Like a wastrel found dead by the side of the road, the Lord Commander was laid out and stiffening on a bare trestle table. Naked, but for the flimsy cloth preserving his modesty, and caked in his own blood and dirt. To those who did not know him, only the Valyrian steel longsword laid next to the body offered a clue to Jon Snow's true status. It was his face that caught Ser Davos' eye. Slack and colourless, the blood long drained through the gaping wounds in his upper body. Not even the light of the flickering braziers could soften the harsh grey tones of death's pallor. Only the arrival of Lady Melisandre induced him to tear his gaze away from the horror before him.
As she opened the door, a cold gust of snowy wind blew inside, carrying with it the distant sound of a howling wolf. A mournful wail that made his skin prickle with apprehension. It wasn't Jon's wolf either; Ghost lay sleeping by his dead master's side, with not even a twitch of his tail to betray any sign of life. For one cold moment, Ser Davos feared the beast had curled up died as a show of solidarity to his slain master. Meanwhile, the Red Woman remained silent as she set about her task, causing the atmosphere in the room to thicken.
She wrung out a wet cloth, the droplets catching the light as they splashed back into an earthenware bowl. Unhurriedly, she propped Longclaw against the table then washed the dirt and blood from the dead man's chest. Slowly, almost lovingly, she cleansed Jon's body. Only when he was thoroughly clean did she begin her incantations. A foreign tongue he did not understand, spoken in an undulating whisper, barely audible. Her movements were perfunctory now, as if even she didn't think this was going to work. She snipped at his wet hair, speaking her incantations to R'hllor, before dropping the cuttings into the brazier at Jon Snow's head. More cuttings, then even a few beard trimmings. All were fed to the flames, filling the air with an acrid stench. All the while, her incantations grew louder, stronger as she seemed to hit her stride. She placed her hands on the wounds and spoke as if pleading with them to close. She repeated the process over every one, until she reached the spot on his motionless chest where his heart beat should have been.
There, she paused. The men lining the shadows shifted as the tension grew. But Melisandre would not be hurried. She pressed down on his heart, voiced her final incantation and pressed her hands down. Ser Davos dared to step closer, to see if there was any change – any viable sign of life – from the Lord Commander. Holding his breath, he watched and waited for what seemed an age and a day. The confidence the lady had gathered throughout the duration of the ritual melted away as she looked down at the still dead man, hopeless and empty. She was the first to walk away, closely followed by Dolorous Edd and Tormund Giantsbane.
Their last hope faded with the smell of the burning hair. Anger and disappointment vied against each other among Davos' feelings. As some final, empty show of respect, he placed Longclaw back at Jon's side, closing his cold stiff hand over the hilt and headed for the door himself. Just then, a sharp loud gasp sounded as he reached the threshold. He whipped around again, to where the Lord Commander lay gasping. On the turn of a hair, hope surged within him once more.
"He's back!" he called out to the others who'd already retreated. "Get back in here now, he's breathing!"
Despite being the first out the door, Melisandre was also the first one back in the room. She shoved past Davos and almost fell on the Lord Commander, smoothing his brow as she studied his face intently. Slowly, his breathing evened out and he appeared to be in a deep sleep. Melisandre shook her head slowly, as if this were a negative thing.
Davos was puzzled. "I'm not an educated man, my lady, but he's definitely breathing. It worked."
"He should be awake," she pointed out. Looking up at Ser Davos, she grew more urgent as she added: "This shouldn't be happening. Why isn't he waking?"
What are you asking me for? Davos thought, irritably. Still, he hazarded a guess. "He's injured, he needs to sleep and heal."
"Here," said Dolorous Edd, appearing before them with the bucket of cold water Melisandre had used to wash the body. "I'll wake him up."
Edd's voice sounded so distant, so far away like he was calling to him from the opposite end of a long tunnel. Unable to make out what was said, it contrasted sharply with the shock of the freezing cold that suddenly engulfed his whole body. Groaning, he tried to call out but his limbs were so stiff and sore that all he could do was roll over. When he settled himself again, the warmth returned.
Jon had been so long in the far north he had almost forgotten what the sun on his face felt like. Warm and soft as a mother's embrace was what it felt like. Had he not also felt like he'd drank a winesink dry the night before, he might have enjoyed the sensation more. Reluctantly, he opened his eyes but then winced painfully and screwed them shut again. Too bright. Much too bright. As the burning in his eyes subsided, he rolled over onto his side and breathed in the rich scent of earth and grass.
They stabbed me, he remembered. It was a memory that dropped back into his conscious mind like a stone down a dry well. They stabbed me; tried to kill me.
Ignoring the aches and pains that filled his body, he sat up and forced himself to get his bearings back. Ser Alliser had been the ringleader, with Bowen Marsh and … Ollie. Even Ollie had looked him in the eye and stuck a blade in his chest. For the watch … the refrain of every mutineer rang in his head once more.
"Edd!" Jon gasped, looking all about him.
But there was no one there. No Edd, no Tormund; not even Alliser Thorne. The wall was gone, replaced by mountains that stretched out all around him. Above him, a blue sky spread out only to be punctured by mountain peaks; all clear and bright in the throes of an early spring. Barefoot and near naked, he looked down at his own chest and gasped anew at the sight of the open wounds. Not even his apparent nudity detracted from the ruin of his flesh, but he still breathed a small sigh of relief when he saw that his small clothes were intact and in place. Other than that, there was a small cloth covering him and Longclaw had slipped from his hands as he regained consciousness.
Had they known I was still alive when they dumped my body in this place? He had no way of knowing. Just as he had no idea of how long he had been unconscious for. Long enough, it seemed, to take him far away and abandon him on this lonely mountainside. Realising that if he stayed here he would die for certain, he slowly winched himself back to his feet. His indeterminate black out and the thin mountain air conspired to make his head spin as he took his first tentative steps. Then, making matters worse, the nearest road was treacherous with loose stones that dug into the soles of his feet. Barely a few steps down the way and his feet were beginning to bleed.
Cursing, he sat back down again and tried to work out where he was. North of the Wall? Definitely not. The night time cold would have killed him outright, which made him wonder why Thorne and the others didn't just do that. They might even have found the prospect of him becoming a wight mildly amusing. But no, not even they were stupid enough to risk that. With a sinking heart, he realised he could have been unconscious for weeks and he could be anywhere in Westeros.
What now? He thought to himself. Assuming the Boltons wouldn't exactly welcome him with open arms, he couldn't go there. Mance was dead, so there was no point heading north of the wall. If he did find his way to Castle Black, then Alliser Thorne, Bowen Marsh and Ollie would be only too willing to do the job properly this time. Then, it came to him in a flash and gave chase to his gathering despair.
"Sam!" His old friend's name even tasted sweet on his lips as he spoke it aloud.
Even though he was undoubtedly many leagues from Oldtown, just having somewhere to aim for renewed his sense of direction and gave him something to focus on. Get off the mountain, go to the nearest town and get help … a plan began to formulate. He could just say he was attacked by brigands to explain his injuries. There was bound to be a charitable Septon who would take pity on him, even a Maester if he was really lucky.
First, he had to get there. Standing again, he wrapped the loin cloth around his hips, where it hung to mid-thigh, easily preserving his modesty and a little dignity. Fixing it in place with his sword belt, he began cautiously treading around the loose rocks again, heading downhill. Progress was slow and slowed further as the sun began to set and he cut his feet again. This far in, he had neither seen nor heard another living soul. It felt like he was the last person alive in the whole country. But when the sound of voices did reach him, it brought no relief. Fearing real brigands, he shrank to side of the mountain road, feeling horribly exposed. However, for all he knew, the people coming up behind him may be friendly. Torn between hiding and making himself as visible as possible, the snap decision made itself.
The only item of value he had was Longclaw, so he tossed it into a nearby thicket of bushes to hide it. With literally nothing else to lose but his life, he positioned himself in the middle of the tracks. As the strangers drew closer, he also heard the sound of horse's hooves crunching against the stony road. He looked back in the direction from which they approached, holding his breath as a young woman rounded a bend.
At the sight of him, she yanked on the reins of the horse in alarm. Immediately, their gaze locked into each other's and she gaped openly at him.
"Ned?" she gasped. "Gods, Ned what happened? I thought you were with the others?"
She soothed her mount before jumping from the saddle. Assuming "Ned" was her companion, Jon tried calling out to her.
"Please, don't be alarmed, I was set on by robbers-"
"Ned, it's going to be all right!" she called back to him. She was running towards him when she stopped and called out to someone else. "Bran! It's Ned, he's been attacked-"
"Listen, I'm not Ned," he tried calling over, but she wasn't listening. "But please, madam, I badly need your help."
The girl was running again, skirts hitched above her ankles. Only when she was a few feet away did she come crashing to a halt. Her mouth fell open and her eyes widened in alarm. A faint flush of embarrassment crept over her face.
"Oh my, you're not Ned at all, are you?" Then her eyes raked over his battered and wounded chest, horror returning to her features in a heartbeat. But she didn't let her fear or shock overawe her for long. She pulled the cloak off her back and threw it around his shoulders. "Who did this? Where are they now? My brother is nearby and we will have these men caught and punished. In the meantime, we'll look after you, have no fear."
"I can't remember anything," he stammered, huddling inside her cloak. It was fur-lined and felt luxurious against his bare, cold skin. "All I remember is throwing my sword into those bushes so they wouldn't be able to steal it."
The lie came easily and she even went to retrieve Longclaw for him. By the time she did that, her companion had caught them up and was now dismounting his huge destrier war horse. He was tall and rugged looking and, to his near giddy relief, they both had the sigil of House Stark embroidered into their outer garments. He was about to tell them who he was when the man cut him off.
"Gods, Lyanna, I know we don't see much of Ned since he came to the Eyrie, but really? That's quite some mistake to make there," he grinned as he spoke to the girl, but he was looking at Jon. "Actually, you do look an awful lot like our Ned."
"Shut up, you!" the girl hissed back.
"Now, let's see what they did to you."
The man motioned for him to open the cloak he was wrapped in, which he hesitantly did. His eyes widened in shock at the state of it.
"Seven hells, man! The Old Gods and the New are smiling down on you, by the looks of it. You ought to be dead!"
Clearly, he did not notice Jon paling or his heartbeat racing as he looked between the girl and him. His mouth had run dry and his whole body was trembling. Something they took for the after effects of his attack. In reality, it was his own mind that was taking the beating now.
"For-forgive me, my lord, but what did you say your names were?"
The man jolted as he studied the wounds. "Oh, sorry friend. I am Brandon of House Stark and this here is my sister, Lady Lyanna."
He nodded to the young maid who was behind Jon now, studying Longclaw where it had been thrown into the bushes. She glanced up again and gave him a wave as he turned to get her back in his line of vision. They were both dark haired, grey eyed and lean – the hall mark of every generation of Starks. Jon could feel his breathing grow ragged as realisation finally began sinking in, but he could not fathom it. His own mind could not take in the enormity of what seemed to be happening to him. None of it was possible.
"No," he murmured beneath his breath. "No, it cannot be."
The ground seemed to pitch beneath his feet. Meanwhile, a larger party was fast approaching. Brandon and Lyanna had clearly ridden out ahead of the others, stretching their horse's legs. Now the others had caught them up and two more young men came cantering around the bend in the mountain road.
"What's all this about me being attacked?" the one on the left asked.
Jon's racing heart suddenly felt as if it had stopped altogether. Luckily, Brandon had taken to holding him up. Otherwise, he'd have fallen in a dead faint long ago. All the same, he was capable of doing nothing more than gape dumbly at all these long dead people who surrounded him. Was he dead too and just didn't realise it? Was this the afterlife? But it was happening, it was all real and solid and alive.
"Never mind that, Ned. This is serious, ride back to the others and get Lord Arryn's Maester," said Brandon. Urgently, he added: "Now! This lad's life is in danger!"
Jon watched as his father and Lord Robert Baratheon turned their horses around and rode back the way they came. It tore his heart in two to see Eddard Stark looking at him without so much as a trace of recognition in his eyes.
Meanwhile, Lyanna was trying out Jon's sword.
"Small wonder you risked your neck to save this blade," she said. "Look Bran, it's Valyrian steel!"
Curiosity clearly piqued, Brandon let go of Jon's shoulders to look at Longclaw. Immediately, he fell back down again, impacting painfully with the hard ground.
"Bran, you fool!" Lyanna cursed, running back to Jon's side. "Are you all right? Just lie still until help arrives. I'm sorry to say it, but I don't think the finest maester's in all the realm will have you fit and strong again in time for Old Whent's tourney."
Jon's head reeled again, but he was powerless to move or even speak coherently. "But …. I can't … I don't-"
"Don't fret on it," said Brandon. "We'll find you some clothes that fit and you can come with us. My sister's a spectator too, you can watch with her if you're alone. In the meantime, you still have this magnificent blade. That's a wolf on the pommel, isn't it?"
Lyanna beamed down at him. "We love wolves."
In that moment, Jon decided that none of this was happening. Shaking off Lyanna's arms, he staggered back to his feet and attempted walking. But all that happened was that he lurched forward, almost vomited and fell into a cold, black faint.