Eddard Stark gazed wide-eyed down at the small bundled babe in his arms, his eyes freshly damp by the death of his beloved sister.
“What will you do with him?” Howland Reed, one of Ned’s most faithful companions and the only other of his men to survive the battle before the Tower of Joy, inquired as they made haste through the Red Mountains of Dorne. Ned shielded the blinding, searing sunlight from the baby’s eyes as he cooed up at his uncle.
“I will do as I promised: protect him. But I don’t know that I can take him back to Winterfell with me. It would be a death sentence for him should Robert find out, and Catelyn will grow suspicious,” Ned replied, his head swimming. Cat will have given birth to their first child soon, if not already in his absence. They spoke of having a large family, and what would be to have two together? They could be raised together, love each other, form a strong and loyal bond, and at that moment Ned hoped for Cat to birth a son. The small, dark eyes not unlike Lyanna’s, ogling back at him yet unseeing. He had enough room in his heart for another, and would be proud to raise him as his own, but he would not admit to Howland that he feared his wife’s inability to withhold a secret, especially if it meant a threat to their family. And he would not live with himself if his nephew were murdered at a wet nurse’s breast.
Howland kept a wary eye out for further Targaryen kingsguard, but thus far were lucky since leaving the Tower. “What other choice is there? Who would take on such a responsibility?”
Ned paused, the sweltering Dornish heat seeping into his underlayers. “I may have a plan, but it would make me mad.” When the boy began to fuss, Ned gently shushed him and loosened the wrap to allow air to kiss his clammy skin, then stopped to turn around. “Theora,” he said to the young wet nurse whom he had summoned to join them after assisting in the birth of little Aegon, handing him off into her practiced arms. He became disarmed in the trade that was parenting a child, unsure of how to soothe a weeping babe, but he took care to observe how Theora handled him as if he were a fragile trinket, how her fingers always supported his head and positioned his little body so that he didn’t bend awkwardly.
As they continued on, Theora had nestled Aegon at her breast, careful to shield him from the blistering rays of the sun as he suckled greedily. Ned looked to his friend, one eye squinting in the brightness. “I know I can count on you to make no mention of him to anyone. A whisper can reach a thousand leagues in a fortnight.”
“Of course, my lord...but what of your wife?” They were careful to keep their voices low between them even in the absence of insatiable ears.
Ned’s eyes fell to the red soot below their feet. He knew what he had to do, and though his honor would grow privy to suspicion, he was unsure that his marriage would withstand it.
The morning that he had returned to Winterfell was a dreary and stormy one, with harsh winds whipping sharp rain against his face and thunder vibrating the ground beneath him. Even so, Cat had abandoned the warm comfort of her bed where she had been getting some much-needed shut-eye beside their son, in order to greet her husband back home. But her smile quickly diminished and was replaced by questionable eyes of confusion at the child in his arms, and when he had explained in short what had happened, converted to a raw disgust. The sting of her hand across his face had hurt less than the lie he conjured, that he had betrayed their vows and promise to one another and fathered a bastard son in his time away from her, and all while she was laboring the birth of their first child together. An event she accepted he would miss because he was needed in King’s Landing, and to search for his missing sister.
She trudged through the mud and returned to their son’s cot and Ned continued on inside, ignoring the silent stares as he passed. With the assistance of a wet nurse and Old Nan, a spare room was cleaned and prepared for Aegon, whom Ned declared a moniker for as Jon Snow. A bastard’s name. The travel from the Sea of Dorne to White Harbor allowed him some time to solidify his story; he wished nothing more than to be honest with his wife, and though he loved her greatly, would not risk the danger of Aegon’s true identity if it ever were to seep through the cracks. Instead, he took advantage of her faith and would rather taint his own reputation than put his nephew at risk.
The small chamber was damp and cold in its lack of use, and Ned ensured that it was cleaned and warmed just as thoroughly as any other member of his family’s despite grievances any may have on the boy. As Cat had shut him out that day, Ned spent most of it with Jon, memorizing each little movement and noise and cue he presented to communicate his needs. Finally, by that evening, he sought out his wife after Jon was well asleep in the care of the wet nurse, to greet his newborn son.
The thin, stringy dark curls atop his head brought a wide smile to Ned’s face, and Cat tentatively returned the gesture, though was clearly still cross with him, and rightfully so. “What do we call you?” He asked softly as he gingerly swept up the boy in his arms.
“Robb,” Cat responded, her eyes mightily attentive to her young husband’s practiced attention. “You seem to have learned how to handle a babe in your time away…”
Ned tried to ignore the comment, though his face gave him away without a word, and instead he paced slowly around the room as Robb’s eyes fell onto the captivating flicker of the candles lighting the room.
“May I at least know her name, or what she was like?” She tried to sound genuine, Ned knew, but the words were ice.
“No,” he shot back, looking at her now. “I’m sorry, Cat. I am not proud of it, but we will speak no more of it from here on out. Do you understand me? His name is Jon...Jon Snow. And he is as every bit a part of this family as Robb.”
Eyes narrowing in a challenge, her jaw shifted into a clench, but she decided to swallow her retort. They were still freshly wed, and were still learning how to navigate one another, and she was less herself when she was exhausted.
It was the frayed, broken thread that would suffocate their marriage for the rest of time, until one year past and word reached the realm that a Targaryen girl had been born at Dragonstone not long after Jon’s own birth. It caused a stir among the realm, and incessantly so in Ned’s stomach as it was quick to reach Robert Baratheon’s ears.
As the time passed from the day he returned home, relations with his wife mended painfully slowly, but her bitterness and resentful demeanor was thrust onto Jon even as an infant. She never tended to him even when he cried for hours into the night, and though Ned knew the hardship the situation brought her, a constant reminder of his deception to her, often he found she was too harsh when the fault did not lay with Jon.
Just as Ned had wished, Jon and Robb bonded from the beginning, squabbling as children did but were always keen to love on one another. While they grew their fondness became deeply rooted the older they became, but not without an ever-lingering grimace from above by Cat, who often found ways to scold Jon during their play or even separate the two when she felt he was getting too rough with her blood child. Oft times Ned wasn’t present for it, but Jon would always ask him at bed time what he had done wrong, why he was scorned for acting and playing just as the other children did. Ned did his best to assure him he was not in the wrong, and time and time again the conversation surfaced and a heated argument erupted between he and Cat one evening.
“It’s not only his feelings you are hurting, his soul is breaking!” He had lashed out, yanking his sleep tunic over his shoulders.
“He is a boy , Ned! To be a man, and a bastard one at that, he will need to learn to harden to face this world! It’s hard enough being a trueborn-”
“Don’t, Cat. If you can be that venomous to lay my wrongdoings onto an innocent child, I don’t want to hear any more from you,” he said plainly, though his voice shook. “What you are doing is not giving him a lesson on how to manage his...status; if it were, you would treat Robb just as equally, especially as he is yours .”
Cat rose suddenly from the edge of the bed, whipping around to face him, her beautiful features strained and tired. “You came here with another woman’s child and expected me to just accept it! To get on with it as if my husband hadn’t had eyes for another woman, and worse that he could not subdue temptation to relinquish in a lustful affair and bear her a child. I would accuse you of being a liar if I didn’t trust your word as much as I do. Isn’t that ironic?”
A small scoff escaped her. The dreary weather outside befit the mood, the rain whipping and slapping against the walls of their home just as Cat’s words did to his heart and soul. “Eddard the honorable, they call you, even now. But if our roles were turned, and I walked through the portcullis with a newborn baby in my arms from another man, I would have been cast out, spit on, exiled back to Riverrun or to whomever would have me.”
Her voice was small now, and Ned paused. When he walked over to try and comfort her, she wiggled her shoulder free of his hand and dismissed him from the chamber, and he did so without another word.
The topic bubbled in an almost rhythmic timing, and they were only minorly distracted from it at the birth of their eldest daughter four years on, Sansa. But it simmered when Cat took it upon her to silently feed misgivings into their daughter’s ears as she grew older, though she was far too small to understand the words, Ned knew the trouble it would bring later on. The other children, who learned of Jon’s status from their parents, would push unnecessarily rough against Jon’s shoulder which would throw him into the wall, or they’d dismiss him when he sought to join potential friends at the longtable for dinner only to out him for not being one of them. Special gifts were given to Robb in front of Jon’s eyes, and Cat made it a point to boast about it in front of him, which would send Jon to sit in his dark chambers for the rest of the day.
But Robb would seek him out, pulling him from his isolation and they played together in the Godswood, and Robb would share his gifts and practice swordplay with him without condition. The Godswood became a safe haven for them both, a place where all guard and hostilities could be stripped and forgotten.
Once Cat had a sturdy bow crafted for Robb, but his interest lay more in steel (much to his mother’s distaste) so he insisted that Jon keep it. At first Jon was afraid that he would be caught, and would not dare even let his fingers touch it, but Robb was convincing enough that he wouldn’t allow it. So they dug up a deep-rooted hole beneath the hollow of a tree in the Godswood and there Jon would tuck away the trinkets and weapons he wasn’t supposed to have. Ned had wished for a son, and he had never been more grateful for Robb’s unequivocal love for his adoptive brother than in Jon’s most dire times of need. Robb was a tender-hearted boy, good-natured by default, and strong-willed; all traits that could either guide him or break him in their partisan world.
When Robb wasn’t available, having been taken up by his mother for whatever reason she could think of to keep him busy, Ned would find moments to break away from his duties and play with him. One thing Jon found pleasing about his father was that he was rarely absent, even when Cat pushed for it to be so. It wasn’t often he would have spare time, but he would make it to be with his boys, both separate and together.
When Ned’s administrative obligations wrung him dry, he would often put them on hold in order to use that time to spend with his boys, usually making up for it late into the night much to his wife’s displeasure. He always assured them that no matter how buried in parchment he became, or how many callings and visits from great Lords and Ladies he welcomed, his children were his utmost priority and nothing took precedence over that. It was an uncommon notion for a father to uptake such a present role, even going as far as suspending his more mundane responsibilities, in their society, and one that wasn’t without its wisecracks from friends and allies. But Ned strode with great spirit in light of it all, because he knew that at the end of each day, he was providing a genuine, intentional love for his family, and especially to Jon, who would have normally been absent of such affection.
Jon had been only four years of age when he had finally asked Ned what a bastard was and why the children spoke so harshly of it to him. It blindsided him as he knew the day would come where he would hold this conversation with Jon, but expected he had many more years before that day would arrive. He half considered being honest with him, but knew he would risk Jon shouting it from the rooftops to his advantage, so instead he remained on course to help him understand his current truth without revealing the actual one just yet.
The day came when Ned realized he had to make a decision for Jon’s benefit. Cat was pregnant with their third child, and Robert had come to visit the North with his wife and children; he was as close to a brother as Ned could have asked for, but the thought of him within feet of Jon was difficult for him to swallow. Ned had ordered for Jon to remain deep within the Godswood to train alongside his swordmaster and to stay away from prying eyes of the royal family. Jon had become quite good with a blade even at his young age, and deep down Ned had begun lessons earlier on as he came to realize what the turbulent journey of a bastard’s life would serve him, even if only the ruse of such a life.
Lord Varys, Robert’s spymaster, convened with them later on, after Robert promised a marriage alliance betwixt his son Joffrey and Sansa, to which Ned was quick to dismiss given the years they would have until that were possible. The young king would speak so favorably of his lost love, Lyanna, but it never failed that Ned would notice Robert seemed more intent on his lust for her, for he could not remember her favorite flower or recall the color of her eyes. With a gleam in his eye, Robert told Ned how he dreamt every night about killing Rhaegar and the passion it fed him. What was worse was the manner in which he spoke of seeing that every last Targaryen was executed, and that two of them resided in Essos, and he would soon hire assassins to see to the task.
It took all that Ned had to bite his tongue, though he was confident enough in his king’s presence to denounce such a merciless attack, but his words fell on deaf ears. Robert was nearly buzzing with the thrill of their deaths, and an unease churned within him. After all had left, Ned had called upon Varys, and they shared a long conversation which led to the topic of his friendship to Illyrio Mopatis, whom Ned had learned was housing both Daenerys Targaryen and her brother Viserys under his protection. All of this was unbeknownst to Robert and would continue to be so, and Ned swore to never utter it to anyone else. When Ned questioned why Varys was withholding what he knew from the king he served, he explained that while he held no special affection for anyone in his life, he could not live with himself if his word became the sword that executed children. That, and he held a certain affinity for the Targaryens, believing that the world was never held to a higher degree of prosperity in their reign. Even if it was achieved through fear of their mythical dragons, though now they fell extinct, at rest for eternity never to be seen again.
The Spider was clever and unsettling, but not quite as conniving as Cat’s childhood friend Petyr Baelish. If there was one man he distrusted most in the realm, it was the man dubbed Littlefinger. Varys tended to meddle in the same affairs that Littlefinger did, to stay two steps ahead of him. If he ever were to become aware of the whereabouts of the remaining Targaryen children, Littlefinger would be paid a thousand pretty golden dragons to feed the information to Robert.
But Ned studied Varys long and hard, and he shared how Viserys would likely plan to dethrone Robert when he gained a great army of his own, though it would be years yet before that would come to fruition if anyone would choose to follow him. There was a deviousness - a ruthlessness - in Viserys that unsettled Varys when Illyrio spoke of him. He was five years older than Jon, yet believed himself the rightful king already.
As Ned sat there absorbing all of this, he made his decision.
“I have a job for you, but no one can know. Not a soul; I don’t care how long you’ve known them, how well you think you know them,” Ned had begun testily, his eyes never leaving the Spider’s.
Varys frowned himself into a pout. “My dear Lord Stark, you wound me. I cannot make a promise nor accept an offer if I do not know what it is, no matter the prize,” he said in a rather sing-song intonation.
Ned’s teeth pressed firmly together while he considered what he was about to say, but knew that he wouldn’t be walking away with Varys becoming a thorn in his side on the secretive matter. “I know that you serve Robert, and I am sure you do it well. But it only became that way when he pardoned you. I need to know that your loyalties, your true loyalties, still remain with the Targaryens. And I need to know that you will not relinquish those loyalties. Ever.”
“You speak boldly, my lord, but I do admit I admire it,” Varys said with an exaggerated sigh. “I serve the realm, and whomever I believe would be the wisest and most just ruler for the common people. Those are the ones who matter.”
Ned studied him long and hard, but Varys was practiced in his expertise and Ned knew that he wouldn’t be able to crack Varys as hard as he may try and it flustered him. “And who do you believe in at this very moment?”
A small smirk pulled the corner of his lips then. “I think you know the answer. Young Viserys Targaryen has some qualities of a king, but too many of his father’s. Already he is ill-tempered and contemptuous, and I’ll not see history repeat itself. So until he is removed, I will continue to receive word on how his sister, Princess Daenerys, fares in this cruel world.”
“And they reside with their mother?” Ned asked, his shoulders visibly relaxing a little more.
“Oh, no longer. Queen Rhaella died birthing Daenerys, which not only is challenging of itself, but a fault that Viserys lays on his new sister.”
Ned nodded smally, averting his eyes down to the table below his hand. So the princess’s mother died just as cruelly as Jon’s had; suffering in a bed bathed in blood, barely able to relish in the warmth of their new babe.
“Does this have anything to do with Lord Snow?”
His curtness caused Ned’s head to fly upward, his eyes wide and his brow creased at the center. “I don’t-”
“Calm yourself, my lord,” Varys gestured his hand in the air as if the light breeze would do as much. “You need not play coy with me. I was just as startled as anyone when I first learned of your...less than honorable mistake. But I was more disgruntled by the fact that anyone took your word as fact.”
Ned could only gape at the man, his mouth moving to speak, but words caught in his throat.
Leaning in closer as if others were in the room to hear, Varys lowered his voice. “The year you walked through those gates with Jon in rags, rumor had begun to spread. First it only slept in the walls of Dorne, talk of a young man carrying off an infant in the searing summer sun, in the direction that a dying woman could be heard screaming for miles. Then when Lord Reed went back to bring Lyanna’s body back north to rest in the crypt, and the Tower of Joy was demolished under your order, the word spread. Unusual circumstances it was, they said. It was known that you had gone off to seek your sister, and your time away from your wife created a distant tension as you were newly wed. Ned Stark never stepped foot in a brothel even in his most primitive years, so the mother could not have been a whore. He was far too engrossed in his duties as a husband, soon to be father, rife with worry over his sister having vanished, and war, to be bothered to seek the comforts of a tavern wench, so it could not have been her.”
Lips pressed firmly together, Ned studied Varys as his past played out before him but in the words of another. There was no point in denying it now; his eyes will have betrayed him by now.
“Most of all, Ned Stark was unapologetically honest and true to his word, so how could it be that in his absence, he took it upon himself to father a bastard child knowing the consequences of bedding an unwed stranger?” His eyebrows raised. “That integrity is the only reason that nobody questioned your account. Isn’t that fascinating? And ironic; the one fictitious tale that nobody could believe, yet did anyway, and the one that would disgrace your character for years to come.”
It was all true, Ned thought. Yet it was never easy to hear, especially when it was spoken back to him. The initial panic that ensued within him when he burst into Lyanna’s room and the maroon blood that had near covered her bed whole, and her gown with it, yet when she made him pledge his promise, his instinct took precedent when the life left her eyes and the babe was brought into his arms. It wasn’t until he reached the threshold of Winterfell’s gates that he had realized, fully, the extent of the damage that his promise would entail, or how it would bring such a burden unto his family.
“Now, if tales be true, Rhaegar thrust himself upon her; he had been keen on her for some time before he snatched her away-”
“He did not rape her,” Ned cut in, his words sharp before he reset himself. For the first time, Varys looked stunned. Finally, something he didn’t know. Ned was almost tempted to withhold the information just to relish in the fact. “They were wed; they loved each other.”
Varys’s jaw dropped open briefly, his eyes looking about the room as if searching for his next words. “My, my. You do realize the implication of all of this, yes? Jon is Rhaegar’s only living, trueborn son, which makes his claim even greater than his uncle Viserys.”
“I do understand it, and it’s part of the reason that brings me here to speak with you. I have a request to ask of you, hard as it is for the act in itself, but more especially that I’m entrusting a spymaster to keep his word,” Ned said with some edge.
“Oh,” Varys trilled, straightening in his seat. “Now I must know; nothing could be more exciting than my imaginings.”
Ned contrived a deal with Lord Varys. Most would have called him absolutely mad if it had not involved a perceived bastard, but Ned promised a torturous death or a life of ruin, whichever Varys chose, if he should turn on his word. Additionally, he would be paid generously, and Ned would overfill his pockets to ensure his silence.
So three more days passed after Robert and his company returned to King’s Landing, and Ned was aboard a ship from White Harbor with Jon in tow. Jon had many questions, but his excitement to travel beyond Winterfell’s walls trumped his curiosity, to which Ned was grateful for. The departure had been smooth as planned; Ned fed Cat the idea that he would be bringing him to the Night’s Watch, more fit for a bastard; it may be true enough later on, but at present he was to be taken elsewhere.
Jon, beneath his raven, head full of thick curls, had hardly removed himself from the bow the whole ride, the scenery of the endless, open sea astounding to his wide grey eyes. After Ned adjusted the mast to fit the direction of the wind, eyes squinting at the beads of water that gathered on the sail and sprinkled his face, he made headway to stand beside Jon. A firm, almost fretful expression sat on the boy’s face.
“Where are we going, father?” Jon asked; it had been over two days since they departed, and Ned had thought perhaps the unending sea was beginning to bore him into thinking of other things.
“To a new home, for now,” Ned said solemnly, but was quick to reset his tone so as not to worry the boy when he looked at him. “Winterfell will always be your home, Jon. Never forget that. But this place we’re going...I have much to explain to you once we arrive. Can you bear to wait just a little longer?”
Jon nodded eagerly, then resumed his gaze on the bay as it split in half while the ship coursed through its surface. Ned watched him, knowing these would be some of his final moments with him for some time.
Essos welcomed them in its warm red hues and its rich landscape. The enduring heat was both a welcome treat and inconvenient; the north didn’t know such climate, and though Ned was familiar with it, it was the first time that Jon came to experience it in his six years of life. When they sailed into the Bay of Pentos, they were greeted by a fleet of twenty warships near the coast. They had granted them entrance without trouble, which confirmed for Ned that communications had been successful between Varys and Illyrio Mopatis. He was true to his word. Before they made land, they shed their thick leathers in favor of lighter layers to favor the weather.
After they docked, two armed guards were quick to gather at either side of them, and Ned brought his hand around Jon’s small shoulders to keep him close while they collected their belongings. These parts were most unfamiliar to him and all faces were strangers, and he was unsure whom he could trust.
“Lord Eddard Stark?” One of them asked, his voice deep and booming.
“Aye,” he responded shortly, and Jon’s grey eyes peered under his dark brows up at the two burly men clad in armor. The plating reflected the rays of the sun and blinded him each time they turned a certain way.
“Magister Illyrio awaits. Please follow us.”
They did as beckoned, taking in the beauty of Pentos. The warm, orange hues were pleasant to their eyes, but a world a difference from Westeros and the North especially. The heat sweltered beneath their clothes before they had walked for long, and a long walk it had been. The guards remained silent besides the occasional exchange, and Ned never removed a protective hand from Jon’s shoulder while they passed through. Passersby and civilians sometimes stopped and slowed to gaze at their unusual appearance, likely wondering why they had been dressed in such strange wear or why their appearance adopted a rougher exterior.
Gradually their surroundings transitioned from rusty reds to lush greens peppered by various hues of flowers, the presence of trees and foliage became unending once they reached a long, smooth stone path.The humidity of the city was alleviated somewhat, their breathing easing in its clarity. When they reached a guarded gate flanked by the thickness of trees on either side of them, some obscure words were exchanged before the golden gates were opened for them. Instantly they shut and locked behind them, and Ned looked up to find a grand entrance of a home greeting them a ways up.
Jon’s dubious gaze fixed upon the wide, white marble staircase up ahead, Ned offered him a gentle squeeze at his shoulder before a plump man dressed in a robe as red as the desert lands, his beard slightly unkempt but cut close to his jaw, and waves of ashen brown hair atop his head. He was a little older than Ned, though his appearance would have told him differently had he not known better. A friendly smile reached his eyes and he clapped his hands together with an eagerness when they stopped at the foot of the steps. Two Unsullied guards were posted at the wide, square entryway into the manse.
“Ah, my Lord Stark. I’ve heard some wonderful things about you from Lord Varys,” he chimed as he descended the stairs. Jon’s small hand gripped around Ned’s knee, visibly unnerved by this man’s forwardness.
“Magister Illyrio,” Ned greeted with an extension of his hand, keeping one foot rooted where Jon held onto him, and firmly shook the man’s beefy hand. “This is Jon,” he placed a hand on Jon’s head, and gently ushered him forward. He mimicked Ned’s gesture shyly, and Illyrio chuckled as he fit his little hand into his own.
“Little Lord, would you like to come and play with the other children?” He asked with a twinkle in his eye, and Jon’s eyes brightened before seeking his father’s permission. Ned smiled and he moved his head to signal his approval, and they followed behind Illyrio into the great house.
The first room was modest in size, but opened up into a much larger one where the ceilings were high and rounded, and split into three different halls. Each of their steps echoed off of the walls and sunlight poured in from the high windows, and it consistently smelled of fresh fruits and vegetation. They exited to the outside which took Ned’s breath away: the great stone balcony opened up to a looming, aqua sea shining infinitely before them, and narrow, wide steps descended further and further into different layers of landings until it eventually cascaded downward to the shallows of the bay. As was the entrance, greenery was of an abundance, and lush gardens enclosed the perimeter at either side.
“Viserys, Daenerys!” Illyrio called out, and within a few moments two silver-headed children near Jon’s age erupted from the gardens to their gardens to their right, fresh out of breath from their play, but Daenerys holding her arm with her mouth downturned when they approached. If Ned had not known better, he would have thought Jon’s identity a mistake. He resembled neither of his relatives.
Both sets of amethyst eyes centered on their guests. The boy, Viserys, was taller and leaner, a towering presence beside her. He had a narrow face and pointed chin, his stare hardened and challenging. Already Ned understood what Varys meant in the boy’s demeanor; his attendance felt cold when his eyes locked on Jon’s. But Daenerys, with her long, wavy locks tucked behind her ears, broke into a wide, toothy grin at the sight of Jon, but a discreet nudge of her brother’s elbow in her ribs caused her to reconstruct her expression into something more flat, resembling his own but softer.
“Please allow me to introduce you to Prince Viserys Targaryen, and his sister, the Princess Daenerys Targaryen,” Illyrio’s hands opened palms-up, and Ned bowed his head, Jon following after a gentle persuasion by his father.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you both. I am Lord Eddard Stark of Winterfell, and this is Jon Snow,” Ned responded politely, his eyes more fixed on the boy’s reaction, but he only glowered. Daenerys curtsied in response while her brother stayed still, and Illyrio took a few paces closer and brought her arm into his hand.
“Ouch!” She exclaimed suddenly, and he frowned.
“What happened to your arm, Princess? It’s purple and swollen,” he noted, releasing his loose grip on her. Her head hung low, her eyes only briefly considering her brother beside her until she straightened herself. An effort was made for her to bring her shoulders back and her chin up, and Ned had never seen such discipline. He wondered where she had learned it, and why.
“Viserys and I were playing in the trees, and I thought I could climb to the highest branch, but I fell,” she said with over-enthusiasm, stealing a quick look of Viserys once more. Ned was uncomfortable with their dynamic already, and quietly was pleased to have taught Jon how to wield a sword at an early age.
Illyrio sighed and placed a hand on the girl’s back, guiding her toward the door. “Go on, Serra will see that you’re taken care of.”
Daenerys half ran inside, and Illyrio returned his attention to Ned, clapping his hands together. “Would you care to join us for some wine in the gardens? We have much to speak of.”
And so they did, and the children were slowly getting to know one another, though Viserys was less keen to participate but did so under the watchful eye of his keeper. Ned came to notice that Daenerys took a special interest in making Jon feel comfortable, and some relief flooded him, though he still worried over the other.
Illyrio kept his voice low when they spoke. “So the boy doesn’t know yet, then?”
Ned kept his eyes on Jon as he spoke. “I plan to tell him before I leave here. I think it’s as good a time as any, and I’d only wish him to hear it from me.”
Illyrio followed Ned’s gaze to supervise the children, Daenerys and Jon crouched over some unique flower bed and was explaining to him how she grew them. Viserys sat upon a large boulder off to the side. “You do know that they won’t be here forever?”
Ned nodded. “I’ve secured someone who is willing to get him back across the Narrow Sea and to Castle Black when the time comes. I expect he’ll be one of the youngest stewards to accompany them.”
Illyrio grimaced. “You would secure him to that devilry? The Watch is for life, my Lord. As an exile he cannot remain in one place for too long, else he risks being found out.”
“As a sworn brother he would be protected by his own. The Wall is well-secured, and not many are willing to go so far north,” Ned said a little sternly, not entirely at ease that this man was questioning his decisions. He had thought long and hard about Jon’s path since he brought him to Winterfell.
“There’s been talk of wildling sightings near there,” Illyrio said. “Ruthless men they are. Pillaging and raping as they please; they are the Dothraki of the north.”
Ned glanced at the man as he straightened himself in his chair, picking at a sliver of cheese on the lush platter spread before them. He hadn’t cared much for the tartness of the wine, but sipped at it in kindness to their host’s graciousness. “How long will you shelter them?” He nodded to the siblings, chewing.
“Until the moment we receive word that Robert’s hired assassins grow closer. For now, I enjoy their company, and hope they will thrive here for as long as possible.”
“And do they know? About Jon?”
“Yes,” Illyrio said. “Though they’ve sworn not to make any mention of it until he is aware. Do you not wish to let him stay here? The three of them together may stand to be a force not to reckon with. He would be with family…”
“No. If they’re all in one place, it only makes it that much easier for Robert to find and kill them with one swing of a sword. At least this way we can throw his scent off the trail.”
Illyrio smiled with a small nod, sipping at his beverage. “Well, if you change your mind, he is more than welcome to stay. The Princess appears to have taken a liking to him already.”
Ned couldn’t help but smile widely. Daenerys was in the midst of holding Jon’s hands out and placing a lilac flower in his hands, and he brought it to his nose to sniff it, and they shared a giggle while Viserys looked on.
“What of the prince? He looks as if he would toss Jon into the sea if he could,” Ned said dully, his eyes hardening at the boy. Other than his apparent distaste for his guests, something about Viserys unsettled him.
Illyrio sighed, scratching his beard. “He is most unhappy to find out that his place in line for the Iron Throne has been possessed, rightfully, by another. But, if you say Jon will make his oath with the Night’s Watch, perhaps he will ease his misgivings…”
If it were appropriate for Ned to roll his eyes, he would have. He never understood the obsession for that dismal chair and all the carnage that surrounded it, and it was unfathomable to him that a boy as young as Viserys already had his intentions set on it. Even if Jon wasn’t destined for the Night’s Watch, it was not in his character to wield such power, even at his young age. Even so, the idea of someone as removed and passionless as Viserys brought back nightmares of their father, Aerys II Targaryen, who now yielded the epithet as Mad King Aerys for his atrocious endeavor to set the capital afire with Wildfire. Who burned Ned’s own brother and father alive in a vile manner. That was before Ser Jaime Lannister, a member of the Kingsguard, betrayed his monarch and slayed Aerys.
Jon watched Daenerys with great interest as she plucked a dusty pink rose from the flower bed and brought it to her nose before sharing it with Jon, whose head craned away from the scent and sent Daenerys into a fit of giggles. Ned’s lips spread into a thin smile, a comfort washing over him that at least now he would have a friend.
That evening after Illyrio had a delightful supper spread for them, a serving maid showed them to where Jon’s chambers would be. It was down the hall from the other children, where the halls circled in a long rectangular shape, sturdy iron protecting the edges of the opening that centered the walkways. When Ned looked down below into the gap, it descended a couple of stories with wide, stone stairs trailing in a dizzying decline. The maid opened the heavy door for them and after she guided them through the layout of the chamber, quietly left them to their own.
It was beyond a modest sized chamber; far larger and tidied and grand than Jon’s at WInterfell. Somehow that thought made Ned sad, that this stranger’s home had more riches and splendor to offer than Ned could give him in the North, but he quickly shook away the thought as he settled Jon’s satchel against the wall beside his oversized bed. Jon walked the length of the room, musing at the textures of the soft yellow walls, the intricacy of the chest and the plush red chaise at the foot of the bed. The stone floors beneath his feet were warm but chilling, and the sconces were lit along the walls to cast an entrancing glow. A rounded doorway with a glass doorway lay at the end of the room across from them, the deep blues and blacks of night masking all views except the gentle rippling of the bay beneath the brilliance of the moonlight.
“Come, Jon. Let’s get you ready for bed,” Ned called softly after allowing him to wander his new quarters. Jon did as bid, lifting his arms so that Ned could remove his soiled tunic to replace it with another, followed by soft trousers. Ned rolled up the travel-beaten clothing into a ball and set it aside while he rummaged through the sack. They had traveled lightly, but Ned was sure to have packed the essentials from home. He removed a large pelt of wolves fur and set it in his lap. Jon’s grey eyes looked at him curiously. “Don’t tell Old Nan, but I managed to knick this from one of the linen closets. To remind you of home, even though it may be too warm here.”
Jon’s toothy grin reached out to wrap the furs around his small frame as the ends of it rolled into a puddle at his feet, and Ned breathed a small laugh through his nose. Next, a sword that matched Jon’s stature was revealed, and Jon gasped and let the blanket fall to the floor. “But how-?”
“Don’t worry,” Ned assured. “Robb told me how much you loved this and he fetched it from your favorite ash tree. He wanted you to have a parting gift to remember him by, until I am able to bring him back here to visit with you.”
Jon took the blade into his hands and smiled warmly, then his mouth downturned. “I wish Robb could be here, too. That other boy doesn’t like me.”
Ned never took his eyes off of Jon while he continued to burrow his hand in the sack. “Don’t let him intimidate you. I didn’t bring you all this way so that he could push you around. He’s only...threatened by you.”
A deep crease formed between Jon’s brow. “Is it because of my sword?”
Ned chuckled at his naivety, carefully treading on how he was going to transition into the conversation he had been waiting to have with him for six years. “No, although if it’s warranted...just be kind. But don’t let him torment you. Go on, let me see your best swing.”
Excited, Jon turned on his heel to find an open space, holding the hilt of the sword in each hand, fingers dancing until it felt right. With his legs parted slightly, he broke into a dance of three different swings, and Ned’s eyebrows lifted in fascination. “Very good! I’d say you’re better than any little lord could possibly dream of being.”
Jon’s cheeks reddened slightly, and Ned extended his hand to bring Jon back to him. When he did, he lifted him by his underarms and sat him on the edge of the bed, sheathing his sword and leaning the pommel against the wall at bedside. Ned sunk in beside him, taken aback by the plushness below them. It was no wonder Illyrio didn’t look as weary as he should have with the task he had to uptake in keeping two Targaryen children safe under his wing. Ned presumed one could sleep half a lifetime with such comforts.
“Jon, there are some things I need you to understand. It’s...a lot to take in, but I need you to hear me out,” Ned said quietly, shifting so that he could face Jon now.
After a moment, Jon’s eyes found his father’s, his face solemn. “What is it?”
When it seemed he would accept Ned’s approach, Ned collected a long breath. His eyes searched the salmon hued floors for a moment, collecting his hands in his lap. “I’m sure you’ve wondered why I’ve brought you here, specifically. It probably seems like a bit of an exaggeration to sail off to another country to escape the...misconduct of Winterfell. That bit isn’t entirely untrue, but...it’s just-”
“Please, father. I’m nearly a man; I just want to know.” Jon’s forwardness captured Ned’s attention, and an inescapable laugh erupted from him as he came to wrap his arm around the boy.
“A man already, hm? Well, I suppose you can handle it then,” Ned continued, the laughter dying in his chest. “Viserys and Daenerys are, well...your uncle and aunt, actually.” He figured that feeding him pieces bit by bit would soften the blow, but only confusion smeared Jon’s face now.
“But, Daenerys is my age,” he surmised.
“Yes,” Ned said calmly. “This is going to be very difficult to understand. Daenerys had a brother named Rhaegar. Rhaegar married my sister, Lyanna. They both had a child, named Aegon Targaryen.”
He watched as Jon’s head bobbed as he tried to calculate it all, and once he did, he looked up at Ned. “What’s that to do with me?”
The fist that clenched Ned’s heart compressed further, and he looked at Jon now. “ You are Aegon. Aegon Targaryen.”
Very, very slowly realization crept onto Jon’s face, and he pushed himself a little further back until he could sit against a pillow larger than himself, a constant furrow upon his brow. “But you must always be known as Jon Snow, do you understand?”
Ned inhaled a long sigh through his nose. “Because Lyanna was betrothed to another. To King Robert. And it was his understanding that Lyanna had...unwillingly been stolen off by Rhaegar and bore him a child against her wishes. But after Robert started a war over it, it was found out that they were lawfully, and lovingly, wed. Because of this...Robert has sworn to be rid of every last Targaryen that breathes air. He...killed Rhaegar on the Trident before I could bring him word of Lyanna’s confession before she passed.”
Jon’s face was hardened as he digested what his father fed him. It was difficult for Ned to give him the whole truth without startling him, but he would always need to be on high alert from here on out. “That’s why when the King visited Winterfell, you kept me in the Godswood to practice with my sword?”
Nodding, Ned studied the boy hard, waiting for any sign of anger or resentment...but none came. He expected, however, it would resonate with him a little later in life. “I don’t expect he would recognize you as who you are, but I couldn’t take that risk. You look every bit a Stark, thank the Gods. He simply believed you had been sent away on the notion that you were a bastard, and that you were not to be subjected to the likes of our royal guests. Do you understand why I had to do what I did for your protection? Even despite...despite all of the suffering you endured in what should have been your home?”
Graciously, Jon only smiled and nodded in return, and Ned felt his eyes begin to mist. He averted his eyes to distract himself, to recover, but Jon was already at his side, his mop of raven curls resting on his arm. It was hopeless now, and Ned let a few tears trail down his cheeks, but not before drying them instantly. He didn’t want Jon to see him as weak; this was a pivotal moment in both their lives, and he needed to be the support he always strived so hard to be for his nephew and adoptive son.
Ned secured an arm around him and pulled him close. “You’ll always be my son, to me. I promised your mother I would do all that I could to protect you. It breaks my heart that I have to leave you here, but I promise to visit as often as I can.”
Suddenly Jon pushed away from him, and now his face was betraying him, his brows arched and tears welling. “You mean you’re not to stay here?”
If Ned’s heart hadn’t already been shattered to pieces, it had now. The despair that flooded him now could very well have killed him in that moment. “No, Jon. I’m needed at home. I’m Lord of Winterfell, Warden of the North...I can’t be those things across the Narrow Sea.”
Tears overfilled Jon’s eyes and now his expression resembled anger. “You’re needed here ! You can’t just bring me to a stranger’s house and leave me! Why can’t Robb be Lord of Winterfell?”
Ned’s words caught in his throat and his pinched the bridge of his nose. “Robb is a boy, Jon, just as you. Someday he will be a great Lord, but until that day comes, it is my duty.” He slid closer to Jon but was refused any further contact, and Ned respected his wishes. This wasn’t what he expected to upset Jon the most, but it tore at him just the same.
They sat in silence for a long time, Jon reminiscing the long, dreary days at Winterfell when he would wake up each morning wishing he could remain in his stiff bed. A day when he would be welcomed by those whom he shared a home with, but it never came, except when Robb was involved. He missed Robb and wished that if he couldn’t have his father here, the least he could be granted was his brother. Or was it cousin? Either way, he grew weary, and was broken away from his thoughts when Ned slid off the edge of the bed onto his feet.
“I should get some rest, as should you. I have a long journey ahead of me tomorrow,” he said quietly, a hint of sadness coating his departing words. When Jon didn’t move nor speak, Ned walked the length of the room to the door. Just as his hand enclosed on the handle, Jon asked for him to wait.
Ned looked over his shoulder, and Jon hesitated briefly. “Would it be un-lordlike if I asked you to sleep in here, with me, tonight?”
The small, perhaps frightened, boyish voice from the bed mended some of the broken remnants of Ned’s heart then. “Let me just change out of these clothes,” he said in return, leaving briefly to his own borrowed chambers.
Jon sat quietly in a deep thought, and Ned returned in no time at all, walking to each candle and extinguishing their flame. Jon folded down the light cotton cover and buried his legs beneath them as a gentle breeze filtered in through two small, square cutout windows near the balcony. Ned crawled onto the bed and rested his back against a lush pillow. Jon slid closer, and Ned wrapped his arm around his shoulders while Jon curled up beside him.
“May I still call you father?” Jon inquired, a wide grin of comfort spreading across Ned’s lips in the dark.
“I was hoping that part wouldn’t change.”
“Aegon sounds like a hero’s name.”
Ned allowed himself a small chuckle and said, “there have been heroic Aegons, of sorts.”
“But I’m not a hero,” Jon returned.
“You’re still young, yet. But even so, you’re not required to take on such a reputation,“ Ned added. “But, I will tell you, by right, you would fall next in line as King of the Seven Kingdoms.”
Jon’s heart palpitated against the cage of his chest, craning his chin to see his father. “I don’t want that. Must I?”
“That will be up to you, Jon. There is such a thing as abdicating, wherein you voluntarily refuse the crown, and it goes to another. That other person would be Viserys, so decide wisely,” Ned said in partial jest.
There was a beat of silence while Jon absorbed all of this. “I don’t want to rule, at least not now...but perhaps it would be fun to wave the idea that I do over Viserys’s head,” Jon said facetiously, igniting a chuckle from Ned.
“You did not hear this from me, but perhaps that’s what that little Lord needs to stay grounded. From what I hear, and from what I’ve observed of him already, he could use a little contention to deflate his golden head.”
“Father!” Jon erupted into a stream of giggles that Ned indulged in himself, and once the laughter simmered out, they laid in a tranquil silence for a few moments longer.
Jon nuzzled in a little closer, and Ned brought the blanket up further to tuck beneath his arm. “Could you tell me about my mother?”
Settling further into the coziness of the bed below, Ned laid his head back against the cushion of the headboard, most unused to these types of delicacies in a bed chamber when he was used to his head thudding against solid wood.
And so, Ned recollected his most treasured memories of his beloved sister Lyanna. Of her fierce courage, her boyishness, her beauty, and how he believed her to have the wolf’s blood in her slight manner of wildness. Her love of blue winter roses was so revered that many townsfolk began to refer her as the Blue Rose of Winterfell. She was strong-willed and emphatic in mind, and would have wielded a sword had their father consented to such. Ned spoke of her so long that he hadn’t noticed Jon was long asleep, and with a kiss on the head, Ned bid his son sweet dreams and drifted off into some of his own.