Dust kicked up all around the horses as Eddard Stark, Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North, rode down along the desert road known as the Prince’s Pass, with his six other northern compatriots in tow. As they drew closer to their goal, the long shadow of a single, imposing stone tower began to cover their approaching line with the setting of the sun. The Tower of Joy it was called; the place that held his sister, Lyanna.
At the base of the tower, Ned saw three figures wearing the unmistakable white cloaks and silver armor with the three headed dragon sigil emblazoned on their chest plates, singling out the members of Aerys Targaryen’s Kingsguard. Ser Arthur Dayne, the Sword of the Morning, moved deliberately to meet the oncoming party upon spotting their approach, the hilt of the famous greatsword of House Dayne, Dawn, poking out over his right shoulder. Ser Oswell Whent, who had previously been sharpening his blade with a whet stone while on one knee, got up and quickly followed at Ser Arthur’s side, the bat sigil of House Whent prominently displayed on his helmet. And in between the two strode the White Bull himself, Ser Gerold Hightower, Lord Commander of the Kingsguard and still as fierce as ever, despite his advancing years.
As they came upon the trio, Ned motioned his head towards his comrades, signaling for them to dismount. They silently comply and proceed to walk down the path behind him, solidly in lockstep. With him was his captain of the guard Martyn Cassel; faithful Theo Wull; Ethan Glover, who had been Brandon’s squire; Ser Mark Ryswell who was soft of speech and gentle of heart; the crannogman and first to volunteer to accompany Ned on his mission to retrieve his sister, Howland Reed; and Lord Willam Dustin who had proudly ridden here on the great red stallion his wife Lady Barbrey had given to him prior to his departure from the North.
“Lord Stark,” Ser Arthur greeted curtly, giving a sad smile and a small nod in acknowledgement.
“Ser Arthur,” Ned returned. “I did not think to find you three here. I looked for you on the Trident. Why were you not with the Prince?”
“We were not there because our Prince wanted us here,” Ser Gerold coldly states, as if that answered the question. Perhaps it did for him.
“Woe would have befallen the Usurper if we had been, his body lying beneath that river instead” Ser Oswell resolutely interjects. But then a smug, almost wistful smile graced his lips and suddenly adds, “Though it would seem our Prince managed to ensure at least that much in the end, even without us.”
Ned just blinked in confusion, the implication behind Oswell’s words escaping him. “What do you mean by that?” he questioned intensely, irritation and ignorance both evident in his tone.
The three sworn brothers simply look to one another in what appeared to be surprise. It was then that Ser Arthur slowly reached in and took out an unfurled scroll from underneath his breastplate, holding it up to the light of the sun for everyone to see.
“This message came just a few hours before your arrival. Robert Baratheon is dead. Apparently, from the wounds he suffered by Prince Rhaegar at the Trident.”
He sensed the sharp looks his companions start to give each other, sensed their complete and utter shock along with their uncertainty, but Ned’s eyes could only stare at the scroll hanging limply from Ser Arthur’s hand.
“Impossible,” Ned muttered in stunned disbelief. Because it was impossible. Yes, Robert had been grievously injured after Rhaegar’s stab had somehow pierced his armor, where he then proceeded to slash through Robert’s hip during the battle. So much so that they had to postpone Robert’s formal coronation as king, since he had absolutely refused to be humiliatingly crowned on a litter.
But Robert had still been hale, hearty, and vibrantly alive when Ned saw him last! When he wished Ned well upon departing the gates of King’s Landing, despite their recent quarrel over Robert’s handling of the Lannisters for what happened during the sack of the city. Or the night before when he’d desperately pleaded with Ned over drinks to bring Lyanna back to him (while forgetting to remind Ned about lifting the siege on Storm’s End his brother Stannis was still enduring at the time.)
Ned voiced as much. “Robert’s wound was treated! And he was recovering well, before I left! He could even still laugh when we said our goodbyes! How could he simply… die, after all this!? After everything we went through to get here!?
Again, the Kingsguard simply exchanged glances with one another, now in sudden understanding, before Ser Arthur finally turned his gaze back towards Ned. “It seems likely his wounds took a turn for the worst after your departure. Such things have been known to occur,” he ventured, though shrugging his shoulders to indicate his own uncertainty about events back in the capital.
Ned could only keep shaking his head in denial. “Do you believe it?” he asked, almost accusingly.
He noticed Arthur hesitate briefly before responding. “The news comes from a… knowledgeable source.” To Ned it sounded like he was trying to find a replacement for the word reliable.
Still, whatever Arthur’s misgivings about his supposed source he at least seemed to trust the message’s contents. Briefly, Ned wondered if the Sword of the Morning might be lying; had somehow faked the news to get him to stand down so they could either make their escape or attack the northerners in surprise. But Ned quickly dismissed such thoughts. He knew Arthur by reputation and personally, however brief their previous meeting had been, and he knew neither Arthur nor his sworn brothers would resort to such a desperate trick. Not in a confrontation like this.
Ned stayed quiet for a moment, staring down at the dirt path that lay between the two groups, still trying to process everything that had just been said. Robert, his brother by choice and the King he pledged himself and the North to, was gone. He just couldn’t quite believe it, in truth, even as he was beginning to slowly accept it as an abstract fact. Perhaps the shock had left him numb because he couldn’t feel any sadness at the moment. Grief would likely follow, in time, but for now he simply could not manifest the feeling. Not yet.
Nor could he quite grasp the peripheral thoughts that were just now starting to form in the back of his mind regarding the consequences of this news. Consequences that could see the entire realm thrown into chaos.
It was Arthur who finally brought Ned out of his stupor, with a question that now invaded his every thought.
“So, Lord Stark, in whose name will you march upon us now?”
Ned took a shaky breath, trying to collect himself. It didn't work. Everything still felt like it was spinning. How could the world make so little sense after only a few minutes? And how was he to give an answer to a question he was only just now starting to ask himself?
Suddenly, a sharp, anguished, cry rang out from atop the Tower of Joy. Both groups snapped their heads up towards its direction.
Lyanna! Ned recognized immediately, panic overtaking him. Yet it only lasted for a moment. Slowly, but eventually, her scream brought everything back into focus for Ned, and he felt ashamed.
Here he was, so obsessed over his dead friend that he had completely forgotten about his still living little sister; a sister clearly in pain and who needed him now, unlike Robert who was beyond Ned’s help. He’d deal with Robert’s death another time, for now he would turn his attention back to the present.
Warily, he studied the three Kingsguard members who stood across from him with careful consideration, as they did to him in turn. A deep well of mistrust lied between the two groups who were, strictly speaking, still fighting on opposite sides.
Yet Ned could never muster the same kind of animosity for their enemies as Robert often had, because he knew many of the men they fought against did so out of duty, honor, and loyalty. Something Ned could never blame anyone for, however misguided it was. In fact, their so-called ‘allies’ often disconcerted Ned far more than most of their adversaries had, thinking back again to the Lannisters and memories of the scarlet cloaks with the bloody bodies of dead children wrapped within them.
Now, with Robert, Aerys, and Rhaegar gone, were those left behind even still enemies? Could he risk a confrontation now, despite his group’s advantage in numbers, against three of the greatest knights in the realm? And for what? To avenge the ghosts of his father and brother at the expense of the sister they had died for in the first place?
Brandon had marched into the very halls of the Red Keep over Lyanna, meeting his end in the process, along with their father, while leaving Ned behind to try and carry on after them. Though Ned still felt a similar urgency now as his older brother no doubt had then, he was not Brandon; he could not be so cavalier with his life while others still depended upon him. Abruptly, his thoughts suddenly drifted to Riverrun, to the wife he had barely known and then abruptly left behind. To the son he had never seen but imagined now, cradled in his mother’s arms. A son he might never hold himself if he acted recklessly now.
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, finally coming to a decision; still unsure if it was the right one, but with the belief it was the best of those available.
He looked up and straight at the trio then, willing for all the earnest desperation he felt to carry over in his next words. “I come here now as an older brother for the sake of his little sister, Arthur. Please, just let me see Lyanna at least. We can deal with whose side we’re all fighting on and everything else afterwards.”
Arthur’s eyes softened at the familiar use of his first name. For a brief moment they were both brought back outside their encampments at Harrenhall. When a young, shy, and star-struck Ned was first introduced to one of his most revered idols by a raven-haired siren who had enchanted him. A man Ned had wanted to call his brother once upon a time.
Arthur glanced briefly at Ser Gerold, who met and held his gaze for a time, before he slowly nodded in acquiescence. Arthur smiled in gratitude, returning the nod and turned back to Ned.
“You may go up the Tower to see her, along with one other to accompany you if you so wish. Provided of course, that you agree to disarm and leave your weapons behind with your compatriots, while everyone else stays here. I shall do the same and escort you up myself. I will guarantee your safe passage throughout so long as you and yours keep the peace. Do you agree to these terms, Lord Stark?”
Ned simply let out a sigh of relief upon hearing Arthur's proposal. He quickly gave his consent, proceeded to strip his valyrian steel greatsword, Ice, from his belt. He did not fear betrayal, not from these three, and not after they had given him their oath.
As before, Howland was the first to volunteer to go with Ned, which he gratefully accepted as they handed their blades off to Martyn while Ser Arthur did the same with Dawn to Ser Gerold. The Kingsguard stepped aside as Ned and Howland hurried past them and up the tower stairs as Arthur quickly followed in tow.
The climb was long, every step heavy and giving way to one after the other, after the other, as if they would never end. But eventually, Ned began to hear whimpers, and then pants of pain, gradually becoming louder and louder with each new step they took. As they begin to draw closer to the source of these sounds, Ned’s fearful mind irrationally started to return to the memories of Robert’s tirades against Rhaegar over the past year, about how he would make that ‘dragon whoreson’ pay for all the horrors he was no doubt subjecting Lyanna to.
Ned banished these thoughts almost immediately however, he was done lying to himself like he suspected Robert had all along. When his grief had started to wane as the war had, when he finally had a chance to really think back to those days at Harrenhall, Ned proceeded to blame himself for not recognizing the signs sooner, for the horrible dread he now felt at the implications. No, these cries were not torture, he could not believe such a thing of Arthur and the others. This was something else…
Finally, they at last reached the end of the stairwell, a single wooden door in front of them which Ned promptly burst right through. He was met with a startled chorus of surprised cries from several different women, mixed with agonized groans coming from the center of the room.
Ned stared at the sight. His sister, bedridden, and taking several pained breathes as she laid there. Immediately, he went to her side, dropping down on one knee to bring himself level with her, and grabbed her glossy hand in frightened concern.
Her eyes fluttered open and she tilted her face so she could meet his own desperate ones.
“Ned…?” she asked in dazed wonderment and disbelief “Is that really you…? I’m… I’m not dreaming am I?”
“No Lyanna, I’m here. It’s not a dream” Ned answers, his voice wrecked.
She nodded, slowly but happily, to confirm that she heard him. “I missed you big brother,” she said softly, giving him a smile despite the obvious pain. Her smile quickly disappeared though, her voice filled with trepidation as she asked, “Is it…. Is it true? Is Robert… dead?”
Ned looked back blankly, the earnest hope etched within her question caught him off guard. “Ye-Yes… I believe so.”
“Oh thank the Gods!” Lyanna sobbed in relief, turning away from him to look up at the ceiling as though her prayers had just been answered. Perhaps they had been.
Her response made Ned wince. To see his sister so happy at the news of her betrothed and his best friend’s death, a man who’d loved her desperately and went to war in order to win her back, it pained him more than when he had actually heard of Robert’s passing. Again, he questioned how he could have been so willfully blind to not have seen the signs before now.
“Hoh!” she yelled suddenly, shaking him out of his melancholy as he felt the vice of her grip digging into his hand.
“Lyanna, what’s wrong?!” he questioned. Panic overtook him as he scanned her body to try and find the source of her anguish. Then his eyes went wide as they landed on the large bulge pushing out from beneath the blankets.
“Is… Is that…?” Ned stammered in shock, comprehension now dawning. She was pregnant. And the father could only be…
“Yes!” she gasped, “It’s his-our child Ned.” She breathed a few more shattered breaths, trying to calm her speech before she pulled at his hand to bring his gaze back to her face, her voice was pleading and remorseful. “We ran away and married Ned, Rhaegar didn’t kidnap me! Brandon and Father… they didn’t need to die! We didn’t think… and when we finally heard what had happened to them it was already too late! You’d called the banners and planned to overthrow all the Targaryens, not just Aerys. I was already pregnant and Rhaegar and I both knew Robert and the other lords would never forgive us for what we’d done... for what we had put everyone through,” she finishes in shame.
Ned looked down in utter despair, groaning in anguish. All his worst fears had been realized. Everything he’d done, everything their family had suffered, everything they had put the realm through, had been for nothing. Because of the actions of one irrational tyrant and a misunderstanding caused by two people in love. He wanted to cry and then laugh at the cruel irony the gods played their games with.
“Ahhhh!” Lyanna screamed suddenly, writhing now as the women around them came up to her, placing a wet towel on her head while drawing her blanket up now and preparing fresh water basins. Ned frantically turned to Arthur standing near the doorway. “Where’s your Maester, Arthur?! My sister needs help!”
Arthur only scowled and looked away, muttering in regret. “We couldn’t afford anyone learning of our location or about what was really happening here, which they would have if their household Maesters had suddenly disappeared. I didn’t even tell my own family everything that was going on when I had these nursemaids quietly smuggled away.”
He sighed, before looking back at Ned, trying to instill some reassurance with his next words. “The women here are all experienced with childbirth, and we’ve done everything we can to gather whatever supplies were needed. All we can do for her now is to pray and wait, Eddard.”
Wait. He had waited for news from his father after he had sent word that he was going to the capital to bring Brandon back. And after waiting he learned neither one of them would be coming back instead. He’d felt just as helpless and useless then as he did now. His eyes returned to Lyanna, frustrated tears welling up as he held her hand tightly and whispered reassurances to her, praying that the Old Gods would hear him in this desolate landscape devoid of any heart trees; praying they wouldn’t take away another member of his family.
Again, he waited.
The sheets were stained red. Tears had replaced the cries of elation that had filled the room only moments ago. It had all started so hopefully at first; the initial soft wails as the infant’s head appeared; the excited anticipation as its body was just passing through the final hurdle; and the jubilation as one of the maids shouted at last, “It’s a boy!”
The happiness soon died though.
Something seemed to rupture at the last minute.
And then the blood began to spill.
The nursemaids had desperately pressed down with bloodied rags to try and stop the flow. Howland Reed even interceded, using his knowledge of plants he’d gained from living in the Neck he had tried mashing together a salve of various herbs lying around and applied it to as many affected areas as he could find
None of it worked though. She just kept bleeding.
Finally, mercifully, the bleeding seemed to stop at last. But Lyanna’s breathing turned erratic, haggard, and she started to shudder. Her hands became cold and clammy to Ned’s touch and she soon voiced delirious complaints of thirst. Ned quickly touched her head only to recoil at the sudden heat. The maids brought Lyanna water, trying to coax her to drink while Ned pressed down on the cold and wet rag atop her forehead, whispering that everything was going to be alright.
“I want to be brave…” Lyanna said timidly, for the first time Ned could ever remember.
“You are,” Ned tried to reassure.
She shook her head at that. “I’m not. I don’t want to die...”
“You’re not going to die!” he denied fiercely. A lie, he knew. For himself and for her, even as he refused to accept it.
Ned wildly turned his gaze back towards Arthur, who shared the same look of helpless remorse, and started to rise, desperately pleading “Arthur please! You can still ride out and find a maester! Bring them back before it’s too la-!”
“No, no Ned!” Lyanna suddenly interrupted
“You have to listen to me-just stop and listen to me, please!” She tightened her grip on his hand and tried to pull Ned back towards her, weakly raising herself up and leaning slightly to his right. Reluctantly, Ned lowered himself back down to hear her soft whispers.
“His name… is Aegon Targaryen. When the other lords find out who he is they’ll come for him. You know they will. They’ll tear him apart with their game and take everything from him. You have to protect him. Please protect him…” She turned away slightly to look past his shoulder and tilted her head, signaling for the wet nurse who stood behind him to bring the child to them.
Obediently, the woman kneeled and placed the child in Ned’s free arm, held securely against his chest. His lips trembled at the tiny figure, the infant slowly opened his eyes to the sight of Ned’s face.
“Promise me, Ned,” she implored. “Promise me.”
Mutely Ned turned away from his newborn nephew to meet his sister’s gaze once again. He nodded, his voice hoarse as he finally answered. “I promise Lyanna. I swear I’ll protect him for you, always.”
Lyanna broke out into a relieved smile, nodding in gratitude. She then reached across with her other hand to touch the child’s soft cheek for a brief moment, a groan of regret escaping from her lips, before she pulled away and turning to the nightstand next to her bedside.
She reached for the crown of winter roses that lay there.
With great effort Lyanna managed to pull the flowers to her chest, and closed her eyes, taking several slow, deep, breaths, inhaling their scent. And then a few, agonizing, moments later, she stopped breathing at all.
Everyone cried after that.
Ned felt as her grip slowly slacked in his hand, and then finally went limp, heartbroken as it becomes clear his prayers had all been for naught once again. After a long moment, he finally let go, letting her arm fall back onto her chest, petals from the winter roses scattering across the bed in its wake.
He turned away from her lifeless form, pulling his nephew into his shoulder, and cried into the sleepy child. He listened to his steady breathing and felt the slight rhythmic pulse of the babe’s tiny heartbeat. He poured out his grief, his despair, and his anguish, trying to take comfort in the warmth secured next to him, wanting desperately to feel life now that death had claimed another one he loved.
He stood there and wept for a long time.
Slowly though, his mind finally started to turn again, and he began to calm. He started to hear Lyanna’s last words over and over again, and his thoughts whirled at the implications. She was right. The lords of the realm would come for her son. He was not safe, even without the threat of Robert’s wrath hanging over his head. They would come in order to use him, manipulate him, and pit him against one another like some kind of game piece. They’d try to control him in order to further their own positions and power, or dispose of him if he proved to be an obstacle to such ambition. Just as Tywin had done before with the babe's siblings on Robert’s behalf.
Siblings he wrapped in bloody red cloaks like presents.
The image seized Ned and caused his whole body to tense. Instinctively, he tightened his hold on the babe, allowing a fierce sense of protectiveness to wrap itself around him. His grip caused Aegon to fuss a bit in response though. Ned immediately loosens it, before bringing the boy back into the crock of his arms while whispering soft apologies amidst his tears.
But his dark thoughts do not leave him.
He could not let that happen again. Would not let it happen to this boy who looked back at him with dark gray eyes that marked those with the blood of House Stark. Lyanna’s eyes.
He shuddered at the thought, however. Because he knew exactly where this line of thinking would inevitably lead him. Back down a road that he had done everything to avoid when it first presented itself to him. When he walked through the halls of the Red Keep, the same halls his father and brother had died in.
He had found Jaimie Lannister there, lazily sitting on the Iron Throne, Aerys’ body collapsed in a pool of blood at the base of its steps. Upon seeing the Lord of Winterfell the Kingslayer had tried to casually play off his insolent display as saving the seat for Robert. Yet, as he got up and descended down those bloody steps Ned could see the mocking smile that contained his unspoken taunt; unless you mean to take it for yourself. Staring at that monstrous chair which looked so much like a gaping maw, Ned had never been more desperate to flee from another room in his life.
And yet… and yet, even as the barbed swords of the Iron Throne could mercilessly consume those who sat upon it, its metal jaws might also be the only thing capable of shielding this boy with the greatest blood right to that throne.
And, though it is a distant, if related thought to his immediate concern over the boy’s well-being, he thinks back to his previous contemplation's about the chaos that would soon sweep the realm after news of Robert’s death spread.
Without a clear successor or leader to rally behind the Seven Kingdoms could fracture, the Rebellion spilling out into a chaotic free-for-all of anarchy and civil war as the various lords carved the country up for themselves. That scenario would endanger everyone, not just Aegon or Ned’s family, and had to be avoided at all cost.
It would be a terrible burden to bear. Not just for Ned, but for this child as well once he grew into his majority. If he managed to grow up at all. The vultures would circle around him for the rest of his life, constantly testing him for any signs of weakness and pouncing if they ever found one.
Yet Ned could see no other option now. His nephew’s fate would always be tied to the Iron Throne, whether he sat upon it or not. And to not sit on it now would deprive him the use of the power and fear it commanded, even as the envy and greed it garnered remained. And Ned could not hope to fend off either of those unless he himself was in an actual position of strength to help his nephew.
“What will you do now, Eddard?” Arthur asked quietly once Ned’s sobs finally began to ebb.
After taking a final, ragged breath Ned looked up at last towards the Sword of the Morning and answers, newfound resolution burning in his eyes.
“Keep my promise."