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Our Choices Seal Our Fate

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CATELYN

Peace was a fragile thing, often broken with startling ease.

This was a lesson she had learned long before the tumult which raged before her now.  

“But mother she’s horrid!”

“You’re horrid!”

Catelyn sighed loudly as she listened to her daughters complain. They were following after her like two ducklings, both obviously unhappy with how she was handling their most recent spat. That couldn’t be helped for as much as she wished to sit them both down and force them to get along, there were more pressing concerns.

“Tell her to behave!”

“Tell her not to smell!”

“Sansa! Arya! Hush!” Cat reached to take her four year old daughter’s hand in hers before doing the same with her sister. “Sansa, you’ll be seven in a few moons. I expect you to act like it.”

“But mother…”

“You will take Arya, and together you will go and take care of your little brother.” She stopped to press the two girls’ hands together. “You will go and watch over Bran, just as your Aunt Lysa and I once cared for your uncle Edmure. We would never have quarreled like you two and you should both be ashamed. You are sisters and young ladies after that.”

“A young lady wouldn’t have ruined my doll.” Sansa pouted and Arya stomped in response.

“I didn’t mean to!”

“Stop right now.” Cat warned. “I must see to your father and unless you want him to teach you two proper manners, you will do as I say. Now.”

It was an empty threat but it worked. Sansa led Arya down the corridor, holding her hand, and Catelyn watched them just long enough to make sure neither tried to strike the other. She had no intention of bothering Ned with such things, not with how unsettled he’d been in the courtyard.

She’d been scolding the girls for squabbling in the Great Hall when she’d seen Maester Luwin come to her husband’s side while he had been eating with some of his guardsmen. Words passed between them and a dark expression clouded Ned’s face.

Ned had caught her watching them and took his leave, the Maester by his side, both heading back to the Great Keep. She imagined they’d retired to his solar and it was there she sought him.

“Cat.”

Ned turned and for a brief moment his worried face lightened. It warmed her heart that her solemn lord would still melt at times, just for her. Once, years ago, she’d foolishly thought the man he showed to the world was the man she married. It had not taken long for her to see past his cold, hard exterior to find the tender, caring man within.

Yet the moment of weakness passed quickly and his face became ice again. She

saw the parchment in his hand and thought it likely to have come from a raven. A quick glance to the maester and she saw the man pulling lightly on his chain, as he so often did when nervous.

“I don’t mean to intrude but I saw you below and worried…”

“You are not intruding, Winterfell is your home as much as mine.” Ned handed the parchment to the maester. “And this matter concerns us both.”

Dark wings, dark words.

This raven brings foul news.

“Is it word of Robert Baratheon? Has something happened…?”

“No. It is not about Robert.” Ned said coldly and she cursed her clumsy handling of the situation.

Often it was news of his former friend that drove her husband into such foul moods. Yet any attempt she made to comfort him on the matter only caused Ned to push away from her.

It was always best to let him come to her.

“Jon Arryn has sent word from the capital, my lady.” The maester interrupted the awkward silence and her heart felt as if it stopped.

“Is it Edmure? Or Lysa?”

“Both your brother and sister are hale as far as we know. As is Lord Eddard’s brother.”

Benjen, how could I not ask about his brother? How selfish of me.

Ned’s brother was a hostage in King’s Landing alongside her own siblings, though Benjen was in an even more precarious position than Catelyn’s brother and sister, a thought which often added to her husband’s worries. Far from his family’s seat and bannermen, Benjen had little protection, whereas Edmure was only a week’s ride away from Riverrun and their father, often being allowed to visit, while Lysa, enjoyed some security from Jon Arryn’s new, prominent role in the capital.

It’s sad that being the most powerful of the king’s hostages is a position to be envied.

“Benjen has left the capital.” Ned came to her, taking her hands in his, as if sensing her shame. “He sails for White Harbor as we speak and comes here, to Winterfell.”

“He’s been freed?” She smiled widely. “Oh Ned, how wonderful!”

It had been over three years since her goodbrother had last been permitted to visit his home. Almost ten years since he’d gone south as a hostage to ensure Ned kept faith with the crown.

Her heart fell when he began to shake his head.

“He hasn’t been freed… only given leave to come north. The king commanded that Benjen serve as an escort to Winterfell. He will be returning to the capital after performing his duty.”

“A fine escort indeed. Who is so important that the king would have your brother sent away from the capital?”

“The king has asked House Stark to extend its courtesies to the party he sends north.”  The maester’s words didn’t make her eyes leave Ned’s worried face. “He writes that Lord Eddard is expected to welcome his kin within Winterfell’s walls, as a sign of fealty-”

“He took our kin as a sign of fealty.” Cat cut him off, perhaps more harshly than she meant but King Rhaegar’s demands of their families still left a bitter taste in her mouth. “And of course we would welcome Benjen here. This is his home.”

“Not Benjen, my love.” Ned said softly, giving her hands a squeeze. “My nephew. That is who we welcome, that is who Benjen brings north.”

“Prince Jon?”

Ned nodded.

“He comes to Winterfell. My sister’s son… returned to us.”

The second son of Rhaegar Targaryen was also the only son of Lyanna Stark. Ned’s only nephew, and a babe many in the realm placed the burden of the rebellion upon. Jon Targaryen was of an age with their son Robb, yet she’d never laid eyes on the child. She only knew of him from what word reached all the way to the distant North, and from what Benjen would tell them during his rare visits.

“He’s more wolf than a dragon.” Benjen had said one night, in his cups enough to speak freely before her. “But he’s still a dragon… no matter what anyone says.”

Ned had seemed to take a grim satisfaction in that at the time. Ned had only had custody of Prince Jon for a short time, when he was a babe, but for as little as he spoke of his nephew, Cat often sensed her husband’s thoughts wandering to the boy’s well-being.

And the vow he couldn’t fulfill.

“A knight of the Kingsguard accompanies them.” Ned broke into her thoughts. “And we should expect a number of guards besides.”

“I’d imagine so.” She reached up to touch his face. “I did not think Rhaegar capable of such generosity. To allow Benjen to come home is one thing, but to let the prince travel so far from home, I’d be surprised if they didn’t have a small army at their backs for this visit...”

“Not a visit.” Ned finished for her. “Benjen will have to leave again for the capital, yet Jon will be staying here. He is to become my ward.”

She was speechless.

To make a prince their ward was of the highest honor yet all knew the North’s standing with the Iron Throne was strained at best. The North was at peace and still part of the realm as most of its lords had been content enough to bend the knee when news of Aerys’ murder by the Kingslayer’s hands had reached their ears. Justice for the Starks, for Rickard and Brandon’s murders, had come with the death of the king who’d burned them alive.

Yet the bad blood between the Rhaegar and Ned ran so deep, she could never have expected the king to make such an offer. Seeing as Rhaegar seduced Ned’s only sister, leading to her death at some far off tower in Dorne, there was more than enough reason for her husband to hate the man.

And Rhaegar pushed him even further, she thought, not that he’d ever admit to it.

As she looked into Ned’s eyes, they admitted something different altogether. He was troubled, worried even. Having the prince away from his father and here in Winterfell was something Ned had long wanted, but now he acted as if it was some great burden he could do without.

“Surely this is welcome news?” She asked, reaching up to run her fingers along the side of his worried face. “You never liked the idea of Lyanna’s boy in the capital. Not among the Targaryens and the Lannisters. You wanted to bring him here after your sister died, didn’t you…?”

“And Rhaegar forbid it. Gods damn the man.” Ned barely contained his anger. “Lyanna made me promise to protect that boy with her last breath. I swore to it before friends and foes alike, and still I had to hand her son over to the man who caused the whole bloody war.”

“To do otherwise would have been unwise, my lord.” The maester said gravely. “Prince Jon was the king’s son, and despite the whisperings against him, King Rhaegar is no kinslayer. At such a young age, the child’s place was under his father’s care. Nor could you have been expected to stay in the capital, honor bound by the duties which awaited you here in the North…”

He doesn’t just speak of Winterfell. He speaks of me, she thought, of a time when Robb was but a babe in my arms and I awaited my husband’s return in a strange castle.

“Things I know. It doesn’t change the fact that for ten years I failed to do as I promised.”

“Benjen swore to do what you could not Ned.” She gently reminded him. “As did Mark Ryswell and Martyn Cassel. Three finer men you’d be hard pressed to find.”

At that Ned and the maester shared a look much darker than she’d expected. The maester pulled on his chain as he lowered his eyes to the floor.

“My lady, Ser Mark and Martyn have fallen.”

“Killed.” Ned put in, shaking his head. “They were killed.”

Catelyn was shocked. She’d barely known the men, but they’re reputations here at Winterfell marked them as good and true men. They were earnest in their service to House Stark and, more importantly, personal friends of her husband.

“Ned… oh Ned, I’m sorry.” Cat went to his side and pulled his hand into her own. “I wish I’d known them better, you spoke so highly of them. What happened?”

“Lord Arryn writes of an incident near the God’s Eye.” The maester made to answer before her husband held up his hand.

“There will be time to speak of that later. After I talk to Rodrik and Jory. Maester Luwin, you best go fetch some parchment for a raven now. I need a moment alone with my wife.”

The maester inclined his head politely before taking leave of them. When they were alone, Ned pulled her hand to his lips and planted a gentle, soft kiss upon it.

“I’m sorry Cat.” He rasped.

“You have nothing to apologize for. To me or to anyone else.”

“Don’t I?” Ned looked away from her, instead staring down at the parchment in his hand. A moment later he crumpled it and tossed it away. “Two men have died performing a duty I was meant to. How do I write Lord Ryswell of his nephew’s death without owning up to such? I have to tell Ser Rodrik that he’s lost a brother, that Jory has lost his father. Shouldn’t I have to apologize for them losing the last ten years with Martyn because of me?”

“You should act as you would tell Robb to act in your place. They were in service to their lord, putting their lives in danger was expected of them.”

“What of my apology to Robert? A man I once called a brother, who still fights to avenge all those killed by the Targaryens while I swear allegiance to them!”

“You cannot speak like that!” Her voice was almost pleading. “The man is half a world away and has forsaken everything in the name of vengeance, even his own family. You are not so selfish.”

Despite her feelings towards House Targaryen, the fact that all of them still had their heads was a miracle, for Rhaegar could have destroyed the houses that rose up against his family. Instead he had accepted bent knees and hostages in the place of severed heads and burning castles. Ned and her father had taken the peace offered, rather than the war Robert Baratheon had wanted. Whether it was the thought of bending the knee to Rhaegar, or accepting the fact that Lyanna Stark had chosen the dragon prince over him, Catelyn couldn’t say which fueled Robert’s rage more.

Instead he spurned all those who had bent the knee. He’d left Ned’s side and then the Seven Kingdoms altogether, to seek refuge across the Narrow Sea. Now he rode to war alongside the Golden Company, fighting and pillaging in many of the sellsword-driven wars that burdened Essos, all the while vowing to the world that he’d be the one to kill Rhaegar Targaryen someday.

And none can hear Ned express sympathy with such a man.

She wrapped her arm around his back and leaned against his chest so that her cheek rested against his shoulder.

“To the children then and you… I owe that apology at least.” Ned hushed her attempt to protest. “Jon’s coming here is something that I’ve wanted for some time. I can finally fulfill my promise to Lyanna but it carries risks.”

She did not like the sound of that. As much as she wanted to thank the seven that Ned might finally find peace in the matter of his nephew, she knew the boy little.

Nowhere near enough to wish endangering my own children for him.

Ned would never endanger them, she reminded herself, never.

“What happened in the south? At the God’s Eye?”

“The raven said little in truth. Only that Martyn and Ser Mark died protecting Jon. Rhaegar wishes him kept here now, for his own safety.” Ned did meet her eyes then. His eyes were not pleading, nor were they cold without care for her feelings. They appeared as they often did when the Lord of Winterfell was called on to make hard decisions. “I cannot balk from this Cat… I will not. I apologize for any worry it causes you.”

She said nothing, accepting his apology, putting her trust in her husband. Catelyn had married him in place of his brother Brandon, and for a time she had been childishly disappointed in the shorter, less handsome Stark brother who was to be her husband, but over the years she’d grown to treasure him more than anyone. She learned that Ned Stark was the kind of man who put his family before any other selfish desires and she loved him completely for that. If he was any other sort of man, she imagined they’d be in exile like Robert Baratheon.

Or dead.

Yet worries began to gnaw at her as they held each other. Something had happened in the south to put the young prince in danger.

What if it followed him here?

Benjen’s words came back to haunt her thoughts then.

‘He’s a dragon.’

Just like Aerys, just like Rhaegar.

And dragons are beasts of death and destruction.

 

JON

 

“Slow it down boy, you may be in a hurry to begin our stay in this frozen hell but I most certainly am not.”

“Yes ser.” Jon pulled somewhat on his horse’s reins, slowing it from its canter.

The white cloaked knight of the Kingsguard rode up to his side a moment later. Ser Oswell’s face looked even more displeased than usual, which was saying something for the dour knight.

Jon felt the exact opposite though, for he was full of hope for what lay ahead. He knew they were still a day’s ride from Winterfell but he’d become more and more excited as he thought of their impending arrival at the legendary castle. In his haste to get there all the sooner he couldn’t help urging his horse ahead of the others.

He’d done so several times already and he saw Ser Oswell’s patience was at almost at an end. The knight was likely to bloody men for displeasing him so yet Jon feared so no such treatment himself. For Ser Oswell was honor bound to protect him at all times.

A task he complained about often.

“Starks should’ve named their bloody castle Winterhell.” Ser Oswell shivered some. “I think I’ll suggest that to Lord Stark when we arrive, remind me to do so.”

“I won’t and you won’t call it such! Winterfell isn’t a frozen hell! It has hot springs under its grounds! Besides it’s not even that cold yet, it’s still summer. Look!” He waved his arm about, as if to remind his sworn protector that the land around them was empty of the flesh-eating savages Ser Oswell tried to scare him with.

“There’s farms and people and we haven’t seen any of the wildlings you were talking about. These are good lands.”

“Oh, and just because you don’t see danger, that means there is none?” Ser Oswell shook his head again. “Lectured by a boy not quite ten yet about good lands… I keep forgetting how rarely you’ve been south of the Blackwater. Lands full of fruits and flowers as far as the eye can see. I won’t even speak of the drink! All those fine wines given up for a land of pines. A bloody barren wilderness…”

It was the same speech Ser Oswell always gave, of how the North was a grim place compared to the rest of the realm. The sky above them was grey to be sure, and there’d been some cold rain during their trip, yet it hadn’t bothered Jon too much. He was almost disappointed that they hadn’t seen any of the summer snows his uncle had spoken of.

“Lands like these will make any man hard and bitter.” Ser Oswell continued. “Look what they’ve done to me already! I can’t imagine what they’ll do to a sullen little snot like you.”

Jon was about to yell at the knight when a quick laugh heralded the arrival of another rider to his right. A thin, sharp-featured man with hair and beard as dark as his own. An uncle he loved dearly.

“Gods Oswell! This from a man who foreswore all lands and women for a pretty white cloak!” His Uncle Benjen winked at him. “Don’t let the ser bother you, Jon. He’s just jealous that we have these furs to keep us warm and all he has is a fancy cloak.”

They’d still been at White Harbor when his uncle had surprised him with a thick grey cloak of wolf pelts. It was just a lighter tinge than the one Benjen wore himself and Jon had snatched at it eagerly. For a moment he’d paused, his happiness lost as he thought of how his stepmother would have disapproved of the furs. Had she been there, she would’ve called them shabby or even savage. He’d had to remind himself that she was far away and he could wear whatever he pleased now.

That Queen Cersei’s wants meant little this far north.

Besides, Viserys would have said something worse. A deep anger burned in Jon at the thought of his other uncle.

The banter between his uncle and the Kingsguard helped push that anger away.

“The king should’ve had your head off years ago, Stark.” Ser Oswell sounded serious enough but Jon saw a tug at the corner of his mouth, betraying his jest.

“Southrons need to be pampered here in the north Jon, they’re not from the same hardy stock we are. Though I’ll say Oswell’s right on one thing-”

“Several things-”

“-he’s right that his lot are born into flowers and warmth, a life far different than here in the North. Our folk are born into hardship, live difficult lives, and some even welcome a good honorable death at the end of an enemy’s sword rather than waste away in the face of such adversity. All the while they weather the cold, there’s always the cold Jon. Usually much colder than this summer’s day. The good ser here is lucky he will be staying at Winterfell and not some other northern castle, like Karhold, though I doubt he knows why…”

“Because Winterfell has hot springs!” Jon said again excitedly. “They run through the walls and keep the castle warm no matter the season!”

He tried to remember everything his uncle had told him of the Stark castle. When he’d been little, Benjen would help him sleep by telling him stories of the mythical castle Brandon the Builder had raised. For the longest time, he’d only had Benjen’s descriptions and his imagination to help him picture the ancient Stark castle until Tyrion Lannister had helped. The kind lordling had shown him drawings of Winterfell he found within some old tomes.

Jon had lain awake each night on their journey, wondering if the castle they headed towards would look more like the one he pictured as a little boy or the drawings. His uncle had been testing him here and there with questions of the North and he’d done well he thought.

Apparently so did Benjen.

“Good lad, good. Here I am worrying how angry Ned is going to be with me. I’m spoiling so much of what he could show you himself.” The warm look on his uncle’s face fell away then for behind them came a crash.

The sound came from the other riders following behind. They were only twenty in all, flying both the grey and white banners of House Stark and the red and black of House Targaryen. It was the wagon towards the front, the only one pulled by oxen, which drew their attention now.

“The wheel’s come off again, your grace!” One of the riders called up. “Take but a moment to fix!”

Ser Oswell cursed quietly. The wagon had faltered several times already during their journey. The men usually repaired it soon enough, but the poor job it had been doing at ferrying its cargo bothered them all. It carried no supplies as those were born upon pack horses and mules towards the rear of their column. This wagon bore something much more important.

The bones of Martyn Cassel.

A man Jon had known as long as he could remember.

“If I ever see that merchant who sold us that bloody thing I’ll beat him to a pulp.” Ser Oswell swore again as Jon shook his head.

“Martyn deserved better than this…”

“He did.” Benjen echoed.

“And we should’ve taken Ser Mark’s bones back ourselves. He deserved that.”

“He did.”

“A fine knight.” Ser Oswell gave one of his rare compliments. “I’d have been honored to do so for him, but your father commanded us to see you to Winterfell your grace. Taking Ser Mark home would have meant riding clear across the North, east to west, before ever even making toward Winterfell.”

“It be the honorable thing! The ser earned-”

“Mark’s bones are being escorted by some of the finest knights in White Harbor. Neither he nor Martyn died so you could put yourself in danger by protecting their bones of all things.”

“I’m not in danger! And if anyone wants to hurt me, let them try! We can fight them! We’ve more men now than we had at the God’s Eye-”

“Don’t be a fool.” Benjen spoke sharply, catching Jon off guard.

He glared at his uncle, angry at this man who would talk endlessly about honor yet now argued against honoring those who’d fallen for him.

“I’m a prince!”

“And princes can’t act as fools? Ask your father about…”

“Careful Stark.” Ser Oswell warned, but not as forcefully as he could have. “Jon, your uncle and I fought beside Ser Mark and Martyn. Trust me when I say that neither of us is happy to see only one of them returned to his kin, but we swore oaths to do as the king commanded. We’re to have you behind the walls of Winterfell, safe and sound, as soon as possible. It’s for your own good.”

 “Aerys hid behind walls, was that for his own good?”

The words were out of his mouth before he even realized he was speaking them. He wouldn’t have dared saying so in front of his father or any of the other knights of the Kingsguard, but he knew it was true.

“I hear some of your mother in that.” Benjen sighed. “Lyanna would’ve ridden to the Ryswells personally, no matter anyone’s complaints. Brandon likely would’ve done the same. They were children of the Lord of Winterfell, respected and maybe even feared here in the North. You are the son of a king most northern lords called an enemy once. A king they only bent their knees to because the Starks demanded it. Trust me when I say that many of them are still angry about that to this day.”

“It’s like the capital then. They all blame me for the war.”

Benjen reached for his shoulder again and gripped it in a firm, comforting way.

“Not all… but I won’t lie to you, some do. The North is the land of the Starks. The land of your mother and the land of your Uncle Eddard and his children. It’s not your land… not yet. This is likely the first of the northern hardships that await you. I think you strong enough to-”

“So Viserys was right?” Jon shook off his uncle’s touch. “Father has just sent me to another place where people hate me, only colder.”

“At least it smells better than the capital.” Ser Oswell’s jest didn’t make any of them laugh and Jon urged his horse just slightly ahead of them. He didn’t want to speak to either of them anymore.

Father had to know it would be like this.

He doesn’t care where I go… as long as I’m not with him…

In the capital, people whispered he was the reason the Usurper’s War happened and why so many people died during the rebellion. Rhaenys told Aegon if their father hadn’t broken his marriage vows to be with Lyanna Stark, their mother would still be alive. Viserys took every chance to tell Jon he was no trueborn son, only the bastard of a kinslayer and northern savage. Others would say worse things, and it was rare that anyone besides Uncle Benjen or Ser Barristan would take up his defense.

Not even his father denied it.

It had been the king who sent Jon and the others to visit the Isle of Faces after his fight with Viserys. Father hadn’t cared who was at fault. He’d silenced Jon when he had tried to argue, all the while giving excuses for why he had to leave the capital.

“You’ve never seen where I wed your mother.” Father had spoken from atop his ugly throne. “I promised her you’d keep to the old gods, and the godswood here has no weirwoods. They are so rare in the south but on the Isle of Faces there are groves of those sacred trees. I found it to be a wonderful place, a peaceful place. And I think peace is something you need, my son.”

“Did you find peace after going there?” Jon had asked and those watching and listening had gasped. Viserys, sporting a fat lip, had rushed forward to point at him then.

“You see!? The boy attacks a prince of the blood, gets punished with a pleasure ride, and then insults his father and king!” Viserys had raged before the throne, seemingly forgetting that he had insulted the king plenty of times. “He deserves a proper punishment for waking the dragon!”

“A bit more of your wailing is punishment enough for any of us uncle.” Aegon had joked and laughter had rippled through the audience. Aegon was always able to make the court laugh and clap with his wit and charm.

Jon had felt their eyes on him though, that familiar uneasy feeling in his stomach whenever he knew he was being stared at. Daenerys understood that feeling, she’d looked terrified when they’d brought forth for her part in that ordeal.  They’d sent her off before the talk of the Isle of Faces and he was thankful for it. He’d forgiven her for not speaking the whole truth of what happened between Viserys and himself.

 She had tried to keep everyone happy, which made sense to him. No one could want to be as hated at court as Jon was. Seeing Dany scared had been far worse than anything else. So when his father made some comment about wishing to call the princess back to speak to her again Jon couldn’t bear to put her through all that again.

So he’d agreed to go on the trip to the God’s Eye. To seek the peace his father wanted him to.

They never found whatever peace the king talked about at the Isle of Faces. In truth he never even made it to the island, they’d been attacked long before that. The lords of Harrenhal were kin to Ser Oswell and had invited them to feast there before attending the island. They’d been riding along the shores of the God’s Eye when the bandits had attacked.

At least Jon thought they were bandits. Most of the dead men had worn strange clothing, with a queer look to them, and they screamed for mercy in different tongues. His lessons with the royal maesters helped him recognize some as dialects of Valyrian from the Free Cities. Others though had been completely foreign to him.

His horse had been shot out from under him and his fall was so hard that he hadn’t regained his senses until after the fight was practically over. Ser Oswell and Uncle Benjen had been the only others to survive and they had not lingered afterwards. It was only later, when they reached the safety of Harrenhal, that they sent men back to collect the bodies of their dead.

Jon had never been a part of a battle. As far as he knew none of the royal children had even been attacked like this. Mourning for his friends at Harrenhal, he had wondered if the king would worry about him.

Maybe he’d call the banners and ride from the capital at the head of an army.

Father could do that. He could come and get me himself.

It had been foolish to expect.

The only thing that came from the capital was his father’s command that Jon be sent even further away from home. They’d ridden from Harrenhal to Maidenpool and from there they’d gotten on a ship to White Harbor.

As Jon and his horse pressed on, he felt ashamed of even after the disappointment at Harrenhal he’d still acted a little boy. Of how hopeful he’d been that his father might be there to see him off from Maidenpool’s port. How the king might have come to say his farewells. Maybe even told Jon he would miss him.

A weak boy ignoring what he knew deep down. I knew he wouldn’t come.

Father’s never there when I need him.

While they waited to take ship at Maidenpool a royal party had arrived at the port to see Jon off, riding all the way from the capital to do so. They had come under the Targaryen banners, but not to announce the coming of King Rhaegar, for he was likely still back in King’s Landing. Instead it had been another member of the royal family who had come. It had heartened him to see Daenerys riding down the town streets towards him. Besides his father the young princess was the only one of his kin Jon yearned to see before he left.

Even though she arrived at the town surrounded by three score lances and Ser Barristan besides, Dany asked for privacy to say her farewells to Jon. Lord Mooton had offered his own solar to do so and Jon had blushed when Ser Barristan closed the door behind them. She was his aunt but Jon was the older of the two, by just under a year. The girl had looked quite pretty in her purple gown with her hair done up in one thick braid, as it was always was when she went riding. It made him sad to think how long it would be before they might right together again.

Dany’s sadness had broken free shortly after. It was only when they were well away from all prying eyes did her tears begin to fall.

“I begged him Jon, I swear I did.” Dany wept, pulling at her braid as she did so. “I told Rhaegar to send you to Duskendale or even Dragonstone… not to some place where you would be so far away from us…”

“A princess shouldn’t beg.” He’d said simply, aware that Ser Barristan and Ser Oswell waited just without the door. “And don’t cry Dany. You know I’ve always wanted to see Winterfell…”

“To visit! Not to stay! It was never to stay!” She wiped away her tears angrily. “When Rhaegar said he was sending Viserys to Oldtown it was like a dream! To think he’d be gone for some time, I was so happy. I wanted to run to your rooms and tell you! To show you everything was going to be alright and I hadn’t ruined it all… but they wouldn’t let me. They kept it all from me. I only found out because I heard Rhaenys talking about how you were leaving too…”

Being sent away is not leaving, he’d thought, it’s not like I had a choice.

Besides, I chose to fight Viserys. And I’d do it again… a hundred times over.

She was worth it.

“I’m glad Viserys is gone.” Jon tried to smile but doing so while Dany wept was too hard. “I heard about that at Harrenhal… if Uncle Benjen hadn’t told me I wouldn’t have let them take me away. I’d hit Viserys a thousand times if he ever tried to hurt-”

“Jon.” Dany jerked her head to the door. It was no good threatening the king’s brother in the hearing of the Kingsguard. “It’s not worth it. None of this was. I was stupid! I’d rather have Viserys and you in King’s Landing than to have you gone! I can’t let you go…”

“You’ll be fine. Aegon will take care of you and Rhaenys is always kind to her aunt Dany. Plus there’s a whole flock of highborn ladies, just eager to be friends with the beautiful Princess Daenerys… you won’t even notice I’m gone.”

“Your grace?” A gentle rap on the door followed Benjen’s words, a sign he’d grown impatient. “The ship was set to sail hours ago…”

“It can wait forever for all I care!” Dany shouted back, her fists clenched at her sides. “Tell them-”

“No… I’m coming uncle. One more moment please.”

She looked as angry as sad when he’d said that. Daenerys Stormborn was the only other member of the royal family whose birth had caused many to tell foul tales, though never as foul as his. They’d grown up together and become as close as brother and sister. Well as far as Jon knew of what having a sister was supposed to feel like. His own half-siblings wanted little to do with him and Dany’s brother terrorized them both.

“One moment? Why not ask for more?” Dany had whispered in a hurt way. “You want to leave me…”

“I don’t. I just know that you’ll be fine. You’re my aunt, sister to the king… the great Daenerys Stormborn!” He’d actually manage to smile then, trying to make Dany remember their games at playing Aegon the Conquerer and Queen Rhaenys. “Remember when you conquered Storm’s End and Sunspear all in the same day? The maesters still don’t how a dragon could fly so fast…”

“Stop!” She’d laughed through her tears. “This isn’t a tale… not one of our tales. Ours have happy endings. In my tale the brave prince wouldn’t be send away for defending his princess. He would want to stay with her.”

“Dany I can’t. You’ll be…”

“I know, I know. I’ll be well I swear but you have to swear the same. That no matter where you go you’ll be safe and we’ll see each other again.”

He’d done as she asked, even putting a hand to his chest like knights would when they made vows. Yet Jon felt kind of silly doing so. This wasn’t some grand quest or noble battle he was heading off to. Dany hadn’t found it so foolish though; instead she’d made a soft sound of agreement before closing her eyes and rushing forward. She planted a soft kiss against his cheek before he could say anything to stop her.

It was that cheek he reached up and touched now, feeling his face burn more from the memory than the cool northern breeze blowing about him..

Weeks old now and it still felt like yesterday that his ship sailed out of Maidenpool’s harbor, with Dany watching from the docks. The only family who’d cared enough to weep for him as he left to meet a family he’d never known.

Thinking of Dany had helped cool his anger but Jon still felt awkward about the argument with his uncle and Ser Oswell. He spent the next few hours riding alone and in silence. He pretended he was a warrior prince, leading a column of fighting men on a grand trek. A brave leader, keeping watch for any threats and giving any evil men seconds thoughts.

He turned out to be a poor outrider though, and a worse watchman in truth.

While he’d been picturing how fine his steed and armor would look something remarkable had appeared ahead of him. When Jon finally took notice of it he had to blink several times in disbelief. For in the distance rose a dark shape, a shadow so large he cursed himself for missing it.

It’s a castle, he realized, a huge castle… but which one?

Be this Castle Hornwood? Or maybe Castle Cerywn?

Jon racked his mind for all his uncle has told him of the North. The Hornwood keep was far east of Winterfell but he knew the seat of House Cerwyn was close to that of the Starks. As more of the castle was laid bare to him he knew, in his heart, this was not Castle Cerwyn.

The castle took up a great space and lay very close to a deep, dark unending forest. He could make out two sets of tall walls ringed with towers and one keep greater than the others, rising high into the sky. The drawings Tyrion had shown Jon came back to him all at once and he dared to hope that this was Winterfell that lay ahead. His heart pounded in his chest, for he had been imagining this moment since he was a little boy listening to his uncle’s tales.

When he brought his horse to a halt, gaping up at the castle, another horse soon joined his. His uncle smiled when Jon turned to him with hope in his eyes.

“I wanted to be here when you saw it for the first time.” Benjen said as they both took in the sight of the castle.

“You said we were a day’s ride away…”

“I lied. I figured you needed a pleasant surprise.” Uncle Benjen’s smile went all the way to his eyes, which held a sad warmth to them all of sudden. “Your mother always loved playing such tricks on me. So tell me, did I do it justice? Is it like you imagined?”

“No.” He said honestly.

It’s better.

 

EDDARD

 

“Ned, my gods. He looks just like you.”

Catelyn’s words might well have been his own.

In truth though, Eddard saw more of his sister than himself in the young rider entering his castle. Riding between Benjen and a knight of the Kingsguard he knew all too well, came a boy whom none could ever mistake for anything but his kin.

This Targaryen prince had more Stark features to him than most of his own children. Robb sometimes laughed and talked like Brandon did, but he had his mother’s coloring along with Bran and Sansa. Arya was Lyanna reborn in look and shared many features with the newly arrived princeling. Lyanna’s only son and Ned’s youngest daughter both had the same flowing, dark hair and the long face of their grandfather Rickard. He also took notice how similar their eyes were.

As the boy’s grey eyes swept about the castle with wonderment it reminded Ned so much of Benjen when he was a little.

Yet, despite the excitement in his eyes, the boy’s face remained somber.

Cat’s right, he thought, in that, he’s just like me.

“Is that the prince father?” Arya asked, the small child pulling on his leg in excitement. “That’s him isn’t it?”

“It must be. I don’t see any other boys with them.” Robb answered quickly as Sansa nudged their little sister back to her place so that she could get a better look.

There were few gathered about the courtyard beyond his family, as the reception had been hastily arranged. Benjen’s rider had given them barely any notice before the party’s arrival at the gates.

I should’ve had men watching the road.

Benjen lives to annoy me.

“Ned! I hope we weren’t a bother!” Benjen called out, climbing from his horse and marching towards them, arms outstretched. “Catelyn! Gods, you’re more beautiful than ever!”

“Thank you Ben, you look well yourse-”

Cat didn’t get to finish her words before his little brother wrapped her in a warm embrace, laughing the whole time. He released her to look down upon the two year-old boy at her side.

“This one can’t be little Bran. You were nothing but a name on a parchment and yet here you stand, almost fully grown!” Benjen pulled Bran up into his arms and tossed him bodily into the air, bringing forth a torrent of giggles from the boy. “Look at him fly! A winged wolf!”

“You should have sent a rider to us hours ago.” He chided Benjen even as Bran laughed and laughed.

“Hear that little one? Hasn’t seen me for three years and the first thing he does is chastise me. Your father is a lord alright.”

Benjen balanced Bran in one arm and slapped Ned’s shoulder with the other, giving him a smirk. Ned had no doubt his brother knew exactly how much of a bother he was being. A moment later Benjen turned his attentions to the grinning boy eager to reunite with his favorite uncle.

“Robb! Did you do as I asked you to?”

“Yes Uncle Benjen!” Robb smiled, shaking his uncle’s outstretched hand. “I practiced at swords everyday and I’m better at the rings than ever!”

“And what of making your father smile?”

“I… well… I try?”

“Ben…”

“Ned, scold me after I get a few kisses from these two beauties.” Benjen put Bran down to bow before Sansa and Arya. Sansa curtsied but Arya gaped a moment or two longer before following her sister’s example.

“You remember me don’t you Lady Sansa?”

“Of course, nuncle.” Sansa spoke courteously yet Ned saw her eyes flickering back from Benjen to the prince and the knight who were only now dismounting.

“Then where’s my kiss?”

His daughter leaned forward and gave her uncle the boon he asked for upon his cheek.

“Well I don’t remember you.” Arya spoke up and all eyes fell upon the little girl. It made Benjen laugh and Cat hiss disapprovingly.

“Little Arya, I forgive you for it. You were only a babe when I was last home and you know what? I’m wondering if we even met! I’ve no doubt I would remember such a pretty girl. I don’t deserve a kiss for that, now do I?

Arya shook her head and Benjen patted it gently.

“Then I beg the honor to give you one. You remind me so much of your Aunt Lyanna, it would warm me so after such a long, cold ride.”

The little girl glanced quickly to Cat who gave her a nod of approval. Arya mimicked her mother and nodded at Benjen. His kiss to the top of her head was quick but he noticed Benjen looked down meaningfully into Arya’s eyes before giving the girl an extra squeeze around the arms.

I can’t blame him, he thought, it must be like seeing Lyanna again.

Arya grows to look like her more every day.

“Speaking of Lyanna.” Benjen’s voice changed, becoming somewhat more serious as he rose to watch the prince’s approach.

His nephew was dressed all in black, save for the grey fur cloak draped around his shoulders. It was of a kind to one their sister had worn in her youth, so much so that he could almost see it in his mind’s eye, whipping about Lyanna’s shoulders as she rode ahead of him laughing.

“Eddard Stark, Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North, may I present Prince Jon Targaryen, son of King Rhaegar and Queen Lyanna… and your nephew.” Benjen gestured to the prince, who had come to a halt by his side.

The boy’s eyes had lost some of their wonder and he looked about nervously. His gaze moving across the collection of Starks before him to the few others of Winterfell’s household that had gathered to welcome the prince.

“Your grace, I welcome you to Winterfell. It is your home as much as it was your mother’s.” Ned struggled to give voice to what he wanted to say next. “I... when I last saw you, you were… that is… well no matter. Let me introduce my lady wife, the Lady Catelyn…”

As Ned went on introducing his wife to the quiet prince, he cursed himself for fumbling what he’d waited years to say.

Would it have been so hard to say he was but a babe you clutched desperately your chest?

That you missed him? That you’re sorry for all you’ve missed of his life?

“It’s an honor to have you here, your grace.” Cat smiled, doing her best to hold little Bran back from toddling back towards Benjen and Jon. “We’ve prepared chambers and a meal for you and your party. I’m sure both are welcome after your journey.”

The prince nodded yet still said nothing. The boy’s furtive glances about them almost seemed like he was seeking an escape from the situation. As if the Ned’s family made Jon uneasy.

Gods, what has Rhaegar told him about us?

The boy’s attention now focused on Winterfell’s master-at-arms, who was standing just off to the side of the courtyard.

“Are you Ser Rodrik Cassel?” Jon finally spoke , albeit in a quiet voice.

“I am your grace, I welcome you to Winterfell.” Ser Rodrik said, obviously surprised to have been singled out in such a way but remembering his courtesies as he stepped forward and bowed.

“You look like Martyn… is his son… I mean, is Jory Cassel here as well?”

“He is, your grace.” Ser Rodrik answered.

Jory actually stood beside Rodrik and was elbowed by his uncle when he made no effort to announce himself. Their captain of the guards followed his uncle in stepping forward and bowing.

“Could you come forward? Please?” Jon asked and the two men obliged, making to kneel before the prince. “No, you don’t have to… I just wanted to say…”

The boy stumbled some on his words, his fists clenching and unclenching. After an awkward moment Jon appeared to steel himself as he pointed towards a cart his party had ridden in with.

“Martyn Cassel was your father.” Jon’s words were quiet, speaking first to Jory before turning his attention to Ser Rodrik. “He was your brother. He was important to me... Martyn was a good and brave man and he died so that I could live. He was always kind to me and, well, I think he was my friend… and- and I’m sorry he can’t be here. I wish he could be… we brought him here so…”

Jon’s voice broke off and it became clear what was inside that cart. Eddard had told the Cassels how Martyn had died doing as he promised, of how their kin had brought honor to himself and their family. Yet it was plain neither had expected the prince to bring Martyn’s bones home, all the way to Winterfell.

“Prince Jon, I thank you. My father would have wanted to be laid to rest here, within these walls.” Jory spoke with all the strength and authority Ned remembered hearing in Martyn Cassel’s voice.

“You do us and him a great service.” Rodrik echoed. His eyes had not left the cart the entire time.

“No, it was him who did the great service, and I’m sorry.” Jon’s young voice was full of grief as he lowered his eyes.

All were silent in the yard after that. Many in the courtyard had known Martyn, most liked him, and perhaps even loved him. The spectacle of a prince honoring him in such a way was more than they would have expected.

It fell to his youngest daughter to break the spell.

“Why is the prince sad? Why is everyone sad?”

A second later she gave a cry. Sansa did not move quick enough to hide the fact that she’d pinched the girl for her query.

The mood had definitely become more somber and with his announcement over, Jon now appeared lost. There was no shame in that. To make a speech like that at such a young age was a great feat and it was something the prince had probably practiced often.

Probably not as long as you prepared for this.

“You did well.” Benjen’s whispering to Jon was just loud enough for Ned to hear. “I’m proud of you.”

As the two Cassels walked towards the cart, Ned reached out to take hold of his nephew’s small shoulder.

“Jon.” He spoke in as reassuring a tone as he could muster and the boy met his gaze, his eyes glistening. “That was a kind and honorable act. While I mourn the passing of Martyn, I thank you for doing as you did. Reuniting Ser Rodrik and Jory with his remains was as unexpected as it was welcome. While I cannot be happy for a reunion like that, I can be for ours. It’s been many years since I’ve seen you.”

“Father said you were with us when mother died. You were the one who named me Jon.”

“I was.” He tried not to sound surprised that Rhaegar spoke of him. “And I did.”

His parting words to the king shouldn’t have earned Ned any place in the man’s tales. The other surprise was how the last part seemed almost an accusation but Ned doubted that the boy had meant it as such.

He couldn’t know how much handing him over had shamed me.

Robb broke in then, stepping forward and offering his hand.

“I’m Robb. Father says I’m to show you the castle. I’m glad they sent us a prince. Another boy my age to spar with! Bran’s too young and the girls, well, swords aren’t for girls.”

Catelyn hissed again at how brash their son was being and Jon seemed taken aback. It passed quick enough though, and the prince took Robb’s hand in his with a glimmer of a grin appearing on his face.

“Do you really spar daily?”

“Of course.” Robb almost seemed to puff his chest out in pride. “I’d do it more but they make me go to lessons with the maester…”

“It’s the same in the capital.” Jon shook his head. “They take our swords away and give us books.”

“How can we be warriors with books? Our fathers didn’t beat the Greyjoys with books! You’re a prince, tell them we don’t need…”

“I would think it a sign of how important your studies are if a prince is expected to learn from a maester as well.” Cat sought to end the boys’ rebellion before it could go too far.

Robb made to argue further when Arya was suddenly pulling on the prince’s cloak.

“Do you have a dragon?”

“No… I… the last dragon died a long time ago.” Jon’s words disappointed his little Arya and she began to pout.

“In the stories, the prince always has a dragon. It be good if you had one.”

“Mother!” Sansa almost wailed while Benjen chuckled.

“Arya, the dragons are only stories now.” Ned waved at the girl, beckoning her to him. “There are no more dragons.”

“I told her that.” Sansa put her face in her hands. “So many times. I told you she’d make a scene and embarrass us. Mother, I told you.”

“I didn’t make a scene! You’re dumb and forget things. You might forget a dragon!” Arya shouted, making several turn their heads, his daughters beginning a familiar dance before the true battle would begin. Arya whipped back around to face Jon.

“Sansa’s dumb! She’ll try and brush your hair like a doll! She tried on four different dresses today because she thinks she’ll be a princess if -”

“You’re horrid!” Sansa cried, burying her face in her hands in embarrassment.

“Arya! Come here right now!”

Cat ushered Bran towards Robb, who was laughing as hard as Benjen, though he at least showed the sense to try and hide it. His wife grabbed Arya by the arm to pull her away as Ned reached out to hold Sansa in place, the girl now trying to flee away from the spectacle their fight had made.

“I have a dragon’s egg.”

Everything seemed to stop at once. Cat froze midstride. Arya stopped pulling against her mother’s hand. Sansa’s struggles and wails ended as Robb and Benjen’s laughter died away. All stopped at Jon’s softly worded statement. With all their attention back on him again, he shifted awkwardly and shrugged.

“Really?” Arya asked, tugging on her mother’s arm again, her face beaming.

“A real dragon’s egg?” Robb was enthralled too.

“Well, not here.” Jon scratched his head. “Father says its somewhere safe. There’s one for each of us. Rhaenys, Aegon and me.”

“What does it look like?” Sansa pulled her face from his shoulder as the other children erupted with their own questions.

“When will it hatch?”

“How big is it?”

“All questions you can ask the prince as you show him to his chambers.” Ned decided to save his nephew and stop airing so much of his family’s business before everyone. Jon would have years to learn how hot excitable his pups could be.

“Follow me! I know the way!” Arya called as she took off running towards the Great Keep.

“She thinks she’s faster than me but she’s wrong. No one is faster than me!” Robb laughed as he looked Jon up and down in a challenge.

The prince needed little more encouragement than that and the two boys took off like a flash. Bran was giggling as he tottered after and Sansa came alongside him, grabbing his hand and moving just quick enough to keep up with the others.

“Were we ever that young?” Benjen asked.

“You were when I met you.” Cat teased but as Ned watched the children running with their cousin, he found it hard to remember such a time.

If I ever was that young, it did not last, he thought, there were always reasons for the smiles to end and the laughter to die.

Winter is coming.

Sure enough, a reason to end their good humor presented itself.

“Lord Stark.” Ser Oswell had finally joined them. There was little love between them yet the man had done them all a service by waiting until after the reunion was over to approach. “There are matters we should discuss.”

“He’s right Ned.” Benjen added, his grin becoming a firm line. “And not here.”

“My solar then.”

Having the Kingsguard within his walls made Ned uneasy but it was a price he was willing to pay to fulfill his vow to Lyanna. Ser Oswell had been one of the three to face off against Ned and his party when they came upon the Tower of Joy. Rhaegar had entrusted the Kingsguard with the protection of his new wife and child while he rode off to war. Later he placed a similar trust in Ned to see to Lyanna’s well being while he settled the chaos of the realm.

He often wondered how things would have turned out if he had not come to that tower bearing commands with Rhaegar’s own seal. How easily his party of seven might have drawn swords against the three Kingsguard, rather than adding to their watch over Lyanna. To Ser Oswell and his companions, he’d been a rebel lord. From the way the knight regarded Ned now, it seemed little had changed in his mind.

Soon enough five gathered in his solar, the maester having joined them along the way.

“I thought we’d speak in confidence.” Ser Oswell’s words were punctuated by a glance to Cat, standing at Ned’s side.

“I trust my wife as much as I trust my brother, and she has every right to hear what you’d say.” He hoped his tone let the man know that that was as far as he’d allow the argument to go.

“Besides, we are kin ser. My mother was a Whent of Harrenhal.” Cat added and to his annoyance, the knight shrugged.

“Minisa was only a cousin to my mother. That wouldn’t have stopped your father from killing me during the war, given the chance. Rebellion has a way of thinning the ties of blood and loyalty.”

“The rebellion is over.” Ned stated, struggling not to clench his fists.

“The rebellion was defeated.”

“Gods, the boys were right, enough with maester’s lessons.” Benjen scowled as he leaned against the wall. “What word did you get from the capital Ned?”

“Little enough. Jon Arryn wrote of some business at the God’s Eye and the prince needing a safe haven.”

“That’s all he could fit in the raven?” The knight asked. “The lord should practice smaller writing.”

Ser Oswell gave a wry laugh at his own joke and again, Ned bristled at the man’s disrespect. Before he could defend Jon Arryn’s name, Cat took up his cause

“Lord Arryn sent what he could, after giving us word of how our kin kept in the capital are fairing. Considering the mood of the request, giving us that comfort was kind of him.”

Ser Oswell grunted and shifted the bat-wing helm he cradled in his arm, but he argued no more. He raised an eyebrow towards Benjen.

“He’s your brother, you tell him.”

“I’m not surprised Jon Arryn put little in a raven as there’s little of this story the king wants known beyond those gathered here.” Benjen paused, as if to let them know without saying that none of this was to leave the room. Ned gave a solemn nod and Cat and Maester Luwin returned it before Benjen continued.

“We were escorting the prince on his way to visit the Isle of Faces, so we thought to call upon House Whent at Harrenhal, before sailing for the island itself.”

The younger Stark’s faced darkened then, clearly upset at the memory.

“We were riding under the royal banner with just over a score of men, Martyn and Ser Mark among us. In those lands, no one thought we’d need more than that. Fools we were. On the way we were ambushed and we came this close to being slaughtered Ned. Arrows came from the bushes and then men on horses charged us, coming from all sides. Jon’s horse was shot out from under him before we even knew we were under attack. Something was on our side that day… at least for us three. Only Jon, Oswell and I survived. We managed to make to it to Harrenhal and found protection from Lady Whent. From there we went to Maidenpool, to sail to White Harbor and then come here.”

“Bandits thought to attack a party flying the king’s banner?” Maester Luwin asked incredulously.

“That’s the story being told by the Whents and in the capital.” Ser Oswell growled. “But these were no bandits. They were sellswords for sure, men with ability, and few enough from any lands close by.”

“Assassins.” Benjen almost spat the word. “Someone wanted Jon dead.”

“That’s what I put in my raven to the king.” The knight continued. “And whoever it was must have arranged it from the capital itself.”

“We were barely on the road a week and a half when they came upon us, Ned.” Benjen continued. “Those men were recruited and sent from King’s Landing for the express purpose of killing Jon.”

“You know this for certain?” Cat asked and Oswell snorted.

“For certain? No. If we did, heads would be on spikes along the city walls and I wouldn’t have saddle sores from weeks of riding though this ugly country. It’s the only thing that makes sense though. The best place to find sellswords, especially foreign ones, are at ports. Duskendale or Maidenpool might serve up a few, but it’s not possible to arrange such an attack in so a short time from those places. It had to have been done by someone who was in the capital, who saw their chance after the king ordered the prince to the Isle…”

“He what?” Ned took a step towards the knight. “Rhaegar did what?”

“The king ordered the prince to visit the Isle of Faces.”

“He’s the one who sent him away from the city? Rhaegar sent his son into that trap?”

The bastard. The bloody fool. You knew he would hurt the boy.

How could you leave her son with that careless idiot?

“Do you accuse the king of conspiring to kill the prince? His own son? You think I would be party to the murder of that boy?” Oswell took a step forward as well, the knight’s nose almost touching his own. “If so, say it plainly so that when I take you from this room and throw you from this keep…”

“You threaten me in my own castle?”

“Stop this! Ned!”

“Oswell!” Benjen was between them and Cat had her arm on his a moment later, clutching it tightly. “For two men sworn to see that boy safe, you both seem eager to do away with a good portion of his protection.”

“He threatened me…”

“He insulted the king…”

“And you both did so poorly.” Benjen shook his head. “Ned, if Rhaegar wanted Jon dead, why would he ever send him here? To the one lord he knows would do anything to keep him safe. Oswell, my brother has as much reason to hate Rhaegar as any, yet he has bent the knee and has more honor than any man I have ever known, including myself. Have I ever given you reason to doubt my word?”

The knight and he glared at each other. He imagined Oswell’s head was as full of violence as his own. Still, some of what Benjen said began to ring true to him and he felt the tightness in his muscles lessen some. Oswell himself took a step back from Benjen, muttering something unheard.

“If I may inquire…” Maester Luwin broke in. “If I may inquire as to why the prince was not just kept at Harrenhal while any conspiracy was rooted out?”

“The simple answer is to avoid other questions.” Benjen sighed. “Root out a conspiracy? Which one? There’s too many to count in that den of cutthroats. Keep the prince at Harrenhal? Why? People would whisper horrible rumors about Rhaegar and Jon both. Sending Jon north was the simplest way to keep him safe and keep up appearances that nothing is awry.”

“Lord Stark is the only rebel lord the king has not publicly reconciled.” Oswell offered. “House Baratheon has been bound to the throne through marriages and Lord Arryn has been given a position of esteem in court.”

Maester Luwin made a sound that he often made when surprised by the quickness of one the children’s answers to his questions.

“I see… The king still needed to make a public offer of reconciliation to House Stark... the prince would appear to be that offer.”

“Fine.” Ned accepted the reasoning, though it bothered him to think that Rhaegar may have actually been acting wisely. Still he was not such a fool to ignore what questions were still unanswered.

“Rhaegar acted well in this but I want to know why Jon was sent from the capital in the first place?”

 Benjen and Oswell exchanged a look before the knight answered.

“The king wished his son to see the place where he wed his mother. A place of…”

“Come off it Oswell.” Benjen scowled again. “It was so Rhaegar could avoid calling his royal brother a fool and a sot in front of the whole court. Prince Viserys and Jon got into a bit of a scuffle where the boy got the upper hand…”

“Isn’t the prince a man grown?” Cat asked incredulously while Benjen laughed and Oswell cracked a smile.

“Some princes take their yard training more seriously than others.” Oswell offered. “It was no true fight, Viserys angered Jon and wasn’t prepared to be taken to task for it. Still, a fight between two of royal blood is not something to be overlooked. The matter was handled discreetly.”

“They were both bundled off for a while.” Benjen smiled some. “Viserys was sent to Oldtown to drink and whore while Jon was sent to live for a time among the weirwoods of the island. To spend time with the gods of his mother. His gods too.”

Rhaegar kept his word to Lyanna on that at least.

“I will have to show him the godswood.” He said, hoping the children had not already done so. “The prince should see where his mother and Starks long past have knelt in prayer…”

“There’s a sept in this castle?” Ser Oswell asked and when they all acted surprised to hear the man act so pious. “Not for me, my prayers are done in the practice yard. The boy is a prince of the blood though. The king has decreed he at least be instructed in the Faith of the Seven and I will see his will done.”

Ned was about to ask what else Rhaegar wished down within his castle when Cat put a hand too his arm and smiled.

“My lord had a sept built for me when I arrived. If the ser wishes, I can take up the prince’s education in the Faith.”

“Fantastic.” The knight grunted. “Speaking of, I have left my prince too long without a guardian. I would take my leave…”

“My nephew is safe.” He spoke firmly, reminding himself of this as much as the knight. “Within these walls, in this castle, my sister’s son shall be as safe as he is welcome.”

“Be as welcoming as you want.” Ser Oswell shrugged and turned to leave the room. “I put more faith in my blade than your words.”

With the man gone from the room Cat and he shared a look of complete astonishment. Having Jon stay at their home was one thing, enduring Ser Oswell Whent and his bloody mouth would be something else entirely. Benjen caught their expressions and ran a hand through his hair while chuckling.

“Believe it or not, he grows on you.” Benjen came forward and clapped Ned’s shoulders again. “Truly brother, it is good to see you. To see your family… our family doing so well here, it’ll give me strength when I leave again.”

“Ben…” He spoke sadly. “You have given away years of your life for our safety… I can never repay you.”

“Nonsense. Like I said, seeing Cat and the beautiful children you two have made here, that’s thanks enough.” Benjen paused, a serious look passing over his face. “There is something you could do though Ned… something I do not have the strength to do.”

“Name it brother.”

“When it comes time let it be you who takes Jon down to see Lyanna.” Benjen’s hold tightened some. “I can’t bear it Ned… I’ve done all I can to keep her memory alive in him, I remember her face well enough to describe it to Jon and that’s how I want to remember her… I can’t bare to see a statue staring back at me.”

In a flash, Ned was back at the Tower of Joy, kneeling next to Lyanna’s bloodstained bed. In one arm he clutched a sleeping babe while his free hand held his sister’s clammy and weak one. She was weeping tears of blood and her breathing became more and more strained.

“You name him Ned…” Lyanna had said. “The best of us… you were the best of us. I trust you to watch over him… my babe… keep him safe…”

“Of course, Lya.” He’d wept as well. “I’ll care for him like he’s my own.”

“His name Ned… tell me it before… my son’s name…”

The choice had been easy for him in a way, to name this boy he would love as a son he thought of the man who had loved him as a son. Who had sheltered Ned in the Vale when the Mad King called for his head.

“Jon.” Ned had kissed Lyanna’s hand. “This is your son Lya, this is Jon.”

“Jon…” She reached for the babe and Ned let her press a gentle kiss to the babe’s brow. “Oh gods Ned spare him all this pain… all the follies… keep him safe…”

“Promise me, Ned.”

He had promised to do so, his sister dying with a smile to hear it.

A promise he’d break only a short later.

The shame he felt when Rhaegar had forced him to hand over Jon was as fresh in his mind now as when he had done it in King’s Landing. Instead of carrying the boy back to Winterfell as he’d hoped all Rhaegar had been willing to part with was Lyanna’s bones.

Bones which now laid to rest in the crypts below the castle, a constant reminder of his failure to live up to a promise.

“I will take him.” Ned said then, nodding to his brother. “I could not bring him here all those years ago… I could not do justice by Lyanna then but now, starting today, all of that will change.”

For all my family is finally gathered within the walls of Winterfell.

Where they belong. Where we all belong.