Some men treated honor and vows as mere words. That was not his way. Nor was it Jon's.
“No, I’m sorry Jon but I forbid it.” He sighed to speak the words.
Much and more had been denied Jon throughout his life and as much as it bothered Ned to deny the boy yet again, he couldn’t allow this to pass.
It wouldn’t be fair.
“It’s not fair!” Jon shouted, his mood swinging to a rarely shown rage.
So much like me, he thought, Benjen said so again at the feast.
“No one would ever question that you are the boy’s father Ned.” Benjen had whispered to him after the feast. “No one.”
The Great Keep had been silent and mostly empty after welcoming Robert and the royal family to Winterfell last night. The silence had been as comforting then as it was now as Ned did not want this conversation to be heard by the wrong ears. Even in his own solar they had to be cautious so Ned had given orders to the household that he and Jon were not to be bothered. Not even Maester Luwin, who had helped come up with this plan in the first place, was there.
He also didn’t want an audience for what he was about to ask Jon as it shamed him a bit. It was an unbecoming and unfair task to put to Jon when the boy only ever strived to be as honorable as possible.
If only the honorable path was always so clear.
“Father, if I can’t go south with you, and if you say that Lady Stark won’t have me in Winterfell, where else can I go but the Wall? Uncle Benjen says I would serve well there…”
“He also says that you are too young to know what such a choice means. And I’m inclined to believe that he is right.” Ned reached for his son but the boy shrugged away from his touch.
“And you are wrong about so much else.”
“You mean I can stay at Winterfell?” Jon asked, eyes almost hopeful.
“No.” Eddard replied. “I’m sorry, but no. You are my blood Jon, not Catelyn’s. I cannot ask her to care for you. It would be an unfair thing to do to her.”
The lad looked ready to say something to that but he was cut off by Ned’s raised hand.
“You are still meant to go to the Wall though. You will leave with Benjen and…”
“I can take the black?”
“Do not interrupt me.” He said sternly. “You were raised better than that.”
It was easy to forget Jon was almost a man grown when he still acted like such a boy at times. Such discourtesy on the journey Ned and others had planned for him couldn’t be allowed. Jon was as well treated here in Winterfell as he could make it but the rest of the realm was not so kind to bastards. A lack of manners to the wrong person could go very badly for him.
It could get him killed.
“I am sorry father.”
“You must do more than be sorry. You must remember your lessons Jon. I still forbid you to take the black. Instead, you will be representing me in your travels… and those of Tyrion Lannister’s.”
Jon’s face twisted in shock and confusion.
“He has a mind to travel onwards to the Wall while the rest of his… family… go south. As Warden of the North, I’ve promised him an escort for his journeys through it. You will be that escort Jon. See him safely to the Wall and back again to Winterfell.” He paused, deciding to delay the truth a bit longer. “Then you will seek me in the capital.”
“But you said I wouldn’t be welcome at court.”
“No, the Lannisters might take offense to my bastard at court but if all goes as I hope, you won’t need to be worry about that. You’ll be off somewhere else soon enough. To squire for some lord or his son, far away from King’s Landing.”
“Squire?” Jon’s face lit up for a moment, his head probably filling for a moment with boyhood tales of knights and gallantry about such men as Prince Aemon the Dragonknight and Serwyn the Mirror Shield, tales that Ned knew Bran and Sansa would often be enraptured by as well.
Just as quickly his face fell though.
“Who would want me? I’m too old to squire and… a bastard besides…”
“Some of the finest knights who have ever lived started off little better.” Ned almost smiled to say so, what came next was no happy matter. “I’ve been named Hand of the King Jon, which means I speak with the King’s voice and act in his stead when needed, an honor some might say. In truth, I didn’t want it when Robert offered to me. I don’t want it still, the tasks life sets out for us are often surprising and difficult, challenging us in ways we never thought to prepare for.”
He stared carefully into Jon’s eyes, ones so much like his own and he felt a smile pull at his mouth when Jon nodded in understanding.
“If Robert is going to foist this hardship upon me, I will use it to do some good for my blood. I believe it is easily within my power now to find a good knight who can take you as a squire.”
Jon was hanging on his every word, his eyes glimmering in gratitude and it made Ned feel like a fraud. For the words weren’t his. In truth, the idea had come from Maester Luwin’s counseling the night before.
“If you must go south to investigate Jon Arryn’s murder, you must not do so openly or it could lead to your own end, my lord. It may be best if you are seen to have an ulterior motive for accepting the position, something to busy whisperers about.” Luwin had pulled on his chain as he always did when deep in thought before continuing. “Finding a knight to take on your bastard son would be an ideal rumor. Your reputation for being an honorable man, well-earned as it is, will make such an act believable. A welcome distraction and a cloak for your true intentions.”
“Jon should not be protecting me.” He’d said at the time.
I should be protecting him.
I must protect all my family.
‘Promise me, Ned.’
“You think I could be a knight?” Jon’s face was still filled with doubt but a cautious hope shone through as well.
“I do.” Ned reached for the boy again, this time being permitted to grasp his shoulders and gaze down into Jon’s face, which bore the same long features as his own. His was a Stark face, none could deny that. “I think you could make a fine knight Jon. I’ll help you all I can but truly, this is a chance for you to make a life for yourself. Knights can even make their own names you know…
“I wouldn’t have to be a Snow? I could…” Jon’s eyes widened some at the thought. “But who would I serve? Where would I…”
“Those are questions for me to answer when you arrive in King’s Landing.” He patted the boy’s shoulders. “I want this to be a new start for you Jon. I want you to have a life where you’re not held to account for my… sins.”
For my dishonor.
The thought made him realize he could wait no longer.
“Jon, there’s more.” He released his hold then and backed away some. “I must command something of you and you must tell me now if you can do it. If you cannot, I must act quickly.”
“Anything father, you know that.” Jon spoke so earnestly that it made Ned feel all the worse to put this on him.
“The Lannister.” He almost spat the name. “Ride with him. Protect him as long as he is in our lands. Show him all the courtesy and respect he is due.”
“And watch him.” Ned said quietly, as if the gods should not hear the dishonorable task he set before the boy. “Listen to what he says. Know to whom he speaks. Learn why it is he is lingering when the others have left.”
The meaning of what Ned was asking him slowly dawned on the youth.
“I am to spy on him?”
When he nodded, Jon’s face darkened in anger again.
“Is it because bastards are the seed of sin? I’m expected to be good at doing such a foul thing? Is that why you can’t ask Uncle Benjen…”
“Benjen is a man of the Night’s Watch, and as such he takes no part in the affairs of the realm.” He sighed. “To do such a thing could mean his head.”
I sent him there to save his head.
“I’m sorry Jon. It must be you.” He continued. “For reasons I can’t say, we must be wary now. Our family may have enemies in the realm…”
“Perhaps.” He could not risk telling the boy more, in case he was discovered. If Jon was ignorant of the truth, Ned had hope that he would not be hurt for knowing nothing. “Can you do this Jon? If you cannot, tell me so now. I will not think less of you.”
Jon waivered some at that. His eyes began drifting over to where Ice lay scabbarded above the hearth. Eddard had often cleaned the blade in front of Robb and Jon, espousing the importance of honor even in the darkest of times.
As father once did for Brandon, Benjen and I.
Lyanna always carefully listening as well.
“Doing this will help keep my- the others, safe?” Jon asked.
“I would not ask if it wasn’t so.”
Jon straightened then, like a guardsman ready for inspection.
“Then I will do as you as you command of me Lord Stark.” He said before adding, softly. “Father.”
Ned fought the urge to embrace him then. He was asking the boy to act a man and he could not rightfully ask so much and still treat him like the boy he’d watched grow up in Winterfell. Instead, Ned offered his hand, thinking of the little babe he had brought to his home so many years ago and shaking the hand of the man who was about to leave it.
On a path not of his choosing.
“It would be a monstrous crime, Ned.” Benjen had said earlier that morning, in this very room. “To allow him to make such a choice when he knows nothing-”
“It’s his life Benjen. Why can’t the Night’s Watch shelter him as it does you?”
“Because he’s never been allowed a chance to truly live. I lived a fine enough life and eventually, I made my own choice to take the black and offer myself to the Watch. Jon probably hasn’t had a choice at anything in his short life.” Benjen’s good nature disappeared then. “You chose this path for him.”
“Should I have abandoned him?” Ned had slammed his fist down onto the table, spilling the pitcher there. “Abandoned him to the same fate as his mother? Could you have done so?”
“I love him too Ned. Not as much as you but the love is there.” Benjen had softened some at his questions. “And I’m asking you, as his father, forbid him this. Let him know the world and… and its secrets. Let him know that much before he makes such a choice. Be his father in this.”
As Ned gazed into Jon’s eyes, eyes he found so familiar, he remembered his reply to his brother.
“I will always be Jon’s father.”
“I knew I could depend on you.” Ned clasped another hand over top of the boy’s, holding it firmly. “You must be careful. Trust only those who deserve it. Stay true to yourself and remember all you’ve learned here. Most of all, stay safe. I can rest easy so long as you promise to do that.”
His heart willed all that to be so yet he needed more. Ned needed his son’s oath.
“Promise me, Jon.”
The wilderness stretched before him in a never-ending landscape of dark forests and rolling hills. It was as if the whole of the world lay ahead of him, his eyes roaming across mysterious lands that would take him weeks to ride through.
And Jon wanted to do so very badly. To put on a black cloak and ride forth into that wild abyss. To know what lay beyond the end of the world. Let other men make their names in battle or songs, Jon could make his in this land.
He could make it his land.
“One last look lad?”
The man’s voice startled him. It shouldn’t have, as Jon had grown quite used to it over the weeks they’d spent together. He was even more accustomed to the awkward gait the dwarf walked with and the lopsided smile he offered as he approached from the winch lift.
“Great minds think alike.” Tyrion’s crooked grin widened even more as he joined Jon in staring out at the great expanse before them. “I’ll live my whole life and probably never see anything quite as beautiful as the view from atop this miserable chunk of ice.”
Jon thought the Lannister right on that score. From where they stood atop the Wall, the view had often enticed him into riding off into that mysterious unknown.
Uncle Benjen is somewhere out there, right now, he thought, serving in this noble calling.
Not like me.
“I saw it first with my uncle, before he left.” Jon said, the memory warming him against the wind. “I called it beautiful then too.”
“As a man who has actually bedded a wench or three, the Wall probably appreciates my praise more.” Tyrion shivered, untying a skin of wine from about his waist.
Uncorking it and drinking deeply, he then offered it up to Jon before speaking again.
“Your friends in the hall asked after you. It appears you’ve gained quite the following here. You’ll be missed.”
“They’ll miss my help in truth.”
The small group of Night’s Watch recruits he’d befriended during his weeks at Castle Black had rarely treated him differently for being a bastard, and the change had been nice. Grenn and Pyp were lowborn themselves and had arrived at the castle the same time their own party had. Despite his words to the Imp, Jon did appreciate their asking after him. He had grown fond of their company too, finding them good lads to pass the time with.
Their master-at-arms was a different story.
The first words Ser Alliser Thorne had spat at him set the tone for their dealings since.
“Is the Wall now a place for bastards to holiday? We are in worse shape than I thought.”
The knight was a cruel man who Jon soon realized would rather see his trainees bloodied than learn anything of value about arms. To his shame, at first he’d thought Grenn, Pyp and Toad and the others as being quite pathetic. None of them worthy of serving in the Watch beside his uncle Benjen as far as Jon had been concerned.
That had been his jealousy speaking, his thoughts unworthy of their sacrifice. For these boys were able to serve and he was forbidden to do so which and it bothered him intensely.
What bothered him even more though was Thorne’s cruelty and harshness towards them. Knights were meant to protect those who could not protect themselves. Thorne appeared to enjoy beating on his trainees though. Jon began to pity the poor recruits almost as much as he disliked the knight.
It had been Tyrion who suggested he help them.
“I see your face as they train. You take no more pleasure in seeing that sunken cunt beat those boys than I do.” Tyrion had said while watching Thorne mistreat the recruits one day. “So do something about it.”
“It’s not my place to tell Ser Alliser how to train…”
“Perish the thought, him being a knight and you a bastard. He’d take suggestions from you as well as he would from some spoiled dwarf.” Tyrion had chuckled. “What I meant, was rather than telling him how to train those boys, show them yourself how to survive his training.”
It had been a fine idea. Between their meals and watches, Jon gave each of his friends lessons at-arms, just as Ser Rodrick had done for him and Robb as boys. It would never make them proper warriors, but the tips and tricks he showed them could spare them some of the worst Thorne had to offer.
Now on the Wall, he swelled with a queer pride as he told Tyrion how well they’d been doing.
“They’ll make fine men of the Watch one day.” He offered. “Maybe they’ll even become skilled enough to beat a knight.”
Tyrion chuckled some.
“See what a bastard and dwarf can do together? Why, I believe this partnership could see to the building of a second Wall!” Tyrion pointed south.
“Men on one side, women on the other. Of course, the good men of the Maiden’s Watch…” Tyrion pointed at the two of them. “Their sworn duty would be to keep the fairer ones safe. And warm!”
Jon’s laughter echoed down the ice, the wind carrying it far and away.
The Lannister was good company.
The thought saddened Jon even more to think on, so instead of speaking he drank more of the wine to hide his guilt. How Tyrion found southron wine here at the Wall was beyond him, or how a man as short as the lordling could drink so quickly.
“This is what I’ve been trying to tell you boy. You’re the bastard of a lord. Your very existence is awkward for nobles so why make it easy for them? Living life as a nail up the arse of men like Ser Alliser could be a fine life indeed. Of course, there are finer men than him to torment back south.” He jerked his thumb back the other away. “I for one am glad you won’t be taking the black. You do your father wrong, blaming him for sparing you this. I’ve known many knights and I think you’d make a fine one. A somber one for sure, but truer than most.”
Tyrion’s kind words rattled him. For the Lannister had been good to Jon and even patient when Jon acted too much like a boy. He liked how Tyrion spoke freely with him, without a care for appearances. He’d even been there to comfort Jon when news came of Bran waking.
He said I’d be true.
But I’m not true, he cursed, oh father, why did you ask this of me?
“My lord… you speak too kindly. I only hope to become a man- an honorable man one day. Mayhaps knight but…”
“But you feel guilty because you’re to be spying on me?” Tyrion turned his skin upside down and frowned at the lack of wine spilling out.
Jon’s mouth was frozen open and not due to the cold.
His father’ words came back to him.
“I do not trust him Jon. But I trust you to see what he does.” His father’s words in his solar had hung in the air awkwardly between them. Jon had thought to spy in such a way was dishonorable and father had agreed yet he believed it necessary to protect their family. “It is not entirely without honor, you will be an escort in truth. As you watch the Lannister so too will you guide and protect him through our lands. There is honor in that… still, I’m sorry Jon. I ask this of you because it can only be you, and I know you will not balk.”
I didn’t balk, he lamented, I was discovered.
Tyrion’s announcement had left Jon speechless but the man himself was more concerned with quenching his thirst. The dwarf tossed the empty skin aside and held out his hand for Jon’s, which Jon blankly handed over.
“My lord I’m not…”
“I swear, if you learned your skills at lying from Ned Stark, he is going to have a rough time as Hand.” Tyrion shook his head and eyed Jon with disappointment. “Jon, come now, it was an obvious ploy, clumsy even. You’re too good a lad to be a spy. Every time we spoke of why your father sent you with me, your awkwardness laid it all bare. If you laughed you’d look guilty, when you smiled, the same. It must have been hard for you to come to like me.”
His face burned with shame that he had failed so miserably at his task and Tyrion laughed.
“I take no offence. In truth, I’m flattered Lord Stark thinks me worthy to be spied upon. To be such a threat to the Warden of the North…”
“Well… I wouldn’t be too flattered… they only sent a bastard.” Jon grumbled and Tyrion laughed heartily.
“I have to ask though, being found out, does that change your plans?” Tyrion asked with curiosity, offering the wine to him. “Do you still intend to go south with me?”
He nodded, taking the drink.
“My father expects me to do so. I am meant to squire, not to be a sworn brother. And I cannot be at Winterfell so long as he’s in the south.” Jon took another drink before admitting the truth. “Lady Stark would not have me at Winterfell without him.”
“My good fortune for it.” Tyrion snatched back the skin. “I’ll be happy to share the road with you south.”
“Truly? Even after…”
“Especially after.” He grinned at Jon’s disbelief. “I enjoyed your company before. With this laid bare, I can only imagine how much your demeanor will improve. It’ll be like trading a sullen goat in for a more even-tempered donkey. You’re a good man Jon, a poor spy, but a good man.”
“As are you Tyrion Lannister.” Jon spoke without thinking, and offering his hand as if by reflex. “I’d name you a friend.”
The dwarf’s mismatched eyes widened and he stared at the hand almost shocked. To be honest, Jon was surprised he’d done so, yet to do otherwise felt wrong somehow, especially considering that the man had forgiven his dishonor.
Tyrion shook off his bewilderment and took Jon’s hand.
“And I, Jon Snow, I name you friend as well.”
The wind had whipped around them then and they retreated to the shelter of an icy parapet to continue drinking. They talked of foolish things, such as the benefits of lions versus wolves and the like.
“See, I would’ve much rather been a bastard than a dwarf. I mean, look at how well your father treats you!” Tyrion had said as he went to the edge of the Wall. The man was good and drunk, and tottered some as he began to piss off its side. “Winterfell is a rather drab place if you ask me. It’s good of Lord Stark to arrange differently for you."
“I told you, he had to do it. Lady Stark…"
“Allowed more than most ladies ever would have. You were raised within the castle walls, not begging outside of them. That’s better than most bastards get.” Tyrion laced his breeches again and tottered towards him. Bundled in furs as he was it made a funny sight to Jon and he almost laughed drunkenly.
“Giving you the honor of escorting a royal guest through his lands and arranging you to squire somewhere south… my father would have me cleaning his privy before he wasted his influence in such a way.”
“I’d rather be here, at the Wall.” Jon grumbled before he let the truth slip bitterly from his lips. “Or in Winterfell.”
“Well, we’ll be stopping there on our journey south.” Tyrion leaned against him as he drained the last of the wine. “I told you, I’d had a thought to helping your brother…”
It would be good to see the others again. Jon didn’t have a chance to properly say goodbye to Bran as they’d left before he woke up and Lady Stark had tainted the visit otherwise. Now that his brother was awake it became his heart’s desire to see Bran’s eyes open again, to see the boy smile and speak. He wanted to tell Robb of his travels too and the thought of the reunion had him looking forward to the return trip.
That night though, after Tyrion and he retired to their beds after finishing the last of the wine, Jon worried over what would happen when he returned to Winterfell. Should he tell Lady Stark or Robb that Tyrion had discovered his true reason for escorting him? Would they know to ask of it? What if father had sent word already of who Jon was to squire for?
What if Lady Stark won’t let me within the castle?
The idea made him angry. As he drifted off to sleep, he imagined riding to Winterfell one day, an armored knight, pledging his service to House Stark and serving his father and brothers in all they needed. In the wine-soaked haze of his dreams, half-formed names of what he would call himself when he would no longer have to be a Snow kept popping up.
The next morning Grenn and Pyp came to see them off.
“Keep your arm up, you’ll be a fine ranger if you remember that.” Jon reminded Grenn before turning to Pyp. “Watch your foe’s eyes, they’ll always tell you what’s coming next.”
“It’d be better for us if you stayed.” Pyp shook his head but smirked as he glanced over Jon’s shoulder. “Thorne won’t be sad to see you leave though.”
He jerked his head and Jon followed his gaze towards the frowning knight across the yard.
“I wonder if anyone has ever seen that fucker happy.” Grenn grumbled.
“Don’t worry about him. Both of you watch out for each other.” Jon shook their hands in turn. “And help those who come here as I tried to do for you.”
As he walked towards the party of riders he was to travel with, Jon turned to gaze up at the Wall again. He had to tilt his head at an awkward angle just to see the top.
I like the view from up top more.
Tyrion was upon his horse already, slumped over his saddle groaning. Jon’s head hurt some but clearly the Lannister was suffering the worst of their farewell to the Wall. Yoren of the Night’s Watch was laughing at the dwarf’s woes.
“I know a stew of roots and pig guts that would put you right back in good spirits, m’lord.”
“Oh that sounds delightful, but I'll try your Yoren stew another time perhaps.” Tyrion groaned. “I feel I’ve already got a belly full of something similar, waiting to be tasted again. Are we to be off now lad?”
Jon nodded as he climbed upon his horse and gazed again at Castle Black.
He could have lived here, been a sworn brother. Served the realm. That would have been enough for him, Jon thought.
“I hope to see this place again one day.”
“You have as little hope for your future as that?” Tyrion smiled. “Maegor’s teats, we need to find you a wench.”
Jon’s thoughts stayed on the Wall even as Tyrion continued on about the importance of him knowing a woman. He imagined it would have gone on for some time longer but soon enough the riding got the best of Tyrion and he let his own Yoren stew fly off the side of his horse.
Watching that made Jon question his future with the southrons.
What kind of life is there for me in the south?
Gazing back at the Wall.
What life could I have had there?
“Jon…Jon quick, grab a bowl.” Tyrion moaned. “I’ve got more than enough Tyrion stew to share.”
A fine life it was so far.
“You see my good bastard squire, the trick to bedding a serving wench is always pretending she is taller than you.” Tyrion raised his mug towards the serving girl making her way about the patrons.
The inn was small but lively and Jon felt it to be the best place they had stopped on their journey.
It was full of freeriders, bowmen, traders, and women, all heading the same way to King’s Landing, just like Jon. While they all sought glory or profit from the Tourney of the Hand, he only sought his father and the next step to becoming his own man.
They were four days north of where the Kingsroad and Highroad met according to Tyrion. The dwarf seemed as eager to get to the capital as Jon.
“Oh to have city whores and good wine again! Not to say the local fare doesn’t have its own charm.” Tyrion looked at a pretty woman who was busy haggling with some hedge knights. The man could spot a whore a mile away and swore they had a scent as well. "Not the kind of hedge I want to see on a woman, personally."
“Do you miss your golden privy as well?” Yoren laughed to himself as he scratched his greasy, lopsided head.
Tyrion ignored him and grabbed Jon’s sleeve.
“You like that one? The redhead?” He breathed ale upon Jon’s face and he looked to where the dwarf’s eyes had set upon a serving girl a few tables away from them.
She was a young girl, older than him for sure but pretty enough. Her hair was more of a light red, nothing like Lady Stark’s or Sansa’s auburn, whose red-hair had more of a rust tinge to it. He thought it looked pretty enough though. What had caught his eye was the sweet smile on her face and the warmth of her eyes as she’d brought them ale.
Her dress showed less than the other women in the inn and she had smiled at him a few times as she’d passed.
“She’s no whore boy… that one you’ll have to use those famous Stark charms upon.” Tyrion continued. “Yoren, do we have any snow to throw at the girl?”
He shook Tyrion away from him and stared at the table. The situation reminded Jon of when Theon would tease Robb and him for never taking liberties with the serving girls. He would always say that they would never be men until they had, but Jon could not do that.
He would father no bastards.
“Take no offense boy, I think she likes you, that much is certain or why else has she has ignored me?” Tyrion japed before his tone suddenly changed. “Quickly now, gaze at her and let her see you looking. Make her feel like she’s the only girl in the room.”
Jon did as he was bid but staring at the girl and waiting for her to see him was just as awkward as he thought it would be. Yet as soon as he thought to stop, she caught him looking.
“Don’t look away, keep your eyes on hers.” Tyrion hissed as if he knew Jon’s first instinct was to avert his gaze. “By the gods Jon, if I had a face like yours, I’d hide it from no wench!”
The ale must have given Jon the courage to heed his friend because he did keep looking. Her eyes gazed right back at his and he was rewarded with a smile before she sheepishly bowed her head and carried some tankards away from a table.
“See! Now, to bed her you must get her to share in some wine with you…” Tyrion began to speak of bawdy things and the memory of Theon teasing him came back quickly.
“How will you ever father a bastard of your own if you don’t get a girl Snow?” Theon’s words echoed in his ears and he flushed in anger.
I will father no bastards.
He shook his head and rose from the table.
“No my lord. I will leave the tending of the women to you. I will check to see if Ghost is well.” He turned and walked away before either man could respond.
It was a poor excuse but it allowed him to leave the cramped inn for a bit.
Beyond the door, the night air was warmer than Jon thought it had any right to be. Cool enough, but still somewhat unsettling to him as much of journey south had made him feel.
He’d seen more people on the road between this inn and the Neck than he had seen during the entirety of their ride from Castle Black to the Neck. When they’d emerged from the Neck’s swamps, a queer feeling had come over Jon. He was leaving the north for a long time and it felt wrong somehow, as if his place was there.
It’s a foolish way to feel.
My mother was likely from the south.
He walked away from the noisy inn and across the road it straddled, towards the dark field beyond. Jon could make out an outline of some hedges and a few trees but little else as there was no moon on this night.
Jon put his fingers to his mouth and whistled, the sound disappearing into the darkness.
After a few moments he did so again and was about to do whistle for a third time when Ghost finally appeared from the shadows. As the direwolf came before him, Jon saw blood about the wolf’s mouth and wondered which poor beast fell prey to his friend.
“Well, at least you seem to be doing well in the south.” He bent down to stroke Ghost’s white fur. “Don’t you miss the north too? Don’t you miss your brothers?”
Jon couldn’t help thinking about the north with his wolf before him.
When their party had come to Winterfell, it was plain that something was amiss.
For one thing, it had been Robb to greet them instead of Lady Stark. While Jon had been happy to see his brother, he wondered if the lady’s absence was because of him. She’d made it clear he wouldn’t be welcome at the castle with father gone.
Yet that didn’t explain Robb’s obvious anger with Tyrion. His brother’s greeting in their father’s hall had been discourteous and his manner towards the Lannister worsened by the moment. Had Bran not been carried within, Jon wondered if he could have held his tongue much longer. The sight of his little brother alive and awake made him smile and Bran smiled back.
“I am so happy you awoke little brother. I’m sorry I wasn’t here when you did.” Jon had said as he held the boy’s hands.
“It’s okay, I’m just glad you’re back! It’s been so boring here without the others and with mother…”
“Bran!” Robb’s sharp cry had cut off whatever their brother had been about to say and Tyrion seemed as confused as Jon. The parchment in Tyrion’s hand reminded Jon of what it contained and he saw a chance to improve the mood in the room.
“Bran, Lord Tyrion made something for you that I think you’ll like.” Jon gestured to Tyrion who unveiled to Robb and Maester Luwin the special saddle that would allow Bran to ride again.
Things did improve some after that. Bran’s face had lit up at the thought of being able to ride and the boy’s smile lightened the room and made everyone seem glader as it always did. Robb had even seemed embarrassed at his harsh manner towards Tyrion.
It didn’t last long though.
When Rickon came into the hall with Shaggydog, Grey Wind and Bran’s unnamed wolf, they had bared their teeth and moved to attack Tyrion. Jon had been too shocked to move as Tyrion stumbled or he would have tried to help. Theon made a jest at the dwarf’s expense and it had fallen to Ghost to intercede. The direwolf moved between Tyrion and his brothers, baring his teeth in warning and shaming Jon for not protecting the lord as he had been charged.
After that, Tyrion had opted to stay in a nearby inn rather than bed at Winterfell overnight. Tyrion had not asked Jon to join him there but he declared that he would, to the shock of his brothers and Tyrion alike. He did beg a moment alone with his brother and the lord had agreed to await him without.
“Jon, Maester Luwin told me what father tasked you with but stay here with us. There’s much you need to know…” Robb had seemed troubled as he spoke and Maester Luwin had cleared his throat, giving him pause. “We missed you, the boys missed you and we would hear of your tales of the Wall.”
“I can’t.” Jon had said despite very much wanting to do as Robb asked. “Our father bid me to escort Lord Tyrion through the North, then to travel on to the capital. I’d fulfill both my duties, and I’d be a poor escort if I took a better roof than him.”
“He was the one who refused Winterfell’s hospitality…”
“After being treated with such discourtesy, I cannot blame him.” His words had stung Robb but he continued for he knew his brother to be better than such. “The wolves almost attacked him Robb, in our father’s hall…”
“Never would it have offered poorer meal.” Theon joked and he earned baleful glare from Jon. “When did you become a Lannister, Snow?”
“I assumed the Starks would treat guests with the same dignity as hostages.” He snapped back, which made Theon curse and Robb bristle. “What was that Robb? Truly? Father would never have treated a guest so!”
“He is no true guest!” Theon argued.
“Keep your tongue.” The maester warned and Jon decided to press the matter.
“No true guest? We must wait to offer bread and salt now? Father never insisted on…”
“Enough!” Robb didn’t just shout the word. He commanded it, like father would. “Do not lecture me on how to run my castle Jon! I am the Stark here, not you!”
“Robb!” Bran had called out and the anger in Robb’s face burned as he glared at Jon.
Then it suddenly seemed to drain away, and Robb looked as he did whenever he’d accidently hurt his partner while sparring. But they hadn’t been sparring, and Robb was right. He was the trueborn son of Ned Stark and he was the Lord of Winterfell in their father’s absence.
Jon was only a Snow.
“I apologize my lord. The castle is, of course, yours and I won’t presume on its hospitality. I’ll be following our father’s commands and bedding outside the walls tonight.” He’d tried to sound calm but he probably failed.
He hugged Rickon but the boy seemed to take more interest in bidding farewell to Ghost. It went worse with Bran, who wept as they embraced.
“Please stay Jon…”
“I can’t, my place is elsewhere… I love you Bran. Stay strong and listen to Robb.”
Turning away from his little brother was the hardest thing Jon had ever done and he felt tears coming into his eyes too. This might be the last time he saw Robb and Bran and Rickon for a very long time and the thought troubled him.
“Jon, I didn’t mean…” Robb said as stepped in his path.
“You were right. You’re the Stark in the Winterfell and I’m but the Snow outside.”
The words were harsher than he meant but it was true nonetheless. Robb embraced him but it was awkward and the moment ended quickly.
It was not how Jon would have liked leaving his family.
Yet that’s how it had to be. Tyrion’s party had left the next day and he’d spent much of their journey reflecting on the queer visit.
As he sat outside the southron inn petting Ghost, Jon realized that he missed Winterfell and his family more than he thought he would. Winterfell had been his home, his safe haven, for his entire life and Jon wondered where his home would be now or whether he would even have one, knight’s often lived on the road as part of their duties after all. Jon was so lost in his thoughts that he didn’t hear the girl approach until she was almost on him.
“M’lord said you’d be wanting this.” A soft voice came from behind him. He jumped to his feet to find the pretty red-haired serving girl standing there, a tankard of ale in one hand and a plate of raw meat in the other. “He said you’d be wanting to feed your wolf. I think he was playing a jest on me but he gave me the coin so here I am with your elk haunch… oh!”
Her nervous smile turned into a look of terror as Ghost emerged from behind him. The tankard and plate of meat fell clattering to the ground as her hands went to her mouth.
“It’s a monster!”
“It’s alright! He won’t hurt you!” Jon yelled but Ghost leapt forward.
The girl cried out and made to run but tripped on her skirts. She fell backwards and raised her hands up to protect herself. Instead of attacking, the white wolf ignored her completely, opting instead to eat the dropped meat. The girl was clutching her chest with white knuckles and staring wide-eyed at the wolf as Jon came to her side.
“He won’t hurt you.” He offered her his hand and tried to sound reassuring. “Are you alright?”
“It… it… won’t hurt me?” She was still staring at Ghost but clutched his offered hand like a claw.
“No. He’s mine. He only eats dwarfs and meat thrown by pretty girls.” Jon said with a hopeful smile.
The girl’s eyes finally left Ghost and fell upon him. They were a pale green, like northern grass and that thought made him like her all the more. She smiled some at his jest and grabbed his arm as he helped lift her to her feet.
She began to brush off her skirts while Ghost finished his meal, ignoring them. Jon went forward and put his hand upon the wolf’s head, giving the Ghost a playing slap for his poor manners. The wolf returned the slap by biting Jon’s arm and pulling it side to side but the wolf’s teeth never broke the skin or hurt Jon. It was just a game they played.
The girl marveled at Jon as he did so.
“That is the biggest wolf I’ve ever seen.”
“It’s a direwolf from the North.” Jon continued to pet Ghost who sat and appeared bored now. “You can pet him if you wish.”
The girl didn’t believe him at first but he coaxed her over. She reached forward and tentatively began to stroke Ghost’s head. The wolf cared little and let it continue for a time before bounding away, off into the darkness again.
“He’s not much for farewells.” The girl giggled, which was a tad too high pitched for Jon’s liking. Still her smile was gentle and she was looking at him instead of Ghost and so Jon tried to follow Tyrion’s advice, looking right back.
“I’m Jon. It would be a fair trade to know your name now as well, yes?”
“I’m Iryne.” She pulled nervously at a lock of hair. “My uncle owns this tavern and I’ve seen all types of folk pass through. Never a group like yours though.”
“A man of the Night’s Watch, a dwarf, and a northerner with a direwolf?” Jon believed that if Tyrion heard him describe it as such, a bawdy joke would have been made.
“You’re a northerner?” She looked him up and down. “But you’re so kind, I’d thought…”
“Us all cold barbarians who steal maidens? Lord Tyrion can accuse me of the first charge but I’d be more worried about him on the second.”
Iryne giggled again and took step closer to him. Her foot kicked the dropped tankard and she groaned a little.
“The dwarf spent good coin on that.” Her eyes found his again. “I could go and fetch another? My aunt already says I spill more than I serve so…”
“I’d rather have you stay than have an ale.” Jon said without thinking and he was upset when she laughed at that too.
“I’ve heard that before. Many times.”
“Because you’re so fair…” His words were interrupted by another bout of her giggles and he became frustrated. “I mean it, you’re the prettiest girl I’ve seen during my ride!”
“Must not have ridden very far then!”
When he told her they had ridden from the Wall her eyes bulged.
“So you be a gallant northerner, travelling with the Lannister Imp, from the Wall, with a direwolf…” Iryne said softly as she stepped towards him. “How do I know this isn’t all some tale to get in my skirts?”
“Who would pretend to be such a party if they weren’t?” Jon asked. “But if it’s a tale that’s needed to impress you, I’ve heard several…”
He’d had enough ale to feel bold yet when her eyes met his the words fell away. Up close like this, he thought her lips to be full and soft. The softest things he had ever seen.
Look at her.
Tyrion said to look at her.
He forced his gaze up to her eyes again and the two of them drew closer still.
“My cousins would never believe that I…” She started but never finished.
Jon leaned forward and kissed her. Her lips were as soft as he imagined and a little wet. His kiss must have been a bit too forceful as she’d reached up to pull at his hair some and ease him back. He was glad for the guidance, and Jon even liked the way she pulled his hair a little in a strange way. It made her desire for him seem stronger.
The kiss continued despite Jon’s fumbling, Iryne clearly knowing more than he did and soon it was her mouth leading them. Her tongue pushed at his lips lightly and he opened them slightly to let her tongue into his mouth. It was a strange feeling at first but one he quickly began to enjoy. His tongue joined with hers and Jon’s body burned with how sweet she tasted. If all girls kissed as hungrily as Iryne did, he could understand why Theon had been so wanton with the women at Winterfell.
Then they heard voices and Iryne broke away. Men were leaving the inn but they seemed to pay them no mind. She giggled then and ran off back towards the open door.
Jon just stood there staring after her.
The south is not so bad.
I hate the south.
“We’re almost there.” Yoren growled. “Keep your hood down and let me do the talking.”
Jon only half listened, looking up from beneath his hood to see the truth for himself. Indeed, ahead of them stood the gates to the Red Keep itself, which meant an end to their skulking about the city that Jon had grown to dislike in a very short time.
King’s Landing was a filthy, crowded place that stunk of shit and things Jon did not wish to know. It would’ve been more tolerable if he weren’t so damned hot under his cloak.
It wasn’t his cloak in truth. Yoren had purchased the dirty thing from a beggar and made Jon disguise himself in it. He thought it stank worse than the city itself and Yoren had cuffed him when he said so.
“That’s the point.” The crooked-backed man had said. “Who would want to see what hides beneath such a rank cloak?”
Indeed, as packed as the streets were with people for the Hand’s Tourney, people cursed and made way as Jon approached. He hated when people brushed against him roughly and Jon decided that there were too many people for his liking in this terrible place.
As they came before the gates, the guards demanded their business.
“Yoren of the Night’s Watch.” Yoren proclaimed, offering up a parchment to the men. “I been sent by the Lord-Commander to seek recruits from the Hand of the King.”
“Fine then, and who is this?”
“One of my brothers who gambled away his black cloak. You see why we be needing new recruits.”
The guards laughed and sent a man to fetch someone from Lord Stark’s household. They waited some time before Jory Cassel himself came to fetch them.
Jon was excited to see a familiar face but he kept his eyes straight down, looking at the cobblestones. If Jory saw his face they could be undone and all their trials, all their efforts at getting here undetected would be for naught.
Thankfully Jory didn’t recognize him and the pair were led throughout the castle to the Tower of the Hand and then to his father’s chambers.
Jon heard arguing as Jory knocked upon the door and his heart leapt as he saw father and Arya within. Jory announced them as men of the watch and Jon stayed silent despite wishing to go forward and hug his sister tightly. She was filthy herself, covered in dirt and grime. Jon thought she looked like he smelt.
He smiled to think that even in the capital, Arya managed to cause such trouble.
Too soon their father dismissed her and the opportunity to hold her was lost. As the doors closed, Jon yanked his hood off and took a deep breath of fresh air.
“Jon! What is happening here?” His father walked forward and grasped him tightly by the shoulders. “Why did you not send word?”
“Begging your pardons my lord, but that’s what we’re here to tell you. There are things you need to be hearing before word gets out, as it most certainly will.” Yoren said then and he began to recount the tale of what happened at the Crossroads Inn.
Jon had wanted to keep riding but both Tyrion and Yoren had chided him for his lack of experience. Apparently they had been at the last inn of repute for many leagues and no matter how much Jon wished to reunite with his father, Tyrion made it clear that he didn’t want to sleep beneath a hedge.
When they’d entered the inn, he’d scanned the room full of patrons and recognized her auburn hair immediately. Her and Rodrik Cassel both.
Tyrion was still haggling with the innkeeper and hadn’t noticed the pair yet. Something Jon saw they were trying very hard to avoid. It hadn’t worked though, as he had learned in their travels, few things ever slipped Tyrion’s notice. When the Lannister called out her name everything had happened at once.
Lady Stark never once looked to Jon while she named Tyrion as the man responsible for an attempt on Bran’s life. As much as he didn’t want to believe it, what she was saying made sense with what he’d seen at Winterfell. The burnt tower, Robb’s strange behavior, all of it. He also didn’t forget that father had wanted Tyrion watched for a reason.
So when Lady Stark had called for swords, all Jon knew was that something terrible had happened at Winterfell. Someone had tried to hurt his family.
He had named Tyrion a friend, he had spoken to the Lannister truthfully on many things he never had before, not even with his own siblings. Yet Jon pulled his sword along with the others as his friend stood accused of trying to kill Bran. The look on Tyrion’s face when he saw Jon’s blade weakened his resolve for a moment but he held the blade firm.
For he served the Starks.
None of that mattered to Lady Stark though. She was preparing to lead a party to escort Tyrion to Riverrun for trial, having asked for loyal men to join them. Men from houses sworn to House Tully made to do so and Jon had also made to mount his horse.
That was when she refused him.
“I would not have you.” Lady Stark said as she climbed upon her mount.
He’d been crushed. His sword had been good enough for her in the inn yet Lady Stark appeared content to ignore all that now. He had looked to Ser Rodrik then who had taken up his cause.
“My lady, I trained the boy myself. He is very capable with a sword and would be…”
“I would not have him. You were to squire somewhere, weren’t you? Go and do so.” The lady said without looking at Jon before moving her horse to ride past him.
“Lady Stark! I would serve your House in this! Bran is my brother!”
“Bran has enough trueborn brothers to protect him.” She’d called back. “House Stark would not have you!”
Those were the last words she said before they left him there with Yoren. The pair had continued on together towards King’s Landing with great haste. When they had neared the city, Yoren bid him to leave Ghost behind.
“We can’t bloody well sneak into the city with that beast, can we?” Yoren had said. “With you taking part back there, I guarantee word will reach here, and soon I wager. It be best if people did not think you came to the city.”
Jon had adamantly refused to do that. Ghost had chosen him and Jon would not abandon his friend. He’d used what coin he had to buy a wagon and cover from a farmer along the road. With Ghost covered in the back, none could see the direwolf but Jon was not sure how long the wolf would stand to be in such a state.
At that part of the tale his father interrupted.
“Yoren I thank you, for all you’ve done for my family by coming here and bringing my son to me. I’d ask for a moment with Jon, if you would excuse us.” Father said. “I’ll have lodgings arranged for you somewhere but I must ask you to speak to no one of what has transpired here.”
“I won’t be. I’m fond of my bloody neck where it is.” Yoren grumbled before nodding to Jon. “Farewell lad, ‘tis a shame about the dwarf. He had a decent way about him.”
He did, he thought, he was a good friend.
Jon nodded numbly and said his own goodbyes as Yoren took his leave. Weeks of travelling together and it came down to that. It felt strange to have it end so quickly but he had no time to dwell on goodbyes.
I must explain to father.
“I tried to accompany her father, I did, but…”
“I know Jon.” Father waved it away. “Where is Ghost now?”
“In the shed of an inn we stopped at. I traded my sword for the promise that no one would go in but I don’t know how long Ghost can stand it here.” Jon said. In truth, he was in a hurry to return to his wolf.
“I’ll arrange a new sword for you and better lodgings for Ghost.” Father shook his head and sighed. “What happened at the inn makes our position in the capital even more dangerous than I feared. I’d hoped to keep you here safely for a bit and not under a shroud of secrecy.”
“I’ll help you father. I’d rather help you all here than going off…”
“Nothing has changed about my plans for you Jon.” He said firmly. “You’ll be leaving at once to begin squiring.”
“How can I leave you like this? You just said it was dangerous here! Let me help protect you and the girls.”
“You were a part of what happened at the inn. Cersei Lannister would not hesitate for a moment at the thought of harming you, even if just to prove a point. And if Robert knew…” His father shook his head in disgust. “Besides, Lord Royce has arranged that his son second eldest son, Ser Robar, take you as his squire.”
“Lord Royce?” Jon had seen the man when he visited Winterfell. “You mean Bronze Yohn Royce?”
The storied Lord of Runestone was an aging warrior yet had seemed hale and full of smiles when he’d visited Winterfell, especially towards Lady Stark. His father held the man in high regard while Jon had thought little of his son Waymar. He found the younger Royce to be an arrogant and haughty man. His opinion was discolored by the memory of how particularly annoying Arya and he had found Sansa that week, with her constant fawning and sighing and crying over the ‘handsome knight of her dreams’ joining the Night’s Watch and being unable to marry. She had dutifully forgotten about him two weeks later.
That’s when he remembered that Ser Waymar been the one Benjen had sought on his ranging, lost and feared dead. Jon felt a little bad about thinking ill of him then.
“Yes, the ser is eager to be away from the capital so I’ll have him sent for immediately. They can collect you and Ghost at the same time.” Ned called out and a Stark guard opened the door. “See if my daughters are awake. If they are, and can get here quickly, let them know Jon has arrived but cannot stay long.”
When the man left, his father’s shoulders slumped slightly and his gaze went about the room, appearing almost disgusted with it. Jon wanted to know what troubled him before they’d arrived and why he thought the capital so dangerous. It was clear to him that Eddard Stark felt very out of place here.
“I’d have them say their farewells, I know Arya would never forgive me if I didn’t.” His father sat in a chair then and looked at him carefully. It made him wonder for a moment if his father still saw a boy before him or if he saw Jon, finally, as a man. “You look well, considering your journey.”
He wished he could say the same but Eddard Stark looked tired and worn compared to when they last met in his solar at Winterfell. Jon worried for him.
“Father… perhaps you should leave here too. If the Lannisters mean your family harm-”
“I have a duty to my king. As much I want to return to my home, and hold all my children, I can’t. We have talked on this before, Jon. The world is not about what we want. It is about what we must do.”
He was not happy yet didn’t challenge his father further. For the man wished to talk of other things instead and he would ease his father’s burdens any way he could. They spoke of how the girls were doing at court and of the time he’d spent at the Wall. Father had smiled to hear how strong Bran had seemed when Jon had visited Winterfell.
Then a knock came and Jon looked to door in anticipation.
Yet it was only the same guard father had sent to collect the girls, and he was alone.
“Lady Arya is bathing and the steward told me she could not be prepared quickly.” The guard reported and his heart fell, especially because she had been so close before. He felt that he should have said something then.
“And of Sansa?” His father asked and the guard shifted uncomfortably and looked quickly to Jon in apology before looking back to his lord again.
“Lady Sansa… well the Septa reminded her of how such would be seen… and…”
It would be improper.
Being seen with her father’s bastard.
Jon understood of course. It was the same reason he could not go south with them. A bastard at court was unseemly and he didn’t think harshly of Sansa for scorning him. She was to marry the prince and she needed to start behaving properly. What other choice did she have?
“Thank you, leave us.” Ned said but he looked anything but thankful. “I will have to remind the Septa that I can determine how things will be seen at court well enough for my daughters-”
“It’s alright father, she’s to be a queen one day. I would not risk ruining those prospects.” He did not want his father to worry any more than he already did. “I must go then. I am eager to serve Ser Robar well.”
His father moved quickly and embraced him then, awkwardly but tightly.
“I know you are almost a man and told old for embraces but please forgive me this. Let Ser Robar see a man where I still see the boy I raised.” Father’s voice was strained as he backed away. His eyes were full of sadness. “Before you left Winterfell you asked of-”
“My mother. I wish to hear of her, but I gather that now is not the time, is it?” He interrupted and it was a hard thing to do. He desperately wanted to hear of his mother. Yet this was not the moment to learn of her he felt.
And his father nodded.
“It is something I would like to take my time with, not something to be rushed right before you leave again.”
As Jon made to don his smelly disguise again, his father grabbed his arm suddenly. His face was pale and he had a pained expression upon it.
“She loved you Jon. Loved you more than you can know.”
It had been good to hear. Their second farewell was hard to endure but it had to be done. Later, as he walked through the streets of the city, back towards Ghost, his father’s words came back to him.
And a realization struck him numb.
For his father had told him two things with those words.
My mother loved me.
And she is dead.