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Staying Alive

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He was dying.

Everything hurt. A kick in the stomach, his men stepped on his injured leg, his head bashed hard in the ground, over and over again. He raised his arm in attempt to shield his head but found no relief, ever aware of the heavy sword in his grip.

Don’t lose it again.

He yelled out as his men rushed over him, paying no heed, their own survival bypassing any attention to those beneath them. His breathing became ragged as more feet crushed his chest, his many scars beneath his leathers burned with the onslaught. Others succumbed to the chaos, falling beneath the confined crowd of soldiers. His ears began ringing, the sounds of battle becoming muffled. But he still heard the screams and gasps of the dying around him, stealing one last breath before it all turned to nothing. The terrifying nothingness of death.

If I do, if I fall… don’t bring me back.

He had met death once already. Brought back just to die again. What kind of gods would do that? …the one we’ve got. The first, alone in the cold, betrayed by brothers, a boy ripping the dagger through his heart in his fading memory. The cold steel of the blade tearing through his flesh. Now, his life slipping from him, each inhale weaker than the last. Would the North be doomed against the coming storms? Death comes for us all, yet was he going to let it overtake him now, and so close to home?

The rush of feet slowed, enclosing the space around his head. Vision blurring and head spinning, he gasped, gulping in air. Men jammed together, shoulder to shoulder, cramped and caked in blood and shit and grime. He blinked as the sun peaked in through a gap above him. As if the gods, Old and New, or the Lord of Light himself, beckoned him out of confinement.

He finally realized, he wanted to live.

He hauled himself up, grabbing the arms and legs of the Northmen. He labored, squirming and twisting, craving air in his lungs. He crawled between them, squeezing free.

Jon heaved in as he broke through, inhaling the stale air of the North. Pushing himself above the shoulders of his men, he slowly regained oxygen, breathing deep. He took in his surroundings.

Wun Wun had spears and arrows lodged in his side, swinging angrily and loudly at the Bolton infantry. He turned to see Tormund’s wild red-haired head bashed again and again by Smalljon Umber. Jon glanced over at Ser Davos in the sea of remaining men, trapped and surrounded on all sides. A sad look passed between them as they each turned away, in search for any way out of this mess. Jon looked toward Winterfell. Finding Ramsay smirking his ridiculous psychotic smile, watching the slaughter from the hill, clean and untouched. Jon’s face twitched, his fist tightened around Longclaw. The only thing he’d done was shoot an arrow in his brother’s heart, then sat on his high horse letting the battle rage on its own time.

A horn sounded from the eastern ridge. Jon swung his head in time to see a massive horde of hooves rising like a wave ready to crash upon the shore. He caught the white falcon and crescent moon flapping in the wind. The Knights of the Vale. His breath left him once more as he saw Sansa and a man he did not recognize but could only assume his identity. Why hadn’t she said anything? Her words rushed back to his mind as he felt her gaze from across the battlefield.

Don’t do what he wants you to do… It’s not enough!  

No, it’s not enough, it’s what we have!

If Ramsay wins, I’m not going back there alive. Do you understand me?

As the Vale charged, sweeping away Bolton’s forces, Jon clambered up the mound of dead and injured bodies. Reaching the top still clutching Longclaw, his eyes bore into Ramsay, adrenaline and rage surging through him, his blood smoldering in his veins. Ramsay gave a dark look as he steered his horse and guardsmen around toward Winterfell. Fleeing like the coward he is. Jon wasted no time sprinting after him. Tormund, Wun Wun and nearby Free Folk close behind, other men followed after freeing themselves away from the fray. Wun Wun overtook him up the hill and reached the gates of Winterfell well before anyone else. Jon began to feel the bruises and pain of his leg as he ran, many rushed passed him holding bow and arrow. They managed to kill some archers on the wall who only paid attention to the giant at Winterfell’s door.

He heard the rattle and punching of wood and Wun Wun’s roars. He saw the gates gave way as the giant rammed into them. Free Folk and loyal Northmen flooded the courtyard. Jon’s senses were attuned to it all as he entered the walls of Winterfell for the first time in years, taking everything in. He came alongside Wun Wun as his men took out Ramsay’s, mostly archers who were slower on the draw compared to any of the skilled Free Folk. Jon hunched to the side favoring his injured leg, catching his breath, and noticed Wun Wun’s short huffs in the crisp air, then stilled when he noticed the many arrows.

Jon’s wide eyes caught the sad, drained eyes of the last living giant. He reached up toward him not knowing what – Jon gasped as an arrow plunged into Wun Wun’s eye, deep in his skull. Forever ending the life of the last giant in all of Westeros. As Wun Wun fell forward, Jon’s heart burned cold with the memory of his name from the giant’s deep voice. Snow.

He turned hard, darkened eyes to Ramsay.

“You suggested one on one combat, didn’t you?” Ramsay taunted as Winterfell came to a standstill, looking around at Jon’s men, arrows drawn on him. “I’ve reconsidered. I think that sounds like a wonderful idea.”

Ramsay drew an arrow. Jon threw Longclaw to the ground with a grunt, picking up a Mormont shield from the mud, swiftly blocking the arrow that flew toward his face, stopping mere inches from his nose. He advanced on Ramsay, the cold seeping in with each step. Ramsay quickly drew and released another, and again Jon raised the shield blocking the arrow, with a sound thunk as it struck the wood. Rage seethed from Jon’s eyes as he advanced closer, breathing harder. A third time, Jon blocked Ramsay’s arrow, advancing faster. Jon was too close for Ramsay to draw once more. He caught a glimpse of fear in Ramsay. With a mad roar of his own, Jon swung the shield, batting the bow out from Ramsay’s hand, shoving the shield at his throat, knocking Ramsay to the mud. Tossing the shield aside, Jon dove on top of him, a starving wolf ready to devour its prey.

Jon punched and punched and punched. Over and over and over and over. Holding nothing back, putting all his strength into beating the shit out of him, grunting with each punch. When Ramsay still smirked with blood spilling from his nose and mouth, Jon hit harder, ferociously. Wun Wun. Rickon. Shaggydog. Tormenting and raping Sansa. Again and again and again. Skinning the Northern loyalist and those like her. The countless lives lost in battle. Overtaking Winterfell and demeaning the North. Roose Bolton betraying Robb. Robb’s wife and unborn child. Even his siblings’ Lady Mother, Catelyn Stark. Even Theon Greyjoy. All of them driving the swing of his fists, feeding his fire. A breath away from suffocation. Blood draining in the snow. Ice blue eyes mocking him. He pounded Ramsay as if kneading bread, using both fists, blood covered his face and neck, purple bruises appearing. Jon delivered brutal strokes, breaking bone.

Sansa suddenly appeared in his peripheral vision, the look she gave making him halt the decimation of Ramsay’s skull. Eyes wide at realizing where he was, what at he was doing, having lost control of what he had always kept under the surface, out of reach. Or maybe it had always been there, but never witnessed by so many. He noticed others in the courtyard with wary looks at their Commander. Blood and mud covering his face, his hands. He looked from Sansa back down to Ramsay, both having their own silent conversation with their eyes. Jon realized he was not the one to take the wretched monster’s life. Still seething, Jon stood up from Ramsay, took one last look, and walked away.

-----------------

The women of Winter Town began assisting the many maesters in tending the wounded and organizing the dead. Few of Bolton’s soldiers remained alive, those who did were not helping Jon’s forces identify those strewn on the field. There were thousands dead. Jon was conflicted. He knew he needed to burn the bodies, yet he couldn’t deprive the Northern families of grieving their husbands, sons, and brothers. He had his own to mourn after all.

Jon went to wash the grime from himself. He would wait for a proper bath until after the men brought his belongings from the camp to Winterfell. He needed to get out of his leather armor, the contents layering it starting to freeze in the cold. He would have to wait for his cloak as well, but Winterfell felt much warmer than the Wall by all accounts, although it was colder than he remembered when he last was here, years ago. Snow drifted down from dark clouds. 

After changing, Tormund was telling him of numbers from battle, but his mind wasn’t focused on what he was saying.

Tormund nudged his shoulder. “Hey, you alright?”

“Aye. It just feels different.”

“What does?”

“Winterfell. I always dreamed of coming home while at Castle Black and especially beyond the Wall. Now that I’m ‘ere… It’s not home anymore. The people I would’ve come home to are dead. Sansa’s here. But not Arya or Bran. My brothers. My Father. Winterfell itself looks different.”

“That’s when you fill it with folk you do care about and get to know the ones who never left, suffering under the Flayed Men. You’re not alone here, Snow. But you will need more Southrons to support you here when they come. Never forget the real reason you took back your little castle.”

Two men with a stretcher approached them. Rickon lay with arrow shafts poking out of his furs, dried blood crusted around the wounds and around his mouth. His head of curls made Jon think of the little boy who giggled in the courtyard as Bran practiced with the bow. Arya sneaking behind them to hit the bullseye and Bran chasing after her. Father and Lady Stark watching from the covered walkway. All smiling.

Jon shook the memory away as Sansa stood next to him. “I’m gonna bury my brother in the crypt. Next to my father.” They nodded and walked toward the stairs leading down to the ancestral tombs beneath Winterfell. He turned to follow but stopped when Sansa spoke.

“Jon.” He hesitated before turning around, not sure where to begin with her as he did so, “Where is he?”

-----------------

Later, after retrieving a clean gambeson and his cloak from his things the men had brought back from camp, Jon went to the Maester’s quarters with Ghost, a raven squawked at him as he climbed the steps to the rookery. He had seen the chained man tending the injured earlier. Knocking, he squared his shoulders. The Maester opened the aged door. Round face, thinning hair on top and a growing white-streaked beard, clad in a black cloak unlike the gray he remembered Maester Luwin always wearing. His eyes seemed weary yet kind, like another Maester he once knew.

The Maester bowed his head and stepped aside to allow him and his direwolf entrance to the meager chambers. Books and ledgers and raven scrolls spread across the desk close to the hearth. A small chest sat in the corner beside the bed. Old fur covers lay mangled and patchy on the bedspread. Ghost remained at the door.

“Forgive me, Maester –”  “Wolkan” the man supplied.

“Maester Wolkan, my name is Jon Snow, son of Eddard Stark. I hope you don’t mind Ghost, he hasn’t left my side since he returned from camp.”

“No, by all means, he is remarkable and I don’t think I would be able to refuse you. And yes, I heard Ramsay speak of you quite often, though in not so pleasant words, I’m afraid.”

 “I’m sure. You’ve served House Bolton since you became a Maester, and moved with them from the Dreadfort to Winterfell, is that correct?”

“It is.”

“I don’t know how strong your allegiance lay to Roose or Ramsay. House Bolton is gone but you have been serving in Winterfell for years now. Would you be willing to stay even with the change in hands? If you wish, we can send a request to the Citadel for a new Maester. But the choice is yours.”

The older man paused. “Maesters are bound by their vows to serve whoever holds the castle in which they reside, regardless of changes in lordship. Even so, Roose Bolton was just, though cruel at times to his household. Ramsay… fear kept me here in service to them. However, I have come to love Winterfell and its people. I grew up in the Riverlands but have found the North to be my true home, harsh and wild and beautiful. Your father was dignified and honorable as Warden, it was clear in even the smallest of raven scrolls from Maester Luwin. There was a reason the North chose to follow your brother as a King after your father’s imprisonment.”

Jon only heard stories of how Robb was chosen King. They reached him after living with the Wildlings and came at the same moment when learning of his death. Robb should be here, but he never would be.

The Maester continued, “I observed you today, interacting with your men, both Northern and the… Free Folk, as you call them. Ramsay would never have spared his men a glance unless it was to intimidate or skin them of their secrets.” The Maester lowered his gaze, brow drawn tight as in pain. “Ramsay killed Walda Frey and her newly born son, the babe only hours old.” Jon felt the sudden urge to meet his fist with Ramsay’s jaw a few more rounds. But the monster wasn't his to kill.

Wolkan stood up straighter as he continued. “I would be honored to remain in Winterfell, my lord, and serve under House Stark.”

Jon smiled and relaxed. “I thank you, Maester Wolkan. But I'm no lord, only a Snow. Jon is fine. My sister Sansa will be the Lady of Winterfell. Did you know him, Maester Luwin, I mean?

“No, we only had contact through ravens sent to the Dreadfort. Speaking of it, might you consider sending men to inspect what remains there? After taking care of the those here of course. To see how the people fare? Lady Sansa is now Ramsay’s widow by law, regardless of her escape. She maintains the title of Lady of the Dreadfort and Lady of Winterfell.”

“I'll speak with my sister about it later. But aye, I will keep the Dreadfort in mind. Thank you Maester. A few other matters to address, before I leave you. Please send ravens to every Northern house informing them of the outcome of the battle. And call all the Lords for an assembly here after the fields have been cleared to discuss the status of the North and begin preparing for what’s to come. Winter is coming, and the dead come with it.”

“The dead?”

“The White Walkers and their foot soldiers, wights we call them, dead men and worse. Look in the tomes of Winterfell’s library for any mention of them and how they can be defeated. Commander Mormont lost to them at the Fist of the First Men. You received a raven no doubt requesting more men to fight the Wildling army, gathered together by Mance Rayder only because they needed to find shelter below the Wall, which I granted them after Hardhome. We faced the Walkers at Hardhome, but it wasn’t even a fight, it was massacre. And all Free Folk who died were added to their army. If he gets past the Wall, the North will be first. We have to be ready. We have to start now. If not, we will die. And the rest of Westeros will be next.”

I told them we were all going to die.

Maester Wolkan’s face paled as he listened. “The other Maesters at the Citadel don’t spend much time on the mystic stories of old. However, what I did study I reasoned could only be written if there was at least one bit of truth in them, one way or the other. The Weirwoods themselves give credence to the Children, and a giant died in Winterfell’s courtyard this afternoon. And you, Jon Snow. There have been whispers of the reasons for your departure from Castle Black.”

Jon shifted, unconsciously bringing a hand to his chest. He saw Ghost raising his head from his spot behind them, sensing Jon's unease. He shouldn’t be surprised by gossip, but none the less, it unnerved him not knowing how far the whispers were spreading, or what exactly was being said. But what could he do? At least Maester Wolkan was open-minded. He remembered Maester Luwin expressing clear doubts of the magic and unexplained mysteries of the world.

 “You may ask Tormund Giantsbane or Ser Davos Seaworth to tell you the story if you wish to know the truth. I’m… still uncomfortable disclosing it to others myself. One day perhaps.”

“I will be here whenever the day may arrive. I will do as you command and search through the library. If I may, would any of the Free Folk be willing to share their stories beyond the Wall? It would be good to gain their knowledge as they become integrated with the North. Their traditions are unique even amongst themselves.”

“I will speak with their elders and let them decide. They have oral traditions but may enjoy telling it to one who is willing to listen.” Jon had neglected to think of such things. He smiled, he supposed this is why he needed a Maester. It brought memories of Maester Aemon to his mind. He had never had a proper goodbye with the blind old man. Kill the boy, Jon Snow…

His smile dimmed. He had put it off long enough, he supposed. He sighed, “And Maester, would you commission a stone master to design a statue of my brother Rickon, preferably someone who knew him as a boy. He’ll be laid with the other Starks as soon as his body has been properly prepared.”

“As you wish, Jon.”

-----------------

As Winterfell quieted for the night, he watched as Sansa strode down into the kennels. At first, he wasn’t so sure about her proffered method, but the bastard was hers to kill. Jon wouldn’t miss it either way. He watched from the entrance gate, giving her space. He didn’t hear everything said, but heard enough, especially Ramsay’s screams that turned to strangled guttural sounds. Sansa stayed long enough to witness him morph into a distorted sack of torn skin and bone, red muscles peaking through as the dogs’ teeth pierced deep. Jon had seen the damage Ghost inflicted enough to imagine the details. The hounds barked and howled as they gorged on their former master, the irony smell of blood filling the kennels, he could taste it in his mouth. As she turned and strode away from Ramsay Bolton forever, the tiny smirk on her face was the only indication of her thoughts. He couldn’t contain his own as she exited through the gateway.

Jon paused before following her back inside. He had felt drawn to the crypts since he first step foot through the gates. Now was as good a time as ever, and he would be glad for the privacy. Too many people wanted to know his opinion, cleaning up the dead and wounded from battle, moving supplies from camp to the castle, and filling the empty positions with new servants and workers for Winterfell. Jon was tired and sore from the battle itself, let alone all the preparations and details after. He was used to delegating as Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, but Winterfell was a different animal than Castle Black.

He walked to the entrance of the crypts, the two wolf statues guarding the opening had been defaced over the years and would need to be replaced. He descended the stairs, holding a candle in hand and Ghost trailing close behind him. The direwolf had almost knocked him over when they reunited after the battle, those in the courtyard had stopped to stare at the enormous white wolf. He had grown in the months since leaving Castle Black, running and hunting when he pleased. Ghost’s nose was level with Jon’s chest when he stood on all fours, his body thick with muscle and fur. 

The memories rushed back as he stepped in the dim corridor of the crypts, the coldness of the underground passageways creeping in beneath his heavy cloak. The very first time he visited, it had only been Jon and Father, he couldn’t remember why Robb hadn't come along. They always did everything together. But Jon had clearly been alone. Had he been 4 or 5? Young enough to still hold his Father’s hand. Father spoke softly as he pointed out Kings, a few clutched large family swords and one with a direwolf statue laid at the base. Ghost paused to sniff it as they passed by now. When they reached the newer section, he had told Jon of how Grandfather Rickard and Uncle Brandon had died down south because of a King who was very angry and mean, and a Prince who had loved his little sister, Aunt Lyanna. And she had loved him.

When Robb and Jon traded stories years later of their first visits to the crypts with Father, Robb said Father told the story differently. Prince Rhaegar took Aunt Lyanna away from them, he never loved her! Jon had argued, insisting that the Prince did love Lyanna. He remembered! Father told him so, with a wistfulness in his voice, and a sadness in his eyes. Why would he tell Jon one story and Robb another? Had he lied to Jon? Father had been away fighting the Greyjoy Rebellion, so they couldn’t run and ask him. They both had forgotten by the time he came back, an older Greyjoy boy to distract them from fairy-tales and love songs of Princes and fair maidens. But Jon remembered crying himself to sleep the night he argued with Robb, for the unbelieved love of his Aunt Lyanna and the Prince Rhaegar. And confusion of a little boy that their Father could lie to either one of his sons. It made him wish for the thousandth time for a Mother to run to and bury himself in her arms, letting her console him and dry his tears.

Arriving at the stone statues of his Grandfather, Uncle, and Aunt, he remembered now. Everyone in all of Westeros knew Rhaegar kidnapped and raped her. Why had Father told a different story? He never even told Arya his Father’s altered version. There had been, at the very least something between them for Rhaegar to name his aunt the Queen of Love and Beauty at the Tourney of Harrenhall with a crown of blue winter roses, as Sam had once told him. It confused Jon that Rhaegar already had Lady Elia Martell and two children of his own. But it all ended the same. Father found Lyanna too late, killing Ser Arthur Dayne in a duel. Lyanna died of fever in some unknown place in Dorne. Rhaegar on the banks of the Trident, rubies crushed. His Lady wife and children murdered. The Targaryen children fleeing. And Father never said a word about any of it. Too many bad memories, Jon supposed. After learning the horrible reality that was the Mad King, and exactly how Rickard and Brandon Stark had died, he began to comprehend Eddard Stark’s silence.

Ghost padded over to where his Father lay, sat on his hunches and turned his red eyes towards Jon. He walked over and stood facing Father. Or rather the statue of him. A stone replica of Ice in his stone hands.

And you are a Stark. You might not have my name but you have my blood... The next time we see each other… we’ll talk about your mother. Hmm? I promise.
The same wistful sadness the last thing he saw before Father turned his horse south.

Knowing who Jon’s mother is… was… seems insignificant compared to the threats and dangers he’d experienced. Would it even matter in the end? Jon doubted it. Yet his heart wouldn’t allow his mind to block it from his thoughts. There was something deeper in him that wouldn’t let it go. Ghost sighed next to him. Jon looked over at him and gave a sad smile, ran a hand slowly over the wolf’s head and neck, the soft fur comforting under his gloved fingers.

He thought of what Sansa had described of Father’s death as his focus returned to him. He’d wanted to know, yet he hadn’t. The memory of her tears made his heart ache. He hadn’t meant for her to unravel, but she must have kept it all welled up for years. He saw the moment the images returned to her mind. He held her that first night they reunited and reminisced in Castle Black until her eyes were red, cheeks puffed and streaked. She calmed down after eating, her spine returned.

We never should have left Winterfell.

Don’t you wish we could go back to the day we left? I want to scream at myself, ‘don’t go, idiot!’

How could we know?

And now they were home once more. They took back the North, but with one enemy defeated they now had countless more. And a castle to run, and bannerman and people to care for. A new weight was on his shoulders, not all that different than being Lord Commander. “Father,” he swallowed, the stale air of the crypt making his throat dry, “Father, I was never meant to be the Lord of Winterfell. I can try running it like I did at Castle Black, but I failed then." He paused, Ser Davos in his head. Good. Now go fail again. "How did you bear it? I don’t have Sam, or Edd. There is Ser Davos, but it’s not enough. I wish you could be here, to tell me what to do, how to talk with the Northern Lords. To see you, at least.” He smiled, “I’m sorry, but your statue doesn’t do you justice.” He glanced over to Aunt Lyanna’s statue.

If the commissioner for Father’s statue failed to capture his likeness, how flawed were the rest? For a moment he wished to know what they all really looked like.

Jon stepped closer, really looking at her for perhaps the first time. Ghost was sniffing at something near the base of her statue. His heart skipped a beat as he carefully leaned down to lift the limp object.

A wilted flower. It’s petals an inky, dark color, all wrinkled after years of lying there in the darkness. He searched his memory, vaguely remembering Father walking through the yard with a flower in hand. Sometimes as a child he was aware of Ned Stark slipping away on many of Jon’s name days down the dark stairs. As he eyed the flower and then Lyanna, his mind made the connection.

A blue Winter Rose.

Chapter Text

Winterfell was quieting down as men were sent home. Jon had slept in his old room as the servants prepared a larger one for him. Jon was ready to move out of the cramped space. The only good memories here were of Arya sneaking in late at night when she was upset, or he was brooding, and they teased each other until they both felt better. There were many nights when she had fallen asleep curled up next to him, only to rush out early in the morning so no one would know. But everyone knew of course.

He walked around the castle, reminding himself of Winterfell’s many corridors and hidden passages. The towers both used and abandoned. He ended up in the great hall, dark without any candles lit and no fire burning this early in the morning. Gray light came in the through the windows, the morning snows continued to hover in the North. His footsteps echoed, the high table in front of the hearth the only item set in the hall. He walked around it, sliding his hands over the chair backs. He stopped and leaned on Father’s chair. It would be his position now.

The Lady Melisandre entered the room. Her curious gaze and raised brow a silent question.

“When we had feasts, my family would sit up here. And I’d sit down there.” He pointed across the empty hall.

Melisandre stepped closer to the table. “Could have been worse, Jon Snow. You had a family. You had feasts.”

He gave a small smile at that. He had only ever thought about what he didn’t have as a young boy. After the Night’s Watch and all of his mentors, he knew better than that now. He had so much more than most boys in all the Seven Kingdoms.

“You’re right, I was luckier than most.”

They both turned as Ser Davos strode in from the far entrance. Jon hadn’t seen such a fowl look on the man’s face since he argued with him over Stannis at the Wall. The knight stopped and tossed a dark object at Melisandre. Her face paled as she caught what seemed to be a miniature figure with antlers on its head, charred and broken as if it had been dropped in a fire. Jon felt confused looking between the both of them.

“What is that?”

“Tell him. Tell him who it belonged to.” Davos commanded of her. Her eyes glanced to Jon then fell away. He looked to the figure, then warily at her, suspicious at her hesitance, and a sick feeling starting to form in his gut.

“The Princess Shireen.” Sweat was on her brow and her features pulled taunt.

“Tell him what you did to her. TELL HIM!

Melisandre couldn’t hold Jon's gaze. She looked down with a haunted expression as she confessed.

“We burned her at the stake.”

The sick feeling doubled as Jon felt bile rising in his throat. A crowned stag for a Baratheon princess.

He hadn’t interacted with the girl hardly at all at Castle Black, he had other duties to garner his attention. But he remembered kind, curious eyes and a shy smile. The scaled half of her face had fascinated him. He mourned for Samwell and Gilly’s lost friend.

Ser Davos broke through his thoughts with the question churning in Jon’s mind, tears in the knight’s voice. “Why?”

“The army was scrapped; the horses were dying. It was the only way.”

“You burned a little girl alive!

“I only do what my Lord commands!”

“If he commands you to burn children, your lord is evil.”

Her eyes were wide. “We are standing here because of him. Jon Snow is alive, because the Lord willed it.”

Jon was caught in the middle of the two. He couldn’t deny the impossibilities of her Lord, because he was breathing at that very moment. His jaw clenched and eyes hardened. He ached for the Princess. She had died. And Jon the one who lived.

“I loved that girl. Like she was my own! She was good, she was kind, and you KILLED her!

“So did her father. So did her mother.” Her voice desperate now. “Her own blood knew it was the only way.”

“The only way for what? They all died anyway! You told everyone Stannis was the one. You had him believing it. All of them fooled! And you lied.”

“I didn’t lie. I was wrong.” The Lady admitted, perhaps the first time she ever admitted it to herself.

“Ah. You were wrong.” Ser Davos stared, the hard expression returning to cover his grief. “How many died, because you were wrong?”

Heavy silence filled the room.

“I ask your leave to execute this woman for murder. She admits to the crime.”

Jon raised his head, a hard set in his brows but sadness coated his eyes. Melisandre’s pleaded with his own. His voice came out harsh in disgust. “Do you have anything to say for yourself?”

“I’ve been ready to die for many years. If the Lord was done with me, so be it, but he’s not. You’ve seen the Night King, Jon Snow. You know the Great War is still to come. You know the army of the dead will be upon us soon. And you know I can help you win that war.”

Oh, he knew it. Gods, he knew it.

He didn’t want to kill her. Her hands and incantations gave him a second birth. But his connection with her that had grown from leeriness to a certain respect didn’t matter in this moment. The weight of what she’d done was too great to ignore. He stepped closer to her, face to face. He forced himself to look her in the eye when he gave his decision.

“Ride south today.” Melisandre’s eyes widened in dismay. “If you return to the North, I’ll have you hanged as a murderer.” He looked to Ser Davos, his face resolute in acceptance of Jon’s verdict, tears still glimmering in his eyes. 

Jon looked back to her. He couldn’t stop the softening of his eyes, sorrow at the whole situation taking hold. His mind telling her silently, 'Go.'  He felt her looking at his lips, her eyes traced his face stopping for one last look in his own. She relented and bowed her head as she placed the small stag to rest on the table. Jon stood still as she walked away but stiffened when he saw Ser Davos step in front of her, giving a warning with a dangerous tone of voice.

“If you ever come back this way, I will execute you myself.”

Without a word, she exited through the far door.

--------------

Within the hour her belongings were saddled. Jon had the stable master prepare a sturdy horse and servants brought supplies for the Kingsroad. He went up to the battlements, watching as she walked through the courtyard, her red hair and robes bold against the falling snow. She lifted herself up and found his gaze. She lingered a moment before urging her horse forward out of Winterfell’s gate. He stood there in his heavy fur cloak thinking of all of his encounters with her.

He remembered first seeing her through the fire of the enormous pyre after the Battle at Castle Black. Her eyes had bored into him, as if she could see into his soul. He had shivered even with the fire blazing in front of him.

The King wants a word.

Inside you, there’s power. You resist it and that is your mistake… Power to make life. Power to make light. And power to cast shadows…

The dead don’t need lovers, only the living.   You know nothing, Jon Snow. He marveled at those haunting words even now.

He recalled her stunned face seeing him sitting up and breathing after... 

Stannis was not the Prince who was Promised, but someone has to be. What in seven hells was he to do with that?

Don’t lose.

If the Lord didn’t want me to bring you back, how did I bring you back? I have no power. Only what he gives me, and he gave me you.

What had it all been for? He wondered where she would go. Perhaps she would find fires in the South to speak prophesies to.

He looked over as Sansa walked up the stairs of the battlements. She stopped a few paces away from him, looking to the Lady riding away from Winterfell. There was still tension between them after their argument and then her surprise rescue in battle.

“I’m having the Lord’s chamber prepared for you.”

“Mother and Father’s room?” He felt her look at him. “You should take it.”

He smiled weakly. How could he ever do that? “I’m not a Stark.”

“You are to me.”

Though he still remembered feeling like the bastard son he’d always been when they were planning their return to Winterfell. Nothing would ever change it.

But Jon doesn’t have the Stark name.

No, but I do…

She was the only remaining trueborn Stark. He didn’t win the battle or kill Ramsay. It all belonged to her, as it should.

“You’re the Lady of Winterfell. You deserve it. We’re standing here because of you. The battle was lost until the Knights of the Vale rode in. They came because of you.”

She didn’t argue for once.

“You told me Lord Baelish sold you to the Boltons.”

“He did.”

“And you trust him?” He looked at her, feared her answer.

“Only a fool would trust Littlefinger.” Yet she still called on him and he came running.

“I should have told you about him. About the Knights of the Vale. I’m sorry.” Regret filled her apology.

Yes, she should have. They were now beholden to Littlefinger and the Vale. But what hurt the most was that she had kept it from him all along. But what would he have done if she had said something? Before or after meeting with Ramsay? He had been so sure the man was overconfident. And Jon had fallen in every one of his traps. She had been right.

He closed the gap between them, not meeting her eyes until they were face to face.

“We need to trust each other. We can’t fight a war amongst ourselves, we have so many enemies now.”

He had only ever shown affection with Arya growing up. He and Sansa had always kept their distance from one another, influenced by Lady Stark. But here and now, she was all the family he had. He hoped to do right by her. He touched his hand to the side of her face, tilting it forward to kiss her forehead. Sealing an unspoken promise, his eyes tight.

Hand still over her red hair, he pulled back, his eyes searching hers in question. She opened hers, silently giving her reply. He nodded before turning to leave. He took a few steps but was stopped when she called him, as if remembering why she had come up on the battlements in the first place. “Jon. A raven came from the Citadel. A white raven.” She breathed in deep. “Winter is here.”

Her words registered and a small smile began spreading on his face. The knowing look she gave mirrored his own. His smile blossomed into a full-blown grin as he laughed looking up at the snow. Indeed, it was here, in more ways than one.

“Well, Father always promised, didn’t he?”

They smiled together.

Chapter Text

On the day of the council with the Lords of the North, Jon decided to take his new horse out for an early morning ride. He was sorry to have lost his former horse he had taken from Castle Black – it was his own rash decisions in battle that propelled the horse to its death. The breeder for Winterfell’s stables had been adamant when he first introduced Jon to Darion, though the courser was young, he was fit and strong. And magnificently beautiful, his black coat and dark mane shimmered against the snow.

Jon saddled the horse on his own as the castle was only just beginning to wake up and few were out this early. He had loved learning to ride growing up as a child, then going hunting with Father and his men, and racing with Robb. But he had stuck to swords more and more and then he was a Brother of the Night’s Watch. He hadn’t had much opportunity to ride while at Castle Black, nor had he time for any sort of leisurely rides in the past few months, but now he had the chance to enjoy it.

Jon led the horse from the stalls into the courtyard. Darion began to fuss, huffing and stomping in agitation as Ghost stalked toward them. Jon ran his hand down Darion’s long neck to comfort him but allowed the horse and direwolf to have their moment as they each were sniffing at the other. As Ghost silently turned away toward the North gate, Darion lowered his head and gave a last huff as he calmed from the exchange.

“There’s a lad. You’ll have to become used to him, I’m afraid.” Jon patted his neck before repositioning the reins and mounting his horse.

He urged Darion out of the castle through the Northern outskirts of Wintertown, greeting the few passersby as he went. Then he spurred him into a gallop over the moors surrounding Winterfell towards the Wolfswood to the west. Ghost ran on ahead, blending in with the snow from the previous few days. Looking south, Jon noticed storm clouds far in the distance.

They soon were surrounded by the forest and Jon savored the feeling of freedom as he let Darion ease into a hard yet steady pace. Loose strands of his raven curls whipped around his face, his heavy cloak snapping behind him in the harsh Northern breeze, cheeks flushed from exertion and the cold. He had missed this.

They went a long way before catching up to Ghost. He guided Darion to circle Ghost a few times. At first the direwolf only observed silently but soon bounded beside them. The two animals seemed to be in a competition as the circle grew wider, the pace faster. Jon suddenly reined Darion in after almost being hit in the face by a tree branch. Ghost pranced away from them and playfully rolled in the snow, yelping and growling. Darion snorted. And Jon smiled as he shook his head at the pair.

Jon dismounted and led Darion over to a small nearby stream and discarded his cloak for a moment, letting the winter cold chill him from the ride. He rubbed Darion’s neck as the horse bent down to drink. Jon went over to where Ghost was, but before he said a word, his wolf tackled him to the ground. Jon wrestled him back, which earned him playful bites on his arm sleeves. They both ended up covered in snow and Jon’s face covered by Ghost’s licks, his laughter filling the air.

Ghost rested his head on Jon’s chest as they lay in the snow, the world still and peaceful around them.

The wolf shifted off him as Jon soon sat up and brushed himself free of snow. Brushing off Ghost, he murmured softly, “I see you’re getting to know each other,” nodding towards Darion who was thankfully still standing by the stream despite all the raucous. He rubbed behind the wolf’s white ears, “I hope I have as much luck as you today.” He sighed heavily, “Come on, boy. Let’s head back.” The wolf nuzzled his head against Jon’s. He closed his eyes, drinking in the affection.

The distant, lilted words of a girl he once knew, once loved, floated across his mind.

Let’s not go back. Let’s stay here awhile longer.

Riding back through the forest, he wondered how such a memory was now only a dull ache instead of the initial jolt to the heart he had experienced in so many moments after the Battle for the Wall. He had chosen duty over love, and he had survived… but with a high cost.

All thoughts of her drifted away as Winterfell came into view on the high ridge. He kept Darion at an easy pace across the moors this time, prolonging his freedom with every stride until he reached Winterfell’s gates once more.

 

--------------

 

Jon was in the solar looking over ledgers when Maester Wolkan arrived with the mornings ravens.

“We had multiple ravens in the night, including a letter from Oldtown.”

“The Citadel?” Jon asked.

The Maester nodded, handing the letter to him. He longed to read it that moment but set it on the desk. He took the two smaller ravens the maester offered, one with an X made of chains for the seal, the other stamped with a sun.

Jon read for himself as Wolkan spoke. “House Umber and House Karstark. Ned Umber is the new Lord of Last Hearth and Alys Karstark the new Lady of Karhold. They will arrive a day or so after the first of the meetings start.”

Jon frowned, “I suppose the new Lord and Lady are wary of attending so soon after the battle won. And their new advisors with them.” Jon eyed the handwriting of the scroll from Last Hearth. “How old is Ned?”

“A boy of ten. And the Lady Karstark six-and-ten.”

Thoughts of his siblings came to mind. And Lyanna Mormont, a recent name day making her two-and-ten. Without fathers, taking leadership positions, and bearing so much of life’s duties and tragedies at so young an age.

Jon set the two scrolls aside. “They will be welcome here as any other house whenever they do arrive. They will not be the only ones absent to the first meeting, if I recall?”

“There is no response from House Whitehill, and one raven arrived on behalf of the noble houses of Skagos declaring loyalty to House Stark, but begged absolution from traveling off the island as “the Long Winter has come to stay”, so writes their Maester Malcolm. Lord Flint of Flint’s Fingers should arrive by nightfall. Many Lords are arriving this morning, even as we speak.”

“Would you see to it that the kitchens have enough bread and salt prepared for Guest rights?”

“I have already taken the liberty, my Lord.”

Jon gave him a look but didn’t correct him in the maester’s address of him. “Thank you, Maester. Is there anything else?”

“A few matters from Wintertown. Some of the maids and workers have been talking of the needs there. Perhaps after the council you and Lady Sansa may turn your focus to it. We may need to take certain measures if we are to have armies stationed here in addition to the increase population of Wintertown as the weather conditions grow harsher.”

“I will be sure to consider it.”

Maester Wolkan took his leave. Jon’s attention drawn to the letter on the desk, he opened it quickly, craving the words from his closest friend.

 

Jon,

I arrived to Oldtown a few nights past and have begun training at the Citadel. In all honesty, it is very slow and lowly work, nothing like what I dreamt starting out to become a maester would truly be. The library is beyond words. Vast amounts of books and knowledge to be had, yet I hardly have time during the day to read. Every night is spent paging through ancient scrolls and texts. I have yet to find anything useful. Hopefully by the time this reaches you I will have more success.

I was dumbstruck when I heard from the town folk and one of the Archmaesters that you are no longer Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. I could hardly believe it as true. What happened at the Wall, Jon? What forced you to leave? It must have been something catastrophic to make you give your post to Dolorous Edd! To my great misfortune you must not risk disclosing such a story by raven, this I know, so I must suffer in anticipation until I come back to the North to hear it for myself.

Whispers of your name have spread throughout the Kingdoms, especially after your latest victory – The Battle of the Bastards their calling it.

Gilly and little Sam are well, thank you for asking. I shall spare you the details of our journey here until I see you again. Any news of useful information will be sent in due time.

Your Brother, for all the nights to come,

Sam

 

Whenever he did see Sam again, he knew they would have quite the long conversation. There were many times that Jon had thanked the Gods for Sam leaving before the mutiny all those months ago. Though he sometimes wondered if Sam’s absence had made the mutineers braver in committing their betrayal. It had certainly made Jon’s despair after Hardhome far worse, cascading him into those dark months after leaving the Night’s Watch.

The Battle of the Bastards. Fitting name really.

Jon eventually left the solar in search of another friend. He found Tormund in the practice yard, sparring with another of his clansman, Narmar Cotesblood, roaring and yelling from both men resounding across the courtyard. Jon looked around at the heads turned towards the men clamoring their swords at one another. Tormund swung wildly, soon dislodging Narmar’s sword to the ground, though the brute quickly tackled Tormund, turning it into a wrestling match. Dirt and snow caught in Narmar’s long light brown hair as they rolled around. After exchanging a punch or two and growling at each other, Narmar pinned Tormund’s arms and shoved the redhead’s face to the dirt. Tormund laughed in consent as he was released to stand.

“You may be better with a sword, Tor. But none’s ever come close ta bestin’ me brawlin’.”

Tormund swiped up his sword from where it lay. “Better be able to crush a man’s skull, cuz tanglin’ and tusslin’ won’t keep you alive against wights, Cote.”

Narmar shoved him hard. “You’re just sore you lost, is all.”

Tormund grunted as he turned at Jon’s snickering. “Quiet, boy! We never did have a proper bout, you and I. You don’t want today to be that day,” he warned with a dark glare.

Jon failed to hide his grin. “We don’t need any more disturbance than what you lot’ve already made. Besides, we don’t have time, it may take all day. Too much history between us for it to be a short spar, nor a bloodless one at that.” Narmar smirked next to Tormund.

Tormund chuckled, “Alas, the Free Folk need you alive. Now, what is it that brings you here. I’ve hardly seen you the past few days. You’re quite the popular Lord Snow.”

“I’m not a lord but aye, I have been busy. I need to speak with you about the council today… I want you and some of your men there.”

 Red eyebrows rose.

“You know a few of the men from fighting in the battle, but the other Lords need to know you’re here. They’ll talk of it anyway, might as well be there to hear it for yourselves rather than gossip. I want you there. But the hall will be crowded, so only bring those you trust to remain silent against insults, as there will be many.”

“When is this meeting of yours?” Tormund asked.

“An hour or so after the mid-day meal.”

“We’ll be there.”

 

--------------

 

Sansa had demanded Jon’s presence in welcoming Lord Manderly when he arrived. Thus, Jon stood in the courtyard with his sister to greet Wyman Manderly of White Harbor. He was a rather tall, heavyset older man, with a thick white head of hair and beard.

Introductions were made, and a few cool pleasantries given.

Sansa spoke with her smooth voice and fake smile as she spoke with the Lord, “I believe the last time you were here was with your daughters.”

“Indeed, my Lady, I was presenting my eldest as a match for a young Robb Stark. A long time past, as it were.”

“It would seem, my Lord, that you have less interest in the Stark name as you once did. For did you not refuse our summons, Lord Manderly?”

“That I did. Also refused Ramsay Bolton’s if I recall. But how we thanked the Seven it all ended in your favor.”

Jon interrupted quickly before she gave another biting remark, “Thank you, my Lord. I know that sometimes making the decision to do nothing is often the hardest choice of all.” Lord Manderly turned to him with a look of amazement. Jon glanced at Sansa’s equally surprised expression before continuing, “Please do take rest in the prepared chambers before the mid-day meal. We shall dine together and reconvene an hour afterwards to treat with the all the attending Northern Lords and Houses. Guest right will be observed then.”

Manderly regained himself, “Thank you. Lady Stark. Snow.” He and his men followed a servant to their prepared rooms.

Jon began to breathe again after the Lord departed. He turned to Sansa. “You can’t treat the Northmen like those in the South. False courtesies raise their suspicions and ire. We need the North together, and we have the advantage of a victory after retaking Winterfell.”

“I merely asked a question after observing the extent of his loyalty to House Stark. You don’t need to tell me the obvious, Jon. Though where, pray tell, do you think I have been living these past few years, in Essos?”

“You’re more of a Southern Lady than any of the Stark siblings ever were. You spent years there and married into a southern house,” he raised a hand to silence her, “regardless of whether it was your choice or not. You are a Stark, but you’re of the South. And I’m a Snow. It’s already an uphill battle as it is. We can’t afford to send Lords packing before they even enter the gates.”

“If they run after a few false pleasantries, then they are the softest lords the North has ever seen.”

Jon cracked a smile, softening his tone, “We need to be considerate of them, at least. It’s what Father would’ve done.”

She looked down and sighed. “I’ll meet you in the hall then…”

Jon stood there, replaying the conversations in his head. He then trudged into the Godswood for a few moments of peace.

 

Jon and Sansa entered the Great Hall together, with Ghost following behind them. All noise of the crowd came to a hush as they made their way between the two long tables to the high table. It would be the first time Jon would ever sit there with this many guests in attendance. And at Father’s place, nonetheless. As they sat, most eyes of the hall were on Ghost’s enormous presence settled underneath the table at their feet.

The ancient tradition of guest right was observed by the hosts and guests partaking of bread and salt. Once finished, the mid-day meal commenced.

During the meal, a few lords approached them to share more private greetings and compliments. One such lord was a slim man, no taller than Jon, around Father’s age or a few years younger. His clothing was green and bronze of an odd scaly, thatched material, organic and earthy looking. Jon noticed a black lizard-lion the clasp of the man’s thatched coat. His hair and beard were brown, just starting to grey at the temples.

Jon stood from his seat. “Howland Reed?” Sansa looked up at hearing the name.

Lord Reed bowed toward Sansa, his voice a rough yet rich, warm tone, reminding him of Uncle Benjen’s. “Lady Stark.” He turned with a warm smile. “Jon.” The man paused as his green eyes met Jon’s. “It’s an honor to be hosted in Winterfell, though I am afraid it is a pleasure long overdue, to my great misfortune.”

“My Lord, I beg you forgive us for not meeting you the moment you arrived.”

“Think nothing of it, son. We Crannogmen are not ones for formalities. And I believe you both were busy welcoming Lord Manderly at the time we arrived.”

Sansa spoke beside him, “Father once told the story of how you saved his life during the Rebellion.”

Lord Reed stiffened slightly, but maintained his smile, “Nothing more than what the Stark family did not once do for me.” His eyes flitted to Jon with an odd expression. “Allow me to express how pleased House Reed was to hear you both had retaken your home. After all, your Father and his siblings never failed to remind everyone, ‘There must always be a Stark in Winterfell.’”

Jon and Sansa gave each other small smiles.

“I mustn’t keep you from your meals much longer. But you should know House Reed has been fiercely loyal as vassals of the Starks since the Kings of Winter. And it was heartily renewed among your Father’s siblings and mine. To this day our fealty to you has remained steadfast, even a Reed journeying to his death beyond the Wall, in service of a Stark.” He looked at Jon knowingly, but Jon couldn’t connect the meaning. “Our swords and spears and arrows are yours to command. Grant mercy to our weak, help to our helpless, and justice to all, and we shall never fail you. We swear by earth and water… We swear by bronze and iron…” Lord Reed looked down to Ghost, “I swear by ice…,” then to Jon, “…and fire.”

A shiver ran down Jon’s spine. Their oaths always had an ancient and dark aura surrounding them. That he would speak it directly to them, to him, made it feel even more so.

Jon could only reply a numb, “Thank you, my Lord.”

“Jon. My Lady.” Howland Reed smiled once more as he walked back to his men at the long tables. Jon took his seat, though he and Sansa didn’t say a word for a time. He had just gone back to eating his meal when Sansa quipped.

“Crannogmen have always been a strange people.”

“Aye.”

“What was that about a Reed and a Stark beyond the Wall? A journey to one’s death?” She asked.

Jon’s mouth slacked as he placed it. “Bran... Sam said there was an older boy and a girl journeying with Bran and Hodor. And Bran’s direwolf Summer.” Memories of Sam telling him of Bran crept in at the edges of his mind. The faint calls of his name fighting the mutineers at Craster’s Keep. He had convinced himself they were only tricks in the wind. Or in his head. Locke’s neck snapped in half. Ghost suddenly returning.

Even a Reed journeying to his death beyond the Wall, in service of a Stark.

He had to push his thoughts of Bran and the children of Howland Reed away for another day. Otherwise, he would be as lost as his brother was at that moment.

 

The meal was finished and an hour later the Lords and few Ladies gathered throughout the hall. When Tormund and other Free Folk entered to stand along the left wall, the lords began to murmur around the tables.

Jon opened the council by acknowledging the various members of the Stark forces who helped in retaking Winterfell from the Boltons and stated the need to address all the lords and houses of the North regarding the Long Winter and that which comes with it.

But no sooner did he finish acknowledging the Stark forces, including the thousands of Free Folk, than multiple lords start right in voicing various grievances against their presence in the North. Jon had heard it all before at Castle Black. The lords who had fought alongside them just over a week ago in battle also had things to share against them, though a few did stand up in their defense.

Jon couldn’t stop himself from tuning it all out, his thoughts distant, thinking of a crippled boy, who was likely now closer to being a man, be that he was still alive.

His attention was drawn back to the room as it was growing increasingly loud and unruly when Lord Royce stood up and bellowed out his contribution. “You can’t expect Knights of the Vale to side with wildling invaders!”

Tormund immediately butted in, “We didn’t invade! We were invited.”

“Not by me.”

Jon stood swiftly and spoke above the chatter. “I invited them! I granted the Free Folk passage as Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, and they’ve set’led the lands in the Gift for almost a year now, on agreement that they fight with us when the time comes. They only fought with me against the Boltons to ensure their survival in our lands, protected behind the Wall and with Stark rule in Winterfell. Pride will not make them go away. They’re as stubbornly prideful as we are. As long as they live here, from this day on, they will always be welcome here in Winterfell, and all here should consider doing the same.” Men grumbled around him.

“I urge you, my Lords! Start speaking with them. Know them for who they are before you act rashly on any preconceived opinions about them! All in the North have the blood of the First Men, our ancestors lived here long before us, same as the Free Folk. We are all the realms of men here. We wouldn’t have had any victory without fighting alongside them, nor without any one of the Northern houses who fought with us, nor without the Vale. Free Folk, the Northerners, and the Knights of the Vale fought bravely, fought together, and we won! My father used to say, ‘We find our true friends on the battlefield.’” Those close to the Free Folk eyed them with hard Northern glares. Tormund stood up straighter and nodded his head at Jon. Jon nodded in return.

Lord Cerwyn stood up. “The Boltons are defeated and the war of the kings is over. Winter has come. If the Maesters are right it will be the coldest one in a thousand years. We should ride home and wait out the coming storms.”

“The war is not over. And I promise you, friend, the true enemy won’t wait out the storm. He brings the storm.”

Someone in the back shouted over the noise. “The true enemy?!”

Jon went on to give the Northern Lords the same speech he had given to Maester Wolkan. “.... when the Night King arrives, the North will be first. We have to be ready. We must start preparing now. If we do not, we will die. You, your wives, your sons and daughters, your brothers and sisters, your friends, your lovers. Everyone you’ve ever known will be dead. And the rest of Westeros will be next.”

The room was silent for a long moment and heaviness built in the room. An older man, Lord Glenmore of Rillwater Crossing stood. “I won’t deny your account, Snow, but the Wall has stood for millennia. You think monsters and dead men can break down a 700-foot-high block of ice?”

“Aye, it’s not impossible. Walkers push through fire unscathed and break any steel sword into fragments with a single touch. You can wound the dead, but they rise again unless they’re burning in fire or stabbed by dragonglass. The Walkers are intelligent, perceptive. They have tactics. A wall of ice will be nothing to them. One way or another, the Night King will find his way to the world of men.” Lord Glenmore sat slowly at hearing that.

“But they can be defeated. Only two Brothers of the Watch, two souls in this world, have killed White Walkers. Samwell Tarly and myself. Samwell Tarly killed one with a dragonglass dagger, and myself at Hardhome by the Valyrian steel sword, Longclaw. It was given to me by Jeor Mormont after saving him from a wight foot soldier by fire.” The men turned to each other, eyes glancing back at Jon with wary expressions, some faces had turned pale at his words. “Please, my Lords! The Night’s Watch has less than 50 brothers and three decrepit manned castles. It’s pathetic. Meaningless compared to the Night King’s forces! We need to work together if we’re going to fight and defeat them! All of us as one!”

Taking a few deep inhales to regain his breath, Jon looked across the great hall. Everyone muttered and gossiped among themselves again. Lyanna Mormont stood to speak. She looked to him as he sat down, then turned to Lord Manderly sitting at the bench across the aisle.

“Your son was butchered at the Red Wedding Lord Manderly, but you refused the call.” The hall fell silent, adjusting to her abruptness. She looked to her next casualty. “You swore allegiance to House Stark, Lord Glover. But in their hour of greatest need, you refused the call.” Jon glanced at Sansa, then back at Lyanna, perplexed by what she was meaning to do. “And you, Lord Cerwyn, your father was skinned alive by Ramsay Bolton. Still, you refused the call.”

All the Lords she addressed bristled and cast their eyes to the hall floor. Her voice echoed through the hall. “But house Mormont remembers! The North remembers! We know no king but the king in the North, whose name is Stark. I don’t care if he’s a bastard. Every man fighting in battle saw Jon Snow rush across the field to save his brother in vain and push forward to face the cavalry head on alone. It cost our strategy, but every man followed him, because he is our commander, we fought for him because he fought for us.”

Jon shifted and stared at her. He felt a room full of eyes staring back at him.

“He had thousands of Free Folk fighting for him, a Northerner, because he provided them with protection and fought for them, when no other man or woman would have dared dream of doing such a thing. He had the courage to do what was right, even if it meant giving his life. He’s the one to lead us against the dead through this bloody long winter! There is no one more skilled or knowledgeable or worthy of it, not some commander we’ve never met from the south, who has never fought for us in the first place. No one here or in King’s Landing has ever been North of the Wall to even fathom who the enemy truly is!" She gestured to Ghost. "The Old Gods blessed him with a direwolf, possibly the only one still alive south of the Wall, the very sigil of his house. Ned Stark’s blood runs through his veins. I never met the man, but every Northerner who knew him swears by it. He’s my King! From this day until his last day!”

Jon was speechless, bewildered, shocked. He had no idea what his face must look like as he watched her nod her head, and of all things, smile shyly at him as she sat down. Jon scanned his eyes around the equally shocked room, men whispering among themselves once more.

Then Lord Manderly stood heavily from his seat. “Lady Mormont speaks harshly, and truly. My son died for Robb Stark, the Young Wolf. I didn’t think we’d find another king in my lifetime.” He turned to Jon and Sansa at the high table. “I didn’t commit my men to your cause because I didn’t want more Manderlys dying for nothing… But I was wrong. I did not meet with you, being at White Harbor, but if I had, I would have understood the cause and its commander were both worthy ones to fight for.” Manderly raised his voice for all to hear pointing at Jon, “Jon Snow avenged the Red Wedding! He is the White Wolf! The King in the North!” He drew his sword and knelt before him. Men raised their cups, ‘hear, hear’ and ‘Aye’ chorused around the room.

The White Wolf? Ghost’s head raised, leaning back to rub his head on Jon’s knees and shifted a paw on top of his boots.

Lord Glover stood, his voice gruff. “I did not fight beside you on the field and I will regret that until my dying day. A man can only admit when he was wrong and ask forgiveness.” Lord Cerwyn and other lords looked to Jon.

Jon swallowed the dryness from his throat. “There’s nothing to forgive, my Lord.”

Glover’s face softened a moment, before he turned to the men and women in the hall. “There will be more fights to come! House Glover will stand behind House Stark as we have for a thousand years!” He turned resolutely towards him once more. “And I will stand behind Jon Snow,” He unsheathed and raised his sword, shouting, “The King in the North!” and knelt next to Lord Manderly.

Lord Cerwyn rose from his seat to kneel before him. “I pledge my loyalty to House Stark, now and always. And I pledge my sword and my allegiance to you, Jon Snow. The King in the North!”

Someone bellowed out with cup raised high – “The King in the North!”

Men stood shouting in acclamation, swords hoisted in the air, all proclaiming as one.

The KING in the NORTH!

The KING in the NORTH!

The KING in the NORTH!

Breath leaving him, Jon sat back in awe. He saw Ser Davos stand and join the chorus, along with Lords from the Vale. The Free Folk standing to the side were silent but looked in wonder at the display, Tormund with a smug smile across his face. He noticed servants standing at the side doors and men from the courtyard came in to witness the commotion, among them was Maester Wolkan, who happily bowed his head towards Jon. Lord Baelish stood frozen at the edge of the room, not uttering a word, his face a slight shade of white. Howland Reed had the proudest smile through it all and Jon thought he saw a shine in the man’s eyes. Lyanna Mormont’s usual hard stubborn features transformed into a pleased smile as she raised her voice with the rest of them. He didn’t deserve her.

The KING in the NORTH!

The KING in the NORTH!

Jon pushed himself up slowly, steadying his legs beneath him as he stood. His heart beat wildly but he could hardly breathe. Ghost lifted himself up as well. The direwolf strode around the table to stand with Jon. Stance tall, his tail raised, growl rumbling as he bore his teeth. A display of dominance.

He was stunned by it all. Jon turned his head to his sister. Sansa smiled up at him and gave the slightest of nods.

The KING in the NORTH!

The KING in the NORTH!

He slowly lifted his head to them in wonderment, facing his bannerman, his people, his kingdom.

The King in the North. Him. Jon Snow. The bastard of Winterfell. Former Lord Commander. The White Wolf.  .... The Resurrected.

Looking around at the Lords and Ladies proclaiming him King, he straightened his spine, taking in deep breaths. Fear and purpose and conviction flooded him. Though he was astounded – in a strange way, it felt right.  Everything in his life had led him to this moment and Jon was determined to remember this moment for the rest of his days.

The KING in the NORTH!

The KING in the NORTH!

THE KING IN THE NORTH!

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Jon had no concept of time. He could have been there a minute or an hour and he wouldn’t have known the difference.

 

The moments after the Great Hall erupted in a chorus of King in the North were now hazy. He felt as if he had watched it all happen from outside his body to someone else. He knew nothing of what words he had spoken, only that somehow, he said something appropriate to accept their claim and thank them, swiftly but courteously dismissing the council, and declared they readjourn on the morrow. They were all invited for a meager feast in celebration of their new King, all thanks to Sansa’s hurried declaration.

 

Vision unfocused, he sat back down as the hall emptied, Ghost daring anyone to approach the high table. Sansa stood to leave, running her hand along the furs at his shoulders. Jon turned his head at the gesture but said nothing as she departed behind him.

 

Ghost turned to him once the hall was blessedly quiet, their breathing and the crackle of fire in the hearth the only sounds remaining. Ghost laid his head on Jon’s lap, gazing with silent knowing red eyes. Jon stroked Ghost’s fur absently. The weight and contact kept him grounded and calm.

 

“Would you like me to leave you alone with your thoughts, my King?”

 

Jon looked up at the familiar Flee Bottom accent, surprised to find he was not completely alone in the hall after all. “Ser Davos.” The knight had remained seated at the corner of the long table to Jon’s left. A grin spread on the weathered, bearded face.

 

“Though I wouldn’t advise remaining alone with your thoughts for too long, your Grace. Can get a man in trouble if he’s not too careful. Especially Kings,” Davos said.

 

Jon half smiled, shaking his head, “’Your Grace.’ Of all the titles I’ve ever had, I certainly never expected that to be one of them.” If I am a King, then Arya is a proper lady somewhere, Jon mused internally.

 

 “I never expected to be a knight,” Davos replied, leaving his seat to stand in front of Jon at the high table, “A reformed smuggler serving not one but two kings in his lifetime. Life is full of these little ironies, t'would seem. Best get used to it.”

 

“How could I?” Jon asked, vision far away once again, “I’ve never been allowed to want this. I might have once or twice as a boy, pretending to be a Targaryen King or Aegon the Conqueror. I remember wanting Winterfell, being jealous of Robb. Then I went to the Wall and realized leading and ruling weren’t all I thought they were. Even doing what I thought was right got me enemies. Course I did have them from the beginning.”

 

“You’ve got a second chance handed to you,” Davos said, “This time you won’t be the lone Commander anymore. You’re the King in the North. You have people who believe in you, who’ve chosen you as their King.”

 

Jon’s brow furrowed, “Robb was declared King in the North once. He’d gone to war. Father’s death to avenge, the girls to save. But he was still killed for his mistakes. Many mistakes.”

 

“You’ll just have to be a better King, then.”

 

Jon looked at him. This man who had become more of a close friend and mentor these past months. “And how would you advise me to be a better King, Ser Davos?”

 

Thinking a moment, his hands behind his back, he answered, “You’ve had countless men to give you examples of how to lead, your Grace. Of all the men, who is it that you seek to emulate the most? Whose lessons do you repeat and recite over and over again in that troubled mind of yours?”

 

“Father.” Jon replied without hesitation. Of all the men, Uncle Benjen, Jeor Mormont, Alliser Thorne, Qhorin Halfhand, Mance Rayder, Stannis Baratheon, Ser Davos… Eddard Stark was forever first and foremost in his head and heart.

 

“Aye, your father,” Ser Davos said, “The Lady Lyanna spoke true. Though I never met the man, his blood runs through your veins, seeping through every interaction with a Lord or servant or smallfolk.”

 

Jon swallowed, fighting to stop his memories of Father from consuming him. Ghost licked Jon’s hand.

 

Davos continued, “You’ve learned the teachings of your father, and known the wisdom and failings of honorable men. And two kings besides. You were the first Lord Commander in history to make an alliance between Wildlings and Northmen, against the pleadings of your advisors and brothers. Even before Hardhome, you saw the truth. The North just named you their King, giving you power to do what needs to be done to face the Night King. You’re the man to lead us. If you follow the wisdom of the men who’ve taught you, and those you trust to advise you, you’ll be a better King than most of the fuckers who’ve sat the Iron Throne in your lifetime. You’re already a better man due to the mistakes and experiences you’ve had. And the mistakes you make will be your bloody own, not your father’s or your brother’s or Stannis’. Yours. And you have people who believe in you to make sure you don’t die along the way, that you can be damn well sure of… your Grace.”

 

Jon sat up straighter in his chair. His doubts fading. They had chosen him to rule. The North and the Vale were his, and their lives were his to protect. He had the means to prepare them for the Walkers and the dead. He wouldn’t allow his doubts to overshadow him any longer.

 

Of all people, Thorne’s voice came to mind. If he starts second guessing himself, that’s the end. For him, for  all the clever little twats, for everyone.

 

He suddenly realized he remained sitting while Davos stood in front of him, as if addressing a subject at court. He scowled at the thought.

 

“Ser Davos,” Jon started but faltered, starting once more, “You were there the moment I came alive again. You’ve been by my side almost every day since. I’ve never been able to say or give you anything that equals what that means to me,” Jon took a deep breath, “but now I do.”

 

Davos shifted his feet, the unspoken question in his eyes. Jon nudged Ghost away from his lap to stand. Jon looked him directly in the eyes.

 

“I would name you Hand of the King.”

 

Davos stood a moment without uttering a word. The man looked down, swallowing whatever emotions were rising in his throat. He promptly knelt to the floor.

 

“You honor me, my King." Davos paused, the surprise of it sinking in. "I humbly accept it with all due gratitude. My counsel is yours. From this day until my last.”

 

Jon smiled, blinking back the moisture in his eyes. “Rise, Ser Davos of House Seaworth.”

 

Davos rose, proud and humble in the same moment.

 

“I have no special badge for you,” Jon said, “but I can give you a seat next to me at the high table. And I never want a conversation with you as if you’re a subject at court ever again, understood?”

 

“As you command, your Grace.” He bowed his head with a laugh in his smile.

 

A thought occurred to Jon, “Would you like to send for your wife Marya? And don’t you have two sons remaining to you? You told me their names once. Devan and Steffon, weren't they?”

 

Shocked yet again, the knight’s eyes filled instantly. He spoke barely above a whisper replying, “Yes, your Grace.”

 

“They are welcome to a place here in Winterfell. Perhaps if we survive whatever war we fight with the Night King, you may return to your lands if you wish it. But I can hardly see you without your family when I’ve been reunited with mine.”

 

Jon smiled again and teared up himself when Davos covered his face, turning away from him. When he noticed his shoulders start to shake, Jon strode purposefully around the high table, Ghost at his heels. How long had this man been away from his family? As long as Jon had been separated from Arya and Bran? Longer? How heartless could Stannis have been?

 

Ghost sat next to Davos, nudging the knight’s arm with his nose until a hand was buried in white fur. Jon stood facing him, his own hand clutching Davos’ shoulder.

 

“House Seaworth will fit in well at Winterfell,” Jon affirmed gently, “We’re fierce in our love and loyalty to family, as you so love yours. You’ve not seen your family in years since traveling North with Stannis. Even with the North in uncertain danger, there’s time until then. You should at least see them once before risking your life for me yet again. It will be my honor to have them here. Sansa will heartily agree, I assure you, my friend.”

 

The quaking of his shoulders slowly eased. Davos lowered the hand shielding Jon from his tears, resting it on Jon's shoulder in turn. When he finally looked at him, his eyes and voice brimmed with emotion. “You have more compassion than some men have in their lifetime, Jon. You’re already a better King for it, and you only got the damned job minutes ago.”

 

They both laughed with tears staining their cheeks.

 

Being a King would be his greatest challenge.

 

But oh, the good he hoped to bring.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

A few days had passed before they gathered for the council once again. New additions had joined the hall since Jon was proclaimed King. House Karstark and House Umber arrived amidst the meager feast a few nights past. Jon had been informed by the Captain of Winterfell’s Guards, Hallis Mollen, that Alys Karstark, Ned Umber and their respective parties were seen to their chambers and would join the council to follow. They respectfully begged reprieve from joining the festivities. He had seen the wariness of other Lords interacting with them throughout the days since.

Lord Torrhen Whitehill, a young man about Jon’s age, along with his younger sister Lady Gwyn, had arrived and knelt before Jon, swearing their fealty to the Starks. It seemed the Boltons' short reign in the North bonded even the fiercest enemies under his cruelty. The long-standing feud between House Whitehill and House Forrester had been put to rest, as Jon noticed the rather emotional reunion of the Lady Gwyn and Lady Talia Forrester, and Lord Asher Forrester spoke amiably with Torrhen. Jon himself spoke with Torrhen a long while that evening. They were once vassals of House Bolton, after all, and the Dreadfort remained empty.

Lady Brienne of Tarth also graced Winterfell with her return, her trusted squire Podrick Payne by her side. He was glad for Sansa’s sake, though the Lady had always been a complex person to Jon. She swore to find and protect Sansa and Arya, had even talked of beating the Hound when seeing him and Arya in the Vale. She brought Sansa safely to Castle Black. And Tormund seemed infatuated with her.

Yet she was sworn to Renly Baratheon and then to Lady Catelyn. She betrayed Robb by returning Jaime Lannister to King’s Landing. She killed Stannis Baratheon, a man he had respected and admired. Davos had been the one to tell him. There was an open wariness she held towards Jon, and Ser Davos. A mutual dislike was between them, and neither could do a thing about it.

It only intensified when she learned he was now King in the North. Her kneeling was out of duty to Sansa, he could feel it. But he would take it. Lady Brienne could swing a sword. Very well, in fact. Better than most men in Westeros. And as far as he could tell, she provided Sansa with good counsel. Thus, in Winterfell she would stay.

As for Ghost, he remained absent for this second meeting. Jon would prove his worth without the physical embodiment of the Stark sigil at his feet. He could taste the warm blood of Ghost’s latest kill on his tongue. Both man and direwolf were content where they were.

Davos sat to his right. Sansa to his left. Northmen and women gathered before him.

“I want every Northern Maester to scour their records for any mention of dragonglass. Dragonglass kills White Walkers; it’s more valuable to us than gold. We need to find it, we need to mine it, we need to make weapons from it. Starting today, everyone aged ten to sixty will drill daily with spears, pikes, knives, bow and arrow.”

“It’s about time we teach these boys of summer how to fight!” Lord Glover quipped.

“Not just the boys.” Jon’s words cut the bouts of laughter short, “We can’t defend the North if only half the population is fighting.”

Unsurprisingly affronted, Glover stood, “You expect me to put a spear in my granddaughter’s hand?”

Before he could reply, Lyanna Mormont stood, “I don’t plan on knitting by the fire while men fight for me. I might be small Lord Glover, and I might be a girl, but I am every bit as much a Northerner as you.”

“Indeed, my Lady. No one is questioning – “

“And I don’t need your permission to defend the North!” Jon bit the inside of his cheek to stop a smirk as she looked to him, “We’ll begin training every man, woman, boy, and girl on Bear island.”

Murmurs and ‘Ayes’ chorused round the hall. “I thank you for your example, my Lady.” She nodded before she and Glover sat down.

“If any grievances arise due to the women taking time to train, I ask the men to be considerate and take on as many tasks to help their wives and womenfolk of their castles as possible. Such as mending, cooking, washing, and the like.” Turning his head slightly, he saw Sansa cover a smile out of the corner of his eye, hearing scoffs and mocking jokes whispered to answering chuckles around the hall.

“I’m deadly serious.” He scanned the room, challenging any who dared meet his gaze.

“We don’t have time to fret about female servants slacking in their chores or wives having no time to prepare a meal. We all must work together to prepare for this. If you come to me with these personal grievances I will gladly order a week spent at Castle Black. There are no womenfolk to take charge of such things there, and you’ll be condemning your wives to more work without you. An angry wife at the beginning of winter is something I think most men would want to avoid.” A few men chuckled. “We are hard Northmen, picking up a needle and thread to mend a stocking won’t damage your pride.”

He didn’t have to look to know that Sansa was staring at him with her eyebrows raised. Half the men in the room had that identical expression for their new King.

“I also want an account for every person living anywhere in the North with the slightest disadvantage. Whether they be crippled, blind, deaf, sick, elderly, or dying. All such persons must be protected in one way or another. Each Lord and Lady must make the decision to either provide that protection or see them safely delivered here to Winterfell. Winterfell will be the stronghold and has more than enough room within its walls and in Wintertown to house any who choose to come here. Wintertown has always doubled and even tripled in size throughout the centuries whenever winter comes.”

Howland Reed stood from his seat towards the back of the hall, “My King, if I may, House Reed will offer to any who wish to travel further south a place in Greywater Watch.”

“White Harbor is also open to any who seek refuge, your Grace,” spoke Lord Manderly.

Jon nodded as he thought a moment, “I thank you for your generosity Lord Reed and Lord Manderly. Aye, any who wish seek refuge further south may go to these castles. I will speak with each Lord from Barrowton to Widow’s Watch and down to Greywater Watch in the coming days.”

“While we’re preparing for attack, we need to shore up our defenses. I received a raven last evening from Castle Black. The new 999th Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch Eddison Tollett reports that small groups of Free Folk have been allowed passage through the Wall and are now settling with those on the lands of the Gift.”

Tormund raised his head where he sat. The Free Folk around him murmured amongst themselves.

Jon continued, “The latest rangers from the Shadow Tower report seeing animals with blue eyes migrating East from the Frostfangs. Mountain ranges farther North are no longer visible atop the Wall due to heavy snows. The Lord Commander informs me there will be limited ranging beyond the Wall from all castles henceforth.”

The noise in the room intensified at this, but Jon spoke firm, “Their primary responsibility now will be what it always has been, first and foremost, to be the Watchers on the Wall.” He smoothed his voice, “The only thing standing between us and the army of the dead is the Wall and the Wall hasn’t been properly manned in centuries. As Lord Commander, I managed to send men to each garrison along the wall for minimal repairs. I’m not the King of the Free Folk,” Tormund looked at Jon, “but if we’re going to survive this winter together…”

Tormund stood. “You want us to man the castles for you?”

“Aye. The last time we saw the Night King was at Hardhome. The closest castle to Hardhome is East-Watch-by-the-Sea. If you have enough men, you can see to the defenses at Greenguard. I’ll give you a letter to present to Cotter Pyke.” Though as he said it, something inside him rather twisted at the idea of Tormund leaving Winterfell.

“Then that’s where I’ll go,” Tormund said, then mocked with his gruntled voice, “Looks like we’re the Night’s Watch now.” Cold gazes were his only reward.

If they breech the wall, the first two castles in their path are Last Hearth and Karhold,” Jon stated.

He was interrupted by Lord Royce, “The Umbers and Karstarks betrayed the North! Their castles should be torn down with not a stone left standing!”

“The castles committed no crimes,” interjected, to his surprise, his sister, “And we need every fortress we have for the war to come. We should give the Last Hearth and Karhold to new families. Loyal families who supported us against Ramsey.”

Royce sat down and a few faint ‘Ayes’ were given around the room. Jon tried not to be affected by Sansa replying for him, but her proposed course of action made it slightly difficult.

“The Umbers and the Karstarks have fought beside the Starks for centuries. They’ve kept faith for generation after generation.”

“And then they broke faith.”

“I’m not going to strip these families of their ancestral home because of the crimes of a few reckless sons – “

“So there’s no punishment for treason and no reward for loyalty?”

There was a pregnant pause. Defying him in this way with her undercutting comments was getting on his nerves, and now of all times was the worst place for this to happen.

Jon looked at her hard, letting the silence suspend for a moment more, his thoughts bleeding into his reply. “The punishment for treason is death. SmallJon Umber died on the field of battle. Harold Karstark died on the field of battle.”

“They died fighting for Ramsey. Give the castles to the families of the men who died fighting for you.”

The hall was a mixture of thuds of approval and uncertain chatter. This little disagreement between the new King and his sister clearly having more weight than originally intended. Of all the things to defy him on – it’s this? They just fought to win back their own home, and she’s asking him to turn around and take away the castle of two others? And passing the sentence with the very Lord and Lady present in the hall? He could never do it this way.

“When I was Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch I executed men who betrayed me, I executed men who refused to follow orders. My father always said, ‘the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword,’ and I have tried to live by those words. But I will not punish a son for his father’s sins.” His voice echoed through the hall, unwavering and resolved, “And I will not take a family home away from a family it has belonged to for centuries! That is my decision and my decision is final.”

Jon locked eyes with Sansa as he spoke the last statement and held it until she relented, clearly unhappy and stubbornly annoyed as much as he was.

But he would find a better way.

“Ned Umber.”

“Alys Karstark.”

Both raised timidly from their places at the long tables. Jon motioned them forward to the center of the Great Hall. Alys stood tall, chin raised, nervous yet defiant among the Lords. Her fiery-red hair loose and long down her back, a sword at her waist. Ned was but a lad, but his big eyes remained focused on Jon’s. He was brave, Jon could tell.

“For centuries our families fought side by side on the battle field. I ask you to pledge your loyalty, once again, to House Stark. To serve as our bannerman and come to our aid whenever called upon.”

Alys pulled her sword, as did Ned. Both knelt on the stone floor.

He paused to let the moment sink in. “Stand.”

The hall was quiet as they watched them proceedings. All looked to their King, hanging on his words.

“Yesterday’s wars don’t matter anymore. The North needs to band together, all the living North! Will you stand beside me, Ned and Alys, now and always?”

“Now and always!”

The hall erupted with thuds of approval and shouts of praise. The smile of relief on Alys’ face brought a smile to Jon’s. He nodded at them both, pleased. This was the better way.

Alys and Ned returned to their seats, receiving amiable nods and pats on the back as they went, Howland Reed shook Ned Umber’s hand.

Jon raised his glass, “Let us drink to a united North!”

A united North!

Jon drank from the glass as the rest did in turn, a few Lords clinking their glasses together. He noticed Sansa hesitantly take a small sip from her own, and Petyr Baelish watched silently from the wings. A mockingbird was always an ever-present annoyance to a hunting wolf.

Another rush of warm blood filled his mouth. He could feel his teeth piercing through soft, pliable flesh. He heard a wolf’s howl in the distance and raised his voice to the cold Northern wind. But in his own reality, the Great Hall had quieted and was waiting for their King to continue speaking. Jon shook his head, trying to clear away the inhuman thoughts and sensations.

“Now that we’ve established the loyalty of all Northern Houses, we must take certain precautions to last through the Long Night and the Great War. Sacrifices made now will benefit us in months and years to come. Our mission is not only to survive, but to thrive. It will not be easy. It may be the hardest thing you do in your life, but they must be done.”

“Along with speaking with more southern houses of the North about refugees, I will also approach Houses regarding food stores. Any shipments of extra grain must be sent with haste. The Northern Houses will likely be in want sooner than those of the south and I want constant trading with the Free Folk. They will be provided for as long as the dead are on the way. We’ll need to transport soon before the snows grow too deep to carry the larger loads.”

“Your Grace, if I may make a suggestion?” Jon turned to his right.

“Aye, Ser Davos.”

He stood and placed his hands behind his back in his customary stance as he spoke, “Stannis Baratheon allowed you his ships to transport the Free Folk from Hardhome to the Wall. Stannis has no use for them now, but the North does. Suppose you sail the ships to White Harbor and save yourself some trouble in transporting the grain and food stores North?”

Jon smiled at Davos. “Seems that the North just gained a meager Navy, if they haven’t sailed away or frozen in the Bay of Seals, that is.” A few Lords chuckled, not realizing the reality of his statement. “I shall send ravens to inquire their state immediately.” Jon turned, searching the faces in the hall, “Lord Manderly?”

Wyman Manderly stood once again. “Your Grace?”

“How are the ports of White Harbor fairing?”

“As fine as any Southern port could boast, I dare say.”

“I trust you’d be able and willing to support additions, if there are to be any?”

“Aye, your Grace. Anything the King of Winter needs will surely be done.”

The King of Winter. A memory from his childhood flashed before his eyes. Robb climbing on top of a wagon, declaring himself always as Brandon the Builder, the first King of Winter or Torrhen Stark, the last King of Winter, or any of the hundreds in between. But for a Lord to call him a King of Winter, even in a light-hearted manner – his heart sped in his chest.

“Thank you, my Lord.” Jon finally replied.

“Hunting will also become more of a challenge. Now more than ever, it is vital for every Northerner to follow the regulations set in place. Our hope should be to preserve as much of the remaining wildlife for the return of spring as possible. That means whatever bounty you catch, use every scrap of the animal, save every inch of fur. There will come a time when hunting will be discouraged, but by that time we’ll have a war to fight.”

Jon continued in this manner for over an hour. He addressed preliminary tactics for Winterfell, including digging trenches and fire traps, improvements for Wintertown, such as longhouses and better quality of roads and outhouses, improvements and reinforcements to Winterfells fortress and walls. He also discussed the need to train the smallfolk to fight, recruiting artisans from all over the North, and perhaps some from the Southern Kingdoms and Essos to Winterfell such as blacksmiths, armorers, stonemasons, tailors and horse breeders. Many Lords and Ladies offered suggestions of services and their own thoughts on his plans.

Lord Royce assured his capability in securing more houses from the Vale. Lady Brienne and Sansa suggested ways of gaining support from the Riverlands. Many Lords of the North continued to be generous in their support, particularly those who were absent from the fighting on either side of the recent battle.

“This is only the beginning of a long journey of preparation. The North can fit all the Southern kingdoms into our lands. We may not have as many men as we did before the all the rebellions, but together we have the strength. This would not be possible one moon ago. I thank you, my Lords, my Ladies. I encourage you to stay at Winterfell for as long as you can, bring your fighting men here but ensure your castles remain strong and secure. Anyone who wishes to return to your homes, I ask you meet with me before you depart. I will ask for regular reports. Keep the ravens flying and the Maesters busy.” He half smiled, as did many throughout the hall. “I will meet with many of you in the coming days. As for now, this council is finished.”

The Great Hall remained silent, but all stood.

Jon waited for Sansa and Davos to stand before he walked down from the high table and through the long aisle of the hall, Lords bowing and Ladies curtsying as he passed.

Once through the doors, he heard the Hall come to life as conversations began behind him. Jon turned to Davos. “Meet me in my solar in half an hour.”

Davos nodded and bowed his head, “Your Grace.”

Jon turned his head to Sansa. “Walk with me?”

Sansa clenched her jaw but wrapped her cloak around her shoulders. Jon offered for her to lead the way as they stepped out into the cold, a fresh layer of snow covered the ground. Jon remained silent for a time, caught up in his own thoughts.

As they walked up to the covered causeway, his mind went back to her proposed solutions for Last Hearth and Karhold.

“I did not appreciate you questioning my decisions regarding the Umbers and Karstarks.”

“I’m the Lady of Winterfell and your sister,” Sansa countered, already quite defensive, “I’m allowed to give you counsel.” She picked up her pace as she walked.

They turned a corner of the causeway. He passed by her as he answered, “You are my sister, but I am King now.”

“Will you start wearing a crown?”

He chose to ignore that.

“When you question my decisions in front of the other Lords and Ladies, you undermine me!”

“So I can’t question your decisions anymore?” Clearly annoyed. Seemed a common occurrence between them lately.

His own ire raising his tone, “Of course you can! But s –”

“Joffrey never let anyone question his authority. Do you think he was a good king?” She asked, striding past him.

Jon stopped in his tracks. Staring at her in disbelief. Hurt, actually.

Sansa turned around when he halted, hearing her own words.

“Do you think I’m Joffrey?” A bit disgusted to even speak the shit’s name.

She sighed, had the decency to look remorseful, if not at least truly be so.

Sansa softened her voice, looked him in the eye, “You’re as far from Joffrey as anyone I’ve ever met.”

“Thank you.” He turned his gaze out to the bustling courtyard.

“You’re good at this you know.”

“At what?” he asked, looking at her.

“At ruling.”

Jon breathed out. “No.” He turned his head again. He was never sure anymore. Apparently, she didn’t think so.

“You are!” Sansa tilted her head to gain his line of vision, assurance clear in her voice, “You are.”

He turned warily, brow furrowed, unsure of his trust in her at the moment. Joffrey, of all the people.

“They respect you, they really do, but you have to –“

Jon scoffed at her, smiling as he turned his head away.

“Why are you laughing?”

He pushed past her, and they started walking again, side by side. “What did Father used to say? Everything before the word but is horseshit.” He smiled at the thought of Father.

“Never said that to me.”

“No. No, he never cursed in front of his girls.”

“Because he wanted to protect us. He never wanted us to see how dirty the world really is, but Father couldn’t protect me, and neither can you. So stop trying.”

“Alright, I’ll stop trying to protect you, and you stop trying to undermine me.”

“I’m not trying to undermine you!”

She yanked him around to look at her. He glanced at her hand, then her face in surprise.

“You have to be smarter than Father. You need to be smarter than Robb. I love them, I miss them, but they made stupid mistakes and they both lost their heads for it.

“And how should I be smarter? By listening to you?”

She paused, a bit hurt he realized, “Would that be so terrible?”

He sighed, knowing in the end she was right, again. But she hadn’t been listening to him moments ago, either. “You need to understand that questioning my decisions during the council causes them to question the faith they’ve given my authority. You were asking me to take two castles away from two families including their entire households. I had already made my decision and you questioned it. Twice. In front of the Lords and Ladies.”

“You could avoid this by talking to me about your plans privately in the first place. Or don’t you trust me, Jon?”

Jon shook his head and took a breath to remain calm. “Most days I do. But that doesn’t matter in this instance. I wouldn’t have brought it up then if Lord Royce hadn’t ridiculously called for the castles to be torn down. Both Alys and Ned were already planning on swearing fealty publicly. Why would they have come if they would not? Enough of the Lords treated them with distain the past few days and I was going to address it. You suggested the Umbers and Karstarks be replaced. But wasn’t it you who once said they chose Ramsey without knowing they had another choice? And you wanted to condemn their families for it? I’m a bastard, Sansa. And we fought to take our home back from those who took it away from us. What did you think I was going to do?”

She stared at him without a reply.

“There will be decisions I make that you don’t agree with. Fight on them with me privately. You can yell and be annoyed at me all you want. But I wish for your support for their sake.”

Maester Wolkan approached them from the direction they came, chains clinking together with each step.

“A raven from King’s Landing, your Grace.” He bowed and took his leave after handing it to him.

He opened it and read it quickly. The air left his lungs. He turned around and started walking. He read it again just to make sure he wasn’t imagining things.

“So are you going to tell me what it –”

“Cersei of House Lannister, First of her name, Queen of the Andals and the First Men, Protector of the Seven Kingdoms.”

“What does she want?” She didn’t sound the least bit surprised. Jon stopped on the battlements of the south wall.

“Come to King’s Landing. Bend the knee or suffer the fate of all traitors.”

“You’ve been so consumed with the enemy to North, you’ve forgotten about the one to the South.”

“I’m consumed with the Night King because I’ve seen him. Believe me, you’d think of little else if you had too.”

“We still have a wall between us and the Night King! There’s nothing between us and Cersei.”

“There’s a thousand miles between us and Cersei!” Jon exhaled. He couldn’t seem to stop arguing with her today. “Winter is here. The Lannisters are a southern army. They’ve never ranged this far North.”

“You’re the military man, but I know her. If you’re her enemy she’ll never stop until she’s destroyed you. Everyone who’s ever crossed her, she’s found a way to murder.”

Jon looked at her then. “You almost sound as if you admire her.”

She hesitated, uncomfortable under his scrutiny. She kept looking south when she replied, “I learned a great deal from her.”

He lowered his eyes. She didn’t deny it.

“Howland Reed assures me Moat Cailin could be used if we need the southern defense. He mentioned Grandfather Rickard sending an acolyte of his Maester a few times to make estimates.” He needed to seek him out again. There was too much he wanted to know from the man.

“Perhaps the Mad King grew suspicious of all of Grandfather’s southern plans.” Sansa offered.

“Aye. If only Old Nan were still here to tell us.”

Sansa smiled sadly. “Now you’ve made me hungry for kidney pies.”

Jon laughed, “I’ve made myself hungry for them.”

Sansa straightened as she glanced past Jon’s shoulder. He turned to see Lady Brienne approach, stopping a respectful distance away. She bowed towards them. Jon turned back to Sansa.

“I mustn’t keep you from meeting with Ser Davos," She said, "And I’m sure you’ll have Lords and Ladies seeking your attention.” She walked past him, then turned around, “Shall I have the kitchens prepare some pies?”

“You’re the Lady of Winterfell.”

“And you’re the King in the North. We are serving you, your Grace.”

He gave her a look. He’d already told her not to call him that.

Sansa turned to leave before he could say anything. “I’ll take that as a yes.”

 

Chapter Text

Jon remained on the barracks above Winterfell’s Southern Gate. He held the raven scroll in his gloved fist as he gazed South. The Great War was far more important in his mind, but he would have to be attentive to the movements of the new Queen of the Seven Kingdoms. Five Kingdoms in truth, if the entirety of the Vale was truly with the North as Royce and Baelish claimed they were. And the Riverlands were uncertain now with the turmoil after House Frey’s decimation.

Perhaps Cersei would find other Lords and Ladies to bother with her schemes of power. Or perhaps it was his foolish hope blinding him to the truth. She was dangerous with those titles now. Not simply a Queen Regent or Queen Mother. She was The Queen.

Jon barked out a laugh to himself as he realized – he was now an equal to Cersei Lannister. The last time he had seen her was here in Winterfell. She hadn’t looked at him once then, without a doubt. A bastard anywhere in the Seven Kingdoms was no one worth her attention. But now? She would never concede it, though. Ever.

 …summons the rebel and bastard Jon Snow to King’s Landing…

Technically it’s the entire North who’s the rebel, Cersei. And you’re the one who’s lost their allegiance. You’ve killed, ignored and brutalized us enough. Your son, your father, and you. He wondered if he would hate her more or less than Joffrey. Lannisters or their gold had been behind most things the crown did for the past half century. He’d love to see the Lannister army try fighting so far North in the cold and the snow. Winter is here!

And yet…

Jon pushed away from the wall and trudged down the nearest set of stairs to the yards, weaving his way through the bustling workers. Some stopped and bowed as he passed by. He swallowed his courtesies down his throat, still adjusting to having people be so aware of his comings and goings.

Jon recalled Edd’s raven. We’re all going to bloody die soon if you don’t find us more men to fight before the dead come for us all.

Leave it to Edd to state the cold, harsh truth so bluntly.

Sending the Free Folk to East Watch and Greenguard was a start. But some way, somehow, he would need more men. They were only left with a little over a thousand fighting Free Folk after the Battle of the Bastards. Even with the Northern population united, things were going to turn from bad to worse in no time if the North was left on their own.

With the Vale? They may slight the odds.

All the Seven Kingdoms as one? Now that was something!

If only it wasn’t Cersei! A self-absorbed, murdering, manipulative woman now on the Iron Throne.

He would get no where thinking of her a moment more.

He wished Ghost was back by now. He needed that soft calming fur beneath his fingers to clear his mind. Until then, Jon trudged toward the stables to check on Darion. He noticed the stable hands preparing other horses, a few boys led some in from the encampments outside the castle walls.

Right. I’m sending Tormund away.

“How soon will they be departing?” Jon asked.

One of the boys stopped the horse he was leading, surprised to be asked a question, “As soon as ‘ey break camp and the horses ‘re saddled, your Grace.” He bowed his head nervously.

“Aye,” Jon said absently. He took a step but hesitated, turned to the boy again. Jon guessed he was probably ten or so, his hair a dark brown, simple clothes and cloak, “What’s your name lad?”

The boy’s eyes grew wide, “Uhm, uh, Kole. Koleman, your Grace! Koleman Greystark of Stony Shore. My friends call me Kole.”

Jon gave a smile, “Thank you Koleman,” but something was off to Jon’s ears, “Though why would a Greystark be from Stony Shore? That’s about as opposite from Wolf’s Den as one could be.”

The boy looked down, fiddling with the horse’s reins in his reddened, ungloved hands. Other stable hands walked horses around them as they spoke.

“We’re only distantly related to the Lords at Wolf’s Den. Grandfather Greystark was a fourth son, became a knight for the Manderlys. My mum left for Wintertown after Father went to fight for King Robb. Thought we would be safer. But Mum and me were taken by the Iron Born to Stony Shore, ‘twas put in charge of horses for the Greyjoy sister, Mara… or Yara? Can’t remember now. We stole away before anything else bad happened. We weren’t treated very nicely by ‘em. Worked in the stables for House Fisher, then Mum and me came back ‘ere. There’s more food and we’re far away from the shore.”

“And your Father?”

“Mum says he died. Never came back from the south. She’s sad a lot, but not so much anymore, now ‘at you’re King.”

Jon nodded, saddened at the boy’s tale. “My father never came back from the south, either.” The horse next to Koleman snorted, shifting its feet. “Do you like working with horses?”

His brown eyes lit up, smiling, “Aye – I mean, yes your Grace.”

“Good. I’ll be needing someone to look after Darion. I’ll let the stable master know to put you in charge of him. Do you think you could do that?"

The boy’s breath hitched, “Yes, I– I’d love to.”

“If you or your mother ever need anything, speak with Daryk and he’ll speak to me, understand Koleman?”

“Aye. Thank you, your Grace!”

Jon watched the boy lead the horse excitedly away to be saddled. He went in search of Daryk Slate, the stable master. He told him of Koleman’s new responsibilities and asked to send one of the stable hands to Jon before the remaining Free Folk departed.

Walking inside the corridors of the Great Keep to his solar, he remembered something his father had once told him and Robb.

A good lord must know his men.

He imagined it was even more important being that he wasn’t just a lord. He wondered if Robb had had Father’s many lessons running through his mind when he was King.

Finally stepping through the door to his solar, he removed his cloak. Draping it over the back of a chair by the hearth, he walked over to the map table where Ser Davos sat, papers strewn about.

“Seven bloody hells, do I miss that girl!” his Hand muttered under his breath, not realizing Jon had entered the room.

Jon knew exactly who he’d meant. “And why is it you are missing her at the moment, Ser Davos?”

Davos jumped slightly and looked up at Jon.

“Ah, your Grace!” Standing, he set the paper aside, cleared his throat, “My reading and writing seems to go much slower without the late Princess’s sheer will and bull-headed stubbornness keeping this ole man’s ship sailing in the right direction.”

Jon smiled at the image.

“I’m confident she would assure you you’re doing just fine as you are, Davos.” Jon replied thoughtfully.

“As are you, your Grace,” Davos replied, “You were more than just fine during that council. A natural leader. The Northern lords agree, even tough little Lyanna. Some might not always agree with your decisions, but they’ve no reason to doubt they made the right choice.”

“We’ll see what they say after more than a few days have gone by.” Looking down at the papers he asked, “What is it you were reading?”

“Maester Wolkan brought a copy of written notes from the council. Had an assistant writing down all that was said.”

Jon’s eyes shot up, narrowing at Davos. “And who was this assistant, may I ask?”

“A young lady from Wintertown. The Maester met her when she was found teaching the children in Lady Rowena’s orphanage. I noticed the lady hunched over and scribbling frantically in the back corner of the Great Hall. I believe it was Lady Forrester and Whitehorn who kept her company.”

“Whitehill,” Jon corrected, smirking.

“Whitehill, right,” Davos said, “I’m a landed knight from the Stormlands, your Grace, not a well-educated Lord of the North such as yourself. Give me time and I’ll know ‘em all from the Wall to the Neck.”

“You’ll get more practice when we meet with most houses in the coming weeks.”

Jon picked up the paper. The lady’s notes were neat and concise, his initial alarm subsiding. “I’ll assume she won’t be taking any of what she wrote down and giving it to the wrong people. I suppose Wolkan knows who he can trust.”

“I don’t think we need worry about that.” Davos agreed, “Where shall the King and his Hand begin today? How was your sister after your little walk?”

“Still annoying and arguing at every other turn, but we did manage to talk out our differences for now. I think you’ll be glad to know the cooks will be making kidney pies for tonight.”

“Mmm, very glad indeed,” rubbing his hands together and wagging his greying eyebrows at Jon, “I take the conversation ended well?”

“Aye. Though I received this raven.” Jon handed him the scroll.

He unfurled it, his sudden eager expression turned serious in a heartbeat. “Ah, I see.”

“I told Sansa the Lannisters have never ranged this far North ever, and never in winter. No southern army has attempted it since the Andals fought the First Men. Torrhen Stark knelt for Aegon Targaryen all the way at the Trident.” He leaned his fists against the table. “Sansa, however, informs me Cersei would never stop until she’s destroyed her enemies. Hopefully she’ll find another enemy to wreak havoc on before she attempts anything on the North.”

“Testing her patience may make her wrath stronger.”

Jon inhaled deeply, a darkness seeping through his voice. “I fear the Night King more than I ever will her.”

“You’re either a wise King or a blind fool.”

“I told myself that already,” Jon said, “Until we have more reason to engage with her in any form, I think the best course is to remain silent.”

Davos inclined his head. “She’ll likely have spies here. Though the Spider disappeared, his birds still fly. They just sing for new ears.”

“Let her wonder,” Jon mused, “we’re preparing for a war that impacts the survival of every person in the world, not just a queen and her self-righteous power. Let’s stop talking about her, shall we?”

Davos shifted his hands behind his back, a sign he was awaiting the change in subject.

Jon straightened and walked over to the large desk. “I just came from the stables. The Free Folk will be leaving shortly.”

“I noticed. Sent word to the kitchens while you were with Sansa to prepare sacks of food.”

“Good.” Jon said as he sat down. “I gather Tormund didn’t want to wait until first light tomorrow to depart. They can make a good head start with the remaining light. They know how to travel quickly in harsh weather. The Free Folk here all keep scoffing at us ‘southerners’ and our petty snow falls.” Jon shook his head. Though really, he quite agreed. Spending years at the Wall and in the Real North as a Wildling gave him an abundance of perspective.

 “I met one of the stable hands. A boy, Koleman Greystark. He said he and his mother were taken captive by the Greyjoys but escaped, went to House Fisher at Stony Shore. Now they live in Wintertown. His Father died in the south fighting for Robb.”

“I’m sure there are more stories like his throughout the North, and the other kingdoms just as well.”

Jon sighed. He couldn’t fix it all in one day, no matter how much he wished he could. He’d learned that at Castle Black with deadly consequences.

“Can you gather a list of all the unmarried men in Wintertown? And a list of widowed or unmarried women, whether they have children or not. They’ll all be training at least once a day, should be a place to find information about any who need help. Maybe a roof needs fixing, or a man needs a shirt mended, or a mother’s children need protection. We can find ways to have them help each other, maybe connect those who seek to remarry. It would be better to have that this Winter than be alone.”

“Excellent notions, your Grace. I’d say the same goes for the King himself if I knew better than to speak such inadvisable thoughts out loud in his presence,” Davos teased.

Jon stilled. Letting out his breath slowly, he could feel warmth spreading over his cheeks at the idea. He did not need to think about such things with so much happening so quickly in his life.

“I thank you for your concern, Ser Davos. But I fear I won’t have time to –” his brow furrowed as he searched frantically for the right words, “have any… enjoyment of such things.” He turned his head away, cursing himself. He’d never been one to talk about this. Certainly didn’t need any embarrassment from Davos, nor did he want to be pressured by any Lords or Ladies on the matter. There were far more important things to think about. Such as securing food. And shelter. Defenses and training and the like. Not fanciful thoughts about a future he never was want to day dream of.

I’d like to see you in a silk dress.

He cursed his mind for its ability to contradict itself. Because he shouldn’t be dreaming of it. Who would take him? A man returned from the dead. Scarred. Responsibilities of a Kingdom on his shoulders. A man who, at his core, was nothing but a killer. Deep down, a snarling, vicious wolf. And something else… that rage and passion that overtook him sometimes when he let it free, a fire that seemed unquenchable. Who could love a man with a heart such as his?

His thoughts were thankfully interrupted by Hal knocking at the door and entering when permitted. A stable hand behind him.

“Daryk’s sent for you, your Grace,” the boy said, “Says you wanted to be informed when the Wildling Folk are ready to depart.”

“Aye, thank you.” He nodded as the boy turned quickly from the room.

Jon stood from his seat, “Will you come with me to see them off?”

“No, I think it best I start on that list of young and eligible maidens of Wintertown,” Davos said, mirth blatant in his smile.

Jon rolled his eyes, a scowl crossing his features. He strode across the room, grabbing his heavy cloak on the way. Davos’ soft chuckles followed him out the door.

 

--------------

 

“I never thought the boy who knelt in front of me in Mance’s tent all those years ago would become a King for these southern kneelers.”

“I don’t think the boy in that tent would’ve believed it to be true in a million years.” Jon replied.

Jon and Tormund stood next to a fire grate to keep warm. Surrounding them were the Free Folk securing their belongings and food stores to the horses, a few stable hands making their last checks on the saddles before their riders mounted. A few minor lords in the Northern regions were heading off with them to begin the trading among the Northerners and Free Folk settled in the Gift. The Free Folk would need good weapons and stronger armor for the war to come.

Jon thought a moment, then added, “I don’t think he thought he would live long enough to even see the southern side of the Wall again.”

“Never thought he’d ever be forced to climb the fucking Wall, now, did he?”

“No, he didn’t.”

Tormund laughed heartily, then fell silent.

“I never imagined that Mance’s dreams would come true, but he’d be dead instead of seeing them happen himself.” Tormund said, turning to look Jon in the eye, “I never expected the one to make it all happen would be you, King Crow.”

Jon grinned, “No, I think you expected me to die by your own two hands!”

“Hah!” Tormund barked, “Lost count of how many times I’ve wanted you dead, Snow!”

They laughed together, their breathes fogging the air in the cold.

A comfortable silence rested on them as their laughter faded.

“I’m sorry I have to send you away,” Jon admitted, “since the Battle for the Wall… we’ve seen each other most days since.”

“Aye. I’ll be sorry to leave. Winterfell is quite the fortress. Quite the prize had Mance remained alive. Will be a shame to sleep in a frozen bed at East Watch without these walls warmed by magic.”

Jon smiled at him. “It’s the hot springs underneath the foundations.”

“So you’ve said. But there's more than just heat coming from the ground.”

He tilted his head, turning his head toward the crypt entrance. “Some claim there’s a sleeping dragon hidden in the crypts. Perhaps I should go in search of it. Wake the dragon from its slumber.”

“Aye, might help us against the Night King.”

Most of the Free Folk had mounted and were waiting now on Tormund. Jon’s chest tightened. He lowered his head and blinked rapidly as emotion started to clog his throat and threatened escape past his eyes.

He raised his eyes to find a similar sheen glazing Tormund’s.

If Jon ever hugged a bear, he imagined it would be like hugging Tormund Giantsbane. It was like being enfolded in blankets with all of his furs. Soft and warm. And smelling a bit rank. Rarely did the man take a bath. But Jon didn’t really care at the moment.

It was a long while before they let go.

When they did, they held the other’s gaze.

Jon took a firm breath to calm his emotions, his voice rough to his own ears. “Don’t die at the Wall.”

“And you don’t forget who you are. You spent enough time beyond the Wall to be one of us, Jon Snow. Never forget it.” Tormund said, his gaze intense.

Jon nodded.

“And make sure that giant of a woman stays alive.”

Jon burst out in laughter. He only laughed harder when he looked to find Tormund’s gaze with the same intensity as before.

When he finally calmed down, his smile remained. He clasped Tormund’s shoulder. “Goodbye, Tormund. We’ll see each other again, I’m sure of it.”

“Aye, we will. Farewell, Jon Snow.” They hugged quickly once more. Tormund gave him a thump on the arm, as he’d done countless times in the past, before walking away to his horse.

A heaviness settled in Jon’s chest as he watched the Free Folk ride their horses out the gate. A part of him wanted to go with them. For Tormund was right. There would always be a piece of him that would forever be a Wildling.