Ned knew that his wife had always held a special worry for their younger daughter. Cat saw a plain child likely to grow into a plain maiden, Ned thought about another girl with a long solemn face and secretly prayed that his lady wife was right. However, as had happened so many times before the gods paid no heed to his wishes. With the passing years Arya grew into a rare beauty. Ned watched some of Cat's fears ease only to add new ones of his own.
He was not the slightest bit surprised when Arya scared off the first boy they had told her to marry. It took two more broken betrothals to convince Cat. In the end even she had to see that there was no use in forcing Arya into anything. Still, his lady wife couldn't entirely abandon the hope of seeing their younger daughter safely wed. Numerous lords, heirs and even younger sons, powerful merchants and proven knights found themselves lured to Winterfell under one pretext or another. Ned could not remember the castle ever being so full of guests and yet his wild daughter continued to remain unmarried. While Sansa had been always quick to warm up to a comely face, prowess in a tourney or a courteous compliment, Arya was as cold as the heart of winter when it came to the charms of men.
And then everything changed. A nigh few days shy of Arya's sixteenth nameday, he heard her laugh.
Ned had been woken by a troubling dream. He couldn't even remember it, only a vague feeling of foreboding lingered- to clear his mind he sought the godswood. He was almost to the heart tree, when he heard Arya laugh breathlessly. The sound startled him a little; he hadn't heard her laugh for months. He hurried to reach her but she was already gone.
His prayer was a short one that night. Once back in the castle Ned slipped into the chamber Arya had once shared with her sister. His daughter was already asleep though still clad in one of her simple gowns. With a touch of melancholy he remembered the time when she used to run around in boy's clothing. She was no longer that mischievous little girl.
"Sleep well, sweet one," he whispered. Arya stirred but didn't wake.
Ned's own sleep deluded him for hours. When he did finally fall asleep, he was woken suddenly by a frantic knocking. The sky outside was still dark. That meant little with winter quickly approaching. He grabbed his robe and hurried to answer, on the other side stood Cat holding a candle, excitement shining in her eyes.
"Arya asked for a new gown," she said before the door behind her had even had enough time to close. "A pretty, womanly one, not one of those septa's robes she usually wears. She even had her hair brushed and trimmed. She is in love, Ned! It must be the Cerwyn boy or that damned young Braavosi, or maybe -"
Someone else was knocking too. Cat frowned but nodded at Ned's unvoiced question. He called for the intruder to enter. Maester Luwin startled when he spotted Cat and his lady wife noticed it.
"What is the matter, Maester?" she asked. "My lord husband holds no secrets from me, you may speak freely."
"I know, my lady... "still, he hesitated before finishing "...Jon Snow came to visit from the Wall."
Cat's mood changed in an instant.
"I see," she retorted coldly, and briskly left the room.
Why now? Ned had to wonder once Cat was gone. Even after all this time Cat had not warmed up to the young man, but that was not what troubled Ned most. It had been six long years since Jon had joined the Watch, six years since Ned had seen him last. Though Benjen had mentioned in his letter that they should expect someone from the Watch, he had written no word of Jon. Ned was looking forward to the unexpected reunion, but he dreaded it as well. Robert, once so full of life, had been lying in his grave for nigh on two years and Jon was no longer a boy. The time had come to tell his nephew the truth and Ned wasn't sure he could do it. He turned to his window to look at the godswood as if the ancient trees could give him answers. In the east, above the tops of the high sentinels the sky was lightening. The sun finally came out giving the trees their shapes. Ned frowned and turned to the master.
"Did Jon arrive before the dawn?"
"No, my lord. He arrived yesterday shortly after you went to bed."
Ned found Jon in his solar- he was leaning against the narrow stone sill silently watching bustle in the yard.
The man turned. He still much resembled Ned himself even clean shaven but Ned could see some traces of his Valyrian ancestors too. They were there if you knew to look - in the shape of his eyes or the curve of his mouth.
And in his voice. If his face had not changed much with age, his voice had. There was a hint of iron in that voice, as had once been in Rhaegar's. Ned frowned.
"Father." Jon corrected himself, he even smiled a little."I wasn't sure you still counted me for a son."
Ned felt the pangs of shame and sadness. He loved Jon dearly, but nonetheless a shade less than his true children.
"You will always be welcome, here."
The look Jon gave him was full of gratitude.
"How is the Watch treating you?"
"Well. Ser Denys has fallen ill and Maester Samwell doesn't think he will get better. Lord Mormont offered me his command in the Shadow Tower."
That wasn't surprising; years ago Ned had been confused when Jon was assigned to stewards and not rangers. He was an able warrior, more skilled than Robb or Ned himself. Mormont's decision only became clearer once he learned that he had named Jon his personal steward- the Old Bear had been grooming Jon for command from the beginning.
"Have you accepted?"
"I am not sure that I'm ready. There are better men besides, uncle Benjen for one."
"If Benjen wanted to be anything but a ranger he would. What is the real reason, Jon?"
Jon turned towards the small fire flickering in the hearth.
"It suddenly seems all too real," he said with his eyes upon the flames. " I took the black six years ago, yet only now am I starting to understand what it really means. And then..." Finally he looked back at Ned. "...sometimes I feel as if I have forgotten something very important and I have to go back to remember, because if I were to go forward I would lose it forever."
"Back? To Winterfell?"
To Dorne, to Harrenhall, where it all started. The time came.
"Do you want to know about your mother?"
"Yes. It seems to trouble you."
When had he grown so perceptive?
"Then leave it for another day. For now I only want to be reminded of the old days, or of the little that is left of them. I met Rickon in the yard; he didn't even remember who I was."
Ned could hear the pain in his words.
"He was four when you left. Bran asks about you sometimes, so does Robb. It's a shame you came now. Bran squires for the Tullys, but Robb won't be in White Harbour for long."
"I wanted to be here for Arya's nameday."
Ned couldn't stand to look him in the eye. If there was one person who had mourned Jon's departure it was Arya. Yet after some time, she had ceased to ask about him, or to talk about him at all.
To Ned's great surprise Jon burst in a fit of laugher " – wrote that she would skin the next fool who tried to gift her with "jewels as pretty as her eyes" so I came in person to make sure that the guest right would be honoured in this house."
"You write to each other?"
Jon frowned "As often as we can. I thought you knew."
"Arya doesn't share her secrets with anyone."
"She doesn't trust easily, but she is a remarkable woman. Strong, clever, brave, beautiful and... " Jon went silent.
There was too much passion in his words for a brother talking about his sister. Jon seemed to realize it too. Ned saw waves of confusion and guilt storm through his face. Suddenly he seemed horribly uncomfortable talking to Ned.
"I'm sorry, Lord Stark. I have to go I've... I've forgotten to water my horse," he mumbled and stormed out absurdly.
Your horse has been in the stables since yesterday, Ned thought but he didn't say it. Gods have mercy, were the words he whispered once Jon was safely gone.
They had little time to talk after that first day. Preparations for winter were taking a lot of Ned's time, and it seemed that Jon was avoiding him in any case. He had no doubt that if Jon had wished to ask him about his mother when he rode to Winterfell, it was far from his mind now. His nephew seemed preoccupied even if there was only one Stark to keep him company for Rickon didn't seem to be warming up to Jon, to Cat's great delight. Ned even heard him call Jon a thief, though as ever Rickon gave no explanation to his words. With Robb away with Wylla and their children, Brandon in the Riverlands and Sansa in the Vale expecting her first child, Jon spent all of his days with Arya.
Ned watched with worry as Jon helped Arya to saddle her horse for their countless long rides, as they went hawking or fishing together. It seemed that every time he turned he saw them laughing and whispering to each other in hushed voices. Ned knew that nothing would ever happen as long as Jon believed that Arya saw him only as a brother. Unfortunately for all of them Eddard Stark was sure as winter that she didn't.
The girl was in love- the dresses she wore, the way she glowed, the way she smiled. It was plain to see; though Ned expected that Arya herself would probably be the last one to notice. He rubbed his brow and wondered how many other men also guessed as he had and worse, figured out the object of her affection. He was yet to hear any whispers but he knew that couldn't last forever. And what about Jon? Ned had to ask himself. No, it doesn't matter. Jon was still a man of the Watch, and he believed they were siblings. After warring with himself for days, Ned decided to keep it that way and remain silent about Jon's parentage. In another world Jon wouldn't have to live a lie, and maybe he and Arya would have married and no one would have frowned upon the match. In this one though, he would need to be her brother for the world and apart from that, he had taken the black. Truth and thoughts of what could have been would only torment them both.
It will get better, Ned told himself and so held his tongue and watched silently as Arya blushed and looked away confused when Jon kissed her briefly on the brow at her nameday feast. He will leave soon and they won't see each other for years maybe even never again... It was all so familiar and just in that moment Ned remembered why- he had thought the same thought a lifetime ago at the splendid tourney of Harrenhall.
Cat figured it out in the end. She sought him in his bedchamber on the evening before Jon's departure. His mood was dark, hers was darker.
"You've seen it!" she accused him. Eddard Stark didn't have to ask what.
For the first time since they had married in the sept of Riverrun, she slapped him. She had surprising strength.
"It's your fault. If you hadn't brought him here, if you had sent him away earlier, if you had never allowed him to come back…" tears filled her eyes. Ned went to her and took her in his arms. She let him.
"It's my fault too. I prayed every day to the Maiden and to the Mother and the Crone too. I prayed hard that Arya would find a man she could love… The septons always tell us to be careful what we wish for, let the gods fulfill our wishes. If people knew..."
"No one has to know, Jon is leaving tomorrow."
"Yes, he is leaving and he will never come back" Cat whispered in a venomous voice. "But she will be cursed forever. Her own brother..."
Cat spent the night wakeful in his chambers and in his embrace. Ned had never felt so strong an urge to tell her the truth and yet, he kept his silence.
In the morning they went to the yard and watched Jon and Arya exchange their final farewells. Ned had to hold Cat firmly by an arm, otherwise she would have run to them and torn them apart. It would do no good-only make the folk wonder, and ones with good eyes might remember that Arya's kisses had been a few too many and Jon's hugs a little too long for a brother and sister.
Still, many must have noticed how different his daughter became once Jon had left. She had almost glowed while they were together, but on the day of his departure she became a shadow of that happy girl, even more solemn than before. She refused to attend feasts and her lessons and divided her time between brooding in her chambers, praying in the godswood and riding aimlessly. Rickon who seemed to be glad for Jon's departure soon become sullen too. Robb and Rickon were day and night as Arya and Sansa had once been and Rickon was only six years older than Robb's oldest boy Hoster. The brothers never had been close. Wolf blood called to wolf blood, however- Ned's youngest son often sought Arya's company and though Jon may not have stolen the girl herself, it was as if he had made away with a big piece of her heart.
A fortnight later Robb returned.
"What happened to Arya?" he asked Ned the same day.
Jon, Ned thought but said nothing.
Later, a raven came from Benjen. When Ned heard he almost snatched the parchment from the Maester's hand and hurried to his solar. He opened it with shaking hands. It didn't bear the words which he feared but only a question:
"What happened to Jon?"
Arya, Ned answered for himself. He fed the message to the flames and sent his brother a few meaningless lies.
He could not tell them the truth, not even Benjen, though he had always suspected that his younger brother knew more about Jon's parentage that he let on. Ned was sure that he would take another secret to his grave until he chanced upon his daughter in the godswood about a month after Jon's departure.
She was slashing angrily at the branches around her with a slim, short blade. Once again she was clad in man's wear and already sweaty despite the coldness of the air. She must have been at it for hours judging by the exhaustion her movements showed.
"Arya," Ned called gently.
She didn't stop.
"I talked with mother," she whispered breathily after she savaged a few more branches, "about Jon."
She slashed again.
He was such a fool, he should have known that Cat would talk to her sooner or later.
"I would like to talk about Jon too."
Just then she stilled and looked at him with eyes full of guilt and pain.
"What I feel for him is wrong."
"No! Yes. Maybe."
Despite the solemn mood his awkward answer made her smile briefly.
"I didn't mean to. I have missed him every day since he left and now…" she averted her gaze to hide her tears.
Ned hugged her tightly.
"He has taken the black, sweet one."
"And he is my brother," she said bitterly.
Ned couldn't take it any longer.
"He isn't. He never was. I had no choice, Arya…"
She looked so much like Lyanna, she was even the same age as Lyanna had been when he had seen her for the last time. It made it both harder and easier to break the promise he had given to his sister. He did it nevertheless, he told her everything he knew, starting from the tourney at Harrenhall up until the day he brought Jon to Winterfell.
"I won't make the same mistakes Father, I swear," she assured him when he had finished.
Ned never loved her more than in that moment. The next morning, she was gone.
"Keep an eye on Jon," Ned wrote to Benjen as soon as he found out, but then the winter arrived and he got no answer for three long years.
It was a tough winter and Ned was glad that he had Robb to help him handle matters in Winterfell. He was sure that Catelyn was as thankful for Wylla, and yet he could see that she missed her children. There were barely any messages from the Gates of the Moon and none from Bran whose visit to Howland Reed had turned into a long one when he gave up his dreams about the Kingsguard and married the crannogman 's daughter. Cat missed Arya too, Ned knew, even if she refused to so much as say her name. Most of Winterfell believed that their younger daughter had run away to avoid an unwanted marriage but he heard stranger tales from afar. He didn't believe any of them.
With spring, word came from the south- Joffrey Baratheon had married Talla Tarly, Stannis Baratheon had risen in rebellion and fallen and princess Arianne of Dorne and her husband were killed in Pentos where they had become involved in a conspiracy led by the long exiled and long forgotten Jon Connington. These weren't the messages which Lord Stark had awaited most anxiously, those came only with his own brother.
Benjen Stark, first thaw and tidings of Arya arrived together.
"Where is Jon?" Ned asked with fear in his heart after they had embraced. Jon was still his blood and almost a son to him despite everything.
"Ranging," Benjen answered simply.
Any relief Ned felt was brief. He had been so sure she went to the Wall. Had he been wrong, had Arya been dead all these years? He dared not ask openly, but Benjen had always been his clever little brother. He could read them all easier than an open book. He put one glowed hand on Ned's shoulder.
"She has taken a liking to Hardhome."
Ned blinked twice, Benjen just shrugged.
"And Jon is just ranging somewhere?" Wasn't this what he had hoped for, then why did he feel so angry at Jon?
"He is ranging near Hardhome. He does that often. Usually he goes alone. Many men have their quirks in the watch, no one asks much; though the Old Bear was rather upset by some of Jon's choices."
"Is that all?"
Benjen didn't answer at first. For the longest time he just studied him with those shrewd blue – grey eyes. A memory came to Ned, unbidden. He had been seven and his mother was kneeling before him looking eye to eye with him. Her eyes had been the prettiest blue – grey colour, but her voice was frightened. "Did you see her? Your sister. Do you know where she is, Ned?" She smelled of wet clothes and smoke.Ned can still remember the smell, even today.
Benjen's voice cut as sharp as a knife "Do you truly want to know the answer, Eddard?"
Gods help me. Deep down, Ned knew the truth.
"No one has died this time. That has to count for something." Benjen whispered as if to himself.
Ned wasn't even sure he was meant to hear it, but he had to agree- yes, it did count.
Benjen stayed for a fortnight- much longer than he had planned and Ned was forever thankful for that. It was the last time they would see each other. The next year, Benjen took a wildling arrow through the eye and died.
Not even the birth of another four grandchildren could fill the void Ned felt after he lost the last of his siblings.
Four years after his brother's passing, a wildling chief called the Lord of Bones attacked the Wall with five thousand warriors. The watch withstood, but they lost many brothers- Lord Mormont among them. Though it was a weak heart and not a wildling weapon that done it for the old man.
The next raven from the Wall came signed Lord Commander Jon Snow. It was then that Ned decided to ride north to see to the repairs and to face some truths.
When Robb heard he pleaded to go with him.
"We haven't seen each other for thirteen years. He visited only once and didn't even wait for my return."
"He took the black, Robb. His loyalty is to the Watch."
"So did Uncle Benjen once. Did he ever cease to be your brother?"
Ned looked down at his hands- old man's hands that had killed many men, but had also held his wife, his children and grandchildren. Yet somehow in that moment he felt like the young man who had just won a war with a new wife and a new lordship and a new secret in his heart.
"You have been a man grown for many years Robb, but I am still your father and your lord. You will stay. There must always be a Stark in Winterfell."
Robb was not happy about the order, but he did obey nevertheless. Ned knew this was not going to be a joyful visit and if Robb went with him it would have been even worse.
Ned was already ahorse when Robb sought him for the last time.
"Will you ask about Arya at least? It had been years but Jon might know something. They were always close."
"Of course I will." Ned had every intention of keeping his word on this matter.
The Watch was in both a better and a worse state than Ned had expected. Benjen had told him years ago that the Watch was a shadow of its former self and he saw ruins all around him but there was also rebuilding. From the brief formal message he had gotten from Jon he knew that he had started to trade with east and had already garrisoned two previously abandoned forts.
Jon Snow greeted him himself in the yard of Castle Black. There were new scars on his cheek which looked as if some beast had tried to scratch out his eye and even a little grey in his hair, but it was the way he held himself that had changed the most. Command came naturally to Jon.
"Lord Stark," he addressed him formally.
"Lord Commander," Ned had to answer.
Jon showed him the state of repairs, changes he had made and changes he meant to make, the way their recruits trained, the state of provisions. They even went through accounting books with Jon's high steward. It was only once the man had left Jon's solar that the Lord Commander took off his mask.
"Father, I'm sorry," he whispered so quietly that Ned wasn't even sure if he had heard him right. But one look at Jon's face and he knew they were father and son again and not Lord Commander of the Night's Watch and the Lord of Winterfell.
"So am I," Ned answered.
He should have told Jon before he took the black, he should have been a better father to him. No matter who sired him, Ned was the only parent Jon had ever known.
They stayed quiet for a moment.
"How are Robb, Bran, Rickon and Sansa?" Jon asked finally.
"Well. Robb fathered his fourth child last year. Another girl, he named her Willow. He is still angry with you- that you never came to visit after the last time- and angrier with me that I didn't allow him to come here. He doesn't know…"
Jon only nodded.
"Bran has two daughters- Lyanna and Briar. He seems happy, though sometimes I fear that he is going too deep into the secrets of the crannogmen. The letters he writes are really strange…"
"There are things I would never have believed myself if I hadn't ranged beyond the Wall. And there are stranger tales to be heard from the far North. Winder is truly coming it would seem."
Ned wondered about those words, but Jon offered no further explanation.
"Sansa has married again."
At that Jon smiled a little.
"I have heard. The heir to the Eyrie and the heir of High Garden are going to be brothers. How did you make Joffrey Baratheon agree to that? I heard he wasn't happy with the betrothal."
"I didn't. Sansa and Willas Tyrell did. Sansa was a window and the mother of an heir, she didn't need to marry again, but she wanted to." Ned himself still wasn't entirely sure how Sansa's second marriage came to be. "She likes Willas and she thinks it will be safer for all of us, what with king Joffrey being more Lannister than Baratheon."
Despite the love Ned held for Robert, he had never liked his son. He wondered if the words Sansa had whispered to him the last time they had seen each other were true and another rebellion was nigh upon them. But those were not worries Jon should be troubling himself with for the Watch took no part.
"What about Rickon?"
"He worries us. There are his dreams, green dreams Bran called them once. Sometimes he seems to know things that are about to happen, besides he is too wild. Every time a lord rides to Winterfell I fear that he is going to demand recompense for a daughter my son has despoiled."
Jon squirmed visibly in his seat. Ned frowned and in a much sterner voice he asked:
"Come with me." Jon interrupted him.
It was windy and bitterly cold up upon the Wall but it was worth every discomfort. The sky unobscured by mountains or trees seemed immense and the stars so bright you could almost touch them.
They walked a good few yards past the guards near the winch before Jon finally stopped. He looked northeast, the way Hardhome stood.
"I could never return after what happened. I couldn't bear to look in Robb's eyes...or yours. Arya..." Jon started but he went quiet again.
"Benjen told me some of it."
Jon looked at him surprised.
"I suspected he knew, but I never dared to ask."
"Ben had always had a way of knowing things." It was hard to talk about his siblings. Ned still remembered those happy days when they were four children playing in the godswood. Back then he couldn't even have imagined that he would lose them all one day. Brandon didn't even live long enough to father a child and Lya...
"Do you know what I told Arya the last time we saw each other in the godswood?"
"Yes. I'm glad you did." Despite his words Jon's expression was pained "I always wanted to know who my mother was. I just never imaged it would mean that I would lose you as a father. Though after what I have done..."
"What have you done, Jon?" Ned asked sternly.
"I have broken my wow. And even before... Arya and I were always close, you know that. I missed her every day after I took the black. We were both children when we parted. Then I returned and saw her as a maiden so beautiful, wild and sad. I desired her as nothing in this world. She was so innocent." Jon smiled. "Arya, innocent in anything, who would have thought? Still she was, innocent and valuable. I could feel she wanted me as much as I wanted her in every smile, in the most innocent touch. She was so confused, but I didn't dare to tell her. What we felt for each other was so wrong. It was the only time I kept a secret from her. It was torture, yet leaving her was the hardest thing I have ever done."
"Nevertheless, you did. What happened after?"
"I was on a ranging near Hardhome. It was the first time I went ranging and I went alone. I was in so dark a mood that no one wished to accompany me. Many of my brothers didn't expect that I would ever return. One night as I was almost by the sea someone sneaked into my sleeping furs. I didn't even notice. Only, in the morning Arya was there, half-frozen and half-starved but alive. For hours I just watched her silently afraid that I was still dreaming, and once I really woke up, she would disappear. She didn't. When she finally awoke, I hunted us some deer, we talked and then…"
"You bedded her." Ned couldn't keep the disappointment from his words.
"I wed her." Jon's voice was hard and cold as steel.
"And who were your witnesses? Sky and ground and deer?"
"The gods. I wed her in a sacred grove in front of the heart tree. And a ship full of Braavosi who were forced to Hardhome by a storm."
"Damn you, Jon. Does everything I have taught you mean nothing to you? You have broken your vow."
"Vows... are the words more important than anything else in this world?"
When Ned didn't answer Jon spoke again.
"Will you call for my head?" he asked in an unnervingly calm voice.
In that moment Ned could hear his Brother as clearly as if he was still alive, standing right beside him - No one has died this time. That has to count for something.
"Even if I have broken another vow?"
Ned frowned. "What do you mean?"
Jon just raised his eyes to look eye to eye with the Ice Dragon. His own constellation, Ned thought absurdly.
"Children." He answered simply. "Arya didn't even want them at first. It changed only with time. We have tried, but it seems that we are not fated to have any. Maybe it's better this way. With Daenerys and Viserys drowned in the Dothraki Sea, the Targaryen line will end with me. I only regret that it makes Arya sad."
Ned misliked the lightness with which Jon spoke about breaking another vow, but at the same time his heart went out to his daughter. For a moment he imagined her life as it would have been if she had married a high lord as Cat had always hoped, away from her family without even children to love. It was a sad fate. Arya would have run away- to Jon like as not.
"Where is Arya when you are with the Watch?"
"I had friends among the wildlings almost from the beginning. When the time came to leave her during that first ranging I had left her with a clan I trusted. They taught her how to live in the wildness. Arya is quick to make friends and allies and even quicker to learn. She even charmed the Braavosi we met. One of them stayed to teach her sword fighting and the captain agreed to trade with us- the watch and the wildlings both. Now there is at least one ship every moon turn that makes it from Braavos to Eastwatch and Hardhome. When Arya last returned from Braavos she came with shipwrights who are now building her ships of her own."
"Arya was in Braavos?!" Ned was surprised.
"She likes it there as much as she likes the wildness here, but she swears that she loves none of that a tenth as much as she loves me or Nymeria."
"A wolf pup she found in the wildness. If you can call something that will soon outgrow a pony a pup."
"A direwolf?!" now Ned was really aghast.
Jon just shrugged. "There are still direwolves beyond the Wall."
Ned felt as if there was something Jon wasn't telling him, but he couldn't fathom what it could be.
Ned's visit at the Wall was more peaceful than Jon's visit at Winterfell had been and too soon it was time to leave. Ned already missed Catelyn, his son, his good daughter and their ever growing brood, yet there was sadness in the departure too. He would miss Jon despite everything, and even more the feeling that he was somehow close to his troublesome daughter. He wondered if there ever will be such a chance to see Arya; however, the risk was too great to take. He had to leave it to Jon to send her his forgiveness.
Jon rode with him as far as the Queenscrown. There was no threat in the North, not at the moment, Jon had assured him when Ned brought up his cryptic words upon their departure. Ned wasn't entirely sure the younger man was speaking the truth. Nevertheless, Jon was right in the end. The next attack came a whole two years later – from the South.
It all began innocently enough, with one terrified girl fleeing the Bolton lands. She had made it as far as the Gift and Jon took her in. When Bolton's bastard demanded her return, Jon refused- the girl had been given bread and salt. Ned sided with Jon.
Not caring for the will of his liege lord, Ramsay Snow and one hundred of his men attacked Castle Black in the middle of the night. The Watch repulsed the attack, but the bastard fled and on his way home slaughtered the entire smallfolk of the Mole's town. There wasn't a woman or a child that escaped the carnage. It fell to the Night's Watch to dig their graves.
It the middle of the unthankful task, they had not expected the second, more dangerous assault.
Despite the distance Lord Bolton had sworn when it came to the atrocities of his natural son, he had secretly assembled an army and marched north.
Ned called his banners as soon as he heard but by the time he arrived the battle was long lost, Castle Black burned to a stone and the Boltons fled back to the Dreadfort. There were only a few survivors, surprisingly, Jon was among them. The Umbers had found him and hid him in the cottage of an old healer. His wounds had worsened though and all knew that he wouldn't last long. Despite that, Ned fulfilled his last wish and took him back to Winterfell.
Jon lived through the long journey, surprising them all, he lived to reunite with Robb, speak with him and ask for forgiveness, he even lived for Bran to return from the Neck. Yet in the end, he died without reuniting with the one person he missed the most.
Despite Cat's fiery protests, Ned buried him in Winterfell's crypts, without a statue, but in a tomb next to Lyanna's.
On the morrow after the funeral ceremony, Ned and his younger son saddled their horses and led the rest of their host to rejoin the army besieging the Dreadfort. The castle was stormed and lord Bolton beheaded but his son escaped. They never caught him for another army came from the North in the black of the night. One on four feet instead of two, with teeth and claws in place of swords and bows. A huge pack of giant wolves led by a monstrous she-wolf appeared out of nowhere and slew Ramsay Snow and his companions.
"Arya," Bran whispered when they came upon a field of human remains and pink snow. Remembering the direwolf pup Arya kept, Ned somehow knew it was true.
His daughter hadn't left him much to do. Ned returned home, hoping that he might find her there. He didn't. The days passed and the Ironborn attacked, the moon turned and King Joffrey's own fleet joined them sailing on Gulltown and White Harbour while the Watch choose a new man to lead them. Still there was no sight of Arya.
A year after Jon's death, the war was mostly won- Willas Tyrell and Oberyn Martell were controlling King's Landing and once Robb and Renly starved out Casterly Rock and dealt with the last of the Lannisters there was a great Council to be held. Ned would have to ride South he knew, the thought was heavy in his mind, not letting him sleep.
He dressed and went to the godswood, he prayed for a while and then decided to visit the crypts too.
As he was almost by Lyanna's tomb Ned noticed that he had company. There was a hooded figure kneeling by a tomb, Ned could hear the sound of muffled sobs.
"Arya," he called softly.
She didn't react.
Ned came closer, knelt next to her and took her in his arms. She was no longer the unruly child who used to run around in boy's clothing or the sad maiden from the last time they had seen each other, but she was still his little girl.
Only when he hugged her, did she speak.
"I wished to be with him when he died," she sobbed. "He held for so long, he waited for me, I know, but I didn't make it."
"He did," Ned knew that much was true," but he wasn't alone when he died. I was with him, as were Robb and Bran and even Rickon and a whole army of nephews and nieces who had a chance to get to know him a little."
"Thank you for that."
"Will you stay with us?" Ned asked.
"Maybe for a while, I have to return."
"Why? What is there for you now that Jon is gone? Your wolves, your ships?"
Arya stood up and took his hand.
"You don't understand."
Without anotherword she led him back to the castle.
Ned watched her in the light of the passing torches. Time had treated her well. She had grown into the woman Lyanna had never had a chance to become. Her clothes were very strange for a highborn lady- leather riding breeches, dark jacket made in the Braavosi fashion, and over that a shadowcat cloak worthy of a wildling chief. Even more extraordinary was the fluidity and lethal sureness of her movements.
They ended up in front of a small room near the castle kitchens. Arya opened the door quietly- a single candle was burning on the window sill. On the narrow bed under it, huddled in the furs, slept a dark-haired child about a year old.
"We hoped for a child for so long," Arya whispered. "After Jon became Lord Commander it was much harder to see each other and yet it happened. When I found out, I was in Braavos, the babe already growing two months inside me. So stupid. I hurried home to tell Jon but we caught bad winds.In the end I came too late. The Boltons had attacked two days before we anchored at Eastwatch. If only I didn't believe that he had died…"
"When did you learn that Jon was still alive?"
"Two moon turns before my son was to be born. It was too late to travel then. I wanted Jon to know at least before… Wildlings don't marry their kin, not even cousins. No one besides a few people in Braavos knew about us, but a brother has the right to know his sister is about to give birth, doesn't he? I sent a messenger, did she make it?"
There was hope in her eyes- bright and fragile. For a moment Ned was tempted to lie, but she read the truth on his face.
"Jon never even learned," all strength had left her voice; she sounded almost as if she were dying herself.
"We all have our regrets, sweet one. Don't dwell on them too much. Live and try not to make new ones. Make peace with your siblings and your mother. Stay in Winterfell for a while. Bran is here now and Sansa will visit any day. You haven't seen each other in years. You have half a dozen nephews and nieces you have never met. We can help you take care of your son. He will grow up as a lord's son would. As Jon did."
"I can't. My son is not safe on this side of the Wall, not even with Robert Baratheon and Tywin Lannister dead."
"No one but us knows the truth about Jon. No one else has to know."
Arya smiled wanly, walked over to her son and gently stroked child’shair.
"Jon," she called softly. The boy stirred and woke. He made a face at Arya and then looked up at Ned with big, purple, Targaryen eyes.