I. The turncloak
He rode east at first, then south, then east again. After three days he'd seen no signs of pursuit and started hoping he might have gotten away, but he kept his guard up at all times. He didn't just have to worry about his former brothers, everyone who saw him riding from the Wall dressed all in black would be an enemy. The Kingsroad was dangerous, but so was finding another path in a land he didn't know, so he traveled by night when the black of his cloak would be less noticeable.
The first time he saw a cluster of houses on the road ahead, his heart jumped in his throat. He circled around the village, making sure not to make any noise so as not to wake the sleeping men and women, and felt like a thief in the night. The second time he was truly a thief, sneaking into an empty house to steal two loaves of bread, a haunch of salt mutton and some old clothes. Jon didn't want to, the people who lived here seemed poor enough to mourn the loss, but he had no food left and no coin to buy more.
He didn't need to take the clothes but he did anyway, slipping off his black leggings and tunic and jerkin, shivering half from cold and half from fear that someone might come back at any moment to catch him stealing their breeches, even though Ghost was outside and would warn you if someone were to approach. He exchanged his black cloak for another as well, though the new one was a flimsy thing that left him shivering at night. His boots he kept, because it was harder to find an unguarded pair of shoes to steal, but a bit of black in his clothes was surely better than being all in black.
When the villages started being closer to each other he knew that he was near Winterfell, but he didn't dare go near the castle. He was known in those places, and while some might aid a son of Eddard Stark, most would not suffer a deserter from the Night's Watch. He crossed the White Knife and stayed on the eastern shore, returning to the Kingsroad only when he was almost on Moat Cailin. After that, the road was more traveled despite the ongoing war, and Jon was able to ride unnoticed even by day.
The army was easy to find. Even if he hadn't dared ask for informations, the men on the road were eager to talk about the impending fight. It was on the road that Jon first learned that his brother had been crowned King in the North, and later that he'd left Riverrun and was marching against the Lannisters. After hearing those news he would have traveled day and night to reach Robb in time, but he needed to pace his mare or risk killing her. Ghost scouted ahead, hunting in the woods around the road. Jon was afraid the wolf was going to be seen by some of Robb's outriders, but the wolf was smarter than that. There was no talk of white direwolves on the road.
Once he got close enough, it was even easier to follow in the trail that several thousand people and horses had left behind. Jon marched behind them for a couple of days, like one of the many freeriders that attached themselves to an army in the hopes of gold or glory or just a bowl of soup, and he tried to decide how best to approach Robb. His brother would be surrounded with men he trusted, men from Winterfell who would be quick to recognize Jon even with longer hair and a beard, even though he was wearing tattered clothes and a rusted chainmail he'd bought with a bit of stolen silver.
He ended up slipping through the tents at night, hiding in the shadows whenever some patroling guards passed him by. There were no guards outside the king's tent, however. Robb must have felt that Grey Wind, sleeping right at the foot of his bed, would be protection enough against his enemies. Jon hoped that he wouldn't be counted an enemy. The great direwolf raised his head when Jon entered the tent and bared his teeth in a snarl, making Jon tense and flex his burnt fingers, but Grey Wind only sniffed him and then went back to sleep. Jon wondered if he'd recognized him from days long past, or maybe he'd recognized Ghost's smell on him.
The noise had woken Robb. Jon had never known his brother to be a light sleeper, not more than most men, but the soldier's life had sharpened his reflexes. He was on his feet in a moment, tossing aside the blanket and groping around, no doubt searching for his sword.
"Robb!" Jon exclaimed before his brother could call his men into the tent. "Robb, it's me!"
Robb stilled. "Jon?" he called after a pause, hesitant. "Is this a dream?"
Jon shook his head, even though Robb could hardly see him in the dark. "It's no dream," he said, even though he could hardly believe it himself. He braced himself, waited for Robb to summon the guards anyway, but Robb never did.
Instead he lit a greasy yellow candle and stood up to look at Jon more closely. When Jon's eyes adjusted to the light, he could see that Robb looked much worse than the last time he'd seen him: his royal brother had dark rings under his eyes, his face was long and stern. He hadn't summoned the guards, but he wasn't smiling either.
"Jon, what are you doing here?" Robb whispered. "You should be on the Wall."
He knew that. There were miles from Castle Black to the Riverlands and he'd spent all those miles wondering whether he'd done the right thing. "I couldn't," Jon replied, and then knew that he had done the right thing. "I was useless there, but I can be of use here. They killed our father, Robb! Let me help avenge him." He went to one knee, then unsheathed his greatsword and laid it at Robb's feet. "I offer you my sword, if you would have it."
Robb shook his head. His face was pained. "You swore an oath to the Night's Watch," he said. "You're a turncloak, Jon!"
Jon had known that this could happen. "Then you can use that sword to take off my head," he said. It wasn't as fine a blade as Longclaw had been, but Jon had kept it oiled and sharpened. His death would be quick, at least.
From his corner, Grey Wind had roused and was watching the scene. Robb's eyes went from Jon to the wolf, and then to the sword at his feet.
For several long moments nobody spoke. Then Robb stepped over the sword and flung his arms around Jon, pulling him into a bone-crunching hug. "You know I could never do that, Snow," he said against his shoulder.
Jon held on to him and felt home at last.
II. The forgotten king
The road to the Wall was long and treacherous. Even though the war was over and peace treaties were being signed between all the major houses, no treaty would stop the bandits that almost every day attacked them to try and steal the meager provisions they were carrying. Each time it happened, they had to stop the cart and wait while the black brothers chased them off.
He and the other prisoners hadn't been given a sword, so they had to huddle behind the horses during the fight. The boy he'd been five years ago would have been white with rage at the idea of hiding like a craven, but then again five years ago everything had been different. Five years ago he had a crown on his head, and he'd been riding down the Kingsroad in the opposite direction, and all the power of the North had ridden with him. But not any more. After losing everything, his pride was gone too.
Besides, even if they'd given him a sword, he would have barely been able to lift it. His legs were cramped from riding so hard after being used to inactivity for so long, and his fingers were clumsy and shook when he tried to perform even the most mundane of tasks. More than once another man had snatched the timber and flint from him and pushed him away after all his attempts at lighting a fire had proven unsuccessful.
During the last few days it rained, a series of early spring storms that left them drenched to the bone and shivering under their cloaks. As the Wall grew larger on the horizon, his strength diminished little by little, until it was all he could do to hold on to his horse to avoid being thrown off the saddle.
When they reached Castle Black, the prisoners were made to dismount and line up in the yard. Someone started making a speech, but he was too dizzy to understand the words. "Stand up straight for the Lord Commander," someone told him, poking him in the ribs, but he couldn't. He felt his knees give out under him and fell face down in the snow.
When he came to, he was buried in a mound of animal pelts and furs and there was a huge round-faced maester looming over him.
The maester gave a squeak and turned around. "Jon!" he called. "Jon, he's awake!"
He remembered the name, though he hardly remembered the face. Tall, dark, with a raven perched on his shoulder and the hilt of a sword peeking above the other, Jon looked more like what he remembered of their father, and the memory almost brought tears to his eyes. "Jon Snow," Robb said, his voice scratchy from lack of use. "I had the right of it. You are all in black now."
At those words, Jon drew a sharp breath and leaned down to stare at him. The raven flew off, quorking, but Jon paid it no mind. "It is you, then," he said. "I saw you in the yard but I couldn't believe... couldn't be sure... I thought you were..." He trailed off, as if he didn't know what to say.
Robb didn't begrudge his brother the hesitation. "Dead," he finished for him. From this close, he could see a faded scar above one of Jon's eyes and the first hints of white in his hair even though his brother was still shy of twenty.
Jon hesitated. "Sam, could you get us some water?" he asked, and waited until the fat maester had left the room before closing the door and sitting down next to the bed. "But how?" he asked Robb. "I've seen the dead come back to life, and you look nothing like that."
Even in the dungeons Robb had heard the stories of the white walkers. He wondered how much of it was true, but for now it was his turn to give answers, not to pose questions. There would be time enough for that later.
He pushed back the covers and struggled to get into a sitting position. "I never truly died, though it was a close thing," he said. It felt weird to tell someone, after all those years. It felt weirder to tell Jon. "Two sons of Lord Frey found out that I was still alive while they were carrying the corpses from the hall, and somehow decided I could be of more use as a hostage than dead. Maybe they wanted protection, should the Lannisters turn against House Frey. I don't know."
"Two of Frey's own blood?" Jon asked, incredulous. "They dared defy him?"
Robb shrugged, and immediately regretted it because the movement made him feel dizzy. Jon helped him back down on the pillow. "Sons or grandsons," Robb said after the shaking had subsided. "I never knew for sure. They kept me in a cell away from the other prisoners, there were so many prisoners under the Twins that I would pass unnoticed."
He could see it still, the four grey granite walls around him, the cries of the mourning northmen, then knowledge that it had been his fault. All his fault. The maester returned with a cup and Robb drank deeply, water trickling into his unkempt beard. "I should have revealed myself," he said after the man had once again gone, "but at first I was too weak even to speak. Then I was too ashamed of my defeat."
"It was no defeat," Jon said. "It was treachery! Every honest man in the Seven Kingdoms still curses at the mention of House Frey."
"That makes no difference to me," Robb said. "After Lord Walder died, the castle changed hands several times. My Freys died too, I think." It was hard to keep track of time, in the dungeons. Much of what he knew, he'd found out later, asking the guards and the other prisoners and putting the pieces together. "Nobody knew who I was, so I was thrown into a larger cell with other captives. Even if I had told them my name, they wouldn't have believed me."
"The North would have rallied for you," Jon insisted. "The North will rally for you when you reveal yourself!"
Robb closed his eyes. "No," he replied. "I lost the North." His marriage had lost the North everything. The whole army, all of his friends, his mother, Grey Wind... all gone in less than a day. "Who holds Winterfell now?"
"Sansa," Jon replied, and Robb drew a sigh of relief. He hadn't even be sure that Sansa was still alive.
"Then let her rule," he said, and prayed that she'd be wiser than him. "And let Robb Stark be dead. I think I'll stay here for a while. I've heard that a man can rise high in the Night's Watch no matter his past, isn't that so, Lord Commander?"
Jon smiled, but his eyes still looked sad. "Yes," he said. "Yes, he may."
III. The last ranger
There were no signs of life coming from the town, but Jon knew from experience that it was places like this one that held the most danger. The white walkers moved without making any noise on the snow, and it had been snowing without pause for the last month. He wasn't sure of how much time had passed since the Wall had broken, not exactly, but he thought that there might have been a full moon on the sky. Ghost guided him through the frozen wasteland, because his eyes were much sharper than a human's in the dark. The direwolf could smell them too: ice and cold and decay. This was a bad place.
Without the wolf at his side, he had no doubt that he would have perished like the rest. The rangers who had survived that last nightmarish attack had been a ragged bunch of broken men, unmanned by the death of the Lord Commander and the horrors that they'd witnessed, taking the horses from the stables and fleeing south with nothing but the clothes on their back. Jon didn't know whether he was fleeing too or riding to warn the kingdom. He had sword to protect the Wall until his death, but if the Wall had been broken and he was still alive, did that still make him a deserter?
It made no difference. It had been days since the last time he met one of the black brothers, and the few men he came across on the road were even more desperate and scared that he was. They didn't care about the color of his cloak, but they would have killed him for it if he wasn't careful. Even so, they were still human. The dead were much worse, that was the reason why Jon was about to turn back and find a place for the night that didn't smell like a death trap.
Ghost was still sniffing the air. "Come," Jon murmured, not wanting to linger, but the direwolf pawed at the ground and stared at the darkness ahead. Jon thought he could hear a faint smell of burning wood. Then a wolf howled, somewhere in the village, and Ghost leaped towards the sound. "Ghost!" Jon yelled, drawing his sword and running after him.
Turning a corner he saw a man backing against the wall of one house, waving a sword with one hand and a torch with the other. Jon took a look at the enemies and saw that they were wights, just wights, and it was a sad day when he had to thank the gods that he met wights and not anything worse. The man was surrounded by almost a dozen wights, but Ghost had jumped in their middle and was making short work of them. The direwolf's fur shone orange and red under the torchlight, and the shadows that he cast on the walls made it look as if there was more than one wolf.
Jon blinked and realized that there was more than one wolf, a second dark grey beast was dancing around Ghost and snarling at the wights. For a moment he was stunned, but then the man yelled, "Look out!" and Jon swirled around, raising his sword to slash off the arm of the creature that was lounging at his throat. The voice was strained with the effort of fighting back the wights, but Jon would have recognized it anywhere.
"Robb," he said, breathless, and his brother raised a gloved hand in greeting before smashing the torch in the face of the nearest wight. Then more wights came at them from the shadows, and they had to run for their lives.
They found shelter on the upper floor of a building that used to be an inn. The lock on the door of the largest room still worked and so they barricaded themselves inside, pushing the bed against the door for added safety. The wights didn't like to go inside the buildings unless they had to, maybe because they didn't like to be away from the snow, and Jon hoped that they would be safe here for the night. On the morrow they would have to fight again if they wanted to leave, but there would be plenty of time to worry about that later.
The wolves napped in a corner while Robb and Jon huddled on the floor and shared whatever meager provisions they had: a few pieces of beef jerky and hard cheese with stale bread. Jon couldn't even remember the last time he had eaten bread. He chewed and talked at the same time, staring at his brother in the dim light cast by the lantern. There was so much that he wanted to tell Robb about, and not nearly enough time. He summed up everything that happened as best as he could: the wildling attack, Lord Commander Mormont leading the defenders, their attempts at fighting back, how the Night's Watch had almost turned the tides of the battle... Until they blew the Horn of Joramun.
Robb's shoulders slumped back against the wall. "I thought it was just a legend," he said. Jon didn't reply, because so had everyone else. So had he, until the ice had started to melt, and then the wildlings' screams of victory had turned into just screams as the white walkers came up from behind them.
His brother looked pale, but unhurt. "What about you?" Jon asked. "I thought I was riding south to warn the kingdom, but I fear I am too late."
"You are too late," Robb confirmed, not an accusation, just a statement. "They came upon us just before the wedding. The Freys barred all doors and for a while we were besieged inside the Twins, but there were too many people under one roof. As soon as the first of us died, he rose again to slaughter five more men. After that..." He spread his hands. "We were powerless. I saw my mother die and then rise again. We had to hack her body into pieces to stop her from coming at us, and even then she would not stop."
Jon had never felt pity for Lady Catelyn, but in that moment he did. He moved closer to Robb and wrapped one arm around his shoulders. "I'm sorry," he said. "I'm so sorry, Robb."
Robb didn't reply. "What about Winterfell?" he asked instead, but Jon only shook his head.
"I don't know," he confessed. "Further north there's more white walkers, I couldn't get near Winterfell."
"The south is no safer," Robb said. "All of my men... all of the Lannister men, the Baratheon men, everyone, they've turned into an army of wights. Those you met on the streets were the last of my men. I'd hoped that we were safe. I'd hoped I could keep them safe."
"Nowhere is safe," Jon said, not quite managing to suppress a shiver. "Nobody is safe. Arya, Bran, Rickon, Sansa... Everyone that we know might already be..."
"No," Robb said. "No!" he repeated, more forcefully, then turned around to look Jon in the eyes. "You're still alive, and I'm still alive, isn't that so? And despite everything we met again. They're still alive, Jon, and we're going to find them."
He was scared too, Jon knew, but he was also right. They still had hope. They still had each other. Jon drew himself up. "I will follow you to the end of the world, my liege," he said, only half in jest.
Robb smiled at those words, Jon smiled back, and then they started laughing and couldn't stop. Jon laughed until it hurt.
IV. The heir
The preparations took the best part of a fortnight. Robb was mostly concerned about having enough food for the welcoming feast and clean lodgings for everyone, but Sansa came up the Kingsroad around the same time they received the raven from the Night's Watch, and then nothing would do but that she took charge of all preparations. She turned Winterfell upside down in her efforts to scrub every single stone and brick until they shone, and she drove the cooks mad as she tried to explain how to prepare southron recipes that required exotic ingredients and spices they'd never heard of.
Robb indulged her. He hadn't seen his sister through all the long winter and he'd missed her. Sansa was taller now, more than a woman grown, and reminded him fiercely of their mother. "She should be here, watching over the decorations and everything else," Sansa said one day, while they were breaking their fast in the great hall. "She didn't want to leave Father all alone in King's Landing, even though I told her that I would be happy to stay with him if she wanted to come in my stead. She misses you."
"I miss her too," Robb said, "but I'm glad you had time to come and visit before your wedding."
Sansa smiled and looked down at the honey and bread in her hands. "I'm glad too. Winterfell will always be my home. Besides, this is a great opportunity to learn what it means to be a lady in my own castle."
She would have made a great wife, Robb knew, even though she had no head for numbers and the steward had to tell her that there was no way they could afford some of her more extravagant requests.
The party from the Night's Watch arrived on a clear afternoon, riding in double line over the drawbridge. Robb had lined all of his household in the yard, just like they had when King Robert had visited, but this time it was him and Sansa standing at the front to welcome them.
"Lord Mormont," he said, as the man leading the column dismounted from his horse. "Winterfell offers you its hospitality. I am Robb Stark, and this is my sister Sansa."
Mormont nodded. "Eddard Stark's heir," he said. "You have his look."
At first Robb thought he meant his father, but Mormont was glancing to one of his own men. Robb grinned at the sight. "Snow," he told his brother. "Welcome back."
"Stark," Jon replied, his grin matching Robb's own. "It's good to be back."
The Night's Watch was here on important business, though, and Robb couldn't make the Lord Commander wait when he'd ridden all the way from the Wall to treat with him in person. Jon stood aside as Mormont finished introducing his men. Most notable of all were the three wildlings at the back: Tormund Giantsbane, huge and loud, Gerrick Kingsblood, who claimed to descend from a wildling king, and Morna White Mask, a woman whose face Robb only saw momentarily when she removed her namesake mask.
Sansa watched them with wide eyes, and not for the first time Robb found himself wondering whether they were doing the right thing after all. Giving land to the wildlings, the same men whose incursions his forebearers had fought for centuries, sounded like madness. However he wasn't Lord of Winterfell yet, and his father seemed to think highly of Mormont's judgment in this.
After the courtesies had been observed, Robb retreated to his solar with Mormont and the wildlings and spent the rest of the afternoon going over a map of the north, talking about tracts of land and fields and holdfasts. Jon was there too, but he didn't say much unless Mormont asked him a question. The large wildling named Tormund seemed to hold Jon's opinion in great regard too, because he often shook his head at Robb and Mormont's words and asked Jon to confirm them. It was a strange sort of friendship, to say the least. There had been a time when he and Jon had been the closest of brothers, but he knew next to nothing about the man in black sitting in front of him.
They were still poring over the papers and nowhere close to finishing when Sansa set word that everything was ready for the feast. Their discussion had to be adjourned until the morrow, though Robb held no hopes to be done in one day, or even two. Settling a couple thousand wildlings on his land was by no means an easy feat.
The wildlings filed out and Robb ran to his chambers to change into fresh clothes for the feast. He was shrugging into his best doublet there was a knock at the door. "Enter," Robb called, and Jon walked in.
"Sansa gave me my old room, just down a turn of stairs," he said by way of greeting and explanation. "I didn't mean to intrude."
"Not at all," Robb said. He finished buttoning the doublet and they stared at each other across the room, as if measuring each other out, not sure of what to say, then Robb shook his head and started laughing. "This is just too funny," he said. You're being all serious and gloomy, like a true sworn brother of the Night's Watch..."
"Speak for yourself," Jon said. And then, in a much deeper voice that sounded nothing like Robb's he added, "I am Robb Stark, come into my castle! One might almost believe you're a true lord."
Robb swatted him, and Jon dodged his arm easily. "I'm not a lord," he said. "I'm only holding Winterfell in father's absence."
"It's going to be a long absence, from what I hear," Jon said. He sat down on Robb's bed without asking for permission, and suddenly he was his brother again and they were both twelve, playing around and talking and forgetting about dinner until father sent for them.
Robb sat down next to him. "Father would rather be Lord of Winterfell than Hand of the King," he confessed, "but the realm needs him more than I do."
"If it's any consolation," Jon said, solemn, "I don't think you're doing too bad for yourself. I've seen worse lords," he joked.
Robb was sorely tempted to push him to the ground and start a wrestling match, but he didn't think Sansa would approve if he showed up to dinner with stains on his clothes and bruised all over, so he just snorted. "I'd say the same for you but I don't know many rangers so I don't know if you're the worst or only the second worst."
"I'm not even a ranger," Jon smirked. "I'm the Lord Commander's steward. I was being serious, though, even Tormund likes you."
"The huge one?" Robb wasn't sure that they had enough food for that one. The wildling seemed ready to eat his way through all of Winterfell's stores in one night. "I still can't believe I'm playing host to a band of wildlings. When first I got Mormont's raven, I thought he had gone insane."
"I'll take that as a compliment," said Jon. "Did you know that settling the wildlings south of the Wall was my idea to begin with?"
Robb stared at him, not knowing whether he was joking or not. Mormont's plan to pacify the wildlings had been a stroke of genius. If the idea came from Jon, that spoke volumes of the regard that Mormont had for his brother. Jon was still smirking.
"I take it all back," Robb replied. "You are without doubt the worst ranger ever."
Then Jon leaped on him and wrestled with him until Sansa came looking for them.
V. The fallen lord
There's a moment, right before death, when time stretches to an eternity. Jon knew, in that moment, that he was going to die. Suddenly he felt afraid, but not of death. The Wall loomed above him. It had been his, and he hadn't been able to hold it. In this, at least, he had proven as good as his father and his brother. They hadn't been able to hold Winterfell and the North, after all, so why should a bastard fare any better?
The knives were a sharp pain in his back and his belly, he could taste blood on his tongue. The southrons said that there were seven hells. Jon wondered if one was frozen over: if so, that was where he was headed.
He thought of Robb, with snowflakes melting in his hair, and wondered whether he'd be waiting for him when he got there. Robb had died south, far from the summer snows, and his headless body was probably rotting in an unmarked grave. Even so, to Jon he'd always look like he did the last time they parted: young, smiling with hope, talking about the next time they'd see each other.