite the laugh in the voice that had answered him earlier his sense of his mystical father’s tone at that point sounded more akin to Maester Luwin when you had given an incorrect answer that he wanted you to discover for yourself.

“Why?” The fire crackled back.

“Because…” Jon started. He was forced to cut himself short. He could not honestly give a reason why the comparison was not an apt one. He sat still for several moments, carefully thinking. He did not want to disappoint his newly discovered parent so soon after finding him; especially given how unlikely it was that he would get to see his mother anytime soon.

He ignored the involuntary pang his heart felt when he thought about that fact.

“Do not fear to speak your mind child.” The voice coaxed in a voice that reminded Jon of a bard he had once heard on a those rare occasions when a singer had ventured North far enough to be heard at Winterfell. “We would not see shadows between us, not when there is no need for it.”

“Because you’re a god. Doesn’t that mean you’re more aware of the world and what happens?” He asked, feeling a bit impertinent for asking such a question of such a mystical entity.

“Very good,” His father answered, a small shower of sparks shooting in the air as he paused. “You are learning one of the most important lessons we can teach you.” Jon was confused. What could he mean?

“You are questioning. You are beginning to seek what is, not simply what is true.” There was a warmth in the tone that did not simply come from the heat of the flames Jon thought.

“Isn’t the truth what is real?” Jon asked, unable to discern what that was supposed to mean. If something was true, surely that meant it simply was what it was. There was no subjective aspects to something that was true. Was there?

“If you simply define things by what is real and what is true, you would have a very limited idea of the world child.” The voice answered. “You, our young spark, are a bastard.” It declared. Jon opened his mouth to angrily call his father on that. He was his son, not just a bastard. “Humans as a whole have decided that bastards are an expression of some of their worst weakness. Whether through lust or conniving or carelessness, these children come into the world born to parents who are not openly committed to each other in a way the other humans recognize as legitimate. Individuals may be kind, but packs and wholes are not so inclined.”

“What does that have to do with truth?!” Jon asked angrily, leaning forward as though he could stare down his father through the fire that spoke with his voice but did not show his face.

“Are you simply a bastard?” The voice asked him.

“No!” Jon answered forcefully.

“Then you are not an expression of our own as well as your mother’s weakness? We were not foolish or selfish to leave you behind to suffer for our transgression in the eyes of others?” The voice asked him.

Jon could not say they weren’t those things. To say so would be to claim that they had not brought suffering on his head for what other people thought would be to lie. And to claim that all bastards were not what people believed them to be would be a lie and he knew it. What was the point of this?

“What does that matter?” Jon answered in a subdued tone. “I am Jon Snow. I am not just a bastard. I am who I am.”

That is the difference between what is true and what is.” The voice told him as it shifted into that of a young child reminiscent of Bran when he had first been learning to speak. Jon’s eyes widened at the simple sentence.

“So are you saying I shouldn’t believe anything I think is true?” He asked, calmed somewhat by the fact that his father had been using something personal to him to demonstrate what he meant while confirming that he did not see him as any less because he was a bastard. It was irrational Jon knew. But after so many years of having to wonder with the Uncle he had believed to be his lord father, it was hard to not think it.

The edge of the flames shifted with the breeze for a moment. The voice of his father returned.

“We are saying that men can spend their entire lives willfully blinded simply because they only seek to know what is true.” The voice answered. “What you believe and what you question is entirely your choice. That is the intrinsic beauty and the base ugliness of humanity’s core.”

Jon was quiet for a moment as he remembered his father’s explanation for why most if not all would believe he had crossed the Narrow Sea to Essos.

“The easiest lies to believe are the ones we tell ourselves.” Jon repeated aloud. He bowed his head as he attempted to take all of the implications of this fundamental shift in his world.

His father remained silent. Jon was glad of it. It was hard to accept that he could never truly trust anything he had thought to be true. As he did, a thought passed through his mind that made his eyes narrow and his head inch its way up toward staring at the fire again.

“How can I trust the things you tell me then?” Jon asked.

“How did you trust the things we said when we told you how to save the young girl?” the voice asked him in turn.

“Because…I had no other answers. I was desperate and you showed me a solution.” Jon explained. “For all I know, I have sold my soul to a demon and you’re simply waiting to collect payment.”

“Very good.” The voice praised, shifting again into a distinctly bravosi inflection. “We could be. We could be telling you things that will make you question everything you trust in an effort to have you rely on us and our wisdom. But if we did so want that, why would we tell you to question us just when you were beginning to trust our word?”

Jon’s mouth opened and closed as he tried to find an answer.

“You cannot know. Only suspect.” The voice continued, unperturbed by Jon’s silence. “This is why we tell you that you must discover for yourself what is: not simply what is true.”

“But as to your original question,” It started abruptly. Jon wasn’t sure what it was talking about. His original question about what? “Just as you cannot know what each individual wolf or wolf pack is doing within the North, so too is it the same with beings such as we. We are powerful yes. We are aware of much more than humans yes. We have great upper limits on what we are capable of yes. But we are not all powerful, despite what you would like to believe of us. Only more aware and more able to act.”

“Then you are not a god?” Jon asked quickly.

“No more than you would consider yourself a god in comparison to a newborn wolf.” The voice answered easily.

“Then those people who pray to any gods, what use does it serve them?” Jon returned. He couldn’t believe that people believed in something that was fundamentally useless to have faith in.

“It keeps them in view of the gods they offer their prayers to. It allows the ideas of gods they trust some measure of influence upon them. And in return, the gods themselves have their powers strengthened and weakened by the strength and weakness of their followers.” The voice answered.

Jon wondered to himself what he had gotten into by agreeing to follow the voice that claimed to be his father. He could feel there was a sincerity and conviction behind its words no matter the strangeness of its voice. But still…it was quite something to wrap his head around a deity telling him he could not trust gods or men. Not even itself.

The fire was dying down at that point in the conversation, lengthening the shadows surrounding Jon’s makeshift campsite.

“Rest for the night child. Another day will come. We shall speak to you then.” It said quietly.

Jon was not going to object. As he lay down beside the fire and felt it reduce slowly to a small pile of glowing logs and heat, he wondered at what he was doing. And what would become of him now that he had truly put himself at the mercy of this mystical father’s voice.

He was awake for a long time.

The pondering had not done him much good. But true to his word, R’hllor had spoken to him whenever he projected a bit of his power into the fire: whether he made the blaze himself or simply encountered it in a torch bracket.

“Am I simply meant to wander the North hoping no one encounters me?” He asked now, in a concerted effort to not wonder whether or not he could trust the answer his sire gave.

“No. You are meant to wander the North while looking to control your powers. And unless we are much mistaken, an opportunity to do so is approaching through the woods now.” The voice answered, a smile in its highborn lord’s voice.

“What are you talking about?! What opportunity?!” Jon hissed, eyes casting around the trees that suddenly seemed longer in the shadows, every twig snapping and moving branch sounding like a stalking predator.

“Use your eyes child.” The voice chastised. “You needn’t ask us if you can see for yourself.”

With a start, Jon realized that he could use the vision he had learned of during his trials. He wasted no time with self-recrimination, instead choosing to close his eyes and focus the strength of the flames outward, trying to feel the surroundings.

The woods were awash in light blue shadows, every tree outlined vaguely outlined and getting clearer the closer to his fire they came. And among the less distinct trees, moving as quietly as they could perhaps fifty feet away was a group of five men. Their silhouettes were bright orange and yellow against the pale backdrop, making them as obvious as if they had started shouting where they were.

Jon jolted when he remembered that he had left the campfire burning, making it almost child’s play for whoever these men were to find him. He hurriedly attempted to exert his power over the campfire to put it out. It snuffed out as suddenly as a candle wick in an errant breeze. Curses began to filter through the woods as the men increased their pace to get to where they had seen him last.

Jon could tell he wasn’t going to get far now. R’hllor had told him this was a chance to use his powers. And he had to admit that if these men were bandits, it would certainly prove his father right in thinking that this was a chance for him to test his powers in a way that would benefit the north and the realm. Though he doubted that it would be viewed so generously if he were found.

As Jon scrambled further into the trees, his feet trying to keep from making too much noise; he wondered to himself how his family was doing back at Winterfell.

‘I hope they’re doing better than this.’ He thought ruefully.

Jon stalked closer and closer to his first target as the others came closer to converging on his campsite. This one appeared to be hanging back, trying to see if it could spot him. A lookout or perhaps he was simply more cautious than his fellows.

Jon slowly drew the blade that hung in the scabbard on his right, the dagger whispering as he drew it.

Jon could smell the man from the scant feet to his right. He obviously hadn’t bathed in some time. Jon counted a broad axe in his hands, at least two smaller dirk shaped weapons in his belt and a longer rope that if Jon had to hazard a guess was likely a sling. The pouch hanging from the man’s left leg appeared to bear out this theory.

As he approached a silently as he could, Jon noted the man apparently had some kind of paint adorning his face and arms, his leathers and furs doing much to conceal his torso, legs and not much else. The boots appeared to be of good make, the kind a merchant might wear for a long journey. Jon’s stomach churned a bit as he wondered what unfortunate soul had been volunteered for giving up such a basic clothing piece. And whether or not they had done so willingly.

So engrossed was he in trying to sneak up on the man that he didn’t notice the rabbit nearby until he startled it by moving too close, alerting his target someone was here. The painted man whirled in place, trying to track where the rabbit had run from, his gaze only about a foot to Jon’s left. Jon held as still as he could, hardly daring to breathe.

“Come out come out wherever you are.” The man called softly. “The Grimwell clan doesn’t take kindly to no sneaks.” He warned, axe raised threateningly as his beady eyes kept darting all over Jon’s general direction without appearing to see him.

Jon was trying to keep calm as he racked his brain for any mountain clan named Grimwell. Off the top of his head he couldn’t recall Maester Luwin ever discussing one. But then again, if this was a bandit clan, than perhaps they weren’t considered a clan so much as a rabble by everyone except themselves.

The painted man started stalking toward Jon’s direction, axe raised higher again as he appeared to be searching, ears almost visibly twitching as he tried to see if he could find any sign of what had startled the wildlife.

Jon remained as quiet as he could, crouching low to the ground so that if the man did find him, he might be able to take him by surprise by coming in from too low an angle to guard.

As he tried to steady his hand, the painted man came closer and closer, the others at last reaching his campsite just as its last embers were dying out.

“Tarik!” They called, halting the man’s advance as his head swiveled in his companion’s direction. “We found the fool’s sleep spot! Get over here!” A different voice demanded.

Before Tarik could response, Jon struck. He leapt forward, his right hand bringing the dagger downward into the junction between the man’s throat and his shoulders as his left hand attempted to grab the man’s mouth.

But Jon had miscalculated.

Instead of hitting that spot between the two, it had landed squarely in the meat of the man’s shoulder between the front and back parts of his left collarbone.

Tarik let out a shrill screech even as Jon’s left hand hastily grabbed the axe that he was attempting to bring to bear against the unseen assailant Jon had been.

“Tarik?!” They called, all breaking into a run toward Jon even as the now sweating bastard wrenched the dagger through more of the muscle to bring it toward the outer point of the collarbone. The blood spurted briefly onto the ground and almost soaked Jon’s hand up to the wrist as his now flailing victim managed to buck him off, dagger still embedded in his shoulder.

The man leapt to his feet, left hand clumsily swinging the two-handed axe down toward where he thought Jon had landed. Panicking, Jon rolled to the right, his right hand instinctively brought up before a gout of flame erupted from his open palm.

If anything, Tarik’s screams grew worse. He dropped the axe even as the men with him briefly stopped in horrified awe as his body lit up by Jon’s frightened reaction. Tarik flailed worse than ever, his hands attempting to beat the fire off his clothes, his skin, everything. He stumbled into trees as he attempted to get away from the pain that was everywhere on his body.

Jon scrambled backward in an effort to regain his feet as Tarik’s four fellows charged even faster. Their weapons were drawn ready and their shouted threats would’ve curdled milk had Jon happened to have any with him.

Jon grabbed the axe as quickly as he could, the weight and balance of it unfamiliar in his hands. Just as he adjusted his grip so that his left hand gripped the lower part of the longer shaft and the right came closer to the head, they were upon him.

They wasted no time in attacking, the two on his left side slightly faster in thrusting their blades at him. Jon quickly whirled to his left, hands coming to rest togeather near the bottom part of the shaft before he used the momentum to sink it into the back of his closest attacker.

He screamed in agony before collapsing on his front, weapon forgotten from his hand as both appendages scrambled to dig the massive weapon out of his back. Jon Snow however barely registered this as he immediately sprang for the other attacker that had been directly next to him. The dark-haired man swung a hand axe in his right hand which Jon ducked to get close. He hadn’t anticipated the bandit bringing a dirk to bear as it stabbed into his side harshly, the sudden pain of it almost forcing Jon to relinquish his left hand’s hold on the back of his attacker’s head.

Jon slammed his forehead into the man’s nose as quickly as he could manage before he lost his grip. With an audible crunch of a breaking nose, the man’s left hand attempted to stab Jon in the side again even as he shouted in pain. But this time, the bastard of Winterfell was ready for it. His right hand grabbed the assaulting wrist, focusing the pain in his abdomen to flare fire into life. His assailant’s wrist and forearm caught fire where Jon’s flesh touched him, his hand forced to drop the dagger with this sudden onset of pain and light and sound.

As his companions directly behind him quickly changed direction, they once again hesitated as they saw their friend’s hand aflame. One recovered quickly enough, using this opportunity to thrust his spear at Jon. Jon recognized his footwork even before he had done this however and so moved his entangled assailant into the spear’s path.

It was a more solid thrust than Jon was anticipating however.

The spear point managed to penetrate both layers of the dark-haired man’s armor as well as his body as it angled upward toward Jon’s face. Jon hastily tried to move to the left, his left hand grabbing the dark-haired man’s hand axe from his loosened grip as the point harshly grazed his right shoulder.

Jon’s right hand pushed the dark-haired body further down the spear toward the wielder even as the inadvertent victim gurgled in surprise. His shocked comrade turned backstabber barely saw Jon swing and bury the axe in his exposed neck. Jon moved back toward where the dirk had fallen as the final member of this band let out an angry cry as he thrust the point at where Jon had been, the fires still burning bright on Tarik and the dark-haired man’s bodies.

This final man was a scraggly blonde, with green eyes that seemed dull in the firelight. Jon could see how crooked and grey his teeth looked in the fires of death he had conjured as he thrust the sword at Jon again, this time barely missing his chest.

As Jon’s hand alighted on the dirk handle, the blonde man snarled at him: “I’ll wear your guts for garters before I kill you ya little shit!”

As the man brought the sword up for an overhead swing, Jon used his arms to push himself forward as hard as he could, sliding on the forest ground. He managed to slide between the blonde’s legs. Before the man could react, Jon hastily cut the back of his right knee. Then spun into a crouching position while the dagger flashed into the back of the man’s left knee.

Now acting entirely on instincts he wasn’t aware he had, Jon stood himself up even as the blonde’s legs gave out. As he rose his hands took the handle of the sword that was falling backwards while the man lost his balance. He quickly ripped it out of the now slackening grip before bringing it in a quick half circle that saw the point stabbing through the blonde man’s back and out the front of his chest in a messy spray of viscera and a sickening squelching noise.

The man’s eyes widened in shock even as he looked down at his own blade sticking out of the front of his chest. He tried to draw several futile breaths before his heart stopped beating and his head slackened while trails of blood emerged from the corners of his mouth.

Jon let go of the sword, allowing the cooling body to fall to the ground. All that remained for a moment was the sounds of the moving forest and the continued cries of the last survivor, his efforts at digging the axe out abandoned in favor of dragging himself away from the opponent who had just slaughtered all of his fellows.

Jon heard his father’s voice emerged from the lowering fires of Tarik’s corpse.

“Now child! Speak to the survivor. Find what is in all this.”

“What?” Jon asked numbly, his spoken question to seemingly nothing ignored by the terrified Grimwell bandit who still dragged himself away even as the axe weighed heavily upon his back and his useless legs left a bloody trail in the soil.

“Unless you want their deaths to have been for nothing, you must question this survivor. Gain the information you need to illuminate the darkness of your own ignorance.”

Jon stepped slowly toward the crawling man in a trace. He would lose himself later, when there was time and he was alone with only himself for company. With a wrench, he pulled the axe out of the crawling man’s back.

Even as a howl erupted from the man’s lips, Jon had turned him over on his back.

“Tell me what I want to know and I promise you a swift death.” Jon whispered in a daze, unable to look the hoarsely panting man in the eyes.

“Wh-What do you want?!” He asked, voice scratching from his cries of pain and agony.

“Tell me about the Grimwell Clan. Who are they, where are they and why did they send you here?” Jon asked.

“T-They’re marauders!” The man groaned out in agony. “Th-They stay up by the-” He hissed sharply as the pain in his back flared unexpectedly. “The Last Lake!”

“Why did they send you?” Jon asked again, grey eyes only looking at the man out of his peripheral vision.

“T-To find a w-weakness in Hornwood.” He answered, breaths coming in shallower gasps.

Unable to bear watching him suffer any longer, Jon stood and picked up the axe.

“For what it’s worth, I’m sorry.” He whispered as he looked the man in the eyes one last time. The axe flashed and in a thrice the head was separated from the body. As the blood painted the ground crimson and the inner heat faded from the headless body, Jon remembered when Lord Eddard had brought him and Robb to execute a man who was guilty of selling to slavers. He had tried to look away, but somehow their father had known and had him look so he could understand what it meant to take a man’s life.

Jon quickly dropped the axe before stumbling over to a nearby tree and immediately emptying his stomach onto the forest floor.

His father spoke to him again.

“It is time to use your healing young spark.”

“Not now.” Jon heaved dryly. He still felt sick as to what had happened.

“Where there is death, there is always a chance for life. Burn the bodies so that the scavengers may eat and you may heal.” His father instructed, sounding a gruff tradesman in his tone. Jon was briefly reminded of Mikkan.

As Jon knelt before the fire on the dark-haired man’s wrist, he couldn’t help but wonder how it had come to this. He drew the energy from the fire and used his open palm to spray a small cone of fire at each corpse to light them up.

As he drew the heat and fire inward, he felt it knit his skin and his bones back to the way they were, the blood drying even as his cuts and wounds closed and sealed over.

Slumping against a tree as the first dead fires burned bright while the others faded out, Jon wondered to himself what he would become by doing this.

For the first time since beginning this journey, Jon was afraid of what answers the future might hold for him.

Chapter Text

“Well, what do you make of it son?” Halys Hornwood asked curiously, his brown eyes taking in the slightly macabre leavings they had been told of by the pair of hunters.

Daryn wasn’t sure how to answer his father. He couldn’t tell whether he already had an idea of what he wanted his son to see in this strange scene or if he was genuinely mystified by it and was asking his honest opinion. He had been trained to be the Lord of Hornwood from an early age, his status as only child somewhat of an oddity even for a smaller bannerman’s family and thus his treatment at his father’s hands alternated between genuine questioning to further his training in the necessary aspects of ruling or lordship and rhetorical questions that were meant to make a point to him.

Though he supposed that if they were counting all his father’s children then it would be unfair to exclude his younger brother Larence Snow. But considering that he was twelve and currently residing at Deepwood Motte, Daryn very much doubted that it would come down to him to rule over the House of Hornwood anytime in the near future.

He scratched his wisps of a brown moustache that might’ve matched his hair if it was more than a few slivers of overgrown stubble as he attempted to stall for time. His blue eyes, inherited from his mother, scanned the five charred bodies and abandoned weapons. He said the first thing that came to his mind.

“Very odd father. Very odd.” He proclaimed, his nose picking up a scent that was separate yet entwined with the smell of burnt flesh and cooking meat. His father looked at him before pointedly looking back at the bodies that were scattered on the soft ground.

“Yes, I know it’s obvious to say as much.” Daryn pre-empted his father. “But hear me out. It’s not just the fact that they’ve been left here. They’re also the only things that have been burned in this area! I mean, how do you suppose their attackers could’ve done that? And what purpose would it serve?”

His father’s eyes grew thoughtful as he looked at the bodies again, crouching by one of the nearest ones while the small squadron of armed men they’d brought with them hung back a bit further so they could keep watch for any wild animals who had chewed the bodies any more than they had been.

Daryn wondered how it was these men had come to such a gruesome end here. One man falling asleep in a campfire was a freak accident though it had been told as happening before. (Noticeably without any specific names being given but always a family member’s friend of whosoever happened to be insisting it had truly really happened.) But five armed men, all in different places of the forest? And all without setting the surrounding woods alight?

No. Nature was not that strange and bandits though these men likely were, they couldn’t have been that stupid. Others had been here. But why wasn’t there more trace of them?

“Begging your pardon m’lord.” One of the hunters spoke up from the back. It appeared to be the younger of the two, the hunter’s son Owen. An average sized boy, his hands were rough from repeated skinning and drawing of the bowstring. His black hair was shaggy, but clean. His eyes were green in contrast to his father’s blue and alive with an eagerness that Daryn was unused to seeing from one of the smallfolk. “But it wasn’t-”

“Quiet Owen.” His father Earic reprimanded softly. The older hunter was black haired like the younger. But that was where the similarities ended. Where the son was obviously eager to speak, the father had barely spoken full sentences since bringing report of the bodies to his lord. Where the son was shaggy but clean, the father was trimmed yet somehow unkempt: his stubble showing he hadn’t returned home to shave in some time or that if he had he hadn’t seen the point in doing so. Where the son was awed by the presence of the lords of the land surrounding Hornwood keep, the father was nonplussed; instead electing to be more wary and cautious even outside the obvious deference he needed to show.

“But father!” He started, indicating the ground nearby the bodies with a wide swing of his right arm.

“Our lord of Hornwood has not given you leave to speak. You should hold your tongue until he gives you leave to use it.” Earic preempted, only minutely shaking his head in response to his son’s agitated gesture. He bowed to Daryn’s father before he continued. “Forgive my son Lord Hornwood. He gets his manners from his mother. Lovely lass, but too blunt by a half.”

“What does he mean?” Daryn asked before his father could answer Earic. He wanted to know what it was the younger boy had seen that they might’ve overlooked.

“Well,” The boy started hesitantly. He looked to his father and Daryn’s own, his demeanor now more timid as he seemed unsure whether he was committing offense by answering Lord Hornwood’s heir directly. Daryn’s father waved his hand in a gesture that seemed to indicate he should go on.

“The thing is m’lord, this wasn’t the work of more than one man.” He got out in a rush. He obviously didn’t want his father or Lord Hornwood to change their minds about letting him speak his peace by taking too long.

“What?!” Came Halys’s sharp question. He took two steps toward the boy while Daryn did the same, both seeking to draw more out of the younger hunter. How could one man have possibly done all of this?

“If you follow their tracks back where they came from m’lord Hornwood,” The boy began, eyes beginning to shine with enthusiasm again as they got onto the subject of how he figured that. “You’ll see that they was looking at someone’s camp.”

He walked away from the clearing for a bit, finally coming to a larger gap in the trees that one could call a small clearing if they were feeling generous.

“See this here on the ground?” He said, bringing his hand to hover a few inches above a mound of darkened earth that Daryn hadn’t even noticed until the young man had pointed it out. “This was a fire pit when these men got killed. You can tell from the ashes that remain in it even after the man tried to bury it. And before the tracks that came from the dead men disturb the place, there’s only one set of clear feet. They thought they’d catch him off guard. But somehow,” He indicated a small area nearby the fire pit that had been partially overrun but still contained many overlapping impressions of what Daryn assumed were the dead men’s tracks. “He saw them coming. He went this way:” He started walking toward the area they had found the bodies.

“He encountered one of them. The others probably heard, came right quick. Six sets of prints lead here. Only one goes back to the camp again and moves away from it.” He concluded, smiling broadly even in the stench of old burnt flesh.

His father Earic sighed quietly. “The boy is right Lord Hornwood. But he misses the most obvious things and the reason I didn’t want to say such earlier.”

Owen looked at his father in astonishment.

"Firstly, he misses that there is no evidence of how this lone fighter managed to burn the bodies. There's no evidence of him having used any sort of pitch or setting any kind of pyre to do this. Were I a superstitious sort of man, I might be ready to call it sorcery and be done with the matter." He said as matter of factly as though he were speaking only of some possible snowfall. "The second thing however is the most important one."

“The truth of it Lord Hornwood: these men weren’t simply bandits who came across an easy mark. Their weapons and what remains of their clothing says that they work for one, but they themselves were a scouting party.” The more experienced hunter continued. He pointed back to the area the five dead men had come from. “Their tracks come from the direction of the coast. Near that area, the only river they could’ve crossed is the Weeping Water.”

Daryn’s father sighed heavily. “Of course.” He muttered to himself.

“Father?” Daryn asked him.

“When we’re back at Hornwood, I’ll explain Daryn. But until then, let us say I understand where our huntsman friend is trying to say.” Halys said, his reluctance to breach the subject obvious.

Once they had returned to Hornwood, Earic and his son Owen were compensated for their information and the bodies of the bandits disposed of. Soon afterward, Halys led his heir to Hornwood's private solar and began explaining to Daryn what the huntsmen’s information meant for their potential actions.

“What do you mean, we cannot do anything about this?!” Daryn burst out incredulously. A scouting party of men from a bandit group organized and smart enough to send eyes forward instead of charge into a lord’s territory had been killed, their route obvious and their passage through Lord Bolton’s land had been unnoticed at best and uncontested at worst. Why did that mean they couldn’t inform him about it so that they might do something about this band of raiders he wondered? Was this not what it meant to be a Lord of the North?

“I mean that even if we were to request Roose Bolton give an explanation as to why these men could make their way through his land unmolested, do you imagine he will not take offense at the implication that he cannot patrol and handle his own lands sufficiently? This is far from the first time bandits have made their way through Roose Bolton’s land. But how would we prove it? By the word of thieves and killers? Even if they had lived, none would seriously take the word of a criminal over the word of a highborn lord. By the weapons they carry? All stolen, rusting and falling into disrepair. Hardly the tools of a grabbing hand of the House Bolton. The stories and whispers smallfolk tell? Hardly more reliable than the word of the bandits.” Halys’s tone was firm even as his eyes shifted slightly, betraying his somewhat conflicted opinion on the subject.

“And even if we manage to overcome all of those doubts and do send soliders to hunt down these vagabonds, where would we even start? The only men who could’ve told us where they came are dead and their trail is long since cold. There is nothing we can do here Daryn, much as it galls me to admit so.” His father finished, leaning back in the chair behind his desk.

Daryn was speechless. His father who had told him so much of what was expected as a Lord of Hornwood: to watch over his people, to ensure the prosperity of the realm, to uphold the laws and the justice of men was telling him that he couldn’t do any of that because the politics of doing so were too complicated. Daryn turned his head to the window of his father’s solar to buy himself time to try and marshal an argument and so he wouldn’t have to look at his father as he did so.

"What of the magician they attacked father?" Daryn asked. "If we found him-"

"And where would we find this mystic man Daryn?" His father asked gently. He rubbed the back of his neck with his left hand tiredly. "Even if we could find him, do you really think he could tell us anything these bandits could not?"

Daryn was silent. He could not say so and they both knew it.

Halys shook his head sadly. “It is unfortunate that these men got so far into our lands.” He continued, running his right hand through his prematurely grey hair in agitation. “But in any case, I shall be doubling the patrols for a while near here. Limited as our house’s lands are, we cannot afford any outbreaks of banditry, not with the winter coming.” He leaned forward to take his quill in hand, pulling a piece of parchment toward him as he prepared to write out his orders and edicts for the smallfolk.

He briefly looked up at Daryn. “Get to the courtyard and find Lucas. Tell him he needs to step up your lessons so that you may be ready.”

“Yes father.” Daryn answered softly, knowing he would get nothing accomplished by continuing to argue for action with him. As he descended from the solar heading to the courtyard, he pondered his father’s explanation as to why they could do nothing to act upon this trespass. He could somewhat understand it. Their family words may have been Righteous in Wrath yet that did not mean they could rush in haste. If anything it meant they had to be more discerning with their anger and sense of retribution. Even under the straightforward and honorable House Stark of the North, there was still political maneuvers to be made. It was annoying but thus far as Daryn had known it hadn’t actively hindered them from doing what was best for the land.

Storing food for hard times, trading with merchants within and without Westeros, being sure of their own safety within their borders. It had all been an unquestioning balance of things in Daryn’s mind before. But now he couldn’t say so with nearly as much certainty. What was the good of being a fellow Lord of the North if they couldn’t even work together to be rid of the undesirable elements of their homes? Surely there was enough of that below the Neck where the Southern Lords were as unused to hardship as they were to honesty?

But more concerning was the knowledge he had almost missed because he was not as good at tracking and seeing as he could be. He had given dedicated effort to his studies of running a household and the art of combat, but had never seen hunting as much more than a chance at practicing his horsemanship and his archery.

But that Huntsman Earic and his son Owen had seen in the tracks on the ground and the bodies of the dead men a story he could never have guessed at if they hadn’t shown him. If he learned how to truly hunt for himself, perhaps it could serve him in helping keep his piece of the realm safer.

As he reached the courtyard from the halls of Hornwood, his eyes sought out the Master at Arms Lucas Samson. Lucas was a man his father’s age, prompted to the position of Master at Arms for his service to his lord on the battlefields of Robert’s Rebellion. He had previously been a simple household guard, but had proven himself to his father after taking a blade lance to the gut for his father. He had barely survived and still had trouble with his bowels and his breathing to this day for it. Despite that, he could be a strict taskmaster when he felt Daryn wasn’t giving his all in training.

Across the way, he spotted Lucas’s distinctive bald head. Striding toward him, he reached a decision.

“Lucas!” He called to the Master of Arms. As he turned to face him, Daryn asked a question. “Do you happen to know Earic the Huntsman?”

Lucas squinted at him suspiciously. "Aye, that I do young Hornwood. Why do you ask?"

"Why else? I wish to learn the art of hunting Lucas." Daryn answered, an excited gleam entering his eyes.

Chapter Text

Daenerys Targaryen wasn’t sure where she was at the moment.

She remembered watching the sunset from the window of her room in Magister Illyrio’s manse before she was abruptly somewhere else, somewhere she had always and never hoped to be again.

Suddenly she was a small child once more. She was by Ser Willem Darry’s bedside, watching him draw in shaky unsteady breaths as he wasted away before her eyes in that house with the red door. She tried unsuccessfully to keep her tears at bay as the man who had looked after her and her brother hovered at the edge of death’s domain, his every breath obviously labored and drawn with great difficulty.

She couldn’t bear to see the man who had saved herself and her brother by getting them across the sea to Braavos. She could still smell the lemon tree in the courtyard outside, hear the faint murmur of the people who moved past their hideaway on the streets. But it was all muted: the face of her family’s loyal former master-at-arms looking blankly up at the ceiling of that room.

She didn’t know what was happening or why she was thinking of this memory now of all times. Before her eyes, the room shifted, changed to become some strange amalgamation of the bedside and the great hall with the carved animals that seemed to hold creatures both strange and mundane to her young mind. But this was different from the room she remembered, that much was clear.

The carvings were alive.

Ravens and eagles and mockingbirds and sparrows all flew among the high rafters pursued by harpies and winged serpents and dragons whilst the lions and wolves and stags and foxes bit and swiped and snarled at each other while snakes and mice and insects nipped at their collective heels: all of them engaged in a melee that was as bloody as it was energetic.

Seeing the wood splinter and crack with each strike landed, Daenerys watched as a fire erupted from a figure of a wolf, quickly beginning to consume the support beams of the room. Dany could hear the cries of the animals even as they continued to savage each other while the wood burned. As the heat washed through the room and sparks flew with reckless abandon around the air, she scented the salt air of the sea and the copper tang that came from spilled blood.

Even as she tried to open her mouth to cry out in a manner she couldn’t have decided was meant to be confusion or fear the wood cracked and splintered further, blood red vines and leaves forcing their way through the opened gaps in the wood even as she felt water wash over the bottom of her feet. It was as if nature had suddenly imploded and begun to war with itself. She saw the water of the ground rise and impossibly carry the flames toward the wood even as the vines and the leaves lashed out at the fire before driving straight through to push into the outside toward the darkness that had engulfed the world that was surrounding the house and toward Willem Darry even as he lay in bed.

Daenerys attempted to move forward to warn her guardian. But even as she outstretched her hand to cry out to him, he sat up in bed, his mouth opened with an inhuman scream while a blinding light poured from the depths of his jaws and from behind his milky eyes. It drove back the vines even as the leaves attempted to close his opened mouth while they covered his unseeing gaze. The noise was becoming deafening: voices and calls and cries echoing and reverberating in that chaotic chamber from everywhere and nowhere.

Dany noticed in the midst of this that her hand was now the color of ash and dragon glass, eye watering patterns of grey and black swirling on her skin as though she were smoke made flesh. She looked down at herself, the water lapping her ankles now, a ring of rust building up around her toes as though she were a piece of iron left to rust in the uncaring sea. She was starting to look back up when she saw tentacles break through the waves to hold her feet in place, pulling her fast to the shifting surface beneath her feet that couldn’t seem to decide whether it was sand or wood.

The noise at last began to reach a crescendo as she looked up. The fires, the vines and the leaves were all combining to create something strange as orange flowers bloomed upon the creepers even while the fires continued burning. The light from Ser Willem’s mouth grew bright enough to hurt her eyes more even as the strange leaves flew off the man’s face right at her. Instinctively she attempted to pull on the shadows of the ominous night that was just outside her grasp even as the fiery plants and the now tumultuous water worked together to assault her. She instinctively opened her mouth to scream. An unexpected plume of smoke and unfamiliar coldness blasted from her open mouth instead of sound. When it clashed with the light and the fire, it produced a deafening boom and a flare so bright it reminded her dimly of staring directly at the sun as it rose except it felt as though her eyes were inches away from the celestial body.

When the light died down, Ser Willem Darry was standing before her in a void. He smiled as he approached her, right hand alighting on her shoulder in the way she remembered when he had been proud of a painting she’d once attempted to make as a child.

In a disjointed tone he spoke to her, his unhealthy rasp echoing in this strange void of a place.

“From the blood shed by the animals below there shall rise a new flame. From the minds of they who dwell above there shall come a new peace. When the shadow of the old world seeks to encroach upon the fire of the new world the outcome shall be salvation in death or rebirth in destruction. For to fight the strength of the divine is to trust the fate of men to their mortal hands.”

With a jolt and gasped inhalation, Dany was back in Magister Illyrio’s home and knew once again when and where she was.

She held her hand to her racing heart as the last rays of the sun disappeared beyond the horizon. The floor of the balcony was still warm beneath her feet, the sandstone of the manse having done much to absorb the sunlight of the day.

The only sounds to be heard were the whispering of the lightest breeze and the vague murmuring of the fountain in the courtyard. The fountain itself was a thing of beauty: a naked young man holding a thin bravossi blade at the ready. Magister Illyrio proclaimed it represented what he had once looked like as a young man. In the privacy of her own mind, Dany was not sure how much of that was the truth and how much of it was Illyrio’s own wishful thinking. For she saw no blades that were not held in the hands of his guards and no instruction for swordsmanship that had been given to her brother from himself rather than one of his men.

But that was neither here nor there. She quickly turned around to look at the room behind her.

The silken pillows, the thin curtains that adorned a soft mattress. An oaken closet lined with a gold filigree that gave it a somewhat hypnotizing glow in the sun and torchlight. But otherwise there was nothing personal to the guest room that the Magister had repurposed into her room. She knew this was to be expected considering the man had plucked them off the street soon after her brother had been forced to sell their mother’s crown in order to put some food in their grumbling stomachs. They’d only been there for a close to a year now, yet it felt much longer.

As she lowered herself carefully onto the mattress, Dany considered her vision just now.

What was it meant to tell her? The creatures of the wood fighting each other. The fire burning out of control but moving with such a clear purpose. And the sea rising to wash over her while something reached from the deep to stop her from escaping. She rubbed her arms as a phantom shiver ran through her slight frame.

At thirteen, she was just beginning to show the first signs of womanhood. But she was still not quite out of that time of her life when she was looked upon as a child. She had heard her brother Viserys say that her body was not yet that of a queen even if she did carry their family’s blood. She closed her lilac eyes as she slowly came to rest her back upon the feathery soft bed, silver white Targaryen hair that shone in the moon and the sun alike fanning out like a curtain beneath her.

What would her brother say to her if she came to him with this? He had been on the street for so long, trying to get someone, anyone really, to show their faith in his claim to the Iron Throne and bring them back home. It had considerably embittered him, his mouth soon becoming more and more set in a cynical sneer as yet one more person who professed loyalty to their family name refused to help a king without a single gold dragon to his name no matter how old his lineage.

When they had been young, she remembered that he had tried to keep her spirits up, telling her stories of their family back in Westeros. Of their proud traditions. Of their feared power that still commanded respect even in this day when the last of the Targaryen dragons had died over two generations before their birth.

Now, all he could talk about was how the dogs of the usurper would pay. How the Starks, the Baratheons and the Lannisters would all pay. Unbidden, the image of the splintering wood came to mind. She had seen all three of those animals upon the wood beams of the house. Or so she imagined she had. Though it wasn’t much of a surprise considering how often she had heard of her brother talk about it of late.

She tried to think of the Highborn Lords who had turned against their family. Deposed their father and forced their mother to die upon a heaving ship while the sea raged and screamed at them. Much as it had at Dragonstone when she had been born. But when they made their escape across the Narrow Sea, she had barely been a year old. Her brother had remarked to her sometimes, in his darker moments, that the storm had followed them because of her.

It hurt when he told her that. But perhaps he was right in some way. After all, she had been named Stormborn for the winds and rain that had lashed the ground she’d been born and been taken to. No more had she seen a return of any of the storms that had heralded her entrance to the world. But even when she tried to think of the lords in the west, all that came to mind were shadowy figures.

One with a thinning head of gold, one with wild black hair and one with overgrown lank brown hair. All caricatures. All characters that would fit more with a child’s morality play than a real world. The scheming climber. The mindless berserker. The honorable turncoat.

But much like the storm itself, she herself had only the account of her brother, Ser Willem and Ser Willem’s household to draw her ideas from. She knew it was likely they were not quite so bad as the stories her brother painted. But still, she’d had nightmares when he told her of what Tywin Lannister had ordered.

Her nephew and niece. A suckling babe and small child. Brutally slain for the sake of slaking the Ursurper’s unquenchable lust for Targaryen blood.

She didn’t want to dwell on that matter further and so closed her eyes to the lowering sun, trying instead to recall the details she had seen in the carvings. But even as she did so they slipped through her mental fingers like grains of sand in an hourglass. She could remember that there were many animals adorning the support beams. But all she could see in her mind was the image of a dragon and a harpy tangled up in each other, their claws tearing gouges in each other and the wood they were impressed upon with each attack.

She wondered if it was a warning or a premonition. Would her brother have to fight a war against an unknown enemy before he would be allowed to reclaim his rightful place in Westeros? She heard movement. Boot heels making loud claps each time they impacted on the way up the hall toward her room.

Her eyes opened of their own accord. She dearly hoped no one had upset her brother and woken the dragon that was his foul temper. He had been sweet to her when they were young, always trying to get her to look on the bright side. But with every successive let down, every simultaneous disappointment, his smiles grew less and less while his anger mounted higher and higher.

She sat up, quickly straightening her shoulders. He had made it clear from previous experience that he did not appreciate it when she was ever acting anything less than what Westeros would consider a proper young woman. Even if it was only the two of them in the room, she would need to be ready for his inspecting eyes that scanned her. Examined her. His gaze made her uncomfortable. It was like he was waiting impatiently for a fruit to ripen so that he could devour it for himself. She was aware of why that was.

She knew the stories of the Targaryen brothers and sisters and their divine passion kindled by their shared blood. But she had never felt anything like that for Viserys. He had only ever been her older brother to her. She stopped that line of thought again. If she thought too deeply about this before he appeared, she would upset herself visibly.

And then the dragon would be awoken.

The object of her recent thoughts appeared in the doorway to her room. He leaned casually against the frame of it, his shorter but equally bright silver white hair framing a face similar to her own, though longer and slightly narrower. His lilac eyes immediately found her, racing over her bare arms and the dark brown silk dress she wore more often than not. The servants remarked that it was somewhat amazing that she didn’t sweat herself into unconsciousness wearing the thing. But Daenerys had never found the heat of the manse or the sun uncomfortable. Quite the contrary in fact. She felt comfortable, even safe in the hot open air.

But now, under the eyes of her only family, she felt goose pimples arise on her pale flesh. Her hands absently rose to rub her suddenly chilled skin.

“Hello Viserys.” She greeted quietly, standing before giving a curtsy while dipping her head to avoid having to look at him least he read the discomfort in her face’s expression.

“Evening sweet sister.” He said gently as he pushed himself off the doorframe and walked into her room. He was taller than her by about a head, but had a slender willowy body with equally long skinny fingers. Dany almost instinctively swallowed as his right hand made its way to her left forearm. As he cupped her arm, she thought his palm cool in comparison to her heated skin. His left hand gently trapped her chin between his thumb and forefinger before applying minor but insistent pressure to bring her face to face him.

As their eyes met she saw that while his mouth was smiling, his eyes were somewhat shadowed. She feared what that meant for his temper.

“Are you satisfied here in Magister Illyrio’s manse Daenerys?” He asked her, his voice dangerous in that way she had grown to realize meant that there was only one correct answer to the question he had just asked.

She gave a small nod in response.

“Then why have you not taken more pride in his accommodations? Perhaps made it more to your tastes?” He asked silkily, his face less than inches from her own.

Dany’s mind raced as she sought to think of an answer that would not wake the dragon.

“I-I haven’t yet gotten used to Magister Illyrio’s generosity.” She got out, only the slight tremble at the beginning of speech giving away her nervousness.

“Be sure you do sister.” Viserys said after some moments of silence. He brought his lips to her forehead. He brought his lips to her forehead to kiss it. As he let them linger on the smooth skin of her brow, he whispered to her. “Otherwise, he might get the ludicrous idea that you don’t appreciate what he is doing for us. And then you might manage to wake the dragon.”

With one last smile, he turned and left her room as purposefully as he had come.

Dany slowly sat herself on her soft bed. She closed her eyes and shakily exhaled. She knew now that she couldn’t tell her brother what she had seen. He would never believe her. And even if he did what use would it serve? No, her best option at present was to show her gratitude to Magister Illyrio.

And pray that her future could prove better than her present and her past had thus far.

Chapter Text

Jon had been traveling for weeks, moving as far as his power would allow him during the day. It was several months since he had last seen Winterfell. His clothes had begun to get worn, his hair had grown almost to the back of his neck, becoming matted in places now that he went without frequent bathing. His facial hair had never been great even when he attempted to let it grow back in Winterfell. But now it was longer, his stubble and growth of hairs somewhat patchy and uneven. He may be trying to become and look the part of a man now but he was still not fully grown into it yet.

He was moving through the land of Roose Bolton. He remembered from his lessons with Maester Luwin that the words of House Bolton were officially Our Blades Are Sharp but much like the Lannisters of the south, their house was better known by a saying they used: A flayed man holds no secrets

House Bolton was the once enemy of House Stark. The one House who could’ve possibly challenged for control of the North and won it. Notorious for the ruthless lengths they had been willing to go to destroy their enemies before at last bending the knee to the Starks. He didn’t think it was entirely his imagination that the land here felt different from the rest of the North, something in the air that he hadn’t felt in Winterfell, in White Harbor or in Hornwood. Perhaps it was a reflection of the family legacies that had come before Roose that he felt.

Jon wondered to himself why anyone would be so proud of a history of brutality. Of flaying men alive and (if Old Nan’s stories were in any way true) wearing the skins of their enemies as cloaks.

He had asked his father what could’ve driven men to do such a thing: to take pride in it not once, but consistently. Generation after generation.

His father had answered that it was because they could. Jon hadn’t understood what he’d meant by that, and so had asked him to clarify. What his father had told him was what Jon thought about now that he was approaching the area of Last Lake, wondering if what his father had told him held for the Grimwell Marauders.

“Are you certain you wish to understand?” His father asked, a priest’s voice echoing loud and clear like one of the more elaborate crystal pieces of a Septon headdress had struck a bell through the campsite as the aroma of cooked rabbit wafted in the air, Jon’s meager dinner having long since been consumed.

“I do.” Jon had said, his piece of hard bread softened somewhat by a careful application of heat from his hands. He had found that if he heated the hard bread he had taken when he left Winterfell instead of setting it aflame, he could soften it somewhat, allowing it an easier passage to his still somewhat grumbling stomach.

“Humans as a whole do what it takes for them to ensure they survive. It is a core part of their identity. You make rituals and ideas such as ourselves to worship inside your mind, and when you do you try to give us distinctly human characteristics. You want something greater to value of your lives and existences. To desire to see your happiness achieved. Or to even simply care about helping you survive the darkness inherent in your perception of the world that surrounds you.” His father said, his every word measured yet flowing like a well-practiced favorite sermon.

Jon wondered to himself if this way of speaking truly came from his father having been a priest in a former life or if it was a subject that he’d thought about numerous times before. After all, if what his father had told him about gods was true, than essentially humans were the reasons the gods existed and sometimes acted as they did.

“You create these restrictions for yourselves so that you can be allowed to survive as you allow others of your race to. But then you begin to call them true, you tell yourselves that they mean something outside of a reflection of your humanity. That they are somehow the same for anything that is to be considered right or good or desirable or real. But that is not so. The rules you create are a reflection of your people as a whole. The rituals you imagine are a reflection of your view of the world. And which of the myriad that become ingrained in you are a reflection of your understanding of both.” His father continued as Jon settled back against his rolled up blanket with carefully attentive grey eyes.

The fire appeared to flicker briefly toward him and Jon thought he saw a momentary flash of slit pupils within yellow eyes at the core of the dancing orange and red.

“Many humans make a rule not to devour the flesh of other humans, living or dead. And for the most part other humans choose to obey this rule. But when a group of them is starving in the desert and they devour their dead in order to survive another moment, they discard that rule because now it is a question of their own life or the principles of other humans. Does that mean they routinely feast on the meat of other men before or since?” R’hllor paused here, the only sound from the surroundings the crackle of the flames. Even the wind itself had died down as though it desired to hear the many tongued god’s explanation. “No. But it means they understand that the rule of not devouring other humans was a self-imposed chain upon themselves and others of their species. One they broke in order to survive. And one they hope to live long enough to shackle themselves to again.”

“And how does this apply to the Boltons?” Jon asked, unsure what connection he was meant to be making here. There were exceptions to many things in extreme circumstances certainly but how did that explain the Boltons proudly flaunting such concepts of human decency and basic honor as they had when they fought the Starks?

“Imagine that you are facing an opponent on the battlefield young spark.” His father said, his voice shifting to that of a roughhewn man that sounded what Jon had imagined a wildling would as a child. “This opponent you face is your equal in every way. In strength, in speed, in technique and in cleverness. But: there is one thing he absolutely will not do. He absolutely will not wear armor upon his legs. He bears a breastplate. A standard shield. A masterful blade. A helmet and bracers fit for a king. But from the waist down, he will only wear simple leather trousers. Is he more or less difficult to defeat?” The fire asked him.

Jon pondered for a few moments, brow furrowed as he mulled the question over.

After another minute or so had passed, he spoke.

“It depends upon why he is unarmored. If he is simply that overconfident, than he is simpler to defeat. If he knows something of his own abilities or the terrain I do not, he is more difficult to defeat.” Jon was sure of himself as he finished his answer.

“He does so for neither reason.” His father answered, a smirk in his tone. Jon’s brow furrowed in further confusion. “He does this because it is a restriction placed on him when he marches into battle and he obeys it no matter the consequences.”

Jon’s mouth fell open a small amount in confusion. “Than he is simple to defeat. If he doesn’t have the self-preservation to armor himself or guard against it, than he won’t defend even if it is directly attacked.”

“What you saw as dishonorable, the Boltons likely saw as attacking leather armor.” R’hllor concluded aloud. “After all, if a man is honorable: that same honor will place restrictions on what he does. And that makes his vulnerabilities and weaknesses as obvious as leather armor amidst steel plate does it not?”

Jon closed his mouth even as his eyes widened in astonishment. He had never looked upon honor as a weakness before and didn’t like the implications of what his father was suggesting.

“That does not make it right that they did such things!” Jon instantly shot back, unwilling to say the Boltons had acted well by descending into barbaric behavior.

“When did we say anything about right child?” R’hllor asked rhetorically, his voice softening until it sounded frail and wispy as a browned leaf. “All we have told you is that they were not willing to chain themselves with the same self-imposed bindings your Stark ancestors were. That is neither right nor wrong. It simply is.”

“Your ancestors prevailed yes.” R’hllor continued before Jon could interrupt. “But that does not make them any greater or more righteous. It simply means they compensated for their chains better than the Boltons could take advantage of them.”

Jon sat in silence as he attempted to absorb his father’s words. First gods and men alike were not to be fully trusted and now even concepts such as righteousness and honor could be deadly handicaps? It seemed a very cynical, lonely and above all brutal way to look at the world.

“That seems…inhuman.” Jon finally said as the fire continued merrily dancing.

“To your perception perhaps.” The wispy voice countered. “Not so to us. We see it as an embrace of your humanity.”

“How?” Jon questioned, his right eyebrow involuntarily rising like a curtain to reveal his skepticism.

“Think on it when you have confronted these Grimwell men. Then tell us what you think.” The disembodied god answered as his presence left the fire.

Jon wondered to himself for days after.

He wondered on the meaning of R’hllor’s cryptic words of nothing being true in the world of the divine or the mundane.

He wondered on the purpose behind R’hllor’s proclamation of an unlimited existence outside the common binds of law and decency.

But eventually he had to conclude that he was unlikely to understand by ruminating over the potential answers endlessly. As he made his way closer and closer to the Last Lake, he practiced more of his powers, experimenting with the duration of the flames he wielded. He could now manage to create brief flashes of bright fire that lasted less than a moment consistently whenever he pointed his hands. He found that if he had dirt, wood chips, grass or other loose but solid material in his hand, he could light it even brighter when he threw it.

To his surprise, the best material for this little trick of his turned out to be ash. He had thought that maybe since it was the remains of what had already been burned that it wouldn’t serve very well. But then he thought on it and reflected that perhaps his father’s heritage allowed him to connect on a deeper level with things that had already been touched by fire and so could let him put more power into the fire itself instead of having to create his own path.

It was something else to ponder in any case.

The sun was beginning to set as he approached the Last Lake now. He waited for the sun to fade just beyond the horizon as the darkness of night encroached the blue sky overhead like blood running darkly through a still pool of water.

As he opened his eyes, he was now seeing using both his human sight and the vision that allowed him to glimpse the inner fires and subsequent heat of his surroundings. The environment had been of middling temperature during the day, the sun a blinding spot overhead. But now it was already cooling rapidly, the former riot of oranges and yellows with the occasional glimpse of green and blue was now quickly becoming an ocean of lighter and darker blues with green and black splashes everywhere occasionally interspersed with the faint red flicker of an errant animal.

All except for the island of light he glimpsed in the distance.

Jon quickly moved toward the light, crouching as he moved across the somewhat open plain. He instinctively evened his breathing, arms steadying him as he picked up speed. As he came closer his eyes told him that there weren’t just Grimwell bandits, there were smallfolk here as well. A small group to be sure, being held in a small area by the lake. Two men by the pen near the lake while one guarded them from making it into the camp itself.

The accommodations were somewhat haphazard: for prisoner and bandit alike.

The tents and crude awnings were obviously for the outlawed men; Jon could glimpse a few of them examining their weapons, others moving just beyond the range of his human vision as shadows but highlighted in bright hues with his fire sight. He judged the camp to be a rough horseshoe shape, the tents forming a semicircle. He slowed his pace bit by bit, creeping closer and closer. His heart was racing in anticipation as his mind ran equally fast to try and figure out what he was seeing here.

He could understand the Grimwell men being here. But why where there small folk in this place, penned in and looking thoroughly miserable? Were they kidnap victims of these bandits who hadn’t managed to escape their notice while they made their way to the lands of the other noble houses of the north?

As he came within sight of the first patrolling bandit, John could make out the green paint on him that he remembered Tarik and his companions had adorning their bodies. The smell of cooking meat somewhere in the camp made Jon’s stomach roil somewhat as he forced himself not to think about Tarik and the burning corpses he had left behind when he had first discovered this group’s existence.

He snuck up behind the man, slowly drawing his dagger from its sheath as the bandit came to a stop near the edge of a tent.

Jon’s reflexes had been improved over the course of his journey here from hunting and constant practice under his father’s crackling presence in the flames. Now he knew what he was doing. In less than the blink of an eye, he had sprung up behind the green painted man to firmly clamp his left hand over his mouth before using his right hand to press the dagger to his throat.

Jon could see the pulse in the side of the man’s neck as his increased heart rate made his body burn a bit brighter in the night.

“I’m going to ask you some simple questions now.” He hissed in the man’s ear. He applied a slight increase of pressure on the knife to the taut skin of the man’s throat, managing to draw a small thin line of red. He ignored the stench of sweat and grime that he could feel even through the layers through his clothes it was caked on so thoroughly to the man’s boiled hide armor.

“You’re going to blink once for yes, twice for no.” He continued. “Do you understand me?”

The man’s brown eyes blinked once.

“Glad to hear it.” Jon said, shuffling them back from the camp so there would be less chance one of his comrades would stumble across them.

“Now then, is your leader here in the camp?” Jon asked.

Blink.

“Is he the one who instructed you to spy on the other houses of the North?” Jon asked.

Blink.

“Is he the heir to a Northern house?” Jon asked.

Blink. Blink.

Jon was taken aback for a moment. If it wasn’t a lord officially doing this, what would it benefit these men to study the other Northern Houses? They couldn’t be sure of any sort of reward for it, not unless-

“Is he a highborn Snow?” Jon asked.

Blink.

‘Of course it bloody well was.’ Jon mentally sighed.

“Are there more than fifty of you in the camp?” Jon continued, giving himself a small shake inside the confines of his brain.

Blink. Blink.

“More than forty?”

Blink.

“Are there any animals nearby I should be aware of?” Jon asked. The young demigod saw his prisoner's pulse get a bit faster before he answered again.

Blink. Blink.

“The truth of it now!” Jon growled, pressing the knife again. He heard the man whimper a bit as the blade bit a bit further into his skin. The scent of urine filled Jon’s nose.

Blink.

“Horses?” Jon asked.

Blink. Blink.

“Dogs?” Jon guessed.

Blink.

He abruptly spun the man so that he landed facedown on the ground. Jon straddled his back before pulling his head up by the hair and holding the knife to him again before he could try to get up.

“Now tell me why the smallfolk are here. And if I even suspect you of trying to scream, I’ll give you a new mouth to make it with.” Jon threatened.

“They’re here for sport an’ for profit!” The man babbled. “Please don’t kill me! I-”

“What do you mean, sport and profit?” Jon interrupted.

“Ramsay, he-he keeps them around cuz we can sell ‘em to get some money. The others he keeps as game for his dogs to practice on!” He answered quickly. “I didn’t want him to do the same to me like he did the last man tha questioned ‘im about it! Please!” He begged.

Ramsay Snow? Jon felt as though he had heard that name before. But where?

It came to him in a flash. Roose Bolton’s bastard. He was one of the worst kept secrets of the North, notorious for being the only son of Roose’s after Lord Bolton’s trueborn and only child Domeric had mysteriously died several years before Roose had declared Ramsay his heir.

Jon Snow could scarcely believe that this was the kind of person Lord Bolton wanted to take over the Dreadfort and the surrounding countryside. As Jon was about to ask another question, a shout rang behind him.

“Oi! What the bleedin’ hell are you doing?!” The voice demanded.

While his human eyes were focused on looking down at the man beneath him who had relaxed marginally now that someone had come for him, his fire vision showed him the man’s outline without his needing to turn around.

He stood out against the cool night air, his average build offset by the threat of the bow he held in his hands. An arrow was already nocked even if the bow itself was pointed at the ground at this moment in time.

Time seemed to slow to a crawl to Jon. He had gotten so caught up in interrogating the man beneath him that he hadn’t registered the second man approaching until he had called to him just now. Much as Jon wished he could, he wasn’t nearly skilled enough to create a fire to incinerate the man in an instant where he stood either with or without his hands. His mind raced, considering and discarding ideas at a rapid pace before it settled on his strategy. It was risky but the only one he could do with a hope for minimal damage to the trapped smallfolk.

Jon slowly moved his feet to the ground, still straddling the bandit beneath him.

“Don’t you move ya little prick!” The archer behind him threatened, arrow being brought to bear. Jon knew he wasn’t going to get much more time than that.

In the blink of an eye Jon moved. He swung his right leg off the man beneath him while forcefully pulling him by the hair with his left hand and sticking the dagger into his throat before using that to leverage his pulling his now bleeding body over his own.

As the archer instinctively fired at him, Jon managed to bring the gurgling bandit’s body around in front of him even as it landed in between his spread knees that were now sharply bent. Jon heard the arrow impact the chest in front of him but wasted no time. With a silent prayer to his father and a quick attempt at judging distance and force, he withdrew the dagger from the dying man’s neck and threw it at the archer.

It went end over end before lodging itself in the man’s gut, causing him to release a cry of pain before he could even take his next arrow from the quiver. Jon pushed the cooling corpse in his arms off to the left of him as he used his legs to spring up and make a run for the man tugging his knife out of his stomach. He withdrew it with a short spray of blood and attempted to slash at Jon as he did so.

Jon spun in place as he approached, using his spin to go to the man’s left where he had already swung the blade trying to prevent Jon from closing in. Even as he dropped the bow to try and bring his fist to meet Jon’s face, the dark haired demigod’s right hand shot out to meet it.

He took control of the man’s wrist as his left hand gripped the man’s throat. Without a second thought, Jon engulfed both his hands and the flesh they were holding in fire. The dark haired man tried to scream but only released a crackling gurgle as Jon’s left hand cooked his vocal chords and managed to set his beard alight in the process. A part of Jon’s mind was screaming at him to stop, horrified at what he was doing. But the rest of him realized that if he didn’t kill this slaver, this willing hunter of other human beings, than he would alert the rest of the camp in moments.

Jon clenched the fingers of his left hand as the man’s right dropped the blood stained knife to the ground as he opted to use it to try to prise Jon’s iron grip off him. He felt the burning meat beneath his hand give way so easily. When he judged they were meeting each other halfway, Jon moved himself to the man’s right and gave a mighty pull with his flaming left hand.

A small corner of Jon’s mind observed that the gaping, bloody, burned wound looked like a small dragon had attempted to cook his neck before taking a large chunk out of it.

The archer’s lifeblood managed to spray out within moments of Jon literally tearing his voice from his throat. Jon looked to the knife on the ground, picking it up and placing it in his belt, sure he would have to use it again momentarily. Thinking quickly, he knew that the two men’s absence would not go unnoticed. Silence and stealth were closed to him as options now. Which left fire and mayhem. Hopefully they’d be too distracted trying to figure out who was attacking him to be able to gang up on him.

Jon picked up the discarded bow with his bloody but fireless left hand before he took the arrows from the quiver and stuck them in the ground. He knocked the first arrow to the bow, counting he had roughly ten left after he fired the one he had drawn. As his eye took aim, the adrenaline pounding in his ears caused him to see the fires in the distance and on the dead man’s hand. The bow and arrow lit up just as he finished setting his sights on one of the Grimwells that was idling by a medium sized tent.

‘Here goes nothing.’ Jon thought to himself as he drew back the string. He waited only a few moments. And then…

He loosed the arrow.

Chapter Text

Ramsay Snow was enraged.

Those who had been acquainted with his company for longer than a passing glance or a greeting could tell anyone who asked that this was nothing new for the self-styled ‘true heir’ of Roose Bolton.

Ramsay was a bastard in both the literal and figurative sense. He was very much aware of it as well. His mother had hated his noble father for hanging her miller husband and raping her beneath his swinging corpse. She had never hidden her disdain of his father or him. The first time she encountered him cutting the paws off a rat he caught to see what it would do, she had only remarked bitterly that he was truly his father’s son before banishing him from the house for the day.

As he had gotten older, his temper had worsened. He would act out and his mother would try to discipline him with warnings then later resorted to striking him when warnings and banishment were no longer sufficient. But he knew better than to fear her hand. It soon reached the point where she had swallowed her hatred of his father and gone to him seeking help in keeping Ramsay under control.

That was when he met Reek.

Reek had been sent by his father to look after him and to help him grow. His mother had always told Ramsay how ugly he was as a boy: due to how he possessed his father’s pale skin, lank black hair and lips that looked like “a couple of writhing worms stuck to your face” as well as slightly narrow dirty blue eyes.

Reek however was in a class of his own.

Balding with only greasy stringy bits of ropy hair hanging down the back of his skull, stubby wart infested fingers, a paunchy stomach that drooped no matter what sort of pants he wore, stick thin arms attached to fingers that looked more like spider’s legs than human appendages and squat tree trunk like legs; Reek was a sight to behold in all the wrong ways.

And that was without adding his stench that smelled of something that had died and been trapped in muck for several weeks no matter how often he bathed. Ramsay had remarked more than once when he found out about the man’s predilections that perhaps that was why Reek enjoyed fucking corpses; they were the only ones who wouldn’t complain about his rank smell.

When Ramsay had at last taken care of that soft spoken pretender that dared call itself his father’s trueborn son (who cared if he was recognized as his father’s heir, he didn’t have the stomach or the ruthlessness necessary to be a Bolton as his death by Ramsay’s hand proved), he had grown even closer to Reek as it had been the smelly man’s idea that if Lord Bolton had only Ramsay as a son he wouldn’t be able to resist proclaiming him heir.

When his mother had tried to physically reprimand him for that, it had led to him slamming her head into the table in a fit of rage. He had seen the look on Reek’s face when she fell unconscious. How he was tempted to take her body and slake his lust with it. But he was hesitant to do so while she still drew breath even if she was unconscious.

So Ramsay took the simplest route to fulfill both of their desires. He had calmly drawn the hunting knife from Reek’s belt and knelt beside his mother’s body. With barely a blink of his dirty blue orbs or a single waver in his toothy grin, he drew the blade across her throat.

She never opened her eyes.

He had given Reek time alone with her cooling body as a courtesy. From then on, the manservant had thrown himself headlong into teaching Ramsay everything he could. How to hunt, how to fight, how to handle a blade. Everything he needed for when his father gave him a task to fulfill to prove he was worthy of being named his heir.

It turned out that his task was a seemingly simple thing to do but proved more complicated in execution: his lord father had instructed him to find a way of bringing additional funds into the Bolton family name.

Ramsay had succeeded beyond his expectations if he had been allowed to say so himself. He had managed to turn his and Reek’s hobby of hunting smallfolk into a lucrative slaving operation. They found able bodied smallfolk man and woman alike, to be taken to and be imprisoned by the Last Lake. Only a short ride from the Dreadfort so he could send some disposable Grimwell marauder to his father to give him a message and simultaneously allow his father to claim he was cracking down on the bandit problem in the North. He could use any that might provide a challenge to help himself and Reek keep up their hunting skills while shipping the rest across the sea to make money from the slaver cities.

He had heard from his father’s warning about what had happened when Lord Stark had called for Jorah Mormont’s head for selling to slavers, but Ramsay was personally sure that if Lord Stark ever tried to prove it he could always claim these were criminals that were being punished in accordance with the Old Ways: by giving them a chance to defend themselves in a trial by combat.

He couldn’t really be blamed if none of them were allowed weapons seeing as how he was usually generous enough to give them a head start in exchange. It was better than anything a deserter of the Night’s Watch could expect. Besides, when the dogs tore them apart and Reek had his fun with the remains, Ramsay would name one of the hunting hounds after them if they had given him a particularly good run. It was a high honor to have a Lordling remember a smallfolk’s name, let alone name a beloved pet after them. Most servants of a noble house could only dream of being recognized in such a way; especially since most of them would have to do something extraordinary to earn such accolades!

Funnily enough, it seemed to be mostly women who were willing to indulge his sport and run as soon as he gave them leave. The men were usually the ones foolish enough to try either fighting or groveling their way out of having to be his quarry.

But in any case, this had all gone on for some time now. He had just returned from the drop off of another shipment at the mouth of the Weeping Water that ran past the Dreadfort to choose his next prey. He’d had his eye on a pretty young brunette called Caralyn, couldn’t have been more than a nameday or two older than his own age of eighteen. But oh she had been defiant when his Grimwell dogs had taken her and the innkeep wench who she worked under to their camp. He’d initially only though to bring the younger fitter one, but Reek had seemed very interested in the older woman of the two. Beth was it? No, Bess? Well, it was some simplistic name barely worth remembering: he knew that much.

So he’d obliged his most faithful man and brought the both of them from the now abandoned inn to have fun with them. They’d set the older, more buxom innkeep loose in the nearby Lonely Hills and given her a head start. She was a distinctly unsatisfying chase. Didn’t even try to do anything aside from run. No seeking out the woods, doubling back, or token attempts at subterfuge: just a straight shot toward the Lonely Hills. He’d been so incensed at the lack of challenge, he’d allowed the hounds use of her before he let Reek indulge himself in the feel of her body. Oh, how she’d cried and begged. It was pathetic really, especially since she begged for her young lover Caralyn’s life instead of her own.

Oh, he was delighted she had at least given him some information to use on the younger woman. He had decided he just had to release her that same night. But he’d first let her stew in that knowledge, knowing that when the sun disappeared: she would be next. And even if he allowed the beasts and men use of her before finishing her off, it would be more than such an abomination in the eyes of the world deserved.

The sun had rapidly disappeared beyond the horizon, as if the gods themselves were encouraging his impending trial and judgment by hunt of her soul. The camp was ramshackle to be certain, but many of the smallfolk they had penned in were too frightened of him and the Grimwells to attempt escape anymore. And even if any of the men possessed any second thoughts about following him, he’d swiftly put an end to that trend by allowing them to try proving themselves against his dogs. Both the two and four legged variety.

He’d approached the pen they were being kept in, unable to contain his excitement about the evening’s entertainment as her red rimmed green eyes widened with his approach. She had tried glaring and shouting at him earlier. He had only ever grinned wider in response, visibly unnerving her. When she’d tried to call him a bastard, he’d simply used his dagger to stab older man standing next to her in the thigh. As the pitiful peasant had screamed, he’d then very reasonably explained to her that he was no bastard, but a trueborn heir. And that if she ever attempted to call him that again, the rest of them would suffer for it since she was going to be prey for his dogs anyway and he wanted her to be in peak condition when she was let loose.

She’d quieted herself after that.

But now something had come to interrupt his fun! Out of the darkness surrounding their reasonably lit camp, a flaming arrow impacted one of his men. That wouldn’t have been so bad if it hadn’t struck his chest with such force he flew into the tent he’d been standing beside and caused it to collapse on him.

Ramsay barely had time to look at it before the man and the tent suddenly and forcefully ignited, causing him to scream so loudly the smallfolk had cringed away instinctively.

The men immediately picked up their weapons: two handed axes, swords and shields, bows and arrows alike. Another shaft flew out of the dark and struck one of the archers standing nearby the water. This time, Ramsay and the Grimwells watched as the fire seemed to spread of its’ own accord from the shaft stuck in the man’s abdomen to encompass his entire form. In less time than it took to blink, he was a burning man’s form: screaming and running for the waters of the Last Lake to put out the fire.

Another shaft impacted the weapon rack, creating a conflagration as the wood holding the spare weapons, the tent itself as well as the surrounding structures began to catch flame, the smoke and heat starting to choke the air.

“Find the dead man who’s doing this you pathetic cretins!” Ramsay screamed furiously, drawing his blade and gesturing in the vague direction the arrows had thus far come from. Even as they started to run toward it, another shaft struck a man through the throat, causing him to fall boneless to the ground. The fire engulfed his form as well.

The Grimwells, hardened as they had been by service under the Bastard of the Dreadfort, were beginning to get scared. The smallfolk were getting restless and Ramsay was beginning to feel that familiar feeling of rage welling up in his gut. When he found the man doing this…

Another flaming shaft impacted one of the guards near the pen, pushing him back into the wood and managing to set it alight. The smallfolk screamed as the fire seemed to spread of its own accord once again. In all his life, Ramsay had never seen anything like this. He could only equate it to tales of sorcery he had heard tell of from across the Narrow Sea.

Another shaft flew into yet another tent, making the whole camp begin to feel like one gigantic bonfire. Ramsay charged toward where he had seen the arrow come from. As he picked up speed, two more arrows followed in short succession, once again managing to impact the archers nearby. As the men nearby Ramsay moved forward as well, one sprouted a feathered shaft from his leg and another managed to take the next shaft up in the eye.

Reek was running beside him now, wheezing as he tried to keep up with his lord’s heir ostensibly so that he could protect him. If Ramsay had to hazard a guess as to what Reek’s actual motives were, he would say it was more along the lines of not wanting to be roasted in the blaze the camp was becoming.

Only about half their men were actually following him to attack this intruder, but that should be more than enough. They knew better than to give less than their all in service to Ramsay. Though it seemed those who were staying behind would soon need to learn that particular lesson a second time.

As Ramsay squinted into the dark, he thought he saw the form of a young man. The flaming arrow in the bow he held told him it was only him attacking his operation. But impossibly, the bow itself seemed to be aflame as well the closer Ramsay got to seeing it. The last arrow loosed. Ramsay rolled to the left as the shaft sailed by him before burying itself in Reek who had been behind him and to his right.

Reek’s tortuous cries and disgusting stench competed to see which sense around them could be deadened first. Ramsay shut out his agonized voice and tried as hard as he could to ignore the scent of Reek’s burning flesh which was (impossibly) worse than his normal smell. The man dropped the bow to the ground, drawing a short dagger from his waist and holding it reverse grip in his right hand. As the ten maybe fifteen men who had followed Ramsay charged, the man flew forward.

The first man who attacked held a sword and shield in his hands, charging him down with the simple wooden buckler held in front of him to absorb any attempt by the black haired stranger to stop him via projectile.

The boy waited until the brown haired bandit was within range and swinging the short sword at him in a downward cleave to take a single step to the left before dashing forward. As he did, the shorter knife flashed up and through the right side of his opponent’s exposed throat, the blood spattering part of black hair’s face.

Even as the dead man fell forward, the boy switched the knife to a thrusting grip before bringing his arm back and throwing it at the right most of three spearmen who were charging him. It struck the third man on the far left side of the formation in the face handle first, causing him to instinctively bring his left hand up to grab the injured part of his face while he continued to hold the spear in his right hand.

The black haired boy (he was a boy now for Ramsay judged he couldn’t have possibly been older than himself and so didn’t deserve the title of man) quickly closed in on the trio of spears. Instead of going for the distracted third man on his right who was wielding the spear in one hand, he instead went for the man in the center, moving just inside the attacking thrust of the man directly facing him before his hands grabbed the spear and kicked the man wielding it just below the ribcage.

Black Hair’s victim wheezed in surprise, his feet leaving the ground a few inches with the kick’s impact even as he held onto his weapon. Somehow, black hair had managed to duck under the spear into the outside of it in the meantime. Hands holding onto the spear near the top of the head, Ramsay saw the left elbow flash back to strike his still surprised man in the cranium even as the other two spearmen brought their weapons to bear. It proved useless for the fighter on the right however. For the elbow had proven stronger than his fellow marauder’s desire to hold onto his weapon. Before the spearman could react, its point was already emerging through the other side of his neck: ending his life instantly.

Black hair quickly withdrew the spear, spinning in place to avoid the only still armed spearman’s thrust at him while the one whose weapon he’d recently acquired seemed to be hanging back trying to find a moment he could rush him. Ramsay shouted at two more men who were hanging back in front of himself: one to get in there and stop this interloper, the other to go and release his hounds. Even as they started to move, Black Hair threw the spear at one of them men who’d been trying to enter the fray wielding a long handled battle axe.

It impacted with enough force to drive through the chest in a brief spray of red. The dead man spun in place briefly before collapsing like a deboned fish.

Even as he finished throwing, the previously disoriented spearman attempted to charge him with a battle cry. It was turned to surprise as he leapt forward and the black haired boy spun in place, allowing him to drive himself into the ground. But the third spearman had been waiting for him to move into range. He instantly thrust with the point of his weapon, at last managing to draw blood as the boy miscalculated his hurried dodge and had the spearpoint graze his right side enough to open a hole in his clothing and a serious cut on his side.

Ramsay grinned widely as he anticipated his hounds tearing this irritant to shreds. Black hair’s wounding by his men proved he’d be no match for animals with no sense of mercy or restraint. And no matter how hard he had tried to train them, his two legged mutts just didn’t have that obediently ruthless mindset yet. The boy was still fighting his men, moving inside one of his men’s attempts to stab him from behind with a dagger. Hands grabbing the rough dagger in his attacker’s hand while his arm was over the boy’s shoulder, Black Hair pulled downward. Ramsay saw his mutt’s elbow bend in the entirely wrong direction even as the crack of it blended with the crackling of the fires on the air. The boy’s left leg came up and then drove down on the left knee behind it, visibly shattering it as well even as the spearman and his re-armed friend attempted to skewer him.

The boy was now armed once again, his left hand holding the dagger in a reverse grip as he hurriedly deflected an attack from his left with a small hand axe. A jab to his adversary’s throat with his right fist had the man dropping the axe even as the dagger followed into the right side of his throat through his enemy’s grasping hand. Black Hair spun in place, in one move leaning down to pick up the small axe and pulling the dead man standing forward with the dagger in his throat, causing him to emit a surprised gurgling yelp as he was pulled with such force as to slam him face first into the ground.

The two spearmen attempted to pincer him between them, simultaneous thrusts shooting toward him like crossbow bolts. Impossibly, he ducked the one to his left by leaning back and then coiling down and out like a striking animal, the axe coming down to sever the spearhead from the shaft before he flew forward, burying the axe in the mouth of the still shocked Grimwell. The other again attempted to thrust at him. Pulling the axe messily from the mouth of his gargling enemy, he flowed around his body before pushing it into the spear. The spear struck true, the blood quickly staining the leather armor as Black Hair proceeded to push hard on the gargling man who tried to get a hold of the shaft to pull it out as he instead slid down it toward his fellow Grimwell.

Black Hair moved around the convulsing body quick as a flash and the next thing Ramsay knew, the knife in his left hand had been driven through the bottom of the last Grimwell’s jaw and into his brain before it was pulled out messily, the bodies collapsing like puppets with cut strings.

The other men were visibly starting to get worried now. The ashes from the burning camp were falling on the ground now, but they were sticking more and more to the Black Haired blood stained boy as he turned toward the rest as if assessing their threat level. At that moment, he heard screams and snarls echoing from the camp behind him. Three of his dogs came rushing out of the burning camp toward him. He pointed at Black Hair, instructing: “Get him!!”

It was a command meant to be obeyed by all of his dogs.

The men and the dogs tried charging forward, blocking the black haired boy from Ramsay’s view for a moment. But apparently that was all it took. A bright flash of light and fire erupted from the scene of battle, temporarily blinding Ramsay even as he drew his sword.

By the time the spots were clearing from his eyes, most of his men were dead or running, his dogs slaughtered and Black Hair taking care of the last by deflecting a sword with the dagger in his left hand before the axe head was buried in the last man’s throat. Instead of pulling it straight back out, he pulled it out to the side: leaving a jagged exit for the wide open cut in the Grimwell throat that emptied it’s blood over his now crimson face and reddened leather armor.

The ashes of the camp and the blood of Ramsay’s dogs now stained most visible parts of the black haired boy, his hair now matted with red and sprinkled liberally with fallen ashes.

Ramsay charged forward, two hands gripping his sword as he brought it toward his enemy. Instead of deflecting, he rolled forward and to Ramsay’s left, taking off toward the camp. Even as Ramsay attempted to swing at him again as he was retreating, the boy simply kept running toward the camp.

Ramsay was getting very angry now. He had killed his dogs, he had ruined his fun and he was now having the utter gall to ignore the trueborn heir of Roose Bolton as though he didn’t matter!

He didn’t fear this mystery fighter. He wasn’t recognizable to Ramsay. After all his talks with his lord father, he felt confident he would’ve recognized any famous warrior or supposedly noble name worthy of being put to a face. He sprinted after his quarry, panting in anticipation as a toothy grin split his face. He came upon this maggot attempting to get the last few smallfolk who hadn’t managed to escape away from their holding pen.

Well that just wouldn’t do at all.

He yelled jubilantly as he swung the sword for his enemy’s head. Apparently caught off guard, he barely brought the knife and axe up to try and block as he stepped into the swing. But Ramsay had put too much force behind it. The swing pushed his opponent back in the dirt. Ramsay swung again: this time managing to feel the blade sink through the armor and into his enemy’s side and hit bone, most likely from the ribs, as it pushed him back again.

The third swing proved to be his undoing however.

As he swung again, Black Hair leapt back toward the burning tents and landed so close that Ramsay could see the flames licking him from behind like one of his bitch’s overeager pups. But that didn’t make him hesitate for a moment as he took advantage of Ramsay’s over-extended swing to throw the axe at him. The weapon sang true and sank into his shoulder despite his layers of boiled leather and chainmail standing in the way. It burned as it sank into his flesh, causing Ramsay to scream.

His cries grew louder when a spearhead emerged from the back of his left leg, causing him to fall to one knee before he knew what had happened. He had dropped his sword out of shock, his right arm now limp and his underused left arm unaccustomed to the weight of wielding it by itself. As he looked up and blinked once, Black Hair was standing before him and sinking the knife into his left shoulder. He could feel the blade entering the small hollow of space between his upper arm bone and the socket it was meant to stay in.

He had never known pain like this before.

Even as he made his displeasure known, Black Hair’s hands clasped his head so that he couldn’t rise or move without being at his enemy’s mercy and whim of snapping his neck like a chicken bone. In that moment, Ramsay Snow knew he would never hate another human being as much as he hated the black haired boy standing before him.

He was barely aware of the black haired boy asking a question to someone behind him before his eyes focused on Ramsay’s with the intensity of a raging forest fire. Ramsay was startled to see grey Stark Eyes peering from beneath the blood and ash smeared upon the face of his disruptor.

“Stark!!” He hissed angrily.

“Ramsay Snow.” The Stark answered. His eyes formed a glare, his pupils widening even as his iris’s shrank. Perhaps it was Ramsay’s imagination, but it felt like the burning heat in the air surrounding them was focusing on the Stark’s hands gripping his head.

As the Stark’s eyes changed Ramsay’s world narrowed down to just him and his enemy. He could sense something growing within the Stark’s frame, something that made the hair on his skin rise and him want curl up in a corner out of terror. He so hated feeling fear and powerlessness. He had sworn to become a true Bolton so he would never have to feel this way again. He would never forgive the Starks for this insult! Never!!

“For too long you have been allowed to shed innocent blood to slake your perverse thirsts.” Stark said, his voice growing deeper and distorted, as though he were speaking to Ramsay from within a rumbling mountain.

“For too long you have been allowed to make pretense at being human.” He continued, voice gaining a heat that made Ramsay sweat in ways even the now dying fires of his camp hadn’t managed to provoke.

“But no more!” Stark pronounced, his voice now an animalistic snarl, his hands feeling like they were crushing Ramsay’s head even as his skin felt like a branding iron being pressed into his flesh his mind his very soul.

“I name you for what you are: Creature! Beast!! Monster!!! Burn in the light of the flames and darken the thoughts of men no more!” He shouted, head turning toward the heavens for a moment before his eyes locked on Ramsay’s again.

And in that moment there was nothing in his world but pain.

Fire sprang up all over Ramsay’s body, it was burning him from the insides out, his organs were cooking inside his skin, he could feel his muscles bubbling and his veins bursting inside of him.

He couldn’t stop screaming even as his Stark tormenter’s hands let go of his burning head. As he burned, he felt his eyes burst inside his skull. But somehow he could still see. He saw claws of shadow, hands that spoke only of death reaching from the fires of his rapidly disintegrating body reach out. As he was dragged into the shadows even in the haze of animal fear and blind panicked torment, he vowed that one day he would have his vengeance.

Every last Stark would pay for what had been done to him. One way. Or another.

Chapter Text

Caralyn had never been a violent girl growing up.

She’d had two elder siblings: Caeron and Cale. Her father was a simple farmer who had her brother to help him fertilize and cultivate the land while she and her older sister had learned how to run and look after the household from their mother. But she’d wanted to do more with life. Wanted to get out into the wider world and discover what waited for her. She didn’t think it would really be possible to happen if she was to stay in their little hamlet and continue toiling the field and being expected to pop out children for some boy in this or the next village like her sister.

Especially since she wasn’t particularly attracted to boys or men.

She’d been aware that she didn’t find the male form attractive as she did the female ever since she could remember understanding what it meant to desire someone and her thoughts were further cemented when her mother explained to her the differences between men and women.

(Of course her mother had been a few years behind her sister in that respect, but she wasn’t about to tell her that: especially not when she might have to reveal she stared a little too long at the curves of the other women around the village.)

She had tentatively asked one of the Begging Brothers who stopped by months before her fourteenth nameday to preach the word of the Seven in their little corner of the North what the Seven preached about those who weren’t interested in the other sex, but their own.

His response had not been encouraging.

In that time, it had crystalized in her head that she needed to get out of her village at least. She may not be accepted wherever she ended up, but it was surely better than the disappointment and the shame her parents would be forced through by the rest of her village.

Much as it hurt to see her brother and father’s cold expression as she left and how her mother tearfully hugged her while her sister maintained a carefully blank expression when she walked away from home with only a few clothes on her back and a few weeks of supplies to find some out of the way inn or farmstead down south that might be more accepting of her for who she was.

She wasn’t too hopeful, but she wanted to think there was somewhere she could go. And just as she was reaching the end of Lord Bolton’s land, she had stopped at an inn on the Kingsroad. It was there that she met Bette and lost her heart.

The older woman had a figure that was easy on the eyes and an easier smile that lit up her face. Caralyn hadn’t been able to help the heat that had bloomed in her cheeks where the older, more buxom brunette had asked if she was able to afford a bed for the night. She was forced to admit that she could not: that she had been hoping to make her way further south and make her supplies last a little longer.

Bette had smiled and nodded, a twinkle in her beautiful brown eyes as if she understood what it was Caralyn was trying to do.

“Well, much as you probably had boys trippin’ over their own feet trying to get at your skirts sweetie, I do need something a bit more real than a pretty smile and a few sweet words to put in me apron if I’m gonna keep runnin’ this place.” She had joked, her wide smile allowing a small one of her own to grow on Caralyn’s face as she found herself relaxing in the more experienced woman’s company.

“Tell ya what?” Bette had said to her after a few moments of comfortable silence while the background din had settled comfortably. She had leaned down toward Caralyn, the younger woman unable to help her gaze riveting on the innkeeper’s bountiful cleavage while her heart pounded in her ears.

With a great effort, she quickly pulled her eyes up to look into Bette’s while she talked, cursing her blushing cheeks that might yet give her away.

“I could use some help running this place. And you seem a hard working young thing. If you stick around and help me out with a few things that need to be done here and there, I wouldn’t mind keeping you.” She suggested. Caralyn swallowed, unable to help the images that galloped across her mind’s eye in that instant.

“I,” she started, tongue idly darting out to moisten her chapped, slightly reddened lips. The wind had been particularly strong that day she remembered.

“I would very much like that.” She accepted, her heart and her stomach giving a pleasant lurch as Bette’s smile grew even wider before she hugged the young Caralyn to her. With her head alongside Caralyn’s own and her chest pressed into the almost fifteen year old’s, Bette said in her ear: “You won’t regret this sweetie, I swear!”

And so Caralyn had joined the Blue House of Green Ale.

Bette had taught Caralyn all she could about running the place over the years she stayed. How to account for repeat customers. How to maintain a warm atmosphere despite limited funds. How to be prepared for certain kinds of patterns their patrons tended toward. How to care for the animals both their own and their customer’s. And a myriad other sorts of details that seemed minor but helped things run as smoothly as they might.

Caralyn felt almost like she had found home again.

But she had felt guilty for a time, keeping her attraction to Bette a secret as best she could. She had decided one night to confess to the kind woman who had offered her a place without judgment or reservation. It had been difficult, placing so much trust in this kind, compassionate woman who had felt like a second family to her. She hadn’t realized how difficult it would be until she tried and the words kept refusing to leave her throat, instead forming a lump she had more and more trouble speaking around.

At Bette’s concerned question of: “Caralyn? What’s the matter sweetie?” the younger woman’s emotional dam burst and she had collapsed against her mentor that she had fallen from simple crush to so far in love with over the span of two years. She had cried and confessed to all that she had kept bottled deep inside her ever since that day she had left her village to make her way somewhere else in the world. Looking back on it, she knew she had begun to babble partway through, just saying some of the things that came to her mind and repeating other things while hiccupping because she couldn’t seem to draw enough breath.

Bette had a simple but effective way of ending her crying. She kissed her forehead and then she had kissed Caralyn’s cheek. So close to her mouth in fact that the younger woman could’ve sworn she felt her lips tingle from the bare inches that had separated her and Bette’s.

“I saw.” Bette quietly answered her. “I knew the first I met you that you looked at me the way I’ve seen many men look at me. But I’m like you sweetie: strutting cocks have never done for my tastes.”

This time her lips met Caralyn’s as the young woman’s eyes widened almost comically. She was afraid to close her eyelids and enjoy the kiss simply because she was convinced that if she did, she would wake up and this would all be a dream again.

This was no dream.

From that moment on there had been no more tenseness between herself and Bette, no more secret longing, no more furtive glances that she would pray wouldn’t earn her a look of disgust or embarrassment.

They had been happy together another two years after that even if they did have to keep quiet about it in front of the patrons of the Green Ale. She sometimes found herself daydreaming, thinking that one day she and Bette would find someone to take over for them when they got too old to continue running the place and pass it on. It wasn’t quite the same as a family farmhold, but it was theirs.

But of course her happiness wasn’t to last.

They had trooped in, mud splattering their worn leather armor and rusted swords clanking noisily like the clunking of a metal rod upon a wooden drum. Their noise and presence had set her teeth on edge, the lot of them. But she and Bette could tell that these men would be trouble if either of them tried to refuse service and so Caralyn kept her head bowed so they wouldn’t see her worried brows while Bette continued to serve them with a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes.

The ugliest one had a stench that seemed to paralyze the air around him. He kept staring at her beloved with lecherous eyes, his fat lips occasionally getting moistened by a slightly blackened tongue as he seemed to contemplate devouring her. He’d been asked by a ratty looking young man about her age with dirty blue eyes whether he wanted to take her. Caralyn’s eyes widened as the foul smelling one answered yes without hesitation. Before she could do more than move her head to the side, she had taken a hit to the back of it and lost herself in the dark of unconsciousness.

When she awoke it was with a groan and a throbbing head. She could smell the place before she saw it, the stench almost as bad as the hideous man who had looked at Bette with such gluttonous eyes. As she looked around worriedly, Bette quickly moved over to her, taking her in her arms.

“Thank heavens Caralyn!” She whispered fiercely to her, holding her tight even as Caralyn’s arms automatically came up to hug her back.

“Bette, what’s happening? Where are we?” She whispered back as her lover pulled away from her. The woman’s momentarily relieved expression dimmed as she answered.

Apparently they were being kept prisoner by a company of men led by Roose Bolton’s heir Ramsay Bolton. But Bette had heard a few men slip up and call him Snow while they were guarding her. Caralyn was floored. Their lord, the man who was meant to protect them and care for them, had allowed his bastard this kind of freedom with them? Only a day had passed before Bette had been taken. The one known to be Ramsay’s right hand man Reek had taken her beloved out of the pen. When they came back later without her, Caralyn was distraught. She wanted to know what they had done to her.

She regretted it upon Ramsay’s joyful retelling to her of Bette’s last moments and the secret they had kept from so many for so long. As he casually outed her most closely kept secret in front of the others of the pen, she didn’t resist her impulse to call him what he was: black hearted bastard.

He proved her correct when he stabbed the somewhat older man next to her in the leg before withdrawing the blade as viciously as he had stuck it in. His mouth may have continued to smile, but his glittering blue eyes promised madness and rage that she had never experienced before as he explained to her that he didn’t much care for her insinuations against the true born heir of Bolton and that if she continued with them, he would continue to vet his frustrations on her fellow captives since she was to be hunted upon the morrow anyway.

But as the night was settling and she had nothing else to contemplate but her forthcoming death and the joining of her lover in a pointless sadistic game by an animal like Ramsay, the camp started to become engulfed in flames. In the panic, the smallfolk who had initially given up hope took the opportunity to stampede the confused and somewhat frightened guards and bolted in all directions. Not Caralyn though. She wanted to stay. Whether to ensure Ramsay’s death or her own she could’t have said in her half maddened grief.

Out of the fire came a black haired boy. Younger than her by a few years certainly, but if he wasn’t a man of sixteen or seventeen, she’d eat the tattered remains of her vest. As he came to the pen, Ramsay attacked him. Caralyn saw that though the boy had managed to drive away most of the other guards, he was not expecting an attack by the bastard like this. As she picked an abandoned spear off the ground, she was proven wrong.

The boy had leapt directly into the burning tent behind him, seemingly untroubled by the heat, and thrown his axe so hard that it had buried itself halfway in Ramsay’s right shoulder: somehow driving through leather and chainmail alike. Caralyn didn’t resist. She drove the spear as hard as she could into the back of the leg of the man who had killed Bette and then treated her death as a bit of sport.

The boy stuck his dagger in the bastard’s left shoulder, disabling both arms before grabbing his head. He looked at Caralyn with eyes a brighter shade of grey than the ashes that had settled in his blood streaked clothing and hair. He asked her if she was alright. All she could do was nod in response as he focused himself on Ramsay. And before her disbelieving gaze managed to enflame his body with a spoken condemnation that rang with power she could feel echoing in her very bones.

As the ashes of her beloved’s murderer faded into the ground and the fires continued to burn in the tents, he had quickly taken her by the arm and softly told her that they should get outside the camp now. She followed wordlessly, having been rendered temporarily mute by all the shocks her world had taken over the course of the day.

As the fires died down and they remained outside the ruins of what had been a prison and a hunting camp, her rescuer had not said a word. His grey eyes reflected the obscured moonlight almost eerily, the smell of smoke and death lingering in her nostrils as she continued clutching the spear that had brought Ramsay Snow to his knees.

A crack echoed in the air. He spun around, his eyes on a slight man with darker hair that seemed petrified of his attention. The grey eyed boy simply said: “Go. Never return here.”

The man obliged, his bare feet barely touching the ground as he sprinted into the night. A sigh came from Ramsay’s killer before he spoke to her.

“Come. We both have need of their supplies.” The calm tone of his voice was a sharp contrast to the ash and dried blood that adorned his armor and part of his face. It made her want to laugh and cry at the same time.

He offered her a hand to pull her up. “My name is Jon Snow.” She couldn’t help but flinch at his surname, the same surname Bette’s killer bore. “I know I cannot offer you what you have lost. But I hope that I can help you find a new home.” He offered, undeterred by her visible trepidation.

His outstretched hand presented a choice for her: did she dare to trust him? Did she have more to gain or to lose by her choice to do so? Such questions raced through her head but were discarded in favor of a few simple facts.

First, he had killed Ramsay and a good number of his men from what she could tell. Second, he was offering to help her in the face of what had happened. And third, she was too damn tired to think so much about everything that had come to happen to her in this half-frozen place her parents had always told her was a hard but just land.

She took his hand, spear still clutched reflexively as she rose to her feet. She still had not spoken: only nodding in her acceptance of his statement. He didn’t seem to take offense at her choice of silence. They had looted the bodies side by side. Some whole and able to be stripped of furs and coins. Others had been burnt to a crisp. They had come across only one or two that were still living, she had driven the spear she carried into them savagely as if they too had personally murdered Bette. The young man who called himself Jon looked on as she did so. Questions and sadness in his eyes, but no judgment. She was glad of that. She wouldn’t have been able to resist lashing out at him if he had dared judge her after all that she had already lost.

By their end of their salvaging, they had managed to scrounge up one hundred and twenty two coppers: the equivalent of two silver stags with a star and a half groat of pennies on top. Jon suggested they should leave this place, allow the carrions to feast on the rest. Caralyn only nodded in agreement. It was several days later when at last she spoke to him.

“Name’s Caralyn.” She rasped, her throat somewhat sore from disuse as he quietly offered her one of the roasted birds he had hunted down earlier in the day. She felt he deserved that much for allowing her use of the sleeping bag and never once asking any sexual favor of her. He seemed content instead to softly tell her about himself and ask simple questions that would only require a nod or shake of the head.

She knew that he was a bastard son of the ruling house in the North. He was a Stark by blood if not by name. That he had grown up in Winterfell alongside the lord’s trueborn heirs. That he was traveling now as a way of finding answers to questions he had recently discovered. She had wanted to ask what the questions were, but was still too caught up in remembering Bette to find the energy to ask.

He inclined his head in a gesture of respect.

“I wish we could’ve met under better circumstances lady Caralyn.” He said softly.

She snorted bitterly.

“I’m no lady.” She answered him. “Just some stupid farmgirl dumb enough to think that I could find happiness by leaving home.”

He was silent for a moment as the fire crackled merrily between them. As she looked up, she saw only the penetrating gaze of his grey eyes that begged to understand.

“Who did he take from you?” He asked, his words drawing a lump to her throat as she thought again of her Bette’s easy smile from happier times.

“Bette.” She whispered. “She was…” she wasn’t sure what to say. In the end she settled for the truth.

“She was everything to me.” She finished.

His grey eyes flickered to the flames in contemplation. Just as she took another bite she heard him again.

“You loved her.” He stated.

Her head jolted up, her sense of loss prickling her. If he was daring to condemn her for loving Bette…

But still there was no judgment in his gaze. Only the firelight and the wish to understand. Caralyn couldn’t look at him long without being reminded of how relieved she had been to discover Bette reciprocated her feelings. How much it had meant to know she wasn’t alone, that she wasn’t a monster or a freak or an abomination for being who she was.

“I should like to hear about her.” He offered as she felt his eyes on her turned away face. “If you should like to speak of her memory.”

Caralyn’s throat jumped a bit. She didn’t know where to begin or if this was to be some cruel trick. She didn’t know how but she knew only that it could be. It hurt to think of her beloved being dead but she couldn’t help and ruminate on her memories of her even now.

She closed her eyes as tears began to fall unbidden again. She wished more than ever that Bette was here with her warm arms to embrace her. But all she had was this fire and this strange young man. How would she even begin?

Yet without her thinking, she began to speak. She talked of meeting Bette as she made her way south to the Neck. Of finding companionship with her and falling into running the Inn with her. She spoke of jokes made, of arguments resolved. Of small routines that had been as simple and natural as awakening in the morning to feed the chickens and pigs to prepare them for the guests but now seemed like priceless treasures.

And through it all he had listened.

That was not the first night he had asked her of her life before Ramsay. As she talked of herself, she began to ask a few questions of him. She learned of his siblings. Of his care for his family, even the step-mother who had hated his very existence. How he had discovered the need to find answers to questions of personal faith he had recently realized he had. As they made their way further south, he was more and more comfortable practicing his combat in front of her. One night, she asked him to teach her.

He had turned his head to look at her as he wiped some sweat from his brow, dark hair falling a bit into his grey eyes as he studied her for a moment.

“Are you sure?” He asked her.

“Yes.” She said in return, positive that he would teach her as he would’ve his tomboyish little sister Arya that lit up his face whenever he mentioned her.

His eyes gazed at her unblinkingly a moment longer before he nodded once in acquiescence. He warned he wasn’t sure how good a teacher he would be, but he was willing to give it an honest try if she was.

The first thing he had taught her: advantages and disadvantages. How they were how many fights on a one to one basis would be decided. She had her gender, her size and her unfamiliarity with combat working against her as disadvantages. But on another hand, she also had surprise, dedication and unfamiliarity with combat working for her as advantages.

She asked him incredulously how not knowing how to fight was both an advantage and a disadvantage. His explanation had been simple enough.

“It means you need experience to be able to truly fight well when you need to. But it also means you have no wrong habits to unlearn because you haven’t learned any of the habits yet.”

He had primarily taught her some simple blocks and dagger work first. Unless she was going to dedicate herself as a solider, what she needed was something she could use against most fighters who were not professionally trained. And in that case, her biggest advantage was surprise. If she was going to enter a fight, she was going to have to enter it with the mindset that it would end in death or worse for her if she didn’t. They would think that because she was a women and a slight one at that, that they could intimidate her into doing what they wanted. Which would often be accomplished by using their body as some kind of leverage either by grabbing her or by getting very close to her; far inside her personal area of comfort.

So she needed to be able to block simple grabs to catch them off balance and then be able to stick them with the blade when they weren’t expecting it. Jon had drilled her again and again on drawing her dagger from a sheath. Then he would get her to practice doing so when he made a move toward her with his hand. The first times he was able to grab her wrist before she even touched the handle hidden just between her belt and her vest. By the time they were reaching White Harbor after weeks had passed, she was able to consistently draw and bring the dagger to bear when Jon made a move to grab her.

And in all that time, he had never made any romantic overtures toward her: respecting her love of Bette and her general love of the female form. But even in spite of that, Caralyn was privately amazed when they were getting close to the harbor and she discovered that when she thought about making her way south, she could feel some sadness about leaving Jon Snow’s company. That she thought of him as a friend, the first one she could truthfully call such after becoming Bette’s partner.

And as they were camping one night a few days away from the Manderly controlled port, he asked her where she was going to go.

“I don’t know.” She answered truthfully, having long since grown comfortable enough to speak with Jon honestly and mirthfully. “Any chance those flames of yours can tell me where to go?” She joked, having also grown used to the idea that her friend worshiped an odd fire god she had never heard of before coming into his company.

There was some hesitation in his expression. Her eyebrows raised in question.

“Jon?” She asked.

“There…may be a way.” He offered quietly. “But I cannot promise what answer you would receive.”

They were silent but for the crackling of the fire before them and the shifting of the trees nearby.

“Are you…offering me a…a glimpse of the future?” She whispered incredulously.

Jon shook his head. “Not as I understand it. I…” He ran his hand through his dark hair. It had been long enough to reach his shoulders a few days ago, but he had recently cut it so that it just reached past the base of his skull. A bit of a hack job, but considering he still had mostly scruff instead of beard, it fit well with his young man entering into adulthood image.

“I can’t really explain it. I honestly don’t know what you’ll see.” He finished lamely, shrugging his shoulders a bit helplessly.

“Will it hurt?” She asked.

“No.” He answered immediately. “It just requires you to trust me.”

After how they had met and the weeks they’d spent together, that was an easily answered question.

“Show me.” She asked him, her brown eyes locked on him even as she nodded agreement with herself.

He came around to her side of the fire. He was face to face with her.

“Alright, what I need you to do is have your hand reach for the fire.” He said, grey eyes expressing trepidation and gratefulness at her show of trust in him. She obeyed, right hand coming up so that the palm was feeling the heat rolling off the crackling flames.

“Now I need you to close your eyes.” He continued, bringing his left hand to her face after a glance at the fire with a question in his gaze. She did so even as she felt his warm fingers alight on her eyelids, gentle as a feathers touch.

“Concentrate on the feel of the heat against your hand and the sound of the burning you can make out.” Came his whispered voice, almost blending with the sound of the logs minutely splintering as the heat consumed them. Her hand was feeling a bit hotter, her eyes showing her random flashes of light in the darkness of her own closed lids. But she listened and she felt, her mind concentrating as best she could.

As she continued concentrating, she didn’t notice when he drew his hand away from her eyes and held her right wrist so that her hand could be stilled in front of the fire. “Now, slowly open your eyes.” His smoke filled voice spoke, the ashes in the air almost on the tip of her tongue as her nose inhaled the scent of the burning wood and the slowly heating dirt surrounding the pit they had dug for the fire. “Look only into the heart of the flame. When you can feel the fire, hear the fire, see the fire: then it shall show you things.”

But his voice was already fading into the background as her eyes took in an amazing scene. It was a city on the waterfront: that much she could tell from the golden waves cresting toward the red buildings. The port city was larger than she could’ve imagined though. And inside the hills, she witnessed three hills rise. Upon one hill was a great crater with a softly glowing lump of metal in the center. Upon another was another fire that was steadily growing in strength. And upon the third was a blade stuck within the hill that seemed to sway with invisible winds while a crown balanced upon the hilt at the top of the handle and the pommel seemed to change shape with every movement of the sword. As she watched, her eyes were automatically drawn to the heads of many who crowded about the three symbols. She looked instinctively to the fire and saw there was a space right in front of it. A dangerous but warm place to be. As she came down to the ground from her view up on the air, she sharply came back to her senses and realized that Jon’s left hand had somehow shifted to holding the back of her head whilst his right hand overlaid itself atop the back of her right that was now a reddened palm from continuous exposure to the flames.

“What-What was that?!” She asked him urgently as she brought her hand down from the fire to let it cool.

“What was what?” He asked her. “What did you see?” His grey eyes seemed genuinely curious.

“But, but didn’t you-” She asked, gesturing to the fire and then to him.

“I saw nothing.” He said as his head shook a denial. “Nothing but you going still as you opened your eyes for a few moments and then gasping.” He cocked his head slightly to the left as he asked again. “What did you see?”

She described her vision to him and asked what he thought it meant.

He shrugged before saying: “Well, it either means you’ve chosen to believe or you’ve chosen a destination.”

Her green eyes demanded an explanation before her voice did. He obliged her.

“The only city on a waterfront with three hills like that is King’s Landing.” He said to her. “The three hills are dominated by the Red Keep where the royal family lives, the Sept of Baelor and the Dragon Pits.”

The connection to her vision was obvious.

“Oh.” Was what she had to say to his interpretation.

“Or it could simply be that you’ve chosen to follow R’hllor and it’s telling you to follow that instinct.” Jon continued.

“How?” She asked.

“It could be saying that when you find the harbor you’re looking for, you’ll find yourself choosing the faith I’ve told you about over the trust in your rulers and the trust in the faith that has left you adrift.” He continued. “But it isn’t my vision.” He said with a quick smile of reassurance. “I could be wrong about it entirely. Only you can know what it means to you.”

As they went to sleep that night, Caralyn’s mind buzzed with potential meanings. Once they were in White Harbor, Jon gave her the silver stags plus the pennies from their looting that they had kept all this time. “Seems only fair for the way you helped me out.” Was all he had to say when she protested his giving her the money.

“You need to find your way Lady Caralyn.” He gently insisted. “And to do that, you need the money far more than I do.”

As he explained this when they came to the parting of the ways, she impulsively embraced him. It was something she had never done while they traveled through the North. When she pulled back, he was visibly blushing even as his arms had held her too.

“You’re a good man Jon Snow.” She said, eyes bright with happiness for one of the first times since Bette’s death. “I hope we meet again in better days.”

“As do I.” He agreed even as he bowed a bit in a gesture of respect. “Farewell.” He said before turning to go back to the entrance of White Harbor.

As she made her way toward the dock, she made up her mind. Jon Snow had taught her how to defend herself and he had trusted her to make something of herself. And if she was going to find a safe port with at least some presence of the faith that had made such a good person as he, well where better to begin?

“Where to?” The gruff porter asked when she approached his desk.

“King’s Landing.” Caralyn answered confidently. Yes. Where better to begin indeed?

Chapter Text

Sanjen had never wanted to get involved with the likes of Ramsay Snow.

He had grown up the only child of a southron farmhand who had moved North seeking to serve under one of the Northern Lords in their fields or their farms. His father was bitter about their life ever since coming however. His mother had died crossing the Neck whilst he had survived. Sanjen knew his father had never truly forgiven him for that. But his father had not tried to punish him too harshly for it, only ever praying to the Stranger in secret when he thought Sanjen was asleep to bring his child back to their cloaked arms.

Sanjen hadn’t understood until after his father died some days following his twelfth nameday what that meant. But he couldn’t blame him for being human and placing his grief upon another. Humans were not gods: they could never hope to achieve such perfection. That was why the gods tried to guide humanity after all.

Otherwise, what was it all for?

He had moved further North to the lands of Hornwood and spoken with one of the rare Begging Brothers that found his way to this frozen place. That was when he discovered that his father had wished him to die. He did it in so many flowery words and prayers, but he had still wished his only son dead because of how he had been weak and survived the Neck while his mother had been strong and still managed to be killed by it.

He hadn’t really known what to make of himself when his father was gone. He had the knowledge to tend animals and to plant if necessary, but he didn’t truly want to have to deal with others that would demand room and board when he could barely stand most people’s vulgar idea of what life was worth. He was sure there was more to it than that. So he decided to become a Begging Brother: moving from place to place offering what help as a brother of the faith he could though he wasn’t ordained and didn’t believe he would be any day soon. He performed funeral rites where asked, taught of the seven faces and what they meant to those who chose to follow the faith and generally tried to make the world make sense as best he could.

Despite such a pious occupation typically requiring large amounts of compassion, Sanjen had always been a loner: much happier left with only the company of nature and his own thoughts. As such he had never had many friends in his life aside from the occasional animal he looked after: the longest being the last of a small clutch of sparrows that he had discovered upon the ground one day. All but one of the chicks had succumbed to the inhospitable cold of the North. And soon as it was grown, it too left him for the wider world. He had never named his small brown friend but he constantly thought of him. Wondering if he had ever found his personal purpose as Sanjen continued to seek his own. So when the Grimwell bandits came for the small hamlet he had stopped at briefly and taken them all prisoner, he hadn’t much cared beyond his own survival. And when they asked what he could do for them, he offered his services as a rat farmer rather than a minister.

To raise up rats he found so they could be sold for use in torture, food, sabotage or anything else they thought to use them for. That was what he could offer these ruthlessly immoral men. He asked only to be spared for his service: knowing it would be useless to ask for anything more and might instead earn him one payment of the steel variety to his thin neck. It turned his stomach that innocent creatures should be turned to such sinister purposes but he swallowed his revulsion and did what he could to treat the rats well.

And so his service to the Grimwell marauders began.

It wasn’t such a terrible thing in truth. He was an average, unassuming man to most of them if a bit older than the rest at the age of three and forty. Sure, they would disparage him for taking care of the rat shit and feeding. He managed to convince himself it wasn’t his fault that the others were hunted or taken to the river never to be seen again. He had only wanted to live. Another hour, another day, another minute. Whatever it took to continue serving the only beings he could truly trust: the Seven.

And what could he truly do against men such as them?

He was no good with a sword nor a shield. His eyes weren’t good enough to be a bowman. And even when he had been young enough to do so, he had never been the sort of man to seek violence on others: even those who had done violence unto him. All he could do was pray to the seven faced god that the poor souls the Grimwells sent away or hunted would find peace in the afterlife they had been denied in life.

He knew most believed in the weirwoods and the Old Gods without faces but what did it truly matter in the face of death? Such were the thoughts that played through his mind during his limited captivity.

And then the black haired boy had annihilated the camp.

He had come tearing through it like a force of nature: fire and death and blood left in his wake. Sanjen had been asleep when it started, listening absently to the scratching of the rats. That was how he knew something was wrong. When they all started squeaking in a panicked pitch that he only ever had heard when they were stuck in the bucket that the Grimwells tied to someone’s chest that wouldn’t give them the answer or respect they wanted or felt they deserved. He’d registered the smoke before anything else came to mind: his nostrils filling with the stuff as his eyes shot open and he started automatically coughing, his body trying its’ damnedest to eject the noxious stuff from his airways.

He’d gotten out of the tent only for an arrow to strike it and a moment later watch as it enflamed behind him. The rats squeaked and squeaked and scratched as if they could feel their death through the heat. Sanjen wanted to help them but couldn’t after he started to go back and some of the burning fabric landed upon his shoes. As if the fire sought to consume everything, his shoes lit up just as quickly as the tent despite being somewhat damp from the recent sprinkling and melting of snow that had happened in their camp a few days ago.

Sanjen had panicked, yanking the boots off his feet without regard for his hands as the heat and the fire stung and burned at him. He’d managed to prevent any serious damage to his hands and feet despite some redness in his extremities that throbbed painfully whenever he flexed or twitched them. He’d lain there for only a moment before he scrambled backward, moving away from the tent as it collapsed and the rat’s cacophony was drowned out by the crackling of the dancing fires now consuming their camp whole. As he got to his feet and tried to figure out where he could possibly go to be safe, he glimpsed the black haired boy.

He was about an average height, much younger than Sanjen’s near fifty years he was willing to bet. But he saw him take the hand of Ramsay in his hands and speak something: setting him alight with some sort of sorcery.

Sanjen couldn’t breathe for a moment as he sprinted to the outside of the camp, his mind racing as he tried to get the image of Ramsay’s burning body looking up at the merciless face of the black haired boy.

The wandering man would’ve been the first to say Ramsay deserved punishment for the sins he had committed in life. But not like that. Not at the hands of a conjurer. Divine justice was meant to remain in the gods whether the gods were true or false. It was not meant to be wielded by the all too corruptible and easily misled hands of humans. Elsewise, people like him would not survive if others asked of the gods to take their life from them. And that was without the painful manner in which he had done it being taken into account…

That was no work of a man who would simply execute. That was the work of a man who provoked and indeed believed suffering to be necessary at the end of life in order to justify the death that would come. But it went against Sanjen’s belief in what the meaning to death was. Death was meant to be an end to suffering in his mind. Upon the one hand there was life, the six faces of the seven who showed that there was so much more to living than there could be to any sort of afterlife. And upon the other hand there was death: that final journey to the welcoming arms of oblivion that all must make regardless of station or birth. To make a man suffer in that time before their final judgment was simply inhumane, a way of showing no understanding as to the sanctity of life.

As he caught his breath whilst the remains of the camp burned and the last few people fled, he missed seeing the dark haired boy escape and come toward him with one of the prisoners beside him. When he had at last recovered enough of his wits to see them sitting upon the ground to watch the destruction, he knew it was time for him to leave. He tried to sneak as quietly as he was able in his bare feet and his tattered robes.

He wasn’t very successful.

In the darkness of the night and the dying of the bonfire the snapping of the branch he stepped upon was as loud as a clap of thunder across the darkened sky to his ears. He froze as the black haired boy stood and turned toward him so fast he almost missed it by blinking. His brown eyes looked into this ashen pools from a distance, mind racing as he wondered whether this was the end for him. But amazingly, the boy did not plan to kill him it seemed. Instead he simply told him to leave this place and never return.

He hadn’t even finished his sentence before Sanjen was running as fast as his feet could carry him away from that accursed place: the echoes of screams both rodent and human echoing in his ears.

He wandered through the North, barely stopping to eat or to drink. He couldn’t sleep: not when he knew the images that would wait just behind his eyes. Not when he wasn’t even sure if the fire demon would be able to reach him within the realm of his own mind.

And a demon made flesh he had to be: for what righteous man would play with the most dangerous element of them all? The element that provided naught but destruction and death in its wake? Oh certainly dabblers might light a candle or warm a fire, but this…this was something else entirely. Something unnatural.

After several days of continuing to run and listening for any branch snap or crackling blaze behind him Sanjen wasn’t sure whether he was dreaming as he walked or not. But he would not give up. Not until he was safely out of the accursed North that had brought such pain and misery to so many people. And with time he managed to succeed.

He didn’t know for certain how many days had passed since he had left the Last Lake and come through the Neck in such a haze. He knew he should’ve by rights died from the creatures and cranogmen that infested the boggy swampland. But somehow he hadn’t been hurt. He laughed a bit hysterically to himself as he thought of it. ‘When lost or in doubt, consult the Seven for all your kingdom treking needs.’

A bit uncharitable toward the Seven truly. It seemed that despite being devout and pious, he was still but a human after all.

Eventually the landscape was more lush and fertile. This must be the Riverlands. He wondered whether he should know that because his mother had been from this part of the seven kingdoms before she went north with his father. But truly the only thing he could think to himself was that he hoped to find a Sept soon so that he could at last find ground that would feel safe, familiar, comforting.

It happened when he stumbled upon a crossroad village whose name he did not know. Whether it was near the Kingsroad or not, whether it was near a river or not, whether they even had a lord or not he didn’t know. Sanjen only knew he had stepped through the door of the Sept and promptly collapsed onto the hard tile face first.

His dreams had been troubled to say the least: images of the Last Lake burning intermingling with visions of his father and mother burning. He knew he reached for them at one point only to find himself climbing a bell tower of some sort. He could hear that infernal burning sound: the fires of the black haired boy at his feet. He didn’t know how he knew this but he did. And when he came to the empty top of the bell tower he looked over the landscape.

He couldn’t tell whether this was a city, a town or untouched wilderness. All he knew was that it was all consumed in fire. He could hear screaming from inside the fire: their squeaky cries of fear and pain managing to lift all the way up to his bell tower. He looked to the smoke filled sky: no hint of the stars, sun or moon could be seen. Blackness above and unholy light below. He heard the door behind him burst open. He turned to see what had followed him up to witness this hell on earth.

It was the black haired boy.

He didn’t know how he knew that. Perhaps it was the facial structure he saw in him. It certainly wasn’t the hair which was gone. Or the eyes which were only pits that glowed the color of burning blood. And it couldn’t have been the skin: for that was black as burned out wood with glowing red cracks running in patterns all along his body. Or perhaps he was simply connecting this…creature to the boy because it seemed the only connection he could make to this inhumanly human looking thing that stood before him.

The creature was before him in an instant with a devil’s grin upon it’s blackened and cracked lips. Its right arm impacted his chest with the force of a battering ram: preventing him from even crying out as he was shoved out of the tower and sent tumbling into the hellishly burning landscape below the tower.

The closer he got to the fire, the hotter it felt. His clothes were the first to catch aflame. Than it was his hair. And then his skin. And through it all, he was unable to stop watching as the creature lifted its arms and face to the blackened sky. It flared in a gigantic burst of fire that he couldn’t look away from. It blacked the top of the tower instantly in addition to destroying the very top where he had once been. As the rubble collapsed downward and the burning spread down while his falling body came closer and closer to the fire below him Sanjen did the only thing he could.

He screamed. He screamed so loud, it jolted him awake.

He was in a bed stuffed upon straw. A humble bedding that was meant for utility more than comfort. He looked around wildly as his hair stuck stubbornly to his sweat soaked forehead, brown eyes unable to take in everything at once as it searched for the hell he remembered from his dreamscape.

He heard shuffling outside his door as he tried to stand from his bed and was struck by a spell of dizziness so intense he had to immediately sit down least he empty his already heaving stomach onto the floor.

“Ah! Seven be praised: you’re awake!” An older voice said.

Sanjen looked up to see who it was. It was a man even older than himself, wrinkles around his blue eyes, mouth crinkled in a small smile of true thankfulness. He was a bit stooped in his age, the weight of years visible in the bending of his back and the veins beneath his skin that shone blue like a clear sky. But still he seemed satisfied to hold his simple cotton robes that signified he was the town’s Septon.

“It is good for you to remain in the bed stranger. Your fever lasted several days. I was not certain my work alone could help you, so I prayed to all the Seven for any help they could lend me in aiding you.” The older man said, making his way to Sanjen’s bedside slowly. He held a bowl of some kind of broth in his hand.

“All the Seven?” Sanjen asked hoarsely, his scratchy voice grating as it emerged from his chapped lips.

The older man nodded.

“Even the Stranger.” He confirmed. Sanjen was unsure what to make of that. The Stranger was the aspect of Death and the end of all things. The one face of the Seven there were almost no songs of for fear that speaking of it would draw the Stranger’s gaze upon you. Surely he had to know that.

“What is your name?” The older man asked a few moments later, after Sanjen had taken several spoonfuls of the stew presented to him. The broth and the meat inside tasted of chicken he thought. And though there weren’t more than a few bits of carrot in it too, it was a blessed relief to have true food in his gullet after so long of subsisting on whatever he could scrounge from the wild whilst he fled…

‘No,’ Sanjen told himself sternly. ‘I won’t think of it again.’

The older man smile dimmed a bit and his eyes seemed more melancholy as Sanjen remained silent.

“Well, that’s fine.” He said good-naturedly. “I suppose we’ll get to know one another soon enough.”

As Sanjen finished the stew and the Septon rose to leave, he asked a question.

“Septon?” He said aloud as he reached the door.

“Yes my child?” The Septon turned to answer, head slightly cocked to the right in curiosity.

“Do you believe the Seven have a purpose to all things?” He asked.

The Septon pondered Sanjen’s question for a few moments before he nodded.

“I do child.” He said. “From the greatest king to the lowliest animal, the Seven have a plan for them all. We simply must find what it is. And when we do, we follow their will.”

Sanjen’s eyes drifted to the ceiling as his mind’s eye filled with the memories of the Last Lake and his fever dream that remained etched in his brain.

“Of course.” He whispered softly as the Septon turned to go again. “Of course they do.”

Chapter Text

Arya Stark had been a light sleeper by nature all her ten years of life.

This had been most thoroughly documented by her lady mother when as a new babe she had once managed to awaken her wet nurse and her mother a combined total of nine times in the course of a single night.

Then as she got older it was less her messing herself or suddenly becoming hungry than it was her jolting herself awake by moving too suddenly beneath her covers or her dreams getting too vivid for her to continue dreaming.

Robb always said her imagination was too active for her own good.

But she’d always thought it more a fun thing than any sort of hindrance. It gave her more to think about outside finding a handsome prince or pretty lord’s son. Something Sansa and Jayne Poole seemed to talk about constantly even when there hadn’t been any lords or ladies to Winterfell for months on end.

But lately, she’d been having deeper and deeper sleep that held stranger and yet oddly comforting dreams. She’d thought after her brother Jon left Winterfell that she’d be so lonely with no one to really call her own in Winterfell. She had been proven right in this unfortunate assumption. Robb and Theon considered themselves too grown for her company. Bran and Rickon considered her too rough, though Arya was personally sure that was more due to Bran not appreciating being shown up at anything boys were supposed to do by the sister closest to his own age.

The less that was said about her relationship with Sansa and Sansa’s friend Jeyne the better.

She could pinpoint when her deeper dreams had first started. When Jon had first left, she did have some serious trouble being able to sleep. She missed her brother. She missed seeing him with Robb in the courtyard. She missed seeing him in the great hall when the family ate together. She missed how he would indulge her in practiced sword play with a stick when he could find time away from her lady mother’s sharp eyes. So she’d tried to lose herself in her practices. Though she displayed more of her competency with sums than she previously had in her lessons, it was not enough to offset Septa Mordane’s frustration with her limited ability in the more traditional arts of ladyship.

Her mother was not so inclined to scold her when she did get into trouble, perhaps because she could no longer use it as an excuse to chastise Jon for ‘putting ideas’ in her head. (In truth it had often been Jon who would try to get her to plan more of what she was doing so that if they did get into trouble, the provable evidence against them would be limited at best.) She did notice that some distance had developed between her mother and father if the stilted silences they tried to cover with talk of Winterfell’s affairs was any indication.

But she knew they would never share anything of it with her unless it had first been shared with Maester Luwin, Rodrik Cassel and then Robb and Sansa. And she could certainly never rely on any of them telling her the truth about it even if she pestered with all her considerable creativity.

So one night several months after Jon had left Winterfell feeling a bit emptier, she had decided to pray like Sansa did. She had borrowed a candle from Septa Mordane: citing something she couldn’t recall now about wanting to deepen her touch with the Seven. That sort of explanation usually worked on the well-meaning older woman.

When she had lit it and begun to silently pray whilst mother was taking the time to brush Sansa’s hair, she didn’t think until that moment just who she was going to pray to.

The Seven hadn’t been the ones to intervene when she had been dying. Same for the Old Gods. (That and she didn’t think praying to them with a candle borrowed from a Sept would really be the same as when father secluded himself away in the Godswood.) And Jon had never told anyone but father what power he had made an appeal with to ensure her health. So she decided that since she was here anyway, she may as well cast her prayers toward her wayward brother for whatever good they may be able to do.

‘I hope you can hear me Jon.’ She said to herself. Despite an initial feeling of foolishness of kneeling in front of a candle that flickered absently from the wind that whistled through the stony corridors of Winterfell, she refused to give up. This was the most she could hope for since her brother was across the sea and not expected to be anywhere ravens could reach him for the foreseeable future.

She continued her prayer before she could make herself feel sad, clenching the fingers of her right hand tighter as the fist they made inside her overlaid left hand brought her back to attention of what she had been doing before.

‘Winterfell has continued on since you’ve been gone.’ She thought, her forehead coming to rest on her hands as she leaned toward the flame to feel its warmth upon her skin. It reminded her of how heated Jon’s flesh had been the night she snuck into his sickroom and sat by his side. He’d woken the next day, coming back to her like she’d asked him. But he’d left the morning after. Never before had she thought it was possible to avoid losing a treasured presence one way only to have it be lost another so soon after.

‘And yes, I’m still doing what I can to improve like we talked about before you left.’ She reassured imaginary Jon, able to perfectly picture the uptick of his left eyebrow as he asked whether she was still trying to better her stickmanship so as to challenge him again and maybe get a real blade in the process.

‘But even so…I miss you Jon.’ She said internally, her thoughts growing heavier at the mental admission. Her father and Robb had told her that Jon would be alright, that he would return one day. But it didn’t ease the ache of his absence.

‘I wish you hadn’t gone. I wish you’d stayed here.’ She confessed, her eyes and fingers clenching tighter. The sound of mother and Sansa chatting as they comfortably talked of what had happened during the day filled the room for a time. Arya took a mental inhale and exhale before she continued. ‘But…but I can’t blame you for going.’

That was perhaps the worst of it. Even in the face of his departing with no immediate idea of when or if he would return, she couldn’t bring herself to hate him for leaving. Because he wasn’t doing it to be selfish or follow his ‘bastard nature’ as she’d heard some of the older scullion maids mutter when they had both snuck down to the kitchens for snacks before. He was doing it for the Starks. The same as when he’d tried his hardest at all the lessons he’d been given: be they from Ser Rodrik, Maester Luwin or even their father on occasion.

Even in the face of this new and strange power he had unlocked, Jon’s first loyalty and love was for their family. Arya barely noticed when her fingernails dug into her palm enough to draw the slightest trickle of blood.

‘I can understand you leaving Jon. I won’t lie and say I like it or wish it hadn’t been otherwise. I can’t tell you that, wherever you are right now. But I can do what I did when you were sick: tell you I miss you. And that you need to come back soon.’ She opened her eyes: a smile on her face even as she unclasped her hands while shaking the small bits of blood that had gathered on her palm and her fingernails so mother wouldn’t scold her and would perhaps wait another day to reprimand her for not taking care of her nails as was expected of a proper lady.

She clearly remembered the last thing she had thought as a prayer before her mother had told her to blow out the candle and come to her. She remembered that she had thought: ‘I want to you back again Jon.’ And she’d certainly meant it with all her heart.

That night was the first night she had the dreams.

They always began the same way. With her awakening among a field of shadows and lights. Sometimes it shifted into the shape of a city. Sometimes it became Winterfell. And yet other times it became a forest: lush and ripe for exploration. But there was always a constant presence to it. There was always Jon Snow.

When she had first seen him, Jon had been just as shocked to see her as if he hadn’t been expecting her company. Which she had thought passing strange, considering that it was her dream they were in and so he should’ve expected to see her. But he was always glad of her presence after he got over his initial shock of it. What she enjoyed most of it was that dream Jon was like real Jon in the ways that mattered.

He still mussed her hair and called her little sister. He still had her demonstrate what she learned. Though she found it unfair that even in her dreams she couldn’t manage to best him at stick fighting. And he always had a tale or a snatch of song to share. But when she was silent, he too was often silent: not prompting her to talk or relive the hardness of the day but simply allowing her to sit by the fire with him and enjoy his imaginary companionship. And through it all, she slept as peacefully as a moss covered stone. Oftentimes she wondered if it were possible for her to be speaking to her brother in her dreams and that she had managed to open a pathway to him through the candle. But she managed to dismiss that thought after a while.

She knew that he wasn’t real though because as time went on, his appearance became stranger and distinctly less human.

One night she had started to notice that his pupils were becoming slitted like one of the lion lizards that Maester Luwin spoke of living in the southernmost swampy area of the North known as the Neck. He seemed surprised when she pointed that out to him. But when she insisted that it was so, he would only say that it must be his heritage showing through. He laughed when she replied that their father had only ever been a direwolf. She didn’t see what was so funny about it, but they’d soon after played tag between the shadows and the lights and she promptly focused on catching him for once.

More time passed before she noticed that his fingernails were more like talons instead of nails: their color black as night and their edges sharp enough to rend some of the trees they sometimes found themselves among when the dreams took a more nature oriented landscape. She asked him why he had such sharp nails now. He told her that it was because he sharpened them as often as he could: to be ready for any predators who thought him easy prey.

“But why would you need talons for that?” She asked him when he told her that, her longer hair falling into her eyes even as he looked at her from the other side of the fire.

“Unless I intend to sleep with a dagger under my pillow, I need to be able to fight with my hands too Arya.” He told her, the upturned corners of his lips expressing his happiness at seeing her again even as he absently let the fingers of his right hand make its way through the upper edge of the fire.

Arya thought about this and gave a sage nod of approval. She decided it was a very practical approach to take in the dream world where nightmares could often sneak up suddenly and without warning.

“Do you think you could teach me to do that?” She asked him, leaning back against the rock that was warmed by both her own body heat and the ambient heat of the fire she and her dreamscape Jon were sharing.

“When I return to Winterfell little sister.” He answered easily, stretching backward with his hands straight out as if to try and realign his spine. He groaned as he did so, eyes temporarily closing as he managed to elicit one or two soft cracks from his shoulders that sounded like the logs burning merrily in the fire pit.

Arya sighed in response.

“Too bad.” She said. Jon’s eyebrow quirked in question. “If you were the real Jon saying that, I’d believe you. But you’re just my dream, so you’ll say whatever I want you to say.”

Jon’s eyebrow was joined by its’ twin.

“Oh, you think I’ll say what you wish simply because this is a dream?” He asked her.

“No, I think you’ll say what I want you to say because this is my dream.” She answered him. It was a very simple thing really. But dreams could prove such a silly thing really. She’d managed to find improvement in her ability to deal with her mother and her sister now that their attention was focused with a hawk-like intensity on her for being ‘unladylike’ thanks to her dream Jon’s advice on letting their words wash over her and how best to practice in secret around Winterfell. It was truly helpful, but it also made her wistful and wonder when her real Jon would be returning home to be where he belonged again.

“Oh, this may be a dream Arya.” He conceded even as she pointedly interrupted him with a “My dream” for emphasis. “But why in the world should that mean it isn’t real?”

She laughed at the absurdity of his question and pointed to his eyes and his talons before looking at him in a silent question of if he needed more proof.

“All dreams have some roots in what we consider real Arya.” He said in response, leaning closer to the fire. The light seemed to cast shadows upward on his face that made the hair on his head and closer to his eyes seem much darker than it was while showing a sharp contrast to just how much his eyes had changed. The pupil was now almost entirely slitted though the grey color remained the same as ever. It gave him a strange contrast between what he was and what her imagination conjured he might be after the fire magic she knew he had used to heal her.

“But you’re still in my head. So you’re not really Jon.” She reasoned. Maester Luwin and Septa Mordane had been very clear on dreams being the wanderings of an idle body that didn’t mean more than a child’s wild imaginings in the grand scheme of things.

He leaned back, allowing his features to seem more human again as she answered him.

“As you say little sister.” He conceded with a wider smile.

After that, he’d never tried to dissuade her of her knowledge as to what he was. And from there she thought it would be a simple matter to tell Jon about the strange dreams she’d had of him while he’d been gone.

But tonight was different. Tonight she was upon a ship, something that had never happened in all her nighttime imaginings with Jon.

Jon Snow was standing on the deck of the ship, only the light of the stars to illuminate his eyes as he looked idly out upon a blue grey sea that looked simultaneously endless and limited as it disappeared into the darkened horizon. There was no land to any side of them.

Jon looked at her with his peripheral vision, strange flashes of what appeared to be scales peeking out beneath the skin at the corner of his eyes.

“I wasn’t expecting you here Arya.” He said to her, smile absent.

“Why not? This is my dream.” She told him, standing alongside him at the wooden railing that kept them from the watery depths beneath this simple wooden ship. It seemed a humble ship to Arya’s eye, no flashy colored cloth for sails like she’d heard ships across the Narrow Sea were known to possess. No symbol upon the white windcatchers.

“Why are we on a ship?” She asked him, wondering why she was on a ship with Jon when she was more comfortable with the forest setting that could allow her to pretend they were in the Wolfwood that held Winterfell’s Godswood.

“Because this is where I am.” He told her. She didn’t know what that was supposed to mean. How could dream Jon have an existence independent of her dreams? Did he even exist outside of them? He was a figment of her memories and thoughts on her brother. But on the other hand, she’d never had such a persistent set of dreams before. Or if she had she didn’t remember them.

As she was about to ask him what he meant, she spotted storm clouds on the horizon and a bank of what seemed at first glance to be a dark fog. But when she looked closer, she realized it wasn’t a fog bank. It was in fact smoke. And smoke that appeared to have sparks and visible heat emanating from it. When she saw that, her question changed to address the more immediate concerns before her.

“What is that?” She asked him, pointing into the distance behind the ship.

Jon appeared to jolt where he stood. As he did, the dreamscape changed. It became sharper, more defined. As though more details were being added where before there was a vagueness and a half blurry look to it that unfocused the eye if one tried to look at it too long. But with the change in the landscape came a reduction in the blackness and the smoke that she had seen before.

Instead there was now only featureless ocean as far as she could see, with choppier waves that seemed somewhat agitated. The caps of the waves never reached over the sides of the boat, but they definitively slapped against the hull like an insistent guest demanding another portion of a meal due to them. Arya looked around, uneasy at the suddenly less dreamlike quality of the environment.

With the strange shift had also come a change in Jon’s appearance. Instead of the talons she had seen on his hands for some time now, his hands were now an ordinary humans with nails only slightly longer than could be healthy. Instead of scales, he had the paler skin she remembered of him with a great deal more facial and head hair than she had thought he would gain.

But still the slitted eyes remained.

Jon’s eyes were fixed in the distance on the place where she had seen the smoking fog not moments before. He swore under his breath and started striding toward the pair of men she noticed at the stern of the boat.

“Jon? What’s happening Jon?” She attempted to ask him. But now his eyes slid over her as though she wasn’t there. He came within range of the men, pointing at the horizon behind them. In an urgent whisper, he spoke to them.

“We’ve got trouble coming up behind us Captain.” He said, still not looking at Arya even out of the corner of his eyes.

A brown haired, brown eyed man looked at Jon sharply. The crow’s feet surrounding his eyes scrunched in confusion.

“What’re you talking about boy?” He asked, revealing somewhat reddened teeth that could only have been gained from chewing sourleaf for years on end. “There’s nothing back there.”

“I know you don’t want to trust the word of a sellsword, but please.” Jon asked, urgently gesturing behind them. “I’ll be glad if I’m proven wrong, but I feel uneasy about simply waiting to find out whether these are the raiders I heard tell of in White Harbor.”

Arya felt her heart drop into her stomach. What kind of dream was this?

As it turned out, not a good kind.

Chapter Text

Euron ‘Crow’s Eye’ Greyjoy was a man of simple pleasure. A tight cunt here, a well fought battle there, some luxuries to top it all off. And all with iron sprinkled liberally throughout. Not much to ask out of life. But so many men seemed set and determined to ruin that.

First it was those scaly Targaryan fuckers up at King’s Landing. The ones who wouldn’t stop rutting their own family like blind idiot mongrels. Then it had been those golden haired twats at Lannisport who got so damn up in arms because they thought themselves safe under the rule of a lax whoremonger like Robert Baratheon. The brown haired ironborn was willing to bet his crew (men could be replaced good ships could not) that those Lannister prigs had never had to pay the iron price for anything since the day they came squalling into the world with silver platters shoved up their bungholes.

Euron himself had paid in iron in all the ways that counted. His clothing, his weapons, his men, even his numerous bastards by many a whore: most of whom crewed his ship while the others stayed with the rest of his men back in their hideout nestled inside the Cape of Eagles.

He still chuckled to himself on occasion over that. His brother Balon was so sure he could banish him from his rightful home simply for taking what was freely offered him by Victarion’s salt wife. (And she had certainly offered herself to him, no doubt about it. How else could Victarion explain how her breaths always seeming a bit deeper to draw attention to her otherwise unimpressive chest or the shivers he saw raise her skin in bumps when his eyes hungrily raked over her before she would quickly look away with quivering eyes?) And yet all it took to avoid his supposed banishment was stay out of the way of his direct sight on the Cape.

Certainly he took this opportunity to wander the seas, plundering any eastern vessels he could reach while seeing more of the seas he never would have otherwise even going so far as Old Valyria to find if there was anything of value. The smoking ruin had held interesting things for him. It had killed many of the crew he’d taken with them as they choked upon their own bodily fluids, seared to a husk for foolishly drinking the water or breathing the air too deep. (Again, men were easy to find and replace. Ships were not.) But not him. For he was truly a man of iron. In body and in mind.

As such, it would prove as no surprise to any who had an inkling as to his character that being banished from his rightful place on Pyke stuck in his craw, like a man’s femur that a seagull foolishly attempted to pick the meat off before choking on it. He decided he needed to pay a visit to his brother’s wife in Harlaw. He never bothered to see her anyway, so how would he know if Euron decided he wanted to pay a bit of iron for a turn in the sheets with her? He gave the order, anticipation already cresting over his previous fury that arose from those bitter memories. He would need to wash them out with some good old fashioned reaping. And he knew the area between the cape and the islands was the perfect place to do it.

The mute crew did not even dare to question him with their eyes. Whatever their captain ordered they did. After all, he was still one of the last true ironborn who followed the old ways. And that meant any who stood in his path would surely die.

‘As it should be.’ A hate filled little voice whispered inside him. He agreed fully.

Euron took a deep breath of the salt air he was so familiar with. It would be some time before he returned to Pyke he knew. But when he did, it would be a time of reckoning. For his brother and for anyone else foolish enough to deny him what would be his by right of conquest.

‘A man who is willing to pay the price of iron does not fear anything. Give him a prize worthy enough and he’ll cut off death’s clammy hands to claim it.’ Euron thought to himself. He had yet to be proven wrong. He’d spotted the merchant vessel leaving Barrowton and sent a message ahead of him so that when they inevitably tried to reach their destination of Lannisport, they would find themselves in the Angler’s Trap.

The ship he’d picked out for capture, The Roaring Pride, was a simple vessel. Not so much as a differently clothed sail or attempt to make their hull colorful to be seen. Probably hoped that by being as non-descript as possible that potential raiders would assume them to either be smugglers or not worthy of attack due to being so low key. But Euron didn’t want to take them for any sort of monetary gain. To a man of iron, even the act of reaving a fishing boat could prove fruitful so long as he took enough pleasure and joy in the act itself.

He should know, that was how he’d found the whore who would bear his eighth bastard.

But as they began to get closer to the ship, Euron noticed that some of the oars had made their way into the water without any indication of danger from him. They appeared to be trying to go faster as if they knew he was there. His eye narrowed in displeasure as he thought that just wouldn’t do at all.

‘They are but flesh. Against a man of iron they are but saplings in the face of an erupting volcano.’ The hateful voice whispered to him.

The midnight air was stirring while the waves crashed soothingly into the hull of Silence as she cut through the water: silent and quick as a knife to the throat. The sky was almost black with only the barest slivers of moonlight shining through the occasional patches of emptiness in the blanket of the darkness. The smell of the salt water filled his nostrils as he lit the lantern upon the prow of his ship.

He knew that the ship was running now, but while he was unhappy about it he knew he had to signal his other two ships if he was to bait the ghost angler trap. As he drew a handful of brown powder from the pouch by the lamp, he remembered how the merchants had claimed that the fires could be all colors so long as he used this powder. They’d been telling the truth as it turned out. It didn’t prevent him from paying the iron price for it but it had made him grateful for it.

The powder he tossed onto the wood in the lantern made the fire flare into colors of blue, green and sometimes even unusual purplish color. It made for an unusual and somewhat intimidating sight for the ships that suddenly saw it flare to life behind them. Many captains, having developed deeply ingrained superstition over their time in such an inherently uncertain occupation, would immediately seek to escape the ill omen that the otherworldly fire represented by putting it to their back as swiftly as they could force their crew.

But such hurried fleeing almost always boiled down to them trying to go forward as fast as they possible could. Right into the jaws of the trap and the two ships Euron had nearby who would be waiting for just that light to approach the unlucky bastards from the front while they were so busy trying to escape what was behind them.

It helped to ease his irritation. But only until he saw something flare to life upon the miserable little ship. It was only a small light true. But it became bigger when it flew forward into the dark of the night. To Euron’s surprise, it appeared to hit another ship. When the fire spread up the mast suddenly, he could just make out the flag design of a blood red dagger dragging across cresting waves on a background of grey. With a start he realized that meant it was one of his own ships that had just been set on fire.

Another flare of fire from the merchant ship and another arrow flew forward to impact one of the other ships in front of them. Euron’s temper was rising again. That was two perfectly good ships damaged now and for what gain? Unless this piddling little merchant ship was carrying Old Valyrian relics, there was no possible way for this loss to have been worth the trouble. Not unless he could get his pounds of flesh from every member of the crew.

“What’re you sorry lot waiting for?! Bring us full speed ahead you festering pus stains!” He shouted at his crew, left hand gripping the hilt of his sword with an angry strength that could’ve cracked any wooden railing he happened upon. At least this simplified things for him. It meant he would be finding the worthless sack of seal shit that dared to damage his ships and he would make them pay with blood and pain before he gave them the mercy of death.

‘Give them only what they deserve for trying to burn that which can never die.’ The hate filled voice accepted gleefully.

As they came closer, it seemed the crew of the Roaring Pride’s crew had grown a backbone and was fighting back against the combined crews of his own Whisper and Hiss as they attempted to board. The distance between them closed and Euron could start to smell the blood in the air. It made his own blood race as a manic grin stretched his face, making his single eye crinkle in naked lust for the coming battle as the shadow his eyepatch cast across the rest of his face made him look impossibly more sinister than ever.

“Ram them!” He called to the oarsmen. The Silence was outfitted with an iron figurehead and jutting ram that came just underneath the cresting waves in a broad, somewhat spearhead shape meant to puncture just about any hull without endangering itself in the process. Many a time it had proven itself against ships from the east and the west alike. As the ship moved faster, Euron couldn’t help but enjoy the fine spray of some of the agitated waves against his face, the multicolored flames playing and sputtering in the brazier next to him as they came ever closer. Even in the face of his aggravating loss of the two ships, it was times like this that truly made him feel the joy of being an ironborn man.

He could hear the shouts of the merchant crew as they fought and died. They were some of the sweetest music he could hear when he sailed the world. But surprisingly, he could also hear the few men he trusted to keep their tongues in their head crying out in pain. It seemed this crew of ants had some bite to them after all. Not that it would make so great a difference, but it was always nice to know when going into battle just how hard your opponent would fight back against you.

Both the Hiss and the Whisper were on opposite sides of the merchant ship, the ships now spreading their flames to the Pride that had done this to them out of spite. No fear of repercussion nor of joining the Drowned God in his watery hall. As it should be.

Euron braced himself as the vessel came closer. With an almight crash, his ship impacted the back of the Roaring Pride, simultaneously puncturing the hull and destroying the rudder. As Euron called to the oarsmen to reverse, he saw that for the most part there were only two left fighting on the deck: an older man who looked to be about Euron’s age and a younger green boy closer to the bow who’d been knocked off his feet along with some of the mutes surrounding him in the darkened night.

As Euron watched on, he was suddenly struck by how the fires illuminated the ship and appeared to continue spreading even with the effort of some of the crew that remained on them to put it out. Ordinary fire didn’t act like that he knew. In the middle of pondering this, he was simultaneously struck with a vicious headache that almost had him roaring in pain. Something that hadn’t happened even the first time a man had managed to drive a blade into him. He didn’t like it at all.

His head was pounding an angry drum beat in his head and the hate filled voice in his head was screaming at him. It had never been this loud, not even when his silt blooded brothers had banished him for embracing the old ways in all aspects of life and taking what was his to take. Though perhaps his own frustration with the crews he had broken and built up again with his own hands managing to lose against such a pitiful excuse for an opponent was what drove him to feel such vitriol. They were after all only a boy and one man. The rest of the crew had fallen easily enough and yet these two not in the prime of their life were managing to best two crews of his own men even as the ships burned around them.

‘Off-Spark of the flame! Loathed kindling made only to feed the greater fire! Kill it kill it killitkillitkillitKILLIT!!!’ It roared. Euron could almost hear the feel the palpable rage and fury frothing inside the voice.

As he opened his eye, he saw that the green boy had recovered and the captain had fallen to his second in command as the Pride began to sink stern first into the briny waters around them.

‘Give yourself to the bloodlust!’ His voice of hatred shouted. ‘Show these upstarts for good and all what it is to be a terror of the deep!!’

As it continued speaking, Euron couldn’t help but feel something in the air surrounding him as the ship continued sinking in front of him, the fires now beginning to spread to the ever sinking Pride. And yet the green boy fought on before he made a break for it, seeking to jump on to the cracked but upright mast that was now leaning toward Euron’s own Silence.

As he clambered up, Euron called for his mute dogs to get their axes and bows ready. It seemed they were about to have company. He ordered the men to greet their unwelcome guest as they would any other. The bowstrings sang and the axes whistled toward the boy who sprinted forward regardless. Euron couldn’t understand why until he saw Cragorn’s shield held before him as he ran forward. The Greyjoy captain knew it was his lieutenant Cragorn’s shield because it had the same design of a red bird upon it the man himself had emblazoned upon his own chest. Interesting that this black haired boy would prove formidable enough to escape one of the few men Euron had entrusted to keep his tongue in his mouth rather than have it cut out as a preventive measure.

Impact after impact cracked and splintered the shield but still it didn’t break under the assault. And before Euron’s eyes, the entire shield spontaneously burst into flames, the arrows and axes going with it. As he leapt off the mast, he flung the shield toward the deck of Euron’s ship. When it landed, the flames began to spread.

Euron was beyond mad now. His crew were starting to get edgy, the boy was attacking them with nothing close to fear and he had lost two of his ships for a merchant’s cargo that was even now sinking to the bottom of the sea. He drew his sword, the whisper of steel as it passed through the leather of the sheath only a slight balm to his temper even as his headache blistered even worse inside him.

‘Enough of this!! Give him the death he deserves by our hand!! NOW!!!’ The hate-filled voice demanded.

‘Why not?’ Was the last thing Euron thought to himself before his world became smoke and pain. The black haired boy stopped where he was as did the captain’s men as a deep laugh emerged from his mouth. The man formerly known as Euron Greyjoy briefly closed his right eye before opening it again: revealing a bloodshot blue eye that looked more akin to the deadly blue of a sea than the clear blue of a summer sky. The waves crashed ever louder, pushing the wreak of the Roaring Pride along with the burning carcasses of the Whisper and the Hiss toward the now beginning to burn Silence. The mutes resumed attacking the black haired boy as a smile of recognition flashed across the face of the thing hiding behind Euron Greyjoy’s face.

It breathed air for the first time in many years as it beheld with its own eye something it had never expected to see again. It continued laughing ever louder as the black haired boy continued fighting with a dagger in his right hand while his left hand was left in a somewhat clawed shape; the fingers straight to the first knuckle before curving downwards from there up to make a crude imitation of a beast’s claws. At last it ceased to laugh as it called out to the black haired human:

“Hello brother!”

The black haired human looked at him, shocked grey eyes slightly widened as he abruptly leaped toward him side by side with the other mutes to attack. It had been so long since last he had taken human form. But fortunately this worshiper of the Salt Snake had always been prone to emotions and feelings that had made it so easy to accept him into his mind and his soul. It attacked, not caring for anything that got in his way whether the crashing water, the burning ship or the panicking crew.

“I wonder, did our father really think you wouldn’t be found? That I wouldn’t discover you?” He asked rhetorically. He didn’t much care whether or not the being that called itself R’hllor had attempted to hide his younger half-brother from him at all. It merely made for an interesting question. “But if you wouldn’t mind telling me your name brother, I should be most grateful!”

“Why?” His younger sibling asked warily, left hand seemingly twitching as though he wanted to call the fire to him now. He didn’t though, apparently wary about whether or not he could fight against another of his own kind. Smart. “Shouldn’t you introduce yourself first?”

“Oh, but it’s been so long since I had a name or a body of my own!” He lamented facetiously, left hand reaching up to grasp the eye patch that covered the once empty eye socket of Euron Greyjoy. “But if you must know,” He continued, gripping it tighter before pulling it off altogether. The horrified expression that filled his little brother’s face was one he would treasure when he killed him. “I wanted your name so that when I come face to face with our father, I can tell him which one of his children was claimed by the Doom of Valyria!!”

Chapter Text

Jon Snow had never thought he believed in destiny or pre-determined roles before. He thought he knew himself well enough to know that. But as his tutelage with his mystical father progressed, he was finding more and more that there were aspects to himself (even aside from the heretofore unknown propensity toward fire magic) that were less than obvious from first glance.

Without his knowing it, without his realizing it, he had unconsciously accepted that as a bastard born to a noble house he would have no choice in shaping his own life; that he was a stain upon the rest of the world even if he didn’t mean to be. Yet now that was changing. He had witnessed firsthand what it would mean to be a true bastard in nature instead of just birth. He listened to the advice of a god itself as it showed him his own potential and prodded him when he first made his tentative steps toward mastering the powers that had recently come into his life.

Even after more than a year under Lord R’hllor’s tutelage, Jon still managed to find himself caught off guard and surprised by the mystical world his heritage made him included in.

When his father had told him that with enough practice, he could use the fire to see more than other humans, Jon had initially thought he was only referring to the vision that allowed him to see things defined by the heat they gave off as opposed to the way the light reflected off them. But his father had disabused him of that notion. He had told Jon that some of the best known followers of R’hllor’s various incarnations were well-known prophets and seers simply because they had managed to see in the fire things that others did not.

“You mean to teach me to predict the future?” Jon had whispered in amazement one night while his mind wandered away from the close at hand Last Lake and what he may find there.

“No.” R’hllor answered, his voice an amused whisper that sounded unlike any Jon had ever heard him use before. It was a woman’s for a start, and it was also accented by a strange sense of punctuation as though its’ native tongue was not the common one R’hllor was using it for. “We mean to teach you how to use the fire to see.”

Jon’s brow furrowed as he tried to see the difference. To see the future was to predict it was it not?

“The only thing any mortal can speak of with certainty is the here or the now.” Said R’hllor in response, a slight laugh coloring his (or was it her with this new voice?) tone as he spoke to Jon. “One can see where the fire danced and guess where it may next step. But by the time you see where it goes, the wind could have shifted, the fuel could have collapsed, the fire itself could have died or grown stronger in ways you could not anticipate. And even knowing what the fire once was is uncertain. For unless you are the only one to witness the tongues as they leave ashes in their licking you cannot see the same fire another watcher may see.”

Jon Snow was not slow by his own estimation, but it still took him some time to parse out a useable idea from the cryptic wording as best he could after being exposed to it for so long.

“…So, what I see…Is not what will happen…but what may happen?” Jon ventured cautiously. But even as he asked, a problem presented itself in his mind. “But then how can I know what may happen if it involves people I have never met, places I have never seen?” He asked, wanting to be sure of this idea his father was introducing.

The fire gave a small crackle of triumph.

“We who inhabit the open world may watch upon the closed world that touches our domain. We watch the fires of the day, see the torches lit in the night and in the dark. We hear the whispered secrets spoken beside them, endure the lonely vigils that are kept as they watch the light burn. But even as we see them, we can only know so much of their minds. Of what they have done. Of what they intend. And so we look. We watch. And like you who watch the sun rise and set, who plant the crops and plan the battles, we predict.” R’hllor answered. There was a pause as his father appeared to be trying to think of how to phrase what he was conveying.

“They who submit to us, who place their trust in us, they are as those who stand in an open field under the sun: their every aspect but a small grounding illuminated by our power and thus our sight. They who trust another source are as a torch on a darkened night: we may see them as they move, but we’ve no knowledge or true foresight into their actions but for a limited amount. And those who trust no power but themselves are the most dangerous to us: for they are between the light of our power and the shadow of our second half, unseen even by they who would think to usurp us: at the edge of our sight yet able to act almost as freely as if they weren’t seen at all.” R’hllor explained.

Jon thought carefully about this. Having that sort of awareness of so many people around the world at once while keeping track of which kind of person was which sort of believer gave him a headache just thinking about it. But then again it seemed to tie in with what his father had explained to him of what deities were and the ‘open world’ they resided in. They were powerful, but unless the entirety of the human race chose to believe only in one or another, they would never truly be all powerful.

So when the gods made predictions about their own people that meant that they could only see and suppose what their own people would do. And when those prophecies were heard by those who trusted the gods, they sought to act in accordance in it: never realizing or accepting that the gods were no more able to see what would happen any more than a parent could foresee a child’s future. And no matter how the gods were connected to their worshipers or their children, the children would never be able to see things as the gods did and the gods could only ever present things in a limited way that they who followed them would possibly understand.

It was a confusing mess to say the least.

Jon was given a firsthand experience of that after raiding the bandit camp. There was only one survivor who had stuck with him: a girl only a year or two older than he with plain brown hair and green eyes that reminded him of the moss that grew in the Godswood back in Winterfell. She had stuck a spear through the back of Ramsay Snow’s knee when he had fought the bastard of the Dreadfort in single combat. She also had not spoken a word to Jon afterward when they were looting the smoldering site and indeed for much of their travel time together. But when she had spoken to him to tell him her name was Caralyn, it was like a small dam had started to break down. They’d progressed fairly quickly in their sense of each other as they talked and learned of each other.

And when he’d spent several weeks escorting her to White Harbor, the northern port controlled by the southern cum northern lords of House Manderly, she’d asked him if he could see the future when he offered her a glimpse of what the flames might say. He’d been unsure how to describe it, having only accessed the proper mindset twice in his traveling: having not wanted to give away too much of what he could do with the fire before he got to know her better.

The first time he had received a vision of a smoke storm, smelling of sulfur and death as it came ever closer to him. The second had been a red building, its red tapestries somewhat faded in the sunlight as a mockingbird sang somewhere atop the cracked tile roof out of sight.

But he had wanted to give her the chance none the less even as his sense of her told him that she had no natural magic to her blood, so would thus rely almost entirely on him to complete the process for her. He’d had her close her eyes so she wouldn’t see him draw the visible flames to his hands, not sure whether she would trust him enough to let him touch her with burning fingers that did not burn. Instead of hurting her, the fires seemed to surround her eyes before fading into her skin: giving them a slightly tanned look, a few flecks of gold dancing at the outside corners of her closed lids. His left hand came to the base of her skull where it met her spine by instinct: his sense of his own power having long since drilled into him that most magic was generated within the body and circulated to the head for translation before it flowed outward to the body again in order to act. If he was going to give her the power of sight, he needed to be able to tell her mind that it needed to prepare to see things it hadn’t been naturally equipped to see. He used his right hand to bring hers up to feel the heat emanating from their campfire, the fire enshrouding his right hand drawing into her flesh.

Jon’s eyes almost instinctively activated as he watched the bloom of heat remain behind her palm before spreading through her limb into her torso before the heat began to concentrate on flowing upwards to her head. Even as it began to reach her, his left hand siphoned off a vast majority of the magically infused heat that threatened to otherwise begin cooking her beneath her own hair while allowing a trickle of it to flow through to her closed green orbs.

Her eyes had jolted open suddenly. They had darted all over the front of the clearing, plainly not viewing the world as it was at this moment in time. A few seconds later, she gasped and looked around as he carefully watched her expression and her movements to see if she had been damaged by the brief exposure to somewhat potent magic, drawing his hands away slowly so as not to spook her.

“What-What was that?!” She had asked him urgently, her green eyes finding his own grey, amazement shining behind them as the fire crackled obliviously.

“What was what?” He asked in return, needing her to explain what it was she had seen. “What did you see?”

“But, but didn’t you see-” She asked, gesturing vaguely toward something in the fire’s direction.

Jon understood more what his father meant now. She wasn’t a magic user by nature and so wouldn’t be used to it, having needed to literally piggyback on Jon’s own power in order to get the glimpse she had been given. But even so, Jon himself was not privy to the vision she had seen. It had been hers alone no matter the filters that had been placed before it.

“I saw nothing.” He answered truthfully, shaking his head in a negative. “Nothing but you going still as you opened your eyes for a few moments before gasping.”

He paused briefly before asking her again: “What did you see?”

She obliged: describing to him a city colored all in red with golden waves cresting toward the three hills that most of the buildings lay upon. That must’ve been King’s Landing he thought. His idea was confirmed when she described the symbols that had arisen atop them. The first had been a meteorite, glowing softly in the crater atop the hill. Jon had heard enough stories from Septa Mordane of the Seven and the tales they told of meteorite metal forged into their holy weapons to know that must be the Great Sept of Baelor. When she described the second hill as a sword stuck point first in the ground, swaying in an invisible wind with a crown balanced atop its cross guard hilt and a pommel that seemed to change shape with every shifting blow of the wind he knew that must be the Red Keep where the royal family lived. And when she told him of the great bonfire that emerged from the third hill, he figured that was the Dragon Pits that had so many years ago once housed the fearsome dragons of House Targaryen.

He tried to explain in his own stumbling way that he thought her vision might mean she wanted to go to King’s Landing or simply had chosen something to believe in. Her thoughtful expression as they curled up before the last dying embers of the fire spoke to his thoughts resonating with her he thought. Though he wasn’t entirely sure seeing as how he sounded an uncertain boy to his own ears.

Despite the circumstances of their initial meeting, Jon couldn’t say he wasn’t glad to have met and become friends with Caralyn. He was somewhat saddened when he thought of how it was likely he would never see her again once she made her way to King’s Landing and then wherever she chose to go from there but knew it had been worth it to help her and know her the way he had on this strange journey when she hugged him farewell and told him he was a good man as they parted paths in White Harbor.

Jon left soon after, having picked up rumors of unusual raiding activity off the western coast near the Saltspear Inlet. When he made his way across the country, he received another shock. Somehow, his little sister Arya had awoken powers in her that allowed her to travel to him in his dreams. He never saw her when he was awake or when he slept during the day strangely enough. But when he’d asked R’hllor why that might be, his father had told him he wasn’t ready to know the reason yet.

Jon was uneasy at his father’s reluctance, especially since he would brook no debate or argument on the subject no matter how Jon tried to bring it up: a marked first for the fire god since he had begun speaking to Jon.

But soon enough he put it out of his mind and simply grew to enjoy being able to have his sister with him when he traveled to find what was in the stories of the raiders.

That came to an end after boarding the ship Roaring Pride. The captain was a man the crew only ever referred to as Scar. Scar was perhaps a few years younger than Eddard Stark, though one wouldn’t know it just to look at him. His brown hair was liberally peppered with grey and white while his blue eyes had numerous crow’s feet around it: a mark of long hours staring into the horizon or the night looking sharply for any sign of trouble or hazard to the ship that he’d been charged to get safely from one port to the next. The only possible explanation to the crew’s nickname for their captain Jon had seen came from a set of two large scars that ran along the back of his right arm, as though a long sword had taken two deep swings at his arm and not quite managed to kill him.

He’d been skeptical about Jon’s possible contribution to the crew’s safety as they made their way from Barrowton heading down toward Lannisport with a short stop in Seagard on the path. But eventually John had convinced him that he was a simple sellsword who’d be happy to work for the ship for only a few silvers plus a small share in whatever they managed to obtain from fighting off raiders. The Captain, amused by Jon’s optimistic offer, had barked a laugh before welcoming him aboard with a rhetorical: “Alright, why the fuck not.”

But from there it had all gone to hell in the crone’s lantern.

The days had gone by with nothing happening at first, only some minor problems with waves to speak of. And then late one night as he dreamt Arya was there with him on the deck, it happened. She had appeared as per usual, simply appearing in a strange amalgam of reality and dream that made the ship seem sleeker and somehow less distinguishable than it was in real life. (That was something of a feat considering that for its’ grandiose title, the Roaring Pride stood out even less from the other ships Jon had seen in his limited experience than most others.) She’d asked where they were. As per his usual way, he told her where. That they were on a ship because that was where he was. It wasn’t his fault she still didn’t seem to accept that they were seeing each other inside the realm of sleep even separated by miles and miles of physical distance. But then again, she hadn’t been instructed by a mystical voice in a fire for more than a year about precisely that kind of thing and told that things like this were more than possible at a higher level of control.

“What is that?” She asked, pointing at something behind him and in the distance.

Jon turned to look at it, his grey eyes widening as he took in the black smoke that was billowing angrily toward the ship. It was the same smoke from his vision. He could feel it in the way it resonated with his sense of fires. Without saying a word to Arya, he quickly jolted awake, making his way toward the captain to warn him of incoming danger. It was fortunate for him that the ship he saw in the distance soon after lit a ghostly flame to confirm his warning. The crew hurriedly tried to get the rowers to move faster, to work with the wind that was blowing in the sails even as the waves slapped at the hull with ever increasing volume.

The dark-haired demigod instinctively switched to his fire eyes, looking all around them to see what the night would not reveal willingly. His heart sank as he looked to the distance in front of them and saw two other ships closing in toward them like the jaws of an iron bear trap. Jon Snow knew instinctively that if he allowed the ships to approach unmolested, that it would spell the end of the crew. So he quickly fetched his trophy bow, stolen from the Grimwell hideout after he’d burned his original to a blackened and cracked piece of debris, from below decks. When he got back up above deck the ships were closing in fast. Without hesitation or thought he nocked an arrow, drew the string back to his ear, outstretched his left index finger as he held the bow as if to take aim while in reality creating a fire on the arrow shaft just below the head and then loosed once he was sure of his accuracy.

The arrow struck true to the mast of the first ship, illuminating a bloody dagger upon its sails. Jon however barely saw the first ship at that point as he was stringing a second arrow and firing at the second ship coming straight toward them. Both ships were soon roaring with flames, but still they kept coming. Jon cursed loudly to himself as it finally dawned on him what kind of men these must be to continue trying to attack.

‘Of course it’s the damn Ironborn! The only ones stupid and blood thirsty enough to keep trying to kill something after they’ve been set on fire!!’ He thought angrily, taking aim with the bow again and firing at each man he could get a decent line of sight on. The fire was starting to make it hard to distinguish the shapes of the raiders against the brightness they were atop. But still he maintained it right up until they were crashed into by the ships. From there things impossibly devolved into worse chaos. The men were fighting back with all they could get their hands on: dagger and oar and, in one bizarre case, shit-bucket. Jon and the Captain were among the only ones with any weapon larger than a knife. Jon himself wielded an axe while the captain had a sword that was nicked and visibly worn but very obviously sharp.

The fight upon the boat became fire and blood and chaos, with Jon managing to lose his axe in one of the unprotected Ironborn heads while the crew died around him: their dying cries echoing and answered by the dying cries of the men Jon and Scar fought alongside. And then even Scar’s fighting ceased, leaving Jon alone to face the Ironborn on a ship that was rapidly sinking due to the ghostly fire ship that had rammed the Pride sometime between the man with the giant bird tattoo on his chest getting killed and Jon managing to regain his feet by using one of the strangely mute enemies as leverage to pull himself up.

Grabbing the shield that had fallen by the bird marked man, Jon raced on instinct for the mast of the Pride that was pointing toward the last enemy ship and his last hope of salvation from the unforgiving, increasingly volatile sea like an accusing wooden finger. His feet carried him along it swift as the heated wind that blew at his back. The shield was holding strong in front of him even as it weathered the small barrage of arrows and axes thrown at him. On instinct, he flared the fire through his arm, igniting the shield and the projectiles it had taken in his protection. As he leapt to the deck of the ship and threw the shield upon landing, he came up ready for his enemies again: dagger held in a reverse grip in his right hand, left hand in the claw that his budding practice in the martial style his father had helped him develop over the course of his travels in case he needed to strike.

Already he’d had to move to the side of a downward swing of an iron short sword, the ironborn crewman attempting to bash outward with the shield on his left arm as Jon moved to his own right. The claw caught the shield by the upper edge, pulling it toward him. It pulled the fighter off balance enough for Jon to stab the dagger into his unwittingly presented neck as an insane laughter bubbled up in the background. As the flames started to spread, the crew grew visibly worried and took a collective half step backward even as Jon himself decided he needed to get some distance from the rest, getting his back to the railing of the ship as the laughter continued.

And then he heard the voice.

It was a rich, deep, smoky voice. It thrummed in his ribs like the drum beat upon a grand field of battle: a call to the destruction and the chaos of the possibilities that lay upon the grounds soaked in blood and blessed by the cleansing scorch of flame. But such malice in it he hadn’t heard even when his most vicious instincts had forcefully gouged his eyes out during his trials.

“Hello brother!” It called to him, cheerfully as though it were Robb greeting him after a grueling practice session with Rodrik Cassel.

The Ironborn crew seemed just as frightened as he, the waves crashing menacingly against his back only serving to highlight the wrongness of the man who stepped before him. His hair was blackish in the dark of the night and spray of the salty sea while his single blue eye was highlighted by contrasting the eyepatch that took up a good part of the right side of his face. They still came closer with him though, a shifting silent herd that followed this…thing as it stalked closer to him in the guise of a man.

“I wonder, did our father really think you wouldn’t be found? That I wouldn’t discover you?” He asked Jon sarcastically, his grin sharp and angry like a shark’s. He continued speaking as the crew looked back and forth between the two of them, clearly unsure of what their captain was talking about. “But if you wouldn’t mind telling me your name brother, I should be most grateful!”

“Why?” Jon asked, extremely reluctant to reveal anything about himself more than already had been aired in the open. He experimentally flexed his left hand, debating whether he should attempt to blow the burning ship out from under all their feet now. Buying for time, he attempted to fish for more information about his enemy. “Shouldn’t you introduce yourself first?”

His heart sank as the creature laughed at his request.

“Oh, but its’ been so long since I had a body of my own!” It said to him, a mocking tone of unsureness in its voice, as though it were worried about how it would explain a complicated concept to its dimmer sibling. “But if you must know,” it continued, bringing its right hand up to the eyepatch that covered something that wouldn’t be good for Jon he was sure. He was right. A blank socket was present only briefly before thick dark smoke poured out of it in a torrent, frightening the men nearby him as it engulfed them. As they clawed at the suddenly choking air around them, he continued: “I wanted your name so that when I come face to face with our father, I can tell him which of his children was claimed by the Doom of Valyria!!”

Jon was horrified with the proclamation. R’hllor had fathered a being that claimed to be the direct cause of Valyria’s complete destruction? As the smoke began to retreat back to the eye from whence it had emerged, Jon saw that the Ironborn crew that had immediately surrounded the creature had become desiccated husks: more mummified remains than men. But their eyes…

Their eyes remained. And they were all uniformly orange in their color, the shade of a new spark that flew off one of Mikan’s heated pieces of metal while he forged. They looked fragile, almost as though they would fall apart if Jon touched them too roughly. The crew who had retreated closer to the nearby fires of the deck rather than risk the strange smoky sorcery that occurred in front of Jon were now holding their weapons at the ready: their grip steady even as their panicked eyes darted every which way to see if there was any sign of land beyond the chopping waters and the now almost entirely gone wreaks that had led to this fateful encounter.

All at once the stalemate was at an end and the world spun into motion once more.

Jon was forced to dodge a swing aimed for his neck from the right side, leaning back slightly over the railing of the ship before he spun to his right with his spine still balanced on the railing. His enemy was relentless however. As a result, Jon was barely able to see the stab coming toward him as the dagger kept flashing at the Ironborn while he used the railing to balance as he spun toward him. As the thrust came toward him, Jon pushed off the railing with his back. Even as a line of hot pain erupted across his back, the displaced northern boy moved toward the man: dagger held in a reverse grip in his right hand.

One. Two. Three. Four.

Four times Jon’s dagger found itself buried in the enemy’s torso, the fourth time it was right at the junction where the ribcage met and ended. Instead of taking the dagger out and letting the body fall where it may, Jon grabbed the man by his neck and spun him around in front of him just in time to take an downward axe blow aimed at Jon to the back and his upper right shoulder. Acting on instinct, Jon ran forward while pushing the body into his ambusher. The man couldn’t remove the axe and stop Jon from using his crew mate as an impromptu battering ram. And so he also wasn’t prepared to find himself falling over the railing of the ship, dead weight and all.

Jon spun as one of the dried out corpse men came for him mouth open in a loud and angry cry as blood dripped from its out stretched hands. It was stepping away from a body with its throat torn out, an expression of terror etched on it in the man’s last moments. Jon didn’t hesitate for a moment: he brought his clawed left hand toward the face in front of him and struck. His fingers managed to tear four deep gouges across the eyes, the bridge of the nose and the upper as well as lower lip. Jon spun around the still outstretched hands to its right, knife flashing up to follow through as it was now held in the forward slashing grip.

Whether through luck or adrenalin induced aiming, Jon didn’t know how but his slash struck true, cutting further into the skull where his finger had carved a gouge straight through the bridge of the thing’s nose. All the time the thing in a man’s body that called itself the Doom of Valyria fought on: laughing as though the entire thing was one of the funniest things he had seen in some time. The Ironborn didn’t know whether to concentrate on Jon or on the creatures that were once their crewmates. Their hesitation was costing them: even a moment’s pause could allow the things to grab them, bite them, or strike them.

Jon ignited his left hand and thrust it toward the biggest concentration of the things he could see in the hope that it would decimate their numbers and sow further confusion. The fire erupted toward the dried out husks. It came in contact with their bodies and then everything was light and noise and confusion.

Jon couldn’t see, couldn’t hear, couldn’t comprehend what was happening. His mind could barely register he was on his back, looking up at the night sky. The salt water splashing and slopping over the sides of the ship was what finally brought him back to himself. But when it did, his entire left arm erupted in pain. He feebly rolled onto his front, cradling his left hand close to his body: every twitch of his arm’s muscles sending a screaming pain tearing through him. Somehow he’d managed to hold onto the dagger in his right hand, though he couldn’t imagine why.

His instinct screamed at him to move, so Jon rolled to his right, only managing to get far enough to rest on his back like an overturned turtle before the mast collapsed toward the bow of the ship. It impacted where he’d just been recovering his wits. He looked down his own body to see what had happened. Only to have a heart sinking sight fill his vision.

As the ship burned, the man who’d proclaimed himself the Doom of Valyria stepped out of the fire: burning shards of the ship’s wood work dotting his body as most of the armor he’d worn had been blasted away. More smoke emerged from the gashes and divots that leaked blood as copiously as a keg of ale whose tap had been unceremoniously smashed off.

Yet still he smiled at Jon with that demonic void contrasting with the malicious orange eye that remained in the other socket.

“I suppose you think that was terribly clever Valonqar.” It remarked in a tone that implied only contempt and derision for Jon’s attempted action. It spat a glob of blood as it advanced toward Jon who attempted to scramble backward, only to jostle his blackened and charred arm too quickly and fall back with a cry of pain. “How very predictable for he who believes himself a Rinitos Zaldrize to think that simply spraying fire is the answer to all his problems.”

He came within reach of Jon’s feet, so Jon quickly attempted to draw back his right leg and deliver a prone mule kick to the Doom’s knee. His brother lifted up the right leg Jon attempted to strike before bringing his heel down on Jon’s shin. A crack rent the seething air as Jon felt his right shin snap under the power of his brother’s strike.

Jon screamed.

The Doom came up by Jon’s head, his bloody left hand reaching down to pick up Jon by his shredded leather armor by the collar. Before Jon could try to regain his bearings a fist smashed into his mouth hard enough to make him see stars. He thought he felt himself involuntarily swallow some of his own blood and a couple of small hard things that might’ve been his teeth.

“But the difficulty with using fire to solve your problems Valonqar,” The Doom continued, methodically bringing his fist crashing into Jon’s face again. The young Snow dimly thought he felt a crack in his jaw. “Is that you can never quite control what burns in its wake!”

Jon was panicking now. Without a second thought, he brought the dagger in his right hand up into his brother’s blazing orange left eye, driving the blade into his skull up to the hilt. An angry roar erupted from his brother. He then proceeded to slam Jon back first into the mast of the ship, cracking and splintering the already burning and blackened wood before throwing him bodily across the deck to impact the stern railing.

Frantic, Jon drew fire to his functional right hand and concentrated on healing his broken shin so he could at least stand against this creature. “You may be a young fool, but you are an interesting one.” He heard as his shin reset itself, causing him to grit his teeth against the pain. He looked up to see the Doom stalking toward him: smoke billowing freely from beneath the dagger and from the empty socket.

“So young and already you’ve discovered a potential successor for the Other.” He hissed, left hand tugging at the dagger lodged in his eye. “And don’t bother denying it! I can sense the dark magic around you! So:” As he got the dagger out, smoke billowed out of the other socket, creating twin trails of darkness as he moved. “You’re going to show me who your Other is.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Jon wheezed, sliding his left foot back so that his right side was forward and his right hand was clawed and ready for the Doom.

“I don’t need you to know anything.” He was in front of Jon in the blink of an eye. Jon tried to thrust his palm forward to hit his brother in the chest. The Doom’s left forearm came up in front of his chest, allowing Jon’s hand to grip and burn it. His right hand struck Jon’s cradled left arm hard enough to break the bones.

Before Jon could scream again his brother’s right hand gripped him by the neck, lifting him up off his feet. His brother was making a growling noise in the back of his throat that no human voice should be capable of making. He leaned in close to Jon’s ear and whispered menacingly:

“I only need you to die for it.”

As his grip tightened more and more, Jon thought he saw something out of the corner of his eye. A shadow moving toward him and the Doom. But before his gasping for air brain could decipher it, the Doom hammered its left fist into his stomach just below the ribcage before his right hand released his neck and his knee came up to hit the exact same spot.

Jon vomited onto the burning deck of the ship. In a small part of his mind that wasn’t panicking and scrambling to figure out a way to prevent his imminent death, he noticed that he’d been right about thinking he’d swallowed his teeth earlier as he saw them bounce briefly across the deck along with the bloody contents of his stomach regurgitated through an almost certainly broken jaw. The burning in his stomach that resounded in his throat and his mouth brought him to his knees, his blackened left arm seemingly numb now from the overload of pain signals his screaming nerves had tried to bombard him with. Even as he remained on all fours to try and recover his breath for a moment, a kick launched him into the side of the ships solid wood railing.

He thought he heard a voice screaming somewhere. No, couldn’t be. His mouth hurt too much to use and his brother didn’t seem to be the screaming type. There was silence on the deck for a second as Jon hacked and coughed painfully, his body trying to get air into his seizing lungs.

He saw his brother now. Or at least, his brother’s legs next to his head. He was hauled to his feet again. A fist impacted his already throbbing and swollen left eye. The air was somehow colder and harder to breathe around the Doom than it had been before. Or maybe that was just his shattered ribs talking.

“You would dare…” His brother breathed. “You would dare inflict a child with the curse of being the Other?!” His fist struck Jon’s face again. Jon tried carefully flexing his damaged left hand to see if he could use it. “You would dare condemn them to exist as the death of all things?! To exist only as a shadow to be feared?! Another victim of their own oblivion?!?” He hit again. Jon was pretty sure through the red covering his right eye that he was now blind in the left. He couldn’t understand why the fire wasn’t healing him, why it wasn’t working. Was it because the Doom was affecting him somehow? Had Jon truly grown so reliant on the powers already after only a little more than a year of having them?

The Doom bent him backward over the railing so that his spine was almost folded in half. The salt water splashed over the both of them, and to Jon’s surprise his brother’s grip loosened.

“So, it seems you’ve acquired an open admirer brother.” The Doom laughed. His brother faced the sea. Without warning his voice somehow became deeper, more menacing. Booming with the strength of an ancient inferno.

“You and your feeble writhing don’t frighten me you toothless, silt-blooded worm!!” He shouted to the air. The waves seemed to grow more violent in response.

“You thrash and you flail but you cannot disguise the smell of rust upon your iron you spineless clear-skinned impotent vermin!!” He proclaimed as the burning ship was rocked by the waves: creaking and groaning with each slam against the hull but somehow remaining together.

Jon knew he would never get a better time than now to act. He leapt at his brother, left hand still held against his side but fingers stiffly stuck in the claw like shape he’d been taught. His right hand however was made into a fist. It struck true in the spot on the possessed body on the back just below the ribcage on the right side of the spine.

The Doom shouted in surprise, still human body instinctively bending sideways and away from the punch. As he did, his right hand came as an instinctive backhand toward Jon. The demigod Snow barely managed to duck it before he was inside the Doom’s guard and his left hand gripping the neck. Praying that his hand would obey him, he tried to squeeze with all his might and pull the throat of his enemy out.

He succeeded.

What remained of the Doom’s profusely bleeding neck wasn’t so much a neck as it was a barely glimpsable spinal cord behind severely shredded meat. As smoke began to leak out of the hole in the neck, Jon brought his right hand up in a claw shape again: fire blazing away inside it. He aimed, he thrust his palm and he loosened the stream of fire. His gambit paid off. As soon as the fire contacted the smoke in the shredded neck meat, it burned quickly. The resulting explosion was slightly more contained, content to blow the body’s head off into the churning frothing sea. Jon staggered toward the splintered remains of the mast as the water level rose around him from the waves. As he collapsed to his knees again, his energy spent, he heard the Doom again.

“Did…you…think…that…was…it?” The voice was disjointed, stilted. Using a voice and a language it was not accustomed to. Jon tried to haul himself up on the mast and look back. The body had collapsed and now there was only the baleful glowing orange light within the vaguely humanoid cloud shape. Without any further warning it rushed at Jon and invaded him through his mouth and the cracked blistering skin of his left arm.

Jon Snow was thrashing. Jon Snow was flailing. Jon Snow was speaking in the Doom’s voice even as his body and his powers tried to eject the invader from his soul.

“I wonder how much of his ‘free will’ honey our father poured in your delicate ears.” The voice hissed, blood dribbling from Jon’s broken jaw as it moved it against the host’s will.

“How much he told you of his favorite catch all excuse: Daorun Dreje. Tolvie lir Gaomagon.” It continued.

“But I doubt he ever told you the truth in all this time. That for every child he bears, he expects them to take up the mantle of R’hllor. And to do it, you must be willing to sacrifice the one you love above all to become the Other. For oblivion exists only in totalities. For there to be existence there must be fire AND shadow!” It finished angrily.

“But should you attempt to question him, question his intentions or his ways, he shall punish you. This is the being that toys with the other gods: forcing himself upon young goddesses and creating competing gods simply to watch them conflict!!” It ranted.

“I sought to avoid inflicting the fate of the Other upon the one I cared deeply for. But for that, I was driven beyond sanity, my home obliterated in the process! And after, I was told that my power was corrupted and that both of the worlds were now closed to me!” It revealed.

“But no more!!” It declared, the smoke emerging from Jon’s mouth. It felt as though it were attempting to drain his energy as it did so. “If the gods of this world are no better than the humans they are meant to be more than, than I shall simply end them all: god and human alike!!”

Jon didn’t wait to see what his brother was going to do when he fully emerged. So he mentally crossed his fingers and attempted to inhale the fire that surrounded him. It worked all too well.

The explosion finally finished the ship as Jon’s prone body was blown from the destroyed pieces and landed upon the nearby mast. As the salt water barely registered on his virtually gone senses, his brother’s voice echoed in his head one last time.

‘We are kin brother. We shall both burn the world around us. But only one fire can prove the greater. And I have already been burning for centuries little spark.’

Jon couldn’t hold onto the mast anymore. The water was too slippery, his body was too tired and his mind was shot: both emotionally and logistically. As he slipped beneath the churning waters that seemed at last to be settling, he could’ve sworn he saw Arya running toward him upon the waves.

In the distance, he thought he heard a baby crying.

His only functioning eye was switching back and forth between a view of the apparition of his little sister on surface of the water and a group of black haired people in the distance. He found that despite his efforts he could only move toward the group of black haired strangers. He also found he much preferred the sight of the strangers.

For now he was looking up beneath the water, watching as though on the other side of a shifting sheet of glass as Arya pounded on the surface to try and get to him, her fists unable to even shake the screen between them. His vision flashed back to the black haired strangers. Now he was within their midst.

He saw a black haired baby upon an alter of iron. It was crying loudly. Without thinking, he reached for the infant only to discover his hands were covered in blood. Without warning, hooded strangers were in the midst of the crowd, golden daggers in hand. They flashed in the dim light, blood spurting everywhere as the babe cried louder and louder.

Jon quickly attempted to pick up the child, his bloody hands slipping before he finally managed to cradle the precious bundle close to him. His hands had stained the child enough that it looked almost as though it were newborn. The strangers held the golden dagger menacingly pointed at him, the iron alter now stained with the blood of these black haired strangers around him. Instinctively, Jon knew the dagger was meant for the child.

But he also noticed the baby had stopped crying. As he looked down, it opened its scrunched eyes, a smile upon its red face. And as its vivid blue eyes met his, he felt an electric shock run up his spine.

The jolt forced him back into the world beneath the sea just in time to see something swimming toward him. It might’ve been a human at one point, but the lower half looked too thickly muscled: a tail that pushed from side to side to move it forward. The grey scales looked as though they could shred a man who touched it the wrong way, leading to three sets of tentacles on each place that might’ve been shoulders on a mortal. Most of all, he saw the moss colored hands and the human face.

He couldn’t tell if it was meant to be male or female. Though he could see that the teeth and eyes were distinctly shark like. Just before he lost consciousness, he wondered at the irony of it all.

‘Child of a fire god killed by a fish. What’re the odds?’

Chapter Text

In a place far beyond yet just brushing what most humans would consider the ends of the world, a being of many minds and one purpose idly watched as the smaller serpent expertly rode a wave and deposited the young fire within their palm. They protectively brought it closer to their center and reached out to it with the barest twitch of their thoughts.

The flickering dance it performed as its first strands reached out, seeking new fuel to allow itself to grow brought an upward curl to many lips upon unseen faces and a cautious narrowing of the eyes to others. The blaze was small now. A mere spark compared to the fires that had forged and birthed it. But soon, for good or for ill, it would grow. And perhaps when it did it would prove worthy. Unwillingly, memories flashed through their collective of the last they had thought ready as they and the serpentine servant exchanged with each other.

Spark of they?

Yes. Why water unquench?

Returned ours beneath. Know rules of they. Thought use.

It became clear that the Drowned God was potentially more clever then R’hllor had given him credit for. The Breathless likely remembered that it had been on their orders that the child of R’hllor the Ironborn now called Naga had been slain on his orders. But now by saving this spark of the Ever-Burning, he hoped to cancel out the debt R’hllor would otherwise have taken as due.

R’hllor nodded some heads while others turned their cheeks and yet still more narrowed their eyes. They had not quite forgiven the sanctioned murder of Naga, but they knew better than to pass off a source of potential illumination.

Wits. Good use. Willing partner if willing.

Hoped. Acceptance temporary. Speak soon.

And the serpent faded into the waves that receded back to the realm of the Deep Dweller. The spark still had a wetness to it, likely an effect of being partly at the Drowned God’s mercy in the mortal world even as their essence belonged to R’hllor here. As the Red probed their child’s essence, they discovered it was in turmoil.

Questions. Lies. Truth. Unsure. What is? What was? What now?

They had to answer their child’s queries as best they were able even as the subject of Cularis pained them so. So they revealed what had been and held nothing back. They recalled the bright child who burned bright even in the light of day. Whose light shone so bright he believed it to erase his darkness. When shown the truth of it, had refused to accept what was and instead sought to impose his idea of it upon the essences of light and shadow both. And from there it had descended into disaster.

It was naught now but a mind broken by the truth of itself that lay within the heart of the flames. A soul dwarfed and consumed by the scope of its own potential power for choosing to attempt to fill both the fire and the dark with its presence only to be consumed by both. Nothing but rampant destruction had resulted. All that remained of what the last had once been was madness and an insurmountable hatred of all things that lived in the in-between that worshiped the limitless world to which it could neither enter nor ever return.

As there had always been a light in the dark, so too has there always been a void beyond the edge. This they had discovered through their followers of times before, but never had their descendants tried such a thing since the beginning. They had the spark watch the fires of what was burning away what had been to breathe life into that which they hoped might be as they carefully placed the young ember within their smoldering core, to better protect it in case the coming exchange took a turn for the worse. It was for the best: for they had to protect their best hope for a new ascension and rebirth as best they could from the foes they could.

For now, they were in a careful truce with these others that they sought. Countless generations had passed between their being driven across the bridge by the Black Goat after all. They had vowed they would not seek to harm those whom their former disciple had already taken so much from. But now…now they looked to influence the world more directly as the young spark had taken from their intentions and their images. And if that meant allying with those who mistrusted and hated them (not without cause it had to be remembered for even as their mutual history was a somewhat soured one they knew they always demanded exchange and so took as they needed that they might better sustain their own power) simply for following what came naturally to them than so be it.

They took a deep but unnecessary breath. This was not the time for doubt. There was still more to be done if they were to prepare their child student for his potential role as their successor. They did not know what if anything their hatchling would remember upon returning to the mortal world: but they knew this had to be done.

With hardly a blink, they found themselves before a mighty yet creaking tree, its’ once countless limbs and bloody leaves that could be mistaken for their own fires in the right lights now fewer, drooping with neglect. They were being killed by the hubris of the ignorant in the here; those whose attempts to usurp their position as gods of their only recently settled western world had left them reeling even now.

The countless Eyes of Crimson crinkled and blinked as they remembered the birth of these that the race of men amusingly called the ‘Old Gods.’ They were no older than their own scaled children were fonts of wisdom nor were they even counted as the only spirits of nature that attempted to make their presence in the closed world. But in both cases, they were not truly meant to be. Like the first R’hllor, they were meant to function instead as conduits. As a vessel of understanding and power to flow through so that the shadows of ignorance may have been bathed in a light of understanding.

Now of course, in their spite they choose to forget how much they owed to the Reddened Faces in those early days of godhood, when they did not understand what their purpose was, how they were meant to be in both this the open world and the other the closed one they had been birthed from. But their unwillingness to be a part of both led to their being almost entirely consumed by one of the former red followers who had turned away from R’hllor and styled himself as a voice for the natural world. The horned headdress he had so enjoyed in life had come back to form him in the image of that ridiculous black goat when he attempted to assume his rightful mantle. But these ‘Old Gods’ who had simply been before, they thought that because they had lived through one brush with true death (better known to any of the gods who had sense as the Return to Nothing) that it made them true deities as the humans might think of it.

Had they been so inclined, the Lightbringers would have expressed their amusement at the quaint idea.

A true deity lived on through many lives that culminated in death after death. Suffered through humiliation and corruption and purity and all of the ups and downs the world that had given them life so commanded. The Crimson Eyes were not limited by the imagination of men any longer. Had not been since the ashes of their first rebirth had grown cold and given birth to their twin: Other. The One of the Abyss. The One who sought always to rejoin the Whole of the Light even as they could never be accepted back. Over time the ashes from countless rebirths upon countless worlds and times and places had made their Other powerful enough to be a challenge and a partner. The One that possessed all the strength of countless deaths yet had no real life of its own. No distinctive sense of self. It only knew what it was not. And for that: it would eternally thirst and hunger and lust for even as it hated and reviled how the Light’s very nature would drive them away and yet was intrinsically entwined with its own.

As they stood before the grand tree, they sensed it question their intentions. They heard the few leaves whisper titles of lives and incarnations that were their past, their present and their future in one and many.

Destroyer.

Devourer.

Death.

They had become, could be and were no longer all of these things. They saw no need to correct these pups that snapped toothless jaws at their betters to maintain a façade of strength. They proposed a bargain to the Wild Things. An alliance of convenience as it were. They could see that to burn the remaining health out of them would be pointless, not when the chaotic carelessness of men could do that for them. But they also wished to burn away the excess and extraneous that threatened to choke mankind’s civilization in the West before spreading back to what had once been their shared home. The part of the closed world that had given birth to them in the open world.

The Wild Things were rightfully untrusting, simplistic beings that they were. They wished to know what it was they could expect from the Endless Mouths who only knew how to consume. They Who Tend the Flames of Creation answer in some tongues of fire that with whispers they can speak to the minds of men, while other voices of heat claim that their thoughts can resonate in the hearts of men and yet more shouting ashes glow with pride and claim that their power shall invigorate the blood of those who stand beside them while cooling those who stand against that which shall always be present at the beginning and at the end.

The Countless Legions smiled as one. They then told of the new spark, whose blood was that of Life and Nature. The Wild Things were incensed. They had sworn to not directly interfere in the realm of men. Not after how men had treated them twice over. How men had worshiped and then raised up other men above them. Cast them from their homes to this condemned frozen land that was only one step removed from the realm of oblivion. The Sun-Blooded did not bother responding, knowing that one day their time would come when they wished to rediscover what it meant to be one of those who had created them for a time. If only to better understand them. As the Sun-Blooded explained how this might be the start of something new, they felt the hope of the Wild Things blossom inside of them, a new and altogether beautifully dangerous plant extending the first roots in a harsh and unforgiving environment.

To see these younglings return to the vigor they had once possessed. And then to see if they were worthy of retaining their position. That was what it meant to be satisfied as The Eternal Elders.

As the bargain was struck and the temporary alliance finalized between mistrusting hordes, the many who had been could not help but think that for all their power and experience, they were not entirely sure which of the many directions all of this could go.

So they left the realm of the Blinded Trees, prompted by the need to awaken their spark in the realm of the mortal now. As they felt the spark return to consciousness, their presence returning to the burning echo it had been once before and yet had strengthened in the wake of its revelations at their hands, they thought of how it excited them beyond measure to venture into the darkness of their own ignorance for the first time in countless years.

Chapter Text

It was known the world over that the sea, no matter where she may lay, was a cruel mistress. The Drowned God was her vengeful husband the Iron Islands would add. And the two of them together made for a couple with a very fucked up sense of humor was Asha Greyjoy’s current thought to append to the two sayings.

She was the only child of Balon Greyjoy to remain on the Iron Islands after her father’s attempt at declaring independence shortly after Robert’s Rebellion. Her brothers Rodrik and Maron had died in the fighting that led back to Pyke while her brother Theon had been taken as a hostage to House Stark. Likely because Stark was the only one of the green lords Robert Baratheon could trust to simply keep him as ward and not attempt to use him in any kind of political games: instead simply lopping off his head if her father grew too big for his britches. Again.

Even now the loss stung Asha. Not because her brothers had been good to her, though she had gotten along reasonably well with Theon. That was admittedly mostly due to do with him being the only brother younger than her. No. The loss still stung because it had set back her father’s dream of seeing the Ironborn return to glory. Of seeing a return to the Old Way.

For now though, she was consigned to trying to overcome not only the image of the Ironborn who’d been crushed down by the other six kingdoms in the uprising, but the image of a woman: a thing to stay at the hearth and pick up a blade only when it came time to defend her babes.

Asha had known from the time her father told her that she was the only one left who could carry on the pride of House Greyjoy that she would not willingly submit herself to that kind of life. As she had gained in martial skill, she had taken to answering any arse who thought himself clever by asking what her husband thought of her learning to fight that he approved before showing them her favorite axe and telling them he was listening if they wanted to raise a stink about it. When she took a beautifully practical dagger off the Lyseni captain who attempted to prevent her from paying the iron price for his goods, she took to calling it her babe and so kept it close to her chest whether inside or outside her armor.

And now of course, despite her years honed at and worshipping him she was brought to reflect on the warped sense of humor the Drowned God and his wife the Sea had in common.

It had started simply enough of course. Near the North-Western coast of Westeros and the Iron Islands in particular, fog was a fairly common occurrence. Thick fog, while relatively rarer, was still not exactly something to begin worrying about. Not until it became so thick that it swallowed sound as well as sight anyway. But Asha hadn’t fought and clawed her way to captainship of The Black Wind by worrying.

“Man overboard off the port bow!!” Droopeye Dale called to the ship at large, finger pointing somewhere over the ship’s left side in the gently lapping water.

The crewman who served as the Wind’s lookout had some of the most deep set eyes Asha had ever known a person to possess. Almost entirely black like the hair on his head, when he squinted it looked as though his brows would swallow his eyes whole. But despite the odd appearance he sometimes made, Asha had trusted him to sail her through storm and battle alike. And he in turn had proven her faith in him well placed each time.

Asha came forward, leaving the careful steering of the ship to Hagen the Horn’s crimson-haired daughter: Hirda. She came to look over the side of the ship as they cautiously made their way through the misty, almost frozen air. The water in the air clung to her short cropped brown hair as she caught sight of the body in the water Dale had noticed. She also observed, before briefly turning her head to give her orders, that there also appeared to be a flag wrapped around his torso.

“Douse the sail!” She barked, gratified to hear the order relayed to those who might not have heard her and the ropes making their sawing noises as the ship began to slow in the water.

“Cromm! Rook! Rope him in!” She ordered, her voice barely overpowering the fog surrounding them as the body drifted closer and closer to the hull. The two men jumped to obey her command, tossing the ropes over the side to try and loop them through one of his limbs. Cromm managed to get what appeared to be his right arm while Rook was lucky enough that his feet were so close together as to let him get both ankles in one go. The two pulled him in steadily and swiftly, taking care once his body was up against the ship’s hull.

As they got the body up to the railing, they tossed the limp figure onto the deck, strange black wrapping and all. She commanded the men to unroll the body, see what exactly he’d been floating in. Asha and her free crew members took hold at the edge they could feel with their hands. She thought to herself briefly that it felt like a flag or a well-crafted sail before they pulled swiftly. And then, without warning or fanfare, the black haired boy was dumped unceremoniously onto the deck like the flopping yet limp catch of the day. As the picture upon the flag became clear, the entirety of the crew became suddenly hushed while Asha’s blood started pounding in her ears.

‘It’s not possible.’ She thought to herself, her eyes telling her that the blood red eye beneath the crown supported by two crows that made her Nuncle Euron infamous was staring back at her.

There were frenzied whispers rushing along the crew now, like an upwelling of the tide at dawn. Asha merely needed to glare to cow them all into silence again. They knew better than to anger their captain despite her relatively few six and twenty namedays.

“Cromm, fetch some of the irons. Bind him to the mast.” She commanded at a normal volume.

“The rest of you, back to work getting us out of this damn fog!!” She shouted for the rest to hear.

“Aye Captain!” Was answered from every hand on deck. As Cromm fetched the irons from the hold, Asha took to one knee in an effort to obtain a closer look at the mysterious boy.

He wasn’t exactly bad looking to her eye. A fair amount of hair had grown in on the top and front of his head, making him look like a boy who’d just discovered that his hair both normal and facial could grow out and was trying to see what the limit was. His fair skin that was showing hints of darkening and lean, wiry build that seemed suited to combat would say he was a hedge knight if it wasn’t for the lack of any kind of scarring on his body that she could see.

Well, that wasn’t quite true. He did have some strange sort of whitened lines that almost appeared to form visual cracks and fissures in his otherwise unmarked left arm. Her left hand came out to push him onto his back in a prone position from the previous pose on his right shoulder and accompanying side he’d occupied. As she took in his entire body and facial features, she couldn’t help but feel like she had seen him somewhere before.

As she pondered his familiarity, Cromm returned with the chains. The gruff man hauled the boy toward the mast, placing his arms backward so that he could fasten the shackles behind the mast.

Asha nodded her approval before gesturing up at the bow: telling him to get back with assisting Droopeye Dale again. Cromm nodded his head once before striding away, his broad shoulders squared as he moved. Asha returned to the helm, relieving Hirda of her post before instructing her to watch the prisoner carefully.

It was late afternoon when they finally managed to escape the fog, the crew gladly setting a course for Pyke. Soon after they started sailing toward her home, Hirda was calling for her.

“Captain!” her lyrical voice called from the mast. “Prisoner’s stirring!”

Asha’s ocean blue eyes focused at the news. She hadn’t managed to parse out what could’ve possibly transpired for this strange sellsword (for what hedge knight had so little armor that he could float in the water?) having done something to her Nuncle Euron. But she intended to find out. She briefly clapped a hand on Hirda’s right shoulder and gave a gentle push toward the steering column as she turned to look at the newly acquired prisoner.

When she did, she could feel a small whoosh of surprised breath leave her mouth unheard by anyone nearby.

As she looked down at the black haired, grey eyed boy before her she had briefly flashed back to the day the six kingdoms had stormed Pyke under the leadership of Robert Baratheon and Eddard Stark. She could see in particular the Lord of House Stark as he walked away with her little brother. This boy, whoever he was: he was an almost dead ringer for a younger and fitter Lord Stark. She didn’t recall the hurried steps she took to bring herself in front of him. Nor did she remember the urgency of her hand gripping the bottom of his jaw menacingly as she leaned in close.

“Who. The. Fuck. Are. You?!” She hissed, eyes attempting to bore into his grey orbs. He looked back at her passively, giving no indication of fear, defiance, anger or sadness. His face may have well been a blank sheet of slate for all the emotion it showed.

She lightly pulled his head closer before slamming it back onto the mast again. She needed to know if the Starks had taken the life of another Greyjoy. She stared at him, willing him to show some sign that he knew where he was and what was happening.

“You Starks may be grass munchers, but I never thought you had addled wits too.” She remarked with a light tone of disgust as she began to stand up.

His eyes tracked her as she stood again, his arms still limp. As his head began to raise to look at her, she saw the moment a spark of defiance entered his gaze. His expression didn’t change save for a certain light in his eyes that hadn’t been there before.

“How did you come to be at the mercy of the Drowned God, little wolfling?” She asked, putting the emphasis of her mocking lilt on wolfling. Needling him had already drawn one reaction. Perhaps pushing him further would provoke another.

“Likely the same as any other. I was on a ship. Then I wasn’t.” He answered. Asha resisted the urge to punch him.

Their eyes met again, ocean blue silently attempting to beat down storm grey which just as obstinately refused to submit. Very slowly and while maintaining unblinking eye contact with him Asha brought her left hand to the right hand bound behind him to the mast. Taking his thumb firmly in her grip, she started to twist. The bottom of his right eye twitched as he remained silent. She twisted further. A minor groan she barely heard escaped his throat. Abruptly, she popped the finger dislocating it in an instant.

He emitted a louder groan that time but still he maintained eye contact with her. Asha couldn’t help the small gleam of approval that entered her eye. It was rare as it was to encounter a prisoner who was willing to mouth off to her, let alone one who had the will and fortitude to maintain a staring contest as she punished him for his hubris.

“Where did you get the flag?” She asked carefully as her right hand gestured to her nuncle’s foreboding cloth.

The black haired boy looked over at it, visible surprise in his eyes and slightly open mouth.

“Well I’ll be. Guess I got tangled up in it when the ship sank.” He reflected thoughtfully.

Asha’s eyes and tone sharpened once more.

“Sank? How could the Silence have sunken?” She asked, left hand continuing to hover over the dislocated finger of his right hand.

He looked back at her again, eyes cautious and slightly narrowed in contemplation now.

“I don’t think you’d believe me if I told you.” He said quietly, leaning toward her as if to share a secret that was only for her ears. In response, she leaned in close enough to hiss in his ear.

“Try me green boy.”

“There was a fire. In the chaos, the iron-born didn’t pay attention until it was too late.” He said back, closing his eyes as if trying to picture it in his head. She waited for him to continue.

“They tried to ambush our ship: two of them at first. They came from the front when the one behind lit up a ghostly looking flame.” He narrated, his breath barely brushing the skin on the side of her face. Asha listened carefully, filing away the interesting trap her Nuncle had apparently used to drive potential victims into the jaws of his own private fleet. That raised some concerns for her considering he had been banished form the Iron Islands even before the Greyjoy Uprising for reasons neither her nuncle Victarion nor her father would discuss with her even now. If he had more men living somewhere with loyalty to him even now…

“The captain, the crew and I made a stand. Tried to stop them. But then that mad one-eyed bastard rammed us from behind.” Black hair continued. Asha noticed that his grey eyes were open again, this time gazing into the distance as if trying to see the ship coming even now.

“Men on both sides went down with the Pride. But the Captain and I, we managed to take the other two ships with us. I made my way onto the one-eyed madman’s ship, I fought him and his crew. The fire spread everywhere before I caught him off guard and tore his throat out. After that, I went into the water and you brought me out.” He finished, eyes coming back to the present.

Asha stood again.

“You know little green wolf, you certainly know how to tell an entertaining tale.” She remarked. She drew the sheathed dagger from inside her bodice. She squatted down by him again, letting him take in the dagger’s razor edge as she slowly drew it out. The leather scabbard barely whispered over it leaving as she shone a bit of the sun in his eyes. She noticed he didn’t try to squint in order to see when she did.

“But the thing of it is, it’s simply that: a tale. And while tales might be good for my young babe here:” she brought the dagger closer, the point barely grazing his bottom lip. “If I have to listen to someone talk, I much prefer they not waste my time and just speak the plain truth. So I’ll ask you one more time. How. Did. You. Get. Euron. Greyjoy’s. Flag?” She asked, tapping the edge of the dagger on his lip with every word so he could be sure to listen.

His stormy eyes looked back at her with sincerity as he said the last thing she expected.

“I don’t know who that is.”

Asha Greyjoy was rarely one to be taken aback by anything whether it be a weapon, threat or ship pointed at her. This was one of those rare times. She’d thought that her nuncle Euron was an infamous raider much like her father and her nuncle Victarion were. That they were known widely enough on the mainland by the family name of Greyjoy so that the green lords could know who to watch when they left their castles to sail upon the water. She knew for a fact that even before being banished he’d raided and pillaged across the Narrow Sea and certainly earned his captainship.

Asha stabbed the dagger into the mast less than an inch from the right side of her captive’s neck.

“Stop lying and tell me the truth!” She hissed angrily, blue eyes attempting to visually gouge out the black haired Stark’s grey.

The Stark remained still as the dagger barely quivered in the wood under her furious grip.

“Which captain was he?” He asked, before correcting himself and asking a different question.

“Wait…he was the one-eyed madman wasn’t he?” An incredulous expression filled his solemn Stark features. If it hadn’t been such a serious situation, Asha would’ve laughed at the out of place emotion that shone from it as a lighthouse would a stormy night. “That was Theon’s nuncle?”

Asha pulled the dagger from the mast, at last convinced that this green Stark relation had no knowledge of who Euron was even as he inadvertently revealed he knew her brother.

“Wouldn’t have guessed it.” He remarked absently.

“And why might that be Stark?” She asked him as she brought her young babe back into the sheath.

“First off, it’s Snow. Not Stark. Second off, I’d call Theon Greyjoy many things but frightening would not be one of them.” The self-proclaimed bastard answered. Asha however was parsing out what he meant about being a Snow instead of a Stark.

“You’re a bastard Stark are you?” She remarked with an air of nonchalance that she didn’t quite feel. She wouldn’t have pegged the ‘honorable’ (mocking definitely intended) Lord Stark to have a bastard son. But there was no other explanation. He looked too much like the man to be anything but a direct relation and he was too young to have been of Lord Stark and her father’s generation. This could serve as an interesting turn of events. If he was telling the truth, her family gained a servant with almost uncontestable martial prowess. And if he was lying, well…thralls lived and died on Pyke every day without the rest of the world noticing. And she couldn’t say it would be a truly Old Way of seeking vengeance by making the child of your enemy your servant.

“You have a name wolfling?” She questioned.

“Jon.” He said, the answer easily leaving his mouth. If this green boy didn’t even know who her nuncle was, there was almost no way he actually knew anything about her people as a whole and so wouldn’t be aware of their continued practice of thralldom.

“Hagen!” She called to her crew. Hagen came as soon as she called, giving a brief inclination of his head to indicate his listening to orders.

“Guard him.” She instructed as she strode back toward the wheel of the ship. “I’d hate for our guest to leave us before I could show him the hospitality of House Greyjoy.”

Chapter Text

Daorun Dreje. Tolvie lir Gaomagon.

Only now did Jon think he could begin to claim some sort of an understanding as to what his half-brother had said upon that accursed ship of iron and smoke even if what he meant was a beast of a different color. It was an expression of everything his father had been telling him about men and gods alike. A power in freedom: the likes of which placed a heavy burden upon he who carried it alone. One he would have to be cautious about exercising if he wanted to prove his worthiness for the responsibilities he’d been made abruptly aware of.

As the salt wind brushed his face gently as a lover’s caress, Jon couldn’t help but remember the encounter with his father that had come after he lost himself to the bliss of unconsciousness.

He’d only barely been aware of the feeling like he was floating after closing his eyes. He didn’t know where it was nor did he know what it was. He only knew that it was both irritating and soothing. Like liquid sand, as contradictory as that sounded. And then he had felt his father’s warmth again. The burning. The heat. The feeling of all the grime and uncleanness of his physical body being gently worn off of his spirit by the flames so that he was his own essence in this place. As he opened his eyes, he couldn’t help but look around where he was.

Jon found himself at the edge of some kind of enormous pool. The water lapped just beneath the lip of the pool’s marble edge, the depth increasing the further in one went. The pool looked to be the center of a bathhouse of some kind: intricate carvings with languages and pictorials long gone yet oddly beautiful adorning most of the space upon the walls. There were pillars spaced evenly along the corners of the room and the corners of the giant pool. And leaning back in the water, only the upper chest and head above the water, was a woman.

Her skin was the color of dark oaken wood, the sort that he’d remembered being used as the shafts of the spears and pikes in Winterfell’s courtyard. Her hair however was a dark blonde: a sandy color that seemed to draw some lighter shades of minor brown from her skin. Her eyes were closed and her long hair was fanned out in the gently undulating water, making it difficult for Jon to estimate just how much of it there was. Steam wafted from the water’s surface as though the bottom of the pool were being heated by burning coals. The humid air was both oppressive but somehow liberating as Jon felt moisture beginning to bead on his pale skin.

As though in a trance, he stepped one foot in the water. An involuntary hiss that was more shock from the sudden temperature change than pain was drawn from his lips as the nearly scalding water eagerly swallowed his appendage. The heat and the soft embrace of the water would’ve been practically cooking him had he still been in his physical body he knew. But he couldn’t help stepping another foot in the water, looking down at his feet as his toes flexed slowly as though looking to circulate the liquid warmth everywhere and anywhere.

“Enjoying yourself young spark?” Came the woman’s voice in a tone that was at once amused and affectionate. A warmth infused in its words that was as gentle as the steam upon the water, the underlying whispers and echoes that lay just beneath the surface signifying that his sire had chosen to appear before him in a woman’s body this time. Jon would’ve said something about this, but mostly he was too focused on walking further into the water until it had submerged him up to his chest. He hadn’t wanted to think about what had just happened to him. About the Doom of Valyria. About what the Doom could’ve meant about the Other. About anything. But that effort was rendered moot as soon as he looked down at his reflection in the water and saw that his eyes were Stark grey where they’d once been white and only the black slit of a dragon’s pupil where before it had been an ordinary circle. He couldn’t ignore that any more than he could ignore the small patches of scales making themselves known in the corners of his eyes and on the curve of his shoulders or the talons his hands now possessed instead of claws.

“Not in the least.” He answered, closing his eyes so that he could pretend for another moment that this place hadn’t revealed what he was to his unwilling gaze.

“We expected not.” She said, the water sloshing as he heard her stand up in the pool. He heard the water shift as she came closer to him.

“What did Cularis tell you?” She asked in a resigned tone as she came beside him, hand resting on his left shoulder.

“Why don’t you call him what he is: The Doom of Valyria?” Jon asked, unable to countenance why his father hadn’t told him about that. “Hell, why didn’t you warn me about him? Why didn’t you tell me I had to face him? Why didn’t you tell me I was expected to take your place?! Why didn’t you tell me what the Other is?!! Why didn’t you tell me that I did something to Arya?!?!” He demanded, voice growing louder and louder as his eyes opened. He abruptly turned his head to face his father at his right side before he looked straight ahead again: his sense of propriety forcing him to avert his eyes from the attractive female form his father had chosen to take.

The soft skin of the woman’s hand rubbed a small circle on his left shoulder in what Jon figured was meant to be a soothing manner for a few silent moments before R’hllor answered him.

“Cularis is the name his mother gave him when he was born. No matter what small ashes remain after he tried to burn away what he was, it does not change that aspect of what his flame once had been to her or to us.” R’hllor began, a melancholy in her voice that Jon had only heard right before he’d been forced to undertake the three trials after helping Arya. “Just as no matter what you come to be known as to others, your mother named you Jon. And so you shall always be Jon to us.”

Jon felt her lean against him, the side of her left breast pressing into his right arm as he stood rigidly in the water. He involuntarily swallowed. This was the closest he’d been to a naked woman in his life. Even if his intellect told him that it was his father was speaking to him through this form, all his subconscious mind could register was ‘soft flesh’ ‘attractive’ and ‘female’ aspects of her form.

“Why didn’t you warn me about him?!” Jon hissed quietly, telling himself the redness in his face was simply the steam off the water and his own anger at his father’s keeping secrets affecting him.

“And what might you have said if we had?” She asked him, head cocked against his shoulder curiously: her ear upon his clavicle as though she could hear whether he would tell her the truth based solely upon his voice as it reverberated through his body.

“I-I…” Jon couldn’t think what he might have said. Even now that he had witnessed his brother first hand and experienced him, he couldn’t think what it meant. What he felt about it. He couldn’t honestly say that with everything else his father had been trying to teach him and show him that he would’ve taken him announcing that by the way, he had an insane and extremely powerful half-brother who was responsible for the destruction of Valyria well or at all.

“I…I don’t know.” He was at last forced to admit, his Stark upbringing not allowing him to lie simply to win an argument. Especially not when his father’s answers could mean the difference between life and death.

“You would not have believed.” R’hllor said to him. The god continued even as Jon opened his mouth to object. “You have swallowed all that we have fed you thus far. But asking you to believe that there is immediate family in the world from our power that would wish you dead? That was asking too much. Especially of a spark who values the warmth of his family’s hearth as much as you.”

Jon swallowed his objection. His sire was likely aware of what his third trial had been: how it had been his memory of the love he shared between his brothers and sisters that had allowed him to illuminate the darkness of his own hatred and rage.

“What was he talking about? When he said those words? When he said I had…” Jon’s throat closed off momentarily as he contemplated what it would mean if his insane brother had been telling the truth. “When he said that I had done something to Arya?” He finished in a whisper.

A sigh brushed the skin of his shoulder as the woman’s head was lifted off of him. She moved away from Jon’s side, his mind instinctively feeling the gap her presence by his side caused. He had grown to have a higher and higher natural heat to his own body. But so close to his father’s avatar, he had felt a sort of contentment. A settled and soothing feeling to the deity’s inner fire that seemed to exude from every imaginary pore.

Daorun Dreje. Tolvie lir Gaomagon.” She repeated softly as she walked away from Jon, her blond hair dragging upon the surface of the water behind her like a bride’s golden train.

“It is the culmination of what we have been trying to teach you: the things that we have shown. Taught. Asked of you.” She said, turning to face Jon again, breasts barely touching the surface of the water as if she had abruptly added height to her body while walking.

“It is a valyrian saying one of our previous children coined. When they became us, we kept the meaning and the idea behind it. In the westerosi tongue, it roughly translates: Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.” She explained.

Jon’s mind raced to connect the previous lessons his father had taught him with what he was being told here.

“So when you asked me to think on the difference between the Boltons and the Starks-” he started.

“We were asking you to consider it from a position that looks beyond right and wrong. From the idea that all things are permitted.” She answered, her right hand coming up to gesture at him as though asking for his answer. As the water dripped from her olive skin, Jon at last thought he understood what R’hllor had been driving at.

“The Starks restrained themselves with their idea of honor. The Boltons were merciless, but they couldn’t kill them faster than the Starks could gain allies. There was nothing inherently good or right about the way they fought. Only which way appealed to more of the people of the North.” Jon hypothesized. “When the people under the Starks and the Boltons were given a choice between lords who seemed to care about them and lords who didn’t care about anything but victory, they choose the Starks. And by choosing them, they put power in their hands that they hadn’t had before. Because it gave them the feeling that they had put power in their own hands as well.”

Jon considered the first part of the saying now, trying to find for himself how it fit in with what his father was telling him from this new perspective.

“Nothing is true…” He mused aloud, not even seeing his father’s female form anymore as his eyes subtly darted from side to side while his mind busily worked through the possible meanings this opened it up to. If there was one thing his father had been sure to encourage in him, it was the willingness to ask questions and to truly think on the answers he thought he was finding.

His eyes came to refocus on his father’s form. Her right arm had returned to the water as she watched him with a bemused expression. Her own dragon’s eyes were blue with white slitted pupils, making for an interesting contrast with her very human smile.

“There’s always something behind the things that happen, the ideas we have, the world as we see it.” Jon realized, speaking aloud as he focused on his father’s eyes. “More than what is: what we choose to believe is what defines us. As people and as ourselves.”

A satisfied glint appeared in his father’s eyes.

“But what is the Other he spoke of? How does it relate to Arya?” Jon asked, remembering his brother’s rage over someone called the Other. How he had said that Jon carried a touch of its dark magic. But in the blink of an eye his father was before him: her right hand gripping his forehead as her left held him by the neck. He felt his father’s magic flare mightily once and he was experiencing a vision.

A hulking wolf whose presence seemed to fill the entirety of an unending shadow as its bloodstained teeth filled the air with demonic sounding growls. Reaching feelers of a decaying spider as maddened clicking echoed in the dark. An emptiness that filled all the presence outside the range of the burning fire. As the flame continues to crackle a figure emerges into the view of the orange light with a wide and unsettling grin as it watched with blind eyes that lay all of Jon’s soul bare upon the ground at its feet.

As her hands let go of him, Jon couldn’t help the deeper breaths he instinctively took. That thing had felt intrinsically wrong to him. And yet he couldn’t help the feeling that it was familiar as his Stark siblings to him. As though he had glimpsed another view of himself he hadn’t wanted to acknowledge was and had always been a part of him.

“When we were first made, we emerged from Nothingness. We were a being of fire and so too of destruction: for we cared not what we took in return. Only that we had what we needed to continue burning.” She said, her head briefly looking off to her right side as though her mind was being drawn back to a distant past whose memories she desired yet didn’t dare to forget.

“When first we burned through the mind of a human that worshiped us, we left ashes in its wake. From those ashes arose the Other. It is nothing more or less than the unknowable face of they who stand just beyond our power and the sibilant whispering that emerges from the death and ashes left behind as we burn. It is the unknown and the quiet and the dark. It is the final sign that there is life and there is something left to illuminate. To consume.” She told him.

“Though it took us some time to understand what they were to us, we came to see that for us to keep ourselves in check and prevent ourselves from consuming all that was, we would always require the Other. And so to keep the Other from losing sight and forgetting what is necessary for life, they would always require us.” Jon couldn’t help but think of the images he had seen. Nightmarish, otherworldly things that would’ve awoken him in a cold sweat had he seen them even during the last winter the North had suffered through.

“They are our reflection. Our twin. Our half. The thing that keeps us from becoming them and they from becoming we.” She said to him.

“And so it has proven for every iteration of ourselves that has taken up the mantle that is Fire. For every one of us, there is another who stands beside us: willing to face even the darkest abyss if only to see us through to the end. Whose love and connection to us extends beyond passion, beyond reason, beyond morality.”

“When you healed the young one in the house of light surrounded by the dead of the forest, you sacrificed the connections she held to them in order to heal her. But in doing so, you also drew upon our power and forged out of an already steeled connection between your souls something greater. Something whose power extends to the world you speak to us in now.”

She paused as Jon’s mind raced ahead. He sincerely hoped he wasn’t right now of all times.

“When the last connection her soul had to this open world found magic that could strengthen your already strong bond, it instinctively sought to deepen it. And in doing so it awoke the magic of her blood in the name of the Other. Where once she may have been under the domain of the Young Pups by her heritage or the Fallen Stars by her upraising, now she is connected to us and to our Other by her love of you and the magic of your shared blood that sang to each other in that moment of desperation.”

Jon swallowed deeply. Why did he even bother trying to come to conclusions in these sort of matters? It never seemed to work out well for him.

“I…I made Arya into a possible Other.” Jon concluded aloud. He felt as though he were confessing a great transgression. Which seemed appropriate to his own mind. Forcing his beloved little sister into the role of literal darkness incarnate: inadvertent or no? Not what he’d envisioned as the best possible future for her.

“Just as you are being shaped as a potential R’hllor.” His father reprimanded. “If you gain sufficient strength to take the mantle for yourself, we would certainly look forward to it.” His female form smiled enigmatically. “But if not…Well, that is the beauty in how humanity imagines things like us. There is always a next time.”

Jon calmed himself by remembering the creed his father had given him.

‘Tolvie lir Gaomagon.’ He thought to himself, taking comfort in R’hllor’s offered comfort of the fact that Arya would not be forced to become the Other any more than he himself could be forced to become a god. It was a choice they had to make for themselves. But now that he thought on that…

“Why did you not tell me R’hllor was a mantle? That it was a role to be taken by people like me?” he asked, his mind refusing to think on the full implications of that potential future.

The woman’s mouth quirked in a crooked smile, crossing her arms in front of her as she shook her head ruefully.

“You know, before this flame became the Great Fire, this one asked the exact same question.” She remarked as though speaking of the weather.

Jon was startled to say the least. He wasn’t sure what the voices and bodies had been when R’hllor had spoken to him and on the two occasions now appeared before him. He had honestly never expected them to be anything like this. Aware. Awake. Alive.

“And do you know what we told her?” R’hllor continued, uncrossing her arms and moving closer to Jon again.

Jon kept his eyes fixed on this woman’s, his predecessor’s, knowing that he would blink if confronted with a naked body like this. He minutely shook his head as she came within touching distance of him, her spicy breath washing over his hair as she looked down into his eyes.

“We told her this:” she leaned close to his right ear. He could feel something soft and wet brushing his own chest. He kept his eyes fixed firmly forward. “That is for you to discover yourself.” She finished before leaning back, turning around and striding toward the edge of the pool as though nothing had happened just now.

Jon stared incredulously after her retreating curtain of golden shimmering hair before moving through the water after her.

“That cannot possibly be it!” He called in exasperation.

“Of course it isn’t young spark.” She casually called over her shoulder as she reached the lip of the pool and pulled herself out of the water onto the tile. “Daorun Dreje, remember? But there are more important matters we need to discuss before we must send you back to the closed world.” She continued as she turned to face him.

Jon was forced to take in the entirety of her nude body as it glistened invitingly in the ambient light surrounding them without the wavy filter of the water or the preparation time he would need to be able to look away before seeing anything. And as such, he felt he reacted quite reasonably to the unexpected vision.

“Ah!” He called, his right hand covering his eyes abruptly as he came to a halt in the water, turning to the left so that his father wouldn’t see his body’s long suppressed reaction to a naked and attractive woman standing in front of him. “Would you kindly put something on her, father?!” He demanded, unable to pretend his blush was due to the steam or the water anymore.

A sinful chuckle came from the dusky skinned avatar.

“Why? Does the human form truly disquiet you so much child?” She asked innocently as her wet footsteps echoed in the small chamber. “You’ll need to find a way around that least your enemies use it to their advantage.” She said, as she stopped some ways down the side of the pool.

Once Jon felt he had sufficiently…calmed…his lower self, he took his right hand off his eyes and turned to face her again. She was leaning against a pillar, arms crossed beneath her not insubstantial chest while her right leg was crossed over her left in a seemingly unconscious emphasizing of her femininity in all aspects.

“But to the matter at hand.” She said, eyes and expression turning serious. Jon, picking up on the somewhat abrupt change in atmosphere and tone, slowly pulled himself out of the water onto his knees before standing.

“What precisely is the matter at hand father?” He asked politely.

“You have gained the attentions of two others like us.” She said without preamble. She could obviously see the question in Jon’s eyes and so she continued with no pause. “The first because you have returned something to him and the second because you represent a possibility for their future.”

Jon nodded once to indicate his understanding thus far.

“The first is more commonly known to the salt water dwelling humans as the Drowned God.” She said to him. “When you killed Cularis’s puppet and returned it to the sea, the body’s previous patron was able to claim his spirit for his own watery halls. In gratitude, he has arranged for you to be discovered by more of his chosen people. It is a repayment of a boon and a test of worthiness.” She told him.

Jon frowned, his eyebrows knitting together as he considered what scant few things he knew of the Ironborn. Considering his feelings on the subject of Theon, he could likely count up what he knew on two hands with fingers left over. Jon couldn’t resist saying the first thing that came to his mind at that moment.

“Shit.”

She nodded back at him, acknowledging his feelings on the matter.

“And the second?” He asked, not wishing to dwell on how he had somehow gained the interest of the Drowned God of the Ironborn.

“The second have been the patrons of what you would call the North for many years since they came across the eastern sea. Your mother’s family prayed to them and knew them as the Old Gods.” She answered easily. “Due to our own somewhat…” His father was now visibly struggling to find a tactful term to describe what they and the Old Gods were to each other.

“…Complicated…history with them, they are understandably reluctant to entrust the potential future of their greatest worshipers to what they see as a living violation of the bond between worshiper and patron that your mother and I’s love represents to them.”

Jon’s mouth couldn’t help starting to bear his teeth into an unconscious snarl, his anger at once again being looked down upon for being a bastard even in the realm of the gods bringing his normally controlled frustration to the surface more easily in this place of spirit and mind instead of body.

“However,” R’hllor preempted, holding up a dark skinned palm to prevent Jon from giving voice to the outburst brewing in his throat. “They also understand that you are not the Horned Sorcerer come again. That you have known them and respected them before all of this. And so they too will test you when you return to the land of your mother’s ancestors.”

“How?” Jon asked. What test could the Old Gods possibly put before him once he came back to the North?

R’hllor quirked the woman's lips in a sardonic smile.

“It wouldn’t be a test if you already knew the answer. Would it, young spark?” She said rhetorically.

Jon’s right palm met his forehead with a loud clap.

“Of course not.” He muttered sarcastically. “Why make things simple for once? That’d spoil all the fun.”

“And now you’re starting to catch on.” R’hllor observed cheerfully, moving forward to lovingly pat Jon’s left cheek with her hand. Jon felt something shift in the world surrounding them. Like there was something happening just beyond the walls that he couldn’t tangibly see but could just feel was there.

“Before you return Jon, we would ask you to remember two things.” She said before drawing in close to him. Her warm forehead rested against his as his right hand inadvertently came down to rest at his side.

“First: one cannot build a tolerance without exposing themselves.” She said quietly, kissing his forehead as gently as a summer breeze while the room started blurring at the edges and fading in and out of his vision. “And two: fire can be used to obscure as well as illuminate. Remember that when the time comes and you require the fuel that shall make you into what you are not.” She finished with another enigmatic smile before he was fading from the sauna room and returning, aching limb by aching limb to his own body.

When he awoke with a groan, it was to find that he was chained to the mast of a ship. He could only assume it was an Iron Island ship since those were the only people he knew worshiped the being known as the Drowned God. A red haired girl was in front of him, her leather armor worn but well cared for as it hugged her bust and body shape, a dirk and hand axe on her belt as her green eyes observed him with visible interest.

“Captain! Prisoner’s stirring!” She called in a surprisingly musical voice while barely moving her eyes away from Jon as he attempted to shift his arms and discovered that they had in fact chained his hands behind the mast so that he couldn’t do much more than stand and sit. He decided it would be best to wait and see what this captain wanted. He had only managed to school his expression just as the captain stepped into his view.

Jon couldn’t help but think of his little sister Arya when looking at the captain’s confident expression and easy sense of physical ability (more refined due to her age) when moving about the ship. That and the similar impatience that had her gripping his jaw almost painfully and slamming his head against the ship’s mast as she demanded to know who he was.

The interrogation proceeded more amiably than Jon thought it might’ve, dislocated finger from him being momentarily unable to resist mouthing off aside. And he felt he’d learned much more from her than she had learned from him.

For one thing, he was fairly certain from her reaction and subsequent questioning about the man his brother had possessed as well as the way she’d said House Greyjoy when telling the crewman called Hagen to guard him that she was Theon’s kin. Most likely his older sister. Jon couldn’t much see the resemblance personally, but that had also been true of the one-eyed man and Theon. Though that was probably more due to years of having to endure seeing Theon’s insufferably smug half-grin everywhere around Winterell for almost as long as he could remember. For another, she had never witnessed anything akin to himself or his half-brother’s open displays of power before. He could tell because she had barely believed him when he told her his highly edited account of what had happened during that chaotic night. She’d have been more likely to laugh in his face than believe him if he attempted to tell her that the Drowned God had brought him to her ship and that he had to get back to dry land.

Though he also had felt there was something sinister in the way she said the word hospitality when telling her man to guard him that likely meant he could expect to be a ransom hostage in a best case scenario. Which was likely an optimistic guess even then.

Whatever the case she’d been careful about who watched him and ensuring he remained bound to the mast. The ship didn’t have much of a cargo hold, seeming to be made mostly to carry their supplies and to give the rowers shelter from the elements rather than transport truly great amounts of anything. But by now he had a fairly good idea about where they kept the swords, the food and the chains that had been used to bind him to the mast as well as where the limited number of cabins were. Mostly by pretending to doze in the sun and moonlight and by using his fire vision in order to track the crew when they moved around below decks for anything substantial.

His mind busied itself with cataloging all of this while he considered his position with the deity who favored the Ironborn. In the process of reaching landfall, he came up with and discarded plans as they traveled back to Pyke.

He had instantly rejected any immediate plans to destroy the ship he was on. He was surrounded by ocean with no other friendly ships nearby and the crew was almost all entirely the Drowned God’s people if the deity had brought him to them. He had grown up with too great a respect for the idea of guest right to be truly willing to test the Drowned God’s affection for his favored.

His next idea of fighting his way off when they reached Pyke was similarly discarded, though that one was due mostly to the practical reason of being sorely outnumbered once he did get there. He had been able to take down the Grimwells that was true but he was also well aware that he’d been ambushing less than fifty marauders and lightly armed thieves on open ground in the dead of night: not hundreds of trained soldiers in a claustrophobic landmass in broad sunlight who dreamed of the day when they could die a glorious death with blood slicking their weapons or crushing their enemies before them.

Jon had thought (uncharitably) the few times he bothered to listen to Theon talk fondly of the ‘Iron Price’ and ‘We Do Not Sow’ that the Ironborn sounded (to his ears anyway) as a more water-oriented version of the Dothraki that Maester Luwin had spoken of living across the Narrow Sea. Now of course that comparison seemed more daunting than derogative.

He had an advantage however. He had been using the gathered heat he absorbed from the sun by channeling it into his fingers to very slowly but surely warp and deform one of the weak links in his iron chain that kept him bound to the mast bit by bit. When the time came, he would likely be able to snap the link altogether and surprise whoever was guarding him. But then the question became: what after?

How then would he get off Pyke, assuming that was the island they came to? How then would he hope to escape scrutiny with manacles on his wrists and presumably causing a commotion once it was discovered he had escaped?

He was looked upon with suspicion and derision in equal parts by the rest of the crew. Partly for the fact that they tried to only give him the hardest bits of bread or small swallows of water in order to weaken him but only ever earned his unblinking gaze in turn. Some had turned violent, others had tried to shout him down, but for the most part they all attempted to force him into blinking first. There wasn’t a whole lot he could do about being kept out in the sun day in and day out or the crew’s treatment of him. He did however take some small comfort in refusing to answer any of them that wasn’t the captain who in turn still hadn’t told him her name after all this time. Part of some subtle way for her to remind him that she held the power here and so didn’t have to even deign to tell him her name if she didn’t want to no doubt. Or maybe she had simply forgotten. After all, she was kin to Theon.

‘Stop that.’ He sternly rebuked himself. It was one thing to be dismissive in his thoughts toward someone, it was another to let it color his judgement and honest assessment of the situation. As he thought of that, he thought back on the things his father had said before he left. Specifically, he thought on his advice that fire could be used to obscure. Perhaps there was a way he could use his powers to disguise himself. It seemed a long shot, but it was a shot nonetheless.

As they came within shouting distance of Pyke, (as evidenced by the bird calls that were unmistakable to just about any port town) Jon knew his time was running out. But he remained calm. No good would come of him panicking.

The gulls crying overhead made for a noisy welcome back for the returning ship. But Jon was more concerned with the fact that night was starting to fall upon the island, the washing of the nitter and bird dropping encrusted outcroppings in the reddened light marking an interesting contrast to the setting sun that made the cresting, lapping waves appear to be carrying hints of gold toward the dark blue shores and barnacle laden piers.

It was appearing more and more likely that he wouldn’t be able to escape before Balon Greyjoy saw him. And if that came to pass…

“Tie off!” The captain called to the crew. “Get those sails pulled in, all prepare to disembark!”

As Hirda and her father Hagen moved to do so as well, the captain stopped them.

“Not you.” She said as she stepped in front of them, her commanding air briefly reminding Jon of his father’s bronzed female form. “Hagen: you, Hirda and Cromm will watch the prisoner while we move the goods and I let the Lord Reaper know we have something of potential value onboard.”

The man called Hagen nodded and went off to find the crew member she called Cromm while his daughter remained behind.

“He’s one chained up green boy Asha.” Hirda said quietly when her father had gone, glancing at Jon only out of the corner of her eye while Jon stared resolutely ahead as though his mind were miles away. “How much trouble could he be?”

“Maybe he’s weak and lying.” The captain he now knew as Asha answered. “And maybe he’s supposed to be a northern spy. Or maybe he’s telling the truth, far-fetched as that seems. I don’t know one way or the other. And I’m not willing to chance a member of my crew on maybes.” She concluded, her tone speaking to the finality of her pronouncement.

She placed her hand on the red haired girl’s shoulder.

“Watch him carefully Hirda.” She instructed. “And don’t be afraid to knock his arse to the wood if he so much as looks at you cross-eyed

Hirda nodded, right hand absently fingering the hand axe that hung from her hip. That would make things difficult. Jon thought he saw Asha glance at him out of the corner of his eye, but he couldn’t be sure without turning his own head and revealing that he was listening to them.

He closed his eyes as though fatigued, looking at the world through the fire of their bodies. He saw that the crew was gone from beneath decks and had almost finished tying off the ship and emptying it out so that when the ship was dry docked for repair and maintenance, there wouldn’t be any problems.

As Asha led the rest of the crew off the ship, Hirda settled on the deck across from Jon while Cromm and Hagen settled toward the bow: the one sharpening his knife while the other stood in silence, occasionally glancing toward Jon and Hirda as though making sure nothing was happening. After an interminable amount of time passed, Hirda stood and moved over to his left side. She prodded his leg with the toe of her boot. He kept his leg appropriately limp so that it moved when she kicked it. He made a minor groan in the back of his throat as he did, attempting to make play at waking up. His unsure heart was beating louder it seemed to him, sure to give away the subterfuge even as he blinked his eyes with careful sluggishness.

Hirda prodded his leg again, this time with some more force as though impatient for him to be awake. Jon’s eyes shot open as she did, his head swiveling to look up at her.

“Yes?” He asked as politely as he could muster.

She cocked her head to the left as she looked at him, a curious look in her eye as she looked so down at him. Jon couldn’t articulate to himself what it was, but he knew he didn’t like it.

The red hair that surrounded her pretty face was highlighted by the setting sun as they looked at each other. Without looking away, she called up to the two at the bow.

“Da! Cromm!” She said, her voice pleasant even in higher volume. “Go get a drink, I can handle him for now.” She instructed.

Her father Hagen squinted at her with some suspicion.

“This wouldn’t be you aimin’ to get his green lil peck in you would it?” He questioned.

Jon’s face felt like it was starting to burn at the insinuation as his eyes involuntarily shifted to the railing and the deck behind her. As it did, he had to concede that maybe his father had a point. If he could barely handle sexual innuendo like this, maybe he really did need to get himself more used to the idea of naked flesh once he got out of this. Then his mind caught on to what Hagen was asking and his eyes quickly darted back to Hirda incredulously.

Her eyes had that look again in them, only this time Jon recognized it for what it was. It was the gaze of a predator he had seen on some of the wolves around the North when they caught a scent on the air. There was only one thing he could think to summarize his situation.

‘Damnit!’ He thought with an edge of panic, watching out of the corner of his eye as Hagen sighed and nudged Cromm with his elbow. The man jolted awake with a snort, his bleary gaze questioning Hagen as he gestured for them to go. They walked toward the dock without a second glance, their desire for getting drunk and/or confidence in Hirda being able to handle one green boy apparently overwhelming any concern they had for Asha finding out.

He looked back at the red haired young woman, who hadn’t even bothered with anything more than unclipping her belt before she carefully placed it out of the reach of Jon’s legs but within arms length for her as she moved to straddle his prone lower half.

Jon remembered the good-natured teasing by Robb and Theon about not wanting to visit the brothel near Winterfell before now. He’d cited Lady Catelyn and Lord Stark’s disapproval as his deciding factor in not wanting to go with them, but the truth was that he didn’t think he could go through with it: sleeping with a woman just to get the experience out of the way. Especially not when the result might be another Snow like himself. A bastard to be looked down upon by the rest of the world and having to share his shame because his father had been too weak and too stupid to be sure of having him legitimately. The one time he had thought to broach that kind of subject with the two Theon had joked that perhaps that was the reason Jon’s face was always so long and severe: it kept trying to catch up to the misery he had already decided he was destined for.

Her right hand had reached into his pants as Jon’s mind raced through all this, touching his soft length. And just as dream imitated reality, Jon’s cock started responding to her rough but capable ministrations. He didn’t want this, he didn’t want his first time with a woman to be an exercise in scratching an itch before he was made into a hostage or worse. But her grip was sure and sensual, even as her other hand grabbed the back of his neck and her lips met his.

Jon could admit that in other circumstances, he might’ve found Hirda a tempting girl. But that didn’t change how profoundly unwilling he was to have this happen.

He frantically tried to channel heat into his weakened chain link even as his concentration kept slipping due to her ministrations as well the sudden pain of her biting into his lip hard enough to split it and draw a small trickle of blood.

He furiously bit her back. She chuckled in response as her grip tightened on the back of his neck.

“Good, you’ve got a little fight in you. I like that green boy.” She whispered as she shifted his cock to line him up with her.

At that moment Jon felt the link give beneath his fingers. His eyes met hers only or a moment as he gave a response.

“Than you’ll love this.” He hissed back, his hands wrenching the chain apart as they came around the front to slam onto both her ears, temporarily deafening her. His fingers of his left hand instantly transitioned to the instinctive claw grip on the back of her head before he moved his head to the right, bringing her forehead slamming into the mast next to him. Her right hand scrambled to retrieve the axe or the dirk from her belt to deal with him while his own rabbit punched her front left side before he halfway rolled them so that they were both on their side on the deck. She attempted to bite him as her hand moved around to the front of his windpipe in an effort to strangle him.

Jon pulled her head off the deck only to slam it back down on the unyielding wood once. Then twice. Her grip loosened and her eyes were unfocused now from the quick succession of hits to the skull she had taken. He slammed her head down on the deck one more time to be safe. Her eyes shut abruptly as the cut on her forehead from the initial meeting with the mast bled down her nose and left eye, making it look as though she were crying tears of crimson from one closed eye.

Jon pulled her over to the mast, the shackles still firm around his wrists as the loose chains clinked slightly with each movement. He knew he should make this quick, but how was he going to get off this ship without arousing suspicion.

His mind came back again to his father’s advice before he left the other world.

‘Fire can be used to obscure as well as illuminate he said.’ Jon thought to himself. ‘But what did he mean the fuel that makes me what I’m not?’

Jon thought back to the only other ritual involving fire and fuel outside his own magic that R’hllor had guided him through: the healing of Arya. Jon thought back to before the flames themselves that drove the dark sickness out. Jon remembered R’hllor had specifically had him use wood from the Godswood and the wooden carvings of the Seven Gods to use as food for the fire. With a jolt, he remembered his father’s explanation for why the ritual had healed as it did: by sacrificing the power the Old and New Gods had over Arya in exchange for giving R’hllor’s magic greater strength. The symbolic power of the human world translated to real power in the open world.

Jon eyed the strands of Hirda’s bright red hair that had accidentally gotten tangled in his fingers from the grip he’d had on her head. Thinking quickly in case anyone was going to see them, Jon grabbed more of her hair, pulling them out by the root more roughly than was needed. In the face of what she and her captain had planned for him he found himself strangely unwilling to sympathize with the headache she’d have upon waking. His palm carefully laid itself upon the cut on her forehead, allowing some blood to congeal on its surface before he carefully placed his right hand atop his face, his imagination briefly making him feel that he was putting a mask on in the process.

Involuntarily, he closed his eyes as the blood stained fingers settled atop his face, his hair filled left hand igniting as he said a silent prayer to R’hllor.

‘Please father.’ He mentally asked. ‘I do not know the way of this yet, but I require your help. Allow me to take Hirda’s appearance that I may illuminate a way off of Pyke back to the North. I do not ask your intervention in this test, only your blessing. Please. Please.’

His flesh felt warmer, more heated. He felt as though another thin woolen tunic was pressing down upon him, its very fabric the fading rays of the sun as the lapping waves made for a soothing rhythm upon the shoreline. It covered his arms, his torso, his legs, his face, even his hair. It would almost be suffocating to move in if its fiery caress didn’t feel so much like his father’s embrace. He opened his eyes before he brought his hand away for inspection. There, like a thin film of water, was an exact copy of Hirda’s skin overlaying his own.

He looked down at himself and received a jolt when he saw an unconscious version of himself overlaying Hirda’s unresponsive form. He looked at his form underneath the obviously women’s clothes she was wearing and saw how the rags he was in hung off of Hirda’s frame. It was the strangest sensation Jon had ever experienced. He knew how long his own limbs were and he could see them as they moved, but at the same time, this solid version of Hirda he had become was the one the clothing reacted to.

“Don’t tell me I have to-” He started, hand clapping to his mouth abruptly as he heard his own voice emerge from his false Hirda mouth.

“What is happening?” he whispered to himself, still hearing his own voice even at this low volume. His survival instincts pushed him to act now, before he became paralyzed with indecision and confusion. Jon gave himself a shake that was physical as well as mental before he quickly disrobed below the view of the railing, hoping he could do this quickly before anyone decided to check up on whether Hirda was done having her way with him.

He got Hirda’s clothes off of her now and put her in his rags while he tried to awkwardly don her own clothing. In the meantime, his mind was busily trying to work out where he had gone wrong with the magic. Had he not asked to take on Hirda’s appearance so he could make his way home? Had he not sacrificed enough to look like her?

With a start, Jon thought he might understand what had gone wrong. He had only asked to look like Hirda, not become or be her. So his father had given him exactly what he had asked for. He took a few seconds as he attempted unsuccessfully to fasten the bodice to glare at the setting sun.

“You’ve got shite for humor you know.” He swore at his father, already imagining the laughing expression R’hllor would likely fix him with in any form he cared to take.

Soon enough, the clothing was on and after a quick nip below decks he was fastening chains on her hands so that she was bound to the mast as he had been. She looked like him and she was bound like him, but what if she sounded like herself when she awoke? In a fit of improvisation, Jon tore a long piece of his tunic on Hirda off before stuffing it in her mouth and tying it the ends together behind her head. That ought to at least make it slightly less obvious it wasn’t his voice she was using. Hopefully.

He thought quickly about what he could do to explain his own voice. He couldn’t possibly coach himself to sound like a woman, much less Hirda herself when he didn’t know when her father and Cromm would be returning. So how could a woman sound more like a man? Jon looked over at his unconscious form (and wasn’t that a strange sight for him) before he thought of it. Jon brought his hands up to his throat and squeezed with as much of his strength as he dared. He grew light headed quicker than he’d expected but kept squeezing until he started seeing spots in his vision.

With a loud gasp, he let go of himself and collapsed to his knees as he greedily sucked in air between violent coughs. When he had some of his breath regained, he spoke aloud again.

“Green bastard attacked me.” He rasped, his mouth feeling dry and his throat ached even as he said the words.

He nodded to himself. It was far from foolproof, but it would have to do until he found a way out of here. Striding with as much angry purpose as he could down the gangplank onto the dock, he made his way toward the noisiest building he could find. He was assuming of course that if the Ironborn were drinking away their time, so too would other sailors. And thus he could find one of them and perhaps make his way out.

The dock itself was a fair reflection of what he had observed of the Ironborn thus far: a focus more on practicality with some showmanship only toward martial prowess. This was aptly demonstrated by the Ironborn populace that walked around with their weapons openly displayed making up a good number of those walking the docks while the gulls, merchants and captains cried their wares to the open air.

There were less than expected however since nightfall was rapidly approaching. Harder to dock when one had to contend with the unpredictable shallows and naturally suspicious nature of the Ironborn themselves. Jon hurried into the alehouse where the noise had only increased in the time it had taken him to get from the deck of the ship to inside the door.

The inside was worn with only a few candles dotting the tables around the place. It wasn’t a place one could feel safe in, the rough characters seemingly everywhere he looked. But then again, Jon wasn’t exactly in a place to trust anything quite yet. He quickly scanned from Cromm and Hagen, hoping he had missed them.

No such luck.

“Tha fuck ya doing ere girl?!” Hagen slurred angrily at him as he spun what he thought was Hirda around by the shoulder. He took in Jon’s appearance as her as the Stark-blooded Snow prayed his disguise held.

“Wha happened ta you?” Cromm inquired a moment later as he squinted at Jon’s appearance.

“Pathetic green bastard tried jumpin’ me.” Jon rasped, his attempt to pitch his voice a bit higher even while his throat ached again making him want to wince. “Knocked him on his arse. Thought I’d get a drink in while he sleeps it off.”

Hagen and Cromm nodded approvingly, though Hagen still looked particularly murderous.

“Ya mind taking over while I wash the grass out of my mouth?” He asked, trying to sound impatient as he did so. Cromm turned to go but Hagen lingered for a few moments.

“Don’t take too long.” He warned quietly. “I’d like you there when I wake him up to teach some respect.”

Jon knew he shouldn’t let Hagen do anything too bad to Hirda, especially considering it wasn’t likely they’d understand what had actually happened and so would have a rough time of explaining it to Asha Greyjoy. But he knew Hirda also shouldn’t display hesitation toward vengeance or violence. So he tried to compromise.

“Sounds promising Da.” He got out, his right hand resting briefly on Hagens left shoulder in what he hoped came across as an appreciative gesture. “Though I think the Captain would be better suited to decidin’ what to do with im.”

Hagen grinned at his suggestion. He nodded in agreement. “You might have something there girl.” He concurred as he made his way out. With a negligent gesture toward her behind his back, he called: “Hurry back!”

Jon nodded even if Hagen couldn’t see it. He didn’t intend to stay any longer than necessary.

As soon as Hagen was gone, he was hailed from one of the nearby tables. Jon looked over to see who was there. The man was in his late twenties or perhaps early thirties. He was grinning as he looked at Jon, though the smile didn’t reach his cold brown eyes. It was likely a very bad idea to push his luck by answering the greeting.

Jon sat down at his table.

“Greetings Iron Woman. You seem in need of a game to take your mind off things.” He offered, genial tone and almost insolent smirk lending Jon an instant dislike as he was reminded of Theon when he got it into his head to needle the bastard of Winterfell. Jon took the man’s mug of ale in response and maintained eye contact as he took a swig from it. His attempt at intimidation was ruined by the bitter liquid irritating his throat into coughing.

The man let out a short laugh with a slightly widened smile before he withdrew a dirk and placed it on the table between them.

“The game is simple. We place our hand on the table like so.” He demonstrated with his right hand laying flat on the table: fingers spread out so that it appeared almost as though he were ready to push down on the surface at a moment.

“Then, we take the blade like so:” he continued as he picked it up in his left hand. He stabbed it down next to his finger, blade seemingly brushing against his skin without breaking it. “First to flinch loses.”

“And how do I know you won’t stab my hand if I put it down like that?” Jon inquired, his sarcasm somewhat lost in general din of the atmosphere and the low volume he was speaking at in case his throat became better too soon.

The man shrugged carelessly.

“You don’t.” He said. “But then, isn’t that half the fun for you Ironborn?”

Jon had no idea whether he should play along with this, but he knew this was the only thing that had presented itself as a possible way out.

“What stakes are we playing for?” He asked to subtly stall for time.

“You win, I give you anything you want short of the money in my pouch. The same I expect if I win.” He said, the gleam in his eye sharpening.

Jon’s eyes narrowed. There was something he hoped to accomplish here, but what. Did he hope to fuck Hirda? That was likely it. Well, that meant he had all the more incentive to win then.

“Ladies first.” His opponent said, placing his right hand flat on the table. It appeared as steady as a rock. Jon picked up the dirk in his right hand, the handle worn and used to the touch. He established eye contact with this man as he moved his seat so that it was directly across from him.

‘Why are you doing this?’ His sensibility asked him with an incredulous tone. ‘Do you expect it to accomplish anything at all?’

He knew it was irrational and stupid to do this. He really did.

But after everything he’d been through with two encounters of Ironborn, normal and possessed alike, Jon was feeling extremely frustrated and worn. He was in enemy territory, he was constantly waiting to see if his half-done illusion would come apart and he had no idea what was going to happen if he got back to the North. Especially in the face of his unknown and very unlikely escape into a future that had never looked more uncertain.

That and this arse had been laughing at him with his eyes since hailing him.

He knew it was nothing to do with Jon Snow personally seeing as how Jon looked like an attractive red-headed woman, but he was also sick and tired of one thing on top of the other being piled onto his head these days and weeks past. Jon felt it was due time for him to be able and allowed to do something that made him feel better for the sake of feeling better rather than because it served a higher purpose or greater calling. And if this was the only thing available to him, then so be it.

His grey eyes were fixed on this stranger’s brown, the knife handle a comforting feeling in his palm. He remembered where the man’s hand was on the table: in front of him and slightly to Jon’s left. The fingers would be spread pretty wide but the hand was kept close to the edge of the table. As he brought the knife forward in a flash he kept his eyes on his opponent, his eyes looking for any uncomfortable twitch.

The brown eyed man simply smiled benignly as Jon brought the point of the blade between the thumb and the forefinger, a thin cut to the connective webbing between them the only testimony to just how close Jon’s strike had been. Jon’s grip released the knife slowly, disappointed he hadn’t managed to win against this man so soon into the game.

“Nicely done.” Brown eyes said to him, grunting a bit as he withdrew the knife from the table.

“Your turn.” Jon said, placing his right hand on the table in front of him, maintaining eye contact with him still to try and see what he was going to do.

The man’s hand with the knife twitched toward Jon twice before making his move the third time. When at last he attacked Jon discovered that he had steeled himself too well. The blade was sharp enough to drive through the skin and muscles of the back of his hand and out his palm, pinning his hand to the table as he felt a scraping along the bone of his middle finger. Jon yelled in pain, his nerves flaring up as his enemy brought his right hand toward his throat.

And just like a frayed rope asked to bear too much weight, Jon felt his temper snap.

His left hand came up in a flash, slamming Brown Eyes’ right hand away before his fingers gripped the back of the man’s neck. He pulled his head forward by the neck, his left eye slamming the handle of the dagger. Jon felt the dagger scrape his finger bone as it was jostled. He brought his attacker’s head down a second time on the dagger, this time moving his head so that the hilt impacted the right eye.

The knife was now loose from its previously fixed position on the table. Even as his hand throbbed and his nerves shouted, Jon yanked upward. The knife was briefly still fixed in the table, before the back of Jon’s bleeding hand met the handle guard and the force pulled it out of the table.

Brown Eye’s right hand had come up to guard his ruined eyes as the rest of the room had their eyes drawn to them by his screaming as his left hand tried to push him away from the table. Jon’s right hand came up to grip his throat from the front, embedded blade and all. The screams quickly changed to frantic gurgles.

Jon moved his right hand around the throat so that it was gripping the left side of it, the dirk resisting the movement even as it cut through his enemy’s flesh. Jon’s uninjured left hand pulled the blade out as the right hand slammed him face first into the table again, this time driving the dirk into the back of Brown Eye’s skull.

At last he was still.

Jon was breathing heavily, his anger coming back under control again as he felt so many eyes on him. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed some of the nearby patrons take one or two steps back from him.

What he had just done caught up to him all at once. He’d never been this violent before gaining these powers from his father. He’d generally had a good hold of himself and could keep himself from acting hastily. If this was not rashness personified, he didn’t know what else it could be. But he was also well aware that despite his pain, the illusion didn’t appear to have wavered as he glimpsed illusionary threads of red hair coming into his face as he whirled to face the rest of the room.

“If any other man thinks himself better than me,” he shouted, left hand pointing at the still body of Brown Eyes at the table. “Let this stupid cunt be a lesson to ya!!”

He stood up and moved around the table, his right hand held close to his abdomen. He pulled the money pouch off the cooling corpse before he was struck with a desperate fit of inspiration.

“This arrogant berk is going to feed the gulls now! If any of you sorry louts has a problem with that, you’re welcome to tell him!” Jon finished, right hand yanking the knife out of the back of his head before slamming it point first into the table again. As the body collapsed on the floor, Jon used his left hand to get the limp right arm over his shoulder before bringing the entire body over his back like a sack of potatoes. He hoped to high heaven they wouldn’t call his bluff or try to stop him. He wasn’t sure if he could back it up if they did.

Fortunately, the apparent sight of red haired Hirda brutally murdering a man with the knife he had stuck through her hand while it was still in there was apparently enough for no one to think it was a good idea to stop her.

As Jon walked outside, he quickly increased his pace but ducked behind the buildings before anyone had a chance to take close notice of the blood staining everything the man dripped on. As he came behind the tavern, he disrobed with a sense of urgency he could only compare to that of a Night’s Watch deserter knowing that he was about to be caught and executed. As he changed into the dead man’s clothes and ripped some more of his hair off before using the blood on his hand to touch his own face in a repeat of the semi-improvisational ritual he had used before, he watched as the illusion shifted into the dead Brown Eyes and Brown Eyes shifted into Jon’s form. It was now more urgent than ever that Jon manage to find Brown Eyes’s ship and get the hell out of here. He decided that if the crew were going to be searching for him, he may as well cause some chaos in the process.

He set fire to the body that looked like him, watching for a few moments as the fire caught onto some of the wooden debris behind the buildings and started to create a visible heat.

“Fire!!” He yelled, voice almost back to normal from his self-strangulation earlier. He backed away through the alley as though frightened by the fire itself.

“Fire!!” He called again before he quickly made his way toward the docks and through the throngs of people who couldn’t seem to decide whether they wanted to escape or put out the rapidly building flames.

As he came to the third dock down from the one Greyjoy’s ship was anchored, he made eye contact with a man aboard what appeared to be a sloop similar to the ones bearing the Manderly merman in White Harbor.

“Tha fuck’s going on Belwin?” The crag faced crewmate called to him.

“Some Iron shit didn’t like some idiot’s attitude. So they got to fightin’ and managed to set the place to go up.” He responded in as convincing a non-chalant tone as he could.

The crewmate seemed surprised by his easy answer but didn’t openly question him, instead asking: “You think the captain’ll let us cast off then?”

“He better.” Jon muttered as he walked aboard, fingers of his left hand involuntarily curling into a fist.

‘Otherwise, who knows what’ll happen?’ He added to himself mentally.

Chapter Text

She’d been traveling for so long. She didn’t know what she’d encounter now, only what she had left behind.

Her pack. Her mate. Her territory. It was all behind her, behind the frozen blue obstacle that seemed to touch the sky itself. It made even the giant two legs whose feet could crush them with one step she and her pack had occasionally encountered seem small by comparison.

But there was no thinking about what she’d left behind. It wasn’t necessary to think for her to know that she had to get away from the dead things. From the cold things. They walked as the two legs did but had no warmth and no life to them. They would do to her what they did to her pack and kill them or make them into one of them: controlled dead things that wore the skin of those she’d grown with. And so she’d made her way here, to this forest that was like and unlike the forests she’d known as a pup.

Her stomach growled at her as menacingly as her parents ever had. As though they could sense her hunger, her litter squirmed inside her, making her belly jump in a way that was more pleasant when she wasn’t trying to carefully hunt in this strange territory that could turn on her at any moment.

The smells were much the same yet different. There was less cold in the air, more yellow in the sky than she was used to. It might not have been enough to tell for the two legs who wore the fur of her kin to keep warm, but she could tell. As she prowled through the woods, she thought she caught a scent of possible prey nearby. And…there was something more to it too.

Not a scent easily forgotten when there were so few of them in her home. They who smelled faintly of the snow trees with the branches of blood leaf. But this one was different in the same way those giant two legs were different from the two legs closer to her and her pack’s size.

It was hot to the tongue, like the few times she had tasted cooked meat taken from the camps of the two legged things. And yet it also had that indescribable tang of power that the frozen dead and the wooden living had. Never had she felt it this strongly in the air though. It intrigued her and raised her hackles at the same time, the heat making her tongue loll unconsciously as she sought out the source of it, hoping and fearing what it might be.

She crept through the trees. The forested landscape was alive with sounds both great and small, her padded steps taking her closer and closer to the crackling light that meant dancing heat that meant sight for the two legged beings.

As she caught a glimpse of a clearing up ahead, the yellow light that was similar yet different to the color of the protrusions that dotted the arms of the trees that had the face of two legged ones upon them. It was illuminating the solitary figure sitting before it. It smelled like a two legged version of her mate and her father, that scent that spoke to male to other half to protection. But the scent of burning of heat of glowing was not coming only from the crackling and hissing hole before him but the two legged one himself. It was that sense of power of danger of edge that made her wary and made her decision of whether to leave him or find something someplace farther still from the cold and the dead.

But there was a final factor that made her decision for her: his back was to her. It would be the last mistake he made.

She came closer and closer, heart pounding in her breast as her lips drew back over her fangs in a silent growl, preparing herself to attack and take her chances. But what was that noise?

There, just at the edge of her hearing.

It made her ears twitch as it whispered, like a tongue slowly drawn over dirty fur, promising cleanliness and a pristine coat. So why then did it make her think she should attack now before that noise finished?

She leaped, a snarl erupting from her mouth as she opened it to take him down.

He whirled around, short metal claw in his forepaw as it was brought to bear. He was quick, but she was driven by the instinct by the hunt by the hunger as she crashed into his body, knocking his head dangerously close to the heated light, her jaws attempting to close around the joint just beneath the paw that was gripping the metal claw but encountering only cold and metal like the claw.

Her teeth were sharp but none of her pack’s teeth she'd known had ever been that sharp.

His other paw came up to grab her by the scruff as though she were an insolent pup who needed to be dragged back. She snarled again, warning him away from trying to resist what must be between those who would live and those who would die to give them that life.

But the struggle went on as his strength inexorably drew her head more and more off the jangling metal of the joint beneath his paw. She tried to tighten her grip more, knowing that if he got his trapped paw free that metal claw would be the death of her as it had been for others of her pack and other packs that had encountered the two legs and did not use their senses.

He pulled her first to one side, than the other as she was thrown to the side with the metal claw. But instead of give him a chance to swipe her with it, she rolled further away, bringing her back to all standing upon all fours. He appeared to have had the same instinct as her though, as he had rolled to the side without the metal claw before bringing himself to stand upon three paws with the fourth holding the claw between them as a barrier that promised death should she attack again.

She snapped her jaws at him growled low in her throat: frustrated by her need to feed the young inside her and her survival instinct that told her if she tried that he would not hesitate to take her life. His eyes the color of the two legged flesh in grey death ran over her crouched form as though looking for openings to exploit in her ready stance. She felt his gaze on her rounded low hanging belly. His hard look seeming to soften slightly for some unfathomable reason when he did. Did he think her helpless simply because she was bearing pups?

He said something to her she couldn’t understand. It was a query similar to when the pack asked the alpha where they were going, but there were too many noises to it. She growled back, not willing to let him think she was some weak blooded cub who could be lured into a false sense of safety.

He edged toward the crackling and spitting flame. Her eyes tracked him as he switched the metal claw to his other paw, his previously occupied appendage reaching into the light itself. She was alarmed now and unsure of how to act. She had never known anything living to be placed within the burning light and remain unharmed. His hand firmly gripped a forest piece jammed through…

Her mouth inadvertently watered again as her nostrils were allowing themselves to be invaded by the scent of burning meat all over again. In her limited experience with sizzling flesh she had never known a scent like this one. It smelled of the wood of the strange two legs but also faintly of wet wind. It had been a thing with wings whatever it was. Her eyes were focused on him but also on the meat in his hand. One slip of the metal claw and it would be hers. If he thought to taunt her by holding this out as bait, he was in for a surprise that he would not live through.

He came closer to her even as she snapped her jaws at him in warning. But what fear and heightened breathing blood beating there had been was gone now. He spoke another query to her. Too many noises to understand and also too soft to be challenging. With all the speed of a limping packmate, he set it down before her as though it were an offering of recognition to alpha right. He backed away from her afterward, knife trained on her still. Her hunger and her caution warred with each other before the litter squirmed inside her again and she tore into it messily, the cooked meat offering a warmth and heady taste that was similar yet entirely different to that of the fresh kill.

She heard that whisper again and looked up briefly to see the claw being returned to a slit of fur that was not furred. He was putting his metal claw away? He was either confident in his dominance or he felt the offering he had made was sufficient to her. As she finished it and licked her snout and teeth to get every morsel she may have possibly missed in her eagerness, he took the forest piece and stuck it through two smaller skinless things that smelled more of wet ground and grass and wood. They were the long eared things that thought to outrun them but never quite learned the lesson that speed was only useful when paired with strength and superior instinct.

As it began sizzling, she was wondering whether to try and get at him again. But his eyes were upon her with the metal claw resting at his side. And his legs beneath the clever paws still had the metal bands that clinked with smaller metal rings hanging off them with any significant movement on his part. She was tired and she was at last starting to feel sated when she had been hungry for so long, driven by some unknown instinct that whispered from the trees and the ground itself to go ever onward to find something she didn’t know she was looking for.

As the meat burned more and more and the sizzling echoed in her ears, he reached into the light again. Once again, he offered the first to her as though it were hers as alpha. Only when she began to eat did he start eating the other himself. He spoke other things to her, but they were briefer things. And others were things he spoke to the air itself it seemed to her. That or there was something inside him he needed to speak to as she sometimes wished she could with her pups if only to get them to let her sleep without their squirming or fidgeting.

That was the first meeting with the two legged light bringer.

But it was not the last. For she had returned the next night to see if he would make another offering to an alpha. And to her surprise, he had. He did not treat her as harmless: always drawing his metal claw when she drew near and never eating his own food before she had begun eating hers. It felt good to be an alpha she thought. But was she truly alpha, when it was she who returned to him each night so that she might draw sustenance warmth safety from his presence his light his hunt? She decided that yes she was alpha. He always knew he had to be on guard against her displeasure. He always offered her first bite of his kill. And he did not offer anything more or less than what was due to her.

After the passing of several nights, she decided to travel alongside him during the day to see if perhaps she would be able to obtain the kill fresh before he could offer it to the light. That first day of following him was the day the relationship between herself and the light bringer changed forever.

It had been the point when the circle of light was highest above them. The air had been crisp and sharp, but clear of any water but what was upon the ground. As they came to a stream nearby a dark and wide groove that had cleaved its way through the woods, they came upon a large brown one of the antlered prey: one that was bigger than both herself and the light bringer.

It was occupied with slaking its thirst. She herself had not managed to get more than some of the cold and hardened water upon the ground in some time, though the light bringer had softened it enough for her to drink when she made it clear to him what she wanted. She charged forward through the undergrowth: swift as the rushing water itself. She leapt at its throat in an effort to bring it down in one strike. As she flew through the air however, it whipped the bones atop its head in her direction. A sharp pain in her breast even as she heard a snap and a low bellow.

The creature had caught onto her somehow! This couldn’t be allowed to stand. But the light bringer had come in soon after her. He was upon its back, shouting like a true member of the pack as his metal claw struck the neck of the beast again and again and again. It bucked and tried to throw him off even as its struggles and cries died more and more until it collapsed into motionless silence. Her legs were shaking as her vision was blurring, but she let out a triumphant howl that sounded somewhat pathetic to her ears before she started making her way toward light bringer.

He was shaking his head, saying: “No no no Frost.”

After such time spent with him she understood when he said no he meant to deny something if only because he so rarely said it to her. But what was this Frost? Was it something meant to identify her to him? The way she thought of him as light bringer?

He crouched down, one paw holding her against his side even as his other gripped something that had her growl and snap at him as the throbbing pain in her breast multiplied many times over. Why was he hurting her like this when his death colored eyes had seemed so sad?

With a sharp pull, something was out of her breast. But with its absence she grew dizzier and lay herself down upon the cold ground. She saw him call the light to his hand as she did. She could feel the heat even as the absence of cooking flesh in her nose confused her instincts.

He brought it to the throbbing part of her breast, the warmth spreading through her whole body even as his other paw clutched his own chest as his expression grimaced in what she could only assume was pain. Why would he hurt when he had not been struck?

After some moments, she felt her strength settling even as her breathing evened out and her eyes began to droop. Before she closed them to sleep after what had proven to be quite a strenuous hunt she heard him murmur something to her (she knew because she heard him say Frost) and place his muzzle against her side as a pup would to seek the assurance of a mother’s warmth.

She awoke some time later nearby stream still and the smell of burning flesh in her nostrils.

Relief. Happy. Affection.

She sensed this from light bringer as she climbed to stand and came into view of him. There he was: pieces of their prey sizzling upon the forest piece. It was a thicker piece than usual to accommodate the bigger pieces he must have torn off with his metal claw.

“Frost.”

That was all he said. But with it he expressed so much. Concern. Love. Acceptance. Ease. It was clear to her that somehow he had come to think of her as his pack. True pack that would not hurt her if she dared turn her tail to him nor he turn his tail to her. And somewhere between attempting to unsuccessfully feed upon his metal paw protector and hunting alongside him in his natural light, she found that she did not seek to disabuse him of the notion. That it was even preferable to call herself pack to such a strange two legged thing as he.

She would likely never understand him fully, but he had hunted with her. He had watched after her. He had mended her. She would follow him and perhaps see if her pups would be safe with him.

So came the bond of trust that she thought she had lost when she was the last of her pack in these strange yet familiar lands. They still traveled onward, their pace steady and quick toward a destination that was far yet back toward the way she came from the cold dead. Now they were upon a wide plain with only a single forest nearby a collection of stone and dead wood that fairly reeked of two legged life.

He breathed deep before his left hand came down to scratched her neck in that way she had discovered she liked so long as he understood it was him doing what was due to her as alpha.

“Home.” He exhaled.

She did not know what that meant, not truly. Only that it evoked the feeling of ease in him that being around pack did for her. She would trust him and she would see whether this was a place that could harbor her from the cold dead that moved as they should not. He jerked his head toward the place before saying something to her, presumably telling her they should go toward it to find their place.

She was not sure what would come of this. She was not sure what would come for her pups. But she did know three things that made her sure even in the face of that: He was light bringer. She was Frost. And they were pack.

Chapter Text

Arya Stark liked to think she wasn’t the type of person prone to panicking or falling apart. She normally felt that role better reserved for Sansa whenever she got caught up in one of the pranks of their brothers or whenever Arya decided to get back at her for being a superior arse over stupid lady things that she still was convinced didn’t actually matter to anyone but the Septas who made a living teaching them because they were hired by ladies who had been taught by Septas before them on and on in endless line stretching back to the first days of the seven-faced god..

But these weeks approaching her thirteenth nameday certainly had felt like she was coming close to the edge.

Ever since her brother (always brother no matter how many people tried to put bastard before the more important word that defined what he was to her) Jon Snow had left almost three years ago, she’d been alone among the crowd in Winterfell for the most part. Bran and Rickon would play with her, but it had thus ever amounted to play since Bran had only just recently started catching on to the fact that he should take her seriously when she said she wanted to practice archery or swordsmanship.

Robb and Theon forever saw her as a tagalong little girl to be avoided while her mother and Sansa were more apt to admonish her and ask why she couldn’t be more proper. Perhaps if being a proper lady made sense, Arya would’ve been more inclined to try. But as it was she saw no sense in learning sewing simply because sewing circles were what a highborn lady was expected to sit within while their lord husband met with other lord husbands and attended to matters that held some measure of meaning.

Her strange dreams of her brother Jon had provided comfort and advice that she continued to use to this day, his discussions leading her to be able to hide away from her lady mother just at the edge of the godswood and upon the roof of Mikkan’s smithy that faced Winterfell’s walls. It had helped improve her sneaking and her footwork as well her environmental awareness. But then she had discovered all at once that it had been Jon himself speaking to her through her sleeping mind.

And then she had been forced to watch him horribly lose a fight against a smoke demon before his beaten and broken body had sunk beneath the waves: like a piece of flotsam no one would miss from yet another ship swallowed by the uncaring sea.

She had run to him atop the water, her insubstantial spirit form trying to reach him through the lapping waves and cursing her lack of solidity with every move. His hand had been extended toward the sea surface as though he was trying to reach her when she tried to pound upon the lapping waves in a futile effort to reach him. But then he had abruptly descended further by his waist: looking for all the world as though the sea was pulling him into its depths so that none other would claim him.

She’d awoken to Sansa shaking her and a shrill screaming that took her some time to realize was herself. As what she had seen all came crashing into her memory at once, she’d broken down sobbing. She could barely breathe as Sansa’s arms met behind her back, holding her to her only sister’s body as she tried to desperately draw air. Despite her most fervent internal wishes, she found she couldn’t deny what she had seen.

Jon was dead. And she had been able to do nothing in the face of it.

If there was one feeling Arya despised more than any other, it was a feeling of helplessness in any stripe or shade. This particular hatred of hers was why she’d be more prone to running from her mother rather than argue with her over her lessons or her lack of decorum. Whenever her mother began the familiar tirade of ‘why can’t you be more like your sister’ and fixed her with that disappointed look she could never escape, Arya always felt as helpless as a newborn babe.

She had tried to be more ladylike. To do better at the things her mother and sister and septa had always preached were the marks of a decent highborn lady. But after countless fruitless efforts, she knew that the rub of it lay in that she couldn’t and didn’t want to change who she was. Just as she knew her mother couldn’t and didn’t want to see her for who she was. And she was forced to face that impasse every time they had to have the same stupid argument about the same idiotic things.

She didn’t see Sansa bid a chambermaid to run fetch their mother and father. She didn’t notice that they brought Maester Luwin with them. She only noticed that the maester was trying to speak calmly with her, trying to get her to look at them and see them soon after Sansa had moved out of his way so that his access to Arya was unimpeded.

Her eyes fixed on her father. He had to be told. He was the one who’d given Jon permission to run off like an idiot.

“Jon’s dead!” She shouted accusingly at him, her grey eyes bloodshot from her crying. “He’s dead, he’s dead, he’s dead!!”

Each repeated proclamation felt like she was constricting her hands around her own throat until she had to close her eyes and curl her head down toward her chest in order to focus on breathing. She tried to calm down. She wasn’t being successful thus far. Even now she could feel her mother and Sansa’s eyes on her, trying to figure out what she was talking about. Irrationally, she felt a burst of hatred bloom in her chest for them. They’d ever sought to remind her brother that his presence was unwelcome in Winterfell. Maybe if they had tried to look beyond the end of their own noses, they could’ve seen he was their family too. Maybe he wouldn’t have felt he couldn’t turn to anyone in Winterfell for help when he saved her. Maybe he would still be here instead of sinking to the bottom of a watery grave.

“Maester Luwin, bring Arya to my solar. I feel we should discuss this in a more private setting.” Her father said, his voice as implacable as the walls of Winterfell itself.

She kept her head down as the maester brought her to her feet and gently walked with her, only keeping his hand on her shoulder as long as it took to escort her out of the doorway and turn the corner into the hall before dropping it to his side while sticking closely to her side. Even if he more often deferred to mother and the septa’s ideas on whether she should attend lessons or not, Maester Luwin knew how Arya preferred to be treated and sought to accommodate her wishes where he could.

Case in point: he didn’t ask a moronically obvious question about if she was alright, merely walked with her and provided a solid presence for her to know was by her side as she tried to fruitlessly dry her tears. She had to be strong. She had to get her father to believe. She had to know she wouldn’t be the only one forced to endure the knowledge of her brother’s death.

That he would be mourned as he deserved.

They came to his solar in what seemed to be no time, the moon shining bright upon the dark wooded desk that held her father’s papers. Maester Luwin escorted her and seated her in one of the chairs that sat before the Lord of Winterfell’s while he himself retreated to one of the nearby bookcases, turning his back to her so that she wouldn’t have to hide her watery eyes and almost silent hiccups of suppressed emotion.

In what seemed to be the blink of an eye, her father was in the room with her. He was in the chair beside her own instead of his traditional lord’s seat in front of the window that was supposed to make him look imposing to those who brought his attention upon them. His grey eyes that she’d always been told looked so much like her own seemed troubled even as his mouth was downturned in the beginnings of a frown.

“What happened Arya?” He prodded gently, obviously trying not to upset her further.

She felt Maester Luwin’s eyes on her back now, obviously waiting for her answer. She took a deep breath before she launched into her explanation of what she had seen. She told him of the dreams she’d had of Jon before, how he’d been changing into something scaled. She told him of Jon advising her, how it had felt like she’d managed to have her brother back. Then she told of the ship. The fight that had come from it. The thing disguised as a man that called itself Jon’s brother and hurt him so badly. And finally she told of watching Jon sink beneath the water and being powerless to help or do anything.

As she spoke she watched her father’s face for any sign of some emotion: shock, anger, sadness. But all she could discern was his usual attentive focus that possessed him whenever he spoke with anyone. When she finished, there was a silence. Maester Luwin spoke after some moments of quiet.

“My lord, perhaps these visions are unintended effects bourne of Jon’s efforts in the sept.” He suggested.

Arya opened her mouth to dispute that she was imagining this. She had already thought that before and this latest vision had proved it couldn’t possibly be fake. Why in the world would she imagine Jon dying in such a painful fashion?

“That may well be.” Her father began before Arya interjected.

“I didn’t imagine this!” She shouted, starting to stand in her agitation.

Her father’s right hand alighted on her shoulder and applied enough pressure for her to sit again as his stern gaze fixed upon her.

“I am not saying you did Arya.” He told her. But he had, hadn’t he? Why else would he agree with Maester Luwin’s thoughts on this being a false vision induced by Jon’s healing?

“But I want to ask you some questions.” He continued. Arya met his eyes, unwilling to back down. She nodded. If this was the way to convince him than so be it.

“Did you see the name of the ship Jon was on?” He asked quietly.

Arya shook her head. She hadn’t managed to pick that up in the chaos and the confusion of the night. Jon likely knew the name of it but he’d never felt the need to say it aloud.

“Did you see the name of any other ship? The name of the man who was possessed?” he asked.

Arya was forced to answer no to both those questions.

“Do you remember what anyone besides Jon looked like?” He asked.

She was able to tell him of the one eyed man. How he’d been an ordinary eye-patched man with an air of menace and danger about him even before he started cackling and leaking smoke from his eyes and the rest of his body. But she could tell him nothing of the specifics except for the red eye upon the sail that had dominated the last ship Jon had been on, having been understandably preoccupied by the battle occurring before and through her.

Her father looked toward the window when she described the sail. She had seen his eyes when she told him of what the creature had sent to Jon. About R’hllor. About the Doom of Valyria. But as he looked back toward her and began to speak she was sorely disappointed by what he said.

“While I am certain you believed it to be real Arya, I cannot say the same for myself.” He said, his eyes meeting hers.

There was something in them. What was it? Regret? Sorrow? Resignation? An odd mixture of them all? Or an unnamable feeling that she hadn’t seen her father express before?

“I want you to speak nothing of this to anyone. Until we receive word from Jon, I will not say that he is dead. And I would ask that you do the same for me.” He instructed, expression softening along the lines of his face.

Her stomach felt cold when she noticed that expression. She was sure of what it meant: that he did indeed believe her, but wasn’t going to act upon it because it was not the way things were. Because it was simply a dream: something to be endured in the slumbering hours and forgotten upon waking no matter how weighted and portentous they appeared to be.

He believed but he would not act.

As he hugged her and kissed her forehead before telling her she needed to get some sleep and he needed to speak with Maester Luwin, she brought her arms to hug him back out of habit rather than a true sense of relief or comfort. He would not act. And her brother’s corpse would remain unknown, unrecognized, unmourned.

As she closed the door to her father’s solar behind her and made her way down the corridor back to the room she shared with her sister, she felt drained in mind and body. She could only hope that when she slept she would dream of Jon and see him again. That their father’s optimism was the truth of what had happened.
But her hope would not come to fruition.

Her dreams were darkened and filled with shadows that grabbed at her from every direction. No faces, no voices. Only the slightest of whispers, only the barest of touches as they came closer and closer to her no matter how fast she sprinted. She awoke in the morning tired and in a worse mood than she normally was upon being forced into the waking world too early.

The following days were no kinder. Her lord father acted as though nothing were different while her sister and mother were apparently convinced her newly befouled temper simply needed the advice of a gentle lady now that she was becoming a woman herself.

Her mother had been sorely disappointed when Arya’s melancholic anger was somehow not improved by her suggestion that she consult Septa Mordane on finding comfort in the seven. Her sister had surprisingly more practical advice than that. Sansa had suggested that Arya do things that made her feel better without hurting anyone: things like eating her favorite foods or resting in her favorite places. But then again, her elder sister had fallen victim to nightmares that kept her awake for a time even after Jon had left and so could be said to have more experience with visceral unnatural nightmares than their mother.

Even with that in mind though Sansa had been acting strange ever since Arya had woken up screaming. Instead of taunting her about it, she had been strangely silent. She had even taken to gently reprimanding Jayne Poole whenever she started up with her ‘Arya Horseface’ routine. If she hadn’t been in such a foul state of mind from the constant phantom whispers and touches that disturbed her dreams these days, she might’ve asked her sister if something had happened to her.

As it was, she couldn’t find it in her to care. Especially not after she discovered the strange reaction cold things had to her. Wherever she walked, snow and frost had taken to thickening somewhat. If there’d been none on the grass where she tread, it left behind merely a light dusting that melted soon after she walked away from it. The result was more pronounced when she was barefoot. It was starting to get the chambermaids and servants irritated, constantly finding irregular tracks of melted water inside Winterfell. Though fortunately the castle was heated enough by the hot springs that flowed through the stone that they couldn’t see it made trails following behind her.

If she kept something in her hand too long, it would be cold to the touch. Yet she herself couldn’t feel the cold anymore as others did. She’d found that out after deciding on a whim to simply wander the edge of the wolfswood late one night wearing only her shift and slippers and never once feeling the bite of winter or the chill of the wind.

Between the constant awakenings in the night, the strange sensations of what she suspected were the beginnings of magic she didn’t understand and had never experienced before combined with the determination of all her family to act as though everything were carrying on as ever, it was a wonder to her that she didn’t start losing her already frayed temper with them.

But yet on this night her dreams shifted again.

As she wandered through the darkness, she heard one whisper that spoke her name clearly.

‘Arya.’ It called to her. ‘I’m here little sister.’

Her thoughts raced as her unseeing eyes darted through the oppressive darkness, seeking the voice of her brother. She’d seen him die! How was he here?!

‘Seek me out Arya.’ He said. ‘The shadows will guide you if you know how to trust them.’

She looked and looked, the almost touches distracting her as she sought any source of light within the darkness. She knew from experience that no matter how much she ran she could never outrun the touches. And so she decided to try something different and crouch down.

As her hands touched what felt like stone beneath her unseeing eyes, she heard a light crunching. Her knees started to feel wet while her hands told her that the ground was covered with something that felt frozen to her touch. There was snow and ice down here that she’d never felt before. Her mind raced as she put together what Jon’s voice had said with this new information.

‘Trust the shadows he said.’ She mused to herself. But she couldn’t do that, not without entrusting herself to something that was inherently untrustworthy and blinding. But now she’d found something that seemed to be in her favor in this dream world. Now she just needed to figure out how to get it to tell her where Jon was.

She stood in a low crouch, her toes flexing slowly to be sure she felt the snow still beneath her feet. Ignoring the sensation of entrapment and surrounding bodies she could neither see nor hear, she carefully put one foot in front of the other, toes flexing with each step to be sure she still felt the snow as she wondered how she’d be able to tell she was getting closer to Jon.

As she walked on, she felt the snow thin somewhat for a step before the next had it feel as though nothing had changed. Frowning in the pitch black, Arya crouched down where the last step had been, her hands felt the snow where she’d stepped only a few moments before. Her touch confirmed she hadn’t been imagining the sensation: the snow was thinner here than it was further on. The further she reached into the direction, the more she felt of the slightly thinned snow levels.

Remembering Jon’s attempt at healing being based in fire, she couldn’t help but smile to herself. She loved it when things resolved themselves like this.

‘Guess that answers the question of how to find him.’ She reflected. With renewed confidence and a sense of impending resolution, she forged onward through the ever thinning cold.

What felt like hours later, she’d faithfully followed the thinning ice and snow until it was but a skim layer of water on solid stone beneath her feet. She could see a flickering light in the distance. But she didn’t hurry forward, her previous experiences of the dream world and her by now ingrained seeking of the lessened cold telling her not to rush without knowing what waited in the shadows of the surroundings for her.

At last, she was standing before the fire. And there, sitting on the opposite side, was Jon.

His hair was longer, his skin had a great deal of scaled patches in the flickering firelight and he had grown what appeared to be pauldrons of solid red fur on his shoulders. But his grey Stark eyes were unmistakable. As was the genuine smile he gave her when he saw her.

“It’s good to see you little sister.” He said, subtle smile and bright eyes radiating his joy at seeing her again.

She slowly came around the fire, bringing herself face to face with him as she took in his attire. He was barefooted, his trousers slightly too large for him and chest bared for her to see the spider web of snow white lines and cracks that decorated his left arm.

So many emotions swirled inside of her that she could barely decide what to do with them all. There were two things she decided had to be done before she said anything as he stood up, her face reaching the top most edge of his chest.

Her right hand came up in a flash and slapped him hard enough to turn his head to the right. Immediately following that was a hug around his middle that audibly caused his ribs to creak like a wooden support asked to support too much weight. His arms settled around her back and shoulders as his steady heartbeat resounded soothingly in her ear.

“You promised me you wouldn’t scare me like that anymore.” She chastised, tone equal parts peevish and relieved.

“I wasn’t given much choice in the matter.” He remarked, tightening his arms around her as if to reassure himself that she was indeed here with him. “But for what it’s worth, I am sorry that I scared you again.”

She could hear the genuine regret in his voice at scaring her again. Knowing him as only she does, she knows he truly never would’ve wanted to scare her or cause her turmoil. He is too loyal to his family, to those he loves for that.

“There’s no point in asking you to avoid that sort of thing is there?” She mumbled into his chest.

He lets out a short laugh.

“Probably not.” He answers truthfully. He pulls back slightly before affectionately kissing her forehead. “But there’s no harm in it either. Who knows? I might even manage.”

She laughed in response, the scratchiness of his budding beard a strange sensation on the skin of her scalp just below her hairline. She let it go for now, more important matters needing to be addressed at this moment.

“Where are you Jon?” She asked as they both reluctantly let go of each other and settled down into their customary position before the fire: he leaning against a solid surface just behind his back, she settled on his right side as her head rested upon his shoulder. His right hand was cupping her right shoulder as always, letting her relax as the familiar placement allowed her to feel safe in such a routine arrangement.

“On my way back to Winterfell.” He told her.

“I’m glad to hear it.” She said, smiling at the fire as her eyes remained upon its flickering outline even while the bright center remained steady in the nonexistent air of this place.

“And when I get back, I’ll be training you in the art of magic.” He promised in a blunt no-nonsense tone.

Her head came up as she looked at the right side of his face in some surprise. He could’ve easily figured she needed him to help her get a handle on it just from the fact that she was speaking to him within dreams and hadn’t realized it until she watched him die. But Arya couldn’t help wondering if he’d be able to help her with the cold as well.

“I don’t think I’ll be able to do what you do.” She told him, eyes searching for a reaction. Not so much as a twitch. So he already knew or he didn’t think it’d be a problem. Or maybe it was a little bit of both.

“I know.” He responded. “But our powers are connected. And in any case,” He turned to look at her, the right half of his expression in shadow as it contrasted with the bright firelight on the left side. “I would welcome your ideas on how to use them. That is how we managed to make things most interesting around Winterfell before.” He finished, a playful quirk of his lips letting her know he was thinking of the things they had done around the Stark ancestral home to keep everyone on their toes.

“Like teaching Sansa how to play come into my castle?” She asked absently. A smile came to her own face as well as she recalled that had been the first and only time her sister had requested she play the child’s game come into my castle with her.

“I was thinking more of when Jayne Poole slapped Theon for constantly stealing her things.” He admitted with a brief laugh.

Arya laughed too as she remembered that particular plan of theirs. She had been more impatient than Jon in seeing the value of it, but hadn’t been disappointed by the result. Jayne had turned out to possess a surprising amount of power in her right arm: enough so that she’d accidentally knocked Theon into the weapons rack when she’d gotten fed up and decided his thievery had to come to an end. Their father’s Greyjoy ward had involuntarily glanced at Jayne’s hands every day for some time after that.

“Alright.” She accepted graciously, settling back against his side again. “But you’ll be the one to take the brunt of mother’s complaints.” She stipulated, unwilling to be the only one to deal with her lady mother’s no doubt inevitable problems with this future arrangement.

“Deal.” He declared as his lips found the top of her hair before turning back to face the fire.

They were silent for a while longer, content to simply be with each other in this place that had no distance between them as the waking world did. After a fashion, they were talking as they always did. Of Winterfell, of their siblings, of life. Before she was awakened, Jon warned her that he would be bringing a direwolf to Winterfell and that she might want to be prepared for a slight commotion when they came.

Arya was ecstatic to hear that she was potentially going to meet such a legendary creature that stories spoke of only living beyond the Wall the Night’s Watch guarded. She couldn’t tell anyone what had gotten her so happy after that night even as they asked and prodded her, but she knew Jon’s arrival would not be dull in any way.

She was proven correct.

It had been another day at Winterfell: she was stuck in her sewing lessons with Sansa, Jayne, Beth and the Septa. When she heard shouting from the yard beyond the level of recruits practicing and her brothers mock fighting. She stood up in her seat, hurridly tossing the sewing hoop on the seat as she raced to the window.

“Arya!” Septa Mordane called to her indignantly. “What in the Seven do you think you’re doing?!”

From the position, she could see guards moving toward Winterfell’s gates with some agitation. Jon was finally home. And he had brought the direwolf with him. Without another word or glance, she bolted for the door, dodging Sansa’s feet as she tried to trip her and ignoring Mordane’s reprimand as she pulled the door open and sprinted down the stairs toward the courtyard. Before she knew it, she was getting toward the gate, a small crowd of the guards by the portcullis.

She weaved through them as gracefully as she could, an occasional bump on their hip or side the only sign she was making her way through the loosely packed crowd. Then she was at the front of them. And there, standing on the other side of the portcullis, was Jon.

His hair was as long as it had seemed in the dreams they shared. His beard was a bit longer. His clothes seemed ill fitting and dirty, his boots barely holding together. He carried only a dirk at his left hip, a short bow and a few arrows in a thin makeshift quiver upon his back. On his wrists, there appeared to be iron mancles with dangling chains attached. The spots of rust were pronounced and visible on them as he stood there, right hand upon the head of a truly huge wolf.

The wolf itself was fierce looking: its fur was a combination of browns and greys with the darkest concentrations of grey on its paws, a streak upon its nose disappearing up between its yellow moonlike eyes and upon its breast and low hanging belly. Arya almost gasped aloud when that last part registered in her mind, that Jon had not only discovered a direwolf but a pregnant mother to boot.

At the moment the wolf was busy panting and was apparently calmed by Jon’s alternately comforting and restraining hand. How in the world he had managed to reach such an understanding with the legendary animal, she would dearly like to find out since he had only ever teased and hinted at it no matter how she’d pestered him in their shared dreams.

The men parted as her father came to the forefront, silent and watchful as the direwolf by her brother’s side. His eyes took it all in, eyes running over Jon then the wolf. His right eyebrow had steadily ticked upward as he observed all of this before he ordered the gate open. As the clanking of the chains pulled the portcullis upward, he remarked to her brother that he missed the days when Jon’s idea of causing a commotion was helping her make trouble around Winterfell.

“Don’t think I haven’t seen you Arya.” He said to her after as Jon and the wolf came forward. “We’ll be discussing your leaving the Septa’s lessons later.”

“In the meantime Lord Stark, I really think we should get Frost somewhere she can lay down.” Jon interjected, his right hand now in a light grip on the direwolf’s fur. “I think the litter might be coming soon.”

As they made their way toward the kennels, Arya could resist resting her left hand on the wolf’s fur. It was soft enough to make her think of the fur lined cloaks she and her siblings wore when the northern weather turned on them as it was prone to doing. Yet it also possessed an undeniable warmth that came from still being a simple cover for a living, breathing creature that generated such body heat and had such an unmistakable presence.

“Frost.” She repeated to herself, thinking of the name Jon had apparently given the direwolf mother. It suited her she decided. She sincerely hoped they could come up with equally suitable names for the pups when they came along.

Chapter Text

Doreah had never known any life outside the brothel house with golden borders. The Embroidered Maid as it was colloquially called. It had been a minor detail in the construction, how the workers had painted the wood a golden color that managed to fool many an untrained or lazy eye into thinking the brothel was literally lined with gold. It had caused a few problems with more gullible or foolhardy young men attempting to take pieces of the ‘valuable’ embroidered support beams inside the house on a dare, but overall it was considered a well worth mark of distinction, especially since the house itself was placed as it was between the great temple of R’hllor and the equally splendorous temple of his daughters. Better known as Lys’s own patron goddesses: The Lady of Passion and her twin The Lady of Sorrow. The second was the protector, she who led the Lyseni to seek ways outside war to resolve their problems, even if that meant abandoning dreams of combat and battlefield glory as so many of her neighbors seemed to treasure. Whereas the first was considered she who blessed and watched over the unions of Lys. Who believed seeking the beauty in life served to show man his purpose in the world and so encouraged it in any of the myriad forms he could conceive. This belief in the strength of beauty and love had allowed Lys to be some of the greatest studies in the art of breeding in the world. Both the pleasure that could be derived and the resulting fruit such unions bore from the act.

Doreah herself was a product of this. Her mother Mederi had been a pleasure slave all her life: a fair-skinned, brown haired woman whose aristocratic cheeks and imperious eyes had been played up whenever she put on her mask for the day. Her mask being the name she gave her make-up and the attitude she adopted when entertaining patrons. To Doreah’s young naiveté, these things combined to allow her to seem as regal as any princess or queen and highlighted her smoky blue eyes. This opinion wouldn’t last into her adolescence, but it had been there no matter how the memories were tainted now. In her head she knew that her mother loved her dearly. But her heart hurt whenever she thought of her. For when she did, her memory also dredged up the looks her mother’s patrons and on some occasions fellow slaves gave her, some of the comments of how much her flowering would be worth, how her mother had only ever giggled demurely in response to such talk before leading them away to earn their coin. The mask wouldn’t have allowed anything else through she knew now. But that didn’t change her stubborn heart no matter how much she wished that it could.

She only had the vaguest of memories of her father: he himself had been a slave to the temple of R’hllor in Lys. A temple that was larger even than the better known house of fire worship in Volantis that trained the 100 elite soldiers known as the Guardians of the Flame. She didn’t know whether this was her memory playing tricks on her or not, but she seemed to recall that her father had possessed light blonde hair that bordered white in the right light and green eyes that shone like emeralds. Her understanding later, when she met the Line-Tracers in person, was that her mother had been given consent to lie with her father and conceive a child from him so that her Western looks might be tempered into something more Valyrian: along the lines of a light haired young girl who could pass as a bastard of Targaryen nobility or a trueborn itself. From a practical standpoint, Doreah knew her looks could be said to be closer to the region known as the Reach or perhaps the Westerlands than the Valyrian descended Targaryens and so overall both was and wasn’t quite the result the Line-Tracers had been seeking when they allowed her mother to have her. But never the less, she was to be given the obligatory training every child born to a pleasure slave received. Lessons focusing upon the physical aspects of pleasure, with advanced lessons in mental pleasure later if they proved apt enough at the physical. After all, what point was there in teaching one who’d never amount to more than a common whore how to ensnare a great political figure when they were barely capable of doing more than one or two of the Dances?

But she’d been given an education in the pleasuring of the human body from the time she was old enough to understand what it was to feel good at seven namedays. At first it was simple things: massage techniques, common areas that held stress and tension in the human body. She hadn’t proven as apt at those teachings as some of her peers. But looking back on it, that had probably been a minor saving grace for her. After she had grown older, she had learned that those who proved skilled enough in the application of massage and relaxation were often given live clients that much sooner than their less talented brethren.

From there it had moved onto some of the basics of the Bloodrush Dances: the movements that taught any woman of any body type how best to show themselves off to a potential client. Doreah herself found a special aptitude in the Winding Rivers variation of the Dances. It was a subtype meant to be practiced by women whose body was considered neither hefty nor scrawny but somewhere in that elusive balance between the two and whose flexibility lay in the arms rather than the legs. Her torso was almost considered too long for this sort of dance, but the heft of her breasts, though not pendulous, was considered enough to offset it to the point that she could not easily be switched to the Whispering Reeds variation of the Dances.

This she practiced in the same manner those of a particular faith might pray to the idol of their choice. She would constantly be testing her own flexibility, making sure her back and her arms continued to be as limber and useful as possible to her when alone outside of lessons. She didn’t make many friends inside the lessons anyway since they were all too busy trying to avoid punishment by the instructors to truly connect with anyone. And then when she moved onto the art of donning the Mask, she truly shone.

Perhaps watching her mother all that time had done her some good after all or perhaps it was some inborn natural talent. But in any case, it was discovered that she had an aptitude for engendering positive feelings in those she was assigned. Whether it meant letting them treat her as they would a lover, a sibling, a parent or even a child in some cases. Her ability to make conversation and speak with those who chose to talk with her was such that she was able to fake political and religious ideas she couldn’t care less about. So when it came time to learn in what capacity she would be serving the Lady of Passion, she was again surprised. A magister from Pentos had bought her mother some years ago, a blonde somewhat heavy-set man who had claimed he needed someone whose loyalty he could guarantee for an important position. Doreah had been sure her mother was being sought as a concubine or perhaps a noble lady’s handmaiden meant to function as a lord’s side piece: one of the better options for those trained to serve the Hot-Blooded Lady.

But it seemed she had been wrong. The Magister, whose name turned out to be Illyrio, had returned requesting her services for his household. She wasn’t told what those services would be, only that the money he was paying was enough to cover the cost of at least three pleasure slave contracts. And so she was released into his service and taken by ship to the mainland before joining his retinue as he traveled back to Pentos via the roads that led through Myr. For a young woman who had rarely been outside of the Embroidered Maid and never left the city limits of Lys, it was jarring to be taken via wagon through so much open terrain and other cities and villages entirely.

As they’d traveled onward, Illyrio had surprised her by asking what training she had in the arts of womanly pleasure instead of slaking his passions with her body. At first. She answered him truthfully as to her training, telling him of what she had been taught in physical and mental terms. He’d seemed sufficiently pleased, if the way the stubby ring encrusted fingers of his right hand had stroked his forked golden beard had been any indication.

It wasn’t until they had been approaching Myr that he decided to find out firsthand what kind of talent she had in the arts of pleasing others. What he lacked in stamina, he attempted to make up for in enthusiasm. It didn’t really, but she knew better than to say as much. Just as Doreah knew better than to express her disgust at the fact that his gut hung over his cock like a protective awning above a baazar when the midsummer heats could manage to make a man feel as though he were mummifying where he stood. Just as she also knew better than to comment that he appeared to have had some trouble washing below his gut and relied a bit too much on perfumes and scented oils to disguise the scent of his body when outside of his colorful robes. It was fortunate than that this was far from her first time dealing with a patron who believed themselves the world’s gift to womankind. As his seed splashed onto her palm and breasts, she wondered to herself how many this made that felt it somehow marked her to finish upon her skin like this. After the first five times, she’d grown indifferent to the sensation of rapidly cooling seed congealing on her where before it had elicited only disgust. Such was the ironic existence of one brought up a pleasure slave: one quickly discovered how to numb themselves to disgust they may have had simply because their patron’s pleasure came before their own.

While he had business to attend to in Myr, she was left with his guards. They’d been given strict instructions not to take their leave of her body. Though that didn’t stop them from staring or getting in the occasional touch whenever they felt emboldened enough by drink to think they could get away with it. For the most part she avoided them, electing to remain in the wheeled palanquin that had housed herself and her new owner on their way to this city. She couldn’t tell what it was he wanted with her. It obviously wasn’t sexual satisfaction. And while it didn’t appear to be her company either, she couldn’t imagine he had a son whose pleasure he wanted her to see to. Most men in his position would’ve brought the boy with them so that when they picked out the bed warmer, it was one that they could be sure they wouldn’t have any complaints about. Getting the most value for coin spent after all.

Her wonderings were put to an end once she reached his manse in Pentos and introduced to a boy of twenty three namedays called Viscerys Targaryen. There had been some minor rumblings in Lys around the time the Targaryen dynasty had fallen in Westeros. Though considering she’d been all of two years at the time, it hadn’t had all that much significance to her until later when she was forced to learn the western looks she had been specifically bred to imitate.

The exiled prince had walked around her in a circle, his lilac eyes inspecting her body as though searching for flaws. She held still, letting him take her in as the fabric of her plain serving girl’s dress fluttered slightly in the breeze that swept through the open window. She wasn’t over worried about his opinion, having been inspected by better than he multiple times as her body had developed. The Line-Tracers had to know how to thoroughly examine anyone so as to make their records as accurate as possible after all.
“A fitting handmaiden for young Daenerys, wouldn’t you say your grace?”Illyrio chortled as he sat upon a nearby wicker and wooden chair Doreah was privately surprised could hold under his weight.

The boy four years her elder narrowed his eyes slightly at that comment, as though displeased that an opinion other than his own had been made. Where his expression held some traces of lust, now it held a slight amount of contempt, as though he were prepared to declare her unsatisfactory simply to prove that his host didn’t know his tastes as well as he assumed.

She automatically sank into a western curtsey. “It is an honor simply to be considered to serve your family your grace.” She flattered carefully, keeping her head down as she curtsied. She’d seen men like Viscerys with some of the other girls before. They usually got off more on deference and submission than they did on any kind of sexual act. Like the sense of power they had from others kowtowing to them was a pleasure in and of itself. Those were more often than not the more dangerous patrons to have because you could never be sure just where they would draw the line at demanding obedience if they drew it at all. Many of them might’ve started off with the smaller things like proper courtesies applied to themselves first. But many quickly graduated to other shows obedience and power playing: some going as far as collars and humiliating punishments for the smallest of imaginary infractions against their dignity.

It was a dangerous thing she was doing now, but she didn’t truly have a choice in the matter. Magister Illyrio owned her contract and apparently meant her to be a handmaiden to this exiled prince’s sister. If he had treated his sister with anything approaching the cold hateful arrogance he did her, the girl was not like to keep her if he disapproved. And if she didn’t fulfill the role the overweight magister had in mind for her, she would more than likely end up dead. After all, she was just one more pleasure slave from Lys: the city which bred pleasure slaves for a living. Who would possibly miss her?

His longer fingers cupped her chin, inching her face up to look at him. She had to suppress a fearful shiver at the subdued look of mad glee in his eyes. Her own mouth curled upwards in a simpering smile, her eyes as blank as she could make them so that he would not suspect she was canny enough to be attempting to manipulate him.

“Well, this one at least knows her place Magister.” He pronounced with more happiness than previously. “I question what purpose she is to serve at my sweet sister’s side however. What use would a Targaryen queen have for a pleasure slave?”

“Who better to learn the womanly art of pleasure from your grace?” The magister answered, leaning back in his chair as his pudgy hands came to rest upon his rounded gut. He at least seemed to know what game Doreah was playing with his ward like this if the slight incline of his head wasn’t just her imagination playing tricks on her.

Doreah hoped she imagined how the slight madness in the Targaryen’s eyes seemed to increase at just now.

“Then I suppose she will be starting her lessons immediately? That is if the horselord savage could appreciate such a thing?” He said, letting go of her chin as he strode in what he must have imagined was a regal fashion toward the seated magister. Though the fact that his boot heels came down too loud on the tile floor made it more comical than intimidating, especially when he could only take four steps before being right in front of his provider.

“Likely he would not know the difference your grace. T’would likely serve better for Drogo to see her as she is before we discuss whether he shall appreciate the gift of her maidenhead in exchange for reclaiming your throne.” He smiled, rising as he placed a hand around the young man’s shoulder.

His left hand waved negligently at Doreah as though dismissing her.

“In the meantime, we have more business we must discuss your grace. And we should likely give the girl something to do with herself in the meantime so she has no temptation of spoiling the gift you’ve been generous enough to give your sister.” He said.

Viscerys clicked his fingers at her impatiently.

“You heard him whore. Make yourself useful to the magister’s servants and begone.” He said impatiently.

Doreah did not need to be told twice. She curtsied once more before leaving and closing the door gently behind her before she made her way toward one of the nearby guards. When she asked where the kitchens were, he did not question it, simply told her how to get there. Likely he assumed what she had when first the magister bought her: that she was to be a bed warmer for him who would in the meantime work as a scullery maid so as not to draw any scandalous attention from others of his station. It almost made Doreah wish she could roll her eyes at these highborns to their faces. They made such a great production over sexuality that it was no wonder the Lady of Passions had given Lys its rise to prominence. People always desired that which they could not have. That which they built up in the confines of their own mind, fantasy and reality confused as one thing.

But as she made her way toward the smell of fire and cooking, she knew that she was in trouble here. The girl she was to be handmaiden for wasn’t to see her before she was to be married to her husband. When she did, she was to instruct her in how to be a better lover so that her husband did not grow dangerously bored of her. And if her brother’s comment about a horselord was any indication, it could very well be her life hung in the balance of her future husband’s interest in her. She and the other girls of Lys had often been told stories about the slaves taken by Dothraki. How they were never the same after enduring their captivity. How they had witnessed cruelty and barbarism against those they considered weaker than them that was sickening to any of a decent temperament.

She supposed she should’ve known that no patron who wished for her mother’s extended services could’ve wanted her for anything simple or safe. But she had no choice. For after all, she was but another pleasure slave of countless others from Lys. And if she didn’t try to keep herself alive, who did she expect would?

Chapter Text

Ned Stark was not a man given to easy expressions of emotion. When he was young it had not been such a great problem since his father Rickard was the most like him even if Brandon and Lyanna were his eldest children. His brother and sister had grown up knowing how to live with someone who'd much preferred to watch rather than act while they themselves might have preferred to leap in with both feet before looking where it was they were jumping. And so when he'd been sent to the Eyrie to perhaps learn from its lord Jon Arryn how to take a greater role in matters and use that tendency for quiet to the advantage of his family, he had complied silently even as he'd wanted to protest.

No matter how much he had grown to love Jon Arryn and Robert Baratheon as his family away from Winterfell, he hadn't always known who they were and so had not wanted to be separated from his blood. His pack. But he had gone in deference to his father and because Ned knew his duty to his family. And as he'd been away, he'd grown to admire Lord Arryn's commitment to honor and justice. Just as he'd grown to love Robert as his own brother even if he was as rambunctious and charming as Brandon but with no seeming idea of how to turn it off.

That wasn't to say he found it easy to maintain this handle upon himself though. He would have thought the greatest test of his emotional control was when he had to bring Lyanna's orphaned son back to his lady wife. Bring him back while also claiming him as his own in order to protect the newborn boy's life as he'd promised. He was proven both right and wrong on that count. Right in that it was one of the hardest tests of his fortitude to look her in the eye while telling her what Jon Snow supposedly was and what he intended to do with him. Wrong in that it wasn't nearly as hard as watching how things developed once they reached Winterfell. Having to see the pain in her sky blue gaze every time she looked upon Jon Snow. Having to see her shutter a part of herself behind emotional walls put up in the wake of it. Having to see Jon grow up in what amounted to a state of limbo between being legitimized and being shunned with no solution in sight until he became a man grown. Having to see that small boyish smile become rarer and rarer as he grew older and was repeatedly reminded of his place in Winterfell and in the Stark family. And in the midst of all that Ned had been the one forced to maintain this private, precarious and oftentimes heartache inducing tightrope walk because no matter how the years passed it still seemed to be the lesser of possible hurts that could be visited upon all their heads otherwise.

And then Jon had done the impossible: he had learned the truth of his parentage. The full truth and reality of it that even Ned had been unaware of after all these years. Which had immediately led to him leaving Winterfell's safety for the lands across the Narrow Sea.

Ned hadn't been happy to see Jon leave, but like so many of the choices he made in raising him, it had seemed the lesser of possible hurts. And the look in Jon's eye when they spoke of it told him that Jon was just as aware of that as Eddard himself had been when he had first made his loyal friend Howland Reed promise not to speak of Lyanna's last moments alive. Three years had passed in Winterfell since his bastard nephew's departure in what seemed to be the blink of an eye. Robb was proving to be an eager student in the nature of leadership: attending Ned in his solar and taking to the arms lessons of Rodrik Cassel with equal fervor. Bran still dreamed of being a knight even if he still had some trouble with anything larger than a dagger and with a longer range than a short bow, though he gained in skill every day. Rickon was growing well, his passionate wolf blood evident in his eagerness to poke any and everything around Winterfell he could possibly reach his ten year old hand into.

The greatest change in Winterfell, he had been somewhat surprised to observe, had been in the Stark womenfolk of the family. His lady wife Catelyn had prodded him numerous times in the beginning on what he and Jon Snow had spoken of before he had left. He had respected his word to Jon and Lyanna, never telling her and only ever repeating it was not his information to give. She had stopped asking after the first year, but that hadn't stopped him from seeing her eyes shutter in that familiar way whenever the boys asked him about what Jon might be doing now. Sansa as ever was the proper lady Cat had always hoped her daughters would be: her lessons with the Septa progressing very satisfactorily if Mordane's glowing praise of her manners, needlework and attention to the histories of the great houses was any indication. And yet in regards to Arya, she had been mostly silent, leaving her younger wilder sister alone.

Ned wasn't sure how but something in Jon's departure had changed things between the sisters Stark that slowly but surely had them mostly avoiding each other instead of nettling and fighting one another. He'd never thought he would miss their bickering. But now that it had all but ceased, Ned had discovered he'd grown so used to it that when they went for such a long period without any severe fights or explosive fits of temper at each other, he felt himself waiting for his lady wife to come to him in his solar at any moment demanding he do something to get them to make up or at least stop making each other miserable. Ned honestly couldn't begin to guess what it was that had changed things between the girls even when he pondered it to himself in the few precious moments of quiet reflection he was afforded during the day. Perhaps it had been the destruction and regeneration of his nephew's eyes that had put Sansa in a contemplative mood to match her younger sibling's melancholy. Though Arya's strangely vivid nightmare seemed to have put the young girl in a worrying depression. Much as he'd tried to reassure her the night it had happened that Jon was likely alright, he honestly didn't know what to make of the dream or whether she had even believed his well-intentioned words of comfort. By the Old Gods he wasn't sure if he believed himself.

He knew that Cat and Sansa had tried to talk to her afterward though their words had not had any apparent effect on the black cloud that would follow his youngest girl's waking moments for days. Arya had been almost unapproachable, her normally bright grey eyes dull like a stony layer of ash petrified upon the crumbling ruins of a once magnificent keep.

And then with as much abruptness as it had started, her dark mood had disappeared. She smiled more around the Winterfell courtyard, she laughed when she raced Bran and Rickon through the corridors and she went back to complaining vehemently about her lessons with Septa Mordane. More time passed as he and Catelyn wondered between themselves what could have possibly changed her disposition so quickly.

In hindsight the answer really should have been more obvious.

For some time days later there was a commotion at the front gate of Winterfell, the guards claiming that a feral looking man had approached the gate with a direwolf of all things in tow and was demanding to speak with Lord Stark. As Ned made his way to the front of the substantial crowd that had managed to gather between his guardsman fetching him and his appearance at the gate, he couldn't help but see the past brought to life before his eyes.

Jon looked so much like Ned's deceased father Rickard in that brief moment that he half expected to hear a warm chuckle bubble from his mouth as he stroked his ever growing beard and smilingly entreated Ned and Brandon to help him carry this buck into Winterfell so that they might feast on it tonight. But then the brief flash of an image was gone and in its place was Jon himself. His beard was not nearly as full as his father Rickards' or even his brother Brandons' and his hair extended just past the base of his skull almost reaching the bottom of his ears. His clothes looked worn almost to the point of falling apart as he walked but the body beneath them was startlingly lean yet compactly muscled. Ned was willing to bet that Jon's strength had increased since his self-imposed exile from Winterfell if the seemingly relaxed but firm grip he maintained on the scruff of the direwolf's neck was to be any indication.

And then of course there was the creature itself.

It was a magnificent thing to see in the flesh. Almost bigger than Jon himself, its fur was primarily brown upon the back and sides while its belly, paws and snout appeared for the most part to be grey as the more subdued color ran in streaks that climbed up its legs and sides to begin encroaching on the brown fur on top: like a pond of muddy water that was slowly freezing over. Its eyes however were truly striking. A yellow gold color that made Ned think of the moon on a starless night, its gaze was sharp as a well-honed blade as it darted from human to human in front of it: the eyes of a predator sizing up prey even with Jon's hand on its neck acting as an anchor. But the thing that caused Ned's right eyebrow to involuntarily rise toward his hairline was when he saw the rounded belly hanging low on the creature.

'How in the name of the Old Gods did Jon get a gravid mother to trust him?' Was the thought that briefly crossed his mind before he spoke to Jon himself.

"I miss the days when your idea of causing a ruckus in Winterfell simply entailed helping Arya make trouble." He said to the young man before signaling to his men.

"Raise the gate!" He called in case they were too caught up gawping at the living breathing symbol of House Stark just outside Winterfell's doorstep to see their lord's instruction.

As the portcullis clanked into motion and began to lift, he saw Jon's fingers tighten in the fur of the direwolf and the animal's legs tense as though ready to spring. When it came to just over his head, Jon and the direwolf walked into the courtyard, the soldiers parting even as some started to bring their spears to bear against the huge wolf. They backed off further when she briefly bore her teeth and snarled at them. Jon's hand tugged at her scruff very briefly to bring her attention to him as they strode in as though their presence were an everyday occurrence.

As they came forward, Ned caught a glimpse of his own darker hair in the crowd. He turned his head slightly and took in Arya's presence, her grin threatening to break her face in two as her eyes gleamed with the satisfaction of a full bellied cat. He couldn't help the smile that came to his own face even as he knew the Septa and Cat wouldn't be happy that she had skipped out on her lessons with Sansa in order to reach the gate and see what the commotion was about.

"Don't think I haven't seen you Arya." He warned as the girl came upon the direwolf with narry a word and Jon silently inclined his head to greet her, an abundant joy in his eyes at seeing his younger sister again after so long away. "We'll be discussing your leaving of the Septa's lessons later."

"In the meantime Lord Stark, I really think we should get Frost somewhere she can lay down. I think the litter might be coming soon." Jon interjected.

Ned nodded in understanding. It probably wasn't a good idea to take the creature to the stables considering how much it had managed to spook the humans that were armed and able to defend themselves. Likewise the kennel was out of the question due to the gods only knowing how the hunting dogs would react.

"I hope Mikken is as fearless as ever." Jon remarked as he and the direwolf walked toward Winterfell's blacksmith with a sense of assured purpose that made Ned wonder whether he'd planned to take the direwolf to the Stark's smith beforehand.

Mikken was a relatively new addition to Winterfell, having come up from the south like Maester Luwin. The two men had in fact made the journey together when coming to serve at Winterfell after the Winterfell's previous resident smith Derec had been killed in the fighting during Robert's Rebellion. Mikken had been fascinated by some of the styles of blade Maester Luwin had told him existed across the Narrow Sea and been honestly surprised by the older man's knowledge of armaments while Mikhal had been pleased by Mikken's honest curiosity and thirst to learn what he knew of foreign weaponry. The two had formed an unlikely fondness for each other though their duties rarely gave them cause to cross paths.

As they came within range of the blacksmith, the sound of a hammer striking metal upon the anvil resounded in the crisp northern air. As the odd group of four drew closer, Ned saw Mikken diligently working on a piece of armor at his forge. His formerly brown hair was now mostly greyed with permanent streaks of black soot running through it as the smith had a bad habit of running his hands through his hair when he was stressed or thinking. As Mikken placed the plate into the nearby cooling barrel, he glanced up to take in his lord, two of his lord's children and a truly huge wolf walking toward him.

Aside from a brief widening of his brown eyes, Mikken gave no sign of slipping composure.

"Can I help you M'Lord Stark?" He asked politely, briefly wiping his hands on his leather apron before withdrawing the plate from the cooling barrel and placing it off to the side.

Ned nodded once before he turned to Jon and explained what was expected of him.

"You brought the direwolf here Jon. You will be responsible for her and for her actions." Ned told him. It was quite a lot of responsibility, being put in charge of the care and containment of a wolf the size of a young pony. But if the creature had been willing to follow his son this far, Ned was willing to bet that it would take better to being looked after by him than anyone else around Winterfell.

Jon inclined his head to indicate agreement before he immediately spoke up.

"I know this is much to ask Mikken, but she needs a place to stay until the pups are born." He said, his right hand continuing to hold the direwolf's scruff. "She'd frighten the horses and the hounds just by being there and her…delicate…state has made her somewhat irritable." Ned could feel his laughter bubbling up when Jon thought to describe a full grown direwolf as delicate. Arya was not so inclined to restraint and let out a very unladylike snort when he did so. Jon studiously ignored the both of them as he continued beseeching Mikken.

"Once the pups were born, Frost would be able to live within the wolfwood and be out of your way. But till then, I'd feel better about being able to keep an eye on her. With your strength and temperament, I think you'd be able to handle her just fine." He finished, kneeling by the direwolf's head. He lowered his head before asking once more.

"Please Master Mikken." He quietly begged.

Mikken stroked his dark beard, looking at the wolf. Then Jon. Then back to the wolf again.

"You already named the wild thing?" He finally observed carefully.

"She has been my traveling companion for many moons now." Jon answered. "Considering how far she has come with me, it would be more strange if I couldn't call her a friend."

Mikken sighed ruefully in response.

"Lord Stark?" Mikken inquired, looking to Ned for permission to answer.

"This is entirely your decision Mikken." Ned reaffirmed.

"You're lucky I hold so much respect for your family lad." He said in an exaggeratedly weary voice. "I'll look after the she-wolf for a time." He brought his right pointing finger up to give Jon a warning.

"However, if you think to drag a stray shadowcat back here: I will draw the line. And when I do, I'll crack your thick skull with my hammer to let you know you've crossed it. We clear?" Mikken warned.

Jon looked up, a brilliant smile on his face that reminded Ned so much of when he'd been a young babe growing into a child that it was almost painful.

"We are clear Master Mikken." Jon affirmed happily.

The direwolf's eyes narrowed slightly as though she knew that she was being talked about. Jon turned his head to talk to the carrying mother directly after Mikken's permission was granted.

"I need you to stay here Frost." He said, pointing to a corner with leather materials and out of the direct line of sight from the entrance. "I'll be back with food shortly."

She growled softly at him and Ned feared for a moment she meant to bite him. But she instead briefly snapped her jaws in front of his face before trotting over to where Jon had indicated and placing herself upon the leather covered corner as though it had always belonged to her. Jon stood and stretched his back out, his hands reaching directly over his head as though he thought to straighten his spine by touching Mikken's ceiling.

A blur moved through the air and the next moment Arya was wrapped around Jon's middle tighter than one of Maester Luwin's bandage bindings. His arms settled on her back and Ned was startled to note that his suspicions about Arya's growth were proven accurate. She was in fact taller at thirteen than her sister had been at the same age. With time, she would likely surpass Sansa in height.

"I've missed seeing your smiling face little sister." He murmured affectionately before kissing the top of her head. His arms tightened around her before he looked at Ned.

"When night falls Lord Stark, I need to speak with you, Lady Stark, Arya and Maester Luwin." Jon said, a serious tone to his voice that Ned was somewhat taken aback to hear.

Arya's head looked up at him, her eyes slightly widened in surprise.

"You're really going to ask?" She seemed astonished by something, but what Ned couldn't tell. Did she already know what Jon wanted to talk about?

Jon nodded his head, smiling at her again.

"Snow!" Came Robb's voice from the entrance to the smithy.

"Stark!" Jon called back jovially, looking beyond Ned.

Ned stepped to the side so as to allow Robb and Jon to see each other directly, deciding to put Jon's cryptic request to the back of his mind for now. Bran was with Robb, standing beside him in Mikken's entrance. The smith had resumed his work not some moments before.

"Take it outside you lot." He instructed, hammer pointing toward the door.

Arya released Jon from her arms and moved toward her brothers as Jon and Ned followed to do the same. Mikken was a kind man but prone to irritability if he was interrupted during his work. Ned didn't begrudge him that as most men who could effectively focus on their work often shared the same single-minded approach to it.

As they entered the cold Winterfell air again, Jon and Robb had embraced.

"It's good to have you back brother." Robb declared.

"It's good to be back." Jon agreed, his right hand patting Robb's back as they hugged.

"What did you see across the sea Jon?" Bran asked as the oldest boys drew away from each other.

"Quite a lot of sand." Jon answered, his shoulders shrugging as though the answer were unimportant. "Truth be told Bran, I didn't have to venture far to find what I was seeking."

Ned's eyes couldn't help taking in Jon's profile as he said that. He couldn't put his finger on it, but something in Jon's tone seemed off when he spoke of being across the Narrow Sea.

"How's your training been going little brother?" Jon asked.

Bran eagerly began to regale Jon with how he had improved under Rodrik's tutelage and how he could proficiently handle a short sword and shield at the same time now. As they walked back to Winterfell's main hall, Ned couldn't help but feel that Jon and Arya conspiring together signified something bigger than it usually did. And considering the aftermath of some of their previous collaborations, that was assuredly saying something.

The afternoon went by in a blur after that. Rickon had been happy to see Jon but upset he hadn't brought anything back from across the sea to show for it. Theon and Jon appeared to be as distant yet polite toward each other as ever. Though how that translated when they were out of his direct sight Ned could only begin to guess. Sansa had greeted Jon courteously while Jon had greeted her as Lady Sansa in turn. Ned didn't know whether he imagined a brief spasm of surprise quickly followed by an even briefer flash of sadness crossing Sansa's face or not. For as soon as he tried to find it again it was gone and her courtly manners were front and center again.

The most awkward exchange had to be between Jon and his lady wife if only because they didn't speak a word to each other, only scrutinized each other before simultaneously electing not to try and greet each other as though they had both been given a mutual signal.

Dinner passed without comment and Ned had managed to let Catelyn and Luwin know that Jon was going to speak with them later tonight about a matter of some import. He decided not to tell Cat that Jon had demanded Arya be there too as he had the distinct feeling his lady wife would object.

He was proven right when the three adults looked to Ned's solar door opening to see Jon and Arya enter together.

"Arya! What in the seven are you doing up at this hour young lady?" Catelyn began to admonish.

"She is here at my request Lady Stark." Jon answered before Cat could hit her stride. Ned prevented his eyebrow from coming up through careful control of his expression. Jon had never in all the time he'd lived at Winterfell dared to interrupt or talk back to Cat before. Apparently Cat noticed how out of character this was for him as well and looked him fully in the eye. Her gaze silently demanded an explanation.

"I am grateful to Lord Stark for keeping his silence for me during my time away from Winterfell. But the time has come now for those who need to know to be made aware of certain matters if things are to progress." Jon began, walking toward one of Ned's lit torches by his window.

"What do you mean Jon?" Mikhal inquired before Cat could say something rude.

"It is time you were made aware of why I left and why I needed to speak with you all about Arya." Jon said, looking to the girl as he finished as though asking her permission for something.

Arya nodded her head eagerly, her eyes bright in the torchlight like pools of molten silver.

Ned had a sinking feeling he knew what Jon was about to do. As he rose from his seat to try and stop him, he was proven right. Jon held his hand over the fire of the torch. It completely engulfed his hand to the wrist in the blink of an eye.

"Jon!" Mikhal called in fear as he stood up to help the boy. Cat said nothing, only jolted backwards as though struck, her eyes taking in Jon as though he had suddenly gone mad and wondering what would be required to stop him. Which from a sane person's perspective was the first answer that would come to mind.

But Jon turned around as calm as a cloudless night and showed his still burning hand: flexing his fingers and moving the fire this way and that as he had when he showed Ned what he had discovered about himself.

"What unnaturalness is this?" Catelyn whispered fearfully as her eyes remained transfixed upon Jon's burning yet unharmed hand.

Jon smiled a humorless smile.

"It is fire magic lady Stark." He answered her despite all present knowing she did not mean to have an answer to the question that had escaped her lips.

"Not quite so natural as the plants upon the ground, but likely a more natural thing than a baseborn bastard." He remarked, a trace of bitterness entering his voice near the end.

Ned looked sharply at Jon. Did the boy truly think now was the time to pick a fight with Cat over his heritage and her opinion upon it.

"Ned, what is he?" Cat asked him beseechingly, looking to him in an effort to ground things in the realm of sanity. Luwin meanwhile had slowly taken steps toward Jon as though unable to believe he was awake, his eyes also fixed upon the young man's burning hand but showing none of the fear his lady wife did.

"A bastard boy born of a union between a powerful fire magic user and Lyanna Stark." Jon answered stoically.

Arya picked up on his answer faster than Cat did and her head quickly turned to Ned as though seeking his word on it.

"Father?" She asked, sounding like a small child again. Ned was interested to note that she hadn't been surprised by Jon's ability to control fire but was very shaken by the revelation that Jon potentially wasn't her brother. Then again, she had been insisting that Jon had healed her using the flames from the day he had cured her illness. So perhaps she had known even before he had left what he could do.

Ned sighed deeply, eighteen years of secret keeping and regret and repressed emotion put into that single sound of air escaping his lips.

"It's true Arya." Ned confirmed.

Catelyn could only look from Ned to Jon to Ned again as though unable to comprehend when the world had tilted sideways and ceased to make sense.

Mikhal however gained a contemplative expression even as his attention drew back to the conversation and away from Jon's burning appendage.

"You thought he might be a Blackfyre son of Rhaegar, didn't you Lord Stark?" He asked softly.

Ned nodded once.

"At first, yes." Ned admitted wearily. "But as he grew, I didn't know what to make of his heritage. He seemed to be entirely Lyanna's son with no trace of his father to show. So I kept the promise I made to her as she held him in her arms for the first and last time." Despite his worry as to how this would affect the family dynamics later, Ned had to admit even if it was only to himself that it felt good to at last admit the truth of things aloud for the first time since he had first taken an infant Jon within his arms and brought him back to Winterfell.

"Little sister?" Jon called, his eyes fixed upon Arya.

"How can you call me that?" She asked sadly, her head down as she sat heavily into the chair she had taken when first entering Ned's solar.

"Because that is what you have always been to me." Jon answered, striding toward her even as his hand continued burning. Cat grew alarmed and moved to stop him as his burning hand reached out to Arya and gently touched her chin with the softness of a bird's feather. Bringing her eyes up to meet his identical ones he held her gaze so that she could see what he meant.

Ned had always known the two close, but as Arya nodded once and showed a smaller smile that was less sure but no less affectionate than she had ever given Jon, he had to wonder whether there was something more to their connection with each other than simple sibling closeness.

Jon shook his hand as though it had lost circulation as he drew it away from Arya and the flame was abruptly extinguished.

"In my time away I sought to gain control of my ability." Jon explained to Mikhal and Cat. "And now that I'm back, I need to teach Arya how to control her own."

"No!" Cat rejected angrily, leaping to her feet and coming toward Jon with all the protective instinct of a mother bear.

"You will not make my daughter into…into…" She tried declaring, unable to bring herself to say what Ned suspected she might.

"That was the price for saving her life." Jon said. Ned started. This was the first he had heard of any price being attached to his daughter's salvation.

"In exchange for healing her, I severed her ties of loyalty to the Old and New Gods. As a result, the natural magic in her blood has begun developing like my own." Jon started before Cat's right palm cracked across his face, the sound echoing in the confined space.

"How dare you!" She shouted angrily. "You anger the Seven with your unnaturalness and then you infect my daughter with your taint bastard! How dare you!"

"Mother!" Arya shouted, her voice angry more than upset.

"If you had rather she died Lady Stark, you should have said as much." Jon said coldly, his voice not a tone higher than it had been yet it still extinguished all the argument like a gust of wind from the Wall itself.

"I had a choice between watching her waste away and ensuring she lived. I chose for her to have life." Jon explained, his grey eyes stormy and fixed upon Cat's raging but frightened blue. "Though I am glad you are at last being honest with your feelings instead of hiding behind the mask of ladyship you present. I simply find it pathetic that you would rather she be dead than changed or different."

"That is not-" She began to protest hotly.

"Magic runs in the Stark blood!" Jon declared over her, knocking Ned's mental process further off-kilter. "All of your children possess the same potential for unnatural taint" he spat the word as though it left a rancid taste in his mouth. "that I do. The only difference is that I have unlocked and worked to control mine!"

Ned stepped in at this point, placing a hand on each of their shoulders and physically pushing them away from each other.

"Enough, both of you!" He admonished sternly.

Jon nodded to show his submission to Ned while Cat attempted to speak yet again.

"Ned! You cannot mean to let him-" She said.

"I mean to let him explain before I make any rash judgements Cat." Eddard declared, a slight but definite rebuke in his voice toward her. She flushed but did not protest. She gradually brought herself to sit down again, eyes fixed upon Jon again.

After a lengthy silence, Jon spoke again.

"When I healed her, the magic in her blood connected with mine and gained a similar but different tang." Jon explained. "While my power is based in fire and light, hers is based in ice and shadow."

Arya looked at Jon with a question in her eyes. Had he not told her this before they came here? But then how had Arya known what Jon was going to say to them tonight?

"Arya? You remember the feeling in your dreams?" He asked softly. She nodded slowly.

"Take that same feeling and concentrate it into your right hand." He said. "You know what it feels like. You simply need to change where it goes."

Ned looked to Arya just in time to see his youngest daughter concentrate on her cupped right hand as snow slowly but steadily formed within her palm.

Ned couldn't help the thought that crossed his mind at that instant.

'This is going to be a long night.'

Chapter Text

Ros had known for some time that it was possible to make even something as titillating as sex into a boring routine. For while it was one of the most primal urges there was it still lost its spice if indulged with enough regularity. She had known that ever since she was old enough to understand what her mother did for a living in the brothel of Wintertown outside the walls of Winterfell. When Ros was old enough to know how children came to be, her mother told her that she had been an accident: the result of her mother not knowing moon tea was in short supply that particular winter and allowing Winterfell’s resident stonemason to finish himself inside her. Ros rarely saw her father considering how close he lived growing up. When he’d died soon after her twelfth nameday it’d caused her mother to shed more tears than she.

Ros didn’t know to this day whether that meant her mother had truly loved her father or not. But she knew at least that she had thought him a good man and missed him when she heard he had passed away. But Ros herself had no time to miss him when she was learning to ply her mother’s trade. Her hard work and skill was enough to earn her a significant amount of coin as she also endeavored to learn what bits and pieces of education the stonemason had shared with her mother that she shared with Ros in turn.
Ros was determined not to be tossed aside once she grew older and inevitably lost the looks this line of work so relied upon. To that end, she made special deals with the guards of Winterfell that had allowed her to steal away simple children’s books for a time. The Starks never used them often enough to notice they were missing and Ros always managed to get them back in a timely fashion once she was sure she had enough of the material worked out.

There was a distinct lack of paper and quill for her to try to practice writing out the letters she learned and so she took to using a stick and the dirt outside the brothel. Her efforts eventually paid off: making her one of (if not the most) literate whores in the brothel. Admittedly that was a bit like being the cleanest moss covered stone in the weirwood, but it was still progress to her mind. The fact that she had a clever tongue in more than one sense and had almost blood colored red hair instead of the usual brown or black served to make her the closest thing there was to a novelty in Wintertown for the soldiers and smallfolk who made up Winterfell’s population.

She’d been with men as low as the assistant cooks to men as important as Theon Greyjoy. But never before had she nor any of the other whores had one of the Stark family grace their ‘den of depravity’ as the Septa who lived at the keep might put it. Sure, Robb Stark would occasionally wait outside if Theon had promised to meet with him but had yet to conclude his business with them. But he’d never set foot in the place. Ros could tell it would always be that way the first time it happened when several of the girls had tried to entice him over by flashing their goods at him in hopes of bedding the heir to Winterfell and had received nothing more than a polite but awkward wave in response. Whether the eldest Stark took after his father or his mother, it was unlikely he’d indulge himself in the pleasures of the flesh no matter how temptingly they tried to offer themselves to him.

And so it’d never occurred to her that one of the Starks would make their way to the brothel. Not until the day it happened anyway.

It’d been a quiet afternoon when Mary, one of the younger girls, told her that the Stark bastard was here and that the mistress of the house wanted to them to be present. Ros could say with total honesty that she had not expected such a thing to happen so late in the day. But never the less her curiosity was piqued as to what could’ve possibly prompted this visit. The men who frequented the brothel had told them all of when he had returned with a giant wolf in tow, apparently having tamed it enough on his return trip to Winterfell that it had willingly resided within the blacksmith like an obedient dog. That had been some days and days ago however. Now the word was that the wolf was gone to live in the Weirwood outside the walls while the bastard himself never seemed to stay in either place for any great length of time.

As Ros entered the main hall behind the two rows of other girls who had all chosen to try and display what they could without revealing anything outright. Well, the smarter ones did anyway: choosing to expose cleavage and thighs while their breasts and boxes remained covered. The less subtle ones simply exposed one of or both their breasts and tried to draw attention to their legs as they stood, making bedroom eyes at the Stark bastard himself. Ros almost didn’t see him when she came in.

But there he was, leaning against the wall with what appeared to be an albino dog sitting attentively by his feet. Jon Snow the illegitimate Stark. Also known as the Bastard of Winterfell. Ros had heard more about him than most usually did out here in Wintertown He wasn’t precisely a problem for the Starks so far as she could tell: having never heard about anything more harmful than minor pranks from the guards and household servants who had paid for her company. Though one wouldn’t know it to compare their testimony to Theon Greyjoy’s.

If the Stark’s Greyjoy ward was in a bad mood over something at Winterfell, it was more often than not one of two things. Either a pretty girl had rejected his advances or Jon Snow had been a superior prick to him. Though considering that for all his swagger and boasting Theon Greyjoy had one of the most fragile egos Ros had ever known a person to possess, she took his complaints with a fair grain of salt. Sometimes she even went so far as to tease him for getting so nettled by Ned Stark’s bastard, playfully questioning whether he was upset because he desired the dark haired Stark’s attention for his own.

That always led to him redoubling his efforts to, as he might put it, “fuck you into submission.” And whenever he did that, he was always willing to pay extra if it happened to take more time than he usually spent with her. It was a decent way to make a little extra money and get one of her most regular customers to put more effort in than he normally would in any case.

As Ros’s blue eyes took him in, she mentally admitted she could see why some of the less professional girls were giggling like young maidens who were just seeing a boy for the first time. His dark hair was medium length and somewhat wild looking with bangs that seemed to frame grey eyes that managed to seem guarded while the subtle angles of his neutral expression made those same eyes look gentler than one might expect among the hardened men of the North. His face seemed absent of most any fat, his jaw and cheeks covered with a rough covering that wasn’t quite stubble or a beard but much like his untamed hair seemed as though it begged to have a hand run across it to discover what it felt like.

His body beneath the leather and wool clothing was hard but streamlined, every line seeming to naturally lead into each other. Even leaning his back against the wall, his posture seemed uncannily alert and almost predatory like the animal by his feet. The animal which, upon closer inspection, Ros realized looked to be not an albino dog but an albino wolf pup whose red eyes were almost the same color as her own hair.

After they’d all taken their position behind the mistress of the brothel, an older woman named Dianne who’d been a friend of her mother, she’d gestured toward them with an outstretched right hand grandly: as though presenting a great show piece for inspection.

“Take your time young man! Choose the girl who suits your tastes.” She said genially.

He pushed himself off the wall, nodding to her.

“Thank you for your kindness mistress Dianne.” He uttered with a tone of solemnity that seemed so out of place to the generally enthusiastic and playful atmosphere of the brothel that it almost made Ros snort aloud. Seems Theon hadn’t been lying about how seriously the Snow boy seemed to take most everything.

Ros saw some of the girls giggle anew once he came closer and they realized he was faintly blushing at seeing so much female flesh on display and so must be here in order to lose his virginity and ‘become a man’ as a rite of passage. Perhaps this was her imagination, but it seemed to Ros that after a cursory glance over most of their bodies he was primarily focusing his attention on the girls’ faces as though he were searching for something.

As his own grey orbs came to rest on hers, she realized that her observation had been right. She could feel his eyes determinedly connecting with her own in a way that she’d rarely experienced even with a man fully sheathed in her quim. It was almost discomfiting, having such a penetrating stare fixed upon her as though he weren’t looking at her body but at her very soul.

He broke gaze first to look at Dianne.

“Her.” Was the only word he spoke as he gestured to Ros.

Dianne smiled widely as she started shooing some of the other girls away while they grumbled good naturedly about ol fire crotch ensnaring another one. Ros however could only ponder what it was he had seen that made him decide on her. He had barely glanced over her loose brown dress or given what glimpses of her curves could be seen more than a once over. Had he seen something in her expression? In her eyes?

But this was not the time to wonder at that. He was paying for his time spent here and she wasn’t going to have him complain to Dianne that she had wasted part of it dawdling in the main room. A rookie mistake that cheap arses could exploit ruthlessly to avoid paying the full price.

“Come along then.” She instructed with a smile, crooking her right finger in a come hither gesture to follow her as she walked forward.

He only nodded in response, the wolf pup standing and following along behind him.

As they reached Ros’s room, he turned to it to say something.

“Stay here Ghost.” He instructed as he knelt down on his right knee so that he was as close to eye level as a person of his height could get with the wolf pup. Which honestly wasn’t that big a difference considering the wolf pup already looked to be almost the size of some full grown dogs.

The wolf briefly cocked its head to the right for a moment before turning and trotting over to the opposite wall. As soon as he reached it, he sat on his haunches, bloody eyes fixed upon her and Snow as they were framed by the door leading into her room. The fact that the animal never made a sound the whole time served to unnerve Ros somewhat, but not enough for her pleasant demeanor to slip. As Jon Snow closed to the door and turned to her, she already had one strap off her shoulder.

“Shall we get started then?” She offered with her best bedroom smile, sure that he wanted to get right to the start of things so to speak. But this was where he unexpectedly defied the usual routine she’d gotten into with these jobs. He strode forward, shaking his head twice as he did.

“I didn’t come here to be that intimate with anyone.” He said quietly, eyes off to the side as though his mind was elsewhere.

“Intimate?” Ros repeated with a slight slowness to the word. That was certainly one of the most polite ways she’d ever heard her work referred to.

“I came because…” He paused here, seeming to struggle with his words. Sensing he was conflicted about something and that perhaps now wasn’t the time to push him, Ros sat upon the somewhat lumpy but familiar mattress of her bed. She didn’t pull up the strap of her dress, curious as to what he’d do if she didn’t replace it and hoping this didn’t mean he was having second thoughts about this whole experience.

“If you didn’t come here to fuck one of the girls, why are you here?” She asked him, watching as he slowly brought his eyes to hers. She could feel him searching her expression again. For what she couldn’t begin to guess. Slowly, he sat down next to her on the mattress.

“I…I need to get used to being around beautiful women when they’re not entirely clothed.” He admitted.

Ros’s right eyebrow came up skeptically.

“I’m sure all other men with a functioning cock would say the same.” Ros answered dryly, not seeing what his point was.

“There’s someone outside Winterfell who wants me dead.” He confessed in a resigned whisper. “When I left for the Narrow Sea, I encountered him on my journey. His power and influence are far reaching. I fought him off once, but I couldn’t kill him. So now I don’t know how he’ll try to strike at me. It could be through sell-swords, through poison, or even through a set of honeyed lips.” He went on.

Much as Ros wanted to dismiss him and say that he was making it all up, the lines of worry and concern that came across his expression and seemed to add years to the slope of his shoulders spoke to how much he believed the threat was real. It seemed he well and truly did expect this mystery person would be willing to strike at him through any means.

“What did you do to earn such hatred?” She asked, unable to conceive of what possible insult a single Northern bastard could have offered such a person unless he’d fucked his wife or murdered his son.

“The only thing it seems people need me to do to give offense: exist.” He answered stoically.

Blunt and a bit on the dramatic side but not exactly wrong either considering what he was.

“So why did you come here then?” Ros prodded, understanding why he felt he needed to do this but not comprehending what it was he did want to do here.

“I need to keep my wits about me at all times. That means I can’t blush like a maiden every time a woman winks at me and I need to be able to look beyond her nudity so that it can’t be used as a distraction.” He said, his gaze returning to Ros’s eyes.

She still didn’t quite know what to make of all of this, but she knew it was unlikely she would be able to do so anytime soon. So she decided to hammer out the details of what he would be doing and for how long.

“So what does that mean? Are you going to touch me? Am I meant to touch you?” She asked, giving him an opening to lay the ground rules for this.

His eyes gained a glimmer of gratefulness as he released an exhale of relief.

“I should like you to be naked. I would be as well. But I would not be touching you. Not yet.” He said.

She wondered at his clarification of yet a bit before her mind came to the more important bit of these rules. She waited some moments for him to elaborate but only silence greeted her. So she asked the question he still needed to answer.

“Let me be sure I understand this.” She said, unable to help the small smile that came to her face as she had to mentally admit that this was certainly the most original request someone had made of her in some time.

“You want us both to be naked. But you don’t want either of us touching each other.” She laid out, watching his expression. He nodded once, eyes still fixed firmly on hers. She had to give him credit, it was certainly the most consistent eye contact any man had ever maintained with her, especially when he had already paid for her time and body.

As she brushed a crimson strand of hair out of her eye, she reflected that this was probably the most discussion she’d had to do for the least amount of work possible aside from the non-existent day a man strode into the brothel, tossed her a pouch of gold dragons and left again without saying a word.

“And what will we be doing in the meantime whilst we’re both naked? Admire each other’s charming personalities?” She asked with a hint of sarcasm to her voice.

He shook his head.

“So long as you are discreet about our encounters, I would be willing to help the brothel and you in what way I can.” The bastard Stark offered.

Ros’s grin showed teeth now. This was too funny.

“Can you bring young virgin boys like yourself to pay?” She asked, a brief snicker slipping out in her mirth.

He shook his head.

“Do you intend to try and offer your protection from bandits?” She asked, standing as she began to remove the left strap of her dress.

He shook his head again.

“Than what is it you intend to offer the girls outside of good money?” She asked, right strap removed as her dress began to slowly slide down her pale breasts. She kept it up with her arms crossed just beneath her bosom to slow it in order to provoke a reaction from the bastard Stark.

His eyes were unable to stop themselves form seeking out her tits. As some redness entered his cheeks, he brought his eyes back up to hers again and appeared to be fighting some dryness in his mouth as he opened it to speak again.

“Healing.” Was the only word he spoke.

As she allowed her dress to pool at her feet, Ros gestured a shade impatiently to him, wondering why he hadn’t begun to disrobe if he truly intended to get used to being in a naked woman’s presence.

“And what kind of healing would we need that we can’t get from the maester or each other?” She asked with a touch of her impatience leaking into her voice.

In response, he said nothing. He held up his right hand so she could see his palm. Then, without speaking a word, clenched his fist tightly enough that she could see his nails drawing blood from his palm.

“Stop that! What’re you-” She didn’t manage to finish her sentence before he opened his palm again and turned the world on its side.

His hand ignited then rapidly became engulfed in a flame that came from nowhere.

She shouted in alarm, leaping back into her dresser by mistake. It was only a few moments before his hand ceased burning and the fire was gone as abruptly as it had flared to life.

Slowly, as though trying not to spook a startled animal, he stood up from her bed. As he did, she absently realized that her legs were slightly twitching as though she’d been contemplating running from the fire that erupted out of nothingness.

He held his right palm out to her face up as though he wished her to examine it. She looked down at it. The breath left her as her eyes at last took in the fact that even aside from being unburned, his right hand had no marks, no divots, no sign at all that he’d dug bloody furrows into them not a moment before.

Her head came back up to look at him so rapidly it felt as though she might have cricked something in it.

His eyes were connected with hers again. As though he were looking for a sign that she was going to shout and bring the rest in here.

Ros swallowed as her hammering heart beat began to get back under control.

“What in the bloody hell was that?!” She whispered fiercely.

“A demonstration.” He answered calmly. “If they can be discreet as you seem to be, I can offer my services as a healer.”

There was a pause as though he were debating something with himself.

“And if you wished to discover what it could do for you, I could also offer the teachings that allowed me to achieve this.” He continued.

Ros stared at him incredulously. She couldn’t help how much her mind raced at the possibilities he presented with this simple yet ludicrous offer.

Allow him to acclimate himself to naked women. And in return she and any others who could keep their silence might not only have a mystical healer who could do so with greater efficiency and speed than any medicine or poultice she’d yet heard tell of but perhaps learn how to do so for themselves?

Her tongue briefly darted out to moisten her suddenly dry lips.

“What sort of teachings?” She asked as he began to undo his tunic.

Chapter Text

Jon Arryn was a man of born into the wrong life. In all truth to tell, he’d never wished to be the Lord of the Arryn. He’d enjoyed the lessons he’d received from his father Lord Jasper Arryn and the Eyrie’s Maester Coleman there was no doubt. But in his heart of hearts he had always wished to travel to Oldtown in order to further study the mysteries of the world with other learned men. And perhaps even more than that, he wished to become one of the grand maesters who would teach the next generation the secrets of the world and pass to them the knowledge that had come from years of study and dedication that could be used for the betterment of Westeros.

But that was not the life he could live.

Not as an eldest son. Not when his brother wasn’t inclined to the martial side of things and where even if his sister had been more inclined to look after the realm than have a family she wouldn’t have been respected as a ruler anyway.

The worst of it was that he didn’t even care about being a father or having a family with anyone. He had simply never found sexual attraction toward anyone either male or female. His first wife Jayne Royce he had married when he’d still been a blonde young man who possessed all of his teeth. She had died bearing a stillborn daughter that she had hoped would’ve been the first of several children. She had thought him in love with her. He still felt guilty over the fact that he’d never loved her the way she’d desired, not even after her death.

Perhaps the woman he had loved best, the one he had come closest to ‘loving’ in such a way had been his cousin and second wife Rowena. Like him, she was a very academic person: more prone to discussing literature or art or theory regarding the wider world. Hence why her parents were relieved when she’d married Jon instead of becoming an old maid covered in the dust from her precious books. Some of his most treasured memories came from remembering when they’d been children and ensconced themselves in the Eyrie’s private library in order to find a volume by one of the grand maesters they’d not yet managed to read yet. He had many similar memories of them doing the same so many years later in their marriage, the flickering candles and the steady moonlight their only companions in the quiet of the night.

Those silences had warmed him even as the wind howled atop the mountain.

When she’d died, that was when he’d felt the sense of loss he was meant to have felt when Jayne had passed on. She’d been with him when his hair turned grey. When his teeth deserted him. When the skin around his eyes gained furrows and when his fit stomach began to sag. But she’d never cared. She’d only ever looked at him the same as she ever had: as her friend, her loving cousin that understood her keen mind best. When she was gone, the silences of the library felt oppressive rather than welcoming. The flickering candles only serving as a reminder of the light of her life going out, a pathetic burned out wick all that remained of something that had once been so vibrant and alive.

Her death provided him with his one true regret: that he’d never had a child with her. Not because he had desired her body or anything as shallow as that. But because any child she bore, if it had even half her inquisitive and eager nature, would’ve proven a teacher’s dream. And despite how little their elders had thought of her academic nature, Jon felt with all his being that she had deserved something of her to live on past her death. Better than a sad old man with nothing to show for all his honor and brain but student after student who inevitably died while he inexplicably lived on.

Eddard Stark and Robert Baratheon were simply the latest in a long line when he had taken them under his proverbial wing at the Eyrie. They grew as close as brothers despite the seeming contrast in their natures. Robert loud where Eddard was quiet. Eddard thoughtful where Robert was emotional. Robert hot tempered where Eddard was cool headed. Eddard considerate where Robert was blunt.

Sometimes Jon didn’t see them as his fosters and instead saw the ghosts of his past standing behind them. Jayne standing behind Robert, trying to get him to act considerately. To be better mannered as befitted a son of his station. Rowena standing behind Eddard, her silent brown eyes watching him carefully, evaluating him and trying her best to puzzle out the enigma that was a polite, level-headed young man.

Thus when Aerys had sent a missive demanding Jon turn them over, he put his foot down. He’d lost loved one and student alike to the whims of nature and war. But this was different. It was not fate or chance but a choice that fell to his hands. Eddard had already lost his father and brother. And he’d be damned if he allowed the same fate to befall the quiet wolf that had looked so lost when he heard the news.

He never regretted supporting those boys through the war that had torn aside the countryside. What he had come to dislike however, was Hoster Tully putting a price on his aid to them. Catelyn being betrothed to the next in line to Winterfell he could at least understand since she was originally meant to wed the murdered eldest Stark boy. But her sister Lysa?

Jon had not sought her as a wife. Lysa did not seek him as a husband. But Hoster had insisted that both sisters had to be betrothed in order for him to be willing to lend his full support. It had caused the thought to cross Jon’s mind more than once that perhaps Walder Frey was not so different from his liege lord when it came to his family. He always immediately took that uncharitable line of thinking back however since Hoster had never remarried after Minisa, instead raising the three children who lived after her to the best of his ability. In addition to which, Hoster had sought to get the best possible marriage he could for both his daughters: making sure that even if he and Eddard Stark had highborn names that they were men he could trust to look after his daughters.

Lysa had not seemed to feel the same about her father however. Jon surmised that she had been pining for another before she had been engaged to him. That she had even gone so far as grant him her maidenhead for a gift and that was why Hoster was so desperate to marry her off. None of that mattered a whit to Jon so long as she didn’t attempt to have him wear the horned helm of a cuckold.

To her credit, despite her obvious reluctance toward the marriage with Jon as a whole, Lysa had attempted multiple times to have children with him. To the point that it was honestly disconcerting to him. Especially since she would grow more despondent and more upset with every miscarriage, every loss.

He didn’t know how to make her happy. At least not until she informed him that her childhood friend Petyr Baelish was living upon the fingers of the Eyrie and would make a good customs man in the port of Gulltown. Willing to do what he could do within reason to ease her discomfit, Jon had appointed him to the position. He had performed beyond Jon’s wildest expectations.

So impressed with Baelish’s monetary acumen was he, that when the Lord of House Arryn was given the order by Robert Baratheon to put his affairs in order immediately following his coronation and become the hand of the king, he had brought Baelish with his household in order to offer him as a candidate for Master of Coin.

Between trying to prevent Dorne from following through on their rumblings of rebellion, gathering support to put down Balon Greyjoy’s ill-advised rebellion, doing what he could to address the problems of the kingdom as a whole when it became more and more clear that Robert would much rather spend his days in the forest or the brothel and keeping the queen from overflowing the court with golden hair, Jon barely noticed when Lysa bore him a son and outside of naming the boy Robert after his kingly ward barely interacted with them. He was getting on in years and the toll was exponentially more than it had been in the Eyrie where all knew and respected his word.

He wasn’t sure how he’d get by without the support of Stannis Baratheon and Petyr Baelish.

But as Cersei bore Robert children and Lysa doted on her ‘Sweetrobin’ as she had dubbed their son, Jon thought things were for the most part under control. That was until Stannis Baratheon came to him privately with his suspicions regarding Robert’s children by Cersei. How he believed them to have a different father entirely. Jon had been inclined to dismiss it at first. Cersei Lannister was a self-important arse of a woman, but she wasn’t so foolish or arrogant as to cuckold the king himself. But Stannis explained his suspicions. How all of Robert’s bastards bore the signature Baratheon black hair. How he was willing to stake his life on if Jon found some of Robert’s most recent by-blows (for despite all his lamenting Lyanna’s death and his complaining about Cersei’s coldness, Robert had not for a moment in his life considered perhaps keeping his breeches up and cock placed firmly behind them) that they too would bear the Baratheon black hair.

So Jon had used Petyr Baelish’s money and connections to discover a blacksmith’s apprentice by the name of Gendry Waters and a new babe whose mother had simply named her Barra. Sure enough, when he went to observe them and inquire as to their heritage, they both had black hair as Robert, Stannis and Renly possessed. Gendry himself could’ve been a teenage Robert he looked so much like the king who had once been Jon Arryn’s foster.

That convinced him of the truth behind Stannis’s word. He’d suggested going to Robert but Stannis had rightly pointed out that if it came down to it, Stannis would be accused of attempting to push his own claim over the queen’s children. Not an unheard of tactic in regard to inheritance, especially not when the stakes were seven kingdoms rather than a keep or a small patch of land. Jon had sought a book on lineage written by the meticulous (if a bit dry in writing) Maester Maellon. There he discovered two previous instances of Baratheon marrying Lannister. Both times the union had produced children black of hair.

Stannis left the capital shortly after Jon had borrowed the book from Grand Maester Pycelle, convinced that Robert had retracted what little welcome he extended the middle brother of the Baratheons. Jon grew suspicious when soon after Robert came to him inquiring about plans to foster his son Sweetrobin with Tywin Lannister. He had certainly never made the suggestion and he suspected that Lysa wouldn’t have either. At that point, he knew he had to keep the boy safe and prepare him for a slightly more difficult future than he would’ve liked. And so Robert’s inquiry prompted Jon to make plans to foster his son with what seemed to have been the only honest man in King’s Landing: Stannis Baratheon.

Lysa had been displeased to say the least.

But Jon had been adamant in his conviction: young Robert was almost reaching his double digit namedays now and so would be expected to rule the Eyrie after Jon passed. He couldn’t do that if he still breast fed from his mother and hid behind her skirts crying if one of his dolls was damaged. The Spider had paid him a visit later that night to warn him that he was drawing attention with his inquires and that he perhaps might want to hire a taster.

When Varys refused to name a possible culprit or even whether the plan was real outside of resentful mutterings, Jon had to refuse. He was not going to cower in fear of enemies that may or may not exist who may or may not try to kill him by subtle or straightforward methods. When there was a credible threat he would protect himself against it. Until than it was theoretical.

That same night he began burning inside.

It had started simply enough, with discomfort in his bowls. It had progressed from there to fever and burning inside, his intestines feeling like every movement was stroking a fire in them. Maester Coleman tried to have him purge his body as best he could. Tasting the food he’d eaten, feeling the wine return up his gullet burned almost as much as it had resting in his gut. When Grand Maester Pycelle had stepped in to help as well, Jon was sure he would soon be ok. But even as Pycelle administered tonics and tried to get him to relax, Jon grew worse. Soon he could barely see where he was.

He thought Robert was there at some point, trying to say something to him about illness and death. But he couldn’t tell. It was all so much noise in his ears like the crashing of waves upon the shore. His skin felt as though it could combust at any moment from the heat it was generating, his body almost entirely sweated out. He stank to high heaven of his own vomit and shit, his eyes showing him things that were and were not there. At the end he thought he saw Rowena by his side, returned to him at his moment of death. Knowing he was about to pass on but hoping against hope that he could convey the message Robert needed to hear, he tried to tell her.

With desperate strength he gripped her arm as she leaned toward him, a doll from Lysa’s child in her hand.

“Tell him…” He rasped with all his strength.

“The seed…is strong.” He got out.

She made a questioning sound, though whether it was words or not Jon couldn’t tell. He ignored it, repeating his warning to Robert of the strong seed once than twice more. He had no more strength. He collapsed upon his back again. He was burning. He was in agony. He was alone. He wanted to call to his mother. To his father. To his wife. He thought he did. Maybe he did. How would he know? But none of them came to him before the end.

Jon Arryn died alone and in pain, his soul in turmoil and filled with fearful regret.

Chapter Text

Sansa Stark had always tried to follow the tenants of the Seven. Most specifically the Maiden and the Mother in regards to being compassionate. Septa Mordane’s teachings from the Seven-Pointed Star had always made it sound as though being pious and pure in spirit would allow the seven to shower blessings upon those who followed them and beseeched fervently enough.

To that end she was courteous to all the servants in Winterfell when she encountered them and always sought to be mindful of the feelings of the few girls close to her own age she had made friends with. Most of the time it was easy to be kind and empathetic. But the seven had never accounted for living with people who did not understand you. Her trueborn brothers Robb, Bran and now Rickon were typical young men who cared more for dreams of battlefield glory than fantasies of a peaceful domestic life. Not exactly unexpected in truth. Theon Greyjoy was a highborn ward whose smile and wit could be charming but whose frequenting of the brothel in Wintertown and somewhat boastful nature were the marks of a cad even if Sansa tried not to say as much given that to her understanding Theon was Robb’s best friend at Winterfell. A bit more worrisome truth be told but still not insurmountable. The problem of course was her bastard brother: Jon.

Her mother and her Septa had differing opinions as to how to treat Jon Snow, but they were clear that he was a baseborn bastard and whether he was deserving of it or not the seven viewed him as a living breathing sin against their principles of fidelity and love. When Sansa had been made aware that Jon was her father’s son with a woman who was not her mother, she’d wondered more than once why her lord father had bothered bringing him back. It didn’t seem that he would fit into Winterfell. And over time she had thought that observation proven correct. Jon was much like their father in many ways: prone to silence and melancholy rather than laughter and smiles like she, Robb and her mother. As a result, even when he may not have been so he still seemed sullen to her ears and eyes. A dark spot upon an otherwise bright, sunny picture.

Which was why, when Arya was born with the same dark hair and grey eyes, Sansa had thoughtlessly asked her mother if that meant she was a bastard like Jon. She’d made the mistake of thinking that since Arya had presented none of their mother’s traits that it meant her father had had her with Jon’s mother. It was the only time her mother had physically struck Sansa even after all this time.

But despite her sister being trueborn, she couldn’t help but feel that perhaps it would’ve been easier for everyone if she was indeed a bastard like Jon. Than at least it could be understandable how she could find such easy kinship with him that she did not find with herself or Robb. She tried to understand Arya as she grew up: truly she did. But she was just so different.

Whereas Sansa could listen contentedly to any number of the stories of love and chivalry transcending all obstacles with all things coming to a happy end, Arya would scoff before rolling her eyes. But the worst of it wasn’t so much that Arya didn’t like the stories Sansa did. It wasn’t even that she would turn to Jon Snow for stories of bloody battles and ancient warriors instead. It was that even as their lady mother had tried more than once to get Arya to show some interest in something remotely proper for a girl growing to be a lady she never took the hint and instead embraced the interests of her brothers fully rather than even make a token effort at being proper.

Sansa had received no help from any corner when Arya’s rambunctious nature had made Sansa suffer through a joke or a prank that almost inevitably led to her things being dirtied or vandalized. But yet whenever Arya was so willful, she hardly ever had anyone outside of mother be willing to discipline her. Her lord father would for the most part let out a slight chuckle and tell Sansa that Arya was showing signs of the “wolf blood.” Whenever she complained to Robb about it, he might be inclined to try and tell Arya off while visibly suppressing a grin. Which was still a league above Jon Snow who was more often than not an active participant and collaborator in Arya’s mischief. It was as if only she, mother and Septa Mordane were sane enough to express the appropriate level of frustration with Arya’s refusal to grow up.

But that had changed when Arya had fallen ill.

Her sister had at first presented only with a fever and an upset stomach. But that had progressed toward vomiting, hallucinations and pain everywhere on her body. Sansa hadn’t seen the true extent of Arya’s illness since when she had first presented she had been isolated so as to observe whether her sickness was contagious or not. It wasn’t but by that time there was no way that mother and father were going to let her back into the room she normally shared with Arya.

She’d prayed for her sister’s safety and health every night. She didn’t know medicine but she had her faith. For despite all her issues with Arya Sansa had never wanted something like this to happen to her. And it seemed her prayers had been answered by the least likely source: Jon Snow. He’d done something inside the burning sept that had brought her sister back to full strength. Though it had apparently come at the price of his own strength and potentially his life.

Sansa didn’t know what he had done but she knew it wasn’t fair to ask him to give his life for doing the right thing. The people who helped others and made them well again didn’t deserve pain and suffering in exchange for their service. His unconsciousness state and the uncertainty of his fate spurred Sansa to ask her mother if she could help look after him. Two members of her immediate family falling so ill in such rapid succession had delivered her an epiphany: that if she was to be a good lady of her own household in future she had to practice looking after her family when they weren’t at their best. To tend them at their bedside when the clinical touch of a maester wasn’t enough so that they might know their wife/mother was looking after them with her own two hands. Her mother had agreed to let her help with some basic care of Jon Snow.

So of course it had gone disastrously wrong.

She didn’t know how or why, but in the course of washing her half-brother his eyes had been gouged out completely. She’d screamed when it happened but had been unable to tear her gaze away. The bleeding empty sockets that seemed to stare into the depths of her soul, the soft moaning like a wounded animal that had issued from Jon Snow’s lips. It had been too much. Her mother had quickly interceded and sent her to fetch Maester Luwin. It was only once she had brought him to the bedside that her mother gently took her away and helped her wash some of her bastard sibling’s blood that had partially stained her still trembling hands.

From there her sleep had been haunted by nightmares. Of creatures reaching from the shadows to gouge her own eyes out. Sometimes she thought she could feel phantom fingers scrambling across her face as though to find purchase on her before painfully stealing her sight from her. For Arya’s sake, she’d tried to keep her night terrors and what had occurred in Jon’s sickroom secret. To say her sister had been partial to Jon Snow before the fire in the sept was an understatement. Only the seven knew what she might do if she learned of his deteriorating condition.

But she had never expected Jon Snow to reappear outside the sickroom, especially not with eyes intact and body hale as ever. Sansa had been too shocked to say anything to him. She knew what she had seen. There was no possible mistaking of such a thing. And yet there he was. Stark grey eyes alert and serious as he looked at them all to announce that he would be leaving Winterfell in order to make his way across the Narrow Sea for an unknown amount of time. Sansa had been discomfited by the notion. And not simply because Arya and the others would miss him, much to her own surprise. But because she herself was uncomfortable with the idea of him being gone so soon after such a traumatic experience and potentially never returning.

It seemed she didn’t know what to think of her bastard sibling anymore.

After he’d departed through the gate without looking back once, she’d done some soul searching in the silence of her room shared with Arya: when she could be sure to be alone with her thoughts as the moonlight occasionally filtered through overcast clouds and the occasional sigh of the wind outside seemed to sympathize with her conflicted notions.

Jon Snow was a bastard first and foremost. It was in his name: an indelible part of his identity. He would never be accepted in the eyes of gods or men. But for the first time in quite a while Sansa had to wonder to herself if that was fair. It seemed all her family had been affected by his departure whether she had expected them to be or not. Robb and Arya she had thought as much. But Bran and Rickon had not been expected considering they were even younger than Arya. Her mother’s occasional glances at Jon Snow’s place at the table in Winterfell’s hall when they dined was even less expected. Sansa also found herself missing Jon on occasion. She’d barely interacted with him it was true. But he’d never gone out of his way to torment her as Arya had. He’d even tried playing peacemaker between the two on occasion. (Even though he had done it with a visible bias toward Arya’s side the few times it had happened.)

It seemed that most all of her family, herself included however tangentially, enjoyed his company to one extent or another. And in any other circumstance (for example his being another family’s trueborn) they might have sought to keep him around Winterfell because he was reliable and honest. Qualities that would be looked for in a potential loyal bannerman. But because he was their father’s bastard, he was deemed unwelcome in the world of gods and men. After some more days and months passed she was forced to revise the second half of that statement. The Old Gods may not have looked favorably on bastards any more than the Seven did, but none of the servants around Winterfell that Sansa had heard speak at all about Jon Snow had anything particularly disparaging to say about him. Other than the fact that he was a bastard of course.

And when she thought further about it, just as many of the stories she so enjoyed involved noble bastards finding a place of honor as reward for loyalty toward their liege lords or trueborn superiors as there were stories of black-hearted rogues who decided to show the world the truth of their bastard surname. It all depended upon the nature of the bastard himself. And Sansa had to admit mentally that Jon might be one of the better bastards it was possible for the Stark family to have.

The fact that none of this had occurred to her before he left was something of a sore point for her: it made her feel as though she hadn’t tried hard enough to be compassionate or understanding as the mother and the maiden asked. Well the smith always said that the best place to begin plying a trade was from the home. So perhaps that was her answer.

Sansa began by trying to be nicer to the person who was perhaps closest to Jon. The source of her greatest aggravation in Winterfell that was Arya. It was in small ways at first. Letting her take the deserts first. Allowing her some precious more time of extra sleep in the morning before she tried to wake her so that mother would see that she was up. Then she tried to do slightly more. Chiding Jayne Poole if she was teasing her in excess. Asking Septa Mordane questions about the subjects she taught so that Arya wouldn’t have to do it herself. And when Arya had fallen into a depression following a particularly vivid nightmare involving Jon dying, she’d tried to give her sisterly advice on what had worked to calm her own mind after her night terrors. Arya had seemed to come back to herself after a while. Though how was Sansa to know that it would be so close to Jon Snow returning to Winterfell?

It had seemed a day like any other. Though in retrospect Sansa should’ve guessed that something was happening when Arya had rushed out of the sewing lesson with the Septa at the first sign of a slight commotion at Winterfell’s gate. Sansa had tried to stop her, but her little sister had only grown swifter since her healing in the wake of the Sept’s burning. It had never occurred to Sansa that it might be to greet their bastard sibling for returning to Winterfell. When she saw him again, she at first had thought him a wildling that had been captured by one of the patrols of her father’s men.

His hair was scraggly and unkempt. What parts of his skin were visible were dirt encrusted while his clothes looked liable to fall off at any moment. He was unshaven and unwashed. In short, everything about his appearance suggested that he was one who had lived in the wilds and off the land as close as it was possible for one to do without becoming a complete animal. In addition to which was a change in demeanor that Sansa could only describe as wary. Like a wild cat that wasn’t ready to be coaxed into accepting a scrap of food from a well-meaning hand.

And yet his manner suggested that he had not reverted to savagery whilst away. He was taciturn but polite as ever when he had greeted her. He had even addressed her properly: as Lady Sansa. She supposed it was only natural considering he had only referred to her as sister when she was very young and called her Sansa at both her own and her mother’s insistence when she started growing. Though she couldn’t deny it did cause a slight pang to see him maintain a proper distance from her that he did not seem to worry about with Arya, Robb, Bran or Rickon.

Over the next few days, she couldn’t help but notice that his return had wrought some strange changes in the dynamics and day to day business of the Stark family. For one thing, Arya’s lessons with Septa Mordane were often shorter than usual. When Sansa had asked about it, her mother and Arya would only say that she was taking lessons from Maester Luwin. Very unorthodox in itself, but perhaps she was studying medicine so that she might become a Silent Sister instead of try to tame herself in order to marry a proper husband. For another, the living symbol of their family had come back to Winterfell with Jon. And apparently she had come bearing pups.

Sansa had in truth only ever met the pups. She first became aware of them when Jon had come out of the wolfwood back to Winterfell with Arya. Instead of returning alone, both of them were leading a small pack of six wolf pups out on enthusiastic if somewhat stubby legs. Sansa couldn’t believe her eyes when she’d come to the great hall for dinner to find that the wolves were pouncing on each other and weaving in and out of the legs of the family as though this were all a great game to them.

“What are these? Where did they come from?” She asked Robb, who was closest to her and engaged in an impromptu tug of war over a leather riding glove with a wolf pup whose mouth was clamped firmly to the fingers it could fit in its mouth and was seemingly pulling with all its might, head shaking back and forth as it tried to dislodge Robb’s steady grip on the glove.

Robb looked up at her with shining eyes, expression overjoyed in a way she couldn’t recall seeing since the first time their lord father had given him permission to learn riding.

“Direwolves.” He said. “Real direwolves Sansa.”

Sansa was temporarily shocked into speechlessness when he continued.

“Apparently, Jon met their mother on his way back to Winterfell and got her to trust him. She’s out in the wolfwood now. It’s why he’s been out there so often: checking on her and looking after her.” Robb informed her.

“Why are the pups here now then?” She asked, crouching as well as she could in her dress to look the smaller grey wolf still tugging at Robb’s glove.

“Apparently the pups wanted to see where Jon went. They can walk on their own and decided to come with him.” Robb said.

As they both crouched on the ground, Sansa felt something brush against her leg through her skirts. She looked over to her right to see a grey and black furred pup gently pushing its body against her dress. When it sensed her looking, it sat on its haunches and gazed at her with hopeful yellow eyes.

“Hello there.” She softly greeted the pup, her hand gently petting her atop the head. The pup leaned a bit more into Sansa’s hand but didn’t come closer quite yet. Sansa couldn’t help but feel her heart melt a little inside at the affection the little wolf was showing her even though she was a strange human it had never seen before. Sansa also couldn’t help but note that it was also the most well-behaved of the others. The rest of the litter save this one by her side and the one playing with Robb had all congregated around Jon, Arya, Bran and Rickon near the table.

That was when she had met the direwolf litter of six. Her lord father had thought it strange that the amount of pups matched the number of his children at Winterfell though Jon and Maester Luwin had remarked that it was surely a sign. She and all the others had begged him for permission to take in the direwolves. Jon and her father had exchanged a brief glance it seemed before her father had told them that they would be their responsibility. That if anything were to happen to them, they would be the ones to care for them. And if they were to die, they were to bury them themselves.

The grey and black pup elected to follow her. Jon had told her that she was one of only two girls in the litter. His lips had quirked in a small smile when his eyes briefly leapt back and forth between Sansa and the pup: seeing how close they were standing already.

“She is yours to name Lady Sansa.” He said as the albino that seemed to have taken to her bastard brother wandered away from him back to the rest of its pack.

“I thank you for your generosity Jon.” She said. A look of surprise seemed to cross Jon’s face before it was quickly replaced by a closed mouth but genuine smile. Sansa didn’t want to ponder the fact that it had apparently surprised him that she thanked him and so looked down at the young direwolf by her side.

She was so well behaved already. Whilst the others were chewing on things but mostly attempting to goad the Stark children into playing with them, the one by her side was prim and proper as a well-trained hunting dog. She crouched by her as she contemplated this.

“I think I shall name you Lady.” She said to the wolf, whose yellow eyes looked at her inquisitively.

“Would you like that?” She asked gently, smiling even as she knew the wolf likely couldn’t understand what she was saying. In response to her query the newly christened Lady bumped Sansa’s hand with her head as if approving of her choice and politely asking if she would pet her in order to seal the deal so to speak.

Needless to say, Sansa loved Lady to bits from then on.

Though she had never gotten along with Jon previous to his leaving, she thought that his increased skill and more mature attitude toward his own bastardhood was a good position to try and nudge him into becoming a loyal bannerman for the Stark family. But then word began to filter back of even odder behavior. (Aside from Jon spending far too much time alone or exclusively in the company of her sister that is.) Of Jon cavorting with whores. Of Jon no longer keeping to the Old Gods that the Stark family had kept to for generations or even the New Gods that watched over most of Westeros: but a strange and foreign fire god. Sansa wished that Jon wouldn’t be trying to make her efforts at helping him so difficult. If he had simply remained as he had been before leaving, this would be so much simpler. Sure it might take some cajoling for any trueborn daughter of a noble family to look beyond his surname, but it would be a good way for Jon to be shown that his loyalty and devotion to the Starks was to be commended right?

But it wasn’t the time to dwell on change, only to nip it in the bud before it became something that couldn’t be glossed over. So she spoke with Robb. She asked him to speak with Jon about his strange new behavior, to see if he could perhaps talk Jon into acting with his future in mind. She could only pray that Jon would see reason in this matter. Otherwise, how else would he ever be able to escape the shadow of his own Snow name?

Chapter Text

The frozen wind of the land that lay beyond the wall of ice was as cold as ever. That was to say it howled and bit into the flesh worse than an enraged direwolf. Thankfully however, Naic had never minded extreme weather conditions when he had been alive.

He minded even less now that he could most accurately be called a spirit inhabiting a shell of dead flesh. Whenever he was feeling unusually philosophical he wondered if he could qualify himself as living since aside from the beating heart and functioning lungs that description could apply to most anyone who still resided in the closed world instead of the open. It was just a matter of whether the spirit was strong enough to animate the flesh even in the face of a supposed natural death. He’d had plenty of time to ponder such things after all ever since Valyria had fallen and his own unchecked power had overrun the now dissipated spirit that had once been known simply as Winter in this forsaken place.

A shadow inadvertently crossed the dead shell’s eyes while one of its rotting teeth fell out of its jaw as his power churned in response to his agitation rising to meet that train of thought. He missed having command of his full power ever since his petulant grandson had thrown that temper tantrum so long ago. Drega may have had her irritation blunted or her pity raised by the voices of the Fiery Heart, but he had only himself and his propensity toward grudges to contend with. Which meant he still itched to place his borrowed fingers around that little shit’s now non-existent throat and squeeze until his eyes popped. For while how much of herself his daughter may have lost in the collective inferno that called itself R’hllor was a matter of contention, he was and would always be himself alone. Always remember who he had been even when he had become accustomed to being the Other. He supposed that was the greatest difference between the two roles no matter who inherited the mantle.

R’hllor had always been a being built and indeed reliant upon collective strength with vague impressions the only thing left after the spirit’s power burned away most of what they were in life. The other voices may have been somewhat sentient and aware yes, but they appeared to possess no more power than the inner voice of one’s conscience: easily silenced when one had sufficiently stubborn willpower. Whereas the Other was a being whose accumulated memories and powers were centered upon one individual: each inheritor was the Other. A single person who was expected to bear the weight of centuries that came from being intimately aware of every dark experience and every scrap of forbidden knowledge as though it had been their own with nothing but hindsight and regret for memories and mistakes they had not made before they became this. It took a very specific kind of person to retain who they were instead of choosing to numb themselves to humanity as the Other he found. Whether that was a good or bad thing was entirely up for debate even if it came from a place of good: of genuinely wishing to ease the burden of someone they loved when they became R’hllor.

But that too took its toll. R’hllor’s light could cast away the cobwebs and film that lay over the mortal eyes to illuminate the pathways. But inevitably, where there were depths even R’hllor’s light could not penetrate, it fell to they who called themselves Other to be aware always of what lay within those blackest of pits. The wells of absolute despair and depravity that was as much a part of humanity’s savage nature as breathing.

It was all well and good for R’hllor to dream of men becoming more and seeing themselves clearly. The Other had to contend with what all humans were in the dark when they believed none to be watching: whether they were aware of what monsters they were or not.

In some ways it was something of a relief to have not had to deal so much with that aspect of his divine nature.

But it wasn’t much better now that he was back to what amounted to mystical patrol duty in order to buy his daughter time to make another grandchild aware of their responsibility to stop their brother. When he’d been alive, he’d never understood why the girl’s mother seemed so forward with his Little Fang and yet could have so many of her own followers not understand what she wanted. Even now that his daughter had taken up her mother’s mantle, he sometimes he wished his daughter would be more straightforward with her followers across the sea. But then he would always forcibly remember that her very nature prevented her from directly making people do what she felt they needed to. For R’hllor was a spirit of fire and illumination. They could shine their light upon all possible paths it was true. But that wouldn’t matter any if the follower they spoke to had already fixed their gaze upon one path in particular to follow. Especially not when the path she wanted them to take required sacrifice in order to help their deity in a way that might not necessarily help themselves. For a fire always required something to fuel it, something to be sacrificed so that it could continue to burn.

A dark view of looking at people who worshiped his Little Fang perhaps. But proven accurate by the years and lifetimes they had both spent looking after humanity as well the accumulated memories that stretched back to the first time the inferno and the shadow it cast became aware of themselves.

A lonely caw echoed through the angry air as one of his dark strings tingled in a familiar manner. He traced the tendril of his power back to one of the recently deceased birds he had following him. As he saw through its unseeing eyes, he witnessed a scouting party of the former Winter’s creations come upon a small camp of free folk. The free folk’s ragged furs and rusting weapons had barely protected them from the animals that had once inhabited the wild when they abandoned the army that followed their self-proclaimed king: Mance Rayder. They stood no chance against the merciless Icelings.

He watched with his dispassionate bird’s eye view as the humans were systematically herded back to the camp whenever they tried to escape into the woods. Those who tried to fight were made into Shamblers without exception until the free folk were primarily fighting their own dead rather than the scouts. Not that the shamblers the scouts had made were exceptionally adaptable or skilled. But they didn’t truly need to be when seeing the bloody and eerily blue gaze of a former loved one look at you with no more recognition than a dragon might give its next meal. Though that was a bit unfair to Drega’s scaled relatives. They could in fact recognize and care for others. As well as play with their food before they devoured it. The shamblers were no more aware or capable of humanity than his own rotting menagerie.

Soon enough the screaming stopped. There was no true silence after. The snow crunched beneath the scouts as wisps of cold swirled off their white bodies in the midst of the carnage. There was minor crackling of ice both upon the trees and within the rapidly cooling blood on the ground. The wind still howled and the trees still sighed. Though it was quieter now, as though the dissipated spirit of Winter recognized the solemnity of the moment. While maintaining his crow’s gaze upon the scouts, Naic moved toward them, sure that he would be able to catch them and be able to eliminate more of these moving servants of his own feral power. If his rotting shell’s face wasn’t more skeleton than flesh at this point, it would’ve been grinning in anticipation. It had been so long since he’d had a good fight from the days when he marched in the Valyrian Army and helped to raze Ghis to the ground.

‘Those pyramids were an eyesore anyway.’ He thought dismissively to himself as he came closer, dismounting the dead elk that served as his mount. As he began moving into the trees the Icelings snapped their eyes in his direction. He stopped moving while having the crow caw to try and get their full attention off of him. One looked to the crow while the other kept its sight trained in his general direction. Naic was good at moving through the shadows, but he wasn’t functioning with his full power quite yet. That meant he’d have to take this slow and throw the simpletons off somehow. Fortunately, he had time as the three of them appeared to be the only ones here aside from the shamblers who were quickly coming to a halt when the scouts began withdrawing his borrowed power from their bodies in order to be better prepared for his inevitable attack.

Their game of cat and mouse barely moved forward and back, his puppets doing their level best at distracting them whilst the Icelings concentrated on ignoring their attempts to get them off track. These scouts were unusually focused he noticed. Probably a good thing he got them out of the way now before they could potentially gain enough awareness to call themselves warrior. They still wouldn’t be as much of a threat to him as a channeler but they’d be a serious pain in his rotting arse anyway. They always were after all.

Closer and closer they crept to each other over the course of what might’ve been two days or more, always watching to see if they were going to encounter each other. But an unexpected wrinkle occurred in the form of men in black cloaks.

The scouts retreated into the woods, allowing themselves to become one with the ice and snow adorning the trees nearby. Naic knew he had to take this chance to get closer. Swiftly he moved from shadow to shadow, his dead crow still acting as his eyes as the black clad men inspected the scene of the Iceling attack.

He sensed the scouts use their powers to reanimate the shamblers again, likely because they had decided they couldn’t take a chance even against such a small group of possessing blackfire weapons and so preventing them from returning to their new master. Naic knew that he would have to intervene at some point, if only so that the black clad men could be warned by someone who could actually travel through the gates of the wall. What they did with that warning was not his concern as he still had to remain here and wait for his Little Fang to tell their descendant that he was expecting their help.

There went one, a bite to the neck from one of the shamblers. The other two had very different reactions. One bolted into the forest trees, trying to make for the safety of the path they had come but instead getting turned around while the other attacked the shambler. One of the scouts came for him. The living man’s blade, whether it was iron or steel, shattered against the scout’s ice weapon. The scout drove it into his chest, borrowed magic working its way through him as swiftly as a turncloak fleeing from battle.

Naic had a choice to make. Save the sole living one and risk a fight with both scouts, or pick off one now while it was distracted and somewhat exerted from all this. A large part of him would’ve liked to attack the one in the clearing now while dealing with cleaning up the other later. But he also knew that taking out the fresh one so that there wouldn’t be a lone shamble left somewhere nearby here was also something he would have to contend with. Powerful former god he may have been, he had always hated leaving any loose ends. They often found a way of riding the wind in order to wrap themselves around one’s neck later if they weren’t severed before they became a problem. He went after the running man while keeping the crow in the clearing to alert him when the other inevitably moved towards him. It wasn’t hard to find the frightened man. His trail was practically alive with the scent of his fear and desperation even as he left signs obvious enough for a blind man to follow. He caught up with him at the same time the scout did. The scout, focused as it was on the escaping man in black didn’t notice Naic there. A grin that could only speak to a hunger for blood came to the mouth of Naic’s shell. It was too perfect.

Naic stuck his hand in the snow drift nearby before making his hand into the claw shape required by the martial style he’d learned from Little Fang’s mother. As he abruptly flung his hand forward and up, a gale of icy wind blasted through the clearing, powerful enough to blind even the Iceling scout. In an instant he had slipped into the shadow behind the scout and brought his clawed hand forward: punching through the center of its chest as though it were a crumbling tent flap.

The Iceling shattered without ever being aware of Naic’s presence.

He concentrated as the remnants of his own magic and the magic of Winter attempted to dissipate on the air. With an audible inhale, he brought it to settle on his still outstretched right arm. As the magic further concentrated into the palm of his hand and the tips of his fingers he drove the dead shell’s hand into its chest so that the physical act would symbolically restore the magic to his somewhat tired reserves.

Instantly he was refreshed and itching to bring the fight back to the clearing. But he still had to let the runner know that he needed to tell others.

The man in black finally opened his terrified brown eyes to behold the Iceling was gone and to see Naic standing there: a figure cloaked in black and ice. Like the spectre of the death that awaited all his kind.

“Warn…them.” The dead shell rasped, disintegrated vocal chords unable to carry the sound and forcing Naic to project what he wanted to say on the wind itself.

“Winter…is…coming.” He said before pivoting his right foot to kick up the wind and blind the man again. He vanished into the shadows of the trees as he made his way back to the clearing.

Now there was only the shamblers and the remaining scout to deal with. Joy.

As he came forth to find them waiting for him, Naic couldn’t help but feel like a child receiving a long awaited present from a distant acquaintance.

‘Let us see what gift of death you have to give.’ He thought gleefully to himself as a dagger of ice formed in the palm of his shell’s right hand. He snapped the corpse’s bony jaws together, clicking them audibly like the snapping of a wolf’s mouth at enemies.

The tree huggers may never have been able to compete even with the student of his Little Fang’s mother, but they certainly know how to embrace the wildness of nature. He charged toward the shamblers at the same time the Iceling raised its blade to direct them to their target.

The howling of the wind grew fiercer.

Chapter Text

Robb Stark liked to think he was a discerning young man.

That sense of judgement and ability to see the whole of a situation was a valuable trait that every highborn heir should strive to possess, especially when said highborn heir was to assume the mantle of Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North upon his father’s passing.

His father Eddard had taught him that judgement was a thing derived from the closely entwined concepts of honor and justice that every man should strive to live by. Robb knew of and admired his father’s will to follow where his judgement took him no matter the circumstances. He could see it every day in his life at Winterfell after all. For was that sense of honor not why his father had brought Jon Snow home to be raised alongside Robb even as it greatly upset his lady mother? Was not that equally strong sense of justice why his father had volunteered himself to take Theon Greyjoy in as a ward instead of allowing him to potentially die for his rebellious sire’s attempted treason against King Robert?

And so even outside his lessons Robb endeavored to follow his father’s example. He’d scolded his mother more than once for taking out her frustration for his half-brother Jon’s existence out on said half-brother in disproportionate response to some perceived wrong he’d committed. And while he didn’t approve of Arya’s determination to fight and wield weapons like them, he’d also never tried to stop her from pursuing her interests as their sister Sansa had.

Seven hells, he’d even become good friends with Theon Greyjoy despite some personal reservations toward his…well, call it somewhat cavalier attitude toward intimacy and love.

But of late, things had become so much less clear and so much more muddled.

Arya’s sickness had been terrible to behold, with his father and his mother visibly unsure of what to do about his formerly lively little sister. Than Jon managing to burn down a sept while also curing her through unexplained means left him further off kilter. Compiled by Jon announcing he had to leave Winterfell and travel across the Narrow Sea for purposes he had refused to elaborate upon.

That night, he and Bran and Rickon had confronted Jon to press true answers from him regarding his purpose in this quest and what had happened the night he’d burned the sept. Theon of course had joined them, eager as always to be at the front of any developments in the family that had taken him in.

Jon had refused for some time to answer Bran and Rickon, only telling them that he could not tell them what they sought to know. When at last the younger boys had left for their own chambers, Robb himself had only marginally better luck; getting Jon to admit that he was looking for answers regarding questions of faith and the practice of magic. Just when he was about to say more Theon had scoffed with a smirk on his lips and asked if perhaps the smoke from the fire hadn’t addled Jon’s brains. Following it by musing that perhaps he’d be better served by seeking the giants and children of the forest the Stark family’s traditional wet nurse Old Nan had spoken of more than once and insisted lived beyond the Great Wall separating the North from the Frozen Wastes.

Robb glared angrily at Theon as Jon visibly and deliberately clammed up in response. He would get nothing further out of him that night. When he heatedly rebuked Theon for sabotaging his efforts to get Jon to open up after his half-brother left the next day, his father’s Greyjoy ward had simply laughed lightheartedly before clapping a friendly hand to Robb’s shoulder.

“Snow has to learn to smile sometime Robb. He keeps up that frowning, he’s like as not to be more wrinkled than old leather.” He drew Robb in close before continuing.

“Besides, if he can’t take the time to enjoy himself when he’s across the sea, how does he expect to find what he’s looking for: whatever that may be?”

While the heir to Winterfell could truly see how Theon might’ve been that simple-minded in his pursuit to get Jon into a position of lightheartedness, he thought it much more likely that the Greyjoy ward simply did so because he couldn’t resist an opportunity to nettle Robb’s half-sibling.

It honestly mystified him why the two didn’t get along since (aside from their respective temperaments) there wasn’t that much they actively disagreed over. Admittedly that might’ve had something to do with the fact that they each avoided one another as though the other were infected with something contagious most of the time but that didn’t mean they shouldn’t try, especially seeing as how Robb considered them two of the people he was closest to aside from his lord father and lady mother.

Robb forgave Theon after several cycles of the moon. He would deny it under threat of death but the main reason he did so was because when he was avoiding Theon and with Jon across the Narrow Sea, he didn’t have anyone he could talk to and feel like he was talking to an equal. A friend. Someone who he wouldn’t have to set an example to or wouldn’t be over-conscious of the fact that they were speaking to Lord Eddard Stark’s heir.

He’d tried making friends with the children of his father’s bannermen before. But he quickly discovered that even when they were trying to appear unguarded, most of them had the idea that he was the future Lord of Winterfell firmly fixed in the back of their mind. Perhaps this was childish of him, but he felt it created an invisible barrier between him and others even roughly his own age that prevented him from truly being friends with them.

Was it truly any surprise then that he threw himself headfirst into the lessons of lordship when people were already starting to treat him as such as soon as he began them anyway?

In any case, he’d allowed Theon back into his good graces and had gotten along quite well in the passing three years since Jon left. Rodrik Cassel had upped his training: even going so far as to dedicate one to one personal time outside their usual sessions. Maester Luwin’s education in histories and matters of the mind continued as always. His father had even begun calling him to his solar so that they might speak about one of the matters that faced his rule of the North and asked Robb for his opinion. Their one to one discussions were rapidly coming to be some of the most cherished of Robb’s interactions with his lord father.

But then Jon returned. That very first day Jon had come back home, he and Bran had happened to be practicing with the bow when there was word that Lord Stark had been seen in the company of a living direwolf and what appeared to be a peaceful wildling.

Robb had been gratified to discover his half-brother was seemingly healthy and hale: his beard and hair short but unkempt. Taking into account the additional dirt from an unknown amount of time gone without bathing and the threadbare clothes he wore, the eldest son of Eddard Stark felt he could see where people might’ve mistaken Jon as a wildling at first glance.

After Jon had taken a proper bath at the joking insistence of himself, Bran and Rickon and managed to put on clothing that didn’t look as though it would fall apart at any moment, Robb had felt sure that things would return to the way they had at Winterfell.

He hadn’t realized at the time how far from likely that was.

For one thing, Jon was now quiet even by the standards he’d set before leaving three years ago. And before he’d left Jon was perfectly capable of going without speaking for one or two days at a time. But at least then he would be capable of smiling or grinning if Robb or Arya managed to catch him off guard enough with a joke or a quip. Now though…

Now when he thought no one was looking Jon would gain a faraway look in his eyes. As though his mind were leagues away somewhere the rest of his family couldn’t follow. Now he was prone to lapsing into quiet when not otherwise prompted by the others. When Robb had tried to talk to him about this after Jon had been in Winterfell for several days and showed no signs of settling back in, he admitted that the things he learned after leaving had changed him. That in the course of seeking his answers, he had seen things that Robb would not believe. And worse yet, he admitted that he had killed.

He refused to tell Robb how many. Robb knew he probably should’ve pushed Jon to open up about this with him but in all honesty: he couldn’t figure out whether he was impressed or wary of that new aspect to Jon’s character.

Robb put it out of his mind by continuing to spend his time in his lessons and with Theon or Bran when his younger brother had the time whilst hoping that Jon’s extended time with Arya would serve as a balm to his troubled mind. The fact that it had brought the direwolf matriarch’s litter into their walls and introduced Robb to his new companion Grey Wolf (as he had christened the young direwolf himself) seemed to indicate to him that perhaps Jon would be back to himself soon.

But then Sansa of all people had come to him with concerns about Jon’s recent behavior and he knew that his hope was likely in vain. Sansa and Jon had never been what one could call close even before he left. So the fact that she had thought it concerning that Jon was apparently spending so much time in the wild or in the brothel at Wintertown was significant in the way his changed demeanor was obvious even to someone who had never been particularly close to him before. Robb promised her that he would speak with Jon and get to the bottom of his behavior. And truly he had intended to do so.

Yet things did not go as smoothly as he had hoped.

It had started simply enough. Robb decided that if he was going to talk to Jon about Sansa’s and his own concerns, he would have to do so in an environment where Jon would not feel he was being cornered. This of course led Robb to conclude he should talk to Jon when next his bastard brother went to the Wolfwood outside Winterfell to spend time with the direwolf matriarch he called Frost.

The forest air was crisp but peaceful as he strode beneath the canopy of trees with Grey Wind by his side. The closer he came to the Godswood, the more he gained the feeling that he was being watched. Robb placed his left hand on the handle of his sheathed blade to reassure himself that if anything was watching, he was plenty capable of defending himself even as he knew it was unlikely anything bigger or more powerful than Grey Wind’s mother was out here.

“Jon?” He called as his voice reverberated in the cold quiet of the afternoon.

He waited a few moments, giving Jon time to answer him.

“Jon?” He called again.

Frowning as he noticed no unusual movements in the wood in front of him, he turned around to find Grey Wind bounding toward his mother with reckless abandon. Robb smiled as he watched his companion greet the matriarch with a loud bark and instant shift into a ready stance, all four legs tensed on the ground as though he expected her to test his reflexes at any moment.

At that moment, something sharp pressed into his back just beneath his ribs on the right side. Robb stiffened, trying to figure out what was going on. He hadn’t heard anything. He hadn’t seen anything. And apparently neither Grey Wind nor Frost had seen anything either.

“You’re lucky that’s not a more unfriendly dagger Robb.” Jon called as he stepped out of the line of the trees, Ghost following sedately by his feet. Robb absently noted that both pups were getting to be roughly the same size as the hunting dogs despite their young age. Grey Wind was also apparently slightly shorter than Ghost.

Robb’s direwolf companion barked a greeting at his littermate, relaxing when it seemed their mother wasn’t about to test his reflexes. Which was likely the reason Arya’s companion Nymeria chose that precise moment to pounce on Grey Wind’s back, bringing him down with a startled yelp.

“Seems they really are just like us.” Came Arya’s mirthful observation from behind Robb.

“Where were you when I called Jon?” Robb asked, relaxing now that he knew he wasn’t going to suffer an abrupt introduction between his back and a blade point.
The knife came away from his back and Arya came around in front of him, her ecstatic grin at odds with the fact that she’d just put the dagger held loosely in her right hand to his back.

“Right in front of you.” She answered promptly as Robb took in the fact that she was wearing a tunic and trousers but no boots. He frowned as both of those facts registered.

“You know mother isn’t going to be happy you’re not wearing proper clothes? Not to mention you’ll lose your feet if you let them know the cold like this.” He reprimanded.

Arya rolled her eyes at his admonishment as she sheathed the dagger with the scabbard in her left hand before she turned to walk toward Jon.

“It’s good training for her.” Jon answered in her stead. As Nymeria and Grey Wind playfully tustled under the watchful eyes of Frost, Ghost decided now was as good a time as ever to lay down, placing his stomach flat on the ground while his front paws rested in front of him. His head was held straight as he too observed his siblings in front of him. In the meantime, the human who had given the direwolf his name turned his attention to Arya.

“You did well to have the dagger already drawn when you were sneaking up on him.” He praised before leaning back against the tree and crossing his arms.

“However, you also disturbed the brush enough that if he hadn’t been paying more attention to Grey Wind he would’ve been alerted to your approach.” He said.

“But that was why I waited for Grey Wind to bark before I came out.” Arya countered, standing before Jon with a straight back and a defiant gleam in her eye.

“I knew I could get to him without making too much noise.” She explained, gesturing toward Robb standing there as though he proved her point.

Jon shook his head as Robb walked toward them, not feeling appreciative that he was apparently an object lesson in…hunting? Assassination? Sneaking? For his younger sister of only thirteen namedays.

“It was too much of a risk. The point was to sneak up on him without making any mistakes.” Jon gently reprimanded. He held up his right hand as Arya’s mouth came open to argue the point with him.

“Don’t misunderstand me Arya, you did very well to take Grey Wind and Robb’s attention into account. But that wasn’t what I asked you to do.” He said.

“If you can account for making mistakes in a fight and minimizing the chance of them affecting the outcome, then you will be well served when things inevitably go wrong. But it’s one thing to adapt with unfavorable circumstances and quite another to invite them an opportunity to flare up.” He finished.

“The only thing taking unnecessary risks proves one possesses is a poor grasp of planning.” He said, pushing his back off the tree as Robb came besides them as Grey Wind writhed on his back while Nymeria continued to trying and get a good grip on his neck, their jaws open as their heads feinted in one direction then the other as they tested each other’s defenses.

“Jon, I need to talk to you.” Robb interjected before Arya could argue against Jon’s judgement of how she’d done at hypothetically assassinating him.

Both Jon and Arya looked at him for a moment before Arya took a step to his right as if to clear a path between the two of them without moving far enough away that she wouldn’t hear what he had to say. Robb looked at her pointedly as though trying to convey his need to speak to their bastard brother alone. Arya looked back at him with a seemingly guileless expression.

“What did you need to speak with me about Robb?” Jon asked politely, coming to stand in front of him.

Robb glanced at Jon before deciding to hell with subtlety.

“Arya, I need you to give us some privacy.” He said with all the bluntness of Rickon declaring he wouldn’t eat anything the color of Shaggydog’s leavings. (Their lady mother had been mortified when that pronouncement had left his youngest brother’s mouth not a few days ago.)

“She’s staying Robb.” Jon contradicted.

“I need to talk to you about matters best not heard by her ears.” Robb argued, turning toward Jon again.

“Is it about sleeping in the woods?” Arya asked.

“If I had to guess, I’d venture it’s likely more about the brothel than the woods.” Jon answered her. Robb’s brows furrowed and his mouth downturned in a distinct frown.
“Jon!” He reprimanded sharply.

“What? After having to live with Theon Greyjoy all her life, do you really think it’s possible for her to not know what whores are?” Jon asked with perfect seriousness.

“If it’s about the whores, why is he talking to you about it?” Arya asked as she stepped toward them again, seemingly at ease with the topic of conversation in a way that made Robb seriously question what these two talked of when out of earshot with others.

“This isn’t proper conversation for the young, especially a young lady!” Robb said heatedly, glaring briefly at Jon in promise that he would be receiving more of a verbal lashing once Arya was away.

Arya barked out a laugh as Grey Wind and Nymeria bounded into the woods, Ghost trailing close after them and Frost bringing up the rear: the inter-family dynamics of the humans her pups regularly followed apparently not that interesting to her.

“Haven’t you listened to anything mother’s been saying for years? I’ve never been a proper young lady.” Arya answered with a slight grimace coming to her expression when she spoke the words ‘proper young lady.’

“Never the less-” Robb started, unwilling to let her stay around.

“What is it about my frequenting the Wintertown brothel you wanted to talk about Robb?” Jon interrupted, his grey eyes fixed on Robb’s sky blue.

Robb ran his right hand through his light brown hair and blew out an exasperated breath. He glared to his right at Arya again before deciding to go for broke.

“Sansa came to me with concerns about your behavior Jon. She thinks it unbecoming that you’ve started frequenting the brothel and preaching the strange fire religion you found across the Narrow Sea.” Robb said. Jon didn’t look inclined to speak up in his own defense quite yet. So Robb decided to try and convince him.

“I’m not going to tell you not to follow this faith that speaks to you.” He said pre-emptively.

“But,” He continued. “I do think she’s right when she says it’s not appropriate for you to frequent the brothel.”

“Why?” Jon asked. “It seems as though every other day Theon is eager to regale anything that'll stand still long enough about what he gets up to there.”

“Theon’s not my family.” Robb answered. “He wants to go around spending all his coin on whores and wiling away his time between some girl’s thighs, that’s his business. But you’re our father’s son. If you start frequenting brothels and whores, it reflects poorly on us.”

Jon’s eyes grew slightly colder as Robb explained this.

“I don’t frequent the brothel simply to sleep with women Robb.” Jon said.

“I suppose you’re going to claim that you’re doing so in service to your faith?” Robb asked sarcastically.

Jon’s right hand briefly clenched into a fist before relaxing again.

“And if I am, what business is it of yours or Sansa’s?” He said. “I am a Snow. Lord Stark has never spoken of legitimizing me and likely never will. What does it matter what I do when my very existence is already a stain on the Stark name?”

“Oh for the love of- It’s not like that Jon!” Robb shouted in exasperation. “You’re still my brother! You could still hold a keep and land of your own! But what highborn would look beyond the discovery that you’ve been to whores and spread your seed carelessly?!”

There was a brief silence as Robb gathered his thoughts.

“I care for your future Jon. And whether you believe it or not, Sansa does too.” Robb said softly.

“You just said to Arya that unnecessary risk is a sign of poor planning.” He said. “And it seems to me that you can’t possibly have a plan that requires you to risk tarring yourself with the brush of a whoremonger.”

There was silence again before Jon spoke, his tone respectful but worryingly distant.

“I’ll take your words into consideration Robb.” He conceded. “In the meantime, Arya and I must get some unarmed combat practice in before returning to Winterfell. If you could leave us to it I’d be highly appreciative.”

Jon was saying the words that meant Robb had won the argument. But why then did his tone seem to say the opposite? But without any idea of where things stood outside of Jon’s oddly formal concession, Robb was faced with no other choice but to return to Winterfell and remind them that they couldn’t be out too long before they would be expected back at Winterfell.

As he returned to the Stark ancestral keep, he mulled over the things he and Jon had said to each other in the Wolfwood. He stood by his feelings: Jon was not Theon nor was he family. He didn’t need to spend his time or his money on whores when he could be learning more of leadership and battle so that he might earn a keep of his own one day under their direwolf banner.

As he came closer to the main hall, he saw servants moving with some greater speed than he had seen them do in recent memory. The last time they had moved like that, Lord Karstark and some of his family had come to Winterfell to discuss matters of import with his lord father.

Fortunately, he saw Maester Luwin moving through the hall ahead of him.

“Hold a moment Maester Luwin!” He called.

The grey hairs on the back of Maester Luwin’s head were abruptly facing away from him as the balding man turned to face him.

“Who is coming to Winterfell that the servants must prepare for?” He asked.

“The King is north coming to see Lord Stark and intends to bring his family with him.” He answered promptly, surprising Robb immensely. So far as he had known, the king had never left the capital after his own father had taken up his inherited mantle as Warden of the North following the civil war, let alone taken his queen and children with him.

“Winterfell is preparing to receive him and his family. The stores must be accounted for and the keep examined for possible renovation and restoration.” Maester Luwin began to move away again.

“Your father is waiting in his solar to speak with you about it.” He said before turning a corner and leaving Robb standing still in the hallway.

It took Robb a few moments for his mind to catch up to all he had just learned and all that Maester Luwin had just said. When it did, he gave his head a little shake and strode quickly toward his father’s solar. With the royal family coming to Winterfell for the first time, he would need to offer his father every inch of help he could provide.

Chapter Text

The wolfwood was often a place of quiet serenity even outside of the Godswood clearing frequented by Winterfell’s ruling lord. The balance of nature within it was beautifully untamed, the lush evergreen colors a sharp contrast to the snow and frost that usually decorated the limbs and undergrowth when the summers ended. It had proven so lulling that come sun or snow, it often tricked those who hadn’t traversed its undergrowth before into acquiring a false sense of security.

But with the King Robert Baratheon and his royal family arriving upon the morrow, it was now the only place in all Winterfell or Wintertown that was not abuzz with preparation. Or the appearance of it in any case. Thus it proved the perfect place for Arya to receive some last bits of instruction from her cousin Jon Snow before she was expected to confine herself, both physically and metaphorically, to the role of a ‘proper lady’ once more.

It still gave Arya pause to refer to Jon by a title other than brother. For so long he had been her brother: the one closest to her in heart and in mind even if he generally kept it behind a reserved expression she tended to call his ‘Stark face.’ She knew better than to call it that in front of her lady mother of course, since she’d gotten upset the only time Arya had explained that Jon’s neutral expression made him look like a smaller version of their lord father.

Her mother had always seemed to have such a sore spot where Jon was concerned.

Which of course had come to a rather abrupt head the night Jon had returned and she had managed to first call snow to her hand.

Arya had been amazed when the scant water in the air of her father’s study responded as though it had been waiting for her: a loyal hound simply needing to hear its master’s call to come as needed. She couldn’t take her eyes away as the snow started to solidify and crackle: signifying that it was freezing further into a small pile of ice on her hand. Even as it did so, she felt no cold. No change in the temperature of her hand. Just liquid becoming slush becoming feathery soft crystal becoming hardened solid.

Her mother had been rather horrified that this power Jon had awoken inside her was only going to get stronger with time. Whereas father had seemed more resigned than anything else and Maester Luwin…well, for all his lacking hair and stooped posture made him seem a man over a hundred years old sometimes, in that instant he seemed more like Sansa when she thought she was going to get the first lemon cakes fresh from the oven: giddy yet restrained with a supreme amount of self-controlled effort.

His enthusiasm hadn’t dimmed even as Jon admitted later when he was observing during one of their sessions that Maester Luwin would likely never be able to replicate the things they could do with the mystic arts. He had only responded that regardless of ability, this was a once in a lifetime opportunity to study magic firsthand. He was thus perfectly happy to learn alongside her as Jon began to try and teach her to harness her own power using the lessons he had been given across the Narrow Sea.

Though thanks to Jon meeting her in their shared dreams as well as during the waking hours, Arya was practically never without instruction or insight into the mystical world. Even as Maester Luwin expressed surprise at her seeming rapid progress in Jon’s instruction she knew it was only thanks to Jon being so dedicated to her training that he was literally continuing to do so while they slept in addition to any time in the daylight they could get away with.

Hence why she was now by the side of the running brook within the trees with a black blindfold covering her eyes and her fingertips practically tingling as the orange-yellow heat of Jon’s body made its way silently through the trees toward her.

She knew he too would have a blindfold across his eyes. It wasn’t so much the sense of fair play ingrained by their lord father that had him doing this when he taught her anything mystical or physical. It was more so his belief that if she was to experience a handicap in order to learn a lesson then he too would experience the handicap alongside her; mostly so that she had no room for complaint if he managed to outwit or outfight her.

The wet ground and the chilled undergrowth brushed her bare ankles as her feet briefly gripped the ground before relaxing again, her breathing barely audible in the quiet but loud as Nymeria’s growling to her own ears.

Through the heat of their bodies, she could see that Ghost, Nymeria and Frost were further away: apparently hunting for food. Well, Nymeria and Ghost were probably hunting while Frost was more likely there just to keep an eye on them and make sure nothing happened. Despite the fact that the direwolves were getting to be almost as big as her now, Arya knew that they were still pups and so still had to be educated by their mother in what it was to survive the world as a direwolf.

Her musing was interrupted by Jon picking up speed as he came closer and closer to her through the trees, his form barely missing the trunks while his feet danced through the undergrowth with only some rustling to give him away. Arya was ready, drawing the cold to her fingertips as she contemplated for a moment whether the variation of her powers she’d been working on would surprise Jon.

She saw his right hand flash forward toward her head, claw shape firmly established. Arya’s own left hand rose to meet his wrist, claw shape allowing her to grasp in a flash. Jon flexed his hand so that his claw gripped the top of her own wrist, his body dipping low as if to tackle her. Arya didn’t know what he intended to do, but she knew she shouldn’t let him do it.

Keeping the grip she had on his right wrist, she brought her own right claw forward. His left hand was in a fist shape as he brought it in front of his body, allowing her to grasp the wrist of his hand instead of his tunic. He pushed his right arm forward to restrict the use of her left arm while simultaneously pulling his right hand back like a cracking whip.

Arya dug her fingers into his arm, feeling a bit of wetness that told her it had drawn blood. Jon would likely be pleased considering how much time he had spent having her strike the tree trucks with the claw shape until her finger tips bled in order to toughen them up.

All she’d thought when she’d first been learning what she and Jon agreed to call the ‘Wolf’s Fang Technique’ was that it was a good thing her affinity with ice allowed her to heal the torn fingernails and bloody fingers. Otherwise Septa Mordane would’ve demanded a stop to it at once regardless of what father or Maester Luwin told her.

Her left knee came up to strike at his ribs before he pulled back abruptly, yanking both his arms toward himself. Off her left knee and her hands occupied, Arya was caught off guard when Jon’s right knee folded her in half over it before he pulled her arms down and back, flipping her onto her back on the soft ground.

The quick succession of attacks before being abruptly brought onto her back drove the breath from Arya’s lungs and loosened her grip off Jon so that he could pull his arms free. Arya brought her right hand to his bare ankle, thinking to perhaps use it as leverage to bring her left hand into his knee. But before she could pull herself up, Jon’s right foot impacted her side, flipping her through the air several times before she landed across from him on the other side of the brook.

Panting heavily, Arya knew now wasn’t the time to hold back. If she wanted a hope of winning she’d have to surprise Jon sooner rather than later. As Jon ran to the edge of the brook, Arya quickly brought her right hand into the water, concentrating with all her might as the water flowed through finger tips before she expelled the magic into it, feeling as it flowed. Time seemed to slow down as her magic flowed in that practiced path she’d managed to figure out in the little time she’d had alone from everyone and Jon was in the Wolfwood to do gods only knows what with Frost and Ghost.

As Jon’s feet left the ground and he jumped toward Arya, she felt the finished edge of the blade in her hand. At this distance, she couldn’t miss. She rolled onto her back, throwing the crude blade of ice she’d formed at Jon as she did so.

Jon cried out in surprise and some pain as she got to her back before tucking her knees into her chest and rolling herself backward to rest on her hands and knees. Just in time to see Jon land clumsily on the ground, not so much rolling as tumbling forward. Arya was on her feet as he came to a stop, right hand clutching the back of the blade of pure ice that had sunk into his chest just beneath his right shoulder.

She made a flying tackle at Jon’s midsection now that he was on his knees and therefore lower to the ground than before. But Arya had underestimated his attention to their fight. As her outstretched claws came closer to him, he collapsed toward his right side, left hand flashing out to grab her by her flowing hair. Even as her arms passed him by, he slammed her face down into the dirt before a wet squelching noise was heard and the bloodstained blade of ice that had been in his shoulder ripped a hole in the fabric of her blindfold across her nose.

She knew what that meant: if he’d wanted to, he could’ve ended it by jamming the impromptu dagger into her skull via her ear, her eye or even her jaw. That meant he’d struck the killing blow and therefore won their bout.

Panting heavily as he got off her, Jon moved away as his hand went up to his face, presumably to remove the sight obstruction. Arya too slowly got up, the ache in her muscles rushing to tell her how much she had been exerting herself even in this short bout of theirs. As she brought her blindfold off, she saw Jon looking at the blade of ice in his head with a great deal of fascination.

“Arya,” He said softly, turning his grey eyes to hers. “When did you learn to do this?”

“I only worked it out in the last few days.” She admitted, a bit ashamed at how she had still managed to lose against Jon despite having been sure her trick would turn the tide. She opened her mouth to ask if Jon was going to be ok, but before she could do so his right hand ignited with a small flame as he brought it absently to his right shoulder, left hand still holding the very crude ice dagger. Well, more ice blade since Arya hadn’t had the time to properly make a handle for the thing, opting instead to use it like a double bladed knife she could throw.

Even as his skin knit back together, Jon let a small but genuine smile come to his face.

“That was very good Arya.” He admitted. “Had you not made the same mistake about taking to the air that I did, you might well have been able to end the fight in your favor.”

Arya perked up at that.

“That said,” He continued, several shades of sternness entering his expression and his tone. “I hope that you realize I was perfectly within my rights to blast you with fire after that stunt.”

Arya nodded, nibbling her lip in frustration.

“But I suppose the thing to do now is to have you practice using daggers for throwing and for you to promise me that you will not bring your powers into our fights again.” He said.

Arya nodded again, bringing her eyes to meet his.

Correctly interpreting the unspoken question in her gaze, Jon told her what she could do to make up for throwing the dagger at him.

“In the meantime, I believe your lady mother will be simply joyous to find that you’re being released from training early to prepare for the royal party’s arrival on the morrow.”

Arya’s felt her face morph into an expression of genuine horror at Jon’s idea of punishment. The laughter that escaped him at her predicament did not help in the least.

“Unless you’d like to explain to Lord Stark why you thought it was a good idea to throw a dagger at me in the middle of training?” He offered facetiously.

She didn’t bother offering a rebuttal, instead choosing to hurry through the wolfwood back to Winterfell.

“Nymeria, come!” She called, seeing two protrusions on the top of Nymeria’s head flicker through her view of heat before her loyal companion went back to hunting alongside Ghost and Frost. Arya let out an involuntary growl as her right eye twitched briefly.

‘Don’t say it don’t say it don’t say it don’t say it’ Her mind chanted to itself before Jon called to her retreating form.

“Seems hard to tell the difference between you two in these moments.” He said in a tone of perfect innocence.

‘Damn it!’ She thought, speeding up further as her frustration with the apt but irritating comparison flared her power briefly.

She had tried to sneak back into Winterfell without anyone being the wiser, only to run into her lord father who took one look at her dirt encrusted feet and dirty training clothes before frog marching her to mother against all her pleading and protesting. Jon was right in his prediction that mother was overjoyed to have her back so soon in order to make her prepare for the royal party. Which of course didn’t help any when she and Sansa had seemingly decided to team up against Arya so that they could drill her again and again about the proper greeting formalities and seating arrangements for the feast that was to be held for the royal family when they came here.

The next day when she tried to weasel her way out of getting into the uncomfortable dress and putting her hair up in a ridiculous style her lady mother claimed was fashionable in the southron kingdoms, she’d had less success than Bran had in coming up with a name for his direwolf companion. (She sometimes wondered if it was reflective of Bran himself: being so caught up in making a decision that was “just so” that he got in his own way of resolving it.)

She was washed and scrubbed until her skin was pink before being forced into the dress as well as that stupid hairdo and interrogated by Sansa and her mother repeatedly on what she was expected to do when the royal party arrived. It got to the point that she started repeating the questions and her own answers back to them before they could say anything. But thankfully, that also came shortly before the grand horn blowing that announced the first members of the King’s train of followers arriving.

As they all came to assemble in the courtyard, there were only a few riders bearing the royal banner of a black crowned stag and a yellow lion meeting together upon a field of red. She knew that it was meant as a symbol of the union between the houses of their father’s friend the King and his queen’s house. That they’d needed to replace the three headed dragon of House Targaryen with something to represent a new era or so Maester Luwin and Septa Mordane had liked to claim. Though why that meant the queen’s family was equally deserving of the royal sigil as the king who had fought the war through to the end simply for marrying him Arya had never understood. To her understanding, none of the previous Targaryens (who had married outside their family anyway) who ruled had ever joined the seal of their house with any other who married into it.

She never did manage to get a straight answer out of of them about why that was.

As the train started to trickle in and the trickle turned to a steady stream, Arya looked to each of their sigils. Many emblems both Lannister and royal, but none that she could see of exclusively stag.

With Sansa’s heavy perfume on her left and Bran’s fidgeting on her right Arya shut her eyes for a moment before taking a deep breath and looking through her ‘fire sense’ as Jon called it. (She herself was partial to ‘heat vision’ due to her mostly operating with the cold but to each their own.) Her gaze slowly went further upward, trying to find Jon’s signature. Amidst the candles that everyone else’s heat showed, Jon was a veritable torch. Finally she found his signature: standing still atop the Burned Tower near the Central Keep. She supposed that was only fitting considering his own power.

The royal family’s carriage at last rolled into the courtyard, seemingly almost too big to fit through the front gate. As it came to a stop, Arya deactivated her heat vision in order to try and figure out which was the king and where the Kingsguard were.

The Kingsguard was fairly easy to find with his golden helmet and white cloak standing out amidst the clashing colors of red and black and grey. A black haired fat man with a great beard came to a stop before her family. As they all began to kneel before him and an attendant rushed forward, Arya realized whilst she automatically sunk into a bow with them that the fat man in the leathers and plain black furred cape was in fact the King himself. As he descended and walked to stand before her father, Arya couldn’t help the thought that crossed her mind at the moment they were all rising to their feet again.

‘I wonder if he could disguise his gut as a boulder by painting it grey.’

Unflattering to be certain, but the man was easily six and a half feet tall if he was an inch. In addition to which, his shoulders and tree trunk like legs would seem to speak to the fact that he’d once been a powerful man. But now? It was as though all that muscle was slowly being converted into fat so that if anyone were to try stabbing him they’d have to get through about four layers first. Not exactly the first thing she pictured fighting alongside him when Jon had talked to her about their father’s sojourn to the Iron Islands to quell a rebellion when she had asked who Theon was and why he was here.

As they stood the king remarked to her lord father: “You got fat."

An interesting greeting to be certain. Her father’s only response was a brief look up and down the King’s body before looking him in the eye with a raised eyebrow.

As they began laughing like old friends, Arya couldn’t help but wonder how close they were that even after not seeing each other for nine years they could still so effortlessly reconnect regardless of station and formality.

He worked his way down the line, greeting Robb than Sansa than Arya herself before moving on to Bran. He stopped briefly to get Bran to flex his arm for him, apparently admiring his developing muscles and claiming he knew Bran would be a solider one day.

Arya honestly would’ve been more incensed if she hadn’t seen the king for herself.

“Take me to the crypt Ned. I’d like to pay my respects.” He called to her father after finishing with Rickon.

“My love, we’ve been on the road a month.” The queen answered, golden hair right at home amonst the golden lion emblems that seemed to surround her, her red traveling dress seeming brighter amidst the more subdued red of her Lannister guard’s armor. “The dead can wait.”

The king entirely ignored the queen as he began striding toward the crypts. Her father gave a brief apologetic look to the queen before following after his friend and king. Thus it was left to her lady mother to take the queen while she and Sansa were to make the princess Myrcella comfortable and her brothers were to look after Tommen’s lodgings.

In all this commotion, she still hadn’t managed to glimpse the Imp or the Kingslayer she’d heard so much about in the commotion surrounding the royal party’s arrival. Overall a bit of an anti-climactic start to their stay as guests of her lord father. As she and Sansa escorted Princess Myrcella toward the castle and her sister eagerly spoke with the newly arrived royal personage Arya couldn’t help but wish this stay would be over and done with already.

‘Naught to do but grit my teeth and bare it.’ She thought to herself as she walked behind the two chattering girls.

Chapter Text

Tyrion Lannister had always possessed a great curiosity. Perhaps this was a product of his own inborn intellect, perhaps it was a product of his desire to understand why his very presence seemed to garner such disdain from his father and elder sister even as so many others looked at him with such pity no matter what he did or said: never believing he would rise above his unnaturally short stature as a dwarf.

Well, that wasn’t completely true. His uncle Gerion never had looked down on him. He’d had faith enough in Tyrion’s love of reading to give him the two books on the world’s wonders by Lormas Longstrider and quiz him from memory about what the properties said wonders were. But Gerion was long gone now, leaving only Tyrion’s bastard cousin Joy Hill in his place. A nice enough girl if shallow to Tyrion’s memory, but last he knew she’d become so melancholy and depressive ever since his uncle had left on his ill-fated quest to recover the Lannister family’s valyrian steel longsword Brightroar from the ruins of Old Valyria.

It wasn’t that Tyrion was unsympathetic to Joy’s loss, not when he himself still missed his favorite uncle any day he thought of him. It was just that Joy was a ‘true Lannister’ as his father Tywin might’ve put it even if her blonde hair was somewhat dull in color and her green eyes rather dim.

Tyrion on the other hand was acutely aware of just how little he approached the traditional look of a Lannister or anyone’s idea of handsome for that matter. His hair was somewhat of the Lannister blonde but with heavy streaks of brown in it, making it seem as though he had tried to color his hair with some brand of tree sap. His eyes, resting beneath a brow prominent enough that a few who had thought to jape about something other than his height claimed that they’d looked for the scars to see how he could’ve stitched a knight’s helm beneath the skin of his face, were completely mismatched: the right was a deep green found more often in moss than in verdant grass while the left was black in a manner one might find most reminiscent of a Dornishman. All this in addition to most everything (except the most important part in his breeches thank the gods) being reduced to half the size of grown men so that even as he was reaching his early thirties in namedays he was still towered over by sufficiently grown children.

So perhaps it was no great surprise that Tyrion couldn’t find it in him to be over sympathetic to Joy. Her father had loved her without a doubt. His own loathed him. And when Tyrion had tried at fifteen namedays, as his uncles had at his age, to travel the nine free cities of Essos in order to prove himself as a man his father had instead put him in charge of the cisterns and sewers of Casterly Rock. A shit job for a little shit they couldn’t get rid of the unsaid reasoning.

With travel outside his father’s control closed to him, Tyrion had told himself that perhaps he could settle into the role and find some semblance of happiness living under his father’s thumb. He knew he wouldn’t in all honesty but he’d also found that the less he admitted the truth of his family the more he could smile. When he was sixteen he thought perhaps meeting and falling in love with Tysha, the girl who’d told him she was a crofter’s daughter but found his humor more of an attraction than his appearance a detraction, was a sign that he had made the correct choice.

His father had been sure to thoroughly disabuse him of that notion. And even if Tyrion’s heart hadn’t been shattered by Tywin Lannister’s ruthless way of revealing the truth of what she was to him, Tysha had left after that day with the twenty-six silver stags earned from the guards and the lone gold dragon Tywin had forced Tyrion to give her because Lannisters were worth more. He never saw nor heard from her again.

On the rare occasions he thought about it outside of his cups, he wondered if anyone had ever had a marriage end in a more disastrous way that didn’t involve death or last less than a fortnight. His curiosity had never spurred him to ever search her out. Not when such a fool notion could only lead to more heartache and emotional weariness.

But here? Now? His curiosity was gnawing at him like a starving dog.

Much as he could occasionally enjoy the company of King Robert Baratheon since he was the closest thing the dwarf had to a true kindred spirit outside of his own elder brother Jaime, he couldn’t quite bring himself to stomach the increased exposure to his sister Cersei, Robert’s queen, or his nephew Joffrey, the crown prince, and all those who accompanied them in hopes of gaining royal favor by laughing and tittering at the queen’s wit or fawning at the prince’s observations of the frozen north.

So he’d come ahead of the royal procession in order to try and enjoy the comforts Wintertown could provide. For even here in the frigid North, men were still men and so would still desire a warm hole to bury themselves inside even if they must pay for it. The Septons and Septas could preach all they liked on the divine nature of marriage joining two souls as one and its importance to the Mother and the Father but men were the same no matter where one traveled Tyrion had found. Twas sex they would pay for, would kill for, would lay down their honor and their dignity for if they thought the woman comely and desirable enough. Marriage was simply a means to finding a steady supply of it when they couldn’t afford a half-way decent whore. Or if they’d never experienced the pleasure in some cases.

At the brothel he’d found Ros the fiery red-head. A delightful girl in both looks with an air of mystery to her, though it helped that she was quite literally the only red-head of the bunch. He’d had no idea at the time how much that one choice in whore would change things for him. He’d mostly expected that he’d discard his trousers whilst she stripped down to her underclothes. And that had of course come to pass. But then she’d done something different. She’d lit a candle upon her dresser though the sun still shone outside and asked Tyrion to relax with a coy smile upon her lips. Raising his right eyebrow, Tyrion had complied since he’d thought it couldn’t hurt to see what she intended to do.
She began by holding her right palm above the candle flame before steadily moving it back toward herself and replacing its position above the small fire with her left palm. She then brought the left back toward her while forming her right hand into a cup above the side of the flame. Joining the right hand came the left, now also in a cup form and joined together over the candle as her eyes seemed to be so focused upon her strange actions. She closed her eyes: slowly drawing the cupped hands back to her torso just beneath her bare breasts and stopping them just in front of her sternum with a deep inhale before drawing them upward and slightly apart as her eyes opened and she exhaled a shaky but exultant breath: as though she had just completed some act of physical exertion that had left her slightly winded while simultaneously experiencing a minor euphoria.

Tyrion couldn’t help the smile or the raised eyebrows that came to his expression. It seemed the red head believed herself to be a sorceress of some sort. Or Maegi as he’d read was the general term in Essos. As she turned to him with a healthy rosy glow to her cheeks and her every step practically vibrating with energy, he wondered if perhaps it was something she simply did to work herself up before a job.

As she sensuously knelt before him and her head descended on his cock, his eyes involuntarily closed in surprise and his smile ratcheted up several degrees. Her mouth was hot and humid, her every breath upon his engulfed member sending shivers down his spine. His right hand snaked out and brought his wine goblet to his lips, his fingers minutely trembling from the sensations that hadn’t felt so irresistible since the first fumbling but loving times he’d experienced all those years ago with Tysha.

He took slow sips of his wine as her tongue danced upon his throbbing member, the cool tartness of the wine a delicious contrast to the hot wetness he felt below. There had never been a more appropriate time to heighten his sensations with drink to his mind. He’d had many a whore take him in her mouth before, but no matter their talent with oral technique he’d never quite been able to escape that niggling feeling in the back of his mind that told him that this was all well and good but he was really waiting to get to the good stuff and put his cock in her twat where it belonged.

But here and now, the inviting heat of her mouth, the perfect wetness his primal instinct told him he should never try to leave? If it hadn’t been for her tongue caressing his member and trying to coax him to his finish, he honestly couldn’t have said he knew this was Ros’s mouth without opening his eyes and looking down at her fiery hair bobbing up and down on him.

As his goblet reached the halfway empty point and he was throbbing fit to burst, she slowly brought her mouth off of him, leaving him poised upon the proverbial edge with a coy smile. Such a wicked tease this one, certainly nothing like the semi-frigid cum rough riders he’d heard most Northern girls to be from King Robert’s experience.

“You’re not quite like the other northern girls I’ve heard tell of.” He got out, a smile on his face as she stood up and took his offered hand as they strolled toward the bed.

“And pray, what have you heard of Northern girls m’lord Tyrion?” She asked in a tone of deliberately unconvincing innocence with as a quirked half-smile.

“Well, for one thing-” He began as he clambered onto the bed.

“None of the Northern girls I’ve heard tell of were such unrelenting teases.” He observed.

“For another,” He continued as his hands moved his britches off his legs entirely before tossing them carelessly to the side while his mismatched eyes drank in her milky flesh as she slowly lowered herself onto the bed: her palms depressing the bedding as she leaned toward him.

“They don’t use magic rituals.” He finished as she prowled up toward his prone form.

“I’m sure I haven’t the first idea what you’re talking about Lord Tyrion.” She answered coyly, straddling his legs as the heat from her sex washed over his exposed own. Good gods, but that experience was going to prove interesting.

Which of course meant that his older brother Jaime chose that precise moment to stride through the closed door with barely a word.

“No, don’t get up on my account.” He remarked idly, his right eyebrow lifted as he took in Tyrion’s position beneath this red-haired northern whore.

Exasperated, Tyrion couldn’t help the response that came to his lips. Though in all fairness, even if he could’ve helped it, he wouldn’t have. There were interruptions which could be excused and then there were annoyances which could not. And interruptions in the middle of a good fucking were always annoyances.

“Do I need to explain to you the meaning of a closed door in a whorehouse brother?” He asked as the red-head moved from straddling him to kneeling next to him, unfazed by the interruption otherwise.

“I expect you have much to teach me much of whores and their houses. But in the meantime,” Jaime responded as he poured himself a small helping of Tyrion’s wine from the bottle on Ros’s dresser. “Our sister craves your attention.”

Tyrion rubbed his right hand on Ros’s left hip as she remained kneeling on the bed, shooting an exasperated look to her before he gave Jaime the dismissive answer the request deserved. Tyrion wasn’t Cersei’s twin or her husband the king’s sworn sword after all.

“She has very odd cravings, our sister.” He observed as his hand continuing to enjoy the texture of Ros’s warm flesh that was so close and yet so far until the, under normal circumstances anyway, only tolerable member of his immediate family left.

“That she does.” Jaime agreed, turning to Tyrion as the sun from the window glinted off his golden Kingsguard armor and equally golden hair. “But she still requires you to join us so we can feast the Starks at sundown.”

Jaime turned back to him, right hand resting upon the golden lion headed pommel of his sword while the left brought the cup of wine in front of him.

“Don’t leave me alone with these people.” Was all he said to Tyrion, his natural half-smile present upon his lips.

Much as Jaime was probably exaggerating Tyrion was also fairly certain he wasn’t doing so for the sake of getting a laugh so much as he was to get Tyrion to understand how serious he was trying to be in front of people outside their family.

House Lannister business had to remain House Lannister business after all. And any who were not a lion were considered a potential enemy. In Tyrion’s personal opinion that was just plain ridiculous considering just how much his lord father’s ruthless nature oftentimes pitted family members both distant and close against each other in the vain hope of catching his favor, but then again no one was smart enough to ask Tyrion what he thought of his family. Often enough they’d even told him to stoptalking about them when he got deep enough into his cups.

But this time Tyrion felt he would do better to serve his own curiosity before Jaime’s personal desire not to bear the weight of the Stark family’s overbearing honor that seemed to add its weight everything they did the same way Cersei’s overbearing ego seemed to flow forth with every movement of her body or opening of her mouth.

Like one of the sewage lines of Casterly Rock with roughly the same content. Excepting of course the obvious caveat that one could rid themselves of the sewage’s foulness with a good enough bath. The same could unfortunately not be said for Cersei.

“I’m afraid I shall have to decline brother dear.” He said.

“For you see, I have a feast of my own planned. And this is but the first of many courses.” He declared, eager right hand returning to Ros’s hip.

Jaime gave a small nod of acquiescence, smile never fading from his lips even as his bright green eyes dulled a bit with somewhat reasonable irritation.

“I had a feeling you’d say that.” Jaime said as he paused before the closed door.

“Which is why I took the liberty of arranging the rest of the feast so you may be properly hungry sooner rather than later.” He finished, his right hand pulling the door open so that three more of the northern whores quickly made their way in: giggling and simpering as they did so.

As they crowded Tyrion and Ros, the Imp of Lannister could’ve sworn he heard Jaime give a parting remark about seeing him at the second feast but no sound of the door closing.

“Close the damn door!” He called in exasperation before he went to work with the veritable buffet of temptations that availed themselves of his attention.

Jaime had been right of course. Tyrion had been extremely sated by the four wild northern girls.

But more importantly, he’d managed to suss out from comments made by the other girls (since the redhead had been surprisingly evasive about the nature of what that business with the candle had been with both himself and the other whores whilst he’d been there) that the change had come after she’d gained a frequent visitor in the form of Eddard Stark’s bastard son.

Poking around discreetly with other chatty servants after leaving the Wintertown brothel gained him strange tales of the Sept burning down, a three year voluntary exile across the Narrow Sea and a bastard boy’s return with the living symbol of House Stark in tow. Needless to say even if only half of what had been told was true, Tyrion was in for an interesting story if he could coax it from the Snow’s lips.

Tyrion had seen the young man earlier in the evening, him and that surprisingly large, for a supposed pup anyway, albino direwolf watching the head table upon the dais from the end of one of the long tables near the entrance to the main hall. But when Tyrion had distracted himself with the succulent deer meat and hearty northern ale somehow both bastard and mutt had slipped out.

That gave him as good an excuse as any to leave the rapidly humidifying great hall in any case.

The chilled northern air was bracing after such warmth inside, but still nothing a sip of his good wine from the skein he kept with him couldn’t help. No snows had fallen, but still there was the taste of it in the air. Had been ever since the royal party had passed through Moat Cailin really.

From some feet away, Tyrion heard something impacting what sounded like a wooden target. As he ambled closer to investigate, he cocked his head to the right as he took in the scene he discovered.

Illuminated by the moonlight, the bastard known as Jon Snow was wearing only one or two layers of leather as he struck the lightly armored scarecrow looking target in front of him with what appeared to be open palms with the direwolf Tyrion had seen earlier nowhere within sight. The Imp of Lannister couldn’t help the humorless smile that came to him now: reflecting how funny it was that to look at him one would think Jon Snow was the trueborn son of Eddard Stark. He certainly looked strikingly enough like him to be considered so.

As Tyrion came closer, he noticed that rents had appeared in the leather armor the target wore. In the midst of his pondering where those had come from, the Stark bastard struck with his right palm again. But no that wasn’t quite right. Now that he was close enough to see clearly Tyrion could observe that his fingers were not flat but rather crooked so that they resembled claws. The palm struck just above the coller of the leather armor with a loud smack before the hand was abruptly brought straight down.
With a loud ripping noise, the abused leather armor was torn in half straight down the middle.

Tyrion couldn’t help but wonder if any poor girl who asked the Stark bastard to use those fingers upon her womanhood wouldn’t have second thoughts if she knew that they were capable of that.

“Quite the set of fingers you have there.” He said, watching to see if the bastard had already known he was here.

As the young man turned to face him, Tyrion couldn’t help but pity him for being almost the spitting image of his lord father. That surely would’ve rubbed salt in the wound for Lady Stark every time she saw him, especially since her own trueborn son inherited more of her than Lord Stark.

“Honed them in the brothel did you?” He inquired. Tyrion expected that as a typical young man, he would be proud of his favor, whether imaginary or real, with the red-headed Ros and so boast of it.

The Stark bastard only briefly shook his head before answering: “The fingers saw greater use in the wild. My eyes and tongue have seen far greater use in the brothel.”

Tyrion barked a laugh and held the skein up to him as a brief toast before taking a swig.

As Snow came closer to Tyrion, he cocked his head briefly to the left before asking:

“You’re Tyrion Lannister: the Queen’s brother?”

Tyrion gave a brief bow before leaning against the wooden post behind him.

“My greatest accomplishment to date. Admittedly, not quite the same as teaching magic to pay for a brothel’s services, but I tended to find that gold sufficed well enough for most whores.”

Snow’s grey eyes took him in: giving Tyrion neither signals of anxiousness nor surprise.

“Not the brothel, only Ros.” The Stark bastard answered, appearing to take Tyrion’s remark at face value.

“And not magic, only worship.” He continued.

Tyrion’s eyes and ears sharpened. He was getting into something interesting here. Was a Stark no longer a follower of the famous Old Gods of the North?

“Really? I should like to hear the difference between the two.” Tyrion remarked.

Grey eyes met green and black. Their gazes were unblinking for several heartbeats. And with a nod, Jon Snow nodded in acquiescence.

“I wouldn’t have thought you a man who’d studied at the Citadel Lord Tyrion.” He observed.

“Oh, I never did.” Tyrion answered. “I just happen to have a very curious mind.”

Chapter Text

Unlike many of his brethren, Jhogo had never been particularly uncomfortable with entering the cities that their Khal demanded tribute from.

Many of his fellow Dothraki in Khal Drogo’s horde found them too confining, too narrow. Made them feel too much like the buildings would seek to envelop them and make them forget the freedom of the open plains, the delightfully wide-spread chaos of Vaes Dothrak.

Jhogo himself could not say that he cared over much if truth were to be told. So long as he knew he could leave, it did not matter where he may be was his feeling. Leave him his legs or his mount and it did not truly matter if he was on the narrow streets of the city the perfumed men called Pentos or the open plains close to the lake abutting the mountains his own people called the Womb of the World: he could be somewhere else as soon as the urge took him.

As they made their way to Khal Drogo’s manse within the Pentos city limits, he smirked to himself as two of his brothers warily glanced around the crowded city streets and alternately fingered their curved arakhs that hung at their hips even as the rest of the ground walkers deferentially gave them as wide a berth as they might’ve a full caravan even whilst they determinedly avoided making any eye contact with the Dothraki themselves.

It was funny to him how frightened and easily cowed these people were.

Most Dothraki, if forced to leave their horse, would’ve walked with their back held straight and their dark eyes watching everything that happened with no fear for who might take it as a challenge. For more often than not it truly was an open challenge for any who thought themselves their better to try and prove it to be so.

That was the way of their people after all. The Great Stallion as well the Dosh Khaleen and the Great Khals who followed his will demanded that they trample all who stood before them under their mighty hooves so that their crushed spirits and ruined vanities might grow great grass for the Dothraki people and their mounts to feast upon.

They had near countless idols and statues decorating the plains surrounding Vaes Dothrak that proved the truth of that superiority. Silent testament to the destroyed places that existed most everywhere upon the land that the Dothraki called their own now.

Yet all but the dumbest of horses knew one did not eat out all of their fields at once. They did not devour all the grass in one go, not when returning from plain to plain could yield a so much steadier supply without needing to starve themselves or kill off more than it was necessary to kill.

The walled cities could’ve fallen within days to the great horde. In truth, the walled cities would’ve fallen within days to the great hordes no matter whether one as magnificent as Drogo or one as half-mad as Azhak were commanding them.

Their warriors were unmatched by the weak men who dwelt within the unfeeling walls. No matter how strong the fortifications were, they weren’t the same as living men who could fight and resist and destroy any who came for them. Whether by spear or by arakh or by bow all Dothraki would’ve done as much for their people to all who came to challenge them.

But they did not hide behind such things. For they were a proud people: their skin bronzed by the sun, their hair dark as the night. They were at their greatest power riding their horses, the only true companion any man could have in this life. It was provided food, shelter, material, companionship and mobility. And so they also knew the value of raiding, of leaving something to recreate itself later so that they could take from it again.

The sheep worshipers, the grass gatherers, the caravans, they all paid tribute to the horde so long as they never let them grow truly complacent with their presence. And if that meant they sometimes had to ravage a town to keep their horde sharp even in the face of being given tribute, who were the weaker to protest? All deformed Dothraki babes were left by the roadside for the wild dogs and the natural world to purge after all.

How then was it their fault if those they took tribute from couldn’t prove themselves worthy of the true superiority that was the Dothraki way of life?

But now wasn’t the time for that. Not when one of the perfumed earth-trodders of Pentos had approached Khal Drogo about a possible wife.

The Khal had taken women as conquests before of course. No Dothraki worth the mount he rode would pass up the opportunity to prove he was man enough to bed a woman once he was man enough to wield a blade. But none of them had been what he could truthfully call a wife seeing as how none of them had any wish to remain in the Khalassar even when given the privilege of having the attentions of such a Khal among Khals as Drogo. Eventually he always grew bored of their cries and their weak weeping and so gave them to his Bloodriders for their personal use.

Jhogo didn’t know much of what happened to the ones that went to Cohollo and Haggo after Drogo was done with them. Only that their fate was likely far kinder than the stories he heard about what happened to the ones unfortunate enough to be given to Qotho.

He idly wondered how long this one would last while simultaneously speculating what woman this perfumed fat man thought could possibly be worth Drogo at last marrying. Perhaps she was one of those of the dark-skin that lived upon a land beyond the poison water. Perhaps she was a particularly fetching slave that had been bought for a prince’s ransom.

He snorted to himself as he immediately dismissed that possibility from mind. No, the pleasure women were trained for one thing alone. Yet even then they could not possibly be prepared for any single Dothraki man. Let alone one as demanding and powerful as Drogo.

As they came to the house of nine towers, the perfumed fat-man greeted Drogo at the head of the procession. The other Dothraki were grumbling after having trodden through these restrictive streets just to get here. Jhogo knew that was more to do with knowing the fat man would’ve provided liberal amounts of food for them to devour as he had on the other rare occasions that their Khal had returned to this city.

They spoke briefly to each other, Drogo’s guttural voice a sharp contrast to the perfumed fat-man’s barely audible responses even as they both spoke Dothraki while the members of the horde who had accompanied their Khal into the city shifted from foot to foot, eyes looking everywhere but at the two speakers as they waited for their Khal’s signal to go inside.

Jhogo dismounted and led his horse forward as at last the men ceased speaking and Drogo called them to enter the nine-spired house. The men cheered, eager to taste the delicacies that would be afforded to them now.

The inside of the house was spacious but virtually unused; the sandy looking stone a contrast to the colorful silken tapestries that hung everywhere and the fires that crackled merrily in the braziers in greeting. Obviously the servants had been keeping things up as they should for their masters. Jhogo debated whether he should take another one upon his cock as he had before. Perhaps if they were comely enough. But he didn’t hold high hopes of them doing much more of grunting as he rode them to completion and saying nothing to him afterward. He didn’t want them to and they could never mistake his taking satisfaction for any kind of affection for a lesser girl that could’ve been given to a true Dothraki woman.

The great draw was of course the feast laid out before their eager eyes and hands. The others of Drogo’s horde charged forward, taking the food they could reach before the others. Jhogo waited a few moments before he came to the table for his own share. The others could charge forward to take what they wanted and risk getting a stabbed hand via knife as he had the first few times.

Sure he was second to claim the food but most who went first were so occupied with claiming the food for themselves that they often didn’t have the time needed to make sure they were claiming what they wanted.

All around the hall were dotted the non-men soldiers that the earth-trodders called Unsullied. Jhogo would only admit this under pain of death, but he had always felt uneasy around them. Not just because they had lived their entire lives without ever becoming men as Dothraki understood them but because he knew the story behind the braids of hair that decorated their spear shafts.

Long ago a Khal had foolishly decided he must conquer one of these walled cities. He had stormed through many others until he reached the one that created these things that were called Unsullied. For two days the Khalessar had charged fruitlessly against the shielded spearmen. By the end, the once great horde was reduced to less than half its original strength. With the Khal and his bloodriders dead, it fell to those who remained to make their decision. And their decision was to each come before those who had so soundly defeated them and one by one cut their braids before throwing them at the feet of their enemy: as any Dothraki who lived through a loss was expected to do.

It was something the Dothraki as a whole had never forgiven the walled cities for even as they respected them for it. Though if they truly wanted such sub-humans to defend them from men it would cut no hair from their horse’s tails.

Soon enough there was commotion and noise enough to almost make Jhogo forget that they weren’t in Vaes Dothrak as the Khalessar feasted around him. From the corner of his eye, he thought he saw a flash of silvery gold in the air. Turning his head slightly to the left as another morsel of roasted meat found its way to his mouth, he observed a boy and a girl. The boy was slightly older; a thin frame that had obviously never seen blood in his life let alone a true fight. Even though he was almost as tall as the other Dothraki, he was willowy and almost as feminine as the girl who stood beside him.

He wondered if they had both inherited their girlish features from the same place their silvery gold hair came from. As they moved past the Unsullied guards toward the rest of the feasting Khalessar, Jhogo saw that the girl was wide-eyed at the sight of so many Dothraki in one place. He snorted to himself as he turned back to his meal.

He sincerely hoped the fat man didn’t think that little thing would satisfy Drogo as a wife. Sure, she had nice enough teats and her hips had the potential to grow once Drogo fucked a son into her. But that didn’t make up for the fact that she was easily the shortest person there and looked about ready to bolt out the door at any moment. Like a frightened little lamb that had just come upon a den of wolves.

He’d seen the easily cowed, frightened little things like her come before. They might whimper and cry and beg. Yet when all is said and done they always go. Whether they were still alive when they left was immaterial. There was no way such a pathetic looking little thing would satisfy a man like Drogo. But it was no hair of his horse’s tail.

He took another bite of the meat, savoring the explosion of flavors across his tongue.

Chapter Text

Robert Baratheon was a man of great appetites.

Great appetites for excitement more specifically. Whether it be women, combat, food or drink, he discovered that if there was some sense of danger, of living upon the edge, then he was always seeking it.
Perhaps that had come from living in such a tumultuous place as the Stormlands as a boy. The weather itself was a true measure of excitement every day you woke to it again. After all, it had everything from winds that could force a man to squint his eyes against it to rain that could soak him to the bone in minutes and all of which could howl up or die down in an instant.

Perhaps if his father and mother had not died on that fool’s errand for the Mad King, he would not have such a fascination with it. But then again his younger brothers Stannis and Renly had watched alongside him from the walls of Storm’s End as a sudden squall swept their ship up and dashed it upon the unforgiving rocks. And if ever there were relations Robert could not relate to, it would be those two.

The only thing left of them or their ship was the patch-faced fool everyone referred to as (appropriately enough) Patchface. A strange little man who sang songs that didn’t make sense whilst remaining otherwise silent and staring. A simpleton or perhaps more accurately a particularly complicated doll with his blank, dead gaze. Though he’d never admit it, that tattooed jester gave him the creeps. He’d been glad enough to leave him behind with Stannis and Renly at Storm’s End. Especially after he came to know Eddard Stark though their mutual fostering with Jon Arryn, the Lord of the Vale.

He’d loved his mother and father but never felt particularly close to either of the men who called themselves his brothers. That had changed when meeting his foster brother Eddard Stark. Though they’d gotten off to a rough start, he was the best parts of Renly and Stannis distilled into one person after Robert got to know him. His honor, his manners and his respectful nature were a less rigid version of Stannis’s own whilst he could joke and drink when Robert prodded him enough without becoming obnoxious and grating his nerves in the same way Renly did.

Then he’d found that Ned’s sister was betrothed to be his wife and he thought it a great thing indeed. If the stories Ned told of his home in Winterfell were even part true, she’d grown up with Ned as a brother as well as Brandon, who from the sound of things, was almost his twin in sensibilities. If there was any woman who could handle and understand his lust for life it would be her.

And then Rhaegar bloody Targaryen had happened.

He’d rode before them all after winning the joust, bold as brass, to present a crown of winter roses to Lyanna as she sat right in front of him. Robert would’ve been willing to bet his life that if he’d bothered participating in the joust instead of the melee, Rhaegar never would’ve been able to win the tournament against him. But he’d never have suspected even one of so cursed a bloodline as Targaryen would be mad enough to declare his intentions for a betrothed woman in front of so great an audience that included her husband-to-be and his own wife.

When Ned’s brother and father, Brandon and Rickard, were executed via self-strangulation and burning alive for attempting to demand Rhaegar give her back after her abduction Robert could stand by no more. He’d fought through all the kingdoms, dreaming every night that the wench in his arms was gone and Lyanna was there instead, dreaming that he had her back from the vile clutches of the rapist prince.

But that was not to be.

Ned returned bearing her corpse. Robert had never asked how she died. He suspected she’d been brutalized by Mad Aerys’s son, but to the extent that it had killed her…he honestly didn’t want to know the details of it. Just knowing that she’d died because of what that bastard Rhaegar had inflicted upon her was enough to fuel his hatred of the Targaryen bloodline to this very day. It was why he never felt as guilty as Ned thought he should over the death of Princess Elia’s children. It was a shame they’d been killed so young, but they would not have remained babes forever. Horrendous as their deaths were Robert also knew in his heart of hearts that they were a simmering fire waiting to flare up and consume everything that happened to surround them. Why else would people say that every time a Targaryen was born the gods flipped a coin to tell whether they’d be mad or great?

That was the past. And even as the memory of what he’d desired brought him such pain, Robert also could not bring himself to let go of it. Not when it meant letting go of the last thing that truly made him happy in life. Not when it meant letting go of the last thing that truly made him happy in life. The warm legs he put himself between, the warm food he put in his mouth, he’d give it all if only he could be back again in those days of the rebellion: a fighter going to battle for his beliefs rather than a leader who feels more a figurehead than a true king.

If he hadn’t been skeptical as to how much enjoyment any man could derive from being king, the reality of it convinced him completely that the people like Tywin and Cersei who coveted it were some of the greatest fools he’d ever known. And they unfortunately seemed to be the majority of people he encountered these days as the proclaimed king of the seven kingdoms.

Jon Arryn was one of the last who he felt he could trust to advise him and see whatever bigger picture there was to see rather than limited gains for himself at the expense of the crown that weighed heavier on felt tighter on Robert’s brow every day. With his death there was only one man Robert felt he could trust to watch his back the same as he would’ve trusted them to do so on a field of battle.

Though when he’d said to Ned that he wanted to make him Hand of the King so that he could whore and drink his way to an early grave, that wasn’t exactly an inaccurate sentiment either.

So now in celebration he was out amidst the cold wilderness of the North: only a small party of the men of Winterfell accompanying him outside Winterfell. It consisted of Ned and Robert themselves, Robert’s squire Lancel Lannister, the Kingsguard Commander Barristan Selmy and Robb Stark, Ned’s eldest son. The boy had left his faithful direwolf companion behind since they frightened the hunting hounds that were being led along in front of them by a few of the attendants.

Robert reached for the wine skein offered to him by Lancel without him having to ask for it, one of the golden haired twit’s few redeeming features being his eagerness to please Robert’s demands without complaint.

“Has your accursed Northern cold scared all the damn game underground Ned?” Robert asked jovially, his spirits high ever since his friend had accepted his demand to come south as his new Hand of the King.

“If there’s no snow upon the ground your grace, it means they’re out and about.” Ned answered. That was one of the few things he couldn’t get Ned to budge on: addressing him as your grace as befitted the king. There was that Stannis part of Ned; that attention to titles and propriety again. But unlike with Stannis, Robert was able understand it as a part of his nature imparted from their time by Jon Arryn rather than a dig at him personally as it might’ve been coming from Renly or Stannis himself.

“I’ll hold you to that!” Robert jovially proclaimed before taking another swig from the skein.

As he wiped his mouth with his left sleeve the hounds began barking, their cacophony a signal that there was something up ahead.

“Seems you’ve held me to my word your grace.” Ned remarked dryly as they rode forward with the dogs leading the way.

Up ahead, Robert caught a glimpse of brown fur and antlers. A stag of some sort. Obviously it had heard the hounds coming as it started to leap away. But before they could give chase, something unexpected happened.

Before the stag could get too far another creature leapt from the brush ahead, a white furred blur that made no sound before it managed to take a bloody chunk out of the stag’s side. With a startled cry the creature tried to move on, only to be met with another furry blur that took it from the other side and the figure of a man that took it from the front. It hit the ground loudly and painfully. As it struggled to dislodge the human form upon it, there was a flash of its hand toward the creature’s head and it stilled entirely.

As Robert and the others rode closer, they could now see the figure withdrawing a dagger from the juncture where the throat met the base of the creature’s jaw. Judging from the length and sharpness of the blade, the thing had been driven through the neck and the skull directly into the stag’s brain. They halted at Robert and Ned’s shouted command, drawing the attention of what Robert now recognized as the direwolves Ned’s children had acquired. Admittedly he’d only seen the two that belonged to the eldest in his stay thus far, but these two were definitely not them.

The one was white as driven snow with eyes the color of the fresh blood upon its snout while the other was a greyish black color on top with a bottom half as white as its sibling. The two easily eclipsed the hunting dogs in size though were only about a quarter the size of the full grown horses. Whose could they have possibly been?

As the figure before them stood up with bloody blade in hand, Robert couldn’t help but think he was seeing Ned from before the rebellion reborn. He’d always heard his bastard looked like him but this? This was almost eerie.

“Apologies your grace.” The Snow said, sinking to one knee before the hunting party.

“I hadn’t realized we were intruding on the hunt. Had I known, I would’ve tried to call off the pack.” He continued as he stood again.

Even as he’d sunk to one knee and bowed his head before Robert, his spine had remained as hard as iron he noticed. Courteous but with a strong will beneath it. He truly was his father’s son.

Robert let out a loud laugh as an answer even as Ned’s lips thinned with disapproval.

“No harm done boy!” Robert proclaimed jovially. It had been something of a great rush to see those beasts take down the stag with such efficiency and ruthlessness.

“But I only see two of those wolves of yours. Last I knew that didn’t make a pack!” He continued laughing.

The hunting dogs whimpered as another two came out of the tree line. The one with bark colored fur darting toward the fresh kill and its stilled siblings while the other came through with a defensive posture to it.

Robert heard a very sharp intake of breath from his squire when the party clapped eyes on the other one coming out. The Baratheon king couldn’t help but think his Lannister follower was too great a coward to appreciate the thing of savage beauty that was before them.

It was a great beast, easily as large as a pony on all four legs and with a mouth Robert felt confident could swallow Cersei’s head or Tyrion’s entire body whole. But at the moment its mouth was locked in a snarl toward them and its tail was swishing with aggravation.

“Jon! Stop her!” Ned called to his bastard with an edge to his voice. Robert almost regretted Ned’s caution then, for such a creature truly would make a great prize as a pelt. But he sincerely was glad of it when he got to witness the boy do as his highborn father asked.

He moved with a swiftness that only Robert’s extensive fighting in the rebellion allowed him to track as he got in front of the direwolf matriarch and clapped his hands on the creatures snarling snout to keep it shut while instructing: “Frost: Stop!”

His tone was rough and the warning in it clear for them all to hear. While her head thrashed somewhat from side to side trying to dislodge his latched hands, his body was unmovable as a gravestone. Her lips closed even as her tail continued to swish with agitation and she alternated between glaring at Robert and Jon as if pondering whether she could get around him to get at the Baratheon king.

“Jon, what’s wrong with her?” Asked his half-brother whilst slowly coaxing the horse closer to the two even as the direwolf pups messily tore into the stag’s carcass nearby.

The bastard looked awkward for a moment, his expression clearly showing he didn’t wish to answer, before his unfaltering response came as something Robert hadn’t expected to hear.

“If I had to guess, I’d say it’s the smell of the wine. The scent is sharp enough to sting her nose and put her on edge. And from here, the scent of it is strong enough to rouse a sleeping man.” He answered with a trace of sheepishness to his tone.

Robb and Ned looked embarrassed at his answer, Ned in particular glancing at Robert as though he expected his old friend to fly into a rage for his bastard’s indirect insinuation: namely that Robert stank to high heaven of spirits.

In response, Robert threw back his head and laughed uproariously. It had usually been Jon Arryn who reprimanded him for drinking and whoring too much. Most people who surrounded him would’ve either pretended there was no problem (or in the case of Tyrion Lannister or Thoros of Myr actively encouraged him) or been a raging cunt about it (that was primarily Cersei admittedly but in truth he was so sick and tired of hearing her complain about everything he did under the sun that he counted her whining as ten people giving him grief for it) to the point where he felt no need to regard their advice as anything but the empty whistling of the air.

Even Ned, the man who’d once shamed him into seeing his first bastard Myra Stone a few times whilst they’d lived at the Vale, often restrained his opinion in the face of Robert’s high station. But there was no recrimination in the bastard’s answer; only a statement of a fact that Robert wouldn’t have been at all surprised at now that he thought on it.

“That means I’m getting enough to drink boy!” He answered whilst continuing the chuckle. He noticed that the bastard continued to stand in front of the direwolf matriarch, seemingly ready to stop her at a moment’s notice if she decided she didn’t want to be stopped. The pups continued to feast on their meal: apparently uninterested in the nearby humans and whatever it was they were doing among each other.

“That pincering they did was good. But they’re lucky we led them to it.” Robert remarked, taking another swig from his skein.

The bastard was frowning thoughtfully.

“With all due respect your grace,” Ned butted in as the Snow started to open his mouth. “They are barely tamed direwolves. Creatures for whom hunting is not a sport but a matter of survival.”

He saw Ned throw a warning look at the bastard, whose mouth closed after nodding to his lord father. Gods what he wouldn’t have given to have a son that could appreciate his love of the greater pleasures in life instead of a mewling, coddled little shit like Joffrey.

But his sense of competition and excitement wouldn’t let him have it rest at that.

“Nonsense Ned!” He proclaimed loudly, drawing the pup’s attention back to him again as they licked their chops of the dripping red on their fangs and lips.

“We’re the great heroes of the rebellion! We’ve got your strapping boy and the unbeatable Barristan Selmy on our side! There’s no possibility in the seven hells we’d lose to a bunch of wolves!!” He declared, his mind already made up.

“Boy! Do you think like your father, that a bunch of wolves could outhunt us?!” He asked of the Snow, his sharp point by his right index finger demanding an answer to his royal question.

He saw him look to Ned as though to take a cue from him.

“Don’t look to him, look to your king when he asks you a question boy! Do you think the wolves could outhunt us?!” He asked again, his brown eyes focused as much as he could through the slight but pleasant alcoholic haze to focus on the grey of the boy’s Stark eyes.

“My answer would be yes; I do believe so your grace.” He responded after only a moment’s silence.

Robert allowed the silence to maintain for a few moments, infinitely amused at how Ned seemed to think the bastard was going to provoke his temper somehow by answering honestly.

He threw back his head and laughed again.

“There’s that damn Stark honesty again!!” He roared, the laughter shaking his gut like a bowl of jelly. “Oh, I’ve been missing it amongst all those arse-kissers and self-righteous shits in King’s Landing Ned!!”

“Very well then boy!” Robert said with a broad smile. It was good to be here even in the face of the ball shriveling cold. He’d smiled more on this brief sojourn to the North than in all the years he’d been stuck in King’s Landing atop that damn iron throne.

“We’ll have ourselves a contest then! We’ll hunt our prey, you and your wolves hunt yours. Whoever has the most kills at the end of the hunt wins!!” He announced grandly. His blood was already pumping in anticipation. He couldn’t wait to show his true prowess at hunting now that there was truly a reason aside from escaping Cersei behind it.

The bastard bowed before him, only the slightest twitch in the right corner of his mouth indicating how he wished to smile. Same as Ned would whenever he was trying not to laugh at one of Robert’s more ribald jokes back at the Vale.

“As your grace commands.” He answered before walking toward the direwolf matriarch he’d referred to as Frost. A slight tug on the right scruff of her neck and she let out a short but commanding bark. Without another sound, the other direwolf pups left behind the stag’s carcass and followed the other two into the brush again, their forms fading somewhat before Robert swore he saw them all break into a run toward something in the distance.

“Well, what’re we waiting for you lumps?! We’ve a hunt to win!!” Robert declared in excitement, gesturing for the hound handlers to move quickly so that they could hurry up and win against the wild animals.

Hours passed from morning into afternoon as they briefly stopped to make camp and eat some dried bread and salted meat. As they were devouring their rations, a mournful howl arose from somewhere in the distance. Ned and his son looked concerned as the howl reverberated again.

“Father?” Ned’s son asked, his eyes holding fear and puzzlement in equal measure.

Ned looked grave as ever as he opened his mouth to answer before the hounds whimpering and a crashing sound came from the underbrush nearby their camp. As they turned their heads, the direwolf pups stampeded through, Ned’s bastard only just behind them.

“Jon? What is it?!” His half-brother asked in alarm.

“That’s Bran’s direwolf.” He answered. “Something’s happened, we should get back to Winterfell immediately!!” He finished while continuing to sprint behind the direwolf pups, his speed seeming to Robert as though it was approaching that of a horse.

Ned’s eyes met Robert’s for only a moment before the King of Westeros called out the order.

“Pack up everything you sods! We’re getting back to Winterfell now!!” All whilst silently praying nothing had happened to Ned’s family while they had been out here.

Upon their urgent return to the Stark ancestral keep, Robert was dismayed to discover his prayers had gone unanswered.

Chapter Text

It had been some time since Frost had first come to this place Lightbringer called home.

At first it had been uncomfortable, staying the place so similar to Lightbringer with burning and metallic scent. But after the pups had been born, he’d helped her move them out to the clearing with water and the bone colored tree with leaves the color of meat. There she’d been safe with them and able to let them nurse in peace away from the noise and interference of the two legs.

Lightbringer still returned to bring her Alpha offerings of meat: some of it from the forest and some of it from the two-legged dwelling. In what seemed the blink of an eye her pups were making their first tentative noises and taking their first tentative steps into the wider world. And seeing as Lightbringer was the only interaction they had with a wider world outside their mother bringing dead prey back to them, it was perhaps understandable that they grew attached to him.

The surprise to Frost was that the pup he connected best with was the runt with the strange coloring and the inability to speak. Frost hadn’t given him as much milk as the others and yet that hadn’t seemed to impede him from being the first to take his steps and the first to attempt to learn how to bite on both the wood and the meat Lightbringer brought back before any of his siblings. And as he grew, his size seemed to bely his initial status as the discernible runt.

But perhaps that was also because while the pup had been teething, he’d been the only one to get so rough as to draw and taste Lightbringer’s blood.

She’d been concerned on the day all her pups were walking and decided they wanted to follow Lightbringer back to the dwelling of the two-legged ones to see where it was he kept disappearing back to. But she’d had to hunt that day and knew they would be safe with Lightbringer. He was pack: and thus he would let no harm he could prevent befall them.

When they returned practically saturated with the scent of the two-legs, there was nothing much she could do save continue to teach them hunting, grooming and coordination so that when they needed to hunt and attack and hide, they would be able to do so well enough to survive without the two-legs. Her kind had lived without them for as long as any could remember. That would not change anytime soon.

Time passed and more and more her pups remained in the dwelling of the two-legs. Only two of them stayed there on a semi-permanent basis, with the others most often returning with Lightbringer to see her or occasionally sneaking out to spend days of their own with her.

The ones who stayed most frequently tended to be the playful boy, the bold girl and the runt. They more than the other three learned the most of their ways and their blood. And more often than not Lightbringer was there learning alongside them. Sometimes he would race alongside them on the ground: his gait as sure and steady as their own. Sometimes he would take to the tops of the trees: the rustling of the leaves and the creak of the branches their only indication of his location in the late gloom when the ball of light was fading into the darkness.

The only other human they saw with him was the two-legged girl whose scent contained the same tang of power that Lightbringer’s did. But hers chilled Frost because it also tasted of the cold that she’d crossed the frozen barrier to escape. If it hadn’t been for Lightbringer’s constant presence and her distinctly living smells, Frost would’ve had no hesitation at trying to kill her before she tried to kill them.

Her pups had never experienced the terror of the decay and the cold that sought to consume everything. That of all her pack only she had escaped from. And if she had her way they never would.

With time she’d warmed to Coldmaker, especially since her bold girl had seemed to enjoy her company so much. But it was still a war between her instincts of fight and recognition every time she reencountered the Coldmaker all over again. That had grown harder for a time when she encountered her making two-legged claws out of solid cold. But still she managed to work around it by generally never being around the girl for too long.

She found peace in being able to hunt alongside her pack, at being able to slumber beneath the face within the tree by the water, knowing that she was at last in a place where she was safe: where it was she that was the worst thing any had to fear. And so long as they did not interfere with her hunt or her pack they had nothing to fear from her.

It hadn’t been until the middle of a hunt like any other that she encountered any two-legs that were not Lighbringer or Coldmaker. And when she did, she could not say that she was impressed. Many of them did not seem so threatening. Only one of them was adorned in the metal that made up the two-leg’s claws that they wielded in their clever paws. There was another two that looked like Lightbringer: one with a muted expression that made it difficult to predict his intentions and another that smelled of her first boy.

Then there was the sharp smelling one. He who smelled of stink and sweat and something else that hurt her nose and made her hackles rise in anger at its offense to her senses. Lightbringer had wisely stepped between them to try and mute the scent somewhat. Though even when most of her senses now occupied by the familiarity of pack that was Lightbringer there was something about the fat stink that made her wish to drag him into the dirt and submit. But it was not to be. She and the rest of her pack had left them be to hunt their own prey. And for a time they’d done well. The pups had managed to take down an antlered thing together, alongside smaller dashers similar to themselves but different and one or two nervous long ears that still hadn’t managed to learn that speed was no match for killer instinct.

But then had come the distress. It had rent the air like one of the two-leg’s metal claws and had them all, including Lightbringer, rushing back to the two-legged dwelling place. As they’d reached the group of two-legs from earlier, she’d decided to go around since she didn’t trust herself not to attack the fat stink in her worry. She moved swiftly through the familiar woods to another area of the dwelling that was pure hardened grey ground. She searched for a way through the obstruction, calling her own answering distress to the still howling pup, but was not able to find a way in.

Soon the light disappeared and darkness fell. She retreated to the grove with the tree face and the water, hoping that none of her pups had been hurt. Time passed and no one came. But on the third time of darkness falling after the first call of distress, she returned from a dark hunt to discover two figures within her clearing.

Upon closer look it appeared that Lighbringer had brought a sleeping boy with him.

The boy smelled vaguely like Lighbringer but also of the woods that she’d dwelt within. Her memory briefly flashed to the two-legs who dwelt beyond the frozen barrier that also smelt of the wood and the bark. Was he like them? Was that why he felt similar yet so much weaker than Lightbringer?

Lightbringer’s eyes were grey as always but they were now hurt. They appeared to have red running around them as well. His voice was scratchy as he greeted her, his customary claw by his side as it always was. The young boy did not stir, not even when Lightbringer placed him tenderly upon the ground by the water.

All was silent within the grove. But that did not prevent Frost from feeling something build in the still air. She sat down on one part of the ground on the other side of the water from Lightbringer and the slumbering boy. She wondered why none of her pups were with him. If they were safe. If they were being kept from her. She continued to watch him as he approached the watching tree as a chastised pup might their elder.

Before her watchful gaze he knelt on his two legs before it and spoke to it. She could not understand the words he spoke to it, only that he was pleading, that he was asking. He was questioning as one who might wish not to leave the pack might. He cupped his clever paws together before him into a circle shape. Flickering light and heat filled it, dancing before the gaze of the faced tree. As he slowly raised it toward the face so that they were level with each other, Frost’s ears couldn’t help twitching in confusion at what she heard.

It was right there at the edge of her hearing. Whispers. Voices. Her ears kept flickering in a futile effort to track them as they appeared to be coming from nowhere and everywhere at once. The power that had built in the still air before was concentrating now. Building between the crackling heat and the tree. Frost felt her hackles begin to raise. If those two touched in the presence of Lightbringer, who knew what might become of them.

But they did not touch.

Instead, Lightbringer kept the heat firmly confined to his own clever paws as the whispering continued unabated. Soon the many whispers became one. The single sibilant voice echoed and reverberated through her fur like the gentle brush of the wind even as she still continued to try and failed to find where it was coming from. Rather than reassure her it made her more uneasy. What was Lightbringer doing that made such strange things make themselves known in her sanctuary of the grove?

Lightbringer slowly nodded his head once before moving back over to the unconscious boy. Removing the upper cover and the leg coverings on his paws but leaving the strange leg coverings that prevented his flesh from being exposed from middle to lower feet, Frost watched with a cocked head and confused eyes as he defurred the still sleeping boy entirely, his naked body pale and oddly fragile in the dark.

Very slowly, as though afraid that to move too suddenly would prove the death of the smaller boy, Lightbringer brought his unconscious form to the edge of the water. As he placed him on the water, he then slowly slid into the water lower legs first with almost n sound, only the crashes of ripples upon the sides of the ground surrounding the water barely disturbing the strange atmosphere that had been created.

Frost now noticed that he’d brought the metal claw in with him. He drew it across the open grip of one of his clever paws, causing Frost’s sensitive nose to twitch at the release of further power into the air. He spoke something more as he slowly closed the grip of his bleeding clever paw before opening it again: resting it upon the slumbering head of the boy. The temperature was increasing now, the water beginning to have faint white wisps of heat form and leave it to linger in the air.

How was the water becoming heated she wondered? The answer was obviously Lightbringer but that still didn’t explain how. Though the heat had increased, she didn’t sense it as truly increasing everywhere, just above the water and where Lightbringer had brought the somehow still unresponsive boy. Frost was standing now: on all four of her legs in case something happened. But she was not truly ready to run yet. Lightbringer was a strange two-legged thing it was true. But he was also her pack. And he would help her deal with any danger that came the same as he had when he’d made her better after the antlered thing had failed to kill her.

In the face of the unknown she could trust him.

As the heat built some more, he let go of the slumbering child and came toward her. His still bleeding clever paw came toward Frost beseechingly: like one of her pups who’d injured themselves and wanted her help cleaning it. She obliged him. Lowing her head to lick the blood welling from the cut upon his paw, she tasted him for the first time since they’d met before that crackling heat so many darknesses ago. In this moment she at last knew why her runt had stuck so close by him after tasting his blood. It was one of the most exquisite things she’d had upon her tongue. All the flavor of a cooked animal and with that tang of power behind it, it gave her an energy and sense of power that she’d never felt before. She lowered her head further as his own head came next to hers.

He sounded so hurt in his voice as he spoke words to her. They were simple these words.

“I’m so sorry Frost.”

She only had a moment to wonder what he was talking about before his injured paw was gripping her scruff and something sharp was being driven into her throat.

Panic welled within her.

Can’t breathe. She thought as her life blood gurgled past the claw in her throat.

Can’t speak. She thought as she quickly weakened enough to collapse to her belly before him in the water.

Can’t move.She thought as her vision flickered in and out.

There was liquid in his eyes like she and her kind had when they needed to clear obstructions in them to see. Did he need to watch clearly as his pack died by his own paw?

Her blood joined the water, heat igniting where the two liquids met and snaked their way through the entirety of the pool.

She wanted to bite him. She wanted to struggle. She wanted to call for help. She wanted to whine. She wanted so many things in those moments as her spirit was drawn not into darkness but into the light dancing across the water and into the sleeping body that it surrounded.

Then the light climbed her life giving blood and entered her fading body.

Agony ripped through every bit of her fur, every point of her claws, every piece of her. She was burning and dying and unable to let out so much as a sigh as it all happened to her so rapidly. She could feel herself becoming cold remnants of the heat, feel her body fading even as her spirit flailed and she herself asked the only thing there was to wonder in all this.

Why?

Chapter Text

Bran (only his lady mother ever used the full Brandon of his name when she was angry with him) Stark didn’t share a lot in common with his slightly older sister Arya.

Much as it shamed him to admit so, she was stronger than he was at arms and feats of physical ability. But outside of her unusual competency with sums Bran himself was better with feats of mental ability: digesting and remembering information he came across written in books or overheard from the mouth of someone speaking to him. She was slightly taller than he was but he was slightly broader than her. Her hair was dark as night and her eyes were the infamous grey of their Stark father. He on the other hand possessed hair the color of robust tree bark with a tinge of reddish highlight thrown in and had inherited their lady mother’s Tully blue eyes.

But there was one thing the two of them shared in abundance. An extremely active imagination.

They loved the stories of Aegon the Conquerer (though Arya was more partial to the tales of Aegon’s sister wives Viscenya and Rhaeneys), Daeron the Young Dragon and his conquest of Dorne, Aemon the Dragonknight and his service to four different Targaryen kings and all the others that came from growing up in a highborn household.

All these tales of knightly chivalry Bran had always found fascinating and thus had always wanted to be knighted when he got older. True the North didn’t truly have knights per se since the whole idea of knighting and chivalry was an idea borne of the Faith of the Seven and the Andals when they invaded Westeros long before Aegon the Conquerer was a twinkle in his grandfather’s eye whilst the North had remained a bastion of those who descended from the First Men and thus kept to the Old Gods of the weirwood and the powerful but strange natural surroundings of the North itself.

But there weren’t truly that many options for Bran outside of knighthood. He may inherit a keep from Robb, he may marry into a Northern family that would try to strengthen their ties to House Stark or he could join the Night’s Watch as their Uncle Benjen had before any of them were even born. Not precisely his idea of a glorious life.

There was always going to Oldtown and becoming a Maester like Maester Luwin, but Bran didn’t think he could truly serve the realm by being stuck in a keep going over sums and accounts for his lord whilst his lord protected the realm and the smallfolk from bandits and the general ills of the world. His father and the king had fought in a rebellion to overthrow a corrupt king; no Maester in the history of Westeros (so far as he was aware) had ever done more than record history as it passed them by rather than make it when the opportunity came.

And so long ago he had decided he would be a knight if only so that he could find the excitement he dreamed it must be.

Now of course he wished whole-heartedly that he had found less excitement in his life. But then again, how could he have expected to find himself so far above Westeros that all the land of the North and the South looked as it did on a map before falling rapidly? As he came down through the clouds, they cooled him somewhat while the heat of the sun felt as though it were burrowing into his very skin. Bran was falling so fast he couldn’t even draw the breath to cry out or make any sound whatsoever.

A raven came to him then, three red eyes looking back at him as it fell far more gracefully than he could hope. It landed itself around his collar and tightened the grip of its talons before it pecked at his forehead, causing images to flash across his mind with each strike of its sharpened beak.

Young beings with yellow eyes slited like cat and skin dappled like deer. They were running: running from a fire that consumed their forest whole. They watched in terror as the orange and red consumed and transformed what was once verdant into a blackened wasteland.

Bran tried to move his head away from the raven, the pain in his forehead and his mind momentarily eclipsing his fear of the harsh landing awaiting him as he looked up past the white of the clouds toward the black of the unending sky beyond them.

The dappled beings hurriedly cross what looked to be a lake, sprinting across a natural stone formation that looked like a bridge. They weren’t all across as the fire lapped at the back of their retreating numbers. Those who’d made it to the other side of the water glanced at each other, a sound not unlike but so different to singing emerging from behind their lips that sounded panicked and frightened. Some who knelt by the shore answered in a sad but resolute song. They placed their hands to the bridge and with a loud, discordant scream caused it to collapse into the water. Even as those who had still been upon the bridge thrashed and screamed in the deceptively calm blue their songs of sorrow were somehow beautiful.

Bran didn’t want to see this. He could only think of one thing that matched the description of the things he was seeing: The Children of the Forest. But this…this was all wrong. He didn’t want their horror echoing in his mind like a ringing bell that couldn’t be unheard even when he clapped his hands to his ears. He’d never truly seen a man die before his father and brothers had brought him along to see the execution of the Night’s Watch deserter just before the king’s party had arrived. But the raven pecked again and he had no choice.

They waited by the shore edge as the fire stayed behind the barrier of water. As they moved away from the shore and started moving up the land, it quieted till it was only the glow of a distant sunrise on the horizon. They recovered as the trees regrew around them. But then something else came. Men emerged from the forest, their bronze weapons glittering in the light between the cold of the mountains behind them and the forest of their home. Blood flashed upon their weapons as the children fought back. Only a few of those who had destroyed the stone bridge stepped forth during the battle this time. They placed their hands to the ground, their power welling. But whether it was because they were fewer now or because of the hesitation so clearly displayed on their inhuman faces they didn’t destroy the land entirely. Water rushed to fill the ground and what was once forest and grass became swamp and muck.

Bran remembered Old Nan telling that story of how the Children had created the Neck in order to stop the advance of the First Men. And how it had proven ultimately fruitless. The air whistled in his ears as he drew ever further away from the clouds and ever closer to the ground.

The Men and Children tentatively approached each other: both groups wounded, tired and barely able to stand on their feet. Their hands clasped in truce at last. But as they moved away to patch themselves, seven shooting stars landed somewhere below them. And then more men came: the emblem of the seven carved into their chest in bloody furrows, mouths opened in a hateful screech that made the children’s eyes clench shut out of instinctive aversion, iron weapons thirsting for all they could carve. They slaughtered Man and Child alike before they were at last stopped within the swamp. As the last of what Bran could only assume were the Children’s version of Shamans waved away the last of their species and the rest of the First Men, they remained. As they sat in watchfulness in the swampy area, the invaders gnashing their teeth and waving their iron shields in a display of pointless bravado, the Shamans rapidly decomposed and joined the ground of the swamp itself. As they did, the roots of the trees grew thicker. Beasts sprang up where there’d been none before and the canopy formed a very rudimentary wall against these men Bran knew now to be Andals. And so the Children left the company of the First Men and drove themselves further North where at last they came to a frozen wasteland where virtually nothing grew.

“What do you want?!” Bran called, his voice almost lost on the air.

“Learn! Learn!” Called the three-eyed raven as it pecked at his forehead again.

In spite of all their hardship, all they had suffered, the Children still tried to make something grow in this place. They tried time and again. They failed time and again. As the wind whipped at them and the flakes of snow grew sharp as blades they gathered in the one tree that had been watered in their blood and fed by their bones. And as they looked hopelessly at the cold encroaching darkness, they made a decision. Very carefully, they picked some of the debris from the weirwood tree’s roots and dried it on the tattered animal pelts. And as they gathered the wood together they struck small flints together to create a fire. When the fire began to burn beyond a few sizzling crackles of drying wood, they somehow pushed the fire out of the sanctuary of the trees into the cold. For they had been burned badly by it once before. And as they did, Bran watched the swirling winds of winter surround and attempt to envelop the small flame. Whilst the Children remained safely ensconced within the embrace of the weirwood for having at last bought themselves a respite from the cold that surely would’ve finished them.

“Learn what?!” Bran called, his back tingling even as he feared trying to turn over in the air to see just how close he was to the unforgiving ground.

“Fly! Fly!” Called the three-eyed raven.

“HOW?!” Bran called in panic as the tingling spread throughout his body alongside a strange heat that felt too strong to be the rays of the sun.

“Try! Try!” Called the three-eyed raven. As it pecked again, its beak drove past the skin into the bone of Bran’s skull.

Bran screamed as the strange feeling burst in his skull just between his eyes and the foreign heat quickly grew unbearable inside his body. Images and feelings rushed through him too fast for him to comprehend. When at last he awoke he was thrashing in very hot water, naked as the day he was born.

“Bran! Bran, you’re alright!” Exclaimed a familiar voice by his side. Bran stopped thrashing as though he were falling to look at the person next to him.

It was Jon, his half-brother. As he looked at him Bran saw in his mind’s eye the image of Jon driving a blade into his throat before harshly withdrawing it and setting his dying body aflame. Jon moved through the water, the light of the moon reflecting off the pool in what Bran now recognized was the weirwood clearing their lord father often frequented to seek the guidance of the Old Gods. As he did Bran saw that same light reflect off the blood that was still drying upon his right hand and scrambled through the water for the weirwood tree nearby.

Jon stopped as Bran hauled himself out of the water and into the roots of the bone white tree, huddled beneath the face that cried red sap from its carved eyes. Bran couldn’t help the panic rising in him over seeing Jon with the blood fresh on his hand: he couldn’t help but think that he was going to stick him with the discarded dagger that was now suspiciously absent from his sight no matter where he looked.

especially after what he did to she who trusted enough to call him pack

Jon’s grey eyes looked hurt at Bran’s fear. He held his hands up in a placating gesture of surrender. The water was still steaming from how hot it had recently become and yet Jon didn’t seem bothered by it at all.

why should he when he commands the consuming light that destroys all it touches

“Bran? What’s wrong?” Came Jon’s gentle question as he slowly drew closer, acting as though he were afraid he was going to spook Bran into running. Which despite the young boy’s nudity was a distinct possibility as more feelings and memories rushed through Bran’s mind. He remembered being gored by a stag’s horn as Jon brought fire to his chest to heal the deep gouge. How did he remember something that had never happened?

Lightbringer once gave life now take life how deep does your treachery run

“What did you do to me Jon?” He asked, trying not to shake from the cold of the air and the fear he couldn’t help but feel as he looked at his half-brother he had never thought would harm him.

“I healed you.” Jon answered carefully.

“You fell from the Broken Tower. You wouldn’t wake. Maester Luwin told everyone you would live after the first day when he treated your immediate injuries. But outside of that, no one knew what you would be like when you awoke. Or if you would. So I…” Jon trailed off by the end, glancing to his left at what looked to be a blackened area of earth that stood out from the rest of what was normally green.

“What? What did you do?” Bran asked, his breathing calming as he managed to focus on the here and now instead of the feelings of fright and sadness that Jon’s gaze evoked in him.

His half-brother was silent for several beats before he answered in a whisper.

“…I did what was asked of me.”

Bran could only see Jon’s eyes in profile from this angle, but what he could see made Jon’s eyes seem shadowed. As if he’d shut something away inside himself so he wouldn’t have to think about it more than absolutely necessary.

He turned to directly face Bran again, a pleading expression on his face.

“Please Bran, let’s get you back inside. Lady Catelyn and our lord father have been worried sick over you.” He asked quietly.

Bran slowly stood, his bare back scratching on the bark of the weirwood tree.

“Where are my clothes Jon?” He asked, looking around the clearing again for them as he tried to get this strange irrational fear of Jon out of his system.

not irrational no not when he can weep fluid for clear eyes while he sticks the claw in your craw

Jon looked a bit relieved at Brans’ acceptance of his explanation but couldn’t hide the tint of sadness that Bran still would try not to look directly at him.

“Over there.” He said, turning to his right and pointing at a clothing pile by the side of the pool. It looked to be mostly in Bran’s size. Bran quickly darted over to the clothing and dressed himself as Jon climbed slowly out of the pool, the sodden trousers on his legs steaming in the moonlight.

Bran couldn’t help but see out of the corner of his eye that Jon’s pants were drying faster than expected. And as he drew closer to the clothing pile he carefully picked up a wool spun tunic to slip over his head. As he did, Bran once again had his eyes inadvertently drawn to the jagged white lines that stood out in marked contrast to the slightly darker tone of Jon’s flesh that made it look as though he had a lightning storm trapped within the skin of his left arm. He and others had asked Jon time and again since his return how he had acquired such a strange scar but all he would ever say was that he’d been burned by a very powerful fire.

every fire no matter how small holds the power to destroy within its lapping ever spreading tendrils that is all it has ever been and all it shall ever be since the first flame drove them away to unknown to exile to cold to death

Once they were dressed Jon came a bit closer and started whispering.

“When we go back, I need you to follow me closely and quietly Bran.” Jon instructed softly. Just as Bran was about to ask why, Jon proceeded to explain.

“There’s still uncertainty in our family as to whether your fall was accident or foul play. If you’re seen healthy and hale again, it could get back to the ones who tried to kill you before we’re ready. That’s why I healed you in the dead of night like this.”

Bran felt a shiver run up his spine as two voices briefly echoed in his head.

“He saw us! He saw us!” “The things I do for love…”

“Bran?” Jon asked with concern in his expression. As he drew closer, Bran instinctively shied away from him. All he could see when Jon came closer was a blade flashing and his blood spilling beneath his sorrow filled gaze.

“I-it’s nothing.” Bran insisted shakily. He took a breath to steel himself and cease his involuntary shaking. What was wrong with him? He’d never had any problem with Jon before. His half-brother had in fact been the one he would turn to for help if father or Rodrik Cassel or Maester Luwin weren’t available.

eyes the color of ash reducing everything he touches to the same fire cannot change the devastation it always leaves in its wake only the scale

But that was neither here nor there. Jon nodded, asking no more questions as he gestured for Bran to follow him. As they made their way carefully past the patrols Bran saw and moved from shadow to shadow like thieves in the night, he couldn’t help but wonder if Jon thought perhaps it was someone within their own house that had been responsible for his injuries. Or if they would inform the ones who were.

Before Bran knew it they were before Maester Luwins’ chamber. Jon gently knocked twice before pausing and then proceeding to knock once. The door opened for him and he led Bran into the Maester’s room.

“Bran!” Came the choked voice of his mother a mere moment before he was smothered in her dress with her arms squeezing him to her as though afraid he would disappear if she let him go. But within a few heartbeats he also heard an angry growling coming from somewhere behind her.

Bran quickly struggled to see through his mother’s arms and saw that his direwolf companion was glaring at Jon with a snarl emanating from behind its bared fangs and an enraged glare coming from its yellow eyes.

yellow eyes of mirth light strokes of the tongue soft upon the fur like the rays emanating from the ball of light that shone down upon them and lent strength to the traitorous Lightbringer

“Summer?” Bran blurted in question, feeling as though he could see the pup gamboling happily through the weirwood clearing playing with his pack: the contrast between him as a pup and his agitated growling grown form was hurting Bran’s head.

Jon’s eyes became shuttered again and his features shut down.

“I should go Lady Stark.” He said, briefly bowing to her before turning to leave.

“Jon-” came the voice of Maester Luwin as though confused as to both the behavior of Bran’s half-brother and his normally sunny direwolf companion.

“Lady Stark, I would speak with yourself and Lord Stark in his solar as quickly as possible. Good night Bran.” Came the frighteningly flat voice from Jon’s turned away face before the door shut behind him.

As the newly christened Summer bounded over to greet Bran and his mother’s arms remained tight around him, Bran Stark couldn’t even begin to imagine what was happening or how it had come to pass. But he knew it could be nothing good.

Chapter Text

Sansa knew she should’ve been floating above the clouds with happiness as she sat in the queen’s personal carriage with the princess Myrcella and spoke with such highborn, important women about all manner of subject. And yet no matter how much she smiled and remembered her courtly courtesies she couldn’t help but get the nagging feeling that something was wrong within her family. Something she hadn’t been privy to before they left Winterfell to travel south so her father could take his position as the Hand of the King.

Before they’d left it had seemed that Bran had fallen from the Broken Tower climbing. Why he insisted on doing that when their lady mother had warned him multiple times before not to go so high she would never know.

But Maester Luwin had looked after him for several days before finally her lord father had talked the king into the necessity of leaving for the capital since Bran still had not awoken. Her lady mother had taken time from watching over Bran to see them all off at the gate: her face drawn and lined in a way that Sansa didn’t like to see on her normally smiling parent’s face.

Now that she’d been on the road, she’d had nothing but time to reflect since her father was busy riding with the King whilst Arya and Jon spent their time gods only knew what up and down the train that comprised of the royal party, her father’s personally chosen guard as well as the camp followers and servants who had come along with both parties. Hopefully they wouldn’t be making too much trouble seeing as how doing so might make a bad impression on the Queen Cersei or worse her betrothed Prince Joffrey.

Of course, given the way things were developing that may well have been a vain hope on her part.

Jon had refused to give up visiting the brothel in Wintertown or his practicing his strange foreign religion no matter how private he was about doing so.

Arya had grown more quiet yet somehow seemed wilder than she’d been before Jon had left despite all the extra time she spent with Maester Luwin.

Her father was mostly silent and withdrawn unless he was with the king.

Even Lady, Nymeria and Ghost had seemed on edge as the journey had pressed past the Neck into the Riverlands. Well, that wasn’t entirely correct. Lady seemed much the same as ever: prim, well-behaved and innocently affectionate. It was only once she was around her littermates that she seemed to grow uneasy: as if their newfound wariness was affecting her mood.

Sansa felt she could relate somewhat.

She hadn’t spent much-well, any really- time with Jon and Arya this trip and so had no idea what exactly it was they did away from everyone. But determined as she was not to think about it too much it still managed to plague every smile she shared with Princess Myrcella and every politely subdued laugh she gave at the Queen’s wit.

As they came to Plowman’s Keep, the ancestral castle of House Darry, in the afternoon the trains of people began to settle down near the Ruby Ford. There was a quiet peace in the sunlight and the still air as the blades of grass seemed to reach toward the sun overhead.

Lady was in front of her, the leather leash on the harness she wore in Sansa’s hand as she took her for a walk in order to stretch both their legs after so long a time being cooped up.

As she was passing by an area where many of the King’s men appeared to be congregating, she heard a voice calling her. Her heart beat a bit faster as her golden haired prince appeared from out of the men, an easy smirk to his handsome features as his fierce looking and heavily scarred bodyguard Sandor Clegane followed a step or two behind unfalteringly.

“I had never thought to catch a glimpse of your beauty amidst this stinking heap of dogs Lady Sansa.”

Nervous about her appearance in a way she’d never felt before meeting her prince and falling so hard for him, Sansa hurriedly curtsied and felt a blush bloom in her cheeks as she answered him.

“I thank you for your kind words my sweet prince.”

She avoided looking at Sandor Clegane, not wanting to offend the man with staring as it seemed he was somewhat sensitive about people looking upon his scarred face for too long. Though she had evidently not been as subtle as she thought when her prince brought his hand to gently hold her chin with his thumb and forefinger as he glanced at his bodyguard before speaking again.

“Does his appearance frighten you my lady?” Joffrey asked kindly, smirk still in place. He turned to Clegane to address him.

“Away with you dog! Your face is upsetting to my lady.” He commanded, sounding very much like the golden prince he was.

Clegane turned and walked without so much as a word, his hulking form seeming more intimidating than most with the dark armor that adorned him and the two handed greatsword strapped to his back.

Joffrey smiled again before gesturing toward the fields nearby.

“Let us enjoy the natural beauty of this place without the sweat and stink of the camp.” He said.

Sansa could only nod happily, her heart beating faster in response to the sun glinting off his golden hair as she and Lady followed along behind him.

As they walked beneath the bright sun along the grass with only the sound of the Trident River breaking the silence of the atmosphere, Sansa couldn’t help but think that this was like something out of one of the stories her mother had used to tell her and Arya when they were young ladies of Lords who courted their future Lady Wife by wooing her. Except she wouldn’t simply be another Lady: she would be the Queen of the seven kingdoms. The Lady by whom all other ladies set their example. It was a sacred honor and responsibility that only the loveliest and most deserving of noble daughters could ever hope to be given.

“Would you like some wine my lady?” Joffrey asked, interrupting her train of thought as he offered a wine skein he had taken with him without her noticing.

“I don’t know my Prince.” She demurred, trying not to disappoint him but unsure whether she should or not. “My lord father doesn’t permit us to have more than a single goblet of wine at feasts.”

Joffrey’s brow furrowed and his mouth took a severe downturn for a moment before smoothing out into a displeased but imperious expression.

“If my lady wants to have wine, she’ll have wine.” He answered as they came into a clearing directly next to the running water of the Trident.

As she was about to apologize to her beloved, Lady attempted to pull forward on the leash: causing Sansa’s attention to look ahead of them to find a strange sight.

Ghost and Nymeria were on their stomachs nearby the thundering water of the Trident, Nymeria with her tongue out as she idly panted while Ghost simply watched the humans who were in front of he and his sister wolf.

There were three humans in front of them: only two of whom Sansa recognized. The one was her younger sister Arya and the other was her bastard brother Jon. Arya was perched next to an old and gnarled tree upon a nearby rock outcropping that wasn’t even higher than the young girl’s height but was apparently enough for her to consider it a suitable seat despite how much Sansa thought it must be staining the plain roughspun dress she was wearing. Jon on the other hand was wearing what appeared to be a wool tunic with a leather vest covering it, his belt holding a sheathed knife at his left side while his riding boots and leggings were unremarkable in comparison to her golden Prince’s finely made red leather tunic and leggings with golden buttons and shining boots that appeared to have just been polished that morning. Strangely though, she noticed that Jon appeared to have a small misshapen red sash tied to the right side of his belt that she’d never seen before.

She couldn’t imagine where he’d gotten the thing, it was such a rough work only the most incapable of seamstresses could’ve made it. Which meant it was more than likely that for some reason he was keeping a token of Arya’s sewing work tied to his belt.

The third figure was one unknown to Sansa but looked to be in between her own and Arya’s age in namedays. His lank brown hair and unremarkable brown eyes made him a figure of indistinct looks rather than extraordinary ugliness or outstanding handsomeness. He was slightly heavy but nowhere near as overweight as her Prince’s father King Robert. All of his frayed woolen clothing spoke to him being one of the smallfolk. Perhaps of the train that had come with her father from Winterfell, perhaps of the train that had come with the King. Or even from the lands nearby Plowman’s Keep for all she knew.

The smallfolk boy was paying a great deal of attention to Jon as he appeared to hold a fist in front of him and explain something about it. As she looked on in confusion, Lady took advantage of her inattention to bound over to her packmates with a loud and happy bark.

With five sets of eyes turning toward their presence, Sansa couldn’t help but notice a gleam enter her Prince’s eyes as his left hand idly rested on the engraved lion’s head pommel of the short sword he kept sheathed at his left side.

“Excellent.” He said lowly, a smile coming to his face as he strode forward.

Sansa had no choice but to follow behind, wondering why he would consider an interruption to their stroll to be a good thing.

“And what might we have here?” Joffrey asked imperiously, his smirk firmly in place as her sister’s slight smile abruptly became a displeased frown.

No one answered Joffrey for the moment, and Sansa’s face began to flush with embarrassment. The silence was awkward enough without her siblings looking at her and her betrothed as though they were intruding upon something.

“Well?” Came Joffrey’s voice in a slightly sharper tone.

“Do none of you not know enough to answer your Prince when he asks you a question?” He rebuked the three.

The smallfolk boy paled a bit before quickly stuttering out an answer.

“A-Ah, he was jus’ teaching me to fight milord.” He said, pointing to Jon, whose hands had come to rest by his side and whose face had assumed a strange expression of neutrality that reminded Sansa of their father when he was waiting for her siblings to explain their most recent mischief.

Joffrey zeroed in on the smallfolk boy, taking several strides toward him.

“I’m not a lord. I’m your Prince.” He corrected, a definite tone of anger in his voice now.

“And what possible use could a peasant like you have for bare knuckle fighting?” Her betrothed remarked derisively.

Jon chose that moment to interject, increasing Sansa’s mortification further.

“As I was just explaining to Micah, a skilled enough fighter can be a match for an armed man who doesn’t know how to use his weapon.” Her bastard brother said quietly, his voice carrying despite his mild tone. “The same principles apply between armed and unarmed combat. It’s simply a difference in execution.”

Joffrey turned his head to look at Jon, a sneer on his lips.

“Truly?” He asked sarcastically. A queer somehow perversely cruel smile came to his mouth then.

“So, if I were to draw my Lion’s Tooth, would you be able to fight me using only your hands bastard?” He asked, his right hand gripping the handle of his sword.

Arya started to get off her rocky perch, apparently intent on saying something. But Jon looked at her, grey eyes communicating something to her own identical grey gaze that Sansa couldn’t decipher. Despite her lady mother’s physical chastisement the one time she had thought to insinuate such Sansa couldn’t help but think that it was some strange quirk of fate that had placed Arya within the wrong mother: that she had meant to be born as Jon’s twin rather than his younger half-sister.

Her sister settled back upon the rocks, an unhappy look on her face as she did so.

“I would wager so yes. Though I would think such a course of action unwise on both our parts.” Jon answered, slowly moving so that his back was to the gnarled tree beside Arya.

“Perhaps I want to see such a thing for myself.” Joffrey mused aloud moving so that his own body was facing Jon’s. “It should be a good amusement if nothing else.”

“Not if you remember the most important rule of handling blades your grace.” Jon said, a calm to his voice and his posture that Sansa certainly didn’t feel as she stood paralyzed where Joffrey had previously stood beside her, wineskein clutched between her hands as though holding onto it tightly enough would prevent this entire encounter from devolving further into disaster instead of merely uncomfortable.

“And what might that be?” Joffrey smirked, his right hand starting to draw his blade.

Before Sansa could blink, Jon’s right hand flashed forward to grip Joffrey’s own atop his sword handle and pushed it back into its sheath while his open left hand blurred toward her prince’s face as though to strike his beautiful features. But instead it seemed to strike just below his chin, causing Joffrey’s hands to fly towards his own pale throat coughing and wheezing. As he did so, Jon’s right hand remained on the sword’s handle and pulled her prince by his belt toward her half-brother’s right side, his left forearm coming up to cover Joffrey’s hands as they protected his throat.

Spinning in a quick half circle, they’d now reversed positions with Jon’s back facing the field and Joffrey’s back facing the tree. Jon stepped close to Joffrey, his left forearm quickly pressing into her golden prince’s throat even as her lion tried to reverse the direction his hands were facing to instead push Jon’s arm off him even as her bastard brother’s stance definitively trapped his neck between the tree and his forearm.

“The most important rule of handling blades,” Jon said as he drew Lion’s Tooth from its sheath, causing her Prince’s eyes to widen with an abrupt expression of terror.

“Is that you never draw steel unless you intend to use it.” He said, as he brought the blade up to their heads. Seized by an abrupt horror that her bastard brother was going to kill her betrothed, Sansa started to run forward.

“Jon, stop!” She shouted, intent on preventing Jon’s baseborn nature from getting the better of him.

But instead of driving it into her prince, Jon drove the blade halfway into the trunk of the tree next to his head, the sharp sides facing up and down while Joffrey’s ear was just beside the flat of the slightly quivering sword. Before either she or her prince could react to the sudden reprieve, Jon’s forearm had left Joffrey’s throat: allowing him to take one deep breath before Jon’s left hand gripped the back of her betrothed’s head and slammed him face first into the flat of the blade that had been beside his head.

Her prince gave a yelp of pain as the force caused his head to rebound so sharply he fell to the ground on his back. As Sansa hurried over to see whether her prince was hurt, Jon used both hands to drive the blade almost up to the handle into the tree.

“Something to keep the lesson in mind your grace.” Jon remarked quietly.

“Arya, Micah. Let us find our way back to camp and get something to eat.”

Arya got down off the outcropping a smile solidly back on her face as she moved to follow Jon without hesitation: her expression clearly showing she didn’t seem to understand how dire it was that Jon had attacked the crown prince. Micah followed along more slowly, his wide eyes going back and forth between Jon and the sword pommel sticking out of the tree as though he couldn’t believe the events he had just witnessed. Ghost and Nymeria followed behind them whilst Lady remained in the clearing with Sansa and her beloved prince.

Almost as though she could sense her concern for her prince’s hurt, Lady quickly moved over to Joffrey: nuzzling near his face with a slight whine.

“Get your damn bitch away from me!” Came his scratchy exclamation as he angrily swatted Lady’s snout with the back of his hand. Lady moved back, a pitiful expression in her eyes as though she were sorry she had worsened his temper.

“My prince, I’m so sorry for my bastard brother’s behavior!” She babbled, not wanting his ire to turn into a reason for him to call off their betrothal. “I swear to you, I didn’t know he would do something like this, I-”

“I don’t care whether you’re sorry or not!” Joffrey declared in a raspy voice, pushing himself to his feet as his right hand absently rubbed at the front of his throat. “Just get out of my sight!!”

Almost in tears, Sansa obeyed, Lady trotting alongside her loyally.

Hours passed in what seemed like minutes to Sansa as she returned to her family’s part of the camp and brooded over the entire disastrous encounter when a Lannister man-at-arms found her to tell her that her presence was being requested in the great hall of Plowman’s Keep.

Wondering what she could possibly be needed for, Sansa obeyed the summons promptly.

As she entered the hall, she noticed many of the king’s retinue such as his Kingsguard, the Queen, her golden Prince and many a Lannister solider were present. By contrast, only her father, Jory Cassel, Jon and Arya were the only members of her own household she could see in the hall.

She noticed that there was an ugly welt across Joffrey’s forehead and Lion’s Tooth was absent from the sheath at his side. The connection immediately became apparent when the queen asked Sansa be brought before the king.

“Sansa Stark, come forward.” She said formally, her golden hair appearing to give her a slight halo in the sunlight that could be seen through the nearby windows.

Trying not to shake from nerves from the lack of warm courtesy the Queen had showed her at the grand feast in Winterfell and on the road thus far, Sansa obeyed: curtsying before the king as her mind raced in wondering what was going to happen.

“You know why you’ve been called here girl?” The king asked gruffly, his complexion somewhat ruddy and his eyes slightly squinted as though in some amount of pain.

“I must confess ignorance your grace.” She answered.

The king sent a glance toward the queen that seemed to radiate exasperation.

“I would think that answer would prove well enough whether the boy is lying or not.” He said sarcastically.

“Are you certain there is nothing you wish to confess?” The queen asked, ignoring the king’s statement. Her green eyes were intent on Sansa’s own blue as she continued.

“There was nothing that happened this afternoon when you were with Joffrey?” She said.

Sansa felt her heart sink to her knees.

“There…there was a minor quarrel between Prince Joffrey and my bastard brother.” She said, her voice only half as tremulous as her heart felt.

The queen’s gaze grew sharp as a blade.

“Your father’s bastard assaulted your betrothed; the crown prince of the realm. Is that a minor offense in your eyes Lady Sansa?” She rebuked.

“No your grace!” She hurriedly protested. “Of course not!”

“And yet not a moment ago you labeled a bastard instigating a fight with the crown prince a minor quarrel.” She said, waving her left hand in a dismissive gesture.

“I didn’t-I mean, I didn’t mean-” Sansa tried to explain, her hurry to explain what she meant causing her to draw a mental blank on what exactly she did mean to say.

“I’m going to make this very simple little dove: who instigated the fight? Your bastard sibling or your prince?” The queen asked.

“Your grace-” Her father loudly attempted to interject.

“I asked her the question, Lord Stark. I expect her to answer.” The queen snapped without taking her sharp green eyes off Sansa’s increasingly nervous form.

“Than for fuck’s sake let her answer woman!” The king roared back in exasperation.

Sansa couldn’t help how her eyes darted from Jon to Joffrey to the King to the Queen and back and forth in the seconds she had as every gaze in the hall dug into her flesh like dull knives.

“It-It all happened so fast your grace. I couldn’t say for certain.” She finally got out.

“LIAR!!” Came the angry scream from behind her as her hair abruptly pulled her head back.

“YOU FORK-TONGUED LIAR!!” Came the female voice she realized belonged to Arya as Sansa yelped in pain from her pulled hair yanking her scalp.

“Lord Stark, control your daughter!” The queen commanded over her sister’s enraged shouts.

“Arya! Enough!!” Their father rebuked, pulling her off Sansa as Sansa’s eyes watered and her right hand inadvertently reached up to massage the part of her head that had been pulled by the hair Arya had grabbed.

“She’s lying father! Jon didn’t do anything!!” Arya declared angrily.

“Then perhaps we should ask the other witness.” The queen said. With a snap of her fingers, the smallfolk boy was brought forward from behind the Lannister men-at-arms. He looked as miserable and nervous as Sansa felt.

“And who the fuck is this meant to be?” The king asked gruffly.

The boy seemed paralyzed, unsure whether he was to answer or not.

“The butcher’s son.” The queen answered. “He was present when Joffrey was assaulted.”

“Is this true boy?” The king asked without ceremony, looking increasingly irritated by the whole of the proceedings.

“Y-Y-Yes, your grace.” He stammered. “I-I was there. It, ah, it happened as the Lady said. Too fast for anyone to see.”

“Micah?” Came the softly shocked question from Arya, whose grey eyes were wider and looked as though she were seeing something painful occur right in front of her. Sansa noticed the butcher’s boy never looked over at them, instead keeping his gaze firmly fixed between the royal party and the floor.

“Did you even manage to hit him boy?” The king asked her prince.

Joffrey foundered for a moment before he came back with an accusation.

“He attacked when my back was turned! She distracted me for him!!” He accused, pointing at Arya as he did so.

“As though I needed any help to disarm you.” Jon answered quietly.

“What was that?” Came the Queen’s sharp question.

“So you confess that you assaulted the crown prince, the heir to the iron throne?” She elaborated, as though wanting to be sure everyone present knew Jon’s crimes.

“What in the seven hells does it matter woman?” The king blustered.

“Seems to me all that proves is that the nancy boy I call a son didn’t pay enough attention to the damn master-at-arms.” He continued.

“Do you intend to let the people think it is no crime to attack your blood? That there are no repercussions to attacking the blood of the crown?!” The queen demanded.

“And what would you have me do woman: lop Snows’ hands off because my ponce of a son doesn’t know how to fight his own battles?!” The king shot back in return.

“Lash him then. So he learns a lesson in striking his betters.” She riposted.

“How many times did he even strike you boy?!” The king demanded of her prince.

“He-it was…what does it matter?!” Joffrey tried to bluster, his eyes suddenly darting and fearful.

“Twas no more than twice your grace.” Jon offered quietly, taking a step forward from their family as though tacitly offering to accept the punishment.

“Jon!” Their father tried to warn.

“It seems clear enough I’m to be punished Lord Stark. May as well save everyone wasted time arguing.” Jon said, resignation clear in his voice.

Sansa felt unable to move, unable to decide, unable to do much of anything in the face of this newly developing disaster. She didn’t want Jon lashed, not when she had just been trying to get him to be well-thought of by the royal family.

She thought Tyrion Lannister had sarcastically asked if Joffrey was going to administer the punishment himself or if he was going to have Cersei do it for him again at one point but she couldn’t be sure.

It was quickly deemed that Jon would suffer ten lashes for every strike he had landed upon the prince’s person. She had thought that with Jon’s confession that would make the lashes number twenty. But Joffrey claimed that Jon had struck him four times, doubling the number he had to take to forty.

Jon was stripped to the waist and had his arms tied to a training post where the men of Plowman’s Keep practiced their morning drills. As the way Jon was tied to the training post had him facing the nearby wall, there was nothing to see but his back as each lash administered by Illyn Payne drew a line of crimson forth.

And yet all through the punishment Jon emitted no sound. Had it not been for the tensing in his back muscles every time the whip was about to strike, Sansa could truthfully not have said whether he was awake or asleep he bore so little visible reaction.

When at last the forty lashes were finished, he was untied from the post. As if the feeling of his hands being freed was a signal to his tired and abused body Jon collapsed to one knee, his back hunched and as red as a Lannister coat of arms. Disregarding everyone else as she did so, Arya raced forward to put his limp right arm over her shoulders and helped lift him up.

Surprisingly, Lady moved forward with her: her pitiful whines and licks to Jon’s face seemingly attempting to try and help him in what limited way she could. Jon managed to stand mostly of his own power even as Sansa couldn’t get a strange ringing and the phantom sound of additional whip cracks out of her ears as Arya and he slowly turned to bring him back to the castle.

As she hesitantly began to move forward to help her obviously fatigued and almost unconscious half-brother, Arya shot her a look of such venomous loathing that Sansa involuntarily took half a step backward. As Lady followed alongside her sister while they brought Jon inside Plowman’s Keep, Sansa couldn’t help the sinking feeling in her stomach that told her she’d made a terrible mistake.

But what else could she have done?

Chapter Text

Regardless of how much sense it made Ned knew it had been a bad idea to accept Robert’s demand that he become Hand of the King.

As the middle Stark brother, Ned hadn’t been trained with as much emphasis on leadership and ruling lessons as his brother Brandon. It wasn’t out of any personal animosity by his father but out of a sense of practicality that all who grew up the children of a noble house had to either adapt to or fake well enough that others outside the family couldn’t see. The eldest sons were trained in leadership with the expectation that they would rise to the role once it was passed to them. The middle and younger were expected to take the roles of warriors, stewards or loyal allies/liasons (wives in the case of the daughters) to those whose families they married into and their own original family.

There were exceptions to this sort of thing of course.

Lyanna of course was the first that inevitably sprang to his mind. Regardless of their fathers’ attempts to connect the North more firmly to the South, she’d never wanted to be married to Robert: had believed him to be an inherently boorish man who would never truly love her the way he loved himself and his insatiable appetites. He’d been unable to lie to his sister when she asked him whether Robert had any bastards. And whether he’d willingly seen the girl Myra Stone after she’d been born. She hadn’t even bothered to ask about his drinking, such was Robert’s visible enjoyment of the spirits available at the tournament to anyone with eyes and a working brain. Much as Ned couldn’t deny that his sister’s worst supposing about Robert’s habits were true he somehow wished he could’ve conveyed to her how Robert wasn’t a bad man at heart, much as how their brother Brandon’s sometimes rash temper and similar enjoyment of wines and women didn’t make him a bad person.

Other times he wondered if he’d been given the same lessons on leadership and ruling that Brandon had whether he’d have been able to convince his sister of the merit to giving Robert a chance, at showing that he truly wanted to be happy with her and wouldn’t have strayed once they married. Whether it would’ve meant Jon had grown to be the heir to Storm’s End rather than a bastard with a worrying amount of talent in fire magic.

Though of course if Lyanna had been alive right now he’d have been more worried about her spitting nails and plotting to murder the queen in retaliation for the current mess of raw flesh that was Jon’s back after being given Illyn Payne’s tender care.

Following his being whipped forty times for striking the crown prince, Jon had barely managed to limp back to one of the guest rooms of Plowman’s Keep with Arya and Lady by his side the whole way. Ned had been seething at the treatment of his bastard son even as the boy had carefully exposed his back to the burning torch in his chamber with only Ned, Arya and the direwolves to witness the skin carefully knit itself back together into a mess of scar tissue that was difficult to look at even as Jon reassured him that he would have full functionality even as he refused to rid himself of the ugly lines criss crossing his back as Ned knew he was capable of. Jon claimed it was so that none could become too suspicious of the full extent of his healing abilities. Though considering the only direwolf who had shown him any overt affection or come over close to him since they left Winterfell had been Lady, Ned suspected it was at least partially a self-inflicted form of penance for what he’d done to the direwolf matriarch he’d named Frost. It was a combination of that suspicion and the kind of thinking that Jon was showing more and more of that had Ned questioning the wisdom of continuing onto King’s Landing even keeping in mind the talk between himself, his illegitimate nephew and his lady wife before they’d left for the capital. As he remained uncharacteristically silent in the face of Robert’s awkward apology over the party’s midday pause for food and rest, he’d given serious thought to taking his family straight back to Winterfell where they belonged, though he was forcibly reminded of the things that had been said in his solar when Jon had returned Bran to full health.

He remembered vividly how it had been so abrupt when Jon had returned in the darkest part of night from the Godswood with a conscious Bran and a deadened look in his eyes. When his lady wife had brought him to his solar, telling him that Jon needed to speak with them about Bran and his recovery, Ned had said a private prayer of thanks to the world that had been merciful enough to have a means for Bran to recover from his injuries.

Though of course he was a bit less thankful when he and Catelyn came close enough to hear Jon’s voice murmuring in his study as though speaking to someone. As they’d entered, Jon’s grey eyes were focused upon the crackling fire burning in the hearth. A sibilant whispering that sounded equal parts logs splintering under the heat and a caressing hiss that he might associate with a serpent dripping its poison into someone’s ear emanated from it.

His uneasiness had only increased when Jon revealed as easily as you please that he had been speaking with his mystical father. Catelyn’s unease was obvious in both expression and body though unsurprising considering she had refused to come near Jon by herself ever since he had confirmed his natural ability with unnatural forces and their effect on her second daughter. Though Ned supposed it was as much a commentary on the state of his lady wife’s relationship with Jon from before all of this happened that it honestly didn’t seem that different from the way she’d interacted with him previously; save that perhaps there was more fear of him than there was resentment.

Ned sometimes wondered what had happened that had poisoned her so badly against Jon. He knew she had taken his lie about his nephew’s parentage badly. But there had been a time when Jon had still been a helpless babe that he’d been struck by dragon pox and looked sure to die. When that had happened, his lady wife had helped care for him. Had stayed by his side for multiple nights until he was no longer in danger. And then, just as abruptly as she had shown her care of him, she had gone back to her icy loathing and quiet contempt.

Ned didn’t dwell upon those thoughts, as he could never reach any satisfactory conclusion on the mystery no matter how often his mind circled it.

Ned asked Jon if the whispering he heard was the fire god. Cat had looked startled at the revelation that Ned could hear something even as Jon nodded his head evenly. Tilting his head slightly to the right, Jon asked with some curiosity whether her could hear what exactly R’hllor was saying. Before Ned could confess that he didn’t, the whispering resumed and pulled Jon’s attention back to the fire.

“Ah. That explains it.” Was all Jon said when the whispering had abated.

“Explains what?” Came the sharp question from Catelyn, who was looking more lost by the moment.

Jon only answered that if Ned were to hear anything it would most likely come from the Old Gods because he was a believer of the Old Gods who was descended from other believers in the Old Gods. And while he may catch glimpses of the other world if its presence was strong enough, the only one he was in any way attuned to was the Weirwood faces and the Children who had been their caretakers for so long. Unsettled by the talk of divinity and the world of spirits that he’d never fully believed in, Ned had instead steered the topic to what he hoped was a simpler subject: what Jon had done to heal Bran.

He almost wished he hadn’t asked when Jon explained that the Old Gods had plans in place for Bran. Plans they had not been willing to relinquish him from. Hearing about how Jon had bargained and pleaded with the Gods who were supposed to watch over his family to prevent Bran from being permanently crippled was enough to chill Ned’s blood. Especially when Jon paused when he reached what had been done to seal the agreement between himself, R’hllor and the Old Gods.

“The world of the gods is not like the world of men Lord Stark.” He said quietly. “When they strike a good faith bargain, they cannot simply turn their back upon it. The belief and the sacrifice of their followers is what gives them power. Without that strength of will from men they cannot live. And so, they literally live or die by the strength of their oaths that bind them to the world men reside in.”

Catelyn had objected at this, saying the Seven did not work the same as the Old Gods or Jon’s patron Red God.

“Do you imagine the oaths of faithful service knights take are meant to be mere formalities to the Seven Lady Stark?” He asked in turn. “What do you believe the rituals the Book of the Seven holds for marriage, testimony and fealty to be? The prayers, the methods of worship, the services conducted by the Septons and Septas are their way of accumulating many smaller sacrifices. Sacrifices of time. Of memory. Of symbolic and literal prostration before them. Simply because they do not offer visible power in turn does not make what they ask of others any less.”

Catelyn had gained an edge of panic to her expression as he said this, as though questioning whether the Seven would be angry with the life she had lived here in one of the three kingdoms that did not ascribe to their belief system.

“When you make a promise to the gods, you must be willing to make a sacrifice in return. And for the sacrifice to mean anything to the gods…” He paused as he bowed his head forward, dark hair shadowing his expression from them for a moment.

“It must first mean something to you.” He finished in a whisper.

Ned allowed the silence to linger in the air.

“What…” He almost couldn’t bear to finish the question. But he had to. As Lord of Winterfell and as Bran’s father, he had to know what he was dealing with.

“What sacrifice was made?” He asked.

Jon did not answer for a time. As his eyes met Ned’s again, he drew and exhaled shakily.

“I asked that he be healed. They demanded his greensight be strengthened. The sacrifice that fulfilled both purposes was…was Frost.” He finished almost inaudibly.

From there, Jon had told them that Bran’s memory and thought process was likely to be jumbled for a short but indeterminable time now that his gift had been strengthened. He had suggested that in place of keeping the entire royal party here on the slim chance that Bran recovered his memory before the person or persons responsible for his injury heard of his miraculous recovery and tried to silence him that they instead make for King’s Landing with all haste while hiding Bran within Luwin’s sleeping chambers.

Ned thought it a testament to how rattling the conversation about the intricacies of otherworldly matters was to Cat that his wife could barely bring herself to object to the planned deception even as it lent an urgency to Ned’s need to investigate the possibility of Lannister involvement in Jon Arryn’s death that Cat had received word about in a secret missive from her sister Lysa only the night before.

All of this following so quickly on the heels of Benjen bringing him news of the wildlings massing beyond the wall and a lone survivor of a massacred patrol babbling about ice creatures and dead men who spoke of winter coming, not to mention Jon confiding in private that the survivor was likely telling the truth; it was enough to drive Ned to drink were he that kind of man. But instead he did as he knew he must: square his shoulders, take a deep breath and solider forward while praying for the best.

As they came upon King’s Landing, Ned’s uneasiness grew as he remembered that here in the capital the greatest otherworldly influence was his wife’s Seven gods. The single weirwood in the garden of the Red Keep had long been considered a token decoration that didn’t even have a face: leaving it blind and unseeing as a dead man. The only other sort of foreign priest he’d ever heard spoken of was Thoros of Myr and he was more often than not Robert’s drinking competition rather than any kind of spiritual guide.

They’d not separated the Stark portion of the train from the royal portion until they entered the Red Keep through the main gate and split their parties so that the King’s people could return to their duties in the keep and the Stark train could set up their quarters in the Tower of the Hand. Ned didn’t think it exaggeration to say that even though the city itself and the Red Keep too were quite the sprawling sights that the awe they might’ve felt was almost completely offset and dampened by the fact that the overwhelming stench of human waste permeated every inch of the city air. It had been so bad that many of the royal train had said nothing as they drew near to the city while almost all the Stark retainers had begun discussing among one another why it smelled so much like something had messily shit itself before dying in a pool of that very same filth.

No great surprise considering that the capital had never been built with a population of near 500,000 in mind. The slums far and away outnumbered the grand buildings such as the Red Keep or the Sept of Baelor or even the homes of the nobility. Even so it would be good to get off the road and at last sleep in a private bed away from potentially prying ears.

As he disembarked from his horse, Ned was greeted by a messenger bearing the livery of the king.

“My lord.” He greeted with a short formal bow before standing up again.

“The small council has been gathered and has sent word for you.”

Ned nearly groaned aloud at the words. Not even cleaned from the dust and filth of the road and already he was forced to play politics. He dismounted his horse and asked the obvious question.

“Could this not have waited?”

“Apologies my lord.” The messenger said. “But the small council has insisted that the needs of the kingdom must be tended to by the new hand as soon as possible.”

Ned came less than an inch from growling out of sheer frustration. Yet he knew the messenger (and the small council by extension) had a point. The realm came first.

He handed his reins to Jory, instructing him to get his family settled in the tower of the hand while he took care of this.

“Do you not wish to change my lord?” The messenger asked, voice unsure as if he didn’t know whether he should be saying such out loud. Ned merely pulled off his riding gloves in response, intending to go straight to the small council meeting as asked.

Perhaps a bit petty, but he would take what petty victories he could if this was any indication as to what his time in the capital was to be.

As he came through the throne room he encountered Jaime Lannister. The golden haired kingsguard had been standing quietly by the throne, seemingly lost in his own thoughts. Ned had thought to simply walk past him without having to interact with the overly full of himself man.

But alas it was not to be.

“Ah. Lord Stark.” He greeted in a cordial tone, brightly mocking smile already up.

“Good to see you here. It’s about time we had some stern northern justice brought to bear.”

Ned still intended to ignore him as he moved toward the chamber of the small council with an acknowledging grunt.

“I was here when Aerys killed them you know.” He continued.

Ned stiffened almost imperceptibly as the Lannister swordsman began talking about the execution of his brother and father.

“He struggled mightily your brother. He truly was determined to reach your father. Probably didn’t help that the only sounds he could hear were the screams and Aery’s mad laugh.” He said.

Ned couldn’t stop himself from answering now.

“And all the time you stood there watching.” He finished, accusation leaking through.

Lannister’s eyes and smile dimmed a fraction as he looked at the iron throne.

“We stood there watching.” He corrected.

“You seem to be laboring under the mistaken impression that I was the only witness to the king’s brutality against your family Lord Stark. Arthur Dayne, Barristan Selmy, Gerrold Hightower. All the kingsguard was present in case we had to guard him from the dangerous prisoners he was to sentence. There was many an additional courier and minor noble who turned out to see the king’s justice done too. Fully counted, I believe there was over five hundred witnesses to the end of your brother and father. And beside the Mad King’s cackling and your father’s cries of agony, this room was silent as a tomb.”

Ned had no answer to that. He did not like to think how it was possible that so many had allowed the Mad King to kill so barbarically. That it had come so far as civil war because so many supposedly good people had stood by and done nothing.

“And when my sword tasted the Mad King’s blood, I remembered their faces.” Lannister told him, his expression lighter now; as if he was convinced Ned could see what he was talking about. “The faces of those who’d all suffered because of him. And it felt like justice.”

“What a world you must live in where a sword in the back is considered justice Ser Jaime.” Ned remarked.

The Lannister kingsguard took a few steps closer to Ned so that they were both beneath the steps leading up to the iron throne, its myriad melted together blades casting a chaotic shadow in the noontime light of the stained-glass windows.

“I suppose if I’d stabbed him in the belly you’d think me more honorable then?” He asked facetiously.

Ned took one step closer to Ser Jaime and looked him dead in the eye so the younger man could see him fully. He wanted him to understand his position with no mistakes and no posturing.

“I think when serving the Mad King was safe, you served the crown.” Ned said.

“I think when your father proved it would be safer serving him, you served your father.” He continued.

“And now I am forced to wonder how well you’ll serve King Robert, if serving him no longer proves safe enough for your tastes.” He concluded, turning on his heel to walk towards the small council chamber.
“Perhaps you should ask Ser Barristan that question. He saw the merit in the King’s safety before I did.” Came the parting shot behind him.

Ned pushed the doors open with a loud creek, determined to put the Kingslayer’s words out of his mind. As he beheld the members of the small council, he couldn’t help the lingering gaze he cast upon Ser Barristan Selmy (who was present to represent the Kingsguard) and wonder at the small part of himself that shamefully agreed with Ser Jaime’s last remark. But he couldn’t dwell upon it. He had to trust somebody in this godsforsaken city. And if not a man like Ser Barristan, then who?

Chapter Text

The difference between the Stark ancestral home of Winterfell and the Red Keep of King’s Landing could not have been greater in Jon’s mind.

Winterfell had always felt very self-contained to Jon. The initial drum keep from when the Stark ancestral home had first been built remained where it had first been, perhaps the only complete building from the Age of Heroes or earlier. While everything else rose around it like weeds in a garden, as a whole Winterfell had always felt more like a fortress; with the additions of the towers and walls limited and encompassing only what it needed to.

Even the smallfolk dwellings that loosely constituted what they called Wintertown were for the most part a smaller, self-sustained area that didn’t have much beyond the whorehouse, some of the farmer’s dwellings, a granary and other smaller homes that were only ever occupied when the Stark family words proved true and winter swept across the realm.

By contrast, the Red Keep was a dizzying structure: seeming to have been built to reach as high and as wide as it could across the hill it was situated on. Relatively speaking, the tower of the hand where Lord Stark’s quarters resided was a small part of that. But even that was enough for all of his lord uncle’s retinue plus his sisters and himself to sleep comfortably without being cramped together.

Jon could easily believe the stories that circulated about Maegor the Cruel and his desire to have all the greatest builders in the land construct the keep as a monument to the ruling dynasty and reminder of the power the Targaryens wielded. Though he supposed the Targaryen king’s decision to murder all the builders after they had completed its construction should’ve served as an early warning that maybe the royal family was not altogether entirely sane as they perhaps should’ve been.

‘Then again, I suppose one must be somewhat mad to believe themselves destined to rule over others.’ Jon reflected as he continued his wanderings through the streets of King’s Landing, his footwork sure even in the face of the heavy flow of bodies all around him that darted to and from seemingly everywhere and nowhere as they all bustled about to live their lives another day.

‘It would certainly explain some of father’s way of thinking.’ Another part of his brain couldn’t help but add as he thought back to the discussion with R’hllor that had prompted this repeated exploration of the capital.

“Why must I map the city out Lord R’hllor?” He’d asked the burning brazier as the flame flickered.

“Do you truly think it useless to become familiar with this city whilst your Lord Stark attempts to play politics?” The fire god had asked in return, his voice scratchy and almost laconic sounding.

It still unnerved Jon on a subconscious level how he rarely heard the same voice twice when his mystical father talked to him and how his voice shifted so seamlessly from one to the other as easily one might put on and take off a set of riding gloves.

“No, but that cannot be the only reason you would suggest this.” Jon answered.

“Of course it isn’t young spark.” His father confirmed. “But it is as good a reason as any to give when they who command your unseen minders inevitably ask.”

Jon leaned closer to the brazier, reminded by his father’s answer that the walls of the Red Keep likely had unwelcome ears listening even as he spoke.

“And what am I meant to be seeking that I must chart the city within my mind?” He asked once more, though quieter than he had previously.

The fire flickered briefly, giving Jon a brief impression of a single slitted dragon’s eye gazing back at him before his father’s response came.

“The place where unnatural fire slumbers in the shadow of our natural fire’s death.” Came the almost whisper. “Listen for their crackling echoes amidst the smaller sparks. And when you do, you shall find a glimpse of our intentions.”

And so Jon had wandered, his fire vision occasionally turned on as he gravitated toward the areas of humanity that shone brightest with heat under the sun’s relentless rays. The docks, the areas where a tournament was apparently being set up in honor of Lord Stark’s appointment as Hand of the King, the Great Sept of Baelor. And now he came to a large but obviously neglected building: the sad remains of the Dragon Pits.

Jon stood before the entrance, seeing that what remained of the once large and solid doors was rotting away to nothing. The entrance was wide enough that ten men could comfortably walk abreast into the pits though the height of the building not nearly so impressive as the Sept of Baelor. Jon understood that this was primarily due to the fact that the bulk of the Dragon Pit was located below ground and had been built that way so as to make it easier to contain the dragons. After all, dragons were far too large to be held back by cages that were out in the open air and were unlikely to be tamed long enough to come and go on command as the ravens of the citadel were.

Though it had proven the death of them during the civil war that the maesters and noble houses alike now referred to as the Dance of Dragons.

Jon slowly made his way inside, observing the dust and the dirt that darkened the insides of the building save for a few out of the way areas where recent tracks suggested people had come recently. The silence in this place was deafening. Even the light that shone through the partially collapsed dome that once served as the ceiling did little to alleviate the sense of emptiness that resounded through this open area.

It almost reminded Jon of the few descriptions Maester Luwin had given them of the gladiatorial arenas in the Free Cities: the raised walls off the main floor where he stood, the circular design of the building, the seats that were partially hidden in the gloom but would’ve provided great seating for all who would’ve desired to see what was to occur in the arena below. Even the bulk of the area being kept underground in order to keep the fighters and the pit animals out of sight of the crowd until they were to be brought up and so serve as a surprise as well as blood-stained entertainment.

As Jon closed his eyes and extended his fire sense around him, his magic resonated through the walls and floor, making him draw a sharp involuntary breath. He could see faint impressions: old residuals of once extremely large dragon foot prints all around the floor, and even what appeared to be residue from the time Dreamfyre had attempted to escape the death of her draconic brethren upon the remains of the roof.
Over to his left he could see what appeared to be a gigantic tunnel sloping down into shadow behind a great pile of rubble. Instinctively he opened his eyes: physical world and fire sense creating a mishmash of images that was at once beautiful and chaotic to look at. His footsteps barely disturbed the black sand that remained upon the abandoned floor of this place. His training under the gaze his father’s crackling fires had done wonders for his movement and coordination even for so simple a thing as walking.

As he reached the rubble, he deftly moved up toward the top of it and then leapt down the other side of it, the gloom all but impenetrable to the light of the noonday sun that did manage to make its way through the cracked dome and non-existent door.

The residuals of when the dragons had lived and stepped across the floor here still shone on the ground, somewhat muted and faded. But there had been too many of them for it to fade entirely. He watched his footing as he made his way down the colossal steps, only coming to the edge of one step for every five he took.

As he traveled in a slow circular path down the hall that had obviously been meant for other dragons to traverse from beneath the pit to the top of it, he noticed that the larger footsteps grew dimmer as he went down. He’d known the Targaryen dragons had never been numerous to begin with and had decreased in size for some time after they’d come to Westeros. Dramatically so after the Dance of Dragons. But to see how large they’d once been and to remember that Maester Luwin had told them how the last few Targaryen dragons hadn’t been bigger than fully grown dogs…

It brought a pain to his chest to imagine them growing weaker and weaker generation by generation. To bear their young and live and die, never knowing that with every successive breeding they grew weaker. Each iteration a paler copy of the one that had come before them until at last they were gone altogether.

Like a fire slowly burning lower and lower until only embers and then finally cold ashes were all that remained.

Jon supposed that perhaps with Prince Rhaegar’s brother and sister across the Narrow Sea in Essos, the Targaryens were only in the ember stage. But still they were dying. And for all their attempts at hoarding and growing their power, the Targaryens had never seemed to understand that fire had to expand if it was to grow stronger. It couldn’t cannibalize itself forever without fresh fuel.

Though perhaps Jon himself wasn’t precisely an objective observer ever since R’hllor had admitted during one of their private talks that the Targaryens were descended from one of R’hllor’s demigod children and so were technically Jon’s great many times over nieces and nephews. Which in a strange way made Jon a great many times over uncle to King Robert if the ancient stories of Orys Baratheon’s status as a Targaryen bastard held any truth to them.

It gave Jon a headache trying to contemplate just how complicated the family tree was on his father’s side and so he studiously avoided thinking about it anymore than absolutely necessary.

But now he couldn’t have that luxury.

Not when he at last came to the completely dark area beneath the floor level of the dragon pits and saw the enormous alcoves that had been constructed to house the dragons. Jon counted roughly forty of the things. An optimistic thought on King Maegor’s part. Though considering the temperament that had earned him his moniker, perhaps ambitious or ominous would’ve been the better term for it. Though unrealistic couldn’t be ruled out either.

Now his physical eyes could discern nothing in the pitch blackness here. It felt more like a tomb here than Winterfell’s crypts ever had. Especially when the very faint impressions of the dragons he could see in the stone made it feel like he was watching the last wisps of their ghosts as they slowly faded from the physical world as their spirits faded from living memory.

These had been where dragons lived. These were the creatures that R’hllor had helped to create when first he and the Other had become aware of their own nature. The dragons had thrived for a long time, continued to do so on a place somewhere between the Iron Islands and Yi Ti if the amused but indirect answers he had given Jon’s questions on the matter were to be believed.

Jon thought back to Ghost and the direwolves. How would he feel, watching them bear their litters, only for their children and their children’s children to grow smaller and remember less and less of their parents with each breeding? To one day look upon the descendants of what had once been his friend, even distant as the direwolf had become since Frost’s death, and see a fraction of the watchfulness, of the cunning, of the strength that had so called to Jon?

Jon’s right hand involuntarily ignited as he held it aloft toward the center of the circular area. He was a lone flame in the darkness, trying to act as a beacon to something that was near dead in this part of the world.

As he strode to the center of the area, he thought he heard something shift. He turned toward it, moving forward cautiously. And as he came closer, he found his blood running cold.

Wildfyre. Barrels of the stuff.

He hurriedly tried to ascertain if he could see any of the signature green substance leaking out of any of it. But a check revealed that miraculously, none of the barrels had leaked. And a good thing too, considering that one spark could prove enough to set them off. And in light of the stories of wildfyre managing to melt stone, burn upon water and continuing burning for days when lit, Jon didn’t think it an exaggeration to say that this stuff going off would be catastrophic.

With a start he remembered what his father had said he was looking for.

“Unnatural fire slumbering in the shadow of his natural fire’s death.” Jon whispered incredulously.

“Lord R’hllor!” He called to the fire in his hand, reaching out with all the prayers he could muster.

“Yes, young spark?” Came the whisper from his hand.

Jon couldn’t even properly formulate what he was thinking or what he had just discovered and so said the first thing that came to his mind.

“How?!”

“You would ask a god of fire how they know of a fire being made that so closely resembles the one which they created and bestowed upon living creatures so long ago?” R’hllor asked in response. Jon could practically hear the raised eyebrow in his voice.

“Why?!?” Came the second instinctive response.

“We admit, we cannot interpret which why you ask young spark.” Came R’hllor’s chuckling answer, now a scratchy woman’s voice.

“Why didn’t you tell anyone of this?! Why didn’t you tell me!!” Jon asked, angry that R’hllor didn’t appear to be taking this seriously.

“We did tell you to find this. Or are you prepared to claim you would have searched what these people call the Dragon Pits if we had not told you what you were looking for?” R’hllor asked.

“But why didn’t you-” Jon tried to ask before his father overrode him.

“And who else would we have told of this? We only have one true believer, one faithless worshiper and one true expression of our power within all of Westeros. None of which put us in any position to act upon what we knew until now.” R’hllor explained.

“And even had we tried to contact the believer or the faithless, they cannot hear us as you can. They can only hear us as they imagine us to be. And so we cannot tell them anything they are not prepared to hear and we cannot show them what they will not see.” He continued before Jon had a chance to say anything.

Jon felt some color rise in his cheeks at that. He kept forgetting that he and Arya were the only people capable of hearing R’hllor’s…voice, such as it was, instead of seeing only visions or hearing only whispers that were reflections distorted through their own reflections of their sight and voice. Hence why his presence was so chaotic and so strange yet so familiar.

“But why couldn’t you have just said there was Wildfyre and you wanted me to find it?” Jon finally asked, tacitly accept why R’hllor had only told him if not agreeing with the assertion that he had been direct.

“There is only so much we can tell you child.” R’hllor answered. “The exploration was meant to be as much a part of your discovery as this place was.”

“What do you mean?” Jon asked as he came back to the center of the underground pit, looking around at the faded impressions of the dragons who had once been here.

“Had we not told you to explore the city looking for something you did not know what, how much of it would you have sought out on your own?” R’hllor asked him.

“Near none of it.” Jon answered.

“What then would you know of this city and its people?” R’hllor prompted.

“I wouldn’t know how many are watching every step people take, wondering if they can steal a few silvers for a meal they never know if they will have that day.” Jon answered, thinking back to the poverty and suffering he saw as he had explored. Closer to the Red Keep the nobles and wealthier merchants kept their manses whilst there was many an almhouse or charity building by the Great Sept. But here by the Dragon Pits, where the brothels reigned supreme and the people had neither access to the Kingswood nor Blackwater Bay?

It was a truly wretched place in many respects.

And yet Jon had seen kindness too. Children who picked others out of the dirt even when the crueler ones had pushed them down. A few men who had left an extra coin that in all likelihood they couldn’t spare for the whores they paid. Whores who looked after each other’s families even in the midst of the squalor that surrounded them. Even a beggar who had pulled an inattentive bastard boy away from the falling contents of an emptied shitbucket. It all reminded him strongly of the vision he’d briefly had of the urchin during his second trial.

“But I never would’ve seen that there are so many who need help. Who can but haven’t the power to do as much as they wish.” He continued.

Jon looked around him, his mind’s eye not seeing the tomb of dragons who had once been nor the fading light of their life that could never come back as it once had. This had once been a place of the fiercest fire, the powerful inferno.

But the inferno was ash now. Perhaps it was time to see what warmer, gentler fires could be kindled from the remains.

“You wanted me to preach to them, to grow your power here.” Jon at last concluded, his voice barely above a whisper.

“We had hoped for conversion, but felt you would be more comfortable with providing haven and protection than spiritual guidance.” R’hllor answered easily in what sounded somewhat like a dornish man’s voice.

“But the Doom-” Jon tried to say.

“Without belief, there will be no awareness. Without awareness, there will be no preparation. And without preparation, there will be no strength to call should your own not prove sufficient.” Came R’hllor, sounding saddened.

“Already he has moved throughout Essos, his shadows creeping most everywhere like a vine that grows between the cracks in the stone of even the strongest castle.” His father said.

“To the North of what you would call the Wall lies the unchecked power of our Other, unleashed but laying dormant for so long by the influence of the spirit who was once your predecessor’s father. You cannot face such a thing alone. If you are to rise to the challenge, you must kindle more than your own flame. And to do so…”

“I have to kindle your flame within the spirit of others.” Jon finished, the enormity of his task seeming even moreso with this newest wrinkle.

“But how would I use the Dragon Pits for that father?” He asked.

“Well…” Came R’hllor’s innocent reply.

In that moment, Jon felt certain that even though his situation demanded he seek this advice that he really wasn’t going to like the answer.

As his father elaborated on the course of action that would serve him best going forward Jon absently wondered if it was normal to hate your intuition being right.

Chapter Text

Willas Tyrell took after his grandfather Luthor in many respects.

A more squared jaw that his father Mace had once possessed when he had been a handsome youth before the fruitful bounty of the Reach had begun going to his waistline. Green eyes that marked him as different from the brown the rest of his siblings had inherited from their mother Alerie Hightower. An affinity for animals both wild and tamed that only his sister Margery could come close to understanding.

But the thing that made him the most like his grandfather, or so grandmother Olenna claimed, was his propensity for “casting your young fool gaze to the sky instead seeing what’s on the ground right in front of you.”

His grandfather, as the story grandmother told of his death went, had been falconing on horseback one day. He’d been so consumed by watching the sight of the bird in flight that he hadn’t watched where his horse was taking him. And as a result, he had supposedly ridden straight off a nearby cliff without seeing any danger at all.

In the past Willas hadn’t let his grandmother’s (likely exaggerated) story of his grandfather’s death bother him too much. He’d been far too full of the arrogance of youth: knowing with that certainty that only young men of noble blood possessed that the world would bow to their wishes, even if they wished only to fulfill their father’s dreams of knighthood for them. He’d memorized the code of chivalry, taken to the lessons of the Maester Lomys and Master-at-Arms Ser Crane equally and even ridden in the riding circle near daily to be best prepared as he could for his very first tournament.

All of which had come to naught when he faced Oberyn Martell of Dorne in the joust.

In retrospect, it really should’ve been obvious that the Red Viper, a man known for being able to fight best with a spear, would’ve done equally well if not better than Willas at the joust. But somehow it wasn’t. Yet that loss to a superior opponent wouldn’t have been so harsh as what happened when he fell.

Instead of falling cleanly from his saddle, his right leg had instead gotten caught in the stirrup, pulling the great destrier down atop him when he fell.

He’d spent two days drifting in and out of consciousness from the milk of the poppy Maester Lomys administered while he worked to repair the damage done to his appendage. And when he awoke his leg was shattered and he was told that though he could still walk, albeit with a cane and a limp, he would never be able to ride a horse or reliably swing a weapon without agony again.

His father had hated Oberyn Martell from that day forth, believing that the Red Viper had somehow done it on purpose simply because Willas was the firstborn Tyrell and the Martells still held a grudge against them for being the occupational governors of Dorne under Daeron I Targaryen.

Willas however was not so willing to condemn the man. For one thing, Oberyn had left a letter expressing his sincere regret at Willas’ injury. For a second, near the conclusion of the letter Oberyn had noted that he was surprised at Willas’ choice of destrier. He wrote that he understood that it was traditional to attempt to put additional force behind the point of the lance where possible but that in practice, Oberyn had found that the horse had to be one that was used to the rider rather than was used purely for the joust.

‘In some ways, the breeding of horseflesh is no different than the breeding of men.’ The letter had said.

‘Including the fact that though their conception and bloodline may be carefully planned, it remains only the beginning of something that must be built upon and reinforced all through their life. For not even the most beautiful of pleasure slaves in Lys is left untrained by the brothels and temples they are born to. In similar respect, the horse cannot be trusted to simply follow commands and remain unpanicked outside of a calm ordering in the riding circle.’ It had mused, going on to conclude that perhaps a charger he had ridden from childhood would’ve been a better fit for the joust.

Willas had thought his point accurate and well-thought out. So much so that he had decided to write back to the Red Viper so that he might discuss the best methods of breeding and raising horses with someone who shared a fascination with animal husbandry similar to his own.

His father and grandmother had thought him a foolish boy to do such a thing. Their supposition reinforced when his correspondence with Oberyn became a regular feature of the ravens that flew to and from Highgarden.

And yet sometimes his feelings of contentment gave way to melancholy. It could be induced in manners one would expect: from watching couriers ride their horses into Highgarden without even needing to think upon it. The look of pity upon someone’s face when they thought he couldn’t see out of the corner of his eye.

Other times it could arise from something completely unexpected: from mistakenly putting too much weight upon the cane and feeling the smooth wooden handle press into the palm of his flesh a little too deeply. From feeling the sun upon his shattered leg through the window as he read within Highgarden’s extensive library.

This time it came from sources both expected and not.

He had been reading a volume written by Archmaester Vaegon, a Targaryen prince dubbed the Dragonless for his never gaining ridership of a dragon back when the beasts had still been an integral part of the Targaryen family’s power. It had discussed the very subject of the origin of dragons, the stories that had been put to quill about where they originated, how they functioned and whether their nature would be different had no one ever sought to train and contain them.

As he was reading a section about stories regarding fire-breathing lions that originated from Yi-Ti and how they might relate to dragons as they were understood to the west of Asshai, an unexpected twinge in his lame leg caused him to accidentally drop the book from his seat by the sunlit window.

As he bent to pick it down with a sigh, he managed to forget he could not properly bend his leg and sent bolts of agony shooting through him as he did so. The pain of it reduced him to silent tears as the feeling awoke his melancholy and helpless rage at his condition with a vengeance.

He remained silent, steadying his breathing as Maester Lomys had advised for when these things happened. He couldn’t stand it when his body involuntarily reminded him of how even the minor things he would never have given a thought before were a trial now.

It was in a calmed state from this upheaval that his youngest brother Loras found him, coming to let him know that there was to be a tournament in King’s Landing and that he intended to participate.
Perhaps it was the feeling of wanting to not let this episode get to him so badly. Perhaps it was a desire to recapture the feeling of a festive atmosphere of the tournaments he had been able to enjoy without his family attempting to both entice him to it and tiptoe around the subject with him. Or perhaps it was simple wounded vanity that pushed him to prove to himself that he was not so helpless after all.

But whatever the reason, this time he did not simply wish Loras the best of luck and see him on his way. This time he insisted on going with him.

Loras had wanted to know why, what he would do when he went, where he would lodge.

Willas had simply smiled and gently asked his brother if he truly had no room in his retinue for a standard-bearer or squire.

It was funny in a way, like the stories of old about knights who took the lame and the helpless beneath their armored wing and looked after them when others would have dismissed them. Except Willas happened to be a very well-off cripple and related to the chivalrous knight by blood.

Margery would not be able to talk him out of this as she was with their father, traveling through the Reach in order to show themselves to their people as had become custom after their father had ascended to lordship of House Tyrell. Grandmother was visiting her Redwyne relations, her well known objections to her son Mace’s ‘idealistic oaf’s parade’ as she called it well known. Having their image as charitable and caring rulers of the Reach was all well and good but didn’t mean her son had to ride out himself every single time in order to do so was her explanation, though with considerably more insults thrown in alongside her advice.

But soon enough Willas was in King’s Landing alongside his brother as a simple and unremarkable member of his entourage. Seeing his brother and Renly Baratheon greet each other with a hug after being parted for some time brought a smile to his face. Especially when Renly happened to see him by his brother’s side dressed in the simple clothing of a stablehand as he coaxed Loras’s mare along behind them, a roughhewn cane replacing the masterfully crafted one that had constantly been in his hand at Highgarden.

A mischievous glint came to Renly’s eye as he recognized his lover’s elder brother though Willas felt certain he would not reveal who he really was. The japing smile and hearty laugh as he turned to Loras to ask how his former squire had been was evidence enough of that. It seemed he had taken it as a grandly secret joke from one of the last people he would’ve thought capable of surprising him in such a way.
Not so unusual, since Willas was well aware that his brother’s Baratheon lover had never known him to be mischievous or tricky even before his leg had been crippled.

The atmosphere of King’s Landing was a curious mix to his senses when they entered. A great deal of festivity and happiness at the announcement of the Tournament of the Hand to celebrate Lord Stark’s ascension to Hand of the King. But to Willas’s eye there seemed to be more frequent movement of the Gold Cloaks through the streets. Perhaps not so unusual for a tournament, but what made it stand out to his eye was what appeared to be members of the Alchemists Guild moving unobtrusively alongside them as they did so.

Not many took notice of them, least of all the smallfolk that made up the majority of the population in King’s Landing. But Willas knew that whatever was happening, House Tyrell needed to be aware of it.

“Lord Renly, why are so many gold cloaks moving about the city? Surely this is not all in the name of securing the city for the tournament.” He said quietly as they moved toward the Baratheon house Renly occupied in the noble quarter.

Renly gave him a bit of a side eye before minutely shaking his head.

“Of course it can be my good stableboy! If the people wish to be merry, they must first know the most violence they’ll see is on the tourney field!” He laughed aloud as they came closer to the Baratheon home.
But behind closed doors, with only his brother and himself for company, Renly’s story changed.

Apparently, the new Hand of the King had somehow discovered old barrels of Wildfyre beneath the floor of the Dragon Pits. With the help of Barristan the Bold and the King’s personal backing, Lord Stark had confronted the Alchemist’s Guild and gotten them to admit that before his death Aerys Targaryen had planted caches of Wildfyre barrels in multiple locations around King’s Landing.

A chill ran up Willas’s spine when Renly revealed that. When he’d asked how many, Renly had only wryly asked him if it really mattered so long as the answer was more than the one.

Willas had been forced to admit that it did not.

A clapped hand and a dazzling smile came his way courtesy of Renly.

“Cheer up Willas, that’s why the big announcement is the tournament instead of the cleanup. Makes for a good cover no?”

Willas nodded in agreement, his mind still mulling over this new development in the capital. It wasn’t as surprising as it should’ve been that the Mad King had planted such a dangerously explosive payload all around the densely populated capital with the intention of perhaps setting it off. But the questions dwelling within Willas’s mind was nothing to do with the last Targaryen king’s well-established madness, but on how the newest Hand of the King had been the one who discovered the fruits of Aerys’ insanity. He would have expected such a revelation to come from the Master of Whispers, the eunuch who came from across the Narrow Sea known only as Varys. Or perhaps even from the Master of Coin, Petyr Baelish. It was well known that both men were well-connected within the city and beyond. One would have thought if anyone would have discovered this dangerous secret, it would’ve been them.

But no.

Instead, the Warden of the North who’d only arrived in the capital some days ago was the one who had unearthed this buried danger.

It was strange and didn’t mesh with what little information he possessed about the political webs that had been woven around the city that housed the iron throne. But without anything concrete to further his understanding, he was forced to drop the matter and concentrate on planning how he would best be able to help his brother when he participated in the joust.

It was agreed that he would be the one to help Loras mount and dismount the horse as well as the lance bearer; letting them serve as both a support if he needed it and a way to not let anyone get too close a look at him.

But the tournament was a multiple day affair that was only opening on the first day when they awoke the following morning. It opened with an archery contest that would reward the winner with ten thousand gold dragons. A sum that was doubled for the winner of the melee that would follow in the days after the archery contest and the runner up of the joust respectively which left the winner of the joust with a mind-boggling forty thousand gold dragons as their prize. The joust itself would last for days, the various riders competing in order to thin the competition after each of the days of the other contests so that the people could have a view of everything and not be forced to choose what they wished to watch.

By the time the archery contest was almost ended, it had come to a showdown between a man known simply as Anguy and an exiled prince of the Summer Isles who called himself Jalabhar Xho. The contest was a close one, with the pair of men making it to the one hundred steps mark to prove once and for all who was the best in the tournament. And though Anguy had done well enough to only miss the bullseye by a hair, the exiled Summer Islander had evidently kept up the archer’s training it was said all Summer Islanders went through to prove themselves worthy of their famed Goldenwood bows and hit the bullseye head on.
The dark-skinned but otherwise average looking man made for quite the sight, hands raised above his head to the sky in victory: his red and green plumed cape almost spreading behind him like the wings of a triumphant eagle with the coloring of a hummingbird. He laughed heartily with Anguy as they shook hands after the awarding of the gold dragons though Willas thought he heard Anguy jokingly claim the sun had glinted off Jalabhar’s bald head and distracted him.

Then the jousts had begun, with his brother Loras and Ser Jaime Lannister of the Kingsguard making the best showing of the competitors that day. Though considering there was more than a few hedge knights and one or two Freys dotted through those ranks, that likely wasn’t as great a reflection on either of the two as Willas thought it might otherwise have been.

And then the next day came: one that would change the way he looked at the world and, for good and for ill, the path of House Tyrell forever.

As he joined his brother and Renly in the audience close but not too close to the King’s box, Willas immediately noticed a tension in the air like he’d never felt at any other tournament before. It wasn’t purely excitement he thought, he remembered the cheer that rose and came forth whenever the knights theatrically shattered their lances against each other or unhorse their opponents in the joust yesterday, how the crowd had cheered and carried on but done so in a…proportionate way was the only word he could think of that somewhat fit it.

But now? It felt like the entire audience was a powder keg waiting for an errant ray of sun to set off its fuse and blow the whole field of the face of the world. As he looked to the competitors of the melee, he noticed that the horses seemed antsy and the men themselves were checking and rechecking their tourney weapons as though they were about to enter an actual battle. They were a churning sea of darting glances and reflexively tightened fists waiting to be whipped into a storm of violence. All but one spot of calm among them all.

Black hair and pale skin. Eyes closed in what looked to be silent contemplation or possible prayer. A short sword in his right hand and wooden buckler shield in the other. Despite the calm looking face, Willas noticed that the shield was already at the level of his chest and the arm holding the sword point down toward the ground was tensed as though ready to swing at a moment’s notice. When the herald stepped forward the call the start of the melee, the blank faced fighter’s eyes at last opened to reveal stormy grey the same color as the Hand of the King.

Willas was confused. Now that he could glance between the pair of them as the Herald gave the rules he could see the resemblance was almost uncanny. Was this dark-haired boy Lord Stark’s heir come south to make a show of what the North was capable of? And if so, why was he competing in the melee instead of the joust?

Willas was startled out of his musings by the blowing the horn; its call seeming to be amplified by the charged atmosphere of the field. As the fighters charged toward each other, wild cries erupting from their lips as the melee began in earnest, some of them wild-eyed in a way that raised the hair on the back of Willas’s neck.

And then the melee began in earnest and the course of history began to inexorably change.

Chapter Text

Caralyn had known in the back of her mind that Jon Snow practiced a combat style unlike anything her (admittedly limited) experience of fighting told her that could be found in the rest of Westeros. But if she was to be truthful: it was easy to forget that when he was instructing her how to quickly draw her dagger and how to use it to prevent anyone from doing as Ramsay’s men had done to her ever again. Moreso with the revelation that the odd fire god he worshiped was capable of peering into the future and allowing others to see what he saw.

But now that she was one of the audience watching how the Tourney of the Hand’s melee competition played out the eyes of all the capital, it was becoming abundantly clear that even seeing him slowly go through the scant forms he’d been able to practice in front of her during their brief companionship together on the journey to White Harbor that Jon had shown barely anything at all in terms of his capabilities.
Her one time teacher had come to King’s Landing with his lord father some time ago, though she herself had only encountered him by sheer chance as he stopped by the alehouse where she happened to work that was located close to the city’s Dragon Gate.

As she’d dodged Ser Antario Taggard and Ser Josian Rosethorne attempting to regale each other as to who had gained the favor of the most beautiful maidens by determinedly keeping her gaze off them, her eyes had caught a glimpse of familiar black hair near the corner. His head was tilted slightly downward, a single tankard by his left hand as the two walls that formed a corner of the alehouse his back faced toward seemed to frame his thoughtfully frowning face.

One could’ve mistaken him as one of King Robert’s older bastards if they were to look solely at the hair and solid build before shrugging off his presence altogether. But Caralyn would know those distinctive grey eyes anywhere. She couldn’t have stopped the overjoyed smile that came to her face even if she were inclined to try as she quickly made her way toward the person she could honestly call her most cherished friend.

As she came beside his table, she noticed that his drink was virtually untouched, but his posture had straightened a slight bit; as though waiting to see who was approaching him without giving away he’d noticed her there.

“Seems your campfire advised well Jon.” She remarked, a snicker escaping as he glanced at her with a determined suppression of lips twitching upward that she was sure he knew she saw.

“Lady Caralyn.” He remarked in greeting, facing her fully as he allowed the small smile to reach his eyes as he took her in.

“Still not a lady. Though I’m not sure whether serving wench is much better than farmgirl.” She said in response, setting down the tray of ales in her left hand on the table and leaning forward to give him a hug as a more proper greeting for an old friend.

He’d moved his upper body toward hers, his legs on either side of the bench as his arms automatically encircled her shoulders, the heat of his body tangible even through the wool and leather clothing he wore.

“So long as you can say you’re happy, I should imagine it to be better.” He answered, as her arms around his back squeezed and his own answered with a brief increase of pressure, their chests briefly connected before he let his arms go to give her the chance to pull back.

She allowed her memories of Bette to come to the forefront of her mind as she thought on it. It wasn’t the same as having her love back again. But it was a place away from what she’d suffered. It could serve as the start to something without so many memories attached to it.

“Not sure I can say that yet.” She admitted in a low voice as her smile at seeing him left her face, her quiet confession almost lost amidst the background noise of the hustle and bustle of the alehouse.

“But I’m certainly trying to get there.” She continued, allowing a shakier but no less genuine grin make its home on her lips.

He nodded in acknowledgement, his eyes glancing around briefly.

“Care to sit with me for a few moments?” He offered.

Caralyn shook her head.

“Can’t right now.” She said, gesturing to the wooden tray she’d placed on the table by his right hand. “Should have a bit of time after I make sure no one needs more though.”

Jon nodded in understanding.

“Go then. Best not to get in trouble over a few ales.” He said.

When she had a moment, gaining Jon a distant but appreciative once over from the proprietor Margot in the process, she returned to her friend’s table and sat alongside him.

They talked for hours on end it felt, Jon finding out that she was living in a building nearby the alehouse, doing what she could to get by and keeping a low profile. Not exactly difficult in a place with as big a slum as King’s Landing possessed.

As to her friend, it seemed his father Lord Stark had been brought to the capital to act as King Robert’s new hand. Jon himself was trying to get a feel for the capital outside of the Red Keep, a place that only represented the king and his court rather than the people who had to live beneath them. Caralyn couldn’t dispute that assessment, being one of those aforementioned people who lived in the shadow of the Red Keep.

In the following days, he stopped by multiple times leading up to the tourney. Jon’s presence became a regular fixture to Margot who was in turn convinced that he was some young man who was smitten with her newest serving girl. Caralyn tried to say they were only old friends, that Jon was not smitten with her (nor she with him when the proprietor gave her a knowing smirk) and that there was nothing untoward going on.

She was forced to mentally throw her hands in the air and give up trying to correct her mistaken impression when Margot insisted on telling her “for any young lady who wished to know” how she could find a midwife capable of brewing moon tea anyway.

Within the two days before the tournament, Caralyn noticed that Jon felt…different to her senses. It wasn’t his clothing or his physical body, she knew that much. It almost felt like the campfire: when he’d had her extend her hand and she’d felt something of its heat travel through her arm into her head. She wondered to herself if that meant he was practicing magic to try and give himself an advantage in the tourney.

The feeling was even stronger once she joined the rest of the spectators who surrounded the large ring that the melee was to take place within.

There was a feeling of…well, anticipation felt inadequate as a term and uneasiness wasn’t quite right either. Whatever it was, it had everyone on edge. She found her friend near the left side of the field: a picture of stillness amidst movement and motion.

And then the horn blew and the melee was joined.

Immediately, it was clear that the competitors were taking this far more seriously than she had imagined they would. More than half the fighters unleashed war cries that wouldn’t have been out of place upon an actual battlefield whilst the horse riders charged forward with a recklessness that seemed at odds with the stakes at risk for this portion of the tourney.

Two people stood out to Caralyn’s eyes: a bald man in dirty red robes who ran his blade along the palm of his left hand, seeming to set it aflame when he did so. His excited shouts as he sprinted forth from the field opposite Jon were loud enough to be heard even over the whinnies of the horses. And of course, there was Jon himself: who hadn’t made a sound as he charged forward, but whom Caralyn was certain made the greatest impact on everyone’s initial clash by leaping into the air and slamming his right knee into the face of one horse rider while throwing his shield like a discus at another who was attempting to charge from side. As the fighters on the ground clashed, Jon’s body came down upon the rider’s, pinning him to his back with his feet still in the saddle. With a punch using his now free left hand, Jon summarily knocked him out as a man on foot attempted to charge her friend.

Of course, the man who tried to attack him did so from the horse’s side, startling the creature into slamming its rear hoof into his chest and sending him flying into the dirt.

Even as enthusiastic as they’d become, the fighters were noticeably reluctant to attack the man who swung the flaming sword as proven by the fact that there were never one or two men at a time attacking him. As the fiery swordsman managed to frighten one of the remaining horsemen, Jon leapt at the other as he charged toward a group of seven who were engaged in a smaller free for all amidst the larger chaos. The tackle managed to knock the horseman out of the saddle entirely and cause the horse to divert its course toward the thick wooden poles of the fence separating the screaming spectators from the action on the field. As they landed in the dirt, the man’s impact knocked the wind and consciousness from him as Jon rolled forward over his body, coming up in a crouch in front of two fighters whose swords were currently locked in a stalemate.

Their attention turned to Jon and seemingly as one, they decided he represented the greater threat. They simultaneously swung their swords downward at the northern bastard’s crouching form. Caralyn’s heart raced as she watched her friend quickly roll to his left side, coming up in another crouch beside his opponent with a bridge emblazoned upon his light chainmail armor.

A sharp left-handed punch to the man’s right leg had him buckling forward as Jon’s right hand took control of the right arm holding his dulled tourney sword. As the bridge man’s enemy attempting to swing toward Jon in a rushed follow-up attack, her friend brought the captive’s right arm up to block the swing not with the blade, but with the forearm.

The bridge man let out a wounded bellow as his arm visibly fractured beneath the cloth even as Jon’s left hand grabbed the back of his helmeted head and drove it into the attacking man’s stomach. Jon was in a lower stance with only his feet on the ground now, his right fist quickly making a powerful impact on the winded man’s left cheek, distracting him from the fact that her friend’s arm was now around the bridge man’s neck.

Jon drove his right knee into the bridge man’s side, causing him to buckle again. Caralyn almost couldn’t believe her eyes when her friend then proceeded to grab the man by his belt with his left hand and, right arm still around his neck, lifted him up so that his body was in Jon’s arms almost as if he were a groom carrying a bride. Of course, that brief impression changed quickly once he proceeded to throw the injured man headfirst at the now straightening enemy’s skull, collapsing them both to the dirt with little indication of rising again coming from either.

The bald man whose flaming sword made such a loud spectacle had managed to wade his way to the center of the field, his burning blade a bright indicator of where all the action was centered around. His hacking movement and powerful strokes were strong enough to drive away all but the most determined opponents who tried to charge him through the sea of other fighters.

He had only locked swords with one man thus far: one whose red owl was a strange sigil to Caralyn’s eyes and who didn’t manage to last beyond a savage headbutt to the face followed by an even worse kick to the groin.

The crowd was going crazy, many seemingly howling for blood as many others looked almost frightened and faint. Caralyn herself could feel the blood pounding in her ears, unwanted flashes of memory toward the burning of Ramsey’s camp and the looks of brutality his men bore coming to mind as the sun beat down upon the dirty field. Her breaths couldn’t seem to become deep enough to calm her racing pulse. She tried to focus herself, her attention drawn inadvertently back to her dark-haired friend as he picked up a dropped tourney sword in his left hand as he rolled toward the flaming swordsman away from a doggedly pursuing enemy who was swinging wildly at his heels.

Caralyn’s green eyes felt as though they were deceiving her when Jon came into a standing position behind the flaming swordsman, turning to face the charging knight who was raising his tourney sword for an overhead strike and for a few moments in time being physically back to back with the red-robed figure.

Surely reality proved stranger than illusion when it looked like Jon said something to the empty air before spinning to his left as the red-robed fighter’s blade came up to strike the downward swinging man’s strike to his right. Jon flipped the tourney sword in his left hand so that the blade was in his palm before quickly using the handle guard as a hook around the stymied man’s neck and yanking him straight toward a strike across the face from the tourney sword in Jon’s right hand. As he collapsed into a groaning heap on the ground, with blood leaking from behind his gloved hands, the red-robed bald man’s right foot came out in a sharp kick to the face that stilled all his movements.

Jon’s grey eyes and the red-robed man’s blue eyes met over the stilled enemy as the remaining fighters continued onward. They exchanged what looked to be more words before nodding briefly at one another: the red-robed man’s grin becoming a full bellied laugh while Jon’s face remained as stoic as ever before they turned back to back again.

As the other fighters seemed to all glance toward the loud laughing man, Caralyn couldn’t be sure whether the sun was playing tricks on her eyes or not: but it seemed to her that the flame on the red-robed man’s sword had somehow grown brighter and more powerful than before.

Chapter Text

From the time he turned six and was told by his brother Thedren that he was going to be sent to the red temple because he was an extra mouth their parents couldn’t afford to feed, Thoros had never understood the appeal of religion. A strange thing for a man who had spent his life within the confines of a place all about faith: his childhood, education and life experiences all stepped in religious overtones and now followed that path in life to become a confirmed priest in the worship of a way of life he didn’t hold any special understanding or want for. But as his exasperated teacher Gerat had once observed sourly:

“Where the others found their strength by believing in something greater than themselves, you managed to find yours by believing that nothing is greater than yourself.”

It wasn’t precisely accurate but Thoros honestly stopped being chuffed about trying to correct Gerat’s ideas of what his acting out meant by the time he had reached nine years of age. And despite the disapproval of the red temple elders, he’d been served well by this distinctly selfish brand of faith. Where other boys had struggled to light a candle by themselves, Thoros had no issue flaring it to life. Where other boys had struggled to heat up the metal of a dagger, Thoros had ignited his sword on the third try.

Despite his talent however Thoros could never bring himself to believe it was a sign of favor from the higher power of R’hllor that the priests and priestesses preached at them in the temple. For what god saw fit to make slavery to a power they would never see or know a condition of living in the world?

Needless to say, it did not kindle any kind of sudden surge of belief within him when the elders of the temple known simply as the Scorched Hearts ordered him