“You be quiet, stupid,” the girl said, tossing her own branch aside. “It’s just water. Do you want Old Nan to hear and run tell Father?”
Benjen finds her in the godswood. He always knows to find her there.
“Lya, do you want to play swords again?”
He looks worried.
“Are you certain you want to?” she asks.
“You won’t beat me this time.”
He may be right, but Lyanna wants to hit something, and she is grateful for the distraction. She fetches a branch to act as her wooden sword and as Benjen retrieves his own and moves to challenge her she dances away, raising her branch to block his first blow.
“You are still faster than me,” he laughs.
“You’re still louder, stupid,” she hisses.
They duel across the godswood but Lyanna is unable to laugh, and Benjen soon gives up the attempt, dropping his branch.
“It may not be so bad, Lya.”
She sits on a rock, shaking her head. Benjen is her little brother, still only a boy. He knows little of what lay in store for Lyanna, but she can see he cares.
He will listen to me.
“I won’t marry him, Ben.”
He sits with her and hugs her. Angry tears well in her eyes but Lyanna won’t cry. She is angry but resolved as she rubs them away.
“What are you going to do?” he asks.
Lyanna has so many memories of this godswood. This is where she and Benjen smuggled summerwine and drank it until Benjen was drunk. She has played swords with Benjen countless times here. It is the place where they tell each other secrets. Lyanna tells Benjen everything, she cannot keep this from him.
“You can’t tell father,” she says quickly.
“I won’t. I promise, Lya.”
Lyanna loves him for that. She cannot tell Ned. She has tried but Ned loves Robert like a brother. Her father will not listen. Brandon is less than faithful to his lovers so he does not understand, and anyways he thinks they must marry as father wishes.
“Prince Rhaegar is going to help me escape the wedding,” she confesses.
Benjen’s mouth opens.
It’s a protest, and a loud one.
“Quiet, stupid,” she hisses. “Somebody will hear.”
Benjen isn’t happy but his voice drops to a whisper.
“Is there no other way?”
“No,” she insists. “You can’t tell, you promised.”
“I won’t tell,” he grumbles.
Lyanna hugs him and presses a kiss to his cheek. They sit there a little while, talking about Riverrun and Brandon’s wedding. They leave on the morrow, and there has been talk of little else for days but she can see Benjen is dwelling on her secret.
“I’m sure I’ll be back before you know it.”
She will miss the godswood too much to stay away.
“I was with her when she died,” Ned reminded the king. “She wanted to come home, to rest beside Brandon and Father.”
Ned takes the steps two at a time, almost tripping. He has left death behind him, he fears that more death awaits him within this tower. Lyanna had cried out for him, sounding afraid, but all is quiet now. He pushes the door open and sees her. He could weep he is so relieved.
“I knew you would come,” she cries. “I’m sorry.”
He hurries to her bed. His sister is unable to rise, but she clasps his hand. Her grip lacks strength and Ned becomes aware of the stench of sickness.
“I’ll send for a maester, Lya,” he promises. “You will be well again.”
Lyanna only smiles, weakly.
“I have missed you.”
He has questions but before he can ask them he hears the cry of a babe. He knows before Lyanna says a word.
“My son.” There are tears in her eyes. “Protect him, Ned. Keep him safe, in Winterfell.”
She does not speak of herself.
“You’ll come with me,” he insists.
Lyanna sobs, and Ned holds her hand tighter.
“I want to be with Brandon, and Father.”
For a heartbeat Ned thinks she does not know, that her captors have kept the terrible truth from her, but then he sees the misery in her face and he understands. His throat tightens so much he cannot speak.
“Promise me, Ned,” she pleads. “Promise me.”
Her voice becomes weaker, and Ned is deathly afraid. He remembers the tiny corpses wrapped in Lannister crimson and he knows what he must do.
“I promise, Lya.”
“let them grow up close as brothers, with only love between them”
Ned can hear shouting and laughter in the training yard as he approaches. It is a familiar sound, and it brings a smile to his lips. Ned can judge what has happened by Jon’s laugh and Robb’s shout.
“I’ll best you next time, Snow.”
They do not see him at first. Ned is glad for it. He does not wish to disturb their play. Jon extends a hand, helping Robb to his feet. Robb smiles.
Promise me, Ned.
The promise is easier to keep in moments like these. The boys are sparring again, shouting challenges, and Ned watches them with pride. Robb bears no resentment towards Jon, not for beating him in the training yard, nor for Ned’s lie. Jon will always have a place here, even when Robb succeeds Ned as Lord of Winterfell.
I promise, Lya.
Jon is everything Lyanna could have hoped for, quick and clever and generous. It causes Ned pain and comfort in equal measures when he thinks on it. All who see Jon remark upon him having Ned’s look, but Ned knows the truth.
He is Lyanna’s boy.
Robb shouts again, his wooden sword slipping from his grasp as he yields to Jon.
“You are the better sword,” Robb acknowledges.
“You are the better lance, Stark.”
Ned is proud, proud of the both of them. The lie is only half a lie, for he thinks of Jon as his son. They see him now, and both turn to look at him.
“Well fought,” he remarks.
Robb puts his arm around Jon’s shoulder, all smiles. Jon is calm and quiet and at ease.
As close as brothers.
It is everything he wished for.
“I’m not your son!” Benjen Stark stood up. “More’s the pity.”
Ned returns to Winterfell. He returns with Lyanna’s bones and a babe in his arms. Benjen looks into his face when Ned greets Lady Catelyn with the words that will haunt Benjen for the rest of his days.
“The babe is my son, my lady.”
Ned does not look Benjen in the eye as he says it. Later, when they are alone together, Ned tells it differently.
“Jon is my blood.”
“Aye,” Benjen agrees.
There is little else he can say. It is the truth, plain for all to see. Ned would not father a bastard, this Benjen knows.
The babe is Lyanna’s.
Benjen leaves for the Wall, but Ned sends ravens. Each brings news of Jon. Benjen does not know how his brother manages, watching the child grow, keeping the secret. He knows Ned, knows how the lie must torment his brother.
He does it for Lya.
That is one thing they all shared, Ned and Benjen and Brandon. They would do anything for Lya. Benjen serves at the Wall, his atonement for failing his sister, his solace from the ghosts that live in Winterfell, but he does visit.
On those visits he sees those ghosts brought to life.
“Uncle Ben,” Jon greets him solemnly.
There is no mistaking that he is Lyanna’s boy. Benjen does not know how the realm cannot see it. There is much of Ned in Jon, but there is Lyanna too, and he sees glimpses of Brandon as well, their protective older brother. Jon is an older brother, fiercely fond of little Arya, and young Brandon. At first Benjen does not know how Ned can bear it, but over the years, with each visit, he sees that the children bring Ned a measure of peace.
“You are serving the realm,” Ned tells him.
Benjen told himself that, but seeing Ned’s children, seeing Lyanna’s boy shows him what he has missed. He regrets some nights that he did not father his own little Lyannas and little Brandons and resolves that he will do right by Jon for Lyanna’s sake.
“A bastard can have honor too,” Jon tells him. “I am ready to swear your oath.”
He is only fourteen, the same age Benjen was when he joined the Watch. Too young. Jon is resolved. Benjen knows that stubborn jut of jaw, he saw it on Lyanna a hundred times. The boy would not change his mind. It reminds him of the last conversation he had with Lyanna here in Winterfell.
I promise, Lya.
Ned gives his assent for Jon to join the Watch, to go with Benjen. They speak of it together, in the crypts, as they look upon the statue of Lyanna.
“You’ll watch over him,” Ned says softly.
It is not a question.
“It isn’t what she would have wanted,” Benjen whispers.
They have never spoken of it before, and at first Benjen thinks Ned won’t speak of it now. Ned is looking upon Lyanna’s face, his grief as fresh as if it were new.
“She wanted him safe in the North, with family, and he will be.”
That is true. Ned has protected Jon for fourteen years. The Wall is Benjen’s chance to be there for Jon, to do right by Lyanna, and he will. Jon will be family at the Wall, a brother if not a son.
It is better than he ever hoped for.