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The conspiracy of Ice and Fire

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Prologue

The road ahead looked as desolate as the previous days. Dry warm winds and a relentless sun in a cloudless sky didn’t help matters. Ned loosened his tunic some more and wiped the sweat from his forehead. He’d never been so far south. ‘Starks don’t thrive in the South’, he thought again. He had forsworn his grey/white armor and leather attire several weeks ago and wore only a white linen tunic which was soaked through at the waist where his sword belt kept the material in place.

Looking around he saw nothing but sand, stones and dry bushes. How he longed for the northern forests with large green trees or even better, a small brook or a stream. He sighed and made an effort to right himself on his horse.

When he looked behind him, his loyal entourage was not faring any better. At first glance, the small group he’d handpicked to accompany him on this quest looked like a ragtag band of misfits. Only if you looked closer and were familiar with the northern sigils you would know that he was accompanied by three lords of the North.

First up were Lord Umber or “the Greatjon” the large man proudly displaying the umber sigil of a roaring giant and Lord Howland Reed recognizable by his sigil of a black lizard-lion on grey-green. They rode side by side and were closely followed by lord Benton Glover marked by the flashy scarlet blazon with a silver mailed fist on his breastplate. Behind them rode the rest of his entourage wearing the uniform of the Stark houseguard.

It was a silent procession. Everyone looked sweaty and miserable. ‘Perhaps I’ve been pushing us too hard’, Ned mused. According to the young boy they had picked up at the previous inn, it would be another hour before they reached a small village with an inn that could provide a hearty meal and shelter for the night. Arthur, the young boy, had agreed to provide his services as a temporary guide in return for protection during his travels to meet up with his sister who lived further south.

Ned sighed once again and thought of his wife, Catelyn formerly of house Tully. How was the lady of Winterfell faring at Riverrun, a pregnant lady Stark who had not laid eyes on her new home yet? It had been a year since their hasty marriage and bedding. Before setting out on this quest, he had received word that Catelyn was with child. ‘The Gods have truly blessed us.’ Ned looked up to the heavens and his mood lightened a bit.

The proud Lady Catelyn of house Tully, daughter of the Lord Paramount of the Riverlands had been betrothed to his elder brother but after his untimely death at the hands of the Mad King, Ned had had to step in to form the necessary alliance with the Riverlands. It was all masterminded by Jon Arryn, a firm alliance between the North, the Vale, the Riverlands and the Stormlands by intermarriages.

Ned was left no choice. His dream to share a simple life with the noble lady he had met at the tourney of Harrenhal, living with her in a small keep as loyal bannerman to his elder brother was irrevocably shattered. Instead he got a political marriage, the responsibility for the entire North and a cool proud stranger in his bed the night before he left for war. The alliances were secured. Everyone had done their part, except for Lyanna. It all had started with Lyanna.

Finally they had found a trail. Hope had come in the form of an anonymous message stating she was in Dorne. A message he believed to be true because there was a post scriptum in her hand. It was hardly legible but he recognized her writing all the same. It was her hand that had written the words: “I need help, the lone wolf dies but the pack survives. Please come.” He was so conflicted when thinking of Lyanna, his favorite sibling with her fate unknown. Was she to be envied since she was the only one who had escaped a political marriage? Or was she to be pitied because she had been separated from their pack, and a lone wolf is always in danger. He didn’t believe the stories of her kidnapping.

It would have been a difficult thing to successfully kidnap her against her will. And even then, she would have found a way to escape or at least get a message through to someone. Lyanna was resourceful, brave, intelligent and a fighter. No, Ned was convinced she had either eloped with Rhaegar or someone had helped her escape Harrenhal to prevent her marriage with Robert Baratheon, his former best friend.

However, now the country was in chaos after the Rebellion. The routes were dangerous and Rhaegar was dead. The newly self proclaimed King Robert, ‘King by conquest and blood’ had not yet had time to restore order in his realm. What had happened to her? Where and why was she hiding in Dorne of all places?

His musings were interrupted when the young boy, Arthur called for his attention. He pointed towards a dark spot in the distance. “Can you see that Lord Stark? We’re just a few miles out. I can see the main building of the village on that small rise. Can you see it?”
Ned smiled at the boy and turned his head towards his companions. “We’re almost there guys, I cannot speak for you all, but I for one am looking forward to a nice meal and a roof over our heads tonight.” A lot of “ayes” greeted him back. The small company seemed revived and picked up the pace.

The inn was large enough to provide accommodations for their entire party and had adequate room to stable their horses. The common room of the inn was mostly empty. Only two tables were occupied by suntanned southerners. Ned acknowledged them with a short nod and headed for the opposite area which contained large tables to seat his entire group. In no time they were enjoying a wholesome meal and soon enough full bellies and Dornish wine had most of the men fighting to keep awake. One by one they drifted upstairs glad to be able to sleep in a real bed for once.

Ned and Lord Howland Reed were the only ones still at the table. In the corner Arthur, their young guide had found an acquaintance and was playing cyvasse.

Ned and Howland were talking strategies. The message that had begged him to come to this part of Dorne was not all that clear. They had almost reached the area stipulated in the scroll. What now? Would it be safe to start asking around whether anyone had seen a northern looking woman? Their party stood out like a sore thumb. Would people want to help them, would they put Lyanna in jeopardy when they openly declared their intentions? Probably not a good idea. Lyanna was one of the instigators of the Rebellion if you would believe all the stories being told in Westeros. Either she was a selfish seductress who was guilty of starting a war killing thousands of good men, or she was an innocent victim being kidnapped and raped by another evil Targaryen.

They were almost out of options. Ned had hoped to receive another clue along the way, he had been screening each and everyone since crossing the Dorne borders, but as of yet nothing had happened. Too tired for any new ideas, the pair of them decided to take a stroll outside and check on the horses before retiring.

Ned was just about to enter the stables when he felt a large presence behind him. He automatically gripped for his sword and saw Howland mimic his gesture. Next thing he noticed was the young boy Arthur running up to him. “Lord Stark! Lord Stark, may I present my friend to you please?”
Ned turned around and saw a large man holding up his two hands as if surrendering.
“I come in peace Lord Stark. Please can we talk?”

Ned looked the man over, he seemed familiar but Ned couldn’t place him. Ned with his twenty namedays was already a hardened warrior, a war veteran. The other man however had probably ten years on him and stood half a head taller, where Ned was still lanky the man’s muscles were more defined. He looked like a dangerous opponent. Howland Reed moved to stand beside Ned, ready to protect his Lord.

Ned straightened himself up trying to look taller and answered the stranger with as much authority as he could muster: “I reckon young Arthur told you my name. I however am not that lucky. Please identify yourself my lord.”
A hint of a smile appeared on the taller man’s face . “Names are not important”, he countered roughly. “Just know that I mean you no harm. We need to talk. We can help each other. You can call me White.” Ned glanced at Howland. The name ”White” didn’t help him any further, it didn’t strike him as his truthful name anyhow. There was still the niggling thought that he knew the man from somewhere. “Ok, Lord White”, he decided, “I’m listening.”

“Let’s make ourselves comfortable”, the man uttered while walking in the direction of a secluded spot behind the stables, “this could take a while”. Ned and Howland complied.

***

The next morning, a well rested group was noisily breaking their fast in the common room as Ned joined them. He had to restrain himself. ‘First eat in peace’, he told himself. He knew there would be upheaval after his communication. He joined his companions at the table and tried to enjoy his meal hearing the end of a bawdy tale that the Greatjon was telling. When the tale reached its hilarious end the men showed their appreciation by stamping and laughing, Ned knew he could wait no longer. He had to tell them now before anyone left the table. He braced himself. He needed to be strong to inform them that their quest was over. As far as they would know, they had failed. They would be bringing Lyanna’s body home to be buried. The other news had to stay hidden at all cost. He had to adhere to the plan they had put together yesterday night. There was a silver lining for his men however. They would be going home.

Chapter Text

It was raining the day Ned finally caught his first glance of Winterfell. Slowly but surely each detail of the imposing structure came into focus: the large towers, the main gate, the grey direwolf banners. ‘Was it his imagination or were there more banners than usual decorating the stronghold?’

Ned could just picture the scenes going on inside the castle at the moment. Everyone would be dropping what they were doing and hurrying into the courtyard to form a greeting line as was the custom. They all knew that this time it would be their new Lord at the gates with his bride and recently born heir. So he guessed the courtyard would be filled to the brim, with just enough place left to accommodate their caravan.

He was not wrong. A large crowd of nobles and servants stood lined up inside the courtyard. His eyes immediately found the solemn figure of his younger brother. He was flanked by Maester Luwin, Rodrik Cassel, the Greatjon, Maege Mormont and Rickard Karstark. It was still a strange concept that they were all subservient to him now. Ned’s eyes roved further over the crowd. He recognized a lot of the Stark household but also saw plenty of new faces. He dismounted.
A stable boy ran forward and made clumsy bow. The lad stammered “Welcome home My Lord” and led the horse away. Ned released the breath he didn’t knew he was holding. He was home.

Feeling calmer now, Ned went over to where the wheelhouse had stopped. He would greet everyone with his southern bride at his side, immediately solidifying her position to the Northern Lords and their household. The soft murmuring of the crowd stopped, everyone’s eyes now trained on the figures emerging from the wheelhouse.

They had been waiting for this moment for some time. Although the Rebellion had ended several moons ago and life in the North had resumed, at Winterfell everyone had still had been waiting for the young Lord and his family to come home.
Not only had Lord Stark journeyed to the other end of Westeros to find his poor sister who now was buried in the crypt, he had also been delayed for several more weeks at Riverrun. Ned had stayed at his wife’s ancestral home with his good family until his son, Robb, was strong enough to make the trip home.

Lady Catelyn accepted her husband’s helping hand. She stepped out into the courtyard and caught the first glimpses of her new home. She was not impressed. Though Winterfell was a large structure with several buildings and imposing towers, it lacked the sophistication of the buildings in the South. Everything looked robust, well kept, but she couldn’t quite grasp what it was that she found wanting, perhaps the absence of colour? Grey was the dominant colour, the only exception being the wooden outer buildings but those were a dreary dark brown. She would think on it some more later.

Ned still holding her hand led her towards the assembled crowd who were all looking at her with awe and apprehension. ‘She would be their Lady’, she realized. ‘They would have to follow her command.’ Catelyn make sure to pay attention so as to remember as much names as possible. She plastered a smile on her face and readied herself to issue some polite greetings as expected of the well-bred Lady of Winterfell .

She watched Benjen pull Ned into a firm hug.
“Welcome home, brother. Winterfell is yours”, Benjen greeted and reluctantly released his hold on his elder brother.
“Glad to be finally home,” Ned smiled. He looked his brother over. “All is well?”
“All is as well as can be”, Benjen responded seriously his eyes relaying a myriad of feelings. “We will talk later?”
“As soon as I can get myself free from all this, I’ll send for you. I’m eager to talk as well”, was Ned’s hushed reply. He tried to get some clues from his brother’s body language. He was keen to know all the details of his brother’s endeavours but knew he needed to be patient a bit longer.

Benjen turned towards Catelyn and bowed. “Well met once more good sister. You look as beautiful as ever. Let me be the first to welcome you to Winterfell and wish you a prosperous life here in the North.”

Catelyn curtsied. “Thank you Lord Stark. That is our hope as well.” She looked over to Ned who smiled reassuringly at her.

Her husband turned around, now facing the wet nurse who was holding his son and gestured her to approach. He gently took the baby from her hands and lifted the little bundle into the air for all to see.
“Good people of the North”, his voice boomed over the courtyard, “Let me present to you my firstborn son and heir, Robb Stark, the future Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North.”
A loud cheer welled up from the crowd.

Everyone was smiling and Catelyn felt a bit of warmth welling up in her chest for the first time since entering the courtyard. ‘She had done this. She had gifted the North with a new generation. She would get these rugged, stern Northmen to accept the southern bride of their Lord. She would show them she was worthy.’

“Let me introduce you to some of my most trusted bannermen, my Lady. “

Catelyn had some trouble taking her eyes of her son who was still sleeping through all the noise and commotion. Ned had repositioned Robb firmly against his body, his big arms creating a nest that shielded the small baby from the Northern winds. He represented the perfect picture of a proud and caring father. With renewed confidence she focussed her attention back to her duties and followed her husband ready to meet the noble lords waiting patiently in the receiving line and put her formal education to good use. Her cheeks were stiff from smiling when introductions were finally over and Ned led her into the keep.

***

Finally alone, Catelyn sat on the large bed in her new quarters. The handmaid had just finished her duties and had given her new Lady some welcome privacy. She took the opportunity to evaluate the first few hours in her new home. The service as of yet had been impeccable. Several young girls had worked quietly and efficiently together. Her bath had quickly been filled, the temperature of the water just as she liked it. When the water had cooled, Catelyn had denied the softly uttered suggestion of her handmaid to add more hot water. The girl had helped her step out of her bath and had willingly obeyed her every demand. Catelyn’s first impression of the Stark household was positive. Winterfell seemed like a well-organized community.

The temperature of the room had been a pleasant surprise. Ned, she remembered, had explained to her previously that Winterfell was built on hot springs and that pipes with warm water flowing through them were imbedded in the walls of the large keep. At least it would not be so cold inside.

Although it was still summer, the last few days on the road she had gratefully made use of the warm cloak that Ned had put around her shoulders during their wedding ceremony. The heavy furs on the collar had seemed a bit much to her at the time but she had come to appreciate its usefulness.
She made a mental note to make the necessary adjustments to the rest of her wardrobe as soon as possible.

When she had left the little antechamber that was her new bathroom to enter the bedroom once more, the maids had almost finished unpacking her things. Her personal toiletries were displayed on a small cabinet adorned with a large mirror. A cosy looking seat stood next to it. She had ignored it in favour of the bed, the bed she would probably share with Ned tonight.

Ned was a good husband, solemn, respectful, rather good looking in his Northern way but boring. They had been married for more than a year now but circumstances had prevented them from hardly spending any time together.

It had been a disappointment to her when she had learned how different from Brandon he was. Catelyn had been infatuated with Brandon at first sight. His larger than life personality had attracted her immediately. When Brandon was present, everyone flocked to him. He was the centre of focus at every gathering. All the ladies’ eyes followed him longingly. Brandon had been a catch.

Back then, she had bareley noticed that he had two younger brothers. Even now, after several moons spent together, she hardly knew Ned. They were the joint parents of a little boy but the father of her child was still a stranger to her. ‘Well, she would try to make a life here. Family, Duty, Honour were the words of house Tully. She would do her duty to her new family.’

 

***

Ned entered his chambers. It was almost dinnertime. Just enough time to refresh himself and escort his new wife to the great hall where they would dine in large company. His talk with Benjen would still have to wait.
After showing his wife her new quarters, Ned had been accosted by Maester Luwin. They had isolated themselves in his solar and had sifted through the numerous scrolls that had not been forwarded to Riverrun. A few of them unopened in adherence to the strict rules Ned had instigated.

‘Benjen has come through’, Ned thought. His brothers had been charged to instruct the Maester how to decode the wax seals on the scrolls in order to know which ones he was allowed to open and which ones were for the eyes of the Warden of the North only.
Ned trusted Maester Luwin implicitly. However, he had wanted to convey the political situation to Maester Luwin in person.
They had to tread carefully. Everyone involved would be in danger. In the eyes of the realm, everyone in the know would be branded a traitor to King Robert. If the wrong person got wind of their actions, their lives would be forfeit.

The most pressing business having been handled, Maester Luwin had left the solar and had gone to his quarters to carry out Lord Stark’s orders. They had agreed to reconvene the next day to tackle the less urgent matters.

Entering his bedroom, Ned immediately took steps to secure the still unopened scrolls. He pulled the wolfskin rug that decorated the floor at to foot end of his bed away from its current place and lifted a large stone to reveal a hollow space below floor level. He placed the messages inside the secret hideout. It was the safest place he could think of.
‘No time to read them now, I will retrieve them later before my talk with Benjen’, he promised himself. He put the stone and the rug back into their original position and dropped into the nearest chair. ‘Thank the Gods. I’m finally back in my beloved Winterfell’.

Life at Riverrun had not been easy for him. At home, he knew how everything was supposed to go. But in the South, there were all kinds of habits and niceties that were foreign to him. People talked but hardly said anything meaningful and when they finally did, they played around with their words in such a way that Ned was often uncertain of their real intent.

He had felt adrift in a strange land instead of being relaxed while surrounded by family.
His new wife had had her own routines and had always been occupied either with their new born son or with any other matter that ladies apparently attended to. He had been trying to keep busy and had made an effort to get along with his good father and good brother but it did not come easy to him.

It had all been a struggle and he had counted the days until he could be in his beloved North again, surrounded by his loyal bannermen. The lords of the North could be stubborn and difficult, but at least they spoke his language and didn’t play stupid word games.

‘Winterfell is my home. Here I have purpose, here I can make an impact and my people need me.’ For the first time in years Ned felt he was exactly were he was supposed to be. He knew he would be extremely busy the coming moons but looked forward to it.

He would be putting things in his Kingdom back in order and make plans to preparing the North for the coming Winter. ‘Yes, that is my birthright. It may still be summer now but I know winter is coming’, Ned recited the Stark words to himself. Perhaps I will even have to prepare enough provisions to survive a war’, he sighed, ‘I will need to make plans for more contingencies than ever before’. Nevertheless, Ned relished the busy period ahead.
‘Southerners can’t grasp that. They are spoiled and have grown soft. My wife will have difficulty to adapt. I will have to help her.’

‘His wife’, Ned contemplated his predicament. ‘How do you get to know someone better when you hardly get to see her and you haven’t the faintest idea how she fills her days?’
At Riverrun, her body had still been recuperating from the birth and she had preferred to sleep alone in her own rooms. The only time they spent together was often nothing more than a short, formal meeting after dinner.
She would come to his bedroom, still fully dressed and they would talk some, but not much more would be said to each other except some polite enquiries into their respective days. Still, she would always tell him something new about his son. Much too soon to his liking, she would request permission to retire. She would then leave him with a dutiful kiss on his cheek and disappear swiftly into her own bedroom.

‘Another strange habit’, Ned had thought, ‘one that I will change now we’re home. I will make sure I visit her chambers. She will have nowhere to retreat to.’

After their first rather clumsily bedding on their wedding night just hours before he had to leave for war, things were at a standstill. Ned hoped that since they were on his territory now, she would have to rely on him to learn her way around the keep and the household and they would be spending more time together. More important still, at Winterfell he would be the Lord and she would have to obey him. No more adhering to the southern customs of her family. They were in his beloved North now. Here he knew how to act!

His heart was lighter when he knocked on the door that separated the Lord’s and Lady’s chambers half an hour later to escort his wife to the great hall for dinner. ‘All would be well. He would see to it.’

 

***

That evening, Lady Catelyn sat formally next to her husband at the high table. Both were dressed up as befitted their station. A welcome home feast had been prepared in their honour and the great hall was filled with family, friends even servants were present at the lower tables.

For the first time she saw her solemn husband relax and smile. He clearly was glad to be home.
Catelyn eyed the abundant display of food. The rich aroma’s wafting her way reminded her how long ago her last meal had been. Her husband filled her plate with a healthy portion of some kind of stew. Catelyn accepted it from him with a shy smile. She immediately started eating, the food was as delicious as it smelled. She tried to eat slowly minding her manners knowing full well that the northern lords and servants were eying her every move.

Ned noticed her getting a bit self conscious. He leaned towards her and silently remarked “Give them time. Let them get to know you. They will come to love their new Lady. But for now they are just curious. Let them study you. That is to be expected. In no time they will be sharing their exaggerated tales with you”, he paused looking around before continuing, “which may be sooner than we think, by the looks of the amounts of ale being consumed.”
Smiling broadly he handed her a piece of bread and continued his meal.

A few moments later he addressed her once more. “We will be inviting all the lords of the North to come to Winterfell in a few moon’s time to celebrate the birth of the new heir of Winterfell. Best use this occasion to practice getting along with this lot. After all practice makes perfect.” He winked.

Perplexed Catelyn eyed her husband. It was not the impending task of organizing a feast for the northern lords that had her flabbergasted. No, it was the almost teasing tone of Ned’s last few sentences. Did she hear correctly? Had her solemn husband tried to lighten the mood?

***

Catelyn was ready to retire. Ned had left her an hour earlier with the promise to meet up with her in her chambers. He had excused himself, stating he needed to catch up with his brother but had requested that she wait up for him. He had looked firmly at her but with a hint of pleading in his eyes. She had known her only option was to gracefully agree and had silently nodded her head.

 

The handmaid had left here alone once more. She was dressed in her nightshift, her hair arranged into two proper braids, she was ready for the night. After saying her night prayers, she had installed herself on the bed and had pulled the heavy furs on top of her. She had tried to read the book she had brought with her from Riverrun but had not been able to read one single page. She was just about to give up when she heard a knock on a door she hadn’t even noticed was there.

Ned entered her chambers in large determent strides. Apparently that door led to his quarters.
“Are you well?” Ned asked, “Do you have enough furs? Is the fire stoked high enough for you?”

Catelyn looked up she was blushing as a maid. ‘Ridiculous, I am a wife and a mother’, she told herself.

Ned shed the large grey robe he was wearing which left him in a white cotton shirt. She couldn’t help but shiver when Ned moved to sit beside her on the bed. He started to look nervous when she still hadn’t responded to his enquiries.

“Are you all right?” he repeated his grey eyes intently gazing into hers. “Did you find all you needed?”
“Yes, of course, thank you”, she finally replied a bit intimidated by his unwavering stare.

“I would very much like to bed you tonight”, Ned bluntly told her, “Will you let me?”

 

‘Well, it was kind of him to ask …’
Catelyn saw a blush appear on his cheeks but there was also an iron determination in his eyes. This was another Ned than the formal husband she had lived with at Riverrun, nor was he the considerate but distant travel companion on the road these last few weeks. This was the Lord of Winterfell who had come to her bed. Although polite and respectful, Catelyn saw for the first time a glimpse of a powerful, noble man who could be an autocratic be it thoughtful Lord and husband, a husband who would be strong and intelligent enough to protect her and their offspring.

Strangely this realisation didn’t scare her. Quite the opposite really, she felt her body respond to him with the same butterflies she used to feel during the few flirty conversations she had had with Brandon Stark. She even felt a tingling between her legs. Now it was her turn to blush.
Looking straight at him she answered bravely, “You’re my husband, it is expected.”

“I’ll try to make it better for you ”, he stated and he wasted no time taking her firmly into his arms now that he had her consent. “I know the first time is difficult for a woman. And with the war looming over our heads, well let’s just say, I didn’t, I wasn’t…”
Catelyn put her hand over his mouth, “sssh”, she said, “let us both try to do better”. She closed the last bit of space between them and kissed him.

 

***

The next morning Catelyn woke up with a warm body lying beside her. Ned hadn’t left. After he had worshipped her body in ways previously unknown to her, he had fallen asleep almost immediately after finishing inside her. He had just had enough energy to roll of her and had spooned up behind her. She had had no choice but to try and fall asleep with a heavy arm around her waist, her legs sticky with his seed, most of it still deeply ensconced inside of her. Surprisingly she had felt tired and strangely satisfied. Before she knew it sleep had overtaken her as well.

Catelyn turned her head to study her husband. Ned was still asleep. He looked younger now. Seeing him like this, it was hard to believe he was the Warden of the North who had the power to decide the life and death of tens of thousands of subjects.

The first rays of morning light fell upon her husband’s face and revealed a few small scars he had obtained during the war. Catelyn didn’t know how to feel about him still being in her chambers, both still naked, his legs keeping one of hers pinned to the bed. This was new territory for her. Luckily Ned was like a hot furnace keeping the bed warm enough to ignore the chill in the room now the fire had almost gone out.

‘Was this what married couples did?’ She wasn’t sure. The septa’s hadn’t prepared her for this myriad of feelings. Nobody had told her how her body could respond to his. She was only taught to obey her husband and do her duty. Give him heirs and daughters to make alliances.

But somehow his passion had stirred some unladylike responses. At first she had tried to fight these unfamiliar feelings. While Ned was coupling with her, something strange had been building inside her and she had strained all her muscles to prevent herself from letting him see any wanton responses. Ned however had not let her keep still. He had urged her to relax, to let go, to let herself feel. He had touched her everywhere with his hands. ‘Oh when she let herself remember how his fingers had touched her down there, and Gods his mouth…’

He had told her that he loved the little noises she made and had reassured her that the walls of the keep were thick enough, that this was between the two of them. In here they could indulge themselves. They were married, this was no sin. This was sanctified by the Gods. And Catelyn had let herself be persuaded.

If this was what married couples did, well, she would adhere to the Tully words ‘Family, Duty, Honour’ . Perhaps it wasn’t such a daunting task after all to give the Warden of the North plenty of heirs.
She shivered. It really was cold this morning. Catelyn nestled herself closer to her husband’s warm body. Perhaps husbands and wives slept in the same bed for more than one reason in this dreary North. She let sleep overtake her once more.

 

***

The night before in the Lord’s solar:

Benjen sipped from his ale while his brother was scanning several scrolls. They had retired to this brother’s solar and would finally be able to relate what happened to each other these last few moons. Ned had given order not to be disturbed. Benjen waited for his brother to start.

Ned put the messages he had been reading aside an focussed his intent stare on Benjen.
“Tell me first, how is he doing”, he quizzed. “Was the journey uneventful? Is he safe? Is he healthy?”

“Be calm, brother. He is fine. He is as safe as can be for the moment”, Benjen reassured Ned.
A big smile broke over his face.

“He is bonny and a real Stark. He is a little Lyanna reborn. He has the cutest dark coloured hair that has started to curl adoringly. You would not think he had any Targaryen blood if you didn’t know to look for it. His eyes are the Stark grey. It seems to me only his fine cheekbones and the form of his chin resemble Rhaegar. Ned, if you would put him next to Robb, people would say Jon was the Stark and Robb some scion from the Riverlands. No offence.”

 

“He is an active little fellow. He is always looking around, studying all that his baby eyes can see. He tries to grab everything within reach and puts it in his mouth when you’re not fast enough to prevent it.” Benjen finished his passionate description of their little nephew.

 

“Perhaps we could have gone for another solution? We could have brought him to Winterfell proclaiming him my trueborn son? I would not have minded a hasty marriage, even to his nurse, to be able to raise him as my own. He has already stolen my heart in just these few moons. Ned, could we perhaps change our plan?” Benjen took a deep breath and looked beseechingly at his big brother.

“And how would you explain the presence of his guards?” Ned retorted. “I told you how they would not give up their King. Not even to his closest family. I feel for you Benjen, really I do. Don’t you think that I want him here, where we both can see him grow up and protect him ourselves? It was me who promised Lyanna to keep him safe. He is my blood too! But I had to see reason.”

Ned moved closer to his brother and made a comforting gesture.
“Benjen, please understand, Winterfell is the centre of the North. A lot of people would get to meet him, and our three guards would not want to let him out of their sight.
In the Driftmark, these knights can hopefully remain incognito. Here it would be a matter of days, hours probably before someone noticed them. No disguise can be complete enough to make these three unrecognizable. Ser Gregold Hightower, Ser Oswell Whent, and certainly Ser Arthur Dayne are some of the most prominent heroes of Westeros.
No to mention all of the Seven Kingdoms have been wondering for moons now what could have happened to them. Have you forgotten how easily Varys or Littlefinger can get wind of anything happening in the realm?”

Ned settled back into his chair. “No, raising him at Winterfell is out of the question. No matter our wishes. The important thing is to keep Jon safe and to adhere to the plan we all have agreed on.”
“Now tell me, please, how was the journey to the Driftmark, how has everyone settled in? What protection measures are being taken?” Ned urged once more.

Benjen realised Ned was right to be impatient. He had hardly answered any of his brother’s initial questions. He ordered his thoughts and started his report.

“They told me Arthur Dayne used his connections in Dorne to secure them a ship to take us to the Driftmark. You should have seen them: the three of them dressed like farmers, Howland Reed in his habitual green attire, Wylla, his nurse disguised as a Septa carrying a small babe. When I met up with them on that small island as per your instructions, I almost missed them. I was looking for three tall proud knights but instead found three poorly looking farmers with slightly drooped shoulders trying to blend in and not attract too much attention. If it weren’t for Howland Reed and their luggage, I would have missed them.

Benjen paused and sipped his ale.
“Let me tell you Ned, your friend Howland Reed is a strange fellow. He seemed to know instinctively who could be trusted and who needed to be avoided. He apparently seemed to recognize the name of the captain of the ship. Some distant relation to his wife or something.
His contacts in the Driftmark proved true as well. Jon has been adopted by the elderly Lord and Lady Velaryon, distant cousins to the ruling lord of House Velaryon lord of the Driftmark.”

“I must concur, Lord Reed’s suggestion of the Driftmark was brilliant. Having seen it with my own eyes, I can testify that the Driftmark being a modest island in Blackwater Bay near Dragonstone is the perfect place to hide our True King. The inhabitants don’t interact much with the mainland. And as Howland Reed had promised us, they are all loyal to house Targaryen to a fault. They are proud of their heritage, originating from Old Valeria themselves. I have had to listen to several grand tales of how their forefathers landed in Westeros long before the Targaryens ever saw Dragonstone for the first time.”

Benjen was on a roll now.
“The elderly couple have welcomed Jon and Wylla into their home and are glad with the extra company and help. Jon poses as their grandson, their own son being killed on the Trident. Our knights take turns guarding him. The three of them have taken up quarters in a small cottage that lies within clear view of their King’s new home.”

“They tell everyone who wants to know how the three of them and Jon’s father were a tight group of fight buddies. And as happens often in times of war they had all allegedly sworn to each other to look after one another’s family should any of them not survive the war. Jon’s mother of course having died in childbirth it was their duty to bring the orphaned baby to his closest living relations. “

“Then they complete their story by explaining that do not really have anywhere to go to and have decided to settle in the Driftmark. They state that they are glad to lead a peaceful life now, helping the community out with small chores and serving as protection against thieves and poachers. So far nobody suspects anything. For the moment Jon is as safe as he could be while living in Westeros.”

Ned relaxed a bit after Benjen’s tale. “Well, let’s hope for the best then. I’ll beg the Gods to help us protect him.”

He picked up one of the scrolls.
“I have news as to the other matters. First, our contact has arrived in Fleabottom and states he is making progress. Another message is from Lannister Port. Things there are also going according to plan. The first steps have been taken. Soon it will be time to reconvene with our sympathizers to discuss further strategies.”

Ned rose stiffly from his seat. “Let’s call it a night. We’ll have plenty of opportunity to talk some more during the next few days. I reckon you don’t have to leave before the next sennight?“

Benjen nodded at Ned with an impish smile on his face. “Off to bed or off to the wife?”

 Ned answered with a week smile and left the solar after making sure he had the scrolls safely tucked away in his pockets. He strode towards his bedroom.

 

***

Interlude1: Dorne

Some months after the event of the previous chapter:

Oberyn Martell was abruptly awakened by a servant. “My Prince, you are requested to appear before Prince Doran. And make haste, the Prince stressed the urgency of my message. Please my Prince, hurry or I will be punished.”

Oberyn’s eyebrows rose. This was unprecedented. His brother never threatened the younger servants over something this trivial. His siesta was over it seemed. He quickly disentangled his limbs from Ellaria’s and, made himself presentable. He left to go find his elder brother.

He heard a lot of noises coming from the great hall. It seemed he was not the only one summoned. However, of all the things he could have imagined to see when he entered the room, the sight that greeted him was as unexpected as it was welcome.

With a wide grin on his face he looked over to his brother. Prince Doran sat in his usual chair and greeted him with troubled eyes. Oberyn could not phantom why. ’Was this not a reason to celebrate?’
He couldn’t imagine any better surprise. ‘Oh, the things he would be able to do and say now. How best to take revenge, in what manner …’

His thoughts halted when Prince Doran abruptly rose from his chair and gestured Oberyn to follow him out of the hall. Bemused Oberyn obeyed him, his eyes reluctantly leaving the sight of a bruised and battered heavily chained Ser Gregor Clegane who was sitting in the middle of the room inside a large wooden crate only visible because two sides of the crate had been opened and lowered to the ground.

Safely secluded in Doran’s private quarters, Oberyn tried to be patient and wait for his brother to start the conversation. His brother looked deeply troubled. After several minutes Oberyn tried for the obvious.
“Isn’t this a good development brother? Who captured him?”

Prince Doran seemed to be looking for words. He opened his mouth, closed it again, repeated this one more time and finally seemed to come to a decision. He slowly removed a scroll from his sleeve and handed it to his brother.
“Read it”, he ordered.

Oberyn’s curiosity grew. He accepted the scroll and started to read.

Prince Doran,
Please accept our gift. The content of the crate is yours to dispose of as you please. We only entreat you to inflict no harm upon the delivery team. We rely upon your honour.
It is our pleasure to help bring justice to your kin. No longer worry about the other culprit. He won’t be heard of again. Maybe one day you would be willing to return the favour?
Until then,
Kin of your kin

“What can be the meaning of this? The other culprit? Have you heard anything about the Lannister devil lately? Surely they allude to him. Who do you think sent this message? What would they want from us? Isn’t this good news though? This is surely sent by allies of ours, don’t you agree? Who could it be: ‘Kin of our kin’? How were the scroll and the crate even delivered here? What do you know of this? Can I be the one to end his miserable life?” Oberyn fired these questions at his brother. Although the message confused him, overall the content was exhilarating!

Doran sighed. “I don’t know. I don’t know and that is what troubles me. But yes, you can be the one to carry out justice in whatever way you want. However, we will need to strategize. We need to make sense of this. We need to contact all our spies in the Seven Kingdoms. I will even send word outoverseas. We need to get to the bottom of this and fast. I want answers.”
Doran seemed very troubled.

Oberyn however could not be deterred. “Brother, how was the crate delivered? Did the scroll arrive with it or was it sent by raven? What haven’t you told me?”

Doran looked up to his brother “Stop pacing in front of me. My nerves are on edge enough as it is without you aggravating matters. Sit down and I’ll tell you all I know, little that it is.”

Oberyn obeyed without hesitation he quickly seated himself opposite his brother. He folded his hands in his lap and encouraged his brother to tell it all. “Let’s hear it brother”, he said in a low tone.

Doran started
“The crate was delivered by a Northern vessel belonging to house Manderly. They sailed here directly from Kings Landing. They were commissioned to bring the crate into my hands personally. Their client, so the delivery team stated, had paid double the required fee for their discretion and had given no name.”

“They were told we would be expecting it and would be grateful for its safe delivery. They also said they had gone to great trouble to deliver the subject alive and in a relative clean state having received detailed instructions on feeding and other necessary caretaking tasks . They were glad to finally be rid of the responsibility. They even asked me to sign a document confirming that I had received the cargo intact.”
“Further interrogation wasn’t possible since I had decided to adhere to the request in the scroll I had received a month ago. I felt honour bound to grant them safe passage back to their vessel.”

Doran paused but then decided to continue .
“The scroll was sent by a raven from the Wall. My guess is that the sender is the long forgotten Targaryen, Maester Aemon who serves at the wall. I think he is still alive, though he must have seen at least ninety namedays by now.”

Oberyn startled “Targaryen? Targaryen! At the wall? Are you sure?”

“No I am not sure!” Doran shouted agitated. ”That’s the problem. The people of the Night’s Watch are forbidden to interfere with the politics of the Seven Kingdoms. They must remain neutral. I do not know what to think. That’s what bothers me. Ever since the content of the package was revealed, I have been trying to figure this out. I have been racking my brain searching for the safest way to obtain more information. What do they want from us? How should we go forward without betraying our purpose? “

“We need to be smart about this Oberyn. For once I want you to think before you act. Help me figure this out. Be my eyes and ears outside of Dorne. I was thinking on the possibility of sending you on a tour throughout the Kingdoms so you can discreetly gather information about the current political situation.“

Oberyn stared at him deep in thought.

Doran continued, “Find out whether something happened to Tywin Lannister. See how the Baratheon King is doing. Try to ferret out how much support he really has? Are the Lannisters weakened? See if you can find a trace of any enemies to the crown who would want to destroy the Baratheon-Lannister alliance. Sniff out possible conspiracies against the throne if you can. The sending of this package is no charity. Clearly someone is reaching out to us, someone who is not sympathetic to the current dynasty. ”

Oberyn was making a move to interrupt but Doran lifted his hand to stop him.

“Of course you may take all the time you need to dispose of our precious gift any way you like first. That goes without saying. We will discuss our next steps at length afterwards. I feel that whatever has been set in motion will take some time to build before any action can be taken openly, whatever whoever may intend.

This is a dangerous game. If you take into account the careful wording of the message and the anonymous delivery of the package, you can not help but notice that the people behind this are very cautious. Please leave me to my solitude now. I need to calm down and think on this some more.”

Doran closed his eyes and slumped in his chair. He felt drained of all energy.
‘No good can come of this’, he thought. ‘Why can they not leave us in peace?’
Oberyn on the other hand left the room with a spring in his step, his mind swirling with possibilities. ‘First things first’, he thought and a smug smile appeared on his face. ‘Time to fetch Ellaria from her bed, the sand snakes too’, he decided. ‘They will want to have their share of the fun.’

Chapter Text

The Neck approximately four years later

“One more night and I’ll have a roof over my head”, Benjen thought. It was not his first visit to Lord Reed’s stronghold. He was seated a bit secluded from his travelling companions but still close enough to the fire to stay warm. The small delegation of brothers of the Night’s Watch that travelled with him was a part of his official mission. The Warden of the North had used his influence to negotiate advantageous trading deals for the Night’s Watch throughout the Seven Kingdoms. They would also be collecting the annual taxes the Lords of Westeros were levied to sustain the Night’s Watch. One of the many stops along the way was Greywater Watch. Additionally they were tasked to bring back as many new recruits as they could find.
Benjen was used to life on the road now. However travelling in a small group and keeping his real purpose a secret, had never been his forte. He was grateful for the companionship though.

Ever since he had let himself be persuaded by his elder brother not to say his Night’s Watch vows, his life had been an adventure. He had seen more of Westeros than almost anyone in the North. Never could he have dreamed up this kind of life for himself. None of the farfetched scenarios he had fantasized about during his youth ever since understanding the plight of a third son of a lord, had even come close to what his lot in life had turned out to be.

A few years ago, Benjen had thought he was done, finished. He had been stuck in Riverrun, doing nothing but drinking and blaming himself for everything: the Rebellion, the deaths of Brandon and his father and the loss of his sister. He had seen no way forward. He had lost almost everything he had held dear. His only grounding force had been his brother Ned. But Benjen had hardly been able to look him in the eye since he also partly blamed himself for the circumstances that had forced Ned to give up his lady love and to marry for political gain before going of to fight in a war that shouldn’t have been started in the first place.

And to make matters worse, when Ned had returned victoriously from the Rebellion, he had almost immediately left again, this time on a mission to find Lyanna and had ordered his younger brother to stay put and look out for his pregnant wife. Benjen had been on the brink to forsake his life and go to the wall. He would freeze himself to death or be killed if not by wildlings then surely by one or other wild animal rumoured to live on the other side of the wall. He had felt he didn’t deserve another choice. He had been racked by guilt.

 

But then Ned had returned with news about his sister. And Benjen’s world had been turned on its head once more. It had taken Ned hours of reasoning to get through to Benjen who had at first spiralled deeper into his depression upon learning that Lyanna was dead.
Lyanna, his dear sister, who had always been so full of life, was dead and he had been complicit. He had helped her escape to meet her Prince and evade the arranged betrothal to Robert. At the time Benjen’s choice had been a simple one. Not only had he been loyal to his sister to a fault, he had also agreed most fervently that Robert Baratheon was not a good match for her. Never could he have imagined what her flight had put into motion.

Benjen had never understood how Ned could not see past his friendship with Baratheon and discern his real character. Everybody who had eyes could see how he treated women. They were just bodies to stick his cock into and something to brag about afterwards to all and sundry when he was drunk enough. Robert would have strayed from Lyanna’s marriage bed almost immediately and frequently at that. Benjen had been sure of it. Robert had not loved Lyanna for her vibrant personality. He had loved the opportunity she represented. He would marry the beautiful sister of his dear foster brother making him a good brother and in one swell swoop build a strong alliance with the Northern most Kingdom. Lyanna’s spirit would have been broken in no time. Ned however hadn’t seen it that way.

“He is young”, Ned had tried to assure Benjen. “Marriage will settle him down.”
Well, marriage with Cersei Lannister hadn’t settled Robert down at all. His proclivities had only increased these last few years. Stories about the King’s whoring and excessive drinking were told all over the Kingdom. The brothels in Kingslanding thrived.

When Benjen had uttered his plan to join the Night’s Watch to Ned upon his elder brother’s return from the South, Ned had denied him. His elder brother had used the most compelling argument to get Benjen to listen: Jon.
The heated debate with Ned over his future had only taken a turn for the better when the true meaning of wat his brother was talking about became clear. Benjen’s brain had slowly started to digest the true meaning of what Ned had been trying to tell him. The child meant a new life born from Lyanna’s womb. There was still a living peace of his sister in this realm, a trueborn Prince. ‘No, not a Prince, a King, the death of Rhaegar and the Mad King has put Jon - or King Aegon’, he mentally corrected himself, ‘first in line for the Iron Throne!’ Benjen had found his medicine for the darker thoughts that had plagued him the previous year. He would not become a brother of the Night’s watch.

Benjen looked at the fire that was slowly dying. “Time to call it a night” he called out to his companions. He straightened his stiff limbs and slowly walked over to the small tent he had erected earlier when they had stopped to make camp. “See you all in the morning. I trust you will look after the fire? “ A small pause and then he continued encouragingly , “If we ride hard, we will meet up with our guide before noon and have plenty of time to navigate the swamps while it is still light. We will reach Greywater Watch before dark. Goodnight.”
The men all nodded and wished him a good night’s sleep as well.

***

It was still a few hours before dusk when the small party reached the castle.
Benjen’s fellow travellers let out an almost simultaneous sigh of relief. They had been following the guide for more than an hour, traipsing through the swamps of the Neck in a single line all the while making sure to follow exactly in the footsteps of the crannogman that Lord Reed had sent out to meet up with them. They could finally relax and walk leisurely beside each other again.

Benjen looked toward the castle expectantly. Just as he had foreseen, a small figure exited the stronghold and ran straight at him as fast as his little legs allowed.
“Uncle Benjen, uncle Benjen, you’re here, you’re finally here!” The five year old leapt into the arms of his uncle clinging onto him with all the strength his little arms could muster.

Benjen swung him around a few times before putting him down again.
“Let me have a look at you then. My oh my, how you’ve grown. I can see you are eating your vegetables as you promised eh Jon.”
The little boy beamed up at him. “Yes uncle and meat and potatoes too. Come in and I show you the wooden sword I got from Art. They’re teaching me to fight and Art says if I listen good I get a real one!”
“It’s if you listen well.” Benjen corrected his nephew gently and ruffled his curls affectionately.

Benjen checked whether this travel companions were still close by. He saw that they had already been directed towards the stables and taken his own horse along so he could stay and greet the boy properly. He scanned the courtyard to see who Jon’s ever persistent shadow was this time.
“Nice to see you, Ser Gerold”, he greeted the knight. “Are all three of you here this time?”

“Nice to see you too Stark”, Gerold truly looked glad to see him. It’s me and Ser Oswell. Ser Arthur is away on … business. Lord Reed will tell you all about that once were away from prying eyes and ears.”

Benjen took his nephew by the hand, a warm smile on his face. “Time to go look at that sword, don’t you think so Jon. Can you lead the way?” Beaming from ear to ear now, the little boy skipped ahead toward the castle dragging his uncle along. Ser Gerold hurriedly followed both of them inside.

***

Benjen laughed indulgently at another statement of Jon. His nephew had been talking almost non-stop since Benjen’s arrival. Not that he minded. He was glad to see the boy again and also relieved to see for himself that he had adapted well to the change in his living arrangements. They had received a reassuring message from Lord Reed at Winterfell shortly before he had started out on this tour of the kingdoms, but seeing him with his own eyes had eased his worries. Jon had mentioned little Meera, Lord Reed’s three year old daughter often, but mostly he had been telling his uncle about his first training sessions with the wooden sword.

He had argued adoringly that it was high time he was allowed to use more than a stick now that he was almost five. Still he had complained at length that Sir Arthur often spend almost the entire duration of the lesson telling him how to stand properly and how to move, left, right, backward and forward. How Ser Arthur would push him out of the blue in an attempt to unbalance him and then would explain at length how best to correct his stance to prevent himself from falling over. “But”, he had pleaded, “I love to fight with my sword, uncle Benjen. Will you spar with me tomorrow? Ser Arthur is on a trip and Ser Oswell won’t mind, I think?”

Benjen had fond memories of himself constantly buggering Ned or Brandon to spar with him at that age and Ned being the one who mostly indulged his younger brother by showing him the moves he had learned from the master at arms during his required daily training.
“I will come out to the training yard tomorrow and teach you some blocks if you like”, he offered the small boy. “But only if Ser Gerold or Ser Oswell allow it”, he added as an afterthought.

Jon had hugged his uncle. “You’re the best uncle Benjen. I wished you could stay here with me forever.”
“Me too”, Benjen answered solemnly. “Me too. Perhaps in a few years? We’ll see. In the meantime I will visit you as often as I can. I promise. I will certainly drop by on my return journey.” He held his digit and middle finger up in a V-shaped form. “I swear.”
Jon mimicked the gesture. “I swear too?” He looked over to his uncle for assurance.
Uncle Benjen only laughed in response and ruffled the boy’s hair affectionately once more.

 

“Come along. Let us see if we can find something to eat. I’m starving and I don’t know about you. Can you show me to way, Jon?”
His nephew’s facial expression changed completely. He looked confident once more.
“I can uncle, I never ever get lost any more.” The boy frowned. “But Lord Reed doesn’t seem to believe me cause he always sends Art or someone else along with me.” He complained. “And I know my way, truly uncle. I even help Meera sometimes and she has lived here longer than me already, but then…” he paused mulling it over, “perhaps that because she is still so small?”
“I think that could be it, nephew. Let’s get to it then? I told the truth when I said I was starving.”

***

 

That night, after they had finally put Jon to bed, a difficult task this time since the little guy had been overexcited to have his uncle come visit, Lord Reed, Ser Gerold and Benjen retired to Howland Reed’s solar. Ser Oswell had taken up guard outside Jon’s bedroom and would be briefed later if necessary.

“Jon seems to have settled in all right at Greywater Watch?” Benjen opened the conversation since the men had been contemplating each other silently for some minutes, enjoying the peace and quiet now Jon had retired.

“He certainly has”, Lord Reed confirmed. “What’s more, my wife and I are glad to have him. He regularly plays with Meera. I think he likes not being the youngest one for a change. Meera has just turned three now and Jon likes to play act that he is a knight saving the little girl from ogres. I can’t wait to see how he will react to a new born. My lady wife is due in a moon’s time.”
“Don’t get me wrong it was a pity Edric Celtigar passed away. But in the few moons Jon has been here I have come to learn that moving him here to be fostered amongst the crannogmen at this particular time is a blessing in disguise.

“What do you mean by a blessing in disguise?” Benjen looked confused. He had been devastated when their seemingly ideal plan for raising Jon had been thwarted by the death of his “grandparent”. I thought there was no place for him more to grow up more suited than the Driftmark. Even if his cover would have been blown there, the community would have supported him one hundred per cent and now he’s here …”

“Greywater Watch is even safer.” Howland Reed retorted not letting him finish his sentence, his intense gaze directed at Benjen. He continued passionately raising his voice. “House Stark has no bannermen as loyal as House Reed. We swear our oath ‘by earth and water, by bronze and iron, by fire and ice’. The crannogmen would never betray the nephew of the Warden of the North. He is as safe here, well maybe even more so, than he was at the Driftmark.”

Forcing himself to calm down, Reed explained further “Our castle is one of the safest in Westeros. You’ve surely noticed that it is situated so deep in the swamplands of the Neck that the only way to reach it safely is by being guided by a crannogman. Without our guidance this morning, you would most probably have drowned before getting even halfway to the castle. And even if you’ve been here once, I challenge you to try and find your way again. Not only are the paths treacherous and one false step can get you swallowed up by the swamps, Greywater Watch won’t be in the same place when you next visit. However improbable it may seem, I swear to you that it kind of moves. It is part of the natural environment of the Neck. No raven can find it and certainly no spy can enter it undetected.” Howland Reed paused to take a breath. “It is safe here”, he stressed once more.

He seemed hesitant for a moment but still decided to continue. “We have a powerful greenseer here as well. Another point in our favour, but that was not what I was alluding to”, he ended mysteriously.

Benjen and Ser Gerold both stared at him shocked by this declaration. However neither of them uttered a word, but just looked expectantly at Lord Reed wanting him to continue.

Howland Reed seemed to mull over the best way to explain himself.
“Aegon, “
“His name is Jon for now.” Benjen couldn’t help correcting immediately.
“As I told you before”, Lord Reed countered patiently, “we’re safe here from prying ears. But I’ll oblige you. Jon has the blood of the two most powerful bloodlines in the Seven Kingdoms: blood of the Dragons and blood of the Kings of Winter. Both lines possess powerful magic. If you combine them …”

Benjen's eyes were as big like saucers now.
“Magic in the Stark’s blood?” he uttered unbelievingly.

“The Kings of Winter had the ability to warg. Don’t you recognize the term from stories your old Nan told you at Winterfell? The Starks of old could enter into an animals mind, they could either completely take it over, or share its mind depending on the mental capabilities of said animal. Still, every generation at least one Stark emerges who has the potential to become a warg. Only the knowledge on how to develop this ability has been lost to you and none of you are even able to recognize the early symptoms should they occur, as far as I have observed.”

“I’ve seen several signs already that this ‘Stark’-ability is awakening in Jon which is abnormal at such a young age. My guess is that the Dragonblood in him will enhance his warg powers.
Let’s just say that Jon will have to be tutored carefully and who better to do that than us Crannogmen. We know what we’re dealing with. Our blood also contains some magic. We inherited it from the First Men just as the Starks, but our unique way of living in close connection to nature has seemingly helped to conserve our magic. In almost every generation a greenseer is born at Greywater Watch. He has green dreams but can warg as well.”

Benjen stared at him chocked by this declaration. His mind was reeling. He tried to silence the many questions popping up in his mind and forced himself to focus on the issue at hand: Jon. He made a mental note to revisit this subject another time. He would like to have a description of these “early symptoms”.
“But was does this mean for Jon exactly?” Benjen still felt unbalanced. The entire situation was slipping through his fingers. Half an hour ago he had felt on top of the world. Jon looking up to him as the best uncle in the world had boosted his self-confidence. Now he was out of his depth. He had to know more in order to be able to help his nephew.

“It means that we will start with little mental exercises with the boy without him knowing their real purpose at first. Next, I guess at the latest within a year from now, I will gift him with a puppy. Jon will learn to share its mind. Since we are able to lead him gradually into this ability at such a tender age, it will eventually become very natural to him, a second nature so to speak. I predict he will be able to warg into any animal as easy as you are able to read. If developed correctly, it will be a great asset to him. If I am right about this, he could turn an entire pack of wolves to do his bidding simply by controlling the leader of a pack of wolves. No average warg can enter the mind of such a strong animal never mind taking over complete control. Most wargs will only be able to do this to lesser animals. Jon’s warg abilities will potentially surpass them all.”
“That is what I mean when I call Jon being fostered by us here at Greywater Watch an unexpected windfall”, Lord Reed concluded.

Ser Gerold had yet to speak a word. If Lord Reed spoke true, then they would have their task cut out for them. How could you protect a boy that was able to play pranks on them with the help of animals?
‘Best teach him to be respectful toward his protectors and teachers’, Ser Gerold noted to himself. ‘We’re all lucky Jon is such a good-natured child. Hells, the Seven Kingdoms are lucky.’
Aloud he only bid them “Do be careful with the boy though, magic is all good and well but do not take risks with his mental health. We have to keep him safe. Bear in mind that Targaryens have a tendency to develop madness. Personally I’m quite certain it won’t affect Jon, but if you start messing with his mind.”

“We will proceed slowly, you have my word”, Lord Reed promised

Everyone took a moment to contemplate all they had discussed. Just when it seemed that the topic was closed for now, Benjen spoke up once more. He still had one major concern.
“Reed, the person, uh greenseer who will be working with my nephew, won’t he learn of the true heritage of Jon because of his uh green dreams? Won’t you have to ask permission for this from Ned Stark? He will want to know of another person working so closely with Jon and being in the know.”

“The greenseer is me, Stark. You trust me, I hope?”

Benjen and Ser Gerold could only nod their heads. They were flabbergasted.
A heavy silence fell upon the room once more.

Several minutes later Benjen made an effort to lighten the mood. “Well”, he asked, “and what genius plan would the Sword of the Morning be carrying out at the moment?”

 

***

Later that same evening:

Benjen rested his head on the furs he had shaped into some semblance of a cushion to support his head. He contemplated all he had learned about Jon today. Benjen only ever called him Jon as opposed to his birth name Aegon which was kept a secret for obvious safety reasons. When the time came that King Aegon would stake his claim, Benjen knew he would have difficulty to adapt to the other moniker.

Whether you called him Jon or Aegon, the little boy was the focus of his life now. The last thing he had left of his sister. Benjen had taken over part of Ned’s task to protect him. He had sworn himself into the service of his nephew, the future king of Westeros. For now however, he was an honorary uncle to the child, an alleged war friend of Jon’s deceased father who checked in on him from time to time to assure his wellbeing. At least that was his cover story as far as the rest of the world was concerned.

The first time Benjen had seen Jon was at the Driftmark when Jon was hardly two moons old. He had helped Jon get settled in with the elderly couple, Edric Celtigar and his wife formerly of house Velaryon. Jon’s alleged grandparents had been members of a small branch from house Celtigar who had emigrated from Claw Isle to the Driftmark when Edric, a second son, had fallen in love with a lady Valeryon, cousin to the ruling Lord of the Driftmark.

Nobody even suspected anything was off about their cover story, not even when the three war buddies seemed to settle into a small cottage near to the main house. It was rumoured that one of them surely was enamoured with the baby’s nurse but since they had proceeded to make themselves useful with small tasks and provided protection to the community, the neighbourhood got used to having them around and life went on as usual.

Jon had been a delightful baby. At first glance Benjen had seen that he truly was Lyanna’s son. As he had described to Ned, Jon had the Stark look not to mention Lyanna’s vibrant energy. One time though Benjen could have sworn he saw hints of purple appear in the little baby’s eyes when he tickled him and Jon had cooed. Benjen’s first visit hadn’t lasted long but his heart had surrendered. This little guy was part of his pack now, the most important member actually. He would find a way to be in his life.

Ned came up with the perfect solution. Benjen Stark was officially named the liaison between the Warden of the North and the Night’s watch. He would supervise that the Watch received the support they were due from each of the Seven Kingdoms. This would mean a lot of travelling and negotiating with the important houses of each Kingdom. He would enforce the timely payment of taxes all great houses were owed to the Wall. This meant he was able to journey across Westeros on a regular basis and could relay messages to their partners in ‘crime’ without arousing suspicion. And if his boat happened to stop often at the Driftmark to provision, nobody suspected anything. Captains often had an ongoing trade deal with the Driftmark.

So Benjen Stark had been able to see Jon grow up. He had visited the Driftmark at least four times a year during Jon’s first four years of his life. A close bond had developed between the two of them. He knew Ned envied him this.
Benjen looked forward to spending the rest of the week with Jon. He would worry about this warg thing later. According to Lord Reed it would be an ability that would take some time to develop. He still had time to consult with Ned and Maester Luwin. Perhaps he could even ask old Nan to repeat her old stories to him when he would be back at Winterfell. He should make sure Robb heard them as well.

***

 

Interlude 2: Brother, oh brother

Somewhere in the Westerlands, some time ago

“Fuck of”, Sandor Clegane grumbled, his tired eyes never wavered from his pint. He had been minding his own fucking business. His habitual drinking companions had left only minutes before and he had been about to finish his ale and leave as well until those cunts had approached his table.

The three men standing before him took his curse in stride. It had been easy to track him down. Everyone in these lands knew of Sandor Clegane. The smallfolk they encountered in the Westerlands had been willing enough to tell them of the Hound’s habitual haunts, this shabby little tavern not far from where he lived being the principal one.

“Let us introduce ourselves, Ser. Perhaps buy you another round?” the man in the middle proposed politely.

“I'm no Ser”, he grumbled. State your damn business and be off with you lot”.
Sandor still hadn’t looked up.

The men took that as enough of an invitation and seated themselves at Sandor’s table. The Hound finally deigned to look them. All three seemed to be seasoned fighters. ‘Best stay alert’. He tried to lift the alcoholic haze from his mind. ‘Them assholes look like a dangerous lot. Better hear ‘m out and be done with them.’
“I need no more piss water. Stop wasting my bloody time and talk.”

The same person spoke again. “I am Benjen Stark of Winterfell. These are my travelling companions Lord Umber of the Last Hearth and Ozzy Waters. We have some business you might be interested in so to speak.”

Sandor more attentive now, scrutinized the three men. His gaze lingered on the one that had been introduced last.
“Don’t play games with me”, he scoffed. I can sniff out a run off Kingsguard from a mile away.” This last part fortunately had been whispered. “You have two minutes to explain you’re sorry asses”, he continued, his voice at a normal volume once more.

“Perhaps we can talk somewhere more discreet?” Stark was clearly the leader of this pack.

Sandor rose. “Was planning on leaving this godforsaken place anyway. You dumb cunts better follow me.” He tossed some coins on the table and hurried out of the tavern with large strides making it look like he did not care whether they were following him out or not.

***

Half an hour later the small group were once more seated around a table, this time in the small cottage Sandor usually stayed in, at least when he was not roaming the kingdoms earning money by entering tournaments or selling his sword for small periods of time. He had declined Lord Tywin Lannister’s offer to serve in his houseguard. His brother might follow orders to kill children without blinking his eyes. Sandor would make damn sure no one he lent his services to would ever ask such a dishonourable thing of him.

Stark took the floor once more. “We’ve come to talk about your brother.”

Sandor’s interest had already been raised when he recognized Ser Oswell Whent, now it reached new heights. He fought to keep his face in a disagreeable scowl not wanting to give anything away. “What do you want with that whoreson who struts around Kingslanding as if he fucking owns it.”

“Well”, Umber couldn’t help but remark, “if he is the son of a whore, then you …”
Stark held up his hand. “If you don’t have anything of sense to contribute, hold your tongue Greatjon.”
He turned his attention back to Sandor. “We are planning to bring down your brother and kindly offer you to take centre stage, knowing full well you would be for ever sorry to have missed out on this. We’re here to do you a favour actually.”

They had him, hook, line and sinker.
When Sandor was still a young boy, Gregor Clegane, nicknamed "the Mountain", his monstrously huge elder brother and arguably the most feared man in Westeros now, had nearly burned off half of Sandor's face because he had found Sandor playing with a toy that Gregor had discarded. Sandor hadn’t even stolen it, he had merely been playing with it and had assumed he hadn’t needed Gregor's permission. Without warning or uttering a word, however, Gregor had grabbed Sandor and had "punished" him by holding his head into a burning brazier. Gregor had only been forced to stop after half a dozen servants managed to pry him away from his brother. The incident left severe burn scars over the right half of Sandor's face. Sandor had taken to wearing his hair long on that side to cover them.

That sadistic twat had even been knighted and made a brother of the Kingsguard. King Robert had rewarded Gregor Clegane for the viciously killing of Rhaegar’s two children by Elia Martell: their daughter Rhaenys and baby Aegon. He had killed baby Aegon by bashing his head against the wall, and then while still covered in the gore from her children had proceeded to viciously rape Elia, after which he killed her. It was high time for his brother to be punished.

He sat up straight abandoning all pretence of not wanting their company and encouraged Stark to unfold his plan. It was genius. The only drawback being that he wouldn’t be the one to finish his shitass brother off. ‘
‘Well, that’s for the best really’, he mused, ‘ wouldn’t want to be called “a kinslayer” for the rest of my life. At least they promised me I still get to rough him up and tell that sadistic prick to his face that his little brother has finally come for him.’

 

Sandor had needed no further persuading. He was on board. He would help them meet his brother somewhere in Fleabottom. Together they would lure him into a secluded spot somewhere close to the docks by dangling the promise of very young fresh whores in front of him. There they would ply him with drugs. That part of the plan would be a piece of cake. His dumb fool of a brother would never see it coming. The hardest part would be to get the big heavy cunt on board of the ship they had commissioned without alerting anyone. It seemed the three men had taken all kind of precautions to keep the little birds and other spies out of the loop.

Sandor was no dumbass. He had an inkling something was up. ‘But hey, anyone who hated his brother and wanted him dead was his no enemy of his.’ He would keep his eyes and ears open. See if he could learn whether these three were planning other things. He should try to find out what motivated these three. Ser Oswell Whent’s collaboration he could get. But a Stark leading this mission and tagging another Northern lord along with him was suspicious to say the least. These certainly were interesting times.

His thoughts circled back to the mission at hand. He couldn’t wait to see the look on his brother’s face when he realized that he would be shipped of to Dorne. Hells he couldn’t wait to hear how Dorne would make the son of a bitch suffer.

Chapter Text

Winterfell, a year earlier.

The morning light streamed through the windows of their bedroom. Ned tried to get up without disturbing his wife. Gods knew she needed her sleep. She looked tired all the time, even this morning after a full night’s sleep she still had dark circles under her eyes. The tented covers clearly showed the shape of her body, heavy with their second child. He stumbled around the room to gather his clothes so he could leave and go dress himself in his own chambers.

He was almost ready and sat back down on his own bed to put his boots on. A small smile ghosted over his face. He had hardly used his own room for sleeping since they had arrived at Winterfell as husband and wife. Even during the days of her moonblood they slept side by side, occasionally indulging in other ways of satisfying each other.
He knew he had subtly manipulated her at the beginning. He had played on her sense of duty to ease her into life in the North, into her role as Lady of Winterfell, into her role as his lover. And he had succeeded. In the safe environment of their private chambers slowly but surely a loving wife had emerged.

Once they were left alone for the night, she let down her mask of proud, stern lady of his household and a passionate lover appeared. Even better, she became his rock. Not only had he found the willing body he had craved for since his own had become aware of the allure of women, he had also found an intelligent adviser and a trusted, caring partner to organize his keep and to raise his child with. Soon the right term would be children. Yes, his marriage had turned out all right.

Well at least mostly. Sometimes Ned had to use his autocratic tone of Warden of the North and put his foot down, mainly when it concerned Robb. Catelyn was rather overprotective. She was upset by each bruise he obtained while playing outside with the servant's children. She had been strongly against Ned’s order to start his riding lessons or his formal fight training at what she called ‘such a tender age’. If he would let her have her way, Robb would always be neatly dressed up as a little lord, hardly allowed to move, always being kept closely by her side. The only thing she approved of was his lessons with Maester Luwin.

Their last big fight had been just a few days ago. It had started out innocent enough.
They were discussing the lesson plan that Maester Luwin had drafted for their son’s education. His wife had been seated with her feet propped up on a footstool, leaning into him, the both of them installed on the large coach in her sitting room. The blazing hearth made the scene even cosier.

“Calculus, reading lessons, writing lessons, the great houses of Westeros, geography”, she paused looking up from the list into Ned’s eyes. “Quite an impressive list for such a young child”, she remarked. “And there is still more, let me continue: key words of the Old Tongue, High Valerian”, she stopped once more.”
“High Valerian, Ned?” Whatever will he need that for?”

“Well Cat, as you know someday ‘Winter is coming’. So to state one reason: for the North to survive, we will need to increase our trade agreements with Essos. It is always better to understand your counterpart during negotiations. It is even better when they are not aware of it. It has helped me several times in the past not to mention how my younger brother has been able to get himself out of a few scrapes in Essos. One time especially when he could overhear two men discussing how they were going to rob him as soon as he had retired for the night. They had clearly recognized him as a traveller of some means who was staying at the tavern. They didn’t quite speak High Valerian, but he could make out enough words from the dialect they were using to foil their plans.”

“Anyhow, I have always thought that gathering knowledge is not only about its practical usefulness. It is a way to train the mind, to get a broader understanding of the world in its entirety, a way of developing yourself.” He paused and smiled indulgently at her. “I’m sorry. I am getting carried away. Please read on, what’s next on this list?”

“I’m almost at the end. Maester Luwin suggests that we would perhaps want to teach him about the Gods ourselves.” Catelyn looked thoughtful and proposed:
“Well luckily you have built a little Sept at my request. I can start to take him with me a few times a week and tell him all about the Seven-Pointed Star. Soon he will be able to pray alongside me.” She kept her expression neutral but held her breath waiting for Ned’s reaction.

Ned frowned, tilted his head at her and was visibly searching for the right words.
“Catelyn“, he started, trying to stay calm and speak slowly in order to make her hear every single word he would speak to her, “Robb is a son of the North. One day, if all goes well, he will be the most powerful man in this Kingdom. His men must be loyal to him, respect him, understand him, must be able to see him as a true Northerner, as one of them.” He kept his eyes firmly locked on hers. “We Northerners, and that includes me rather prominently make no mistake, we believe that the only Gods who have any power here in our beloved North are the old Gods. Your so called new Gods are the Gods of the Andals. As you know we are no Andals. We are of the First Men and proud to be so. “

Although he saw Catelyn grow tense and noticed the colour rise in her check he continued his discourse.
“Robb will grow up with the Old Gods, pray in the Godswood, he will be married there as well. It is very likely he will marry a lady from a prominent Northern house. You can teach him about the Seven so he can understand the ways of the other Kingdoms but it will never be his religion.”

Catelyn had withdrawn herself as far as the couch would allow. Although her eyes were teary, there was a hint of steel in them when she countered.
“He is my son too, Ned. I will not let him grow up as a savage. My family will never understand. They will not respect him. It was difficult enough that I had to marry…”. She was stopped by the thunderous expression on her husband’s face as he interrupted her.

“Don’t you dare finish that sentence, wife!” he yelled seeing he would not succeed in his plan to gently ease her into agreeing to adhere to his point of view. He imposed his authority on her.
“I am your Lord and husband, woman. You will obey me in this. This is no discussion. I am telling you, Robb will worship the old Gods.” His last sentence was uttered with a significant pause between each word to further emphasize his edict.
After finishing his diatribe he stood up and left the room abruptly not giving her any chance to object.

Two days of stony silence had ensued. Well, it hadn’t helped that this particular topic had come up precisely when she was in the last stages of her pregnancy.
Maester Luwin had tried to act as a peacemaker. He had patiently explained to his Lord that pregnant woman could be a bit irrational at times. Since Ned hadn’t been present during her first pregnancy he hadn’t witnessed the mood swings that had plagued her then, the Maester had added. He had also reassured Ned that although Catelyn kept to her bedroom and wouldn’t see him, her health was fine and her pregnancy was posing no problems.
What Maester Luwin had used as arguments to soften Catelyn’s attitude toward her husband, he knew not.

In the end they had found a kind of fragile compromise, although Ned wouldn’t dare to tell his wife that he considered it a victory. Robb would grow up with the Old Gods. However, if they had any daughters in the future, they would be instructed in both religions and would be able to make their own mind up once they were old enough to decide for themselves.

Slowly the atmosphere at Winterfell ameliorated and their interactions grew affectionate once more.

Fortunately for him, she would deliver in a few days and he wouldn’t have an irrational pregnant wife any longer. He decided to go to the Godswood and pray for a safe delivery and a healthy child.

The Godswood was peaceful as always. Ned loved it here. This was the place where he could get his thoughts together and focus on his problems. He had learned to tackle his issues one at a time. It was often the only way to stay sane. He would mentally picture his mind as this storage space with lots of tiny separate boxes. Then he would proceed to put every problem in a separate box. That way he could mentally take out the most pressing issue and no matter how complicated it had seemed before, with his entire mind focussed on this one difficulty, he was able to come to an acceptable solution most of the time. Then he could open another ‘box’ and concentrate on the next issue.

And the Gods knew he had his fair share of burdens. As if having become Warden of the North without being groomed for it wasn’t enough of a burden onto itself, he was also responsible for the wellbeing of the largest of the seven Kingdoms, a kingdom with the harshest environment of all. It was not easy to keep his people fed and out of trouble. The Northern Lords were a proud and stubborn lot. The only reason he was able to keep them in line was because of their unwavering loyalty to House Stark.

The Starks had ruled the North for thousands of years, first as the Kings of Winter and for the last three hundred years or so as Wardens of the North and faithful subjects of the Targaryen Dynasty. The Rebellion had changed this status quo. Well, not for long, if Ned had anything to say.

For the moment Robert Baratheon was King of the Seven Kingdoms. Once Robert had been his best friend, he had even been closer to Robert than to his elder brother Brandon. Ned and Robert had grown up together for a few years, both being fostered at the Vale under the care of Jon Arryn. They were thick as thieves then and got in all kinds of trouble together but would always stand up for each other. Either they both got away with it or they were both punished. How times had changed.

Somehow his life had taken an unexpected turn. For some reason the Gods had made him the main instigator of a conspiracy to overthrow Robert’s rule. ‘Ironic really’, he thought. ‘I am a Stark, famous for the Stark honour. Robert will never see it coming.’
Ned kneeled in front of the hear tree. ‘Why me?” he implored the Gods. “Why did you Gods put this burden on my shoulders?”
The Gods remained eerily silent. Nevertheless, Ned felt his mind calm down.
He could focus once more. Ned knew his course was set. He knew he was doing the right thing. There was no doubt. The envisioned endgame was the only true course!

Besides Robert could only blame himself for loosing Ned’s support. Robert had doomed his rule himself. And that only minutes after claiming the throne.
Ned still had a hard time believing his erstwhile friend capable of relishing in the brutal murder of innocent children. Robert had waved aside Ned’s protestations and refused to consider retaliations for the monsters who had taken it upon themselves to murder these children and their mother before Ned and Robert could reach the throne room.

No, Robert had done even worse. He had thanked them and raised their status. The Mountain became a trusted knight and Tywin Lannister became father in law to the King. Robert had married Cersei Lannister and much of the Lannister gold with it. Ned had left the capital, disgusted, disillusioned and disappointed. He had evaded King Robert’s invitations ever since, stating his office of Warden of the North as an excuse.

He told himself to stop reminiscing. The only thing he wished for was for someone to reassure him that the way they were trying to achieve their goal was the best one. Someone who could confirm that the plans they were devising were the best way to prevent as much bloodshed as possible when the time was upon them.

At least it helped some that he could talk these things through with Catelyn now. At first he had kept everything from Catelyn, only Maester Luwin and Benjen knowing of the existence of Jon.
But gradually Catelyn had become more a Stark than a Tully. She was fiercely loyal to her new family here in the north. And slowly Ned had begun to trust his wife with more delicate matters. And then one night when he had been deeply troubled over a report from the Driftmark, Lyanna’s secret poured out of him. At first Catelyn had had trouble believing that Lyanna wasn’t kidnapped and raped, but had willingly eloped with the married crown prince. But as Ned started to elaborate she had taken it all in in stride. Well, at least since she had learned of the annulment and the second marriage. She had relented once she had realized Jon was a trueborn prince.

Of course she always insisted on taking every precaution possible for the safety of their family but she had become a soundboard. He could test his theories on her, gauge her reaction and work from there. Catelyn had become a co-conspirator. ‘At least when it is not a religious issue’, he chuckled.

Ned bowed his head and prayed once more to receive guidance from the Gods.
Feeling lighter he went back inside and entered his solar, determined to start to work on the next steps now that his mind was calmer. He seated himself behind his desk.
‘How best to go forward? I must contact Howland and see if he knows of another couple at the Driftmark who can take Jon in, should Edric Velaryon succumb to his illness. I would like to go myself this time and see the boy but I cannot be missed here at the moment. Perhaps it is also better no to risk it yet. Better to send Benjen on official business to Greywater Watch. And I must send for …’

“My Lord”, the handmaid of Lady Catelyn stumbled in his solar unannounced interrupting his solitary reflections. She seemed out of breath and Ned knew immediately something was the matter with his wife.
“Catelyn?” he asked standing abruptly already on his way to the door.
“Her waters have broken, My Lord. Your child will be born soon! But you can not go to her now, My Lord!” She blocked the doorway. “Best stay here and let the women handle this.”
She looked a bit anxious realizing she had just given orders to her Lord. “If you don’t mind me saying so, that is. I will inform you as soon as there is more news to relay, My Lord.”

Ned sat down again and nodded. The handmaid left immediately. A few minutes later he quit the room in search of company. It served no purpose staying in his solar. He wasn’t able to concentrate any longer.
***

In the great hall, Benjen and Rodrik Cassel, his master at arms, were trying to keep Lord Stark calm. Benjen was a bit out of his depth here but showed his solidarity by his continuing presence. Cassel offered more substantial help. He had successfully stopped Ned’s pacing. He had gotten him to sit down and had provided ale for the three of them. Then he had tried to distract Ned with some amusing anecdotes of previous child births in his family. Of course he stuck to the more positive aspects and talked mostly of the adorable antics of the babies.

After what seemed like days of waiting to Ned but actually it only had been a few hours, the handmaid arrived with a small bundle in her hands.
“Congratulations my Lord, you have a daughter.”

Ned couldn’t stop the smile from spreading over his face. “And my wife”, he enquired, “Is she all right? How soon can she receive company?”
“She is resting now my Lord. The birth was not all that difficult but still it asks a lot of a woman’s body. I will let you know when she awakes.”
She carefully handed the tiny girl over to her father.

Ned was awed. The first time he had seen Robb, the boy had already been several moons old. His new daughter however was tiny. Robb had been a giant compared to her. She almost disappeared inside his arms. He had to readjust her in order to be able to see the little face and did so with trepidation. She looked so frail. However the baby hardly reacted to his manhandling. She was lovely to behold. There were already tusks of red hair visible on her little head. Benjen and Rodrik both strained to catch a peek of her.

“Congratulations big brother. I predict she will be a beauty when she grows up. In a few years, you will have to use all your cunning to keep the suitors at bay. Not to mention all the ravens you will receive from the great houses petitioning for marriage alliances.” Benjen grinned at his brother. “Better you than me.”
His face turned more serious. “I am glad Catelyn is ok though.”

“Me too, brother, without a doubt, me too.” Ned still beamed, his eyes never wavering from his daughter’s face. It had taken him some time to get Catelyn with child again. Robb would be celebrating his fourth name day in a few days. Catelyn had suffered a miscarriage two year ago, so this little one was truly very welcome. He focussed on the bundle in his arms again, starting to feel a suspicious moist sensation on his forearm. He decided to walk towards the nursery in search of female assistance. In the corridor he motioned a guard to come closer and instructed him to go and fetch Robb. “Tell my son to come in and clean himself up. Then he should report to the nursery”, he ordered the guard whose eyes were drawn to the little bundle in his Lord’s arms.
“Of course, My Lord. I will send the little Lord up straight away. And congratulations My Lord!”, the guard said deferentially tearing his eyes away from the sight of the cute baby and hurried in the direction of the courtyard.

Ned resumed his trip to the nursery. He looked forward to introducing his son and daughter to each other.

***

The next day Lord Start summoned Maester Luwin to his solar. He felt on top of things again. It was time to throw himself back into his duties.

“Good morning Maester, I need you to prepare messages to the Lords of the North.” Ned started the conversation before the Maester could close the door. “We can announce the birth of my daughter but use the opportunity to add extra info in the scrolls. I want to arrange a meeting. It’s high time we reconvene to check on the different stages of our reinforcement efforts and plan for the next steps. In the message destined for Ironrath ask Gregor Forrester whether he is prepared to host the meeting this time. Do not forget to ask Lord Manderly to send a messenger out to contact Lord Reed at Greywater Watch immediately. Reed should at least send a representative to our meeting if he cannot come himself.”

“I will get right on to it, my Lord.”, Luwin bowed and started to leave the room before reconsidering. “I presume we will send out messages to the Red Keep and The Vale as well? The message to the Tullys has already been sent as requested.”

“Yes send a message to the Vale but only with the news that I have a daughter and she and my wife are healthy. As for a message to King Robert, I don’t know.” Ned frowned, his good mood having all but left him.
“I suppose it can not be helped.” Ned sighed. “I only fear it will result in another invitation to come to Kingslanding. I am running out of excuses to turn King Robert down with, so as not to cause a permanent rift. I worry that if I keep refusing his invitations, one day the King will turn up at Winterfell without notice.”

Ned went over to the window and looked down at his son who was playing outside with some wooden toys, not a care in the world. He addressed Maester Luwin once more. “Yes, do send out a raven to the Red Keep but keep it formal and as brief as possible. Best send out ravens to a representative of each of the Kingdoms as well. You know, The Martells, The Tyrells, Renly and Stannis Baratheon, … You know better than me. It is not necessary to send one to Pyke. Thank you Maester.”

Robb was still playing in the courtyard but had spotted his father. He smiled at his father waving with great enthusiasm. Ned waved back and turned away from the window, his spirits lifting once more. ‘Time to tackle the agenda for the coming meeting and I must not forget to look in on my wife and daughter.’ Ned sat back down at his desk and started to study the drawings of the harbour expansions.

 

Interlude3: Summerhall

Somewhere in the Stormlands.

“Gods it was hot”. Years living on an island where there was always at least a refreshing breeze had made him forget how much heat a blistering sun could generate in the middle of the day this far inland, this far south. Ser Arthur mopped his brow for what seemed like the thousandth time. He was alone, but somehow that was a nice change. For once he didn’t bare the responsibility for someone’s life, for the life of someone of humongous importance.

Four years ago at the Tower of Joy the three of them had unanimously decided to withdraw from public life in the Seven Kingdoms and to dedicate themselves solely to protect the new-born King and help him reclaim his throne when he was old enough to stake his claim. They had been prepared to do anything necessary, even ally themselves with the Starks. It had been a calculated gamble. Ser Gerold had been steadfast in his belief that for Eddard Stark family meant everything. ‘Wolves protected their pack at all cost. And the baby is his family’, Gerold had argued.

And he had been right. Hells, Lord Stark had instantly hurried to the far south of the Seven Kingdoms upon receipt of a vague anonymous message the three of them had decided to send him, revealing the area where his sister could be found. It had been easy for Ser Gerold to covertly approach him and unite him with Lyanna. Ser Gerold still relished in narrating every detail of how he had confronted Lord Stark that night.

Lord Stark and Howland Reed hadn’t recognised Ser Gerold Hightower at first. Well it was dark and he had disguised himself. But still, afterwards Lord Stark had told Ser Arthur he still couldn’t fathom why he hadn’t known straight away who had accosted him that night near the stables of that inn in Dorne. Upon learning that Ser Gerold could guide them to his sister who was very ill, but that discretion was paramount, Ned Stark and Howland Reed had agreed to follow him to the Tower of Joy forthwith without alerting the rest of their travelling party who where resting at the inn unaware they had been temporarily abandoned by there liege lord.

It had been a heartbreaking scene that greeted Ser Arthur when he had left his post and had set foot in the room a few minutes after granting entrance to the two Northerners. Ned Stark was sitting on his knees next to her bed. A feverish Lyanna although hardly conscious seemed to recognize her brother. She had taken his hand and had beseeched him with her last few breaths to protect her new-born son. Ned had been devastated and bewildered. His eyes had found the wet nurse who stood in the corner with a small baby in her hands and was sobbing quietly. Then he saw the blood staining the furs. Unable to utter a single word, he had desperately held her small hands in his and had silently nodded to his sister so she would understand he promised to do as she requested.

It seemed that Lyanna had successfully staved off death until she could see her son safely cared for by family. Her last words were spoken so softly that Ned had to lean over and put his ear to her mouth to be able to hear them: “His name is Aegon, Aegon Targaryn”. And Lyanna had released her last breath.

 

Ser Arthur still recalled the heated debate that ensued later in a room at ground level before reaching a consensus everybody could live with.
Lord Stark had been adamant. The boy belonged with him. He would bring him to Winterfell and proclaim him his son. He would forsake his honour and admit he had betrayed his wife and sired a bastard during the war. His nephew would grow up alongside his true children. Aegon wouldn’t want for anything.

The three Kingsguard had been appalled. Their King growing up with the stigma of a bastard hanging over his head, unacceptable! Furthermore, they could not let him go anywhere without them. They were sworn to protect him. And if they followed him to Winterfell anyone who had a lick of sense would immediately put two and two together. Aegon and everyone who had helped hide him would be in mortal danger. King Robert’s hate for Targaryens was outrageous.

They seemed at an impasse. Several possibilities were suggested and rejected out of hand, the free cities with the other Targaryens being one of them. But all of a sudden, Howland Reed who had stayed out of the discussion until then had offered a possible solution. After some tweaking, a plan was agreed upon and the rest was history. Howland Reed had accompanied them on their journey to the Driftmark. Ned Stark had reluctantly left his nephew in their hands and had returned to the inn. The next morning he would pick up Lyanna’s body with his entire entourage and bring his sister back to Winterfell to be buried in the crypts of her ancestral home.

And in one fell swoop, Ser Arthur’s life had changed immeasurably. One day he was a famous Kingsguard, acclaimed to be the best swordsman in the Seven Kingsdoms bearing the honourable title of “Sword of the Morning”, the next day he was forced to live under an assumed name disguised as a modest war veteran on a small island trying to keep a low profile not daring to reach out to his family who were mourning his loss.

Almost five years he had been living like that now, first in the Driftmark and recently at Greywater Watch in the Neck. But Ser Arthur didn’t regret the choices they had made that fateful day. Quite the opposite really. He had come to love the little boy-King and was convinced that he could become an excellent ruler with the right guidance. The boy had his heart in the right place, could already reign in his temper most of the time and showed intelligence beyond his years. Yes, he was prepared to make any sacrifice necessary to do right by his true King.

Ser Arthur’s stopped his reminiscing. He had arrived. The ruins of Summerhall were before him.

‘Let’s see if Lord Reed is right about this and I haven’t come all this way on a wild goose chase.’
Another benefit of allying themselves with the North had been the strange premonitions of Lord Reed. He called himself a ‘greenseer’. Ser Arthur wasn’t at all sure he understood entirely what that entailed, but he knew that Lord Reed had been instrumental in thwarting the little birds and spies until now. His warnings had helped them escape detection on several occasions.
‘Well let’s hope his so-called vision of the eggs also proves true.’ Ser Arthur was sent on this mission solo since discretion was of the utmost importance. Lord Reed had dreamt that the three dragon eggs were still somewhere at Summerhall. He had explained that in his dreams he had seen the eggs lying somewhere in a kind of cave beneath the ruins. He had even claimed that at the time of the dream he had felt a premonition that the eggs were somehow destined for Aegon.

‘It could make sense that the eggs are still here. I know of rumours that the fired that destroyed Summerhall had been caused by an attempt to hatch the dragon eggs. Perhaps the floor collapsed and the eggs disappeared beneath it? Nobody lived to tell the tale.’ Arthur pondered.
He entered the ruins ready to start his search.

He had been searching for a day an a half and had been over every nook and cranny of these damn caves twice. He was about to give up when suddenly a ray of sunlight shone through a crack in the cave wall and showed him the way to an alcove he had missed when he had inspected that corner twice before. Ser Arthur felt a sense of calm enveloping him. It suddenly felt as if the Gods were guiding him, that he was meant to succeed in this quest. And lo and behold, there they were. He kneeled in front of the alcove and marvelled at the sight before him. Three eggs sparkled in the sunlight. Each one was unique in its own beauty. One egg was a blend of shades of green, the middle one was silvery and the last one was a shiny black.

Ser Arthur remained kneeling in front of the eggs for quite some time. He couldn’t believe it. How had these eggs not been discovered before? They were probably some of the most important artefacts in the Seven Kingdoms.
Finally he emerged from his stupor and very delicately removed the eggs from their hiding place. Now the only thing he needed to do was to get them safely to Greywater Watch without anyone finding out where he had been and what he was he carrying.
‘A piece of cake compared to what I’ve faced before, at least I hope it will be.’

Chapter Text

Greywater Watch, Lord Reed’s solar

Lord Reed watched them enter his solar one by one: Benjen, Ser Arthur, Ser Gerold, Lord Manderly, and Ned Stark. Ned was the last one to sit down. Howland could clearly see the contentment on Ned’s face. Ned had spent the day with Jon, taking in every part of his nephew’s daily schedule and had closely observed the boy’s interactions with his teachers, the servants and the visitors. To Howland it had been obvious. Lord Stark had not only been evaluating the progress of Jon’s education, he had also been trying to make out Jon’s character and determining his social skills. Apparently he was more than satisfied with the outcome.

The chairs were arranged in a small circle. It was done deliberately to encourage all participants to take an active part in the meeting. The servants quickly provided everyone with refreshments and closed the doors. Lord Reed as their host at Greywater Watch would direct the meeting.
“Let’s begin, shall we?” Howland opened the meeting. “We have a lot to discuss. We will follow Lord’s Stark’s agenda for this meeting. First up is the situation in the North. Lord Stark, can you elaborate, please?”

Ned nodded his head. He turned to the two Kingsguards who were seated next to each other. “First I want to ask if I can count on you two to bring Ser Oswell up to speed? I consider it vital he also knows the status of things and agrees with any action we will decide upon during these meetings. Can you please relay to him that he can voice his opinion on anything he deems necessary? Also please task him to be present at the final meeting that will take place in two days’ time, perhaps Ser Arthur can take on guard duties then?” He looked questioningly at each of them.

Ser Gerold spoke up, “That goes without saying Lord Stark. We have no secrets between the three of us and Ser Oswell is assertive enough to find a way to voice his grievances should he have any.”
Ser Arthur smiled at the speech of his Lord Commander and nodded his assent as well. “We will arrange it so”, he confirmed his willingness to take over guard duty from Oswell when the final meeting would take place.

Ned started his report. “First there is the shoring up of the Northern defences. All important strongholds have implemented our instructions. The larger project of rebuilding Moat Cailin and man it is almost halfway completed. Shortly we will be able to seal off that entrance to the North effectively should the Crown declare war on us. At the moment over five hundred men are camped out there, a mixture of builders, other craftsman and soldiers. We are in the process of recruiting smallfolk willing to settle there and farm the lands around the stronghold. We expect the first families to arrive in a few moons.”

“Our eastern and western coastlines have also upped their defences. Another item we can cross of our list. We have paid extra attention to the west coast, as discussed. Although hopefully, now that the Greyjoys are soundly defeated, there will be a significant decrease in raiding partings from the Ironborn.”
“The first shipments of glass have arrived from Essos and we will begin expanding our glass gardens to grow more food. As we discussed at previous meetings, it is necessary to prepare for the possibility that we could be cut off from the South for a period of time once make we make our play.
Should anyone need any more details about this, don’t hesitate to ask me, either now or later.” Eddard Stark paused for a bit looking around but since no one spoke up he resumed his account.

“I have been able to keep our real motive hidden from the Northern Lords so far, present company excepted of course.” He smiled and Howland saw him direct a look at Lord Manderly and then Ned looked straight at him. Ned resumed is monologue. “But it has not been easy and it won’t be long before we will have to review our decision to keep it from them for another few years.”

“I know secrecy is necessary to keep Jon safe, but we must also consider that the Lords of the North could be offended to have been kept out of the loop for so long and it could compromise their support for our cause.” Ned was not done explaining his point of view. “It is not the first time that I have told you all that although they are completely loyal to me, it is not a given that they will follow me blindly in supporting a half Stark half Targaryen boy’s claim to the Iron Throne, especially if it could lead to calling the banners and possible bloodshed. But let’s table this topic for our next meeting. Let us first focus on easier topics.”

Lord Howland took up his role as moderator.
“Next up is the status of the Wildling situation at the Wall. I believe Benjen Stark is best placed to inform us of the newest developments.” Howland turned to the younger Stark brother and gestured him to take the floor.

Benjen straightened himself. He mimicked his brother’s serious tone of voice and gave an account of his last visit at the wall.
“Jeor Mormont expressed his thanks once more for our ongoing support. He relays the gratefulness of some old recruits who can tell the difference between the past compared to the last ten years. It has been a long time since The Night’s Watch has had enough financial resources and recruits coming in regularly for such a long stretch of time. ”

“They have enough funds to renovate Castle Black and make a few of the long deserted castles along the Wall habitable once more. The steady influx of recruits has reached the point that they have enough men to split their forces between more watch points. Also, during my last visit I experienced first hand that the quality of the food and drink has improved considerably. The ale they served me even tasted like ale. The men visibly dress better and look cleaner now.” Benjen’s discourse lightened the mood visibly since smiles appeared for the first time since the meeting had started.

“However scouts keep reporting large Wildling tribes migrating from the higher North to settlements closer to the wall. Mormont is monitoring the situation closely. A little bit over two moons ago a party of twelve Wildlings made it across the wall and created a lot of havoc before they were halted. I can assure you, it takes a lot of balls to climb an ice structure of 700 feet tall. I can’t fathom that stealing a few pieces of cattle and harassing our people is enough of a motivation to endanger your life like that. It raises questions.”

“I suggested sending someone beyond the wall to infiltrate the Wildings and live among them for a time to find out whatever motivates this significant change in their behaviour. However, the Lord Commander rejected my idea. He argued that it is too dangerous and that the situation is not dire enough to order a valuable ranger into such a life threatening situation.”
Benjen took a breath and looked at his brother. “A good argument, I must admit. Besides, he is the one calling the shots at the wall. We can only offer our support?”

“He’s right.” His brother offered. “The Wildlings beyond the Wall are the responsibility of the Night’s Watch. However”, his voice took on authority. “If the Lord Commander cannot keep them contained and they reach our lands then it is our North and my people that will be in danger. The people of the North are my responsibility. And if the Wildlings continue to successfully scale the Wall, I will be obligated to interfere and Jeor Mormont will have to relent and coordinate with us.” He looked at everyone present to gauge their reaction and continued.

“That’s why I propose to keep up the regular visits of my brother, Benjen Stark to the Night’s Watch. We need to keep a close eye on this. Besides we require access to Maester Aemon. He has already been instrumental in providing guidance to Jon and we will need his counsel even more in the future. Maester Aemon still keeps some ‘Targaryen secrets’ he will only divulge to a Targaryen in person. But that’s a topic for another time.” He deflected.

“If you can all agree that this is the only immediate action we can take and find it sufficient for the time being, we can move on to the next topic, namely the building of a naval fleet to support our future king.”

“Lord Manderly?” Howland directed everyone's attention to the Northern Lord who had been silent so far. “Can you give a status report, please?“

Lord Manderly seemed to grow in size. He cleared his throat and looked around making sure he had everyone’s attention.
“As you all know, the future royal fleet is being built at separate locations to avoid detection. At White Harbour a hundred new ships are ready and twenty more are under construction. Our most pressing problem is finding adequate crewmen. The North has never had much of a fleet and sailing is not in our blood. So any input you have to solve this issue is welcome. But first let me tell you what has been happening at the other locations.”

“The Skagosi have also been busy. That small community has almost finished building fifty ships. Bear Island, as predicted was most adamant to help as well. They have already twenty ships to lend to our cause, and five more under construction. Word from Riverrun told me that they support the North by donating fifty ships, complete with crew. We will only have to bear the cost of their wages. I guess we have to thank Lady Catelyn for her influence here.” Lord Manderly smiled at his liege Lord. “There is however the practical problem of getting them moved from Seagard past the Ironborn.”

Ser Gerold held up his hand. “If I may speak?” Lord Manderly paused and gestured him to continue.
“It would be a strategic advantage to have some ships at that particular coastline. We will need to defend that part of the Seven Kingdoms as well. The Ironborn are still a threat. Not on a large scale but their guerrilla styled attacks can create enough of a nuisance. I would suggest to take command of them but to use them on location, at least for the time being. It is still unclear how our forces will have to be deployed when our King stakes his claim. It will also help persuade the smallfolk when it is revealed that the True King has been protecting their shores for some time and that he already cares for all his potential subjects.
Perhaps we can agree to leave them there for the time being and revisit this discussion when it is more pertinent?”

Lord Manderly took over once more. “I think we can agree on that for now.”
Since everyone kept silent he continued. “Let me just finish my status report. At the Driftmark another small fleet is under construction. If all goes right, by the end of the year they will have 50 ships including crew, all bought and paid for by Lord Stark’s mysterious war fund. Combined we will have almost three hundred ships at the end of the year. Not a small feat to accomplish in the North.” He smiled proudly. “Should we need more vessels in the future, I think we should consider buying some in Essos. We could keep them docked over there until we need them, so as not to arouse too much suspicion. For the time being the ships are kept in secluded parts of the harbours. As far has I have been able to ascertain, no questions are being raised and in the North, the smallfolk’s only reaction is gratefulness that there are an abundance of paid jobs for everyone. If there is talk about the new ships in the taverns, it is only to comment on how the new ships surely are going to be necessary to trade with the Reach and Essos once the seasons turn, because winter is coming.” He smiled at Lord Stark.

This time is was Ser Arthur who raised his hand. Lord Manderly made an encouraging gesture.
“I think I have a suggestion for your lack of seamen. We could recruit on Dragonstone. I know for a fact that there are a lot of ex sailors now living as smallfolk on that island unhappy with their current circumstances and would be glad to be able to take up their old profession, even more so once they eventually learn they will be sailing under the flag with the three headed dragon once more. But you cannot send one of us. We would be recognized immediately. We should send someone else.” Ser Arthur finished.

Lord Stark looked over to Howland Reed and seeing him nod took over again. “Thank you Ser Arthur. That is an excellent suggestion. It also happens to bring us to the next point of our agenda: manpower. I think we ought to consider expanding our little circle. We are stretched too thin as it is and there is still a lot to be accomplished. We are not yet halfway through the items that need to be discussed and I am certain more actions will be decided upon over the next few days that will require one of us to take an active part.”

“I know that we need to tread carefully and I know that I am the one who is always arguing that it is unfair to have more people know of our future King’s secret while he himself has no inkling of who he is.
However it cannot be helped, we need more helping hands. And there are things we can’t ask of people without giving proper motivation. The best example is sitting here right in front of us.” Lord Stark pointed at Lord Manderly. “I couldn’t possibly have made him Master of three hundred ships without explaining our purpose.”

“Everyone will have to be vetted and we will try to move forward only when we are unanimous in our decision. I’m going to list some candidates and you can take your time deciding. We do not need to reach a consensus today. And if you would have other suggestions, you can bring them up during one of our next meetings here.” Ned coughed. All that talking was made him thirsty. He sipped from his ale before starting his enumeration.

“First I propose we consider bringing Ser Davos Seaworth into the fold. If you recall, he was the captain on the ship who initially brought Jon from Dorne to the Driftmark nine years ago. He is a wise and loyal man. His wife is related to Lord Reed’s wife. If we can persuade him to join us, he will be a great asset in recruiting the right persons to man our boats. Furthermore his smuggling skills can come in handy. I think I can safely say Lord Reed will vouch for him as well.”
Everyone looked at Lord Reed who nodded his head to signal his assent.

“Next, I think we could buy the services of Sandor Clegane.” Ned paused because he saw startled looks all around. “Please let me explain my motivations.” He pleaded.
“We need someone with his skills. I know he seems like a rough uncouth guy. He is also a seasoned fighter not afraid to kill if necessary, but one with his heart in the right place and fiercely protective of the weak. I think he can be persuaded to help the younger half brother of the two murdered royal children. He is one of the only ones who openly dares to object when the subject is discussed, a fact which endears him to me for obvious reasons. I am confident that with the right approach we can get him to swear himself to our cause. And once he is into the fold, we will have his unwavering loyalty. That’s the kind of man he really is. Think on that as well.”

“My third candidate is Ser Barristan Selmy. This however will require an even subtler approach. If he knew that Rhaegar’s son lived, he would want to protect him. However, he would need to break his current oath in order to do just that. He will be at a loss how to get himself out of his predicament in an honourable way and I fear he will not be able to reach a satisfying solution on his own. Here I would like your input.” Eddard Stark looked over to Ser Gerold and Ser Arthur. “You know him better than me. My suggestion would be to ease him into it. He would not need to leave Robert Baratheon’s service immediately. He could be our eyes and ears in Kingslanding at first. That way he would need not to do any direct harm to the Baratheon reign. Just bring us some information. Do you think one of you could get him to agree on that?”

Ser Arthur was deep in thought. He looked over to Ser Gerold and suggested hesitantly. “I would start with cryptic messages waking his conscience. Then one of us could meet him incognito in a tavern he frequents in Fleabottom. We can then gauge his reaction to knowing one of us is alive for a few days to see whether he will betray that information to the small council. It will give us a clue on how best to proceed next.
My guess is”, Ser Arthur exchanged another look with Ser Gerold before reiterating, “My guess is, he will need some time to really come to terms with his situation. He will lament that he was the one being stuck on the Trident and will feel remorse about his decision to swear his oath to King Robert on the spot. But in the end I am confident that he will decide to support Rhaegar’s son.” Ser Arthur and Ser Gerold were of one mind it seemed. Howland saw them exchange reassuring glances.

Lord Reed interrupted. “Lord Stark, have you considered Varys as a possible spy for us in Kingslanding? I have told you before that my premonitions seem to favour that. They tell me the argument of Jon being a better ruler for the realm, a protector of the weak would get him on board. This could free up Ser Barristan. He could disappear from Kingslanding and either join us or travel to Essos to coordinate Daenerys Targaryen’s protection. The man would be a vast deal happier.”

Lord Stark seemed to mull this over. The others also did not know if they were willing to trust Varys yet.
Lord Reed broke the stalemate. “Let’s table this for one of our last meetings this week. Just consider it a possibility.” He addressed Lord Stark. “You had more candidates?”

Ned looked relieved the subject was dropped and he could finish his own list of candidates.
“Lastly”, he spoke up, “This will be my strangest suggestion yet. We could try to contact Oberyn Martell.”

Everyone looked at Lord Stark not believing their ears. Even Howland had not seen this coming.
“Are you serious Lord Stark?” He was the first one to find his speech. The others were still staring at the Warden of the North, their mouths wide open.
“Jon is living proof of Rhaegar casting aside Elia, a reminder of the insult to their house. I thought our scheme to hand the Mountain over to them and to neutralise Tywin Lannister was to buy their neutrality in the possible coming conflict, but to reveal them our secret? That’s taking an unacceptable risk!” He exclaimed, still a bit chafed that his own suggestion had not been welcomed although they knew his premonitions had always steered them in the right direction.

The others looked uneasy but Lord Stark was not perturbed.
“I am not talking of bringing Dorne into our scheme. I am talking of the Red Viper. We all know he is a rebel at heart and a free spirit as far as he can get away with it. I speculate that he will love being in on something this huge and keep it a secret from Prince Doran. I also know he hates the passive approach Doran Martell always chooses. Prince Oberyn loves to act, to bring things in motion. My guess is, he will relish the opportunity to show his brother that being impetuous can at times harvest great results. Of course, we will only allow him to inform Doran Martell when everything is about to be brought out in the open.”
“As for his possible animosity towards a child of Rhaegal with Lyanna, I trust in Jon to solve that problem. He will charm Oberyn within five minutes of meeting him. The Red Viper will not know what hit him. Besides I also put my trust in the fact that he is a sucker for lost causes. To aid another possible victim of the King that condoned butchering his kin, could have some appeal to him. Jon can’t help who his mother is and he would have been a half brother to Oberyn’s niece and nephew.”

He took a deep breath before continuing.
“Benjen has been informing us during previous meetings how much Prince Oberyn has been travelling these last few years as well. Dorne desperately wants to now what happened to Tywin Lannister and they still don’t know who sent them the Mountain. Well perhaps they are starting to suspect the North but they are still none the wiser as to why. I think Prince Oberyn will be glad to finally get a clue and will be amenable to keep things from his brother for now. Still, I suggest we try to get him to visit either here or at the Driftmark when Jon is visiting there.”

Lord Stark paused seemingly having found a new idea and was considering it for a moment. Then he resumed. “The Driftmark will arouse less suspicion. Perhaps plan for an extended stay there. The Celtigar widow will be glad to see her alleged grandchild once more.”
Ned quickly glanced at the two knights before addressing the next question to them. “What do you think about organising a visit to the Driftmark for Jon? Benjen could accompany you as well.” He didn’t pause to let them to respond however.

“Let’s arrange an accidental meeting between Prince Oberyn and Jon. Let the boy work his magic. When he has charmed the Prince, someone can start throwing bones at the Red Viper, subtle at first and scrutinize his reaction. Before we tell him anything vital we will ask for his word of honour. If we still have doubts, we can wait a few moons to see if he tells anyone. Only if we deem his behaviour satisfying enough, we can proceed with our plan to reveal more. At least this is my suggestion.”

Lord Manderly silently asked permission and spoke up. “We all know Prince Oberyn is fiercely loyal to Dorne. Dorne is hardly a part of the Seven Kingdoms. Why would he pick our side over Dorne?”

“We wouldn’t ask him to.” Eddard Stark immediately retorted. “We would guarantee him a political status quo for Dorne.”

Now it was Ser Gerold who made a gesture to interfere.
“Are we entitled to make promises of such political importance? Isn’t that for our King to decide? Shouldn’t we try and postpone such negotiations until he can be part of them? He should have a chance to make or refuse the commitment himself!” Ser Gerold was really passionate about this.

Now Benjen Starke spoke up.
“He has a point there brother. Well, I would propose to let us sleep on it and we will discuss this further when we all have had time to weigh all the pros and cons. You’ve had the opportunity to think on this for moons.” He hesitantly smiled at his brother, a silent excuse for not choosing his side immediately. “Give us at least a little time to do the same.” He pleaded.

Howland saw everyone agreeing with Benjen Stark and Ned slumping back into his chair, thoughtfully sipping his ale. Howland decided to intervene.

“Perhaps it is time to take a short break and get some fresh air. What do you say? We could reconvene here in an hour?”

That suggestion was met with enthusiasm and everyone moved outdoors.

***

Howland Reed had followed Lord Stark who had been walking some distance before he reached a secluded spot. A fallen tree provided a suitable opportunity to sit down in a dry spot. The two of them sat down leaving enough space between them to comfortable seat two.
“How are the children, Ned?” Howland asked looking sideways at Ned starting a topic that would hopefully get him to relax.

 

“They’re all fine and getting along. Robb likes to train more than to study. But then he is a boy.” Ned smiled, images of his children popping up in his mind. “Sansa is a miniature little lady. Only five and she copies everything Cat does. She makes this perfect little bow when she greets people. I already told you she used to playact that she’s a mother to Arya instead of using a doll? Well, lately Arya has started to rebel against that. Mind you, she’s just turned three. I look at Arya and I am reminded of Lyanna. That little girl is the first of my children that has the Stark look. Now that I come to think of it, she looks a lot like Jon. They both resemble Lyanna. Sometimes it makes me feel melancholic to watch one of my youngest daughter’s antics. “

Howland saw Ned make an effort to regroup. He once more tried to redirect Ned’s thoughts. “And your youngest, Brandon you called him if I recall correctly?”
That put the smile firmly back on Ned’s face. “He’s doing great! He’s growing up so fast. He is already taller than Arya though she is a year older than him. His wet nurse complains that she needs eyes on her back to keep him safe. He is constantly climbing on things. He’s very inventive. He climbs on a chair, moves onto the table and then scales even higher to some shelves that are positioned at a dangerous height for a two year old, simply to reach for something that has caught his eye. He has already had some close calls but is seemingly too young to understand us when we forbid him to do it again. Either that or he won’t listen. “

Howland saw Ned shifting his focus to him. “Never mind my children, how are yours? Meera must be six by now and Jojen, I guess he must be three?”
“That’s right. They are doing fine as well. I think Meera has a little girl’s crush on Jon. It is so cute to see her trying to get his attention at meals or in between lessons. Jojen on the other hand is a dreamer and can be found by himself more often than in company, which is strange in one so young. But I suppose each child has its own personality and we parents need to find the best way to direct them towards a valiant path in life.”

Howland saw Ned nod in response.
Ned contemplated, “I have four children every one of them is unique. I guess if the Gods are willing to grant me another, it will turn out to be substantially different from his siblings as well.”
“Do you think it is about time to head back inside?” Howland inquired suddenly conscious that they had been outside for some time now. “Look at us, two proud fathers loosing track of time bragging about our children’s exploits. Our women should see us now.” Howland chuckled.

“I think is time, yes. Let’s head that way and we’ll surely encounter the others. But before we do, I would like to arrange a small meeting, just Benjen you and me. Perhaps we could break our fast tomorrow in private? I would like your input on some things I would rather not discuss in our entire group before I am clearer on my own take on them. I even want to ask you when or even if we should bring these topics in the open anyway or whether it is better to keep them in the dark, going against our initial intentions of keeping everyone up to date.”

Howland was sure he had a good idea of what it was that Ned was struggling with. “Of course Ned, I will arrange it. You just need to inform your brother.”
Howland and Ned walked in companionable silence towards the castle.

***

Some time later back in the solar.

“You have all seen that Jon is making big strides in his swords play.” Howland Reed was discussing Jon now.

“Indeed”, Ser Arthur took over from him, “Jon knows the basic moves well enough. Although he often complains he hardly ever has a ‘real’ adversary and is mostly swinging in the air or hacking at straw puppets. But taking all this time to teach him the basics is clearly paying off. I can state with absolute certainty that he will have a strong stance and in time will be able to move on instinct so he can concentrate entirely on his opponent in a real fight. As far as you can say this of a ten year old, in my opinion Jon has the potential to be more than a decent sword fighter. He is light on his feet and shows an aptitude to guess the next move of his opponent. I am more than satisfied with his progress so far. I think our little King will amaze us in later years.”

“I think we can all agree on that, having seen him train this morning.” Lord Stark uttered. Howland saw nods all around.
“Any other aspects of his education that need to be discussed today? As far as I can tell he is doing well on all topics, the Maester finds him a most diligent pupil. He shows interest in politics, and already picks up on the nuances of the intricate relationships between the houses. He is also impressed at his fluency in High Valerian. It was a good idea to raise him in both languages as soon as he learned to speak. The Celtigars did right by him. Another visit there would benefit the community at the Driftmark as well. They will all be glad to see him again.”

Ser Gerold was the one who answered. “We’ll discuss the logistics of such a trip between the three of us. But it could be done I suppose. I would suggest travelling in larger company just to be safe. And Jon will want to bring his dog along as well.” Howland, Eddard and Benjen shared meaningful looks at that last statement.

“I would conclude that his education is going better than expected and see no need to discuss this further at this point in time. “ Howland Reed tried to move the meeting along. He was getting tired.

We still need to discuss how to handle the other Kingdoms. And how to check in on Viserys and Daenerys in the free cities, make sure that they have enough funds and are safe for now.
Let’s start with the Reach, shall we? If it gets too late we can postpone the rest until we reconvene tomorrow late afternoon.”
Ser Manderly started to discuss his contacts in that area and he meeting continued for another hour.

***

 

Breakfast was a large assortment consisting mostly of bread and vegetables. ‘These crannogmen take their connection to nature really to all levels of their life.’ Benjen scanned the various choices trying to make a selection. The others were already seated at the table of a secluded chamber in the eastern corner of the keep. The morning sun partly successful in breaking through the light fog hanging over the swamps, made the small space look more inviting.

“Well Ned”, Howland was allowed to be more informal with Lord Stark while in private. They had been through so much together already and were intimate friends rather than Liege Lord and vassal. “Let’s hear it. What did you want to discuss this morning.”

Ned turned towards him with a serious look in his eyes.
“Several decisions I am struggling with actually. I’ve been over them with Benjen a few times but we do not think entirely alike on them.
“Let’s start with the easier one. Benjen suggests fostering Robb for a few moons, perhaps a year at Greywater Watch with Jon. Let’s say after Jon's visit to the Driftmark. He thinks it would be a good idea to create a close bond between the two of them.” He looked over to Benjen.

“A friendship between the two of them would secure good relations between a re-established Dynasty and the North. Sort of what was the case with King Robert and Ned in previous years, before they were at odds.” Benjen offered as further explanation.

“As far as King Robert and the rest of the Seven Kingdoms are concerned. We have reconciled.” Ned intervened. “Everyone saw us fight sight by sight during the Greyjoy Rebellion. I have even promised him not to wait too long this time to visit him in Kingslanding. Things get more convoluted all the time. I am not proud of my actions toward Robert.” Ned sighed

Benjen thought it wise to get the conversation back on track.
“Of course, if you and your wife are amenable to taking on the care of another boy for a small period of time.” he added politely addressing Lord Reed.

“I agree on all counts.” Howland smiled. I would love to get to know Robb better and I’m sure my wife, Meera, Jojen and last but not least Jon will be elated to have such a nice addition to our little family for a while. I also agree it is vital to develop a sound relationship between the future King and the future Warden of the North.
“What else is on your mind, Ned? I do not want to pressure you but our time this morning is limited.” Howland knew the most difficult topic still had to be raised.

“Well”, Ned seemed unsure how to phrase his next concern.

Benjen interrupted. “It’s about the magic, warging, dragons. But most of all we disagree on the fact of keeping Jon in the dark. Maester Aemon and I have discussed this. We are of a mind that Jon needs to know at the latest beginning next year. If we want to have a chance to use the dragons in the conflict, they need to have time to grow in order to be of use. And more importantly Maester Aemon is adamant that the younger Jon is when he bonds with them, the better chance he will have to control them. But we can’t let him hatch dragons if he doesn’t know what he is.”
Benjen was determined to defend his point of view. Hiss brother had tried too long to keep him silent on this subject but he deemed Howland Reed a worthy ally in this endeavour. He was a greenseer. He was not as wary of magic as Ned was.

“But what if the eggs are just what they seem to be? What if they are just three beautiful stones?” Ned argued. “Then we will have told Jon much too soon and he will be deprived of his youth. You know him. He will not take this lightly. He will start brooding and he is much too young for all of this.” Ned pleaded.

“I humbly disagree.” Howland stated. “He has us to guide him. We will help him carry this burden. He will not be alone. And he will have time to grow into his role. What do you propose to do? Say hey Jon you are the rightful King, now claim your throne tomorrow.” Howland wasn’t mincing his words. “We have no right to take his birthright away from him. Controlling Dragons is in his blood. If we hinder this, he will probably hatch them himself when he comes of age. If he learns that he cannot develop his bond with them sufficiently enough to keep them in line, it won’t be long before he knows we are to blame for this. Do not forget, in a few years we will be subservient to him, and I mean this literally.

“Besides, if Maester Aemon tells true, we will know whether there is a possibility to hatch the eggs. He has informed us that we just need to let Jon hold them. His reaction will leave us no doubt. If he is destined to hatch the eggs, he will experience something. Maester Aemon didn’t want to get into the particulars with us, this being one of the “for Targaryen eyes only things’ a phrase he uses too often to my liking.” Benjen said with a frustrating sigh.

“What’s keeping us from just letting Jon admire three beautiful stones and get him to hold them between his hands? We could try that and wait to say how it plays out.” Howland intervened.

“Well for one, the eggs are at the Wall for now.” Ned stalled.

“Maester Aemon won’t live forever.” Benjen countered.

He had another arrow left to point at his brother. “You were against that warging business as well. Look how that has turned out. He is in total control of several smaller animals already but doesn’t mistreat them and has never been caught using this power for the wrong reasons, except for a few small harmless pranks at the beginning.
However I agree with Lord Reed’s suggestion to see how he reacts to ‘three beautiful stones’ and go from there.” He looked over to his brother, his stare unwavering.

“I suppose we could try that.” Ned reluctantly agreed. But I suggest we wait until Robb returns from his stay at Greywater. Jon can come along with us and travel first to Winterfell for a long overdue visit, then travel onwards to the Wall where he can meet Maester Aemon and touch those damn eggs.”
‘That will buy me another year at least. Jon first has to visit the Driftmark and then he will spend almost a year with Rob at Greywater Watch’, Ned reassured himself. ‘He will be a bit older and will hopefully be a bit more mature before we dumb this burden on him.’

Aloud he just said. “In the meanwhile, let us be careful when dealing with Jon. He already suspects we are hiding something from him. He has noticed Jojen isn’t being followed around by a knight every single moment as he is. I sometimes can see him trying to figure it out but not wanting to let on he suspects something so as not to get us to be even more careful about what we say to him.”

“Well there is a positive side to that as well Ned.” Howland tried to ease Ned’s mood. “You only dwell on all the negative sides of a situation. This means Jon has good instincts, even if he trusts us implicitly. He still thinks for himself. He will make a good king.” Benjen nodded enthusiastically.

“Someone has to look at the other angle.” Ned persisted. “But you are right about that though. Jon will be good for the Seven Kingdoms.” A small smile appeared on his face.

 

***

 

Several days later, Howland saw his fellow conspirators leave Greywater Watch in a single line. They had said lengthy goodbyes to Jon in the courtyard earlier. Jon had struggled to keep his emotions in check not wanting to be perceived as a little boy any longer. However he had hugged his uncle Benjen desperately. Benjen had been obliged to carefully separate himself from Jon by grasping his arms and untangling them. After that they had persuaded the boy to stay in the courtyard and to continue his drills with Ser Arthur.

The last figures navigated a curve in their path and disappeared behind the trees. Howland went back inside. Much had been accomplished these last few days. Much more needed to be agreed upon still. He wondered how things would play out in the next few years. He would have to try and use his green dreams to detect any possible harm that their newly cemented decisions could cause. He would focus first on the potential new allies, Ser Davos Seaworth, Sandor Clegane, Ser Barristan Selmy and Prince Oberyn, perhaps also Varys. It would not be the first time that Howland had prevented possible detection by means of his ‘sight’.

 

 

Interlude 4: Little birds

 

The Red Keep, some years into King Robert’s reign

Varys suffered a headache. The small council had been a waste of time once more. What more could you expect from that bunch of sycophants constantly striving for the King’s favour. He could hardly stand Petyr Baelish. How had that conniving whoremonger wormed its way into the small council? He was no more than an insignificant little lord of a nothing patch of land in the Fingers. Not to mention the elderly Grand Maester Pycelle who hardly contributed anything substantial but was always ready to agree with anything the King or Lord Arryn brought forward.
On the agenda featured always more spending: another feast; another acquisition; more renovations to the Red Keep. The King and the Queen seemed to be involved in a struggle to prove who could spend the most in the shortest amount of time.
Only Stannis Baratheon, the Master of Ships, when finally urged out of his silence was known to bring a bit of sense to these ridiculous gatherings. Renly Baratheon, the Master of Laws was more absent than present and Mace Tyrell was just another empty headed puppet only here because the Kingdom needed to obtain the vast food resources of the Reach and to allocate a seat on the council to house Tyrell was the surest way to get an abundance of that as cheap as possible.

Several years into King Robert’s reign and the crown had already spent millions of gold dragons. Gold happily provided by Tywin Lannister until recently. Lord Lannister had been absent for some time now, allegedly taking a trip to do some business in Essos. Littlefinger was charged to find the funds for the upcoming tournament that King Robert wanted to organise yet again. The Master of Coin had just smirked and acquiesced.

The tournament was probably another try to lure Lord Eddard Stark to the capital. Not that it would work of course. King Robert really didn’t know his best friend well. A tournament to most people of the North was just frivolous entertainment, little knights playing at war. The North didn’t knight people. Valour was proven in deeds, not with empty titles. What was more, Varys knew that Eddard Stark even if he would attend, would never participate in the tournament. No matter what prize was dangled in front of the would-be-champions. No, Eddard Stark kept his prowess with his sword close to his chest. He was not keen to give his enemies any insight on how to beat him. But Varys knew better. He was certain that Lord Stark was one of the most underrated warriors of Westeros. King Robert would have to find another way to reconnect with his former foster brother.

Once more Varys mentally went over all the new songs his little birds had sung. It was truly frustrating. Something was stirring in the Seven Kingdoms and Varys couldn’t get a handle on it. Either there were no rumours to explain a disappearance or there were too many conflicting rumours. Varys had started to notice this a year after the Rebellion. Before, he had been able trust the information that reached him, every rumour bore at least some spark of truth and hardly needed verifying. These last few years however there were so many contradictions in the reports, it seemed his spider web was compromised. Moreover, someone was deliberately provoking him. They rubbed his nose in it. They wanted him to know that they recognised his little birds and fed them whatever false information they wanted. They were playing with him, something Baelish would do. But no, he was sure it was not Baelish. His birds reached parts of society that Litllefinger’s whores could never penetrate.

This was the first time in his career as a spymaster that Varys was at a loss. He had tried everything: doubling the number of his minions, never sending his birds to the same place more than twice, nothing helped. Sometimes he suspected some kind of magic to be involved. Something akin to the visions the Lord of Light showed his disciples in the fire?

There were three issues where the sabotage was most prominent, three issues he had yet to resolve.
He had all but given up on the first one. The disappearance almost four years ago of three great knights of Westeros: the Lord Commander of the Kingsguard, Ser Gerold Hightower, the Sword of the Morning, Ser Arthur Dayne and Ser Oswell Whent, member of the Kingsguard. No official report could deny or confirm whether they were at the Trident that fateful day. Their bodies were never found. The greatsword Dawn had disappeared without a trace. A delegation of house Dayne had repeatedly petitioned the King to return the famous sword to their house thinking the King’s forces had confiscated it after the battle. King Robert had ordered Varys to find the sword but after all this time not the slightest whisper had reached his ears. The sword remained lost.

His birds had sung him several possible scenarios with the kind of details that would have you believe each one of them. Varys suspected the truth was not among them.
Varys had his own theory of course. Most likely the three had fled to Essos when all hope was lost and their Prince was floating in the Trident. The smallfolk and most nobles didn’t believe this theory. They couldn’t rhyme such dishonourable behaviour with these white knights. These three former Kingsguards were still revered as heroes in Westeros alongside Ser Barristan Selmy.
Varys however found no dishonour in going into exile to protect the two remaining siblings of Rhaegar in the free cities. If the missing knights were still alive, they would still be loyal to the Targaryens and would show up at the hiding place of the prince and princess at some point. However nobody resembling their description had tried to contact the royal children or their entourage yet. Varys was sure. He had a lot of eyes on them in the free cities but still nothing to show for it.

Varys contemplated the plight of Ser Barristan once more. He often reminisced with the present Lord Commander of the Kingsguard and had concluded that the knight knew nothing of the whereabouts of his three former brothers. He was clearly miserable and not at all happy with the new additions King Robert had appointed to his Kingsguard. Ser Barristan also seemed wary of Jaime Lannister, the so-called kingslayer. No, Ser Barristan was a dead end as far as his investigation into this disappearance was concerned.

The second issue concerned Ser Gregor Clegane. Everybody knew of his trial in Dorne and the barbaric way in which he was finally executed. The entire realm had talked of it for moons on end. Most were secretly glad that he was finally punished. Very few agreed with the brutal killing of the innocent royal children but even fewer had dared to speak up. Now in the taverns of Fleabottom songs could be heard relating the downfall of the “baby slayer”.

Nobody however knew why Ser Gregor Clegane had apparently ventured so close to Dorne. It had been a stupid thing to do. He would surely have known how fiercely the Dornish hated him. Varys wouldn’t shed a tear about Ser Gregor but he would worry about what it all meant. His little birds had brought him too many opposing theories featuring his fate. Varys was sure that someone had made a calculated move. Someone had handed Ser Gregor Clegane to the Dornish in order to get Dorne to owe them a favour. But what or why? Varys was still no closer to solving this riddle? He suspected the North to be involved based on some descriptions of people that had visited Dorne around the time of The Mountain’s trial but couldn’t fathom why. Besides would Ned Stark really be involved in something underhanded?

When the third mystery struck Westeros, Varys had almost lost it. His pride would have been hurt if even one major issue could not be solved. But these were three major happenings that had the potential to influence the game of thrones to the detriment of the current leadership. How was he to explain the absence of Lord Tywin Lannister?

The Warden of the West was a player. He had played the Game of Thrones impeccably until recently. He had power, he was rich, he commanded a large army and curried favour with the King since he all but paid for the King’s expenses single handed and was the King’s good fathers for crying out loud. So to just disappear, it made no sense.
And what really worried Varys was that in this case, he had been played by someone, or some group of persons more likely, even before he had know that Lord Lannister was missing. His little birds had never sung so loud.
Uncountable sources stated that the Warden had gone on a trading mission to Essos and would soon be back. Many others had overheard that he had gone to look for his missing relative Gerion Lannister and had probably also been captured by pirates. A theory as ridiculous as you could think up, but his birds only reported back what they heard, so someone had spread that particular rumour.

A third theory that had popped up in Lannisport was that Tywin had contracted “the old man’s disease” and that his mind was gone. He wouldn’t even recognise his own family any longer and was a virtual prisoner at Casterly Rock since the Lannisters didn’t want the realm to know their blood could be contaminated with this hereditary disease.
Another theory closely resembled the previous one but spoke of the “whore’s disease”.

Then there were the rumours of a kidnapping gone wrong. The kidnappers having supposedly been too rough during their interrogation, it was said that Lord Lannister had died of his wounds before the kidnappers had extracted the necessary information from him to gain entrance to the famed Lannister goldmines. This theory was the most probable in Varys’ eyes. It did make sense to kidnap a very rich guy but such an action should leave some kind of trace of the kidnappers for Varys to unearth?
But no matter what he had tried, not a sliver of proof could be found to give credit to this theory so it was more than likely another false tale. There were a few other theories going around but they were too ridiculous to even start to investigate.
The point of the matter however was that nothing really explained Lord Tywin’s continued absence in Kingslanding.

Strangely enough, it seemed nobody in Kingslanding seemed to worry about that. King Robert had never once asked Varys to investigate where Lord Lannister was. Well perhaps it was not that strange, seeing that King Robert still had enough gold to whore, drink and feast as much as he pleased.
But why was there no reaction from the Lannister Queen or from her brother, the Kingslayer? In the last session of the small council nobody had even mentioned Lord Tywin’s name. Everybody seemed happy without the interfering presence of the power grabbing Warden of the West.

The only Lannister that had taken some action was Tyrion, the imp. But Tyrion played it close to his vest and didn’t confide in the Master of Whisperers. It had been up to Varys’ little birds to find traces of the investigation that Tyrion had mounted on his own behalf. Tyrion suspected something was up but didn’t know what either.

Varys had considered swallowing his pride and try to get information from Petyr Baelish, but in the end he couldn’t humiliate himself, not even as a last resort. Littlefinger probably would have heard only half of the theories that Varys himself had ferreted out with his vast network anyway.

 

Better to focus on other matters for now. There was all that movement in the North, boats, glass houses, Moat Cailin, Benjen Stark’s constant travels for the Night’s Watch.
Then there was Dorne’s restlessness. Oberyn Martell had been poking around Kingslanding a few times and even exchanged information with Varys. Only nothing had come up that had helped shed a light on his most pressing issues.
And last but not least, there was the issue of the new location of the Targaryen children in Essos. If Varys could trust his little birds, the North was involved somehow.

It seemed the North had some vague, unconfirmed connection to all his open issues. No matter how unlikely each theory was separately, Varys didn’t believe in coincidences. He made the mental note to intercept Benjen Stark somehow when the man next visited the capital on official Night’s Watch business. He would also reach out to Prince Oberyn. The Prince had mentioned an encounter with the younger Stark sibling.

Varys would bide his time. Patience was his strong suit. In time his birds would sing the correct songs or he would get his information from other sources, be it Benjen Stark, Oberyn Martell or another idea that would strike him soon. Varys felt a little better and decided to start with tracking Benjen Stark’s movements.

Chapter Text

Greywater Watch

Jon got out of his bed and looked out of the window. After a week with nothing but rain, he could see the sun trying to break through the clouds. He smiled. Today would be a great day. Today would be the first day since his new friend’s arrival that they would be able to venture outside.

 

One day, a few months after Jon’s sixth name day the Warden of the North had arrived for an official visit to house Reed at Greywater watch. The first time Jon saw Lord Eddard Stark, Jon had been training in the yard. His obligatory lesson had been finished but Jon was repeating the moves he had learned. Lord Stark had startled him when he had interrupted Jon’s movements. He had given him some pointers to ameliorate his stance.

Jon had been struck mute by the commanding presence of the man. To him the Lord of Winterfell looked larger than life. However Lord Stark had been patient and kind to Jon. After a few moments Jon had been able to stammer a greeting and a thank you.

This was the start of their strange relationship. The great Lord, whose visit lasted for two sennights that time, would often seek Jon out. He could also be seen talking to Jon’s ever present shadows. After a few days, Jon had shed his shy reluctance and had started to open up.

Jon had found out that Lord Stark was the big brother of his ‘uncle’ Benjen. Did that make him kind of an ‘uncle’ to him as well? Was that why he wants to get to know me? He had wondered about this more than once.

One morning shortly after breaking their fast, Lord Stark had invited Jon for a trip to the Godswood of Greywater Watch. They had walked side by side, both soaking up the peaceful atmosphere of this sacred place. No words had been needed. After a while Lord Stark had invited Jon to sit down against a beautiful weirwood tree and did the same.

“This must be the finest Godswood in the entire realm.” He had said quietly to Jon.
“The Godswood in Winterfell is impressive as well, but here it feels as if the presence of the Old Gods is even stronger. At least that is what I feel deep down.“
He looked over to his nephew. “Benjen told me you worship the Old Gods as well?”

Jon had simply nodded. Lord Stark had stayed silent so Jon felt safe to elaborate.
“Lord Reed is a very inspiring teacher and when uncle Benjen is at Greywater Watch he always asks me to accompany him on his visits to the Godswood. He was the one who showed me how to pray. His Gods have become my Gods. When I am here, I can feel they allow my presence, like they have accepted me although I was born in the South.”
He had looked over to Lord Stark. “Does that make any sense?”

“It actually makes a lot of sense Jon. I am glad to see you have embraced the Old Gods. I hope they can help you as they do me. There is no place like a Godswood to help you clear your mind. Working through your problems is easier when you can focus. I’ve solved many a dilemma during my prayers in the Godswood.”

Jon had been amazed that the Warden of the North had opened up to him like this. It had been the first time that he saw a vulnerable side to the man. Jon had always looked up to this formidable Lord ruling a large Kingdom never imagining he struggled with things as well. He knew uncle Benjen admired him greatly.

“Tell me about your lessons. Can you tell me what your favourite topics are? Are there things you have difficulty with?” he had heard Lord Stark ask.

“I’m learning all kind of things. Most of them I like. I greatly enjoyed learning the names of the great houses of the Crownlands, their sigils, their words, customs and their alliances. I loved to boast to the Maester how I could recite them all by heart. But then he came up with more. He makes me learn about all the big and minor houses of the entire realm and the Stepstones until I think my head will burst.” Jon had realised he had been whining and had tried to change his tone.

“I think I am good with languages. I adore my physical education although I would like to learn to fight for real. I would prefer to spend more time on that instead of being stuck inside for another lesson with the Maester. He can be boring.”

“Lessons can not help but be boring sometimes. But you should remind yourself that they are necessary. Knowledge is power, you know. I am still learning new things every day, mostly through experience now, which is a lot less tedious but I am learning all the same.

Facts that seem dull to you now, may come in handy later for instance during trade negotiations or settling disputes. I sometimes have to negotiate marriage alliances for the sons and daughters of my bannermen and am grateful for every detail I know about their history. Knowledge also helps me in keeping the North prosper and the people well-fed.” Lord Stark had smiled at the boy.
“I hope I am not the one who is boring you now?”

Jon had blushed. “No my Lord, I am grateful for your advice. “

In reality he had soaked up every word. As of that moment he had a new resolution. He would make the most of the education and opportunities he was offered. He realised that, although life seemingly had dealt him a bad card when you considered the fact that he had been orphaned only days after he was born, he had been really lucky to have been assigned such a great support system.

That grateful feeling had diminished a bit however when Lord Stark had told him about his son and daughters, Jon had grown quiet.
Six year old Jon had been sad to see Lord Eddard Stark leave.

‘Well it had taken more than four years for Lord Eddard Stark to send Robb to him’, Jon thought a little aggrieved. ‘He could have sent him sooner. ‘

 

****

 

The two ten year olds had hit it off immediately and had become inseparable from the very first day.
Being almost the same age, they challenged each other. Robb was adequately versed in his knowledge of the great houses of Westeros. Jon however could boast a better grasp of foreign languages.

Robb had been surprised that Jon was even being taught the old tongue of the North. Very few people of the North even knew that language still existed. And when Jon started to speak fluently in High Valyrian, Robb had had to admit he only knew a few words. Later, in the bedroom they shared, Jon had shyly related that he could write that language as well stating as proof the letters he wrote once a moon to a Maester of the Night’s Watch who was more competent to correct them than his teacher at Greywater Watch.

Robb being the elder by two moons often played this as his trump card during games.
‘The elder must always start’, being one of his examples. Robb clearly had more experience playing children’s game and used all kind of tricks Jon had not known were possible to evade Jon when playing tag.

However when Robb used his ‘I’m the eldest’ card during their indoor lessens, he wasn’t as successful. Jon smiled thinking back on a hilarious mistake Robb had made yesterday during a geography lesson. Jon could teach Robb a thing our two about geography if he wanted. Robb either didn’t have a good teacher at Winterfell or hadn’t payed enough attention. Jon suspected the latter, since his new friend seemed intelligent enough.

 

Robb told him plenty about his home, Winterfell. Jon had heard about the castle before of course, mostly from ‘uncle’ Benjen. However Robb told about Winterfell from the point of view of a young boy and Jon was riveted by his stories.

“You know, they all call me My Lord. Even if they are at least three times as old as me. Some even bow, although it will be ages before I will ever become their Lord. The servants almost trip over themselves to be the one who can open the door for me, or be best placed to serve me my food. Even the Lords of the North always go out of their way to be amiable. “

Robb had smiled at Jon. “And all the while I am trying not to show how intimidated I am by them when they are presenting their cases when father is absent.”

“You’re hearing their cases?” Jon’s eyes had asked wide eyed.

“Well, they only bring the small issues forth when father is not there. Also Master Luwin and mother flank me and I hardly have to say a word. Like I said, I try not to piss my pants.”
Both of them had giggled.

Robb had entertained Jon with tales of his siblings, how different Arya and Sansa were, how he was glad that his youngest sibling had been a boy although it would be a long time before they could spar together, but that he looked forward to teach him all he knew once this brother was old enough.
He had also described the snow and the difference of the Godswood here compared to the one at Winterfell. Robb seemed not to mind answering Jon’s never ending questions.

Jon did envy Robb. Not only was Robb’s father someone important that Jon knew well, he was a real nephew of Jon’s ‘uncle’ Benjen, and not an adopted one as Jon claimed himself to be. Robb also had two sisters, a little brother and a mother. Robb’s mother had lived through four childbeds already. Jon’s mother however … Jon redirected his thoughts. No use dwelling on this, better enjoy the change of weather. He started to dress himself with clothes fit to play and spar outside.

Jon couldn’t help returning to his previous line of thought and compare his life to Robb’s once more. Greywater Watch was the only home Jon really knew and Lord Reed was like a father to him. He treated Jon kindly, always made time at the end of the evening meal to discuss his day with him. Several lessons were giving by Lord Reed personally. But he wasn’t family, not really.

Lord Reed’s daughter, well she was a girl and when she was in his company she demanded his attention constantly and Jon indulged her but her little girl’s games were not his cup of tea and his schedule didn’t allow for much interaction with the girl anyway.
Her brother, Jojen was only five and a rather passive child. Jon preferred the outdoors, Jojen on the other hand preferred to stay indoors doing… Actually Jon didn’t really know what the boy did all day. He practically only saw him at meals.

'I am not entitled to be ungrateful’, Jon reprimanded himself, ‘I have a good life here, even if it sometimes can feel a bit lonely. Besides my three shadows can be entertaining company if I get them to loosen up and I mustn’t forget Max.’

 

***

 

In the courtyard where they would shortly start their first real sparring session, the boys were putting on their armour that consisted out of pieces of boiled leather awkwardly fitted to match their size. Due to a spell of bad weather, they had been limited to indoor physical exercises that enhanced muscular strength and endurance. They had noticed they had been taught different drills in the past. Robb had shown Jon some typical Northern fighting moves which looked a bit rough to Jon but he could see how they could help generate power in a fighter’s strikes. Jon guessed their fighting styles would be rather different as well and couldn’t wait to spar with Robb if they were allowed. He really hoped so!

“Be glad it is Ser Oswell today”, Jon informed Robb, “Ser Arthur would surely take your sword away and correct your stance for at least half an hour.”

“There is nothing wrong with my stance.” Robb replied offended.
“I didn’t say there was.” Jon tried to soften his statement. “It is just the way Ser Arthur is. You will come to understand what I mean. Do not say I haven’t warned you. Ser Arthur is a perfectionist.”

***

“Ready boys?” Ser Oswell had been able to enter the courtyard unnoticed, the boys clearly enjoying each other’s company. He smiled when he saw them startle. ‘It will be good for my King to have a boy his own age to keep him company for a change.’ He thought. ‘Robb seems like a nice boy.’
He changed his facial expression trying to mimic a strict teacher’s face.

“Well, where are your training swords, no use lingering, let’s see what you can do.”
He addressed his King’s cousin. “Robb, you first. I will charge at your right side a few times and then swing at your left. Let me see how well you defend.”

Out of the corner of his eyes, Ser Oswell noticed Jon was studying Robb’s movements keenly taking in every reaction to Ser Oswell’s attacks. He was proud of his King. His observations would help him since Robb was taught a completely different fighting style.

Jon moved more during fights, often deflecting strikes totally or meeting the thrusts when they were losing momentum. He also knew how to use an opponent’s power against him making him lose balance. Jon had learned to be patient and wait for an opening.
Robb on the other hand liked to meet his opponent’s strikes head on throwing his body weight forward. Almost on every strike the boy tried to turn defence into attack.

“Your turn, Jon.”

Ser Oswell had gone easy on Robb, but still the boy was sweating profusely and needed a rest.
“You need to conserve your energy in a fight Robb. Rest up while I’ll give Jon his warming up session. You will want to be rested when you face him next.”

Ser Oswell now started the same exercises with Jon but making subtle changes in his angles not striking the same places over and over as he had done with Robb. ‘We taught our King well’, he couldn’t help think to himself. ‘Well it would be a shame if a Kingsguard wouldn’t be a better teacher than a simple northern master at arms, but I am glad to see it confirmed all the same.’

“Take a five minute break. Be sure to drink some water and then I want you to face each other. Now dismissed.” Ser Oswell addressed the two boys.

He was really enjoying himself. He knew Ser Gerold was watching the entire training session from a window. For certain Ser Arthur would be very disappointed that he wasn’t here to witness the first time their protégé took on a trained opponent his own age and see with his own eyes how their combined efforts over the years had made him already substantially superior to his peers.

The boys were eager to end their break and face each other. They both took their starting position before Ser Oswell had to order them to. However they obediently waited for him to signal the start of the fight.

Even though Jon had paid close attention during Robb’s earlier bout with Ser Oswell, the knight saw Jon was taken aback when the boy came at him at full strength with his very first strike. Jon almost tripped and could only deflect the strike in the nick of time. He quickly adjusted his stance and successfully countered Robb’s next attacks, often just evading them. Robb clearly frustrated by this but still overconfident after the success of his first big strike, overextended a swing and Jon had his opening. His sword point firmly fixed in Robb’s armpit he called out. “Yield”.

He saw Robb’s look of surprise. It was clear the boy never had been defeated in less than two minutes by someone his own age. His King noble as ever tried to soften the blow.

“Let’s try again, I simply got lucky.” And both boys resumed their starting positions.

“Robb, you don't need to force all your strength into it to get what you want. How much strength you use often doesn't matter as much as where you hit. Focus on your opponent, find his weakness.” Ser Oswell encouraged Robb.

Robb nodded, a determined look on his face.

This time they circled each other for a bit. Robb clearly having decided to let Jon make the first move this time. Jon executed a certain combination of strikes that Ser Arthur had taught him a moon ago. He had made Jon repeat them at least a hundred times until his muscles were unable to lift a sword only to have to repeat them again the next day.

The knight saw Robb having trouble with the speed of his opponent’s moves. Ser Oswell immediately noticed the moment Jon decided to hold back. The boy clearly didn’t want to humble his new friend too much. He saw that his King wouldn’t let his friend win, but he made a valiant effort to lengthen the fight. Jon had made slight adjustments to his initial battle plan and let Robb get some strikes in without being too obvious.

Ser Oswell forced himself to quit studying Jon and switched his attention to Robb trying to decide which advice would have the most immediate effect. It wouldn’t do to change his northern fighting style that relied mostly on strength, but he could give Robb a few pointers so the boy knew how avoid giving too many openings to his opponent and he could certainly give him tips on how to conserve energy.

 

***

 

Both boys were seated on a bench in the corner of the courtyard. Training was over and they were both exhausted and sweaty.

Robb looked at Jon. “You weren’t kidding when you said they like to drill you to the point of breaking, or when you told me how they make you repeat the same moves over and over again. I don’t think I have ever been this weary.”

He studied the younger boy closely and continued.
“You’re lucky with such a teacher, and you say you have three? I thought you were too skinny to hurt me much, but the speed with which you swing your weapon is amazing. I hope they can teach me how to do that.”

“Do you realise I have never ever lost to another boy in less than five minutes at Winterfell? Not even to Theon Greyjoy and he is more than a year older than me! I always believed I was good at swordplay.” Robb tried his best not to be a sore loser.

“You are a good fighter Robb. I just fight a little different than you do. You first have to get to know how an opponent fights and then figure out how to beat him. You will do better in a few days. Besides, you will have the benefit of my teachers for a few moons and when you return to Winterfell you can soundly beat this Theon Greyjoy, perhaps even in under five minutes.” Jon teasingly nudged Robb’s shoulder.
“Who is he by the way? You haven’t mentioned him before.

“Theon Greyjoy is a boy who is a year older than us. He will live with us at Winterfell for a few years. He arrived a few moons ago. My father had to take him in on King Robert’s orders. His family was defeated in the Greyjoy Rebellion and he stays with us so his father will not attack again.” Robb explained

“So he is an Ironborn, a kraken?” Jon’s eyes were wide as saucers now. “Is he civilized enough to live with you? I was taught the Ironborn live the ‘Old Way’ and only use things they stole.”

“Yes he is a Greyjoy, the only son left of that family.” Robb sighed. “Father told us to give him a chance. He said we could teach him our ways. He will not be allowed to steal anything and we will provide him with clothes and other things. But he boasts all of the time. Tells us all kind of things he has already done, even with girls!”

Jon looked at Robb a brief shock on his face but stayed silent so Robb would tell him more.

“He challenges me at every opportunity. I’ve already been punished several times for going along with one of his crazy plans. I even believed father had decided to send me to Greywater Watch as some kind of punishment but now I think I got that wrong.” He smiled at Jon.
“Being here seems more like a reward to me.”
He shifted bit closer to Jon. “I really like you.”

Jon blushed and shyly returned Robb’s smile. “I really like you too Robb. You’re my best friend even“, he paused and added looking a bit impish “if you are my only friend that is not an adult.”
A comfortable silence ensued.

 

“You know”, Robb started talking again.
“I overheard Lord Reed talking to the Maester. They were discussing when exactly I would return to Winterfell, but do you know what they said after that?” Robb finished mysteriously. He couldn’t wait to tell Jon but liked the bit of suspense he was creating.

“You have to go back earlier than planned?” Jon looked deflated.

“No! If anything I am staying longer! But they were talking about you coming along to Winterfell. Father invited you Jon!” Robb's enthusiasm was contagious.

Jon lightened up and studied Robb to see whether he was serious.
“Really? I get to see Winterfell, are you sure? Meet your brother and your sisters?”
Jon paused then he raised his voice even more. “Will uncle Benjen be there?”

Robb grinned. “Of course I am sure. It was not a suggestion. They were talking logistics. What to take, who would accompany you.” He considered something and resumed looking more serious now.
“You know you are right. You are never allowed to go anywhere alone. Not here and certainly not to Winterfell.”
Robb looked significantly to Ser Gerold who was sitting in the opposite corner of the courtyard trying not to listen in but still keeping an eye on the boys all the same.

“I know”, Jon answered quietly,
“Sometimes I make up stories. For instance I imagine that I am some rich orphan from an Essossi Noble House living in exile in Westeros and they have to keep me safe from assassins.”

“Kind of like the two Targaryens living in the free cities?” Robb asked.

“Kind of, but the other way around, I guess.” Jon agreed. “Besides”, his voice had dropped to a whisper, “Can you keep a secret?”
Robb nodded, he was intrigued by Jon’s demeanour.

Jon whispered insistently. “I mean not tell anyone, not even your parents, not your siblings, certainly not the Kraken. It is important Robb. You have to solemnly promise me before I divulge anything.”

Robb with a serious but sincere look on his face spoke up “I will vow on my Stark honour and swear by to old Gods not to reveal anything you do not want me to.”

Jon smiled at the unconditional oath of his friend.
“I have a dog.” Jon started his story.

Robb looked confused. “So have I, several actually.”

“I’ve not finished”, Jon replied. “I hope you will believe me. So I have this dog, I named him Max. Well Max and I are sort of bonded.”

Robb frowned “Bonded?”

“Bonded.” Jon affirmed. “I can see through his eyes, I can even tell him what to do.”

“My dog loves me as well and obeys my commands.” Robb replied. What do you mean though when you say you can see through his eyes?”

“Well, I can see what he sees. Max is near the kitchen now. Shall I tell him to go inside and see what’s for dinner?”

“That’s no proof.” Robb retorted. “Someone could have told you what we’re going to eat tonight.”

Jon pondered the issue.
“Well, I can ask him to come over here and threaten to piss on your pants? Don’t worry. He will only lift his leg and do nothing more but bark and start licking your boots.”

“That’s also a command a dog can learn.” Now Robb was deep in thought trying to come up with an impossible assignment.

“Could you ask him to go to our bedroom? I know we left the door open this morning. Make him retrieve my blue pants? They should still be lying on top of my bed furs. If he can bring them here without you getting up from this bench, then I will believe you. Are you sure he is near the kitchen Jon?”

“I’m positive. Now let me concentrate.” Jon turned sideways so Robb couldn’t see his eyes and didn’t move for several minutes.
Suddenly a dog could be seen sprinting toward them, something blue in his mouth.”

Ser Gerold studied Jon sternly. “Jon, come over here for a second.” He ordered.
Jon obeyed leaving Max with Robb so they could get to know each other.

“Did you just do what I think you did?” Ser Gerold lifted his brow and stared accusingly at Jon.

“I did Ser.” Jon looked a bit intimidated.

“I discussed it with Lord Reed since Robb will be living here for some moons and I will still have to perform my daily mental exercises. Lord Reed decided it was better to tell him ourselves than to let him find out without us knowing. This way I could tell him up front how important it was that he would tell no one about it. Besides, Lord Reed said you can trust a Stark when you make him promise. And I did just that. Robb even swore upon his Stark honour.”
Jon looked a little smug now.

“You could have given me a heads up.” Ser Gerold grumbled.
“Well I guess I should be grateful you didn’t prove it by letting him wet my boots.”

Jon grinned, all tension between them resolved.
“You know, I almost did,” he teased and then ran away before the knight could retaliate.

When Jon returned to the bench where Robb was still playing with Max, Robb stated quietly.
“I believe you and you can rest assured, I will tell no one. It is amazing though. Can you explain this some more later this evening in our bedroom before we go to sleep? I bet there is a story here.”

Jon looked relieved at the easy acceptance of this proof of his ‘weirdness’.
“I’ll try to answer your questions. I don’t know if I would call it a story.”

Robb seemed satisfied with this answer. Suddenly he jumped up from the bench.
“Come on Jon”, he said out loud.
“Let’s go inside and write a message to uncle Benjen. We’ll write him that you’re invited to Winterfell sometime in the future. I’m sure he’ll do his best to be there. We can’t leave it to chance!”

“Great idea Robb, let’s go!”

Jon put his arm over Robb shoulder and the two boys headed toward the castle. Ser Gerold smiled and got up to follow them. It was nice to see his King this carefree.

 

 

Interlude 5: How Dany met Jon

Future glimpse

Daenerys was very happy, anxious, nervous perhaps, but very happy. A messenger had just come from the docks. His ship had arrived. Soon Aegon would be here. She would finally get to meet him in person. She called her Septa to join her in the sitting room and instructed the servants to prepare refreshments.

 

Daenerys was a princess, an exiled princess. She was born on Dragonstone in Westeros but had been whisked away by Targaryen loyalists when her family lost the Iron Throne during the Rebellion. Since then she had lived in Pentos hiding from the Baratheons, the house that now ruled the Seven Kingdoms.

Her earliest memories were of a modest house in Pentos with a red door. She and her brother had lived there with two protectors and a Septa, called Moelle. The latter had become more of a companion and teacher than a religious guide. Daenerys had learned of the Seven from her but was not really impressed by these so-called Gods.
Life had been boring, money had been short and Ser Darry their main protector had been half blind and ailing.

But then Daenerys could clearly remember when things had changed for the better. First Ser Darry had started to get regular visitors. Then they had moved to a large mansion with strong walls and an iron gate. Guards and servants had been hired. Daenerys had received new gowns and some toys. When Ser Darry died, his replacement had already been there for more than a year. Ser Jorah Mormont was now the head of her guard. He became a trusted advisor and often told her about the Northern Kingdom where he was born.

Daenerys would have been very happy if her brother hadn’t gotten ill. Viserys was six years older than her and constantly talking about moving back to Westeros. He had told her stories about the Rebellion and the ‘usurper’ as he called the current King of the Seven Kingdoms. He had told them to her over and over again. The stories had gotten more fanatical with every rendition. But then there came time her brother had been delirious constantly.

One day she had found him in the middle of burning his hand with a candle. He had raved like a madman about dragons and burning and they had had to give him milk of the poppy to get him to calm down and treat his burns. Ever since then his mental health had deteriorated.

The Maester had been obligated to keep him sedated the entire time. Each attempt to wean him of the medication and let him wake up had resulted in Viserys raving like a madman and burning himself. He seemed obsessed with fire. This went on for many moons until one day, his body had been too weakened by the constant drugging and inactivity and his heart had given out.

Daenerys could remember that day as if it was yesterday. She was truly alone in the world now. She had been depressed for some time but then the letter had come.
Daenerys had been twelve at the time. The letter had been addressed to her written by a boy who was twelve as well and who claimed to be her family. He told her that she was not alone in the world. He was her nephew and she also had an elderly relative living at the wall, a Maester Aemon Targaryen. There was a letter included from him as well.

The first letter was brought by a trusted messenger. Aegon had included an extra sheet that described a kind of code they could use to hide the real content of their future letters. Since he knew she was fluent in High Valyrian, he had devised a code they would use to encrypt their letters.

They would always combine two sentences. Write the first sentence in High Valyrian, the second sentence in the common Tongue. Then they would alter each word writing it backwards, for example ‘word’ became ‘drow’. The next step was mixing the first and the second sentences combining them into one sentence, keeping the words in the right order, alternating words from each sentence: the first word of the first sentence, the first word of the second sentence, then the second word of the first sentence, and so on. Daenerys thought it was a brilliant idea and she had fun coding her correspondence like that.

Ever since then messages were exchanged regularly between the two of them. Occasionally she would also receive a letter from Maester Aemon. Daenerys learned that Aegon lived incognito in Westeros under an alias ‘Jon Celtigar’. He was born Aegon Targaryen son of her brother Rhaegar and Lyanna Stark. The Starks were not ‘usurpers’ bent on destroying Targaryens.

Viserys had been wrong. Only King Baratheon and the Lannisters were looking for her and would kill her if they got the chance. Luckily they didn’t know that Aegon existed yet. Aegon was half Targaryen and half Stark and the Starks were instrumental in keeping him safe. She learned that the people who protected Aegon were also the ones that had been sending money here. They had always kept a close eye on her and Viserys. All the servants and guards that had joined them after her fifth nameday had been organised by them. Aegon had claimed his entourage had thwarted several attempts on her life, but had reassured her that they were confident she was safe for the time being.

If she still had had any doubt that he really was who he claimed to be, she was convinced when he started telling her about his two dragons. He even claimed to be in possession of another dragon egg and hoped that maybe it was destined for her. He had told her how he had felt straight away that two of the eggs were meant for him.

What he had felt exactly or how he had successfully hatched the dragon eggs he wouldn’t put into writing, not even in code. He would tell her only if she needed the information. She prayed the third egg would respond to her but mostly she prayed for Aegon to stay safe until they could meet. She would be patient. For the fist time since the death of her brother she had felt a sense of belonging again. She was not the last Targaryen.

Gradually the tone of the letters changed, Aegon sounded more confident no longer a boy, but a man. What he told her were no longer vague ideas. Aegon had started to tell her about their plans to overthrow the Baratheon King, claim the Iron Throne. They had enhanced their coded messages by substituting names and sensitive nouns by aliases.
Unlike Viserys’ ramblings, her nephew’s plans made sense. He already had substantial support and had plans in motion to gather even more allies. Besides he had dragons which were healthy and growing well.

Then the letter arrived in which he announced he was planning a sea voyage and would finally be able to visit her. He had not hidden from her how much he looked forward to that. He had promised to be there within six moons at the latest. And so it had happened. A few weeks before her sixteenth nameday, he had sailed to Pentos.

 

And now she sat here in the sitting room, softly talking with Moelle, trying to make the time go faster somehow. She was doing her best to act normal and forced herself not to look out of the window too often. But when she heard the heavy iron gates open she couldn’t restrain herself any longer. She jumped up and almost ran to the window. She saw three men on horseback enter the courtyard and dismount. They didn’t linger but hastened themselves to the front door. And then a servant led him into the room.

Daenerys’ heart beat so loudly, she wondered if her Septa could hear it. A young man entered and looked around obviously looking for her. His eyes went wide when he saw her standing next to a Septa. Another man followed him inside, scanned the room and took up position next to the door. ‘Of course, a Targaryen Prince would not go anywhere without a guard.’

He bowed and she made a formal curtsy. Nobody had spoken yet.

Daenerys knew from his letters that he didn’t have the Targaryen colouring but the young man who stood before her was totally different from the image she had dreamed up when she read his letters. He had no resemblance whatsoever to her or Viserys. He also didn’t look like the few Westerosi she had encountered before.

At first glance he was a handsome young man, strong, lean, cute dark curls. He seemed all that she had hoped for, all that she had expected even. But what struck her was his personality. Although he had been nervous the first few seconds, the way he held himself was not the posture of a boy. Before her stood a young man, a confident young man. At least that was her first impression.

When her eyes met his warm dark eyes, matching the description of the Stark grey she had been told about, she had been struck with a sense of belonging. She knew instantly that he was her kin. She could drown in these sensitive, intelligent orbs staring warmly at her.

Moelle standing next to Daenerys smiled indulgently and did the honours.
“My Lord, may I present to you Princess Daenerys Targaryen of House Targaryen, daughter of King Aerys II and Queen Rhaella. I am her Septa and go by the name of Moelle.“

The young man spoke up now “Prince Aegon Targaryen, son of Rhaegar Targaryen. Your nephew greets you aunt, greetings to you too septa Moelle”. His eyes however never left her face and the welcoming smile that lighted his face made him even more handsome.

“Well met Aegon”, she smiled. “Please call me Daenerys. We are kin and the same age. Let’s forget that I am technically your aunt.”

“Thank you Daenerys. I will. And please call me Jon for now. Nobody calls me Aegon yet. I would probably look behind me to see whether there’s another person standing there if you were to call me that.” His smile grew even wider.

“Please have as seat”, Daenerys suddenly remembered she was the hostess here. “I will call for refreshments.”
And Aegon or rather Jon had sat down and they had started to get acquainted for real.

 

***

The days had flown by. Her nephew had dedicated a lot of time to her. They had taken lengthy strolls in the gardens. Most of the time they kept their conversation light talking of non political topics, just enjoying this time to get to know each other, both glad they still had family that shared Targaryen blood.

During one of their last strolls Daenerys had built up the courage to broach a delicate subject.

“Jon, are you considering a marriage alliance in Westeros to gain more allies? Are you already promised to someone?

He had blushed and had taken some time to answer. He seemed tense when he finally started talking.
“I am trying to avoid this as long as possible. It is not always easy to stave off council from my loyal entourage, all of them being at least twice my age. My advisors have proposed several possible brides thus far. I have told them that they can bring up their suggestions and I will listen closely and consider them. However I have made it clear that in the end I will have the final say.”

Then Jon had relaxed again and had looked at her with that tempting smile that she knew well by now but still relished seeing it lighten his often serious features. He had leaned her way, his mouth close to her ear to make it seem as if he was going to tell her a big secret.
“Being the rightful heir to the Iron Throne, the One True King of Westeros, The Andals and the First Men, Protector of the Seven Kingdoms, He who has Dragons, must come with some perks, don’t you thing so?” he had said mockingly.

And it had been her time to blush. Not because of this words, but because of the small puffs of his breath tickling her ear. They had made her feel warm inside.

 

***

During the week he spent with her, Jon had introduced her to some of his travel companions. He was of course accompanied by a sort of Kingsguard but he had also brought some friends along.

They seemed a curious mix. There was Edric Dayne, future lord of Starfall, Samwell Tarly, a shy be it somewhat overweight young man but seemingly a really close friend to Jon, then there was Gendry, a craftsman with an impressive physique but with an accent that betrayed his low origins. Jon however treated him with as much respect as his noble friends.

His guards also were a curious mix of personalities. Two were former Targaryen Kingsguards, although if you considered the fact that Jon, or rather Aegon was the rightful King, they were still Kingsguards. The third one was a large rather ugly looking man with rough manners and an even rougher vocabulary going by the name of Sandor Clegane. Daenerys was amazed at the natural way Jon interacted with him and the respect the larger man seemed to have for Jon. It only made her esteem her nephew more.

It was evident that he was the leader of this strange group, it was his birthright. But it seemed that his friends and his guards truly esteemed Jon and that he had a natural bond with all of them. Her nephew would make a good sovereign.

 

All too soon it was time for Jon to leave. Their goodbye was affectionate. Jon had enfolded her in his arms and had held on to her for a long time. She had shed a few tears but they were happy, hopeful ones Daenerys had reassured him. She had said that now that she had seen him and heard his plans she finally believed she could go home soon.

And Jon had promised her. It would take them no longer than a year he had said with certainty. As soon as Dragonstone was freed from Stannis Baratheon, he would send a ship for her. Daenerys had nodded and smiled, even given him a quick peck on his cheek. Then he was gone.

Daenerys had not lied to him. There had been some happy tears amongst them. She looked forward to living in Westeros. She was determined to prepare herself for this new phase in her life. If she had it her way she would be an asset to her nephew instead of a burden. She would educate herself so she could be an adviser to him, perhaps even help him rule?

Anyway his considerate gifts would help her in this endeavour. Before Jon had left he had brought her two crates with several books. He told her that his friend Samwell Tarly had helped him with the selection. He had stressed that she only needed to read those she was interested in. It was important she believed they were gifts only meant to please her, to answer the many questions she had about her homeland and not disguised obligatory lessons. He had gazed in her eyes with such a kind and earnest look that she had no doubts whatsoever that he only had the purest intentions and it really was a thoughtful gift.

Several tomes contained the history of each of the Seven Kingdoms. There were books detailing all the Lords of the great Houses going back hundreds of years. One volume was dedicated to House Stark exclusively and described the known history of the former Kings of Winter going back almost ten thousand years ago. She had already read a small part of that one and had been riveted by the tale of Brandon the Builder. She couldn’t wait to read more.

Then there were books on geography, books on keeping books. She remembered his teasing voice when he had phrased it like that. It was actually more a guide for the castellan of a keep.
There were binders containing religious texts, smaller volumes full of folk tales, songs and poems popular in Westeros, scrolls describing customs, clothing, court protocol.

But he had saved the best one for last. She had reverently touched the cover of the large tome Jon had carefully laid out on the table before her. Her fingers had followed the raised pattern of the tree headed dragon that was printed on the beautiful brown leather cover. She had been moved beyond words. It had been the first time she had hugged him.
She wondered if she could read them all before it was time to go home.

Chapter Text

Jon had been enjoying his time at Winterfell. He had been here for two weeks now and soon they would be heading over to the Wall and he would get to meet Maester Aemon with whom he had been corresponding for several years now.

Ser Gerold and Ser Oswell had accompanied Jon on this trip. They had let their beards and hair grow out and almost always wore helmets that left little visible of their faces. During meals in the great hall they took up guard duty and ate in private afterwards. Nobody suspected they were anything other than two loyal houseguards of Jon Celtigar, an insignificant lord of the Driftmark who had befriended the son of Lord Stark.

Ser Arthur hadn’t appreciated being left behind but Ser Gerold had argued that Ser Arthur was the most recognisable of the three of them. They were taking enough risks at it was. Howland Reed however had placated Ser Arthur by telling him that the Gods had showed him in several green dreams that the knight’s nephew Edric Dayne would someday be of great help to Jon. He his premonitions had convinced him that Ser Arthur could inform his closest living relatives that he was alive if he took the necessary precautions.

Ser Arthur had not hesitated and had immediately sent out an invitation to the current lord of Starfall supposedly to meet a lord Velaryon of the Driftmark to discuss possible trade relations. He had picked a location halfway between Starfall and the Driftmark and in due time received the Lord’s acceptance. A date in less than two moon’s time had been agreed upon. Ser Arthur had let the party leave for Winterfell without complaining, a renewed spring in his steps.

To compensate for the knight they left behind, Ser Gerold had taken on an extra guard and that is how Jon had met Sandor Clegane. It had been an experience. It wasn’t because of the burns, although at first Jon had been self conscious when he looked straight at Clegane’s face. Clegane noticing this had just grumbled that they didn’t fucking hurt any longer and Jon had been able to ignore them soon after.

No, Jon was fascinated by the way Clegane talked and acted. Jon was used to the well mannered knights who treated him with respect. Sandor Clegane was nothing like that. It seemed to Jon that however much Clegane tried to reign in his coarse language when speaking with the twelve year old, he somehow always fell back into his crude speech patterns. Sometimes Jon could also overhear little outburst during conversations between the adults. And although Sandor Clegane was not a very talkative guy, Jon had already learned more curse words in these last few moons than in his entire existence.

Jon had come to like Sandor Clegane. Perhaps it was because he was so different from everyone else. He didn’t beat about the bush, he didn’t sugarcoat. He said few words but they conveyed more pertinent information than the lengthy debates of the high Lords. He dared to call a liar out. As he phrased it himself “he called their bullshit so they would stop winging”.
Jon realised that if you could see past his rough manners Clegane was a guy you could rely on. Besides he was a formidable fighter. He would be a valuable addition to their group when they travelled to the wall. Jon had heard that the journey could be dangerous.

Sandor Clegane had arrived at the Driftmark where Jon was visiting his foster-grandmother. He had arrived with Captain Davos Seaworth and a Dornish Prince. The Prince had left after a sennight but Davos Seaworth had stayed on and Jon had come to enjoy his company. Davos, as Jon had been allowed to call him, reminded him a bit of Lord Stark if you considered the way he always had a pearl of wisdom to offer when Jon struggled with something. But where Lord Stark was formidable, Davos was an easy going, warm-hearted person, who always stayed very humble. He acted more like an affectionate father toward Jon and Jon had been delighted when it had been decided that Davos would accompany their small party to Winterfell.

 

It had been nice getting to know Robb’s sisters and brother and observe how they were exactly as Robb had described them. Arya had become their little shadow. One time he and Robb had sneaked out of the castle trying to avoid her company for once but it hadn’t taken much longer than half an hour or before she had found them shooting arrows in a small yard and had wanted to try it as well. Of course her little arms hadn’t been able to pull the string of the bow so Jon had helped her and with their combined effort they had hit the mark right in the centre, before Robb had been able to do so. Apparently by this little act Jon had earned her undying loyalty.

Their lively company had distracted Jon from his grief over the loss of Max. The little dog had gotten ill shortly after they had started their journey north. Jon had felt slightly sick as well and after a bad night full of disturbing dreams Jon had woken up next to the lifeless animal.

He had kept it together reminding himself of Lord Reed’s promise. Minutes before they had parted, Lord Reed had whispered the content of a premonition in his ear. He had foreseen that Jon would find a worthy mate during his travels and would create a bond with him stronger than anything he had ever experienced with Max. He had also given him the cryptic comment to find it in him to share when the time came.

Being at Winterfell also meant seeing Lord Eddard Stark again and he had been introduced to his lady wife, Catelyn Stark. She seemed nice be it a bit formal, always greeting him rather stiffly when he encountered her in the hallway or in the great hall when he sat down for dinner. She always invited him to dine at the family table but he often excused himself murmuring a well-meant thank you and dined I the company of his own entourage. He saw she didn’t know what to make of that.

She clearly wasn’t at ease in his company. Jon was almost at the end of his stay here and still her behaviour was a combination of formal pride and apprehension. Somehow she seemed to go out of her way trying not to offend him. She enquired regularly if his room was adequate, if the food was to his liking, whether the servants saw to his needs timely and sufficiently, but always with a tense look on her face.
Jon took it all in stride. All in all he enjoyed his time at Winterfell immensely.

 

The only low point of his visit thus far had been Theon Greyjoy. Jon had immediately sensed that Theon was jealous of the easy camaraderie that had grown between him and Robb these last moons and that the Ironborn tried everything to sow discord between the two of them. He told Robb that Jon was a nobody compared to them, Theon being a Prince of Pyke and Robb a future Warden of the North. Besides, Theon had declared, he was a year older and much more interesting than a spoiled brat from an obscure island.

Things had only worsened when Robb had insisted on a joint sparring session. Theon hadn’t been able to beat Robb and had tried to swallow his pride and had boasted that Robb just had a lucky day. Then he had proceeded to take Jon on but he had been livid when Jon had disarmed him in less than two minutes. For once Jon wasn’t in a mood to be considerate. His opponent had tried his patience incessantly these last few days.

Greyjoy had insisted upon a rematch and had charged at Jon before Jon had had the opportunity to take up his starting position. Jon had done the only thing possible to prevent himself from getting hurt and had tumbled sideways making a complete rotation that had him back on his feet immediately. Theon hadn’t been able to stop his forward momentum and had hit the wall.

Ser Gerold who had been watching from the corner had hurried over to the boys ready to intervene but since Jon had saved himself the knight had directed all his angry energy at Theon. He had slapped the boy across the face, dragged him to the small storage space where the training equipment was kept and had locked him in there.

Theon had been punished. He had been sent to bed without dinner and had received a stern reprimand from Lord Stark the next morning. He was given additional chores to limit his time with the boys and was made to apologise in full view of the household to Jon for his dishonourable conduct.
After that awkward public scene, Jon did everything possible to avoid Theon. Jon didn’t want to cause trouble for Lord Stark, besides Jon would leave in a few days. He didn’t envy Robb who would have to share his home with the Kraken for several years.

But tonight Uncle Benjen would arrive before dinner. His ‘uncle’ would also accompany Jon on his trip to the wall.

 

***

 

The next morning.

Jon was apprehensive. He knew something was going on. Last night during dinner Lord Stark had come up to the table where Jon had been talking animatedly with uncle Benjen, Davos Seaworth and Sandor Clegane. Uncle Ned had asked Jon to attend him in his solar the next morning after breakfast. He had looked rather grim and very serious doing so. Ever since that moment uncle Benjen seemed uneasy and his two loyal knights couldn’t look him in the eye. They had evaded his questions and had told him just to be patient, that Lord Stark certainly had a good reason to summon him. Only Davos and Clegane had kept acting normal.

Jon had not slept well and had dreamt that he was thrown out of the castle with only the clothes on his back. In his dream he had set off alone, cold and hungry. In no time he had gotten lost in the woods. He awoke in a sweat remembering the last part of his dream where a pack of wolves had encircled him. He wasn’t sure if they had threatened to attack him or if they had surrounded him for protection. At breakfast he ate very little. Still subdued by the memories of his nightmare he couldn’t help but worry about the reason behind the summons of Lord Stark.

 

When he entered the solar he was surprised to see that uncle Benjen was there as well. A bit reassured by that Jon sat down close to him and tried not to look too intimidated.
“You asked me here My Lord.” He said respectfully.

“Yes Jon. I would like to speak to you about your parents, your family.” Lord Stark looked nervous.

Jon looked over at uncle Benjen. His uncle seemed apprehensive as well.
“My parents are long dead Lord Stark. I do not understand.” Their behaviour was scaring him.

“Yes Jon, your parents are dead. The point is”, he paused, clearly searching for words.

Uncle Benjen turned his body toward Jon and took his hand.
“Jon what we have to tell you will be difficult to hear. But know we did not want to disown you. Before you react to what we tell you, please know that I’ve loved you from the first day I saw you. I would have told the entire world that we were family if it would not have put you in danger.”
Uncle Benjen’s eyes looked pleadingly into Jon’s. For the first time Jon realised their eyes were the same dark grey, Stark grey!

“I don’t understand”, Jon stammered totally of balance now.
“Are you my father?” his gaze never wavered from his ‘uncle’ Benjen’s eyes. This was not what he had expected at all. He didn’t know what to think.

“Jon, I am your uncle, your uncle by blood. Lord Stark is your uncle as well. You are the son of my sister Lyanna Stark.” Benjen kept his voice as calm as possible and still held Jon’s hand in his.

Jon looked at him sceptically.
“Your sister who looks like Arya and you missed so much when she died? I am a Stark by blood? Why would you not want to tell me that? I could have grown up with Robb at Winterfell. Oh, Robb and I are cousins! Does he know? Who knows? Why didn’t I know?” Jon was working himself up into a frenzy.

“Please Jon, listen”, his uncle Benjen, apparently his uncle for real, pleaded with him now.

“Jon, for the love I hold for you, please listen to me and let me tell you the entire story first. There is a lot more to it. Promise me you will let us tell you and promise me you will listen carefully. I know you are intelligent enough to consider all angles and not only your own perspective. Please keep in mind that all these years we have always had your best interest in mind. My brother and I have always considered you family and it has hurt us terribly that we couldn’t raise you ourselves. Please believe that above all else.” His uncle Benjen looked really desperate now.

Jon squeezed his hand reassuringly and tried to calm himself down.
“I will try uncle.” And a watery smile crossed both their faces.

However it was Lord Stark who cleared his throat and proceeded to tell him a short version of the story starting with the Rebellion, the slaughter of the royal children, finding their sister with a baby and concluded by revealing that Jon was actually a member of the Targaryen royal family and had a claim to the Iron Throne.

A long silence followed. Jon’s mind was reeling.
His uncles waited patiently for Jon to react. The boy released his uncle’s hand, stood up and proceeded to walk up and down the small room.
After a while he stopped, seemed to make up his mind and took his former place again, close to his uncle Benjen.

“Ser Gerold, Ser Oswell and Ser Arthur?”

“Are your Kingsguard, sworn to protect you.” Lord Stark completed Jon’s sentence for him.

Another silence, then Jon spoke up again.
“You were fighting against my father’s armies during the Rebellion? Yet …” Jon hesitated to say more.

“The Rebellion was started over a lie.” Uncle Benjen intervened softly.
“Things would have been so different had the realm been told hat Lyanna loved Rhaegar and she had married him. Starks and Targaryens had been allies for almost three hundred years. But lies were spread, everybody overreacted, the Mad King murdered my father and brother. Things escalated from there. Jon, we are not your enemy, you are part of our pack. We are working behind the scenes to rectify the wrongs done to your family and we will help you get your throne back.”

Another long silence, this time Jon didn’t get up. He stayed perfectly still and appeared to work through all he was told. Finally he looked at Lord Stark.

“How … Why would I want the throne? Why can’t I just live with my family now that I know I have one? Surely after all these years nobody suspects anything any longer. And if I have learned anything from my history lessons, I do not look like a Targar …“, Jon interrupted himself.

“Maester Aemon! He is family as well! And Daenerys and Viserys! Do they know that I exist? Oh, we’re going to visit Maester Aemon! Does he know who I am?” Jon’s mind jumped from one conclusion to another.

“Jon, let’s all calm down.” Now it was Lord Stark who tried to placate Jon.

“There is a lot more to tell you. But to answer your first question, King Robert Baratheon is not a good king. The realm suffers. He doesn’t care about ruling, doesn’t care about his people. He only drinks and spends a lot of money. He is still searching for Daenerys and Viserys. He stills wants to kill them. He would want to kill you if he knew you existed. People are suffering.”

“Although it is your birthright to rule, the true motivation should be that you, that we want to help people. We do not want children to be murdered because they were born into a particular family. We want to protect Daenerys and Viserys. We want to protect the people, protect the weak, not dissimilar to the vows a knight makes. But to do all this, to be able to right these wrongs, you need power. The only way to have that kind of power is to stake your claim. But rest assured you won’t have to do it alone. It won’t happen overnight and we will all help you.”

Lord Stark studied his nephew closely. Reassured that he was listening intently he continued.

“The plan is to keep you safe. You have to stay hidden until you are old enough. In the meantime we prepare ourselves. We build a fleet, amass an army, forge alliances and give you the education you need. Raising you at Winterfell with your Kingsguard in tow would not have been safe. Trust me. We had a heated discussion when I wanted to take you away from them at the Tower of Joy. We all had to compromise.”

“Why tell me now?” Jon asked. He took a deep breath and added “Can I call you uncle?”
He looked at Lord Stark a hopeful expression in his grey Stark eyes.

“I would consider it an honour if you would call me Uncle Ned.” Lord Stark gave him a hesitant smile. “At the very least this would mean that you are not carrying too big a grudge against us.

“I’m trying to look at it from your point of view uncle Ned.” Jon was calmer now.
“I am starting to realize that what you and uncle Benjen have been doing all these years could be considered treason and that you have been risking your lives all this time, even putting your entire family in danger.” I think I am not entitled to be resentful. I’m starting to think that I should be thankful instead.”

He turned to his uncle Benjen.
“Especially to you uncle Benjen. If I am right, you have been doing nothing but travelling for my sake?” Jon looked warmly at his favourite uncle, a necessary distinction since he had more than one uncle now.

The man sat still close to him and took the boy’s hand in his once more.
“I was my choice Jon. I would do it all again”, he stated simply, a relieved smile on his face now.

“Still”, Jon looked back at his other uncle, why now? Is it because we are going to visit Maester Aemon at the Wall? What is he a great-great-uncle of mine?”

“Something like that yes.” Uncle Ned started explaining.
“If we are being honest, Maester Aemon was the one who insisted on telling you now. We would perhaps have waited a few years longer. Just to keep you safe, mind you. The more people who know, the way you would act, the way other people in the know would interact with you, it could all arouse suspicion. Someone could overhear. All reasons to wait a bit longer.”

“It isn’t because you think me still too young to handle this knowledge, because you do not trust me to be mature enough to keep this a secret?” Jon asked slightly upset.

His uncle Benjen tried to soften the mood again.
“Jon, we do trust you. We only wanted you to have some carefree years first. Imagine if you had known earlier. Knowing your sense of duty …”, he trailed off but then resumed with more confidence.
“Now that you know, will you still be able to forget everything and enjoy playing games with Arya without a care in the world?”

Jon sighed. “Perhaps you have a point there. Although, now that I know some things, I wish to know it all. Perhaps not everything right this minute. Gods know I need to think on this a bit. My parents caused the rebellion! They were the reason thousands died?”

“Jon, don’t overthink things now. Wait until you’re calmer. But I can perhaps reassure you some on account of your parents. We have reason to believe someone set them up. All those lies that were spread could not have been a coincidence. We are looking into it and have a suspect. And do not forget, the situation in the Seven Kingdoms was volatile to begin with, remember a mad King sat on the throne.”

“Let’s table this discussion for later, perhaps even sleep on it first?” Benjen refrained himself from hugging Jon, not wanting to destroy Jon’s composure. He sensed Jon would very likely fall apart the moment Benjen offered more comfort. He just squeezed his hand once more.

“Alright, but in the next few days I want to be briefed thoroughly. I want to hear about all the plans you have been making in my name. I want to know who knows about me, who our allies are at this moment, who you suspect of foul play, what preparations you where talking about earlier.”

He looked straight into Lord Stark’s eyes now. “And I will want to be part of future discussions. If plans are being made for me, in my name, I will want to be able to have at the very least a say in them.”

Jon paused, a determined look on his face.
“Also I will want to contact Daenerys and Viserys in Essos.“

Jon held up his hand when he saw that his uncle Ned wanted to interfere.
“I know uncle. I won’t do anything without your approval and endanger my newly found family. We can discuss the best way to go about this together, but please know I consider this a priority.”

“We’ve seen to their comfort and safety Jon.” Uncle Benjen once more tried to appease him.
“You won’t be disappointed to hear of the arrangements we have made for them.
Let’s take a break now”, he tried once more. “Give each other some time to think on this in solitude. We could reconvene tomorrow morning when we’ve all calmed down a bit? This hasn’t been easy for you to hear, I know, but all this has taken a toll on us as well.”

Jon however had still one pressing question.
“Before I go back to my room, before I will encounter other people, can you please tell me exactly who knows that I am a Targaryen? Of course for now I only mean of all the people that are here at Winterfell for the moment so I know how to act around them? The rest can wait.”

Jon hesitated. “And I would like to know if we can tell Robb?”

His uncle Ned was the one who replied. “Of all the people residing in Winterfell right now, the people in the know are: present company of course, my wife, and the two Kingsguards. Elsewhere, Lord Reed and Ser Arthur know as well. “

Jon looked pensive now. “Davos Seaworth, Sandor Clegane do not know?”

“They know some, suspect more perhaps. They will probably be the first to be let in on your identity now that you know.”

Jon nodded.

Lord Stark still had more to say.
“The rest of this little list can wait as you stated. Now about who we will bring into our circle, let’s discuss this during the coming days. I would ask you not to tell Robb anything yet. I promise I will hear your arguments tomorrow and we can try to compromise but bear in mind that Robb will have to live in close proximity with Theon and Theon is an enemy. If Robb should slip up or Theon should overhear you talking, he would not hesitate to sign our death sentences by betraying us to the Crown.”

Jon saw his uncle Ned slump back in his chair clearly worried for his heir and family.
“I understand uncle.” His voice sounded solemn as he continued.
“I promise once more that for now I won’t take any decisions or act without talking it over with you two first. I respect the risks you have already taken for me and will not put you in additional danger if I can help it. Please trust me.”

His uncle Ned stood up and put a hand on Jon’s shoulder.
“I am proud of you nephew. Let me in turn promise you the same. I will not make any major decisions anymore without discussing them with you first.”

Then to Jon’s amazement the proud Warden of the North knelt before Jon.
“I will shield your back and keep your counsel and give my life for yours if need be my King. I swear it by the Old Gods.”

Jon looked uneasy. “Please stand uncle. I thank you and I vow that I shall ask no service of you that might bring you dishonour.”
He was glad the formal response had flowed naturally from him and mentally thanked his Maester for familiarising him with court protocol.

His uncle Benjen now proceeded to kneel in front of him.

“Please uncle Benjen”, Jon pleaded. “Isn’t it way too early for this?”

“Jon”, uncle Benjen said a devoted look in his eyes.
“I’ve sworn my sword to you when you were but a babe of a few moons old and I have served you loyally ever since. I would like to make it official.”

“It would be my honour uncle”, Jon replied completely awed by the steadfast allegiance of his favourite uncle.

 

***

 

Ser Oswell saw a clearly disturbed Jon return to his guest room at Winterfell. He immediately ordered Sandor Clegane to fetch Ser Gerold. Upon his arrival Ser Oswell ordered Clegane to stay outside and guard the door. Together they entered the room where Jon was brooding before the window.

“My King”, Ser Gerold started hesitantly, “I understand you must be shocked and have a lot of questions for us.”

“I am king of nothing yet.” Jon retorted bitterly. “Perhaps I never will be, or will want to be.”

“To us you always will be the rightful heir to the Iron Throne, my K… , Prince.”, Ser Gerold said. “Do not take any decisions now. Wait until you have had time to look at this from all angles. You could do so much good for the people of Westeros.”

“Everyone keeps saying that.” Jon sighed. “Why must it be me though, I’m hardly twelve years old. I just had to watch a powerful grown man fall to his knees before me and swear me his fealty. That is a heavy burden to take on, you know. It seems he made me responsible for the entire North!”

“Not yet My King, he swore to help you, support you if you wanted to claim your birthright. The rest would follow later, when you are ready.” Ser Gerold tried to reassure the boy.

Ser Oswell spoke up. “We have been sworn to your service since before you were born my King. Please let me make the gesture before you, openly, it would mean the world to me.”

How was Jon to refuse these loyal knights? He nodded his assent.
Both men drew their swords and got to their knees. Once the solemn official part over, Jon tried to lift everyone’s spirits.

“Does that mean I get to order you around, instead of you me?”, he tried to joke but failed since both men were taken back by his words and were looking at each other to determine who would react.

It was Ser Gerold who carefully formulated a response. “We are sworn to obey your command my King. And we will. When it concerns matters of state, ways to go forward, we will only be advisers. When it concerns matter of safety, we hope you will not disregard our orders unless absolutely necessary. But when we take on our role as instructor, for instance during a training session, we will need to be able to exert our authority. We will need you to push on when you’re tired and we will not obey your orders to end the training or omit exercises you loathe. You must trust that we will always keep your wellbeing in mind, but if you do not agree with this, we might as well stop training you at this point.”

Ser Oswell nodded at Ser Gerold and both looked at Jon for a reaction.

“Well, Jon said after thinking this through, “I think that I can agree on that for now. However there will come a time that I will choose how hard and how often I practice. But I agree that that is still years away. “

He then looked firmly at both his Kingsguards. “Here is my first command. Do not use the title My King yet, if you want to pay me homage, I’ll reluctantly agree to My Prince for the moment but would ask you to use it as little as possible. I do not feel I have earned any title yet. Let me get used to the idea at first. I need some time to come to terms with this. Please allow me this.”

“I would however like to hear your version of my parent’s role before and during the Rebellion. Perhaps you can tell me tomorrow or the day after at the latest?”

“Of course My Prince” Ser Gerold answered. “I presume you would want us to leave you alone for some time now?”

“I do, thank you Ser Gerold, Ser Oswell. But before you go, allow me to express my gratitude to you both from the bottom of my heart for your unwavering loyalty to my House.”

Ser Oswell’s eyes grew wet. “My Prince” He bowed and both men left the room.

 

***

 

The next morning Jon and both his Stark uncles once more held a private meeting after breaking their fast. A lot of things were discussed. Then Jon mentioned the subject of his Targaryen relatives.

“I have thought it over uncle. I will wait until I have spoken to Maester Aemon. I hope he can advise me on this. Uncle Benjen told me he hears from them from time to time. I’ll ask him for a safe way to contact them.”

Both uncles nodded their agreement.

“On the subject of Robb however, I understand your reasoning that he is too young, I really do. I know it first hand.”
Jon frowned. “However, if I decide to pursue my birthright, I will need his unwavering loyalty. How will I gain that if I don’t trust him in the first place?” A hand gesture stopped his Uncle Ned from speaking.

“I think I should take no decisions whatsoever until after I have talked with my uncle Aemon. He has lived through several generations of Targaryens. He has seen good and bad monarchs. I certainly want to hear his reasons for giving up his birthright.”

“When I know all the facts and I have had time to decide what to do, we will discuss this again and we will agree on the correct time to bring Robb into our conspiracy, if there still is the necessity for one.”

Jon kept up his monologue. “I would like to have your consent to tell Davos Seaworth and Sandor Clegane at my own discretion. I do not think I can stall this for long. They belong to my immediate circle. I need to be able to trust these people with my life. I can not do that when I fear they will turn on me because they are resentful when they learn by accident and think I didn’t find them trustworthy enough. What’s more, it is only fair that they should know what’s at stake, when they are the ones risking their lives.”

“I see you have thought this through”, his uncle Ned reluctantly agreed. “I trust you to handle this with care. Be sure your guards are near you when you tell them though. You always need to be prepared for the worst. That way it mostly never happens.” A tiny smile crossed his uncle’s face.

They moved to safer topics after that. Uncle Benjen started talking about the logistics of the coming trip to the Wall.

 

***

 

Jon tried to hold it together his last days at Winterfell. He spent as much time as possible with Robb and half of the time this included Arya whether they intended it or not. He knew it could be a long while before they were able to see each other again. He would miss Robb terribly.

“We’ll compete on who can write the longest letters.” Robb had tried to joke but the look on his face had belied his tone.

“Uncle Benjen’s luggage will consist mostly of scrolls and he will hardly have any room in his saddle bags for his own belongings when he travels between us.” Jon had tried to continue the joke.

He did his utmost to act as if nothing was the matter so Robb wouldn’t ask questions Jon would so very much like to answer him but wasn’t allowed yet. It took all of his mental strength.

As a consequence Jon cut their alone time short with some lame excuse of necessary preparations. He really needed some time to mentally recuperate from the effort of hiding his inner turmoil.

His last evening at Winterfell, Robb had somehow known where he had hidden himself away and had found him in the middle of his brooding. His friend has simply taken the seat next to him, put his arm around Jon’s shoulders and had pulled him into him. They had stayed like that for what had seemed like hours to Jon, not talking just silently supporting each other, both of them aware they had to part in the morning.

Robb probably knew something was bothering his friend but wisely choose not to ask and to let Jon decide whether he would tell him. They parted for the night with one last hug. Jon knew he would never be as close to another friend as he was to Robb. If only he could tell him he was family.

 

***

 

The next morning the travellers for the Wall had assembled in the courtyard. Davos saw Robb and Arya standing in the front row of the sending off party at the opposite site of the space. Both were struggling to hide their emotions. Until the last moment Robb had tried to persuade his father to let him come along but Lord Stark had not relented.

The latter stood quietly beside his family giving of the impression that the Warden of the North had come out to pay his respect to his brother and travelling companions who were about to leave for the Wall. However, Davos observed that Stark’s eyes rested on Jon to the exclusion of all else.

Jon waved one last time at Arya and Robb, nodded to Lord Stark and urged his horse onward. The small caravan followed him at a sedate pace. Jon rode upfront between his two so-called houseguards who wore similar uniforms, always donning their helmets. Sandor Clegane, Benjen Stark and Davos himself made up the second row.

They were followed by a wagon carrying supplies for the wall and several Stark houseguards. The end of their small procession was made up by a few brothers of the Night’s Watch with a dozen new recruits. The party from the Night’s Watch had arrived at Winterfell just in time to join their excursion. They were a welcome addition that allowed Lord Stark to keep more of his houseguards at Winterfell than initially planned. Davos would escort Jon’s small entourage back to the Driftmark by boat. His crew would complement Jon’s protection for that stretch of their journey.

Ser Davos had been watching Jon closely these last few days. Jon was a quiet intelligent boy who was good with people. Davos had immediately taken a liking to the young orphan. When Davos had arrived at the Driftmark with Prince Oberyn and Sander Clegane, it hadn’t taken him long to connect the dots.

He had counted back the time and quickly realised that Jon was the little baby he had sailed from Dorne to the Driftmark all those years ago. His three faithful shadows were a dead giveaway. Many years back he had seen through their disguise. He had known they were no farmers returning to their homestead but had clearly recognised three noble warriors, knights perhaps. It had been a strange group. Davos had recognised Howland Reed since his wife and Lord Reed’s wife were cousins. The combination however of a Northern Lord, three knights in disguise and a baby was suspicious.

But discretion had been a condition of getting the assignment and Davos had never spoken about this to anyone. Apparently in doing so he had earned the good graces of his clients because they had used his services frequently over these past ten years. And now they had asked him to work for them exclusively. Davos had not hesitated. The entire situation had intrigued him for years.

Besides he had grown fond of the boy. The young orphan welcomed his company and Davos couldn’t help but feel protective towards Jon, these last few days even more than ever. He was not blind. He had noticed that something had happened to Jon during that meeting with Lord Stark. Jon had kept more to himself and could often be found brooding in some corner. Robb was the only one who could get him to lighten up and share an activity together.

But that was not the only change Davos had noticed in Jon after that fateful morning. Jon seemed more confident somehow, certainly in his interactions with Lord Stark. Where before Jon had been very deferential to Lord Stark, even a bit intimidated, he now actively sought out Lord Stark’s company and initiated their conversations. Davos had been astounded to see that the proud Warden of the North never turned the boy away and always gave him his full attention.

 

***

 

Davos observed Jon installing his belongings into a small tent. The boy looked exhausted and a bit sad. Davos decided to offer to keep him company. It was clear that the boy could use a sympathetic ear. And since Davos couldn’t go and fetch Robb as he had secretly done when they were still at Winterfell, he decided to do the next best thing.

In the meantime, Jon had installed himself by a small fire and seeing Davos hesitate, invited the older man to keep him company.
“Are you warm enough Davos? Have you ever been so far north?” Jon asked when Davos had found a comfortable sitting place close to him. Jon had put a piece of meat on a stick and was holding it over the fire.

“Not over land, no.” Davos replied. “But I have sailed to Eastwatch a few times and I can tell you, at sea the winds make the cold temperatures even more biting. These old bones are used to a lot, you know. I can handle it. You need not worry about me.” Davos smiled at Jon
“That smells delicious. I think I will roast some myself.” Davos made a move to stand up and head toward the supply wagon but Jon halted him.

“I have an extra portion right here. You can take that. The piece that I am cooking now will be sufficient for me.”

Davos sat back down, prepared the offered piece of meat and started roasting it. He noticed the two knights sitting a few feet away around their own fire, seemingly engrossed in conversation but alert and taking in each movement Jon was making. He focussed his attention back to the boy.

Jon apparently was studying him as well. “Davos, why are you travelling to the Wall? Do you have business dealings with the Night’s Watch? Will you travel back with us or will we have to part company?”

Davos didn’t mind telling Jon. “I was hired by Lord Reed who acts on behalf of your entourage to join your journey to the Wall and I will also be the one to convey you safely back to the Driftmark by ship afterwards.”

Davos had chosen his words carefully. He wanted Jon to realise that Davos knew that Jon was at the centre of this strange excursion. A young boy who could hardly be older than eleven or twelve namedays had no business at the wall. Davos had had his suspicions all these years ago but current events confirmed that he was on the right track. He had already been able to fill out several gaps in his theories.

He saw Jon slump his shoulders and wondered if he had said the right thing. He moved a bit closer to Jon and tried to help the boy.
“Are you all right Jon? You seem troubled these last few days. Has anyone been a nuisance to you? Is there anything I can do to help?”

Davos was close enough so he could whisper these words. Jon would still be able to hear them over the crackling of the fire. Out of the corner of his eye Davos noticed Benjen Stark approach but the two knights signalled Stark to let Jon and Davos be. Benjen Stark complied and joined the two knights instead.

Jon didn’t seem to mind these questions and repositioned himself slightly. His shoulders were almost touching Davos’ arm. It seemed he welcomed Davos’ effort to comfort him.
“I’m not completely fine yet, but I’m getting there. I just got some distressing news about my parents. I am still trying to make sense of it all.”

“I think your meat is well done.” Davos warned Jon and saw the boy divert his attention to the food.
Jon started eating. An easy silence fell between the two of them. Davos waited until Jon had finished his meal before he resumed their conversation.

“I will not pry Jon. You tell me, or you don’t tell me. You decide. But know that I’m here if you want to talk. Sometimes talking about things makes you feel better, gives you a clearer perspective.” Davos tilted his head and smiled at Jon.
“Or I can always distract you with a silly tale if you prefer. I happen to know a few more since travelling with the extravagant Prince Oberyn.”

Davos stopped when he noticed that Jon had tears in his eyes.
“Or I can sit here in silence, just keep you company,” he added quietly.

Jon leaned against Davos looking for physical support.
“Just sit here with me for a while” he whispered. “And thank you Davos. As soon as I will be able to tell you more, I will. For now, know that I am grateful for your company and value your advice.”

Davos put his arm around Jon’s shoulder in an effort to offer some comfort, unknowingly imitating Robb’s gesture from the night before. Somehow this memory made Jon feel better. They stayed like that until it grew too dark and everyone retired to their tents.

 

***

 

The next morning Davos approached Benjen Stark. “Jon’s troubled. I hope Lord Stark has done right by the boy?”
He saw Benjen Stark swallow. Davos waited patiently for a reaction. Benjen Stark seemed not to know how to respond.

“Jon is very dear to our family. We consider him part of our pack. We will always love and protect him.” He finally answered.

Davos nodded. “He is easy to love”, he confirmed and walked over to where the horses were grazing.
When he looked towards Jon’s tent he saw Benjen Stark had joined the boy and was hugging him.

 

***

 

Davos saw the sun’s reflection in the large structure of ice that came into view once they had left the last trees behind. It seemed they would reach Castle Black today. The journey had been uneventful. They had encountered no thieves, no Wildlings and there had been no attacks of wild beasts. Even if Davos had laid eyes on the Wall before, it remained a majestic view.

Davos relished seeing the awe in Jon’s eyes. The boy appeared relaxed, content. Jon’s mood had improved gradually over these last two weeks on the road. Perhaps this long trip on horseback had been just what he needed.

His close companions had clearly sensed this and had given Jon enough solitary moments to work through whatever burden that had been placed on his shoulders. They would often ride in a protective formation with the two knights up front Jon occupying the second row, Davos, Benjen and Sandor Clegane behind him closely watching his back. They mostly allowed Jon to make the first move and the choice of conversationalist when he was ready for company.

But what delighted Davos the most was that no matter what problem Jon struggled with, the confident attitude Jon had begun to adopt during his last interactions with the Stark family hadn’t wavered. He had seen the youngster mature before his eyes. Davos was also glad to see him lighten up and make jokes with the men. Jon could strike up an amiable conversation with anyone, be it a Lord or a lowly Night‘s Watch recruit. Everyone seemed to appreciate Jon’s company.

Davos focussed his attention back on the Wall. He thought he had heard the sound of a horn blast. Benjen Stark moved his horse closer to Davos. Clegane followed suit.

“It seems they have spotted us already.” Benjen told the both of them.
“They will send out a party to escort us.”

And he was right. Half an hour later, a party of four men in black furs joined them and guided them along the last few miles and through the gates of Castle Black.

 

***

Jon’s eyes took in the wooden structure that was Castle Black. It was larger than he had imagined even though uncle Benjen had told him about the renovations that had taken place these last few years. He knew that it now housed more than a thousand men in relative comfort. The guest quarters they were assigned looked clean and functional.

Jeor Mormont had welcomed them all but Jon had noticed immediately how the man had looked at him with a wary eye. The lord Commander had questioned his uncle Benjen’s sense in allowing such a young boy to visit here, the Wall being no pleasure park being his exact words. Mormont’s voice had boomed over the caravan so everyone had been able to hear the harsh words. Jon hadn’t known where to look.

Uncle Benjen however had calmly reached into his saddle bag and removed a scroll. Mormont had accepted it and read it on the spot. The man had granted them entrance without another word.

 

Later in their rooms, Uncle Benjen had explained to his nephew that the scroll contained the polite request of the Warden of the North to allow Jon Celtigar access to Castle Black. He motivated his request by stating that Jon Celtigar was a good friend of his son an heir and that the boy had been working diligently on a translation of an old Valyrian diary and would appreciate their Maester’s assistance. Lord Stark had stressed he would consider it a personal favour and had reminded the Lord Commander of the continued support the North gave the Night’s Watch.

Jon had been introduced to Maester Aemon at dinner. There had been no opportunity to exchange more than a formal greeting but he had been granted a meeting with the old Maester the next day in the afternoon. Maester Aemon still had to attend to his duties as Maester of the Watch first.
Jon had understood but he was a bit disappointed all the same. He really was impatient to meet the first member of his birth father’s family.

He went to bed early that night and dreamt of a large maze. Daenerys was beside him and he saw himself pushing a strange chair that had two wheels instead of four legs. They were frantically making their way through the maze. He realised they were searching for Viserys but couldn’t find him, no matter how hard they tried. Jon awoke, a lingering fear remaining from his dream. Were his aunt and nephew really safe in Essos?

He tried to shake these ominous thoughts. He got up and readied himself to go find his companions and break their fast together. The sooner he started his day and found some activity to keep busy, the quicker it would be time for the meeting with his great-great-uncle Aemon.
He decided to join a training session of the new recruits after he had eaten.

 

Interlude6: An unlikely alliance

Oberyn was debating what exactly to tell his brother. His mission had been successful and he had all his answers. Only, he couldn’t share everything with his brother. He had been sending regular reports to his brother at Sunspear these last few years. Sometimes even briefing him personally and enjoying a few moons at home, a necessary reprieve from his years of travelling.

The first item of real importance he had learned was that the Targaryens across the Narrow Sea were safe and comfortable. Prince Doran had given him permission to use Dorne’s resources should the royal children be in need, but they clearly were not necessary.

Oberyn had gone straight to the best source of information without travelling to Essos. He had visited Varys in Kingslanding. Not an official visit to the Crown, he would delay that as long as possible. Never would still be to soon for him! He had stayed in a luxurious brothel near the town walls and tried to make his presence obvious to some children he suspected were Varys’ little birds.

He felt safe taking this step. He would reveal no secrets if he betrayed his interest in the wellbeing of Viserys and Daenerys. They were family, related to the Dornish by marriage. So he had had no qualms in questioning the Master of Whisperers about this.

Varys had been more than willing to cooperate. His little birds had informed him of Prince Oberyn’s whereabouts and Varys had not hesitated in establishing contact.

“I had initially set them up in a modest house in Pentos, my Dornish friend.” Varys told Prince Oberyn. “I even sent several Targaryen loyalists their way. However, they no longer need my support. My little birds and spies across the Narrow Sea have informed me that the two royal children have been moved to a grander location.”

Prince Oberyn had frowned at this. “And who exactly is taking care of Elia’s good family?”

Varys had kept his surprise hidden and had relayed his second theory, the first one obviously erroneous now Oberyn had revealed that Dorne wasn’t behind this.

“Mind you”, he had warned Prince Oberyn upfront, “what I am going to tell you are only strong suspicions. I have no proof but I suspect that the three former Kingsguards who disappeared without a trace could be behind it. I am still trying to sniff out how they are funding the entire operation. I have some vague clues that lead to the North but not enough proof to go on to be sure this intelligence is reliable.”

His jaw shifted slightly before continuing. “I haven’t been able to get my little birds to infiltrate the new household of the Targaryen children but somehow this is a good thing. It reassures me their safety is being taken seriously. I have one big worry however. My little birds’ latest reports mention that they are only catching glimpses of Daenerys. There seems to be no real proof that Viserys still resides in Pentos.“

Prince Oberyn had thanked Varys for the information and said he would investigate further and vaguely promised to send word to Varys if he learned anything substantial.

Upon learning from his contacts in Essos that the Prince had succumbed to an illness, he had once more conferred with Varys. Eventually both were reassured that there had been no foul play. The Prince’s death was just a tragedy but not an uncommon one. Sadly, children dying before they reached adulthood, was not an uncommon event.

 

It had been years now since he started out on this quest. His investigation currently focussed on Benjen Stark. Oberyn had investigated the North’s influence in the increased support of the Night’s Watch.

In Essos, he had also seen first hand the large shipments of glass being shipped north. A more important detail that had caught his eye was that this cargo was transported in northern vessels!
He hadn’t realised the North had a fleet? Scrutinising the ships, he saw they all seemed in good repair. Hells, he would even go so far as to guess that most of them were on their maiden voyage or had not encountered much rough weather yet.

Even without personally venturing into the North, Oberyn had found more clues that something was up in that Kingdom. In every port he visited there were northern ships present. And when he encountered Benjen Stark for the second time in that year in an opposite corner of the realm compared to where he had first seen him, he began to track the Northerner’s movements. When he witnessed Stark meeting a man Oberyn recognised as one of the messengers of the Targaryens in Essos, he knew this was no longer a coincidence. Oberyn remembered that the Mountain had been shipped to Dorne on a Northern vessel. The name “Manderly” had been mentioned. He also remembered Varys’ suspicions.

Oberyn had not yet informed anyone of this, neither his brother nor Varys. He wanted to get to the bottom of this first. He didn’t want to make a fool of himself. There was still a minor possibility that he had this wrong and Benjen Stark was nothing more than an agent travelling a lot for the Night’s Watch. After all, his theory that the North was building up strength to declare their independence, was mere speculation. He had no real proof yet.

He based his theory on the fact that relations between King Robert and the Warden of the North had soured. But why would they support the Targaryens? Were they planning to help them back on the throne? It didn’t make sense. Why not declare the North independent and themselves Kings of Winter again? He knew he was still missing something. So he had decided he needed more intelligence and had kept silent.

Then there was still the fact that he was making no headway in his search for Tywin Lannister. His extensive travels had given him no clues whatsoever of the Lord’s whereabouts.

 

Almost a year after the Greyjoy Rebellion had ended, he had almost decided to give up and head back home. This event had crushed the most important foundation of his conspiracy theories. Bards were singing song of the brave warriors that had defeated the barbarian Krakens. They always praised how valiantly Baratheons and Starks had fought side by side victorious once more. This time they had defeated the Ironborn. Apparently King Baratheon and the honourable Ned Stark had reconciled.

Oberyn had already made arrangements for a ship to take him home when he had been approached. He saw through the thin ruse of opening up trade negotiations between Dorne and the Driftmark immediately. He knew the Driftmark was a place Benjen Stark visited often. Most probably it was his secret base of operations for whatever they were up to.

He eagerly accepted the invitation and took heart in the thought that he had been on the right track all along. He had real hope now that he was on the verge to find out what the Starks were planning and how it involved the royal children in Essos. He told his captain to change their initial destination and headed for the Driftmark instead.

 

***

 

All the years of speculation and inventing theories had not prepared him for Jon. Oberyn had been welcomed by Benjen Stark who had been at the harbour when Oberyn’s ship docked at the small island. Together they had travelled the few miles to a small settlement. They had kept to small talk during their short journey on horseback.

It was still a few hours before dinner when they had entered a courtyard where a knight was teaching a young boy how to fight. Although they were training with wooden swords, the knight was in full armour, complete with helmet. The boy, he could be no more than eleven years old, was dressed up in boiled leathers and his face was also hidden by a helmet. He seemed an apt student and Oberyn was entranced by his elegant footwork. ‘He would easily adapt to our Dornish fighting techniques’, Oberyn couldn’t help but thinking.

The boy had seen them enter and immediately lowered his sword and seemed to ask permission for something. The knight stepped back and the boy rushed up to greet Benjen Stark who had dismounted while Oberyn had been watching the sparring.

“Uncle Benjen! You are back!” The boy hugged Stark affectionately.

Oberyn saw the obvious regard Stark had for the boy as well.
‘Uncle?’, Oberyn couldn’t help but wondering.

But then it happened. The boy took of his helmet and shook out his dark curls. Although Oberyn saw the dark grey Stark eyes something in his face, perhaps his cheekbones, his chin, the way the boy moved, seemed familiar.

‘Did Benjen Stark have a bastard, one with Southern blood?’ Oberyn senses were on full alert. He was sure now it was all about the boy.

He studied Benjen Stark who met his eyes wearily. Then he looked over to the knight who had removed his helmet as well. ‘It was Ser Arthur Dayne! Of course, how could he not have recognized the fighting style of his former friend? Hells, he should have recognized it in the way the boy had fought as well.’

He almost stumbled and didn’t know how to act. ‘Ser Arthur Dayne, was alive. He was in Westeros and was connected to this boy how? The boy was a Stark, if Ser Arthur Dayne was his family as well, it could be through his mother’s blood that he was a Stark. Lyanna’, he thought and then the next idea struck him and he staggered an sat down not caring if the ground was wet or whether he soiled his clothes.
‘Rhaegar! Ser Arthur was protecting Rhaegar’s offspring, a child with Lyanna Stark, a royal bastard, a Blackfyre!’

Both Stark and Ser Arthur were looking at him apprehensively. Both had their hands on the pommel of their swords. He noticed his erstwhile friend did not carry Dawn.

“Prince Oberyn?” Ser Arthur handed him a drink.
“I know it is a shock. But I am alive, have been all this time. For the sake of the esteem we both had for Rhaegar, will you let us explain?”

Oberyn looked around searching for the boy. It seemed they had ushered him somewhere else, safe from the possible threat that Oberyn presented now that he suspected who he could be.
“The boy is Rhaegar’s spawn? You want to put a bastard on the throne?” Oberyn spit out. He still wasn’t a hundred percent sure. He watched both men, studying their reactions carefully.

Stark’s eyes had darkened with a murderous expression on his face and he had stepped closer to Oberyn. He was about to give an angry retort when Ser Arthur stepped between the two of them.

“Best get somewhere private before everyone hears what we are talking about. Prince Oberyn, would you be willing to hand over your weapons? All of them.” He added after Oberyn had given him his sword and one dagger.

Frustrated Oberyn looked at the both of them but then proceed to somehow pull another four daggers from his person. Ser Arthur scanned him thoroughly and asked.
“Can you give me your word of honour that you are not carrying any other objects that can harm the boy?”

Oberyn looked at him defiantly “Will you be satisfied with my word of honour? I solemnly swear that I won’t harm anyone while staying on this island? Unless I have to defend myself of course,” he added as an afterthought.
“I have been very compliant. I haven’t been this defenceless amongst strangers in a long time. Put yourself in my shoes? Would you want to be completely unarmed amongst strangers?” he grumbled.

Ser Arthur laughed, breaking the tension. He patted Oberyn’s shoulder.
“You? Defenceless? Even unarmed my Prince, I am well aware you are far from defenceless. Besides, we are no strangers. We are former friends, possibly future allies.”

He helped Oberyn on his feet and they walked towards the small cottage where the three knights had lived many years.

 

***

 

A long discussion ensued. First Oberyn had been infuriated.

“ Rhaegar’s annulled his marriage? He took another wife?!”

“He didn’t change the succession. Elia’s son was still going to be first in line of the succession. He had it written out, signed by witnesses. Elia agreed.” Ser Arthur had argued and told him there was proof.

“We have correspondence in our possession between Rhaegar and Maester Aemon at the Wall, written proof that your sister had been consulted and had approved of the idea. Apparently she had been scared that she would not have survived another pregnancy and would continue to live with Rhaegar and raise their royal children together. Targaryens were known to do things like that.”

Oberyn’s temper had softened and he seemed more willing to listen. He had asked to see one of these so called letters and Ser Arthur had procured one, handing it over reluctantly and keeping a close eye on Prince Oberyn.
“The scrolls signed by the High Septon containing the annulment and wedding are safely stored in a secret place in the North.” He added after Oberyn had returned the letter to him.

 

“Why call the boy Aegon though, who calls his second son after his own dead child?” Oberyn had sighed. “I don’t know if I can call him that.”

“We think it was not Rhaegar’s doing. He was dead by the time Lyanna gave birth. He knew she was with child but I do not think they discussed names. Or if they did, perhaps Lyanna changed their original choice after learning of the dead of his two firstborns? It was probably her way of honouring her husband’s murdered children. If nothing else, we think it further proof that both parts of Rhaegar’s family had been on good terms with each other.” Ser Arthur completed his explanation.

At the end of their talk, Oberyn was reconciled with what he had learned. He was glad that none of the stories circling about the missing Kingsguards had been true. They were alive and had retained their honour.

He had congratulated the Starks on their conniving plot for neutralising Tywin Lannister. If anyone else had told him, he would not have believed them. ‘And here I thought the Starks were the most honourable House in the Seven Kingdoms. It seems they are the most devious. To get away with all this scheming and still have such an upstanding reputation! I wonder if Eddard Stark still sleeps well at night?’

How he felt about the boy however, he was not sure yet. He had agreed to stay at the Driftmark for a week and take this time to observe the little Prince without raising his suspicion.

Oberyn had been warned that the Prince still did not know his real origins. He would be formally introduced to Jon Celtigar at dinner where he could also get the opportunity to reacquaint himself with Ser Gerold.

 

Eddard Stark had been right in his predictions. Oberyn did like the idea of thwarting the Baratheon-Lannister alliance and had easily agreed to keep Prince Doran out of the loop for now, already relishing the moment he could show his brother that acting yielded better results than this passive approach his elder brother always relied upon.

He couldn’t help but soften upon hearing their arguments that the boy was a half brother to Elia’s children and that Oberyn would have done the same to keep his kin safe had he been given the chance. Babies were innocent of the circumstances of their birth.

 

***

 

It was a sunny day and Prince Oberyn was aroused from his sleep by the sound of arrows hitting a wooden target. The position of the sun that streamed its light from high up through his little window made him realise it was almost the middle of the day.
‘No wonder I overslept’, he muttered to himself. ‘A man could get drunk from less.’
He hurried through his morning ablutions quickly broke his fast and joined the men outside in the training yard.

Jon had just finished his target practice and was sitting down drinking some water. He stood politely when he saw Oberyn Martell approach.
“Did you sleep well Prince Oberyn?” The boy tried to open the conversation.

“Late enough, it seems.” Oberyn tried a jovial tone. He was curious to get to know the boy Ser Arthur had raved about last night. Oberyn had only been able to exchange courtesies with him during the evening meal the day before.

He saw Jon struggle to find another topic of conversation.
“What is your weapon of preference if you spar Prince Oberyn?” Jon asked after a moment.

“Definitely a spear.” Oberyn didn’t hesitate. “I like to make fools of knights trying to fight with swords that have not half the reach of my long spear.” He saw Ser Arthur narrow his eyes and added, “Most knights, not all of them.”

“I would love to see that.” He saw Jon look at him expectantly

‘Of course the boy would’, Oberyn thought. ‘Not today though I don’t feel like it.’
Aloud he said. “There’s no one here I would want to fight. You’re not there yet young man, and well, let’s just say I promised myself that I would never fight my good friend over there ever again.” He and Ser Arthur shared an amused look.

“Can you at least show me how you handle a spear? I mean twirl it without dropping it? I have never seen a man handle a spear before.”

Damn those puppy eyes!
Well perhaps I would, but I didn’t bring one with me.” He evaded.

“We have one here in our armoury.” Jon was already on his feet. I’ll get it for you.” And before Ovebyn could react Jon had stormed off a highly entertained Ser Arthur on his trail.

Jon returned having difficulty carrying three spears of different lengths.
“Can you try with one of these, Prince Oberyn? These were the only ones available.” Hopeful dark eyes met his.

There was no reasonable objection he could think of so he stood up and chose the middle one. ‘No harm in showing him a few moves.’

Jon watched mesmerized as Oberyn moved in all directions the spear gliding along in perfect symmetry up and down, forwards, sideways.
Oberyn soaked up his adoration. He started to give short explanations in between moves. When to use a particular move, the possible countermoves of his opponent, how he would react and so on.

At one point Jon approached him. “Prince Oberyn, I did not understand that last bit. Maybe if I took the position of your opponent and you could repeat that move once more? It would make it easier for me. That was a difficult counterattack to visualize.”

 

‘Did I just get played by a small boy?’ Oberyn berated himself half an hour later.

Somehow the boy he had tricked Oberyn into volunteering to teach him the basics of fighting with a spear and defending against an opponent that wielded one. They had sparred a bit and Oberyn conceded he had enjoyed it immensely. Well it was easy teaching a boy who had been tutored by the Sword of the Morning. He had even promised the little Prince another sparring session, where the youth would be wielding a spear as Prince Oberyn defended.

Over the next few days Oberyn made an effort to discuss various topics with the boy. Unlike his daughters he had to draw him out. ‘If there was a negative quality to him, it was that he was too deferential, too considerate. He needed to grow some balls. His daughters could teach him.’
That thought had amused him.

Prince Oberyn had left the Driftmark full of energy and couldn’t wait to set all the agreed upon schemes in motion. He would teach those Northerners how the Dornish could work effectively behind the scenes. Besides, he hardly needed to take any risks.

He was fully committed and looked forward to seeing Elia’s stepson sit on that much coveted throne. Perhaps he could even get him to marry one of his daughters? The Prince didn’t strike him as someone who would look down on a person because of his birth and his daughters were beauties.
‘Yes, he would show both the Northerners and Prince Doran!’

 

***

Ser Arthur was satisfied. His report would be brief. Lord Stark hadn’t overestimated Jon’s magnetism. The boy had removed Prince Oberyn’s last doubts.

Chapter Text

Maester Aemon sat in his study waiting for the arrival of Rhaegar’s only remaining son. He had wanted to speak to the child years ago. Instead he had been restricted to corresponding with Aegon in lengthy letters that took moons to reach the Prince since all correspondence between the two of them had to be carried by Benjen Stark or another messenger sent directly from the Prince’s entourage. There was no other way he was allowed to reach out to the boy. Well the Starks had kept him safe for almost twelve years now. So, at least they were doing something right.

At first this delay hadn’t bothered the Maester too much. But ever since a heavily disguised Ser Arthur Dayne had showed up at the Wall a few years ago carrying the three dragons eggs Lord Reed had instructed him to find, Maester Aemon had been urging the Starks to bring the Targaryen to him. The Maester was scared he would die of old age before he could convey the closely kept secrets of house Targaryen to the rightful heir to the throne. If there was any justice in this cruel world, one of the eggs might respond to the true King’s touch, if they were lucky perhaps two, or all three? He was tired of speculating.

He had been introduced to the Prince yesterday evening and had immediately felt a kinship with the child. He had reminded himself to call him by his alias and not show the boy any more attention than a formal greeting. But finally the wait was over. His grand-grand-nephew would be here anytime now. Maester Aemon was ready. He had been long prepared for this visit. He had checked once more this morning that all the books he had brought with him when he had arrived at the wall all those years ago were within reach. He had also verified he still knew all the secret places where the Targaryen artefacts were hidden in his room so he could ask his nephew to take them out if the conversation went as well as he had envisioned a thousand times by now.

 

And here it was, the eagerly awaited knock on the door! He heard the young boy enter together with the already familiar steps of Benjen Stark. Maester Aemon and Benjen Stark had indulged in several lengthy conversations over the years. They featured the topic of the wellbeing and education of Rhaegar’s son first and foremost, but also the situation at the wall and the Wildling threat were topics they talked about at length. Benjen Stark had often been his scribe when he dictated letters to his young nephew.

Maester Aemon would allow Stark to keep them company for a short while. Enough to give the Prince the opportunity to grow comfortable with his old uncle and then he would demand a private audience with his kin. Some things were for Targaryen eyes and ears only, no matter how much gratitude he owed the Starks to keep this young man safe at the risk of their own lives.

“Come here my Prince”, he encouraged the boy. “Let me feel the contours of your face. My old eyes have not seen any light in a very long time. I would like to get to know the son of my grandnephew. And these are my only means to imagine what you look like.” He lifted his two hands up a bit.

“I am very honoured to finally make your acquaintance in person Maester Aemon and would like to take this opportunity to once more to thank you for all the kind advise you have given me in the past”, the boy replied politely. Maester Aemon felt the boy gently take one of his hands and bring it to his face.
“I’m am kneeling in front of you now. I am taller than this Maester.” Aemon heard the smile in Aegon’s voice.

“When in private, I give you leave to call me uncle.” He hadn’t expected he would warm up to the boy this quickly. “Great-great-uncle is such a mouthful. You can reserve the title Maester Aemon for when we are in company.” His hand felt the smile grow larger on his nephews face.

“I thank you, uncle”, the boy immediately complied.

The Maester moved his hand from Aegon’s face to his shoulder.
“Greetings to you as well Stark”, Aemon looked in the direction where he had heard the man take a seat. I trust the journey here was uneventful?”

“We got here safe and in good time.” Stark replied. “I have to convey to you the regards of my elder brother Eddard Stark and I would like to entreat you to keep in mind that Aegon has only known of his kinship with you for two weeks now. He prefers to be addressed as Jon.”

“I really don’t mind making an exception for the Maester”, the boy immediately countered. Outside these chambers I am Jon, but in here we are two Targaryens who share blood.”

Aemon felt his old eyes grow moist. He still had his hands on Jon’s shoulder and patted it mildly, conveying his appreciation of that thoughtful comment. “Take a seat nephew. Pull that chair up if you will and sit close to me.“

He turned his head in the direction of Stark again. “Would you mind allowing us some time to talk in private? I will call for you once we’re done for today and will send the boy back with you. I promise I won’t let him leave this room unescorted.”

“It is ok uncle Benjen”, the boy replied softly confirming to Aemon that Stark had been hesitating.
He heard Stark mumble something to the boy and leave the room.

The boy now addressed him. “You will have to be patient with me uncle. I am still coming to terms with all I have been told. I think I have accepted who my family is. I am not sure how I feel about all the political repercussions though. All I keep hearing is that I must claim the throne. That it is my birthright but also my duty.” He paused, Aemon could almost hear him thinking.

“I don’t mind you speaking your mind Aegon. Tell me what’s bothering you and I will see what I can do to help.” He hoped he had struck the right tone. He wanted the boy to open up to him.

“Well, I can’t help to think that if anyone can understand my lack of initial enthusiasm, it would be you uncle. You could have ruled Westeros. I hope you don’t mind such a blunt statement only minutes after meeting me.” The boy seemed to have found his resolve.

“Any ruler with a lick of sense would be hesitant,” his uncle reassured. “The ones who want the throne just for the sake of power and acclaim are not suited for such a responsibility. I have already learned a lot, from these first few minutes, my young charge. I had already gathered from our correspondence that you are intelligent, so you will have no problem to understand that my circumstances at the time I made this very important decision were completely different from the ones you face now. I already was a part of the Night’s Watch before my older brother died and I still had a worthy living successor. My choice did not leave the realm in chaos, at least not for the erstwhile foreseeable future.”

He paused and took his nephew’s hand to soften the words he knew would be hard to hear for the boy. “I am sorry to say this but you are the best hope for Westeros as far as I can tell. Your claim is superior to Viserys’ and the reports from Essos mention the mental health of the Prince is deteriorating notwithstanding the care he is being given. I am sorry to tell you but it will be very likely that one of the next reports from Essos will convey news of his death. The Prince is very ill.”

He could hear the boy exhale loudly and guessed he was trying to come to terms with this. He waited a bit listening closely to Jon’s breathing and continued when he sensed the boy was calmer.

“I just wanted to say that as long as I live I will be here to advise and help you. You will not have to do all of it alone Aegon. Besides, there are upsides to being a Targaryen. Wait until you know all the closely kept secrets of our house. One of them is a beautiful gift for you.”
He could hear the boy shift in his chair. He was probably sitting up. He had been able to catch the boys interest.

“The head of house Targaryen is entitled to wield a Valyrian sword. Nothing else would be good enough don’t you think?” He teased the boy.

“A Valyrian sword? Are you speaking true uncle? I have only heard of Dark Sister and Blackfyre? Aren’t they both lost?” Aemon could hear the excitement building in his nephew’s voice.

Go to the right side of the fire hearth, and search the floor for a tile that is a shade lighter than the others. You can also recognise it because of its chipped corner.”
He could hear the boy leave his chair even before he had finished speaking.
“Now lift it and you should see a package wrapped in cloth in the space below it. You may take it out and unwrap it.”

“It’s rather heavy uncle.”

“Just lift one corner and slide it to the right. Once it starts moving, the difficult part is over.” He heard Jon successfully move the stone.

“I see two packages uncle. I suppose I should take out the tall slim one?”

Aemon nodded and an exclamation could be heard almost immediately.
“If my history lessons were accurate this is Blackfyre, I recognise the big red ruby on the hilt. It also seems more robust than how I had pictured Dark Sister”, he heard the Prince say.

“It is Blackfyre”, he confirmed. “It was recovered and brought to me years ago. I had a premonition the right owner would come and claim it eventually. It is yours Aegon. I hear your training is going well and you will be a worthy owner. Best put it back for now. You can take it with you when you leave us in two weeks. But keep it covered. It would betray your origins in one instant, never mind your dark curls. I have heard Ser Arthur tell me there is much of Rhaegar in you.”

“Should I forget, remind me to tell you later about a folk tale regarding the Long Night and a Song of Ice and Fire before you leave. It was something your father loved to talk about. I can give you a book to read about that as well.” Aemon rubbed his chin. “I’m sorry my young charge, I am getting of topic.”

“Don’t worry uncle”, Jon assured him, “I would like to read that book and I will make sure to remind you. Please ask me anything you want.”

“I want to hear you tell me some more about your life so far. Your letters over the years have only heightened my curiosity. Fill me in and leave nothing out. Would you be willing to start by explaining the bond you have with your dog, Max? That part of your heritage is new to the Targaryens.”

An hour later Jon summoned a steward to fetch his uncle Benjen. I seemed he had worn uncle Aemon out. The old man was softly snoring in his chair. Jon still had many questions left. He would make sure they had plenty of opportunities to talk some more the coming days.

 

***

 

Several days later, somewhere on the road between castle Black and Eastwatch.

‘Fire and blood, Fire and blood’, the mantra repeated over and over in Jon’s head. They had started the journey towards Eastwatch where Davos Seaworth’s ship would be waiting for them. His mind was still reeling with everything his great-great-uncle Aemon had told Jon. He couldn’t wait to return to the Driftmark. There were three dragons eggs safely wrapped and tucked in an additional saddle bag he would not leave out of his sight. He would sleep with the bag under his bedfurs. They were too precious.

 

Jon had never felt such protectiveness before. The moment he had spotted the green egg, a feeling of belonging had come over him. When he had touched the egg it had felt warm under his touch and he could have sworn he had felt the egg reaching out to his mind. Maester Aemon had been elated when Jon had described what he experienced. He had urged Jon to try touching the other eggs as well. The beautiful white egg with silver sparkles was also warm to the touch and Jon felt a kinship with it, although nothing compared to the overwhelming feeling the green egg had provoked in him. The black egg however left him indifferent. It could as well have been just a shiny black stone.

His uncle Aemon had reassured him that he had already exceeded his expectations. His father, Rhaegar had desperately tried to connect with the eggs and failed. Jon stood a good chance to hatch two living dragons in the near future. The black egg was perhaps destined for Daenerys of for one of his future children. At least that was what Maester Aemon had implied.

Of course Jon would start the hatching process that his uncle had described minutely only when he was safely installed on the island once more. They would return to the Driftmark. If he was successful Jon and his guards would spend a lot of time on the most eastern point of the island. Nobody lived there at the moment since there was not much besides rocks and harsh winds. But Jon had once ventured there and played in caves that were big enough to provide shelter for growing dragons. His guards could easily travel between the small settlement and the caves. If they travelled on horseback they could make the journey back to the settlement in no time. Even on foot it would take no more than half a day.

It would be the ideal place to raise them and teach them to fly without attracting attention. Jon would make sure that all possible precautions were being taken to keep the existence of the eventual dragons a secret as long as possible. If he already felt this protective towards the eggs, Gods know what he would be willing to do to protect tiny vulnerable dragons. He suspected he would not hesitate to use lethal force against anyone who dared to threaten them.

Jon remembered with unease uncle Aemon’s advise regarding the Targaryen bloodline.
He had seen the man hesitate before he advised him.
“Aegon, you should realise Targaryen blood is important to control dragons. If you are successful in hatching one or more dragons, you should consider marrying your aunt, Daenerys.”

Jon had started to protest but his great-great-uncle had put a hand on his shoulder to stop him.
“Dragons live for several hundreds of years and an uncontrolled dragon could bring doom to the realm. If your children’s blood is too weak, they will not be able to control them. You would have to kill your dragons before you die.”

“My blood is only half Targaryen”, Jon had protested.

“You are lucky Aegon. Apparently the Stark blood contains magic as well and it appears it doesn’t lessen your Targaryen abilities. Against all odds, it seems to have enhanced them. But to further dilute your blood would not be advisable with dragons back into the world.”

“But she’s my aunt! I can not marry an aunt.” Jon really didn’t want to discuss this now.

Jon had been blindsided by his uncle’s demand. He was still coming to terms with the idea of possibly being responsible for owning, let alone controlling a dragon, and now this?

“Technically she is your aunt. But she is also just a girl of an age similar to yours. She is a virtual stranger to you. You have not grown up together. Targaryens have done other things.”
His Targaryen uncle seemed determined to convince his nephew.

“There are still a lot of ifs in your reasoning uncle. I will take it one step at a time. Let me first get these eggs safely to the Driftmark and see what happens then. Even if they hatch, it is not a given the baby dragons will live to reach adulthood. By the time they do, I will be older and more capable of making decisions about marriage.”

His uncle had stayed silent for a while but finally had warned him that while it was wise to take it slowly for now, one should always plan his next steps.

 

Jon tried to focus on the road ahead. Sandor Clegane was riding beside him. Luckily, the knight was not a talkative guy and left Jon to his own thoughts most of the time.

“Glad to be leaving the wall and the cold behind soon?” Jon didn’t want to ignore the man the entire journey. Besides he always liked his unique way of describing things. Clegane didn’t disappoint.

“Never knew it could get so fucking cold. A guy has to keep moving the entire time not to freeze his balls off. Certainly when there are no fucking opportunities to f ... “ He remembered just in time he was speaking to a twelve year old.
He tried again. “Never mind, I’m no whiner anyway. I hate fire, but now I’m almost grateful the barbaric thing exists.”

Jon smiled. He felt lighter already. They were nearing some woods. Going around would take them much longer as going through. He looked at his uncle Benjen for guidance.

His uncle didn’t disappoint. “There is a small path we can follow a bit further to the right. I’ll lead the way.”

Some time later, something itched in the back of Jon’s mind. He shook his head but the strange feeling only got stronger.

 

***

 

Ser Oswell startled when Jon, who had been keeping in formation the entire time, suddenly led his horse to the right and without any warning left the road and headed deeper into the woods. A short panicked look at Ser Gerold and the two knights immediately went after their charge. They weren’t familiar with these woods and Benjen Stark had repeatedly warned everyone to stay alert for possible wild animals or roaming Wildings.

Swords drawn the two knights reached the clearing in the woods where the boy’s horse stood without its rider. They scanned the area and saw their Prince on his knees next to a dead wolf, if it even was a wolf? It certainly was the largest one they had ever seen.

Benjen Stark appeared next to them. “It is a direwolf, the sigil of house Stark”, he told them quietly. “I didn’t know some had ventured south of the Wall. I have only caught glimpses of them beyond the Wall when I accompanied the rangers of the Night’s Watch on a scouting mission. They are scared as hell of them”.

The three of them watched entranced as Jon took out five little whelps who were still trying to get milk from their dead mother.

“Jon”, Benjen Stark whispered though a warning could still be heard in his voice. “It is possible that the father is not far out. Leave them be and let’s get back to the road. We must get out of these woods before dark.”

Jon however didn’t get up. The small animals clearly welcomed the attention Jon bestowed on them.
“We will take them with us.” He declared. “There are five of them. You have two nieces and two nephews and Lady Catelyn is about to give birth to a fifth. They belong to house Stark. It will be my gift to them.”

“Jon”, his uncle intervened “We are not on our way to Winterfell. You realise they are direwolves? Direwolves are wild animals.”

“They are the sigil of your house. Lord Reed gave me a vague premonition before we parted and I cannot help but feel this is what was always meant to happen. If they are raised from mere whelps alongside the Stark children, they will be tame enough. When we reach Eastwatch we will send them to Winterfell with the next trading convoy. When we board the ship, I would ask that you uncle, take them to my cousins in Winterfell yourself.” Jon’s voice trailed off.

He touched his head then looked over to the far side of the clearing. He gently put the whelps down beside his uncle and went over to investigate the far corner of the clearing where he had seen something white flash beneath the leaves. He signalled the two knights to keep their distance and carefully crept closer to that spot so he would not scare anything away.

He kneeled once more and gently removed a little white creature with red eyes from under the bushes. It was an albino direwolf whelp, clearly the runt of the litter. This little one was for him, Jon was sure. His mind gently nudged the little wolf’s mind and it responded by licking Jon’s face enthusiastically.

Jon straightened and turned back around. “Please uncle, let’s pick them up and put them in a box on the wagon. I will personally care for them until we reach Eastwatch.
Not deterred by his uncle’s disapproving scowl he urged, “Didn’t the Starks of old have direwolves riding beside them into battle?”

Benjen sighed and relented. “We’ll try to take them with us. But at the first sight of their father, we will release them. You wouldn’t want to be attacked by an angry full grown direwolf.”

It was an uneasy procession that walked back to the road. The knights kept a worried eye on the small animals carried by Jon and Benjen Stark.

“I’ll take care of this one.” Jon stated resolutely tucking the white wolf under his coat instead of in the wooden box. He would not be parted from this little white creature. This one was coming with him to the Driftmark.

Jon felt a small victory when everyone complied be it reluctantly. ‘There were advantages to being the ‘rightful heir’ to the Iron Throne. It was perhaps time to take somewhat advantage of this once in a while?’

He didn’t have to check. His mind felt the little wolf had gone to sleep safely tucked in against Jon’s chest. Jon had yet to hear a sound come from the small animal. ‘Ghost’, he thought, ‘his name shall be Ghost and Jon felt his mind relax as well. For the first time in weeks all was right in his world.

 

***

 

Jon stood at the railing of the ship watching the Wall disappear. It stayed an impressive sight.
He turned and went to the bridge where Davos seemed to be watching the same thing.
Jon waited patiently for the man to finish contemplating the disappearing structure and turn his attention to him.

“I have long been wanting to tell you something Davos. Could we perhaps retreat to your cabin or do you know of a better place for a private conversation?”

Davos had expected to hear about Jon’s lineage. However he had been blown away by the talk of dragon eggs and the possibility of living dragons. He had refused Jon’s option of bowing out once things got too dangerous and had solemnly pledged his loyalty and support to whatever Jon would decide next.

The conversation with Sandor Clegane had gone a bit differently. Jon had reluctantly agreed to let Ser Gerold stand witness to it, bearing in mind his promise to uncle Ned.
However he had ordered the knight to be as inconspicuous as possible. Jon had emphasised he should turn a deaf ear to any insults or curse words Clegane would possibly utter and not take them as personal insults to their Prince. The only valid reason to interfere would be if Clegane threatened to bodily harm him which Jon believed to be highly unlikely. Ser Gerold had stayed by the door not moving a muscle, but his hand was closed to his sword.

Sandor Clegane had listened to Jon without interrupting him. When he was sure Jon had nothing more to add he had thrown some questions at Jon.

“Does that mean I get a raise?” Was his first reaction.

Jon had been taken aback but had tried to keep his tone light.
“Do you want to get one? I don’t even know what you are paid now any way.” He waited nervously for the next salvo from Clegane.

“I’m not gonna kiss your boots or lick your arse, yer Grace. I’m not going to have to call you your Grace now am I?” he grumbled.

“Just stick with Jon for now.” Jon still watched him wearily.

“As long as you do not turn into one of those stuck up, no good for nothing Nobles who don’t look you in the face when they order you to kill some poor woman or child.” He uttered.
“Damn, I really liked you kid!”

“I’m still me. I’m still a kid. You have my permission to tell me when I’m acting ‘stuck up’.” Jon started to relax a bit. He estimated Clegane’s initial reactions were promising.

“You bet ye, I will!” was the assertive response.
But then Clegane suddenly seemed to shrink. Jon noticed his eyes looking agitated at him.
“I refused Lord Lannister’s offer because I wasn’t going to die for some fucking throne. He looked Jon straight in the eye and asked, “Am I going to die fighting for some fucking throne?”

“You might, if you decide to stick with me.” Jon replied honestly.
“I don’t know yet how dangerous it will get if we decide to go through with it. I would try to use a diplomatic approach, perhaps bluff a bit, but I can not promise you it will not come to fighting.”

It was time for the big gamble.
“I will release you from your service if you give me your word of honour that you will keep my secret. I must be honest though, I would prefer it if you chose to stick with me. You’ve proven to be a loyal guard and a good friend so far.”
Jon hesitated but decided to be blunt, “I rely on you to cut through all the bullshit and tell me to my face what is going on, or what I could be doing wrong.”

Jon thought this could still go either way. He waited with bated breath to see how the man would react.

However, Clegane didn’t take long to make up his mind. He drew his sword and went to his knees. From the corner of his eye Jon saw Ser Gerold’s hand tighten around his sword’s pommel. He warned him to stand down with a stern look.

After the usual protocol had been dispensed with and Clegane had risen back to his feet, Jon added, “I can ask Ser Gerold to knight you, if you want. I will officially name you a member of my Kingsguard if you consent.”

I ain’t no fucking knight boy. And you’re no King yet. Think I will not protect you without some fancy title?”

Jon hadn’t expected anything different.
“No, I trust you with my life, Clegane. Already have, and will continue to do so. I thank you for your loyalty.”

Jon saw Ser Gerold relax. It had gone rather well, hadn’t it?

 

***

 

Weeks later somewhere in the Driftmark.

‘Fire and blood, it seemed so simple. Of course the blood should belong to the person that bonded with the egg so that meant it was only simple for the Targaryen destined to hatch it. It had taken Jon no more than a week to see a tiny green dragon crawl from the cracked egg shell.

Not sure the procedure would work he had minimised the risk and exposed only one egg to the fire that he had burning inside the cave at all times His two loyal knights took up guard duty and kept the fire going while Jon slept. They knew nothing of the small blood ritual however. Jon always performed it when the knights were outside guarding the entrance. They had no problem leaving Jon alone when he requested solitude for small periods of time. Their King was safe in there since there was only one entrance to the cave.

Uncle Aemon had been adamant. Only Targaryens who showed the potential for bonding with a dragon should be initiated into the process of this hatching ritual. It was dangerous to spread the knowledge amongst those who were ‘unworthy’ as his great-great-uncle called it.

Summerhall had burned down because an ‘unworthy’ Targaryen had tried to hatch the eggs without having a bond with them. Uncle Aemon had told him the tale. Frustrated, by their failure they had stoked the fires higher and when that hadn’t worked they had tried every accelerant the Maesters could come up with. The result had been the total destruction of Summerhall and the death of King Aegon V and his eldest son Duncan Targaryen.

Jon shook his head. ‘Fire and Blood‘, it really had been simple. He took the shiny silver-white egg carefully out of the fire and reopened the cut he had made the first time he performed the ritual. Just a few drops each day, his great-great-uncle had instructed him. Jon followed these instructions to the letter. The small baby dragon watched the proceedings with keen eyes. It seemed the tiny green creature understood the importance of what his human was doing. Jon stroked its wings softly then put the egg back into the fire, careful not to burn himself.

He had noticed he was not as sensitive to fire as everyone else, but he could still get burned. If that happened however, he healed faster than the average burn victim. His Targaryen uncle had told him that Targaryens often had this ability to resist fire easier than non-Targaryens. He had told stories of his forefathers in Old Valeria who were rumoured to be totally fire resistant. He admitted that he didn’t know whether the stories were true or if it had been just exaggerated tales of the ability Jon displayed. Anyway it was a useful quality for a dragonrider.

Aemon also believed that the fire of the dragon, or dragons he bonded with should not be able to hurt him, if the old books on dragonlore were to be believed. Jon had been gifted one of these books and guarded it with his life. The book was mostly in High Valyrian and Maester Aemon had had to teach him how to decipher the most sensitive parts that were gibberish if you didn’t know the correct way to read them. It was a variant of the code he would use for his correspondence with his kin in Essos. Jon had already started his first letter and uncle Benjen had promised to provide him with a discreet messenger who would carry his letter to his aunt and uncle in person.

He had agreed to take precautions but would not be prevented from trying to establish contact between them. If they believed him to be who he was, he would stay in contact and double his efforts to create a safe place for them in Westeros so they could come home. He had his eye on Dragonstone. It would probably be some years before that could be arranged, but he would make it happen.

Jon’s musings were interrupted when a small ball of with fur leapt into his arms and startled the little green dragon. “Hello there Ghost.” The little direwolf blinked his puppy eyes at him.
“Be kind to this little dragon. He is part of our pack”, he gently told Ghost.
“We need a name for him though.” He looked at the little dragon, trying to enter his mind.

‘Rhaegal’, the name echoed in both their minds. “Rhaegal”, he tried out loud. The dragon nestled himself against Jon’s chest only inches away from where Ghost was situated. The puppy looked at the tiny dragon and whined quietly. The matter was settled. Rhaegar and Ghost carefully looked each other over before falling asleep.

Jon returned his attention to the egg that was lying in the middle of the fire that warmed the cave.
‘It won’t be long now and I will be responsible for three children’, he thought and somehow it felt the right term when he thought of the little wolf and dragon. They were family, he would be their parent.

 

 

 

Interlude 7: The value of an oath

 

Ser Barristan had been sitting in this little tavern for over an hour now. Normally he never ventured so far from the Keep. However he had to admit, the small establishment was nicer than he would have guessed from the outside. It was clean, not too crowded and the food had been tasty. The ale, well he would enjoy it more if he wouldn’t be so nervous.

The cryptic messages had started to arrive a moon ago, brief messages questioning his loyalty, his honour. As if his life wasn’t taxing enough, standing behind a door hearing a drunken King enjoying himself with Gods know how many whores at the same time. Barristan also had to stand beside him straight faced, seeing him neglect his duties, being rude and even dishonourable at times. He preferred guarding the royal children, although lately the crown prince had become a pain in the ass. Luckily Myrcella and Tommen were still agreeable children. And to think he had come so close to becoming Kingsguard to a noble King. How things could have been different if his friend Prince Rhaegar had succeeded in deposing his mad father.

Barristan sipped from the tepid ale. He hoped that he could put an end to this nonsense today. He hadn’t hesitated when the last message stated a meeting time and a place. Not even when he was ordered to come alone. He had been offended when he had read the last line were it stated no harm would come to him, that at least the messenger’s honour could be trusted. Well if he got killed today, so be it. He didn’t really care any longer.

He scanned the room once more. Had that far corner been occupied before? He squinted. It seemed an old man was sitting there now. ‘A farmer?’ He looked again. Now the man noticed him as well and nodded a greeting. Ser Barristan didn’t move. ‘Was that man someone who recognised a famous knight and greeted ‘Barristan the Bold’, or was he the elusive messenger?’

‘Well, I’ve been here long enough. See how he reacts when I pretend to leave.’ Barristan slowly stood, left some coins on the table and headed for the door, all the while watching the man from the corner of his eye.

The man called his bluff and removed the hood that had obscured his face before.

Ser Barristan faltered.
He tried to hide his disbelief and changed direction. Without invitation he sat down on the opposite side of the table and faced his erstwhile Lord Commander.

Ser Gerold settled the hood back over his head obscuring his face once more. “No names”, he whispered. “I have a room upstairs and will retire now. If you like to hear what I have been up to all these years, you do as I say. Leave and try to reach the back entrance of this establishment without being seen. I will await you in the corridor and we can talk in private in my room.”

Barristan nodded and left without a word. ‘Twelve fucking years, they had let him grieve for twelve fucking years!’

 

***

 

“You claim that there is a son of Rhaegar still living? You claim you are Kingsguard to the one True King and I to a usurper? You come here after twelve fucking years and you tell me a fairy tale?” Barristan whispered furiously. His eyes stared full with disbelief at Ser Gerold Hightower, former Lord Commander of the Kingsguard or perhaps not ‘former’.

“Lower your voice! Your whisper is almost louder than your speaking voice. And do not use names.’

Ser Barristan felt chastised. It was almost like the good old days when he was still under Ser Gerold’s command getting scolded for daydreaming during a briefing.

“If you know a safer place to meet, let’s hear it. Otherwise keep quiet and use code names.”

Barristan nodded. Ser Gerold could be as abrupt as he wanted. Barristan still wanted to hear what he had to say. He decided to wait him out. Ser Gerold hadn’t answered his earlier questions yet.

Ser Gerold relented. “I won’t tell you anything substantial about the Prince. Just know he is the trueborn son of our Prince, a Targaryen and will be the best ruler Westeros has ever seen. What I want to know is where your loyalties lie?”

Barristan shifted in his chair and looked uneasy. “I’m bound by my vow to the stag. This is a wretched situation. You know I would give my life for that family you protect. But how can I do it without dishonouring myself?” Barristan was proud he had avoided speaking names.

Ser Gerold snapped back but kept his voice quiet, “I do not consider myself dishonoured. We did what we had to do to keep our King safe.”

“You have not dishonoured yourself since you did not swear to the stag.” Barristan damned his hastily taken vow for the millionth time.

“Did you call him by his name or did you swear to the rightful King when you pledged yourself?” Ser Gerold retorted.

“Word games, everyone knows what was implied.” Barristan felt weary now.

Ser Gerold mulled it over. “If you really want to serve my family again, you could go to the stag and tell him you are an old and tired man who wishes to live out his old days peacefully somewhere else, technically not a lie old friend.” He offered.
“And then you disappear.”

Barristan frowned and stayed silent.

“But before we take such drastic steps, do you think the Spider could be trusted to spy for us? If not, you would be more useful here in Kingslanding serving my family here as an informant.” Barristan saw Ser Gerold eyes studying him, a hopeful look in them.

Barristan sighed. “I think there is a chance, but with Varys you never know for sure.
I could set up a meeting? We’ve had some conversations and I know he is sympathetic to my plight. He doesn’t like how the Kingdoms are ruled. If he was presented with a good alternative … “ Barristan stopped, unsure. He looked at Ser Gerold.
“But why would you want to take such a risk? I am glad you talked to me, although your twelve years late for the Gods’ sake. I know and I hope you know that I can be trusted, but Varys? It is a risk.”

“What if I told you that it wasn’t?” was the enigmatic reply of is former Lord Commander.
“Let’s sleep on it and meet again shall we say I two days time. This time you can name the place. Just send word here. And do not sign the message.”

Barristan knew he was dismissed. He would not learn anything more today.

 

***

 

Two days later in a small storage room of a blacksmith on the street of steel in Kingslanding.

“Original meeting place”, Ser Gerold greeted Ser Barristan.

“It was not my suggestion.” Ser Barristan muttered and Ser Gerold saw a man dressed in a large robe bend himself to enter the small door.

Loud hammering noises, normal for the workshop of a blacksmith could be heard, the sound lessening only by a bit when the Master of Whisperers closed the door. He lifted his hood and revealed his bald head.

“Glad to see you are still alive and well, Ser Gerold. Ser Barristan told me the best news I have had heard in years.” Varys’ voice was as smooth as ever.

“I hope I can return the sentiment.” Ser Gerold looked pointedly around the little room.

“I thought this an excellent meeting place. Nobody will suspect. Tobho Mott is part of my loyal network and the noise will make it impossible to hear anything if you are not inside this room. I challenge you to find a spy in here.”

The room was tiny. There was no place to hide anything larger than a cat. Ser Barristan saw Varys smirk.

“Now what can I do for you? Ser Barristan wouldn’t say much. Only, and I quote ‘I had to come for the good of the realm’ end quote. Now how do you know that such a thing is enough of a motivation for me?” The Spider looked expectantly at Ser Gerold.

“Would you believe me if I told you a greenseer told me?” came the cryptic reply of Ser Gerold.

“Actually, that’s almost the only thing I would believe. I do not think I have ever told anyone.”
Ser Barristan could see that Varys was intrigued.

“What if I told you that I had a rightful heir to the throne, a worthy one, one of excellent character, and an elaborate plan to put him on the throne with minimal bloodshed when the time is right?”
Barristan noticed the confidence in Ser Gerold’s eyes.

“I would like to hear more, but can not help but wonder why you need me then. If you have that so-called perfect King and perfect plan, why would you need my humble services?” Varys was intrigued.
Barristan wanted to hear the answer to that as well.

“Perhaps you have a role in this perfect plan of ours and we want to trust you?” Ser Gerold was quick to retort.

“Does this plan of yours involve the Targaryens across the narrow sea?” Varys shot back?

“Not necessarily, but even if, then only one of them.” Ser Gerold really seemed to enjoy baiting him.

“Good answer, are you talking about a queen instead of a king?”

“No.” Ser Gerold kept his answer brief.

“Can you give me an inkling of what my role would be?” Varys was stalling.
Barristan saw Varys was close to figuring it out, his eyes twinkled with excitement.

“Sabotage Littlefinger, ferret out weaknesses of the Lannisters, we’re working on a way to remove Renly from the small council without hurting him. We would need you for that as well. Also once everything starts, we will require you to make sure the royal children disappear somewhere safe so if something went awry and there is a moment of chaos, we can still go ahead and be sure they will be safe. We really do not want history to repeat itself. More details will follow when the time is right.”
Barristan saw Ser Gerold hesitating as if to say more but kept silent.

“A real humanitarian, your King?” Varys asked.

“Something like that”, Ser Gerold confirmed.

“When will the time be right?”

“Our king is still too young”, Ser Gerold was playing with him.

“Is he of Targaryen blood?” Varys asked.

“Yes”, Ser Gerold didn’t hesitate.

“Trueborn?”

“Yes.” Ser Gerold was giving away too many clues, Ser Barristan thought. He should stop baiting Varys and tell it like a normal person. Varys was almost there anyway.

Varys looked at Ser Gerold totally relaxed now.
“You know I have figured it out, don’t you? You’re alive, Ser Arthur, Ser Oswell too I suppose. It’s not Daenerys. Viserys is dead and sired no children. The North is involved. It can only be a son of Rhaegar but not by Elia. Benjen Stark is involved…”
“It’s a Dragonwolf! Ned brought Lyanna’s body home. She was young and healthy, so she died in childbirth?” Varys halted. “The trueborn thing however? Rhaegar was still married to Elia, was he not?”

Barristan saw him looking at Ser Gerold excitement clear on his at other times stoic face.

“Only the grand Septon could … Varys’ voice trailed off.

“The marriage with Elia was annulled. They were married. We bore witness. He is trueborn.” Ser Gerold was adamant.

Ser Barristan had been a silent witness to the word duel but now he couldn’t help but interject, he was hurt. “Why wasn’t I informed of the marriage? I fought with him on the Trident, he never said a word! And why did you keep this from me for twelve fucking years?”

This was the first time since entering the room that Ser Gerold turned away from Varys and focussed his attention on Ser Barristan.

“I don’t know why Rhaegar didn’t tell you.” The knight seemed to look for the right words.
“Lyanna was pregnant. I know he had planned to parley with the Starks before the battle began. Clear up the misunderstandings. Prevent the battle. But either Stark wasn’t there or something else went wrong. I don’t know. I wasn’t there. He had ordered us to stay in Dorne. If their unborn child was a son and Rhaegar fell during battle, the three of us had sworn to him we would protect the new King. That was our orders. That was the reason we weren’t on the Trident that fateful day. But we have been true to our word and have been protecting our King ever since.”

Varys looked at Ser Barristan. “Nobody knew. If ever there was a secret that needed keeping, this was it. They did a splendid job. King Robert would have let them smash his little head to the wall. I see why they didn’t tell you.”

Varys turned his attention to Ser Gerold again. “Did the greenseer help you from the beginning? Do you realise how many head aches you have cost me over the years?”

Ser Gerold only answered. “He did, he even did it without my knowledge for many years.”

“And”, Varys enquired, “what would it take to persuade you to tell me what happened to Tywin Lannister?”

Chapter Text

The Driftmark.

“You have to let me go! Jon argued heatedly. Ghost who lay quietly at Jon’s feet perked up his ears and looked at Jon, his red eyes silently asking if he should lend his support. Jon just petted him reassuringly and his wolf settled back down.

“How can I become a man? Do you really want to put an inexperienced green boy in charge of the Seven Kingdoms? I have never been engaged in a real battle, only played at being a knight.” He was tired of having to defend himself again. Hadn’t this all been agreed upon moons ago?
“How will I know the dragons will follow me when I venture further than a few miles from this island? How will I know I can communicate with them when I am on a boat and they are inland?
And more importantly, how will I know that they will listen to my orders and not overreact? I need to be sure they will stand down at my command even if it appears I am being threatened.”

His uncle Benjen, his three Kingsguards, Davos Seaworth and Sandor Clegane were present for this discussion. Uncle Ned had sent his brother to air his grievances. His Targaryen uncle had just urged him to take care in his last letter and Howland Reed had avoided the topic. He had however given them a most welcome piece of news on another matter.

“Jon, your uncle Ned urges you to annul this trip. His most fervent reasons being that you’re barely sixteen and that you are too valuable. Without you there is no cause.”

“Sixteen is old enough uncle. How old was Ser Arthur when he joined the Kingsguard? How old were you when you faced your first enemy? How old do most men get married? I can go on uncle. I’ll never get a chance to become mature enough if you keep me in a gilded cage and protect me like I am still an ignorant child. I have to learn to do things by myself, think for myself. I need to know how to react to unexpected situations, even if it means making a few mistakes along the way. Do you really think the Lords are going to respect a green boy?”

Jon wasn’t going to back down on this. They were set to leave in a week for the first leg of their trip.
He looked at his audience almost pleading now.
“I need to step up my training, you can only learn so much from make believe scenarios, I need real life situations. I will lack confidence going to war for the Seven Kingdoms if it is my very first conflict. Surely you must understand that? You all have lived through several battles. You must still remember how you felt your first time? It is your duty to prepare me as best at you can and as far as I can see, you are not finishing the job well.”

“Besides, it will be more difficult for me, I will need to concentrate on battle and keep the dragons in check simultaneously.” He felt bad for guilt tripping them like that but he had been making plans for several moons and now, days before they were about to cast off they were hesitating to let him go.

“Not if you rode one of them during the battle.” uncle Benjen tried to dismantle his last argument.

“There not large enough yet.” Jon retorted.

“I will be the best protected Prince in the Seven Kingdoms.” Jon resumed his plea. “I’ve got three famous knights and Sandor Clegane. Gendry, Edric and I can defend ourselves. Davos will handpick the ship’s crew amongst the seamen we have been training for battle. Most of the sailors can defend themselves adequately and some even showed real talent with a sword or spear. Just the Maester, the cook, and a few stewards will be untrained. And do not forget, if Gods forbid we should encounter a superior force, I will have my dragons at the ready to fly in.”

Jon sensed he was making ground. Ser Gerold especially didn’t look grim just thoughtful.
“I can not see anything happening on the first stage of our journey since we will sail alongside the trade convoy to and from Essos. We will take the shipping lane every trade ship takes. The second part of our journey you are free to arrange any protective measure you see fit. Besides we will be sailing North with three ships so we can convey the latest shipment of glass to the Northern Lords, three large ships that will be full of armed men. I grant you that on a small part of the journey there could be the potential of an Ironborn attack but we will scout their movements very carefully and take no risks. You can check the detailed itinerary and we all will stay in contact as much as possible.” He looked at his uncle Benjen when finishing his last sentence.

Ser Gerold intervened. “The trip to Essos can go ahead as planned. On the return trip we can evaluate the feasibility of your proposed journey to the Stony Shore. Ser Oswell will not accompany us to Essos so he will have time to arrange abundant protection.”

“I’ll have Ghost with me for the journey across the Crownlands and Riverlands. He can scout and warn us long before trouble reaches us. When we board the ships at Seagard we plan to stay close to the coastlines anyway. The dragons can follow and can provide extra protection. I will be able to test how long they can stay in the air and how high and how far they can fly. If they get tired, land won’t be far off for them to find a secluded spot to rest up. All this exercise will probably benefit them as well. Afterwards they will be the stronger because of it.” Jon argued his case most fervently.

“I still think we are taking unnecessary risks. What if someone gets wind of who you are? We have been working so hard, and we’re so close now. If the situation continues to evolve, we could be making our play in less than a year.”
His uncle Benjen looked apologetically at Jon. He usually took his side in internal conflicts but this time he was here in the capacity of the worried parent and stand in for the Warden of the North. He wouldn’t be able to join Jon on this voyage and feared for his safety.

“All the more reason for a trial run now. It will be my last chance before I have to come out into the open and fight for my claim. It is also my last chance for some normalcy. Sailing is a rite of passage for the males of house Velaryon. No one will find it strange that Jon Celtigar will make a sea journey before his seventeenth nameday.”

“What about the Ironborn?” Uncle Benjen objected.

Jon focused on his uncle to the exclusion of all else and answered him heatedly. “Can’t wait to meet them personally. I’ve heard nothing but reports of your people having to fend them off, time and again. I have begged you repeatedly to let me help the North by hindering their raids with nightly attacks. The dragons could be in and out in a flash, leaving their ships burning. The Ironborn will hardly have a chance to recognise what is attacking them and would probably not believe their eyes. Those who would dare to voice their suspicion would be laughed at. Besides, I would love the first victim of my sword to be a Kraken!”

“Lord Varys has warned you that he has heard some vague rumours about possible dragons but quelled them, luckily before Littlefinger got wind of them. You have Lord Reed to thank for this as well. But do not get too brazen or your luck will run out.” Benjen Stark cautioned

Jon made an effort to control his voice and countered.
“Even if a rumour surfaced, nobody will know they are ours. And the princess Daenerys is living in a veritable fortress for now. Hells, if necessary we could even start the rumour that the Golden Company might have dragons. They wouldn’t mind. It would only enhance their reputation for the time being.”
“Uncle, let’s stop arguing about this. Let’s try to spend the time that you are here to go over our strategies once more. That will be more productive if your goal is to keep me safe.” His eyes implored his favourite uncle to relent.

Jon turned to the others and changed the topic for now.
“We still have a lot to discuss. If Lord Reed is right, Jon Arryn will succumb to his illness and the King will ride north to ask uncle Ned to become be his Hand. We still need to synchronise our actions. Timing will be crucial to avoid casualties. Let’s go over it once more and discuss everyone’s part.”

“We are scheming on several fronts. Let us discus the steps to free up Dragonstone first. A you know, we plan to discredit the royal children, remove Renly from the line of succession, see to it that Stannis gets Storm’s end, get Lord Velaryon to be the one to appoint a castellan on Dragonstone and then the Princess Daenerys gets to come home.”

“Crucial to this scheme is that we have sufficient influence in Kingslanding. I know it will be a difficult task for uncle Ned, but when the King asks him to be his Hand, he will have no good reason not to accept. He can share his reluctance with the King, let him stew for a few days and then agree to his offer only if the King will allow him to wait a bit longer to formalise the proposed betrothal of Sansa and Joffrey. He can tell he’ll only say yes to one request for now and consider the other when Sansa and Joffrey are both older.”

“He will not like the idea of being the Hand of a King that he’ll have to overthrow.” His uncle muttered. “I know it must be done, but I didn’t realise my brother would be in such a prominent position when it all starts. Ned will struggle with it, question his honour. Brood even more than you.” Uncle Benjen sighed.

“It can’t be helped uncle. If rumours start about the royal children, uncle Ned’s role will be vital to keep the King calm and slowly convince him that these are no rumours. He will be the one to keep King Robert’s wrath in check in order to prevent him from harming innocent children once again.”

“Hopefully we will have solid proof by then. Eddard Stark must influence King Robert to return Storm’s End to Stannis Baratheon. If our timing is right the others will have succeeded in discrediting Renly.”
“My uncle needs to persuade King Robert to issue an official decree in which Stannis is officially proclaimed as first in line for the throne until such a time that the King has sired trueborn children and he hast to reinstate him as Lord of Storm’s End immediately.” Jon reiterated the plan they had come up with.

Lord Reed really had come through for the conspiracy. He had told them that he was certain that the royal children were not King Robert’s children. The Lannisters were scheming to put a pure blood Lannister bastard on the throne. Lord Reed did not know which Lannister had sired the children exactly. However, he was certain they were not the rightful heirs to the throne.

“Varys will help him. He will spread rumours, and present the idea to the small council. But uncle Ned will have to lend it weight to convince King Robert.” Jon knew he would be asking a lot of Lord Stark but the situation was an unexpected windfall.

“When Lord Velaryon is officially named as castellan of Dragonstone we’ll leave the Driftmark and install ourselves on Dragonstone. Not only will it be easier to live with the dragons there, it will be easier to defend. We’ll move a large part of our fleet there as well.”

“And just as Aegon the conqueror, Dragonstone will be the place where everything is put into motion. Rather poetic isn’t it?” His uncle Benjen could always be counted on to lighten the mood.

 

“Uncle Benjen” Jon urged him once more, “I count on you to ease uncle Ned’s mind. If everything goes as planned, his actions will save the lives of the royal family, the children included. This fact alone should soothe his mind. Besides King Robert is a child killer and would murder me without thinking twice. There will be no real dishonour involved on uncle Ned’s part.
You will need to leave soon, uncle Benjen. Lord Reed couldn’t see precisely when it would happen, but we must be prepared. Varys has affirmed that Lord Arryn’s health is declining. I want you to reach Lord Arryn before he dies. It is important that you get back to Winterfell before the King does.”

“I know the royal family’s behaviour patterns. If Arryn dies the King won’t come north straight away. I give him at least two moons before he is finally ready to set out with his entire entourage. If the Queen insists on travelling in the large royal wheelhouse, they will practically be crawling to Winterfell, perhaps even schedule other visits along the way. It will take several additional moons before he arrives at Winterfell. There is still plenty of time.” Ser Gerold calmly informed everyone.”

“That’s good to hear, Ser Gerold”, Jon replied. Let’s discuss the other matters.

“Well”, Ser Gerold spoke up “We still need to put in place the messenger system Jon has proposed.

Jon felt Ghost nudge his mind. He looked at him and realised that Ghost was restless and wanted to go outside for a run. He silently consented and Ghost was off in a flash.

“I’m sorry, where were we?” Jon asked trying to refocus on the meeting after Ghost had disappeared from sight.

“Your ideas of enhancing our messenger system.” Ser Gerold helped his Prince back on topic.

Jon explained. “We need to increase the frequency of our communications with every party involved. I want to establish a chain of messengers. We are spread throughout the realm and have to be able to react quickly if the political situation changes in some part of the realm. We will double the ravens and also should appoint several extra messengers to travel regularly between all our major bases of operations. No effort should be spared, this is too important. Once things start happening, our communication system should be flawless. If the situation is dire, I can even guide a raven personally. So if ever a raven should land on your shoulder, don’t hurt it. You can safely use it to convey a message back to me, perhaps even if I am at sea at the time. We can try it sometime. Don’t take to long to send it on its way though. It requires some concentration on my end to pull that off.

“Now, about that last report from the Reach, my uncle has received a scroll from lady Olenna, …”

The meeting went on for some time but Jon had gained the upper hand. They would depart in a sennight.

 

***

 

Dinner that night was a boisterous affair. Jon was in a good mood.
“Is everyone acquainted already?” Jon had just joined the table where Edric, Gendry and Sam seemed to be bonding most likely due to their almost equal amount of namedays.

“Well”, Sam said hesitantly, “We have introduced ourselves, I know everyone’s names but that’s about all.”

“Then let me remedy that at once, my friend.” Jon really was carefree this evening.
“Everyone, meet Sam. He will probably have told you that he is the son of Randyll Tarly, a prominent Lord of the Reach. But that’s just boring stuff. The interesting tale is how I met Sam.”

Gendry and Edric looked at Jon expectantly. “Well continue”, Gendry ordered impatiently.

Jon complied with a smile.
“Well for reasons entirely his own, Sam was travelling to the Wall to join the Night’s Watch. His ship was attacked and robbed by Ironborn not far from our coast. Sam was one of the few who escaped with their lives. Together with the other survivors, he was able to lower a small rowing boat into the water and reach the Driftmark. I happened to be near the port when they moored and convinced Sam to stay with us for the time being.”

Jon omitted the parts of the story Sam had told him in confidence. His father had disinherited him because he was overweight and craven compared to his athletic younger brother. His father was a famous military man and wanted his heir to follow in his footsteps. Sam would not do at all. He gave the boy a choice. Join the Night’s Watch were you relinquish all claims to land and titles or get killed during a hunting accident his father would orchestrate. Sam had been disheartened and had taken his only way out.

Sam had finished his tale by admitting to Jon that he was indeed craven. He had told him what had really happened during the attack on their ship. Most of the crew had been taken prisoner or were killed. Sam had hidden himself while the battle raged. After the Ironborn had left, the few survivors had escaped the fast sinking ship and had rowed ashore.

Jon had been near the coastline with his dragons when the small boat arrived. He had immediately taken Sam under his wing and had reassured him that he had taken the best course of action. If there was no way to win the battle, you had to find a way to survive. It had been the smart thing to do, Jon had reassured him. Sam and Jon had become fast friends.

 

Jon completed his tale. “Sam will first travel with us to Pentos. Then we’ll cross the Riverlands and board a ship at Seagard to sail north. But if I have it my way, Sam will not leave us for the Wall.”

“I have to Jon.” Sam stated quietly

“We’ll see about that Sam. Don’t worry. You still have several moons before you need to make your final decision. We’re not in the North yet. If by then you are still determined to dedicate your life to the Watch, we will not stand in your way. Doesn’t mean I will not stop trying to change your mind, consider this your official warning.” Jon smiled at Sam but then included all his friends in his next words.
“At the very least, we can make it an interesting journey. Let’s drink to that. To an adventurous journey!”

Everyone lifted their pints. “Hear hear!”

The adults in the room looked over to the table where the youngsters were boisterously entertaining themselves. “Let them enjoy this time. Nobody knows what the future will bring.” Benjen Stark stated. The others agreed.

 

“Well Jon”, Sam felt at ease in Jon’s company, “Now you’ve told my story. That was the one I happened to know already by the way. I was rather expecting you to give me some interesting details about our new friends here.”

“My apologies My Lord”, Jon joked. “Let’s continue the introductions shall we.” He bowed to Sam.
“To your left My Lord, you see Edric of House Dayne, heir to Starfall in Dorne and very popular with the ladies because of his pale blond hair and dark blue eyes. He is also the nephew of one of my most esteemed protectors and advisers, Ser Arthur.”

Edric played along and stood up making a formal bow to Sam. “Pleased to meet you Lord Tarly.” Then he sat down again.

“And to your right my dear Lord”, Jon was clearly enjoying himself. “Please meet Gendry Waters, a tall and very strong young man, with blue eyes and thick black hair. He apprenticed with Tobho Mott, a famous blacksmith in Kingslanding but for some mischievous reason of his own decided to leave the stinking city and make a living in a more peaceful place. Well we certainly can use a good blacksmith so we’ve persuaded him to stay with us at our modest island. We’ve started to give him some formal fighting training, teaching him to use a sword but he stubbornly prefers a hammer and if you let him, he can teach you some really cool moves with it.”

This was also the leaner version of what had really happened.
Gendry had arrived with Davos Seaworth when he returned from his last visit to Kingslanding.
Davos had met up with Varys for an update. The meeting was held once more in the little backroom of Tobho Mott’s blacksmith shop. Varys had told them how the Lannisters had suddenly started an all out search for King Robert’s bastards and were slaughtering them all. He had even heard of a baby being torn from a woman’s breast and being stabbed to death before the mother’s eyes.

Varys had begged Davos Seaworth to take the young apprentice with him. The boy had not been discovered yet. He probably was the eldest bastard of King Robert who was still alive. His mother had died a few years ago. Tobho Mott who had sometimes seen the young boy wandering past his shop, had realised the potential his young body was already revealing, namely the possibility of growing very large and strong. He had taken the boy in and had started to teach him his trade. The blacksmith had been disappointed to see the boy leave with Seaworth. Gendry had been a promising apprentice.

As soon as Jon had finished his tale, Gendry smirked and lifted his cup, a deliberate suggestion to the others. The four boys raised their glasses and drank to each other’s health once more.

Jon felt content. If only Robb were here, things would have been perfect.
He promised himself to start another long letter to his cousin in the North.

 

***

 

“I really enjoy being out on the open water.” Jon looked out over the railing of the ship. They had finally started their journey. “Why have we not done this before?”

“Do I really have to answer this question?” Davos looked pointedly in the direction where Ser Arthur and Ser Gerold were talking quietly.

“Pentos is not really that far from the Driftmark, is it?” Jon enquired. “How long will it take to sail there?”

“A sennight if the winds are fair. A bit more if they are not.” Davos Seaworth replied simply.

The conversation halted. Jon focused his attention on Ser Arthur. The knight had taken out Dawn, the famous sword of house Dayne and was cleaning it reverently. It was not often that Ser Arthur brought Dawn out in the open. But the men on the ship were all chosen for their loyalty and discretion. Besides it would not be long now before they would all out themselves.

Jon’s mind drifted to his own beautiful sword, Blackfyre. This was the first time he had brought it along. Ser Arthur had approved stating he should get used to handling the sword. It would not do to hide it away only to find out that when it really mattered, Jon wouldn’t be familiar enough with it to wield it properly.

They had agreed to dedicate part of their training sessions to sparring with their ancestral swords. Today had been the first time. Jon made a seamless transition from his dulled metal training sword to Blackfyre. Although Blackfyre was significantly lighter, wielding the sword just felt natural to Jon.
The dulled metal training sword he had been using since graduating from the wooden one, years ago, had been made to resemble his Valyrian sword in both size and shape. If anything, wielding Blackfyre seemed easier.
For once Ser Arthur did not criticize much during that part of their session. Both men paid close attention and were careful not to wound each other. Jon figured they both realised how easily these swords could cut through their shields and armour.

When they finished Ser Arthur patted Jon’s shoulder. “You’ve improved significantly Jon, but do not get overconfident, you are not there yet.”

That was rare praise coming from Ser Arthur. Jon wondered now whether the fact that Ser Arthur had stayed quiet during their session had been more significant than he had thought at first. He already looked forward to the next time they could fight with their true swords.

He walked past the small crowd that had assembled on deck to watch Jon face the famous knight. Jon just acknowledged Davos with an absent nod, went back this cabin to clean his precious sword and put it away safely.
Seated on his bunk bed he took out the bundle of letters from his aunt once more and tried to imagine his how their first meeting would go.

 

***

A few nights later the four boys were playing cards in Jon’s cabin. It was a tight fit but that didn’t stop them from having fun. If anything it was easier to bump into each other and playfully sabotage the game by peeking at the other’s cards. The game wasn’t important. It was just an excuse to spend time together.

For a while now they had been talking about past experiences, the cards lying forgotten on the small crate between them. Gendry boasted about all his interactions with girls and Edric tried to match him. Sam and Jon didn’t participate but didn’t miss a word. Then Jon changed the subject to fighting techniques and a bit later he somehow found himself talking about the time Prince Oberyn, the famous Red Viper had visited the Driftmark when Jon had celebrated only twelve namedays. He boasted how he had coaxed a reluctant Prince into teaching him how to wield a spear.

Gendry grew quiet and asked to be excused. He was tired and would like go to bed. Edric decided to call it a night as well and followed him out. Sam who suspected the two of them would revisit their previous topic about girls and sex stayed with Jon a bit longer.

Jon immediately capitalised on this opportunity. “Sam I need you to promise me something.”

Sam saw the serious look on Jon’s face and hardened himself, he would be ready to refuse his friend. “If this is about me joining the Night’s Watch again?” He already regretted not having followed his friends to their joint cabin.

“It is. Sam I need you to promise me you will not decide anything before you have had the opportunity to talk with my uncle Benjen about this. He can tell you objectively what life at the Wall is like. If you do not believe my descriptions, believe him. I vow I will not influence him beforehand. He will be a reliable source of knowledge. Use it. Question him thoroughly, think on it some more and only then make a well informed decision.”

Sam couldn’t deny Jon this earnest request. “I promise.” He answered got up and retired as well.

 

Back in the cabin the three boys shared, Gendry had a grimace on his face when he addressed Edric. “This gets better and better. Lords, Princes and Jon just mentions them as if it is the most normal thing in the world. He even sparred with this Prince Oberyn of Dorne!
Before I met you all, I don’t think I had ever met a single noble person, let alone a Prince. Now I live amongst noble knights and lords. Did you know I have even heard Jon being called ‘my Prince’ at more than one opportunity? Is there something everyone knows but me?”

Edric looked pensive. “You know I have been thinking the exact same thing. First I thought Jon was just an orphan of an important Lord who needed a lot of protection for some reason or other. Perhaps his father had a lot of enemies, or was very rich. But lately I have observed other things.”

Sam entered the cabin before Edric could say more. Sam had heard the last few words and noticed them halt and stare at each other as two small boys who had been caught doing something naughty. “What are you two whispering about? Are you still speculating about Jon and girls?”

“It is about Jon. However it has nothing to with his apparent lack of courage when it concerns dealing with the other sex, are sex as a deed.” He saw Sam blush at his words.

“Hey do you know something about that? Is that why Jon was so quiet? Does he have a girlfriend somewhere?” Gendry tried to distract Sam.

“No”, Sam said. “Besides, I told you before to let Jon be.”
“Let’s get back on topic. If it wasn’t about girls this time, then what was it that you were talking about in those hushed tones? From where I stood it looked like you were up to no good.”

“Why do you always think the worst of us? Just because we like to pull a prank once in a while …” Edric complained.

“Never mind that, you are stalling. Now I am really curious to know why you seemed to be conspiring.” Sam was getting worried. Jon was his friend and he would do what he could to keep these rascals line.

“Sam”, Gendry started. “Have you ever heard Ser Gerold, Ser Oswell or Ser Arthur refer to Jon as ‘my Prince’? I think I even overheard Ser Davos say it once?”

Sam, surprised by the serious turn the conversation had taken pondered this for a moment.
“What if they do? Perhaps it is just an endearment, like Davos calls me ‘son’ sometimes?”

“I do not believe you can dismiss it so readily. I for one think there is more to it.” Edric whispered.

“Have you seen that sword he used this morning? Ser Arthur was sparring with Dawn and I could have sworn that the one Jon used was a made of real Valyrian steel as well. I had not seen anyone use that particular sword before. You know I have worked in Tobho Mott’s workshop and seen several beautiful swords but the sword Jon held was just exquisite. It had this beautiful red ruby and the hilt was a work of art.”

“Guys”, Sam tried to stop them.

“And haven’t you ever wondered about his direwolf? It is said they normally only live north of the Wall and are extremely wild and dangerous. According to legend, only house Stark can control them. Jon as we can all testify has absolute command of Ghost.” Edric said bolstered by Gendry’s cooperation.

“Perhaps he has Stark blood? It certainly would explain him referring to Benjen Stark as ‘uncle Benjen’.” Sam said a bit uneasy. “You know, I am not comfortable talking about Jon like this behind his back. Say that you are right and there is more to him than we know, have you ever thought there could be a very good reason as to why we were not told?”

“I do not understand”, Gendry interjected.

“Perhaps we’re not supposed to understand. If Jon wants us to know, he will tell us. That is, if there is anything to tell and if he even knows himself what there is to know, you know? I am not making sense, am I?” Sam concluded hesitantly.

“No.” Gendry had a hard time making sense of any of it.

“I get the gist of it.” Edric replied. “You want us to leave Jon in peace. According to you we should wait until he is ready to tell us what is going on, if we are right in the first place and there really is something going on. You also mentioned Jon might not know anything himself either.”

“Why didn’t you explain it like that to begin with?” Gendry complained.

“I have a better idea”, Edric looked at Sam. “Would it be alright to ask Davos Seaworth?”

“Ask him what?” Gendry looked at Edric as if he had two heads.

“Why they sometimes call Jon ‘My Prince’ Gendry.” Edric was getting frustrated.

“I don’t know”, Sam answered. “That could also be considered as going behind Jon’s back.

“We do not mean him any harm”, Edric insisted. “We are just curious.”

“Aren’t you related to Ser Arthur? Can’t you ask him?” Gendry interjected looking at Edric.

“He is more loyal to Jon as to me, which is exactly my point anyway. Why would my uncle be so loyal to Jon, the son of an average Lord? Ser Arthur is a former Kingsguard, the most famous knight in the entire realm used to guarding Kings and their royal offspring. Why would he guard Jon so faithfully?” Edric mused.

Sam blanched. “Guys, do me a favour? Forget this conversation for now. Don’t talk about this to anyone. Do not ask anyone any questions, not Davos, not Ser Arthur. I’ll handle it.”

“Sam?” Edric was flabbergasted.

“Promise me Edric, promise me Gendry. Trust me to handle this.” Sam urged.

Both nodded their agreement. Gendry regretted having started this strange discussion anyway.

Sam left the cabin and went to check if Jon was still awake.

 

***

The next evening, the four of them were once more assembled in Jon’s cabin. This time however there were no cards to be seen. Gendry’s just sat there, his mouth was moving but no sound exited.

Edric stared at Jon with big unbelieving eyes. Then he turned his head and fixed his eyes on Sam.
“You told on us”, he accused.

“And don’t you like the result?” Sam managed to look a bit superior for once.

After his panic last night Sam had put two and two together for the most part. He had made small observations here and there but had respected Jon’s privacy. He had even noticed dragons the first time he had seen Jon at the beach but had not been sure they belonged together. He had hesitated to interrogate a new acquaintance. Yesterday evening however he had felt it was his duty to warn his new friend that whatever he was hiding was as good as discovered.

Before Edric could react to Sam’s taunt, Gendry had found his voice again. “For real, you’re a Prince, or a King even? I already felt out of place in the company of three sons of real Lords, this is even worse. Do I have to call you your Grace?”

Sam and Edric were as eager as Gendry to see how Jon would react to these questions.

Jon smiled, he remembered Sandor Clegane making almost the exact same remark.
“Of course not. Please keep calling me Jon and keep acting normal around me. I am no ruler yet so am not entitled to be called your Grace.”

“So that’s why they call you ‘My Prince’. I thought they were just teasing you with that.” Gendry was more at ease again.

“Will you tell us more?” Edric tentatively probed.

Jon looked earnestly at them. “I will. Just ask me. I’ll answer if I’m able.”

“You have a Valyrian sword?” Gendry asked.

“I do. Would you like to see it?”

“I’d very much like to hold it if I may.” Gendry asked reverently. “Does it have a name?”

Jon had taken Blackfyre out of its scabbard and held it up moving it slowly so they could admire it from every angle. “Anyone recognise it?” he asked smiling at their amazement.

“Gendry was right. It is extraordinary. It is even finer than Dawn.” Edric was jealous when he saw Jon handing it to Gendry who carefully held it in one hand and checked the balance by swinging it in the limited space.

“Can it be Blackfyre?” Sam asked. “It hardly seems possible but it looks like it.”

“It is Blackfyre. Maester Aemon had it at the Wall. He gave it to me shortly after my twelfth nameday.”

Gendry reluctantly handed the sword back to Jon. To Edric’s disappointment the sword was soon back in its scabbard and tucked away once more between Jon’s belongings.

“No further questions?” Jon asked raising his brow at Sam.

“You have pets?” Sam tried to give him an out.

“I have several.” Jon smiled and seemed at ease. “What do you think you know?”

“Well you have Ghost, a direwolf, I guess he represents your Stark side.” Sam didn’t know if he was allowed to bring up the dragons.

“What’s a direwolf?” Gendry felt out of his depth in this company in more than one way.

Jon turned his attention to Gendry and started explaining.
“A direwolf is the sigil of house Stark. You probably know that the Starks are the most prominent family of the North. My uncle Eddard Stark is Warden of the North. My uncle Benjen, you have met of course when you arrived at the Driftmark, is his brother. The large albino wolf you have seen in my company is a direwolf. They are fearsome beasts mostly living in the wild, north of the Wall. But I have raised Ghost ever since he was a puppy and he is totally loyal to me. He won’t harm you, unless you mean to harm me, that is.”

“I think you were not finished yet, Sam?” Jon gently nudged him.

“Well, I couldn’t help but notice two other pets, representing your Targaryen family?” Sam hardly dared to say it out loud.

“Dragons, Jon. He thinks you have two dragons who obey you.” Edric was ready to believe anything by now.

He grinned seeing Gendry’s reaction. The boy sat there motionless, his mouth open, trying to decide if they were toying with him or not.

“Didn’t know what you were getting yourself into, did you?” Jon teased, but he sobered when he saw Gendry look at him with doubt in his eyes.

“We’re all friends here Gendry, you just as much as these other two imps. Relax, we’ll fill up our pints and I’ll tell you my story in more detail.”

The four of them talked deep into the night.

 

***

 

The next morning after breaking their fast, Jon asked Gendry to accompany him to his favourite bench at the bow of the ship. The young man immediately complied.

“How are you doing Gendry?” he opened the conversation.

“I’m fine … Jon.” Gendry hesitated on the appellation.

“No you’re not.” Jon sighed. “You know even though I became an orphan minutes after I was born, I have been lucky. I have always been cared for and have received a good education. You have not been that lucky.”

He looked at Gendry with a serious and encouragingly expression, using it to give extra credence to his next words. “You were just unlucky Gendry. You are no less than us. You also have noble blood running through your veins. You just lack the confidence and knowledge how to address certain people in certain circumstances. If you agree, I can set up some lessons with the Maester to get you started. I am sure with just some basic principles you could do a lot better in no time. You are one of us.”

“I’m just a bastard raised in Fleabottom. I’m only good with my hands.” Gendry stammered.

“How would you know for sure if you never had the opportunity to test yourself? Who knows what you can accomplish in life? Being good with numbers is only one talent. If you do not excel in that, you can excel in lots of other things. I am told Tobho Mott was impressed with your quick understanding of several complicated melting techniques he showed you. Look at Sam. Do we look down on him because he is not really a fighter? No, we give him the opportunity to develop his other talents. Did you know that once Sam has read a book, he can almost literally recite it even if it has been months since he last read it? He would make an excellent Maester, one I could trust blindly.”

“I can’t even read properly, only the simple words.” Gendry confessed.

“Nothing keeps you from learning now if that is your wish. I will not force anything on you, but think about it. If you stay with us, you can take advantage of all these opportunities I have had at my disposal my whole life. You’ll just start your education a bit later than all of us but in time nobody will be able to tell the difference.

“And the fact that you are technically a bastard has nothing to do with you. It reflects more on your father, on your parents. They should call the fathers bastards, not the innocent babes. And do you realise, that if you stick with me, the moment I am King, I can legitimize you and grant you a lordship? So I’ll repeat my earlier words. You are one of us. If I had it my way I would outlaw the use of the word bastard anyway.”
Jon tapped his shoulder playfully. “Don’t insult your Prince by not believing him.” He teased when Gendry didn’t react.

Gendry looked at him, clearly a bit overcome. “It will take some getting used to but I really want to become something more than just a bastard. Always have. Let me get my head around this and I will let you know about possible lessons, okay?”

“That’s more than fair Gendry. Take all the time you need. I will be here for you if you have additional questions. Though about the legitimisation, I will only be able to do that if you swear yourself to my cause. Know however that if you do that, you will become part of the conspiracy to overthrow your birth father. I will understand if you will not want to do that.”

“Why wouldn’t I want that? Hells where do I sign. He tried to have me killed! That’s why I had to flee everything I knew. I really liked studying with Tobho Mott.” Jon clearly had struck a note.

“To be honest, Gendry, I do not think that King Robert was behind this murdering spree. I think it was masterminded by the Lannisters. Not that I want to defend the King, mind you. The son of a bitch murdered my half sister and half brother who was just a mere babe. He had their mother killed and is even now sending assassins to kill my aunt in Essos. If he knew I existed, I would become his target as well.”

“What are we still arguing about then?” Gendry asked. As I said I owe no loyalty to the Baratheons and will gladly swear myself to your service.”

“Well, for now, just swear to keep my secrets and help keep us all safe. Decide what you want to do about possible lessons and we’ll take it from there. You’re one of my friends Gendry. Take your time and let all of this sink in. I won’t have you make a hasty decision only to regret it afterwards. If you do decide to join our cause I want you to do so with a clear mind.”

Gendry just nodded unable to formulate a coherent reply.

Jon stood up “Come on let’s find Edric and Sam, I think this would be a good time for a sparring session.

 

***

A few weeks later.

Again it was Davos standing on the ship’s front deck next to Jo. Both were watching the shorelines, now those of Pentos, slowly growing smaller and disappear completely.

“Mission accomplished?” Davos asked him quietly.

“It went well.” Jon replied

“And your aunt?”

“She’s so nice. It is strange that she is my aunt. She’s just a girl my age. We got along well. I feel responsible for her. I promised to bring her to Westeros as soon as it is safe.” Jon felt a bit shy talking about Daenerys so he kept his answers brief.

“I’m happy for you it went well Jon.” Davos was determined not to pry any further. He knew Jon would open up to him in his own time.

“And Harry Strickland? How did that meeting go?” he was really curious about that.

“Didn’t Ser Gerold tell you all about it?” Jon stalled.

“No, I didn’t ask him. I prefer to hear it from you.” Davos answered sincerely.

“Well, perhaps we should make ourselves comfortable then. Jon sat down on a bench his eyes still gazing at the small stripe of land that would be invisible before long.

Davos followed his example and lowered himself in the empty spot close to Jon.

“You heard about how he came up to our table at the tavern during our second night in Pentos?” Jon asked not knowing where to begin his story.

“Not really. Why did he approach you?” Davos enquired.

“Well, we were seated around a large table, all of us that is Ser Arthur, Ser Gerold, Sandor Clegane,
Edric, Sam, Gendry and yours truly of course. I thought at the time something we said must have attracted Strickland’s attention. Ser Arthur told me later he had noticed the man studying us for some time before coming over to introduce himself.”

Jon hesitated. “Perhaps it was stupid of me but I didn’t think anyone would recognise the sword. You see, I was carrying Blackfyre. Well when Strickland approached and introduced himself, Ser Arthur immediately realised this man was the commander of the Golden Company. When Strickland asked where I got that sword I was carrying, Ser Arthur took him aside and forcibly ordered Strickland to swear upon his honour not to harm any of us. He only invited him to sit down at our table after he had done so sincerely enough to satisfy my Kingsguard and even then not before Strickland had agreed to surrender his own sword for the duration of our conversation.”

Jon’s eyes wandered briefly to where Pentos had still been visible before they started this conversation. The coastline could no longer be seen with the naked eye. Jon returned his gaze to Davos and resumed his account.
“Edric, Sam and Gendry had retired to their room after a slight prodding of Ser Gerold. We tried to give Strickland a censured but moving version of my background. Of course we had sworn him to secrecy for the time being.”

“I believed him when he promised not to betray our secret until we were ready to reveal my true identity to the realm and fight for my claim. Ser Arthur tried to coax him to reveal where his loyalties would lie should money not be an issue, but he wouldn’t give anything away. Jon turned his head to Davos, and looked him firmly in the eye. He really wanted Davis to believe his next statement.
“I know I struck a note when I told him about my two dragons at the end. I could read his empathy for our cause from his face although he didn’t utter a word.”

“What?” Davos couldn’t help but react. “How could you do that? He has an army of at least ten thousand men at his disposal. He could easily kill you and capture your dragons!”

“I didn’t tell him where they are, or where we lived, Davos.” Jon stayed calm. Somehow he had felt he could trust Strickland. “I told you it was a lean version of the story. For all he knows the dragons could be anywhere in Westeros.”

“I don’t like it all the same”, Davos replied.

“They would have to come by ship. You know we have shored up our defences. If an enemy ship draws near, my dragons can set it afire before it has the chance to throw anchor. Don’t worry. Even Ser Arthur is convinced that he won’t fight against us. At worst he will stay neutral. At best we have sown the seeds to persuade him to lend us his support. Ser Arthur hopes Blackfyre could well be the best inducement to convince him to our side.”

“You’re not giving up the sword!”

“No Davos, I misspoke. I meant the fact that I am the true owner of the sword, one with Targaryen blood. According to Ser Arthur, the fact that I am only half Targaryen is in my favour as well. I’m almost a Blackfyre myself. The dragons are just the icing on the cake. Perhaps you should talk about this with Ser Arthur?” Jon tried to appease him.

“I certainly will. But first tell me, how did you part company with Strickland?” Davos was calmer now.

“His exact word were and I quote ‘I wish you good fortune in the wars to come your Grace’ end of quote.
His tone seemed to imply that he recognised my claim and would not accept an offer to take up arms against us, however much the gold they would promise him.”

“That’s all?” Davos was not reassured.

“Well, I sort of made him promise that if they approached him, he would contact us first before making a decision.” Jon had held on this titbit of information as long as possible and relished the brief look of shock that crossed Davos’ face.

“He’d better.” Davos grumbled and left Jon’s side. He would go and speak with Ser Arthur now.

 

***

 

Jon closed his eyes and tried to search for his dragons. His was once more standing at the bow of the ship. Davos had just informed him they would probably arrive at the Driftmark tomorrow and had left him shortly after. Knowing Davos, the man had probably guessed what Jon was trying to do and had given him privacy.

‘Not close enough yet. I will try again in an hour or so.’ He saw Sandor approach. He smiled encouragingly. He always enjoyed his conversations with the man.

“Enjoying the sea air?” Jon looked at his weathered face.

“Getting used to it.” Came the muttered reply. You will be glad to see your wolf again, boy?”

“I will.” Jon imitated his brief conversation style.

“Boring trip. Didn’t have to do shit. Why the fuck did I come along?”

“Well, you refused to spar with me.” Jon argued.

“You have your fine knights lining up for that. I do not need no fucking cuddling!”

“Whose whinging now?” Jon grinned trying to show Clegane that he was just teasing.

“I’m not whinging.” The large man replied trying to keep a straight face.

Jon had anticipated this reply and had his answer ready.
“Well to quote a certain friend of mine: your lips are moving and you complain about something, that’s whinging.” Jon finished quoting Clegane’s own words.

That did it, they looked at each other and both shook with laughter.

After they had both calmed down, Clegane patted his shoulder. “You’re alright kid.”
Jon watched him leave, knowing he had improved his protector’s mood significantly.

 

He focussed his mind once more, trying to reach further and further towards their destination.
Suddenly he felt it. It was a light nudge, but it was there. He tried to keep his elation in check and concentrated once more. He emptied his mind and responded to the nudge. Now he could feel the two of them. It felt like they had been dozing but he could feel their excitement building.

Jon looked at the sky. It was very cloudy today, perfect.
‘I’m almost home’, he called out to them in his mind. ‘If you promise to be careful and fly above the clouds, you can come to me. I would love to see you again.’ He felt them get up, leave the cave and take to the sky.

Now he focussed his attention on the green dragon. ‘Rhaegal, when you are close enough, will you let me share your mind, please? I would love to see the sea and our ship from high up. You know I would love to be able to fly as you two can.’ Jon felt Rhaegal’s positive energy floating through him. He knew Rhaegal had just agreed.

It was not long before Jon could feel Rhaegal was close enough for him to warg. He had used the time it had taken the dragons to come into range to fetch Ser Gerold. Warging a dragon took a lot of energy and he had promised that if the circumstances allowed for it, he would always arrange for supervision. He had been obliged to admit that when in full warg mode, he wasn’t able to protect himself. There was a big difference between just giving mental orders to the dragons or fully warg with Rhaegal.

Ser Gerold stood over him, looking a bit anxious. Jon seated on the now familiar bench on deck gave him a reassuring smile and closed his eyes.
It didn’t take him long before he was soaring above the clouds. Rhaegal welcomed him. The dragon was really glad to feel their bond again. Jon could sense how the both of them had missed him. They hadn’t seen each other for more than three sennights. ‘I am happy too. You can come along on my next trip. I don’t want to be away from you for so long either. But promise you will behave and not put yourselves in danger.’ Warm acceptance greeted him. ‘Come on let’s take a dive and see what’s down there.’
Rhaegal immediately complied, Viserion followed his brother.

Jon felt exhilarated. The view really was amazing. The sea reached for as far as his eyes could see in all directions. He focussed east, looking for a ship. There it was. He urged Rhaegal to approach. Then he squinted. Was that his ship? It looked like another boat was down there. Then he saw his own ship. Jon was not well versed in the art of navigating a ship and he was certainly no master at estimating distances and speed at sea yet. His best guess was that both vessels were destined to cross each other before the sun reached its highest point.

He forgot about the danger of discovery and flew closer to determine whether the other ship posed a threat to them. When he was close enough he recognized the banner of the pirates Sam had described to him. He had asked Harry Strickland if he knew who these pirates were and the commander had warned him about them. They were well known and feared in Pentos. They had the reputation of ferocious fighters and were known to take prisoners to sell them as slaves.
What were they doing so close to Westeros? Rhaegal could feel his anger towards that ship and before Jon knew it, he had seemingly given Rhaegal the impression they would attack.

Rhaegal dove towards the ship, Viserion at his tail. Both dragons released their fire, each putting a different part of the ship aflame. Jon felt overwhelmed by the heat that he felt flowing through Rhaegal. ‘Up, up’, he ordered them. Luckily Rhaegal complied and soon they were flying above the clouds.

Jon broke the connection to Rhaegal. He blinked a few times and saw Ser Gerold’s relief. It was however short lived when Jon immediately cried out: “ Ser Gerold, call Davos! We need to change course. There’s a pirate ship on fire. It will be severely crippled by now. We need to see if we can save the innocents on board. If Strickland was right, they may have hostages.”

 

***

 

Later,when the sun was no longer up.

“What the hell were you thinking boy? Where you thinking at all?” Jon had never seen Davos loose his composure like this.

“I’m sorry Davos. I apologise to all of you. Is Ser Arthur all right?”

“A fucking Ironborn”, Clegane muttered. “Ser Arthur almost got killed saving the cunt of a female Kraken. Don’t you fucking look at me that way boy. That was a dumb thing to do.”

“I know”, Jon agreed. “It all happened so fast, one moment I was recognising that banner and feeling mad about the destruction of Sam’s ship, the other moment the dragons had already decided to help me by attacking.” He looked over to his audience. Everyone had shown up for the debriefing.

He tried to justify himself. “I told you I lacked battle practice. I warned you that using the dragons in battle would take some training. Well here is your proof. I need to learn how they react. I certainly will do all I can to teach them to wait for a more explicit order from me before reacting, especially before burning people.”

“Please tell me how Ser Arthur is doing? Can I see him?”

“He’s resting now”, Ser Gerold took pity on his Prince. “He will be all right in time. He took a nasty wound to his sword arm. It required several stitches and he needed milk of the poppy. He’s sleeping it off now.”

“Why in the Gods’ names were you fighting on the front lines? You could have gotten yourself killed.” Davos looked more worried than angry now. “Are you alright? Did you get hurt?”

“Just a small cut. I’m fine.” Jon looked at Davos with an earnest expression on his face. “I started the battle Davos. Perhaps not on purpose but it was my fault there was a battle at all. When those pirates charged at us, I could not let others risk their lives because of my actions. I could not just sit back and watch. I was trying to fix my own bloody mistake!”

Ser Gerold tried to be the voice of reason. “Calm down Jon, your outburst doesn’t help us any further.”

He addressed everyone now.
“Let’s all sit down and tell each other our part of the battle. This will help us learn from what happened and find ways to coordinate our actions better in future. It will also help us to calm down.” Ser Gerold had fought his fair share of battles and knew nothing helped as much to ease a soldier’s conscience than the opportunity to talk through his experiences.

 

What had happened? They had approached the ship and seen the pirates’ efforts to try to put out the fire, but the ship was already far too damaged to reach the shore. Two of their masts were completely destroyed. When the pirates spotted their ship they saw their chance for survival. They just had to take the other ship by force. Their numbers had dwindled because several had been killed outright by the initial fire bursts and others were no longer in fighting condition. The ones that were left knew their chances were slim and had fought as if the devil possessed them.

Ser Arthur had followed Jon who had jumped right into the fray. In an effort to shield his Prince he had taken on two men at once. He had been able to hold them off but a third one had jumped in and sliced his sword arm. Jon who fought beside him had prevented worse by stabbing Blackfyre in the attaker’s neck. Clegane had appeared out of nowhere bringing several crew members with him. The latter had extracted the wounded Ser Arthur and brought him to Sam. Clegane had stayed and fought firmly at Jon’s side.

Minutes later the fight was over. No pirates remained alive. The pirates had fought to the last man. On Jon’s end everyone had done their share of killing. Their crew had proven themselves battle worthy. Ser Gerold had shown once more that he was not too old yet and had fought efficiently. Clegane had been fearsome to behold. If they would have kept count, he would surely have had the highest body count.

Edric and Gendry could boast they had lived through a real live battle and had killed a pirate between the two of them. Sam had seen most of this happen from where he guarded the door to the cabin where the Maester, the cook and a few younger servants had been assembled for safety. Ser Gerold had had the presence of mind to shout to Sam to perform that task. He had realised he had to give Sam an honourable task that kept him away from the battle. The young man’s training sessions were not that successful.

 

Afterwards Ser Gerold and a few crew members had boarded the crippled ship and discovered a hostage who had been brought on deck before the fighting started. She later told them they had done that because her small prison was too close to the fire.
Jon had been baffled. They had risked their lives for one single hostage? At first glance the woman looked like a low born in filthy combat clothing. But she immediately identified herself as Yara Greyjoy then she had urged them to search below deck for she knew of at least two other female prisoners. They had eventually rescued three women. The additional two they found below deck turned out to be kidnapped pleasure slaves.

When Jon had learned the identity of Yara Greyjoy and realised she was a sister of Theon, member of house Greyjoy the ruling house of Pyke, he had decided to leave the shackles on her hands and feet for the time being. He had ordered his men to lock her up below deck. He would interrogate her later once order had been restored. He had given the cabin Sam, Edric and Gendry shared to the two female slaves and had ordered his friends to put their belongings in his room. It would be crowded but if all went well it would be just for this one last night. They would reach the Driftmark early tomorrow morning.

All the bodies of the pirates had been returned to the burning ship. Rhaegal and Viserion had flown down once more to complete the destruction of the vessel. Soon the ship had sunk. Jon had ordered his dragons back to the shore, reassuring them he would be with them soon. He was coming home.
Then they had given a sea burial to the one casualty they had suffered, according to the man’s dying wish. Jon had known him personally. He had helped train him on the Driftmark. He had been a kind man. Jon remembered talking to him about his children. He made a mental note to see to it that they were taken care of. It would ease his guilt a bit.

 

***

 

“It was entirely my uncle’s doing.” Yara had admitted after some prodding from Jon and Davos.

She was sitting on what Jon thought of as ‘his bench’ on the front deck, Davos and Jon were looming over her. Ser Gerold stood next to her, watching her every move. Jon could see Clegane standing a bit further away hands on the railing of the ship staring intently into the water. He was trying very hard to pretend that he was not listening carefully to every single word of the interrogation.

“You mean your own family wants to get you killed?” Jon did not feel very favourable towards a sister of Theon Greyjoy.

“My uncle is, Euron Greyjoy. He is a younger brother of my father who has left us years ago to make his fortune at sea. Apparently he has been somewhat successful since he told me of the fleet he has assembled. He plans to kill our father and rule the Iron Islands himself. We would be a threat to his claim. He spread the word of a significant reward offered for the capture of his niece and or nephew. The pirates were on their way to uncle Euron to hand me over and claim the reward.” Yara told all this in a boring tone.

“How much are you worth?” Jon baited her. “I could get my hands on your dick of a brother you know.”

“Theon, you know Theon?” Yara showed some feeling for the first time in the conversation.

“I know him. Can’t say I like him though. I once suffered his company for two sennights when I visited Winterfell.” Jon revealed

“What’s your name boy. I want to know who I will offend.”

“Never mind my name.” Jon said.

“Well then, tell me at least how you defeated these pirates. I must say I am impressed.”

“The fire helped.” Jon tried to evade.

“If that was your doing, you should teach me how you did it. When I was brought above deck by the pirates, your ship was still at some distance. How did you manage to set fire to the ship from so far away?”

“And have the Ironborn use our tactics against us. I don’t think so.” Jon was relieved she had not seen the dragons’ initial attack. He had made sure that only loyal men remained on deck when the dragons had swooped down once more to complete the ship’s destruction. Yara had already been safely locked up below deck.

‘You won’t tell me your name. You won’t tell me how you defeated a very famous pirate. Will you tell me why I am in chains at least?” Yara tried once more to get some information out of the younger man.

“Just know that I hate the Ironborn. I hate your way of life. You reave and pillage, rape and kill, and are proud of it. ‘Paying the Iron Price’ it what you call it? How do you even begin to justify yourselves?” He ended his tirade with this rhetorical question.

“I don’t.”

For the first time Jon really looked at her. It looked like she had meant what she just said.
“What?”

“I have a small following, Ironborn who want to turn away from the ‘Old Way’ as we call it. We want to settle down and live from trade and do some of our own farming. Trade could make us rich. We are the best at sea. But my father won’t support me. I’ve been trying to recruit more men and want to remove my father from power without killing him. I have even been playing with the idea to fetch Theon one way or another.”

She now looked at Jon.
“Are you in charge of this vessel? We could strike a deal you know?”

Jon didn’t know how to react to this. He just got up and ordered his men to give her something to eat and drink. Afterwards they should lock her up again.

Jon saw Sandor immediately volunteered for the task of escorting Yara Greyjoy back below deck.
He forcefully took her arm and started to drag her away. Jon couldn’t hear what Yara said but Sandor’s reply rang loud and clear.
“Stop flapping yer gums, bitch. We do not need to hear your fucking whinging.”

A small smile ghosted over Jon’s lips. Leave it to Sandor to provide him a small moment of comic relief. The man really had a way with words.
“Ser Gerold, I’m going to look in on Ser Arthur. I will release him from the company of Edric, Sam and Gendry. I know he will love to have me visit.” Jon was in sore need of advice.

 

***

 

Ser Arthur sat on the bed his back supported by a bundle of furs. He looked at his young charge who sat brooding on a small chair a few feet away.

“Stop blaming yourself, Jon” he reprimanded. “Use this experience as a valuable lesson.”

Jon looked at Ser Arthur. “I pray your sword arm will soon be totally functional again. I want to apologise once more.”

“You know”, Ser Arthur answered, “I once was hailed as the best Swordsman in Westeros. I do not tell you that to boast, just to teach you something. Even the very best fighter can get killed if he is grossly outnumbered. I can take on two men, sometimes more if the circumstances are in my favour, but I would not survive if several men simultaneously tried to kill me.”

He looked over to Jon. “This is a valuable lesson Jon. Either you try to find a location where they cannot come at you from all sides, or you fight in formation. That’s what we are going to focus on as soon as we reach land. We are going to teach you to fight with one or more fighters backing you.”

“Depending on the situation you can fight side by side, or back to back. If you are surrounded from all sides and there are several of you, you can form a protective circle so nobody’s back can be attacked.
The more familiar you are with the men fighting beside you, the easier it will be to synchronise your fighting moves. Agree on simple signs so everyone knows in the blink of an eye what to do, which opponent to take on and so on. Perhaps I have been remiss in your training.”

“I couldn’t have had a better teacher.” Jon replied instantly. “I was scared during battle, I’ll admit that but I didn’t hesitate. I instinctively knew which tactics to use, how to swing when to use lethal force. I would not have been as efficient if it wasn’t for you. Your lessons are what kept me alive out there.”

“It would have been stupid not to be scared my Prince. Those men were some of the fiercest opponents I have ever faced. They were as battle hardened as they come. They have spent their lives fighting at sea. What’s more they were desperate. Our ship was their last chance to survive. Compared to these men some large battles I fought were a piece of cake. During the rebellion I faced farmers who had been given swords in their hands and hardly had any fighting experience.”

Ser Arthur saw his Prince shift in his seat.
“As a first battle, you have not had it easy. Don’t be too hard on yourself.”

“It’s not about that. It’s about how I got us involved in this battle in the first place.” Jon said filled with remorse.

“Who’s to say they would not have attacked anyway? You said yourself their ship was about to cross ours. If they had decided to attack and they had not been weakened by the dragonfire first, the battle could have been much tougher. No Jon, try not to dwell too much on the what ifs but go forward with the situation at hand. Like I said, it happened. Deal with it. Learn from it.”

“I’ll try”, Jon answered demurely. “Now, what to do about Yara Greyjoy?”

“Set her free? What else would you do with her?” Ser Arthur asked perplexed.

“I have been thinking about what she told me. She claims to have forsworn the Old Ways and has some followers. If we want to sue for peace with the Ironborn and not worry about them attacking our shores, perhaps she is our solution. I’d like to talk to her some more.”

“I don’t know Jon. Don’t reveal too much. Perhaps you should let someone else lead the interrogation. If I was her, I would question why a sixteen year old boy is the leader of some very experienced fighters. Do not raise her suspicion and do not let her see the dragons.”

“Yeah, about that, we were lucky she didn’t see them.” Jon admitted.

“If she disembarks at the Driftmark we will have to be careful.” Ser Arthur pondered the problem.
“Best put her on another ship immediately. There surely will be one leaving in a direction of her choice.”

“You would just let her go? Not try to plant the seeds of a future alliance? You know we have something she seems to want. That pain in the ass Theon is her brother.” Jon stressed once more.

“I don’t know Jon. I do not trust the Ironborn. But let’s ask what the others think about this. Gods know we need to find a solution for the constant nuisance the Ironborn cause. I would be very glad to never see any ever again!”

“Do you need anything? Can I get you anything before I retire?” Jon asked.

‘I’m not an invalid Jon. It is just my arm that’s wounded. Now that I’m no longer drugged with that nasty milk of the poppy, I can fend for myself. I order you to leave me alone.” Ser Arthur made a move to get up.

Jon immediately grabbed his good arm when he stumbled.
“It seems you will need some more rest before you can order me around again.” A worried look belied the teasing words. “Get well Arthur”, “I’ll see you in the morning.”

 

 

Interlude 8: You’ve got mail

 

Jon,

I hope you’re still doing well? I enjoyed reading your last letter. I’m looking forward to getting to know Edric Dayne. We should all meet up sometime. I’ve been thinking that the Riverlands could be a perfect location. Both of us would only need to travel half the distance. Everyone would think I’m visiting my mother’s family and I could introduce you to them. It’s really been too long since I’ve last had the opportunity to beat you in one game or another.

I know you always ask about Ghost’s siblings. Well then, it will be your own fault if my letter bores you to death. Once I begin talking about those wonderful pets, I’m hardly able to stop. If Gods forbid we ever loose contact, I will have a constant reminder of you by my side. Greywind is my best and closest companion and every time I sense his presence I feel safe and whole. I am even more grateful now I realise that I only have him because of you fighting tooth and nail against the combined reluctance of uncle Benjen and your guards. Yes, I finally wriggled the entire story from him.

Mother is still not too pleased with you. As I have written to you before, you are the one she blames for every nuisance the direwolves cause at Winterfell.

A few days ago, Shaggydog, you remember the silly name Rickon gave his wolf once he was old enough to do so, ruined a tablecloth, one mother and Sansa had worked on for ages. They had embroidered it with five direwolves' heads. I must admit it is a shame that it is ruined. The embroidered heads were beautiful renditions of our pets. Mother does speak true when she claims Rickon’s wolf is the worst of the litter. We’ve all promised father we would help Rickon train Shaggydog from now on.

I’ve written before of father’s initial reaction to the wolves. You know he was reluctant at first but he has come around. He defends their presence to mother nowadays. He even goes as far as to praise you for gifting them to us. He tells her that she should be thankful to you, that the wolves will be the best protection her children will ever have. Their instincts are impeccable and their loyalty is unparalleled. Last night during dinner, he even told us stories of the Starks of old who rode into battle next to their giant direwolves. And for the first time I saw something in mother’s expression that made me hopeful that she will relent I time.

My siblings on the other hand still revere the ground you walk on. They are all very attached to their pets. It is strange to see how the wolves adapt themselves to the personality of their masters. It has made me wonder whether there is perhaps another explanation. Did the direwolves somehow choose the Stark sibling best suited their personality? Knowing you, you will try to convince me of the latter.

Anyway you should see Lady. That’s Sansa’s direwolf. I’ve never seen a pet that is so well behaved. Lady walks as elegantly as Sansa, she is always dignified never dirty. Arya’s wolf, Nymeria, is as fearless as she is. Shaggydog is as wild an untamed as Rickon and Summer is as calm as Bran. I’m not sure I’m the one to describe the similarities between Greywind and myself. I would prefer to wait until you see the two of us interact together and let you tell me. Yet another reason why we should meet soon. I know, I promised in my last letter that I would stop ‘winging’ – I like that word by the way – but I am determined to continue whinging until you relent. What I will tell you about Greywind is that he seems to be growing even bigger than I thought possible. I can not begin to guess how much he eats since he mostly hunts at night.

 

And how are things with Ghost? Are you doing ‘your thing’ with him? Never mind, why am I even asking? I know you do! I’d love to see you two together. I have never seen an albino with red eyes before. I can just picture the both of you, brooding together in a corner of your room. So please? I will say no more, at least not for a few paragraphs.

I’m glad there was a sixth puppy. Uncle Benjen told us you found it after you had already decided these ones were for us. You know this makes you a part of our pack, don’t you? Wolves have strong family ties. So by adopting a sibling of our direwolves, you’ve officially been made a member of the Stark pack. I loved the description uncle Benjen gave us of your direwolf.

 

I wanted to ask you something though. Perhaps it is all your tales of seeing through an animal’s eyes that got stuck in my subconscious, but I have started to have these dreams where I see things from Greywind’s perspective. Everything has this yellow hue. In my dreams I run through the woods and hunt game. Sometimes I wake up and the taste of blood still lingers on my tongue.
When you bond with Ghost and see through his eyes, is everything tinted red because of his eye colour? I know it sound ridiculous but I can’t help wonder whether there is a chance that what I experience is real and not just a dream but that I sort of bond with Greywind at night?

Gods, I really wished we could just speak about this and let our wolves meet each other as well. I know Greywind would like you. Please Jon, if you harass them at your end and I whine enough here, they will have to give in eventually and I can finally see you again and get some very much needed advice.

Theon has been a pain in my ass again …
The letter went on for a bit. Robb described at length the increased lesson plan he apparently needed as future Warden of the North. He told his father took pains to teach him personally about politics and diplomacy.

Robb ended however as always with a small part that Arya had dictated. She always wanted to send a personal greeting Jon.

Hey Jon, when are you finally coming back to Winterfell? I really want to introduce you to Nymeria. I am ever so grateful you gifted her to me. I also want you to see how much progress I made with my bow. I am learning to fight with a sword in secret. Robb is teaching me when mother isn’t there. He says I am already better than Bran, but I must keep it a secret. Hope to see you again very soon. Robb says you are like an adopted brother now you have Ghost. I really like that idea. So I end this message with greetings from your adopted sister, Arya xxx

Well Jon, that’s it for now. Father asks me to sends you greetings from him and mother. I’m sure if my other siblings knew of this letter, I would have to relay theirs as well.

I challenge you to reply with an equally long message and with a firm plan in place to meet soon!

Your loyal but impatient friend
Robb
PS forgot to mention Greywind sends some licks as well.

 

***

 

Jon,

It was nice to receive another letter so soon after your last one. I’m glad you still find the time in your busy schedule to write to me. I enjoy reading about your adventures and no, your letter wasn’t boring because of its length. I enjoyed every word and am already looking forward to the next one.

I hope it will contain more stories about those pets of yours, all of them. I love hearing about Ghost. I’m still mad at you for not bringing any of them along. I understand why you didn’t mostly, but not about Ghost. Since I have read that you brought him along on the rest of your journey, it seems your excuse that he would not take to being on a ship was makes no sense. Your next letter better have an explanation young man! Just kidding. Maybe?

I’m counting the days till you can send that ship for me and my life can become an adventure as well. I have not much news to report. Nothing really happens here. The weather is still as hot as ever. The city is very peaceful.

Have you ever heard of the Lord of Light? Lately some priestesses have come close to where I live to spread this religion. Their most famous slogan is “For the night is dark and full of terrors”. It appears they worship a God of fire. Perhaps this God has some affinity with Targaryens? Anyway, I will be searching for a book or scroll about this R’hllor, or Red God as he is also called, so I can send it to you. When I heard their slogan for the first time, I couldn’t help but think of that tale I read about the Long Night in one of your books with old folk tales of the North. That Night certainly was dark and full of terrors.

Speaking of your books, I have already read a third of them. The beautiful tome detailing the history of house Targaryen lies beside my bed. I reread a few pages in it every night before I go to sleep. Somehow I like going to sleep thinking about us Targaryens.

I recently received a disturbing letter from uncle Aemon. It seems trouble is really stirring at the Wall. I hope your Stark uncles are informed of this and have already taken action. If not, will you see to it that help is sent to the Wall? I wouldn’t want uncle Aemon to be in danger. I am praying every day that he will live long enough so we can meet in person one day.

Anyway, I am going to close this letter now so the messenger can be on his way. He will have finished his meal by now. I’m already looking forward to your next letter.

Please be careful and stay healthy. My thoughts are with you every day.
Sincerely,
Daenerys Targaryen

 

***

 

Robb,
Brief message because sent by Raven. I’m planning a sea journey and will leave in a few moons. Will schedule stop at Stony Shore. Particulars follow soon. Hope to meet you there. Have you heard from uncle Benjen recently? If so please let me know when you send the raven back.
Your best friend

 

***

 

My Prince,

I sincerely hope this message finds you well. Please relay my greetings to my dear friend the honourable knight as well.
On that subject, if you allow women in your Kingsguard let me know. I have trained my beautiful daughters well. Talking about daughters, let me know when you start thinking of taking a queen. I’d only be too happy to let you have your pick. You know I have eight don’t you?

Everything is well in Dorne. One of my sandsnakes is in the Reach doing her thing. Varys and I are enjoying thwarting Littlefinger as much as we can. I’ll let Varys make the effort to encrypt the lengthy details of our scheming and send them to you. But know I played an important part in them. Varys will perhaps forget to mention that.

I fear somehow we are missing something though. We recently found out Littlefinger sent ravens to The Freys in the Riverlands and The Ironborn. According to Varys this was not on the orders of the King or the small council. We were too late to intercept them and have no clue what they contain. Best be wary. I will write again when I have more news.

I look forward to seeing you sometime soon, I heard you have improved your fighting somewhat. You owe me a spar, I have a long memory. I will want at least one session with you wielding a longspear! I’ll enjoy seeing you bite the dust several times my boy.

I hope the content of this message will make some sense. That would mean I will have successfully used this ridiculous code that’s giving me head aches.

 

Keep well, my honourable friend,
Prince Oberyn Martell,
The Red Viper of Dorne

 

 

Interlude 9: Renly

 

Kings Landing, a lavish villa not far from the Red Keep.

 

“Perfect”, Prince Oberyn was congratulating himself. Varys really has come through. Now it was his move.

As the front door opened, Prince Oberyn convincingly charmed the guard into believing he was there on personal invitation of the guest of honour. He was granted entrance at once.
Inside he saw Renly Baratheon seated at the head of the table, flanked by his squire, Loras Tyrell, and a tall knight. He looked again, not a knight, it seemed to be a woman in armour.

‘Varys is right. We will kill two birds with one stone.’ Oberyn scanned all the occupants of the room.
As presumed King Robert was noticeably absent from his youngest sibling’s nameday feast.

Prince Oberyn studied Renly Baratheon’s reaction when he noticed him approach. He didn’t have a welcoming look on his face. He just stared at Oberyn with wary eyes.
Oberyn bowed lightly and greeted the Prince. Renly Baratheon couldn’t break protocol and accepted the elaborate greeting with a mere nod of his head. He seemed to hesitate but then decided to address his uninvited guest.

“I didn’t now we were expecting you, Prince Oberyn. Allow me to introduce my two table partners, my squire Loras of house Tyrell and the lady Brienne of Tarth who has sworn her sword to me.”
Oberyn immediately heard the slight slur in these words and realised Baratheon was already a bit drunk.

The introduced couple nodded their heads to him. Oberyn greeted Loras with a cold nod then addressed the lady. “I didn’t know Tarth also had the culture of teaching woman to fight as we do in Dorne?” he was intrigued now.

“They don’t”, Brienne of Tarth started to respond but was stopped by a cold look from Baratheon.

Oberyn tried to break the tension by his theatrical offering of a gift to Renly. He saw Renly hesitate before the Prince stumbled some thanks and accepted the small package.

“Your welcome, Prince Renly. It is the newest smelling liquid our Maesters have come up with. It will be so expensive that few men will be able to buy it. You should try it. It is the best you will have ever smelled.”

Oberyn knew Prince Renly was famous for the care he took of his attire and person. He couldn’t help but grin inwardly when he saw the Baratheon’s immediate interest. Renly opened the delicate bottle and smelled it. A pleased expression crossed his face.

“Don’t be shy”, your Royal Highness, “Feel free to try it on. Everyone will be jealous as soon as they notice how enticingly you smell.” He knew Renly’s would relish the opportunity to attract some of this almost exclusively male audience he had invited.

Oberyn used the moment of goodwill he had created. “My Prince, I would like to pay you a visit tomorrow. We both could benefit from better relations between Dorne and the Stormlands. More importantly we can show our brothers that their stubbornness in clinging to these old grudges is stupid and that us younger brothers are always the ones cleaning up their messes.”

He knew his subtle manipulation had paid of when Renly Baratheon granted him a visit on the morrow.

 

***

 

Prince Oberyn couldn’t help but be smug. He had executed his part of the plan flawlessly. He had returned to the villa the next morning, making sure to bring a delegation with him.
Plenty of witnesses had seen Renly Baratheon lying passed out on his bed, next to his young squire. Both men were naked. The room still reeked of sex. Gold cloaks had been summoned and both men were taken to the black cells at the discretion of the King.

 

Oberyn had put his time at the citadel to good use. Although he had not had the patience to stay on and forge more links, his studies there had not only given him a good knowledge of poison, he had also learned about drugs and stimulants. It had been easy adding a powerful libido enhancer to the perfume he had offered Renly Baratheon the night before. The poor man never stood a chance. Oberyn was sure the nameday celebration would not have lasted much longer after he left. Poor Loras looked like he had been sodomised thoroughly and repeatedly. He was sure everyone had observed the squire’s red arse and the amount of seed still dripping from the abused hole.
Oberyn had stressed everyone to keep Loras Tyrell’s involvement a secret until King Robert decreed him a victim or a guilty party.

Now it was Varys’ and Eddard Stark’s turn. They would need to convince King Robert to disinherit Renly without killing him. Varys would caution him about exposing Loras, a scion of the leading house of the Reach and would stall him long enough for Eddard Stark to use his influence on his erstwhile foster brother.

It was essential to their scheme that the Warden of the North could take credit for the saving of the popular Tyrell’s life. He would also take credit for being instrumental in keeping this embarrassment to House Tyrell from being known throughout the realm. Of course most of the credit should go to Oberyn and some to Varys. They were the ones who really had pulled their weight. For Oberyn it was enough that his fellow conspirators knew they owed him.

‘A job well done.’ Oberyn praised himself once more.

Eddard Stark would make a seemingly very charitable offer to take Loras north to Winterfell. He could provide him shelter until the rumours died down and the people would be distracted by another scandal. In reality they had taken another step towards their goal to convince the Reach to their side. If need be they had secured themselves a hostage.