Several weeks had long past since he left the Night’s Watch.
When he had arrived to what was left of the wall, his brothers – or at least the little who remained – were more than happy to welcome him back as their Lord Commander, but as soon as his eyes found the wild, red eyes of his furry companion, he knew just like his direwolf, he no longer belonged south of the wall.
It took three long weeks of camping and traveling through The Haunted Forest until they finally found a site worthy to make their home. Or at least, for a while as they rest. Tormund had suggested that they make for Hardhome and rebuild the homes that were devastated in the attack years ago.
“It will take weeks if not months to travel there on foot, especially in this snow. I had Stannis’ ships then, I have nothing now.” Jon had replied solemnly to his ginger friend as they gathered firewood. Tormund raised a brow.
“You don’t have nothing, friend. Look around,” Tormund gestured the surviving freefolk setting up camp. “They will follow you wherever you go. They look at you the same way they looked at Mance, our King Beyond the Wall.”
Jon winced at the mention of yet another kingship being thrust among him. “I don’t deserve it.”
“You do.” Tormund placed a big hand. “We are here because of you, we are alive because of you. That means something, Lord Crow. Wear the title or don’t, it changes nothing.”
But it should, Jon thought. I don’t deserve it, I don’t deserve any of this.
Every night he dreamed of her beautiful violet eyes… and the tears that drowned them as she felt the cold steel pierce her heart. Drogon should have burned me to death, I wish he had.
But instead, he was sent back to The Wall. He had lost everything and wound up right where he was once more. Separated from his family, and exiled. Everything happened so fast, he barely had time to register the events as they unfolded. His brother was a king now, his sister ruled the North as its queen, and his sister was off discovering what was west of Westeros. He had left without saying a word to Davos or Sam, but he had heard that they were given the highest positions on Bran’s Small Council.
Sam, the very first man who told me I should be king of the seven kingdoms, Jon laughed bitterly at the thought. Couldn’t be bothered to see me off once he was named Grand Maester. Was that what he wanted all along? For me to be king so he could gain power?
After he and the wildlings had dinner, Jon retreated to his tent with a skin of ale and Ghost at his heels. He took a long, deep swing and collapsed onto a pile of furs.
He closed his eyes and once again, he was met with familiar, purple-blue eyes. His heart twisted itself into a knot.
He had killed Daenerys to save the realm… or at least that’s what Tyrion led him to believe. That she was a risk to everyone and herself. Tyrion had convinced him it was necessary. And he succeeded. Gods know how much he didn’t want to, but he couldn’t risk Dany unleashing her dragon on the whole of Westeros and burning countless more innocents. So, he had to put his love for her aside, for the good of the realm. For the good of the realm.
Then why did it feel so wrong?
It seemed like everyone benefited greatly from his sacrifice, except him… A sacrifice he questioned more and more with each passing day.
“Be with me, build the new world with me… this is our reason.” She had said, smiling and holding him close. “We do it together.”
He told her she was his queen, now and always, and that was not a lie. Daenerys would always be his queen, even in death. He would never love another woman like her, there would never be another woman like her. She was a conqueror, a queen, the mother of dragons and breaker of chains… who could compare to that? And she fell for him when he was only the bastard King in the North, asking her to help him fight a threat that sounded all too imaginary.
Yet, she still let him mine the dragonglass he needed and saved his life, twice, from the Night King.
She lost everything trying to help me, Jon thought bitterly. Her dragons… her children, her closest advisor, most of her army… all to save the entire realm from the Night King. And I repaid her generosity with a dagger through the heart.
These were the thoughts that filled his head in waking hours, but it was his dreams that was harder to endure.
“We do it together.” He could still hear her voice, echoing loud and clearly. He would turn and see her standing there, blood pooling around her boots. Her skin the colour of curdled milk and blood trailing down her cold, lifeless lips.
At the sight of her, he would always fall to his knees. “We could have, Dany, we could have…” He would tell her in a broken whisper. “I could have convinced you to choose peace, I know I could have.”
The ground beneath him would shake then turn black as the shadow of Drogon loomed above him. Jon would lift his head and gaze into his molten gold eyes…
“Dracarys.” She whispers, but the command is deafening in Jon’s ears. Then, he would stare into the open mouth of her fearsome dragon be bathed in dragon fire.
Not even living in the coldest land in Westeros as it’s in the throes of winter could stop him from waking up in a puddle of his own sweat; scared, mournful, hateful of and furious at himself. It haunted him mercilessly, day in and day out. It hardened and embittered him and filled him with painful self-loathing; so much so, that others began to take notice.
“You don’t seem like yourself, Jon.” Tormund commented as they watched Ghost disappear into the trees to hunt.
“What do you mean?” He had asked, avoiding his inquisitive blue eyes.
“Well for starters, you wake up screaming every other night. You’re starting to scare the children. And don't think I haven't noticed that you refuse to sleep because of it.” Jon opened his mouth to speak, but Tormund continued. “Don’t try to deny it, two days ago you nearly fell off your saddle.”
Jon looked out into the landscape for a while, wiped his eyes then sighed. “I’m fine.”
“You must take me for a fucking fool, then.” He snorted. “Do you want to talk about your nightmares?”
“Because they about the Dragon Queen?”
Jon could feel Tormund’s pitiful gaze on him. But he didn’t need his pity, he didn’t need anyone’s. I don’t deserve it. Tormund nodded before he turned away to leave. “At least eat something, you’re starting to look like a wight.”
Jon blinked. He hadn’t noticed he had hardly been eating.
Days began to blur together and now, even Jon couldn’t deny that he was unravelling like cheap wool. He couldn’t eat, he developed a dependence on whatever drink could dull his senses for a while and some days, he could barely rise to join the men on hunts or stay seated in his saddle for long. Every night Daenerys would visit him, and every day she occupied every nook and crevice of his mind. He couldn’t escape her, and that was his punishment.
Ultimately, he decided that instead of trying to run from it, he would embrace it.
“You want to kill yourself, is that it?”
“I just need some time alone.”
“I believe that. But I also don’t trust you to not do something unbelievably stupid while you’re gone.”
Jon looked his friend in the eye. “And so what if I do? What do I have left Tormund? And don’t say I have the freefolk! I’ve barely been leading them these past weeks, you’ve been doing a better job of it than I.”
Tormund stared at Jon with a stone face, tense jaw and such sorrowful eyes. “So that’s what you want, hm? To go off into the mountains and die?”
“I was thinking of traveling to the Land of Always Winter, actually. No man has ever seen it—”
“Aye and there’s a reason for that, Snow.” Tormund interrupted. “No man has ever survived it.”
Jon nodded his head and attempted a smile. “The Night King is gone, mayhaps now I will be the first.”
Tormund gave him what could only be an exasperated mix between a grunt and an angry growl. “Even without those icy fuckers, the land is too cold to survive. It’s still winter, Jon. It’s already hard enough finding food this close to the wall, do you think you’ll find any further down north? How will you survive? It’s too cold for fires to burn there, and what are the chances of you finding any shelter.”
Slim, he thought, but he smiled anyway. “I’ll see for myself when I get there. Hopefully I return, and if I don’t… you’ll make a great leader, Tormund. And thank you… thank you for trusting me all those years at Castle Black, for fighting by my side, for fighting for my home… thank you.”
Jon could have sworn those were tears Tormund was blinking away. He knew he couldn’t stop Jon from leaving, and so he pulled him tight into a bear hug and whispered in his ear. “I hope you make peace with yourself and return home friend, I hope you do.” Jon held him tighter as warm tears rolled down his frozen cheeks. I hope so too.
He solemnly watched Tormund and the freefolk disappear further into The Haunted Forest and urged his horse in the opposite direction. He and Ghost wandered somewhat aimlessly for a week. He had wanted to leave him with Tormund again, but this time his direwolf refused to leave his side, and a part of him was grateful that he wouldn’t have to make this trek alone.
The first place he stumbled upon was what remained of Craster’s Keep. Winter had covered the house in a thick blanket of snow, but he recognised it all the same. Ice crunched beneath his boots as he approached the charred wooden bones of the keep and placed a gloved hand on a beam.
His other hand absentmindedly travelled to Longclaw’s hilt as he thought of his Lord Commander. What would Lord Commander Mormont think of me now? Would he have handed me Longclaw if he knew it would end up with me here? His son came to mind next. Would Ser Jorah regret letting me keep it? Knowing the bastard who wielded it would kill the queen he died trying to save?
He gripped the wolf-head pommel. Ser Jorah had said it would serve my children after me… children I will never have.
He couldn’t stay here any longer. He strode to his horse and climbed onto the saddle. Glancing back, his eyes lingered on the haunted keep, and he galloped away from its ghosts.
Eventually, he and Ghost reached the Fist of the First Men and camped beneath a weirwood.
He enjoyed the solitude and the quiet of the land, and the scenery was a beautiful thing to look at. I wish I could have brought her here, she would have loved to see it. Laying on his back, he watched the red leaves sway as the cold winter blew. The gentle shaking of the leaves made him feel calm, but only for a moment. The peaceful rustling of the leaves was soon replaced with the squawking of a black raven perched on one of its thick branches.
Jon’s eyes narrowed on it. It cocked its head to one side, then the other. Its beady little black eyes never left him. Bran, Jon realised. He has come to watch me.
He didn’t know why but the intrusion of his brother… cousin… irritated him. Bran had said he couldn’t feel anymore, so he found it unlikely that he was here because of brotherly concern. He has come to spy on me, to make sure I won’t do anything foolish… like rebel and take his throne.
The bird squawked at him and watched, and Jon grew even more tense. Is this how it’s always going to be? He wondered grimly. Having my every move watched until I die? With the chaos of assembling armies to beat the Night King and Cersei, he hadn’t stopped to consider what Bran was now. The Three-Eyed Raven, Jon sighed. What the fuck does that even mean?
Apparently, it meant that Bran could see the present, the past and the future. He had informed him of the Night King’s whereabouts, he had discovered the true identities of him mother and father, and yet… he couldn’t inform him of what was to come.
Did you know, Bran? If you did, why keep it to yourself? Why not warn me of what was to come? Surely, you could have told us about Euron’s ships, so Rhaegal wouldn’t have had to die, and Missandei would never have gotten captured and Dany… Dany wouldn’t have unravelled like she did. Jon stared long and hard at the bird. Or did you let all of that happen because you knew you would be king?
He felt like a fool. I should have been smarter, I should have realised sooner. The war changed all of us, but I assumed that once we were all together again, things would resume being the way it was before King Robert rode into Winterfell.
Arya – though he was happy to see her again – wasn’t the same little sister he would play swords with in the Godswood. She was a woman grown now, and a killer. He had heard she slit Lord Baelish’s throat without hesitation and left him bleeding on the floor of the great hall. At first, he couldn’t believe it, but Arya had returned home cold and distant… he just didn’t want to believe things had changed that much.
But with Sansa, it was sometimes hard to know if much had changed between them or not. He was relieved to see she was alive, and absolutely incensed at what Ramsay had put her through. He thought that maybe, since she made it all the way to the wall, to him, her feelings for him had changed. He had only ever gotten cold indifference from his little sister, Lady Stark made sure of that. But that was before the war, that was before they thought they were the only survivors of House Stark left.
It was foolish of him to believe Sansa wouldn’t tell his secret. He should have listened to Dany that night during the feast. He wasn’t sure if it was sheer ignorance and stupidity or blind trust that drove him to tell his sisters the truth of his parentage after they had told him they didn’t like Daenerys, perhaps a bit of both. Sansa betrayed his trust and got exactly what she wanted: Daenerys gone and an independent North she could rule over. And perhaps, she got what she wanted with me here and out of her way.
The Northmen crowning him over her wounded her pride, especially since it was because of her and Lord Baelish that the battle between Ramsay had been won. The chasm between them had always been there, but his crowning had ensured that even if they built bridges, the divide would remain.
And he should have known. He should have seen it. And ultimately, he realised that though Tyrion, Bran and Sansa had played him like a pawn in their own games, he was in control of his own actions throughout it all.
Jon clenched his jaw and squeezed his eyes tight. He felt the familiar sting in his eyes and he refused to cry, especially not in front of Bran. It was Jon’s choice to kill Dany, and his alone. He couldn’t lay all of others. In the end, he did it. It was his fault. She felt spurned by me, that night on Dragonstone. Why didn’t I hold her, why didn’t I assure her that she was more to me than just my queen? She was vulnerable, she was alone, she had just lost the people she held dear and I didn’t comfort her the way I should have. The way I wanted to…
Arya had told him that family was the most important thing, but he wasn’t sure now how true that was considering where he was and how he had gotten there. Because if he truly believed it, Dany would be beside him right now. She was his family, the only family he had from his true father’s side. And he was hers, her only family left with true blooded relation. She never would have hurt or manipulated me, she loved me… She was the family I should have chosen.
Jon turned to his side, away from the raven. Ghost, possibly sensing his sadness, curled up around him and laid his head on Jon’s arm. And for the first night, beneath the weirwood tree, his dreams weren’t about a silver-headed queen, but instead, a flock of ravens with long sharp beaks watching him, ready to devour him if he dared to move a single muscle.
A moon passed before they made it deep into the Frostfangs. He had followed the Milkwater and tried to recount the memories he had as a Mance’s captive then to guide him. Just past Skirling Past was where he met Ygritte, but the land was covered in a blanket of snow so high it reached his knees.
When he was finally able to find a hospitable cave in the mountains, the harsh winter storms prevented him and Ghost from leaving for a full week. He chuckled at how he naively thought winter would be over once the Night King had been slain. The further he trekked, the harder it became to hunt and explore. Every so often, Ghost would have to go out by himself and return to share with him his spoils. But eventually, he stopped returning as often. His direwolf was fine, he could feel it, but this land and its harsh winter weather was too much for a direwolf, it was too cold for any living creature. But Ghost remained as close as he could, and that was all he could ask for from his dear boy.
Jon was inching closer and closer to coldest land in the realm, he could feel it… If he headed west from the Milkwater, he would be entering uncharted territory, and finally he would see what no man has ever returned to tell tales about. So, when the storms finally died down, he was off. He passed the white stony peaks, the icy lakes and rivers, the frozen waterfalls that cascaded down the mountains and trekked between their valleys.
Jon ignored the chill that slowly began setting into his bones with each step he took deeper into the North. The further he and Ghost got, the less food and water – that wasn’t completely frozen – they encountered. But Jon wasn’t going to stop, he was determined to reach the land no man has ever lived to see. Or at least, that’s what he told himself.
The more he focused on his mission, the easier it was to push thoughts of Daenerys out of his mind.
At least once I reach there, I’ll find the peace I’m looking for, he thought. Where he would find it, he wasn’t sure. But he was certain that there was something there to find.
And what exactly did he find when he reached the end of the Frostfangs? Nothing. Just leagues of leagues of snow-covered land, as far as the eye could see. There was no life in sight, only falling snow and grey-blue skies.
Looking at the empty land ahead of him unsettled Jon. Does he continue? Turn back? His food and water stores were nearly depleted, he only had a few pieces of dried, salted deer meat and half a skin of water. And besides, evening was approaching, and he was tired. His heavy, laboured breaths told him as such.
Yet… he couldn’t turn away. The vast, emptiness reminded him of a feeling quite familiar, the feeling he had when he realised there was nothing waiting for him in death. Just vast nothingness. And he let out a small chuckle, then followed it with a loud body shaking laugh that filled the empty, cold silence.
This is what life is. You trek through the hardships, you overcome the odds, you beat death and survive until you can’t any longer… and then you’re rewarded with absolutely nothing, Jon mused. It would be hilarious, if it wasn’t so fucking tragic.
The realisation gave him the confidence to go boldly into the icy unknown.
If I die, I die, Jon decided. Hopefully Ghost makes his way to Hardhome, hopefully Bran won't have to worry about me threatening his rule any longer, and hopefully… I’ll get to see Dany again.
And so, he stepped into the ice and walked until night was upon him, and he couldn’t see his surroundings anymore. Even under layers of furs and leathers, the biting cold seeped into his bones and rattled them from the inside out. He could barely feel his legs or the vibration of his chattering teeth as he advanced.
It took him a moment to realise that he had stopped moving, and it took him even longer to realise that he was now on his back, lying in a pile of snow staring up at the sky.
He opened his eyes, and gasped.
He had never seen such colours before. Wispy lights that were as green as wildfire and as violet as Dany’s eyes snaked across the starry sky. It shifted and moved and danced as Jon’s breathing slowed, as he finally stopped feeling the cold, as he finally stopped feeling at all.
He slowly let his eyes drop as a feeling of calmness washed over him.
And with that, after many moons of mental torment, he happily slipped into oblivion with the sound of his lover’s name misting over his cold lips.