As Ned reads the letter multiple times he tries to imagine what Jon Snow may look like now. He still often thinks of the day they took the boy away, remembers it as if it happened this very morning, not six years ago. When he closes his eyes, he can still see Jon stand there, in the courtyard, dressed like a proper Northerner, his little face frightened and incapable of hiding his discomfort and incomprehension.
Promise me, Ned.
He kept his promise for twelve years. Lyanna used her last breath to make him promise and he kept it.
His name is Jon, and he will be a Snow, a son of the North, born at Winterfell. My blood runs through his veins, he is my sister’s boy and I will raise him as my own.
At two and ten years old, still a child, he was maturing rapidly, perhaps a bit too much, faster than most, like all bastards do. His face was long, solemn and guarded, it gave nothing away. He was handsome, some called him pretty, but Ned knew that when he grew up, the prettiness would fade away. Jon was tall and skinny too. with his dark hair and grey eyes he looked like his mother, he looked like a Stark. Ned knew and knows that it did and does not matter what he looked like back then or looks like now, for Jon Snow was and is not a Stark, as in the end, all that matters is the name. No matter how much Stark blood runs through his veins, he will never have the name.
The time has come for my son to be returned to me.
It was never returning. For over ten years, Rhaegar Targaryen tried his best to pretend Jon Snow did not exist. He never travelled north, never left his pretty, red castle and his crowded stinking capital to meet the bastard he fathered. He never wrote, not to Jon nor to Ned. He did not care, he did not even pretend to. He never asked, never seemed to wonder, always ignorant, always indifferent.
When Ned wrote to him once, so long ago, to tell him he wanted the babe to remain in Winterfell where he was born, his mother's home, the king responded with nothing but a short, written agreement, offering settlements of payment, with carefully chosen words written in the most elegant of handwritings. Ned did not care about gold, he cared about the boy, about his promise.
He betrayed Robert to keep his promise.
Robert will kill him, you know he will. She said.
He bend the knee and swore fealty to the family that watched his father and brother burn. He held Lyanna’s hand when Robert fell in battle and watched her die in a bed of blood when the Kingslayer pressed his sword through the mad king's back. Ned remained in the North when Rhaegar was crowned, when he wedded the Lannister girl. There must always be a Stark in Winterfell and the last time a Stark rode south, he never returned.
There is only one thing the king ever said to Ned as he looked into his eyes, when they met that day, shortly after a shared victory over the Greyjoy Rebellion, and they caused him more sleepless nights than any words spoken to his face before or after.
Be loyal to me, Eddard Stark. If you choose to be loyal to me, I shall be loyal to you. We are bound by blood, he is my son, always remember that.
Nearly 15 moons after the end of Robert's war, Catelyn gave him a son of his own. They named him Robb, for his closest friend, always his companion, died at the trident, Where Ned should have been by his side. It might have been a great insult to name a son, his first, after an usurper but if Rhaegar was insulted nobody ever knew about it.
Then Cat gave him two daughters. The eldest they named Sansa, for Sansa Stark, the she-wolf of Winterfell his grandmother used to so often tell him stories about. They named another daughter Arya, after that grandmother. Then, two more sons came, Brandon for his brother, Rickon for his father. He asked the Gods to let them love and protect each other. Let them grow up to become a pack of wolves.
Ned was watching Jon and Robb swing their wooden swords at each other in the summer sun when the letter was placed in his hands. He recognized the three-headed dragon as instantly as any man would.
My son shall be accompanied by my men as he travels south. The time has come for him to be where he belongs.
Jon belonged in the north, at Winterfell, with his family who loved him, who would protect him. He belonged with his pack of wolves. But Ned knew there was nothing he could do. He kept his promise to Lyanna and now Rheagar once again had come to claim what was not his to claim and there was no one to stop him, nobody ever did, nobody could.
It was early in the morrow, winter left long before, not able to protect them. Ned knew he raised Jon to one day become a fine man and he would make him proud when they would meet again. Ned had placed his hands on Jon’s shoulders, squeezed them and tried to smile reassuringly, ‘Son,’ He said, ‘listen to me, listen carefully.’
Jon nodded, firmly, surprisingly confident.
‘Your king calls for you and you shall obey him. We must do things we’d rather not in the name of duty, but you will always find a home in Winterfell and we shall always be your family. Do you understand me, boy?’
‘Yes, uncle.’ He said, but Ned knew he did not.
Now, six years after taking Jon Snow away, Rhaegar has written to Ned again, and it no longer concerns Jon Snow only.
‘How do you plan on telling her?’ Cat looks at him, a deep frown on her face.
‘Yes, Sansa! Who else?’ She crosses her arms after throwing the letter back at him.
‘I never believed he would ever accept.’ Ned stares at the letter he must’ve looked at a dozen times since it arrived this morning.
‘You were wrong.’ Cat says, she shakes her head and starts to pace around their bedroom.
‘I don’t understand.’ Ned says, ‘I never did anything to deserve this. He has no reason to trust me.’
‘You practically raised his boy.’ Cat says, ‘Maybe this is his way of showing you his gratitude? If it is, I demand you to tell him no!’
‘I cannot say no. I gave him my conditions, he accepted.’
‘Then there you have it!’ She throws her arms in the air, ‘That was your mistake.’
‘It’s as if he’s offering me a trade,’ Ned stares at the words in his hands, 'As if he's saying; you will travel south, serve as Hand in the capital, where I can control and watch you, and I'll give you Jon Snow back.'
‘But he won’t give you Jon Snow back, will he? I’ll be stuck with the boy as you ride south, leaving me.’
‘Don’t speak of him in such a way.’ Ned's voice is calm, but the warning as serious as any.
Cat shakes her head in disbelief, ‘This cannot be, this cannot be...’ She continues her pacing, ‘He planned on marrying our daughter to a son of his since the day she was born, we both knew it, you agreed even when we never knew which one she'd end up with!’ Ned says nothing and he can see his silence annoys her when she adds, ‘Now, instead of a real prince, we can give her a bastard.’
‘Her cousin.’ Ned says, ‘She is marrying her cousin, my sister's boy, a king’s son.'
‘A bastard all the same.’ Cat says, ‘She won’t like it Ned, you know she won’t.’
‘She can stay home.’ Ned says, knowing it won’t mean a thing to Sansa, but perhaps it will be of value to her mother, ‘They will marry here, in the godswood, by the old gods, she can stay in her home, in Winterfell, with her family.’
‘She’s been dreaming of southron princes, knights in the capital, Dornish wine and Tyroshi silks!’ Ned knows his lady wife speaks the truth when she coldly decides, ‘She’ll be disappointed when she finds out she is marrying a landless bastard with no name and nothing to inherit. She deserves far better than that Ned, she deserves a title, at least. It is insulting.'
Of all his children, who can still remember Jon, Sansa speaks of him the least. Jon grew up with Robb as rivals and brothers, Arya loved him like a true sibling and even though Bran was still in his swaddling clothes when Jon left, Jon helped teach Bran how to walk and talk. They all remember him fondly, all of them but Sansa who, much like his father, is indifferent about Jon Snow. The poor boy is doomed to have those most important in his life feel indifferent about him.
‘They may grow to care for each other.’ He tries, ‘As we did.’
'And if they will not?' Catelyn logically suggests, 'She'll be unhappily married to a boy who offers her nothing but a life in a dreary holdfast somewhere in the Gift. Is that what you want for her? For her to be humiliated and unhappy? She has so much potential, she deserves to see her dreams come true.'
Ned wishes he could tell her not to be so very dramatic, but he knows he can't, because she's not dramatizing, she's only saying what he does not dare think of, 'I raised him, he will be... I believe he shall be good to her.'
Catelyn shakes her head, because it does not reassure her, and he understands, because he cannot even reassure himself. He is only glad she has not yet mentioned aloud how this is the second time, that Rhaegar takes the Stark betrothed of another, and does whatever he pleases. Stark, Lannister, Targaryen, Tyrell... they're all pawns on a board game, and Rhaegar decided to play with Sansa.
'He is still a king's son with Targaryen and Stark blood.'
‘What about Aegon?’ Cat ignores his tries, ‘Who will he marry now that his bastard half-brother has stolen his bride?’
‘The girl from Highgarden.’ Ned says and she knows this will anger her even more.
‘Margaery Tyrell?’ Her voice is high and he can hear his own humiliation in her words when she says, ‘He takes Robb’s betrothed and gives her to Sansa’s?’ She shakes her head in utter disbelieve, ‘The nerve!’
‘He is the king, Cat!’ He says and it's the first time he raises his voice, ‘He is the king and does what he likes, he always has.’
Cat stares at him, her eyes fiercely try to kill him with her stare, ‘Of course.’ She says, ‘I think you should be the one to tell her.’ She makes a head gesture towards the door, ‘Tell our daughter she won’t marry the crown prince but her bastard cousin instead.’
‘Am I disturbing you?’ Sansa shakes her head as she looks at her father through the mirror.
She does that often lately, stare at her own face in her mirror. Not to admire herself, no, she is not as vain as Arya believes she is. She looks at her own face and wonders what other people may think when they see her. She wonders how it is possible that so many ideas, believes and dreams, all those desires, could hide behind that one face, in that small head, and she hopes it will shield them carefully. She stares at her own face and lets her daydreams take her to places where she cannot guide them.
Ned closes the door behind him and moves to peck the top of her head, ‘Awful news from the capital came some time ago... Jon Arryn is dead.’
Sansa knows who that is, ‘Aunt Lysa’s husband?’
Ned nods, ‘Yes, a fever took him.’
‘I am so sorry father.’ She knows her father was practically raised by the man, ‘How is aunt Lysa?’ Sansa tries hard to sound as if she cares but she knows she doesn’t. She has never met her mother’s sister in her life, ever.
‘She is well, she and her boy, they are both well.’ Sansa nods as if the news relieves her, ‘The king rides for Winterfell, with the queen, the princes, princesses and their households.’
Sansa can feel her heart flutter and she gasps, ‘Prince Aegon too?’
‘Yes, prince Aegon too.’
‘Why are they coming?’ He is avoiding her eyes and Sansa does not understand, ‘Should we not travel south?’
‘I will be traveling south with them when they leave again.’ Her father says, ‘I will serve as Hand of the king, take Jon Arryn’s place.’
‘Will I be going with you?’ Sansa asks, she cannot help it when she sees all her dreams come true in just mere seconds. Sansa has been dreaming for this moment to come for years, she knew it would one day, perhaps not so soon and she feels a disbelieve as much as utter joy.
‘No.’ Father says and Sansa frowns at the word, ‘You will stay here with your mother, Robb and Rickon, nobody but Arya and Bran will join me.’
‘Arya?’ Sansa does not understand, out of all her siblings, Arya will be the least likely one to be of any use in the capital, she will just embarrass herself and her family most of all. Sansa’s sister Arya is no proper lady.
‘Sansa,’ her father says and he kneels in front of her so their eyes meet, ‘The king has offered you his son’s hand in marriage and I have accepted. You will marry his second son, Jon, here at Winterfell, after your seventeenth nameday. The royal family is coming to the North to attend your wedding, it is a great honor for all of them to travel so far for the occasion only.’
‘My cousin?’ Sansa means to spit out the word but she can’t, she whispers it instead, barely able to pronounce it correctly.
‘Yes.’ Sansa can hardly believe it when her father continues, ‘You will get married in the godswood and stay here, at Winterfell, where Jon will assist Robb as lord of Winterfell while I am gone.’
Sansa realizes her mouth is opened in a silent gasp and she hurriedly closes it, ‘I do not understand.’ She says eventually, she has no idea what just happened, one moment everything she ever dreamed of seemed to come true, the next nothing makes any sense, ‘Is the king cross with you?’
‘No.’ Ned says, ‘He is not, he is naming me Hand of the King, it is a great honor.’
Sansa shakes her head, ‘Then why would he make you marry me off to a bastard?’
‘Jon is his father's son, prince in all but name. I agreed to the match, I was not forced to do anything. I believe he will be a good husband to you-’
‘I don’t want to marry him!’ Sansa finally finds her voice back and she means to use it, ‘You can’t make me!’
Her father rises to his feet again, towering above her as she sits, still in front of the mirror, her eyes watering with spiteful tears, ‘We shall not argue about it.’ He says.
‘I don’t want to father, please, please! I am supposed to marry Aegon, become his queen and give him silver-haired children!’
Her father sighs, ‘My sweet girl, there are very few things meant to be in life.’
Sansa feels tears escape her eyes as she clenches her fists, she gets up from her stool, ‘Please father, don't make me!’
But her father all but looks at her, his eyes apologetic but his mouth firmly closed. He continues to just look and not say a thing for days as she begs, screams, yells and mostly, constantly cries, day and night it seems. She cries soundlessly, she weeps in her pillow and sobs like a child. At one point, she threatens to run away, far away to some place where they won’t be able to find her, some place where Jon Snow won’t ever marry her. She doesn’t mean it, her father knows it, everyone knows it.
It is all so unfair. All she ever wanted was for things to be nice and pretty, the way they are in the songs. Sansa knows of not one song where a lady is rescued by a bastard.
Robb rubs her back when her tears give her hiccups and he holds her in his arms, ‘Hush little sister, not all is lost.’ He says, ‘You can stay home, here, at Winterfell, with me and mother and Rickon. It is far too hot anyway down south, you would never have liked it there!’ But Robb doesn’t understand, he never did, especially not when Jon Snow was concerned.
Her friend Jeyne is the only one who somewhat pities her. She holds Sansa’s hand and presses her lips firmly together, realizing this is a serious matter, a dark tunnel without bright lightening at the end, ‘I know of no one who was, or is, married to a bastard.’ She says, ‘I mean, I have met a few, as have you, but they were never married...’
Sansa glares at her, ‘They say bastards are dangerous, Jeyne!’ Her voice is desperate as she realizes her situation is hopeless, there is not going to be a happy ending, her life is over, all that remains for her is to wait and see it all crash down in ruins upon her, devour her, press her to the ground until she can no longer breathe, just cry, sob and accept her fate, thank the Gods for giving her what she never deserved, ‘They say you should stay away from bastards, they are born from lust, lies and weakness, there is no honor is bastards.’ Sansa wants to save her tears for her pillow but yet again she can’t, ‘They are wanton and treacherous by nature. Tell me Jeyne, how can they give me a lord husband who is all that? How can I marry him? How?’
Jeyne looks said, ‘I hear bastards smell of salt.’ She says and she combs through Sansa’s auburn hair with her fingers, ‘You will be finding out very soon, you must tell me when you know!’
That makes Sansa frown. She didn't even know salt has a scent. Her tears are salty, perhaps Jeyne misheard and do bastards not smell but taste of salt. How can he taste like anything? It would be quite a thing, for him to smell like the tears she spilled on him.
The response she hates most is that of her sister, ‘Jon is coming home!’
Sansa wants to wrap her hands around Arya’s throat and squeeze it as her sister happily jumps around when she's told of the news. Why can’t Arya be the one who'll wed Jon if she likes him so much? Arya always looked much like him, Sansa remembers, they looked so alike Sansa once asked her lady mother if Arya was mayhaps a bastard too. Her mother laughed then, and promised her that Arya was her one true sister.
Sansa's lady mother does not laugh now but looks away when Sansa makes the suggestion and simply informs her crying daughter that, ‘Arya is too young to be wedded.’
‘Will she marry Joffrey then?’ Sansa asks, ‘Or Tommen? How? Why do I get the bastard when Arya-‘
‘Sansa that is quite enough!’ Sansa cries some more when her mother scolds her, ‘Your father has put much effort and great care in finding you a proper husband, he has made his choice and you shall be grateful and you shall obey him, like a good dutiful daughter and true lady is ought to do. Don’t disappoint me, Sansa.’
Her mother either does not see or does not recognize her tears when Sansa begs one last time, ‘Please mother, I don’t want to.’
‘We hardly ever get what we want in life.’ Catelyn says and Sansa wants to curse her, because Catelyn Tully married a lord, she married the warden of the North. She is a southron lady who wedded a well-respected, honorable and highborn man. Catelyn Stark should not speak of duty nor disappointment.
Yet, as Sansa Stark watches her lady mother walk away, she does not curse her, she curses Jon Snow. If only he had never been born then she would not ever have to marry him, she could marry Joffrey or Tommen, mayhaps even Aegon still. Sansa curses Jon Snow and prays he may never reach Winterfell.