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The Damned Bastard

Chapter Text

Eddard 

 

The horses plodded forward, they were more tired than he was and the slow monotony of travel was starting to wear down his mind. Getting to Bear Island gave him a purpose and kept his mind sharp on the journey there. He had pushed those that accompanied him far too hard to get to Bear Island in time and The Wolf’s Road was a difficult journey even when traveling slow, but moving quickly through the tenous paths, forced you to focus. That had engaged his mind, allowed him to stop thinking of other things and allowed a sense of calm to come. That is what he needed, what he always needed, to focus on a task and to not dwell. Ned shook his head as he didn’t want to think further as to why. The Wolfswood was starting to clear some and Ned recognized the weirwood post with the iron wolf’s head. Ten more miles til the hunter’s gate. He was almost home. 

 

Ned went over their journey over in his mind. The rush to Deepwood was hectic and the saddle sores were only now starting to heal. As he thought of them, Ned fought the urge to itch where it was still tender. Ned remembered the small harbor five leagues from the Motte, the poor condition and a small merchant cog, and the two-day journey that ended up taking four days due to poor weather and rough seas. Their week-long stay with new Lady of Bear Island which was not enough for Ned to feel steady on his legs. How it only worsened on the return journey. 

 

His head started to ache as he thought about the business on Bear Island, and how much more was left to do. 

 

Ned distracted himself as he looked around the group he brought and his face softened when he found a mop of auburn hair. At least the trip wasn’t a complete failure. His son Robb wore a face that held deeper exhaustion. Traveling to Deepwood Mott in eight days would be difficult for anyone and at fourteen years old Ned was proud of how Robb carried himself throughout their journey. The roads, if they could be called that, through Wolf’s wood punished those who went too fast, but Robb held up reasonably well. As Ned was studying him, his son’s face broke into a joyous grin, whose energy seemed radiate to the rest of his body. Ned looked forward as well and he saw in the distance the grey curtain walls that protected the ancient seat of House Stark. Home.   

 

Ned turned back to his son and said, “We are almost there, Robb.” Robb nodded his head, but Ned could feel the excitement infect those around him “You did well, very well.” It wasn’t empty praise as Robb was attentive in all meetings, asked good questions when they were over, and was courteous to every bannerman they came across. He’ll be fine lord when I am gone . Although some of Robb’s ideas were far too radical for the North, there was still time to guide him back to values and standards that allowed Stark’s to rule for millennia. However, Robb had traits that even Ned envied. Effortlessly courteous and charming in the way Brandon was. In a way, he could never be.   

 

“Thank you, Father,” Rob said. Ned reached over and patted his firstborn son’s shoulder. Robb was a dutiful northern heir, however, his mother’s southern influence definitely shone through, not only in ideas but in looks as well. His son’s deep auburn hair and piercing blue eyes marked him more Tully than a Stark. Although his face was a little longer than his mother’s, and his stocky build mirrored Ned’s. 

 

“How are your legs? Do they still hurt?” Ned asked. 

 

Robb tried to hide the grimace, “No, all healed up. I may even race Jon tomorrow, and I may even win with all the practice I’ve had.” 

 

Ned chuckled at that. “Aye, maybe you will.” He remembered being that young and full of boyish pride. Ned hoped Robb could hold onto that a little longer. 

 

“Although I may need another horse, Snowshoe here needs a few days off,” Robb said as he patted the side of his dappled courser where a few grey spots formed what looked like a horseshoe. It was a gift from the Ryswells for his twelfth name day, and it had served him well. 

 

“Aye, that may be a good idea,” Ned said. 

 

Theon spurred forward then, the boy was proud and loud, but Ned always thought he was a good lad, but this journey may have changed his mind. “You won’t see me on a horse for at least a year!” he then groaned loudly as he shuffled in his seat. “My bloody thighs will never heal,” theon ended with a wince. 

 

Robb gave a chuckle, “Aye you ironborn are quite useless on horses.” 

 

Ned heard the leather gloves clench. “Yea? Not as useless as a wolf on water. I saw you on that cog, retching all over your own boots, moaning for three straight days. It’s why ironborn can never be truly defeated at sea.” Theon spat back. The good humor was gone and Ned looked back to see Robb’s face go red as he hung his head in shame. Ned fought the urge to step in, Robb needed to learn to hold his own.

 

“Except they are defeated all the time! Why else would you be here?” Robb said. Damn it

 

Ned turned around to see Theon’s face flushed and his nostrils flared. As he opened his mouth Ned called out, “Theon, go with Alyn and Tom and ride ahead to let Winterfell know of our arrival. 

 

Theon was still angry but mumbled a ‘my lord’ as he pushed his horse forward, Alyn and Tom right behind him. 

 

“Robb.” Ned said calmly “Come here for a moment.” A few seconds later Robb was at his side, his head starting to hang low. “Robb...

 

“I know I shouldn’t have said that,” Rob said staring at hands that were resting on the pommel of his saddle.

 

“Robb, always look at a man when you are speaking to him,” Ned said, his tone firm. 

 

Robb’s eyes lifted to meet his. “I know I shouldn’t have done that, Father.”

 

“Why did you?” 

 

“I was angry.” 

 

“You were,” Ned confirmed.

 

“But he was being a…” 

 

“It doesn’t matter Robb, you are the Heir to the North, petty insults cannot provoke you,” Ned said. Robb hunched his shoulders a bit. “Make sure to apologize, he may be my ward but one day he will rule the Iron Islands. I’d rather you would be friends than enemies.” 

 

“Of course Father,” Robb said. 

 

“Your young Robb and I don’t expect you to be perfect. You still have time, but you do need to learn.”

 

“I will,” Robb said. 

 

Ned clapped his shoulder again and smiled, “I know. Come one, we are almost home, let’s go see everyone. 

 

Robb’s face split into a grin and he pushed his horse into a trot and Ned matched it. They heard the horns heralding their arrival and soon passed the hunter’s homes on the outside of the gate. Game was being skinned and butchered and fletchers making arrows. Most stopped what they were doing and greeted him as he passed by and he politely nodded in return. 

 

As they approached the outer gate, Ned once again marveled at the size of the curtain walls, and the massive gate with large snarling direwolves facing one another. Ned would never grow used to the fortress Winterfell was. He had once heard his father say that a hundred men could defend Winterfell from ten thousand. Winterfell hadn’t been sieged in more than a millennia, but as Ned passed through the outer gate, over the moat, and through the inner gate, Ned did not doubt it would hold no matter the force trying to take it. 

 

Ned’s party passed the stables and the kennels and made their way into the inner courtyard and were soon surrounded by the tall, imposing stone structures that were so familiar to him. When Ned finally saw his wife and children waiting for them with most of Winterfell’s household, and Ned felt the last bit of his tension ease out of him.

 

Cat looked beautiful and elegant standing there holding his youngest son by her side whose auburn hair was moving as he tried to free himself from his mother’s clutches. To her right was Sansa, who, at almost ten years old, was starting to look more and more like her mother. Tall for her age, she would be a true beauty with a shade of red hair that only her mother seemed to have. Ned wasn’t looking forward to fighting off betrothal offers for her over the next few years, knowing many lords would give up much for his daughter’s hand.

 

 On Cat’s left was Arya who, despite being in a new dress, had some dirt on her face and was arguing with Bran waving her hands around while the septa looked on with disapproval. Arya, who didn’t seem to notice and at eight years old was the spitting image of Ned’s sister. Wild, carefree and looked more like a boy than the beautiful woman she will grow to be. 

 

Next to her was Bran, a gentle soul, but whose wolf’s blood flared when bested at anything martial, was doing his best to argue back but after a second, threw his hands down at his side, signaling his defeat. For now at least. 

 

Ned dismounted and walked towards the gathered group as he searched the courtyard for his last remaining son. Ned was still looking when he arrived at his lady. Standing in front of her, he looked deep into Cat’s blue eyes and grabbed her hands, pressing a kiss into them. 

 

“My Lady.”

 

His Cat stared back, “My Lord,” she said with a smile that stirred him. Ned yearned to take his wife in his arms but willed himself to greet his children first while Robb embraced his mother. Sansa bowed and welcomed him, a proper lady , Ned embraced her in a tight hug as little Rickon hugged his leg and soon Bran and Arya joined as well. They were soon speaking over each other talking about their adventures and asking about his. Ned felt his exhaustion abate as he smiled trying to follow the four different conversations. After disentangling himself from his children with promises of gifts, stories and to see what they learned he looked for Jon. He noticed him standing next to Ser Rodrik behind his wife and children. Jon had a look of longing that was quickly replaced by his usually stoic features. Ned approached and placed a hand on his shoulder, gods , he was getting taller. “Jon,” Ned said, trying to put the same warmth in his tone as he did for the rest of his children 

 

Jon raised his head and some of the coldness in his grey eyes thawed. “Lord Stark. It’s good to see you home and safe.” Then Jon moved forward as to hug him but hesitated and stepped back next to the aged knight. The ice returned and he looked back at Ned then bowed his head. Ned went to turn to see what he was looking at when he heard his name called. 

 

“Lord Stark.” Ned moved around to see the Luwin walking towards him. 

 

“Maester Luwin, good to see you.” Ned greeted the man when he noticed the nervous smile. “What’s wrong?” 

 

“Nothing pressing my lord, but there are quite a few matters that need your immediate attention and too many letters that need a response.” Ned’s felt the ache in his head return and deepen further. 

 

“Poole, get the men settled and fed, they rode well through less than ideal conditions. Jory, that includes you, take the evening to rest, I do not want to see you until the morning.” Jory and Poole nodded their heads and left. “Maester, after I have washed and dined with my family we will go over the most important matters, the rest can wait until tomorrow.” Luwin nodded and Ned started to walk towards his home and bedchamber when he felt something brush his arm. 

 

Catelyn took his arm and interlaced her hand in his as they walked towards the keep. “Ned, you have just returned, surely all of it can wait until at least the morning.” He could see a little exasperation etched on her features. 

 

“I wish I could my lady but I promise I won’t do too much this evening.” He tried to sound convincing but Cat saw right through him. 

 

“I understand.” Then Catelyn whispered. “Don’t tire yourself too much, I need to give you a proper greeting.” Ned tried to remain stoic but some heat went to the back of his neck. 

 

After bathing and eating Ned found himself shut up in his solar with both Luwin and Poole sifting through the most pressing issues that couldn’t be completed while he had gone to Bear Island. “Maester has there been any word from the other families about the change of leadership in House Mormont.” Ned still had a well of anger reserved for Jorah Mormont’s idiocy. Ned liked the man well enough, counted on him during the past two wars and even had him lead some of Ned’s own men during the Greyjoy rebellion. Then he married a daughter of a wealthy southron Lord and over the course of their marriage destroyed his home trying to please the young girl. Ned knew Bear Island was struggling but to resort to slavery to pay off loans from around the Braavos? Foolish. Ned initially didn’t have a desire to behead Jorah, but the craven escaped before he could even get to the Motte. The trip through the wolfswood to Deepwoode Motte had taken longer than anticipated due to the spring rain and by the time they got to the island, the former Lord Mormont and his southern Hightower wife were gone. 

 

The journey wasn’t a complete waste as it allowed Maege, the new Lady of Bear Island, to swear fealty to him directly and allowed him to get a better handle on the financial disaster House Mormont was in. Ned couldn’t believe the amount of debt they had. Through a few days of negotiating with the She-Bear herself, Winterfell agreed to shoulder most of the debt for an increase of taxes throughout this summer and the following summer, as well as shared profits on their timber trade, meager as it was. 

 

The negotiation had been a bizarre one as Maege wanted to impose taxes that were far too harsh on herself for her nephew’s recklessness. Ned had to argue so long to lower them just to ensure House Mormont could one day stand on its own two feet again. It was an unpleasant business, but it needed to be done. 

 

“Every house has publicly supported the decision but that was expected. Even Lord Karstark and Lady Dustin can’t find fault in punishing slavery.” Ned felt little relief as he knew some of the major houses of the North would find him weak for allowing a major house to bankrupt itself under his watch. He also knew that some of the houses would think him too merciful for his relatively minor punishment, but he had to focus on the rest of the matters at hand. 

 

So it went on; the tension between the Forresters and the Whitehills was starting to boil over again. The Glover’s needed some help handling their minor Lords of the Wolfswood. Karstarks were complaining about taxes, believing that distant relations allow for special considerations. Umbers and the Night’s Watch were having trouble with wildling raids, the Umbers were especially angry because they feel as though they are doing the Night’s Watch duty. Ned made a note to write to the Lord Commander about what they would need now that spring had ended and summer was here. Hornwood's were wary of Boltons, and the Boltons were wary of everyone else. Both Flint houses were complaining about various rights at sea and the inability to enforce them. When they finally reached the last matter that acquired his attention Ned’s patience was thin. Maester Luwin started, “As you know the wedding of Wendel Manderly to-” 

 

“What of it?” Ned cut across him. The last thing he wanted to think about was a damn wedding, not when he was this tired. “It can wait until I get some sleep.” 

 

“I understand your grace but a few things about it have changed since you’ve been away.” 

 

Ned was barely paying attention, “What do you mean?” Luwin handed him the letters from Wyman Manderly. As Ned read through the letter, the dull ache turned to a steady throbbing. Wendel Manderly was marrying the fourth daughter of House Grafton of Gulltown. Being one of the few lords of the Vale that sided with the Targaryeans they had lost a lot of favor with the Lords of the Vale and it was known that the Grafton heir was betrothed a daughter of House Arryn of Gulltown, who were more merchants than lords. That being said, what House Grafton and the Arryn’s of Gulltown lacked in standing, they made up for with wealth. 

 

When comparing wealth in Westeros many people looked to Lannisters, Redwynes, and Hightowers, and while not that wealthy, House Grafton was closer in wealth than most men realized, with Wyman Manderly being one of those men. As lords of two major ports it is important to foster good relationships and Ned was glad to help broker the marriage, however, Wyman was much happier to receive a dowry large enough to renovate Wolf’s Den, make Seal’s Rock into a real fortress, or even build a new fleet of ships. Joining families without committing too much of the future of your house was an important part of this alliance. That being said it wasn’t going to be a major event outside their respective regions. 

 

Or so he thought until he read the letter. It stated that a tournament was going to be held in honor of the wedding. Again no surprise. Manderly’s followed the seven and is considered the most southron of the northern houses and as such were prone to frivolous activities. However, since the tournament had the backing of two wealthier houses the prize for the event winners was a small fortune. 8,000 gold dragons to the winner of the joust, 4,000 for second and 100 for third. 6,000 for the winner of the melee, 2,000 for second and 500 for third and the sums were the same for the archery competition. There were even events for the squires as well that paid some gold to them as well, both a melee and joust. Shit . Ned knew his sons would want to participate, to test their mettle and win some coin. All this meant that it would be a crowded affair.

 

The letter from Wyman stated that he received notice that every major house in the Vale would be represented, along with a few Riverland houses, House Tully included, and even merchants and magisters from across the narrow sea. This brought the attention of the crownland houses especially those with ports and trade interests in both Essos and the Vale. 

 

Unfortunately, it seems this once innocuous wedding between a second son and a fourth daughter was swelling and would now be one of the most important gatherings for trade talks since the end of the Greyjoy Rebellion. Which meant the King’s Master of Ships was attending as well. 

 

“Others take me.” Ned cursed as he reached for the other letter. 

 

Luwin spoke, “This one arrived last night my Lord.” The seal had the moon and falcon of House Arryn. Ned broke the seal and started to read. 

 

Lord Stark, 

 

With the number of influential houses descending upon White Harbor the crown needs to be represented as well. Lord Stannis would be there but as you know, Robert would prefer someone else to represent the crown and he wanted to go himself to do so. But I am old Ned, I don’t know how many years I have left and he needs to be King without me for a while. 

 

There is another reason I need to come north, Ned. There is much we need to discuss and much of it can only be done in person. 

 

It will be good to see you again. 

 

-Lord Jon Arryn, 

Hand of the King

 

Ned re-read the message a few times. Trying to parse the cryptic message. King for a while? What did that mean? Is Jon sick? Gods. Who would be hand? His thoughts were moving too quickly so Ned stopped. 

 

He breathed in. 

 

Then out. 

 

Ned tried to corner his thoughts, an old memory he had replayed too many times to count came to the fore. 

 

“Break the problem down to one action.” Jon Arryn stood in front of him looking at him in the eyes. “Problems can be overwhelming, break them down until you have one decision or another, then build them up until you have a solution.” 

 

It took him a couple of minutes before he was ready to speak. 

 

“Maester Luwin, prepare to send missives inviting every Northern House to join us on the journey to or to meet us at the Manderley wedding. Tell them to prepare to discuss how to best take advantage of this summer. Poole, I will be taking all my children except Rickon with me so they can experience more of the north and meet the future lords and ladies that they will one day run the North with. Since the wedding is in seven weeks, we will need to be prepared to depart in three to get there early enough to start trade talks before the southern houses arrive.” 

 

The two men agreed at once, and Ned asked, “Maester Luwin, if you could, I need you to create some figures of what each house can produce in the summer, including ours.” 

 

Maester Luwin nodded but asked, “How long of a summer should I use for the figures.” 

 

Ned thought for a moment, “Could you create numbers based on a 1, 3, and 5-year summer?” The maester nodded. 

 

Ned got up from his seat and dismissed Luwin and Poole and had a rather large cup of wine to settle his racing mind. He needed to write Lord Manderly to send some barges up the White Knife, maybe to Greydam, it could cut a week of travel time. Ned was thinking of the time it would take to travel and the amount of time he would have to stay in White Harbor. Ned took a breath to steel himself and thought of his father. What would he do? He would relish in it, Ned knew his father’s political ambition and what it had caused and Ned had no patience for it. 

 

With that said. The North was struggling, taking young men from the harvest and losing them in both Robert’s and Greyjoy’s rebellion had made the past three winter’s much worse. This last one lasted only two years but was especially deadly. Short, but bitterly cold. Winter had come and winter was coming. The North needed a strong summer. 

 

“My Lord.” Ned turned around not realizing the Luwin was still standing there. 

 

“Maester what is it?”

 

”I wanted to talk to you about young Jon.” 

 

Ned was too tired. Jon? What would Jon have done? He needed sleep, he’d deal with it in the morning. “Is it urgent?” 

 

“No my Lord, it can wait.” Luwin departed and Ned soon followed him. 

 

Leaving his solar to walk back to the Lord’s bedroom he struggled to keep his eyes open but knew he still needed to talk to Cat. Maybe in the morning. No better it did tonight. He opened the door to see his wife in her nightgown sitting in her chair by the fire reading. 

 

“Cat.” She turned and smiled at him, closed the book and they both knew. She put down the book and walked over to him as he started to form his apology for how late it was, “I’m sorry, there was much to be do-” Catelyn had placed her hands on his face and her lips upon his and any thoughts about weddings and trade dealings disappeared from Ned’s mind.

 

--

 

 

Chapter Text

Eddard 

 

When he opened his eyes, all he could see was a rich auburn. Ned smiled, blowing the hair covering his sight and then looked at his wife who was asleep on his chest. Ned rolled her over and gave her a kiss as she opened her eyes a smile slowly taking over most of her face. Ned smiled back and got out of bed to get ready for the long day ahead. Ned was just tying the last string of his jerkin when his wife came and wrapped her hands around his waist, playing with the laces to his jerkin. It had to wait. “Cat, we need to talk.” 

 

“I know you are leaving for the Manderly wedding,” Cat said with a doleful tone. Ned spun around and looked at her with suspicious humor. “My brother wrote me saying he was going to attend since the Hand was going.” Ned nodded and was about to continue but Cat put her hand up. “There must always be a Stark in Winterfell, I’ll stay here with the children, while you go with Robb.” Ned gave a small smile then returned to his stony demeanor. 

 

“No, I’ll be taking Sansa, Arya, and Bran as well.” Catelyn’s understanding smile into a scornful frown. 

 

“ Sansa I understand, but why the younger two? Why do they need to go?” Catelyn responded to her tone now cold. 

 

“They need to see the North, they need to meet the other Northern highborn children their age. Sansa will love to see the knights and pageantry. Bran will enjoy the jousting and gods save us Arya will love the melee more than Robb will.” His attempt at humor seemed to crack the stone facade and the corner of Catelyn’s mouth twitched. Ned took it as a sign to continue “The north doesn’t have many tournaments and rarely does it get visitors from outside the north. If it must occur let at least use it to bring joy to the children.” Catelyn let out a sigh and walked over to her plush chair and seemed to be enveloped by it.

 

“What will it be for two months? Maybe three without most of my children?”

 

Ned tried to give her a sympathetic look, “Six weeks. At most eight. But most likely six. I promise, no traveling for a year afterward.” She gave him a playful glare. “Well I won’t plan on any more travel for a year” 

 

Catelyn didn’t speak for a moment, taking it to think, she let out a breath. “Fine, just think of ways to make it up to me for taking my children.” 

 

“It will be good for them.” 

 

“I know.” Catelyn was then quiet for half a minute, she started to aggressively brush her hair and Ned know what that meant. “Take the boy with you.” 

 

“I usually would-”

 

“You will take him Eddard.” He bristled at the use of his name. “I tolerate his presence because I now know there is no getting rid of him, but I will not have him here when the rest of the children are not. I won’t put any ideas in his head.” Ned was taken aback by this remark. Ideas? Ned didn’t want to dwell on it. 

 

Ned relented. “Very well, Jon will join us.” She nodded. 

 

Catelyn stood and started to change. “Who knows, maybe there is a knight that needs a squire?”

 

“Cat.,” Ned said with warning.

 

“He is a young boy, have him go regain some honor and become a knight and travel the seven kingdoms.” Cat’s tone turned wistful for a moment. Before Ned could respond she rose and continued, “Let’s go inform the children.”

 

They made their way to the great hall and sat at the high table with their children and Theon. Jon was absent. “Have you seen Jon?” Ned was given shrugs in response, just Arya spoke up looking dejected. “He doesn’t eat with us anymore.” Ned found that odd, remembering Luwin’s words from last night. Before he could continue his inquiry. Cat spoke up. 

 

“Your father has an announcement.” Ned looked at her then each of them. 

 

“Yes, maybe you knew, maybe not, but Wendel Manderly, the second son of Wyman Manderly is getting married to Lord Grafton’s fourth daughter…” Ned struggled to remember the name. “Mary, Merrell?” 

 

“Myra.” Piped in Cat. 

 

His children were chuckling at his lapse. Ned cleared his throat. “Myra. Many houses of the North will be represented as well as Houses of the Vale, Crownlands, some Riverlands, as will the Hand of the King will be attending. Even heard some Essosi merchants may come. There will be quite a large tournament being held and you will all be attending along with me.” All his children looked shocked and then elated almost an instant later. Robb turned to Theon immediately and started discussing archery and melee. Ned was glad to see the argument on the road seemed to be behind them. Sansa was beaming, knowing to show too much excitement would not be proper for a lady. Bran was jabbering about jousting and knights asking his mother if anyone famous would be there. Arya, who was joyous then looked a little dour. “Arya, what is wrong? If you don’t want to go you don’t have to.” She shot him a look of worry and then looked down. 

 

“Is Jon going? If he isn’t going I don’t want to go either, he promised it would be different when you got back.” Arya muttered. 

 

“No Jon is coming with us.” After he spoke did he hear the last thing she said but Arya was already beaming. She turned to Bran to jump in on his conversation. Ned was puzzled, this was the third mention of Jon in the day since he got back. 

 

Ned finished his meal, and left to the solar to write a few letters but struggled to concentrate on his task. He left his solar to walk around to calm his mind. While he walked he saw Arya and Sansa having lessons with Maester Luwin, he greeted his wife and his youngest son with a quick peck on their foreheads. Soon the clashing of metal drew him towards the training yard. Before the yard was in view he heard Ser Rodrick’s words carrying through the ancient fortress. 

 

“Jon, watch your footwork!” 

 

Then the sound of clashing and a grunt. 

 

“Jon the arc in the swing is wide and even Bran here could see where you were trying to hit.” 

 

A couple sounds of metal on metal and grunt again. Ned turned the corner seeing Jon disarmed. Robb and Theon looked a little smug, and Jon with his head down and Rodrik’s face was red. “What in hells is the matter with you Jon, two days ago you were holding your own against Derrock and now even Rickon could defeat you with one hand behind his back.” Theon laughed out loud while Robb smirked. Ned assumed that Rodrik was just trying to help Jon’s nonexistent confidence. Derrock was a veteran of the siege of Pyke, ahead and a half taller than Jon and fifteen years older. Though when Jon stood back up, Ned noticed he may have been taller than Robb now. 

 

“Its been almost a month Rodrik, Jon hasn’t seen how much I’ve improved,” Robb said. 

 

“Not by much young lord.” Rodrik retorted. “Jon, your session is over, your head doesn’t seem in it and Robb, you are slow and predictable. You only used your strength against Jon, with sloppy footwork and repetitive strikes. You need to become a well-rounded fighter unless you plan to be the size of Hodor when you're older.” 

 

“Hodor?” Hodor said near the stables. Robb looked abashed and Jon just stalked off the yard and into the great keep. Ned felt bad for Jon, he and Robb were good swordsman for their age even though Robb seemed to be a little bit better than Jon, today, however, Bran very well may have held his own. Something must have happened, and Ned started to worry that something was wrong. When Ned reached his solar he asked Jory to get Maester Luwin and Ser Rodrik and bring them to him. They arrived soon after and Ned motioned them in inviting them to sit. 

 

“My Lord.” The gruff old knight greeted him.

 

“Lord Stark.” The calm, assuring maester did the same. 

 

“Maester Luwin, you said you wanted to talk about Jon, I have a sense from what I’ve heard from a few others something happened while I was away. Ser Rodrik would I assume that is correct?”

 

“Yes my lord.” The stern old knight said. 

 

“Maester Luwin, you first.” 

 

The small graying man took a deep breath and began speaking. “It was a couple days after you left. I was giving Jon his normal lessons, most times he understands the lessons well enough but he rarely engages. However, while you were gone he asked so many questions, and complicated ones at that! He followed me around for an hour or so after the lessons were supposed to end. Every day afterward he would talk and he would ask many things, trying to convince me of his opinions and asking me to do other things.” 

 

“What kind of things?” Ned said.

 

“He wanted me to test him on houses, heirs, and histories, he wants me to pretend to be a house and propose a trades and we would haggle and argue.” Luwin smiled. “He even tried to come up with a trade agreement and taxes to help with House Mormont. Many were impractical and simplistic but they were... different.” The old maester’s smile faded as he continued, “However, today he was disengaged. Even when I prodded him about the final terms of the agreement with House Mormont he showed no interest,” The maester finished with a shrug. 

 

Ned felt his chest tighten while the tale he told. Ned turned to Ser Rodrik. “What did you see Ser?”

 

Ser Rodrik was a bit nervous as he began speaking, “Young Jon was always a good swordsman, quick, good footwork and a decent thrust. Will beat Greyjoy most of the time and maybe three in every ten he’ll beat Lord Robb.” Ned knew this and nodded for him to continue. “Then the day after you left I paired him with our youngest guard Mal. Fine sword, better than anyone Jon was used to sparring with. I thought it would do well to push and test him against someone with a few more years on him” Ser Rodrik shook his head. “Jon destroyed him, moved so fast and struck so precisely that poor Mal struggled with his duties only after ten minutes of sparring with young Jon. Then I had him pair up with Old Tomard. An experienced soldier, slow but strong as an aurochs and more importantly, disciplined. Jon struggled but after a few days, he was holding his own and then a few days later beating Tom regularly as well. Throughout the four weeks or so my Lord he worked his way up to Derrock. While Derrock isn’t the best fighter Winterfell has, he is still a better than most with sword.”

 

“He beat Mal, Tom, and Derrock?” Ned said, unable to hide the shock. 

 

Ser Rodrick moved his head contemplating something, “Jon beat him a few times, held his own every time though. The day before you arrived I’d say they were close to even.” 

 

“You jest,” Ned said without thinking. 

 

Ser Rodrik’s face held no humor, “No my Lord, Jon is a natural talent, far better than I ever supposed. He was quicker than I’d ever seen ‘im and fierce as well, but more importantly, he adapted. Even when he went against me, I won every time but the boy scored a few minor hits and if I may be so bold that’s no small feat.” Ned was impressed, “That was why I got so angry this morning. He hasn’t fought that poor in years.” 

 

Ned got up and paced around, a knot started to form in his stomach and he wasn’t sure why. “Why would he pretend?” Ser Rodrik shook his head but maester Luwin looked away. “Maester you have an idea?” 

 

“I would rather not say my lord in case I am wrong.” 

 

“Speak truth to me Maester.” 

 

“Very well.” he steadied himself. “Young Jon is a bastard and he knows what, uh, some people, say about him.” Anger coiled around the knot within Ned and maester Luwin continued with unease. “I think, young Jon believes if he exceeds what is expected to he is afraid he will no longer be welcomed here.” Ned had to look away to control his anger, and not lash out against his friend.  

 

“That would never happen, I would never let that happen.” Ned’s tone was harsh and louder than he attended.

 

“I know my Lord” the maester muttered, “But does young Jon?” 

 

The knot uncoiled so quickly that air in his chest left with it. “Of course,” He said, but he wasn’t sure. Promise me, Ned . Ned moved so quickly the other two jumped. 

 

“Jory! Where is Jon?” Ned was shouting now. 

 

“Not sure my Lord, I can have someone check.” 

 

“Do it now.” 

 

--

 

Ned found himself half an hour later riding to winter town. The first homes were a fifteen hundred paces away so it took Ned some time to reach the heart of the town. Most of the homes were already abandoned for the summer and Ned was curious as to what Jon was up to. He approached the run-down building when he saw dark brown hair in a brown jerkin with a small dire wolf emblem. The young man was carrying two children no older than two years old while chasing a dozen younger children around, roaring like a monster from one of Bran’s favorite stories. Some of the older children played along pretending to fight him off. After half a minute he was wrestled to the ground and Ned saw Jon smiling, then laughing loudly. The knot returned as he realized he hadn’t witnessed Jon laugh like this since…...Ned couldn’t remember. An older woman gave a startled gasp when she saw Ned. 

 

“Milord Stark!” she curtseyed with unease while shouting to the children to do the same. 

 

Jon was on the ground and turned his head and his face lost color as he jumped to his feet. “Father!” Jon’s yelled dripped with panic. “I..uh..what are you doing here?” 

 

“Looking for you.” Jon’s eyes widened. “Nothing bad I just needed to speak with you.” Jon’s face returned to normal although he still seemed to be missing his coloring. “Let's head back to godswood so we can speak alone.” 

 

They left and made their way to the godswood in silence. It took nearly half an hour and once in front of the heart tree, Ned sat down, though Jon continued to stand. Ned was staring at Jon and Jon was alternating between staring at the ground and the carved face of the weirwood. After a few uncomfortable minutes, Ned asked, “What were you doing at the orphanage?” 

 

“Helping out,” Jon whispered. 

 

“Why?”

 

“They have only Sera” he looked up to Ned “She runs the place and she is getting up there in age. So I help when I can.” Ned smiled. 

 

“Ly-.” Ned stopped and took a breath. “My sister used to do that a long time ago.” 

 

“Sera remembers her,” Jon said. “She says she was a good person.” Ned felt a prickle at the corner of his eyes. You can’t Ned

 

“She was wild and fierce,” Ned wrung his hands together, “and she had a good heart,” Ned said. “If she was still here she would have joined you down there.” 

 

“I wish I could have met her.” Jon said, “It would be nice to have an aunt.” Ned had to look away as he ran a hand across his eyes quickly. “Sorry, father! I didn’t mean-

 

Ned put a hand up to stop him. “Its okay Jon, she would have loved you.” Jon sat back down and there were another few minutes of silence. 

 

Ned swallowed as he started the difficult part of the conversation. “I spoke to Maester Luwin and Ser Rodrik, '' Jon's pale face became so white he matched the weirwood tree behind him, and his son decided the ground was far more interesting than him. “Luwin says you started to show a real interest in trade and history.” Ned raised his hand to forestall Jon as he pressed on, “and Ser Rodrik says you became a wonder with the sword, beating men many years your senior and moving as quickly as a shadowcat.” Jon traced the dirt around a rock with his boot, still refusing to meet Ned’s eye.  

 

Ned felt like he allowed enough time before he pushed on, “Why Jon? Why did you pretend to be less than you are?” 

 

Jon was silent for a minute. “I’m a bastard.” 

 

Ned was nonplussed, “What does the-”?

 

“Father.” Ned stared at him. It was a tone Jon had never used before. “I know what people say about me. I love Robb, father, and Arya and Rickon and Bran and even Sansa. I would never want to hurt them or be used to hurt them. I don’t want to be accused of usurping Robb. I would never. Ever. Do that.” Ned noticed tears in Jon’s eyes and Ned started to understand but Jon continued. “I know if I am worse than Robb nobody would ever want me to lead, or take his place or say that I am doing what bastards do. He would be safe.” Jon’s voice wavered and he took a few breaths to compose himself. “this is how I can protect him, protect all of them. I only….I just….I just want to be part of the Starks.” Jon’s voice cracked as he said Stark and Jon was blinking away any tears that showed on his Stark-like face. Ned felt his eyes water. “But I will never be one, I am a Snow, I am a threat, so when I can, I will join the Night’s Watch. It's the least I can do. The only thing I can do and still have some honor.” Jon finished as he wiped his face and looked resolute. Ned was speechless, he sat there for a few minutes, failing to form the right response. What have I done? My son feels he needs to leave because he isn’t welcome. He takes humiliation to protect his brother. No. 

 

“No.” Jon looked up “Jon, you are my son. Nothing will ever change that and I swear to you as long as I draw breath, you will be welcome here at Winterfell and treated like my family.” Jon’s tear-stained face was struggling to compose into a stoic face that mirrored Ned’s own. “If you want to join the Night’s Watch that is an honorable thing to do, but do not throw away your life so young unless you know what else can be offered.”

 

Jon’s face hardened and spoke with a hint of anger, “Where can a bastard find honor if not the Wall? If I am here people will think I am biding my time and nothing I do will change he-, their mind.” Ned noticed the mistake. 

 

Ned asked Jon quietly, “Who do you refer to Jon?” Jon shook his head. “Jon?” Jon remained silent. Ned simply stated. “Lady Catelyn?” Jon fought to keep his eyes still but failed as they widened. That was all the confirmation Ned needed. 

 

“She, I mean Lady Stark is kind enough to let me stay,” Jon said flatly.

 

“Jon, if you want to join the Watch you may.” Jon lifted his face. “But not until you reach eighteen years old.” Ned saw Jon’s face slip into disappointment. “I want to make sure you know there is more for you in the North Jon. More for you in the world, but it will be your choice.” Ned’s voice became warmer and softer, “I want you to know, Jon looks at me, I want you to know that your life was not an accident, and your life should be filled with joy.” Ned felt like some foolish poet, but continued, “If not joy, then at least true purpose, I promised this to your mother.” Jon’s head snapped up. “She loved you, Jon. Know that.” Jon looked away. The part of him wanting to be a man and the other part still a child warring within him. Ned remembered what that was like. Ned walked over and put his hand on his shoulder, “You are a fine young man, she would have been proud of you.” Jon’s facade broke and he hugged Ned tight. Ned wrapped his arms around his boy. 

 

Other lords would scoff at showing this much affection to their children, more so for a bastard, but Ned didn’t care, not at that moment. 

 

Jon eventually regained his composure but his eyes were a little red and puffy. 

 

 Ned then said, “There are still a few more things we need to talk about.” Jon nodded. “Jon, you said you would do anything to protect Robb.” Jon nodded again. “I am sorry to say you have failed in your brotherly duties.” Jon looked bewildered. “Jon, right now Robb believes he is a far better warrior than he is and that WILL get him killed. I know how competitive he is and he could be much better if you pushed him to be better. Aside from the sword, you need to push each other's wits. Robb makes you a better at strategy, don’t deny it, he is gifted in that sense but you can make him a better ruler, and holding back in anything will make it worse.” 

 

Jon looked down. “What if-

 

“I’ll take care of it,” Ned said. Nothing else needed to be said. 

 

“I’m sorry Father.” 

 

Ned gave a small smile, “Don’t hold back Jon, but I need to warn you, you have broken Robb’s trust. ” Jon scrunched his features together. 

 

“What do you mean?” Jon’s voice wavered. 

 

“You didn’t entrust Robb with who you really are, what you can really do. You lied to him, Jon.” Ned said, his voice even. He needed to make sure Jon understood.

 

“But I never said-” Ned raised his hand to stop Jon. 

 

“People can lie by their actions far more than their words.” A pang of guilt shot through Ned as he finished saying this and Ned could tell Jon was not doing any better. Ned let out a larger sigh, “However I must take the blame for your actions this time though...we must both be better.” Jon seemed confused by that last statement but Ned knew his explanation was not for Jon’s ears. “Jon, I do not know how Robb will handle this broken trust, but I know, and so do you that this is for the best. Now run along.” His son nodded once, solemn as ever, and turned to leave.

 

Jon started to walk away when Ned remembered, “Oh Jon!” Jon turned around. “You are coming with us to White Harbor.” Jon’s eyebrows raised a little and the corners of his mouth twitched, betraying his solemn demeanor. Jon thanked his father and left the godswood. 

 

 However, Ned stayed until he was sure he was alone. He then knelt in front of the heart tree and prayed for forgiveness.

Chapter Text

Robb

 

Robb had always loved his brother Jon, he had been there with him as long as he could remember. From his earliest memories, they had been constant companions, competitors, and confidants. 

 

That’s why Robb had never hated his half-brother Jon more. Jon who currently held his hand out to Robb while he was sprawled in the dirt of the training yard.

 

It started two weeks ago, two days after Robb and his father arrived home from Bear Island. Jon and Robb were going to the training yard and Theon was taunting Jon, “Hey Snow, I saw Arya running around here, want me to get her? You might actually hit something today.” Theon laughed loudly at his own joke and even Robb chuckled but Jon was silent and grim as if he didn’t even hear Theon’s jest. It was as if Jon wasn’t even there with them. 

 

Robb decided to change the subject, “Jon, what did you and father talk about in the godswood yesterday? You were in there for quite some time.” Jon’s cheeks flushed and he looked away. Theon pounced. 

 

“Finally tell you how to bed a woman? Maybe now you can father a bastard of your own” Theon started to laugh but Robb remained silent and knew this territory was a sore subject with Jon. Jon’s face hardened, and he shifted his jaw and Robb noticed his fists clenched at his side, but Jon remained silent and walked forward. Just like Father would

 

A pain of envy flowed through him as he remembered his inability to handle Theon’s barbed japes, and most were far less cruel. Jon reminded Robb of Father more than he liked to admit to anyone. Robb was always jealous that Jon looked like a Stark.

 

That being said, Jon didn’t get father’s burly muscular build which Robb was starting to grow into. Jon was slender and agile. 

 

Robb tried to continue the conversation, “So what was it Jon?” 

 

Jon was quiet for half a minute, “He told me that I am joining you when you go to White Harbor.” Robb smiled, he was excited to spend time with Jon watching tourneys and meeting real knights, maybe even a girl to make Jon smile for once. Robb was nervous about the squire’s melee, and the southern girls that would watch him compete and hopefully not make a fool of himself. Jon broke him from his quick reverie. “He also said that I need to be myself so that I can help the House Stark however I am able.” Robb looked at him trying to puzzle out what that meant. Robb loved Jon and he would be a good soldier for Robb like they always talked about. Maybe he should find him a small holdfast, some land, and a girl to marry. Something close so he could still visit often. 

 

Robb appreciated the devotion Jon showed and returned with just as much fervor. Theon, on the other hand, held no such feelings for Jon. 

 

“Yea?” Greyjoy chuckled. “What would a thin weakling bastard help with?” 

 

Again, Jon shifted his jaw but kept still kept his cool but Robb had no such control, “More use than a squid on dry land.” Robb knew that he had hit his mark, because Theon’s face contorted into something ugly, opening his mouth but was interrupted by the gruff master-at-arms. 

 

“Oi, you three are almost late! Get your gear on and pair off.” They had finally arrived at the training yard, a few men at arms were there sparring already. Alyn and Harwin were switching off with Jory, attacking each other. They were the best swords in the guard and it was mesmerizing to watch them move. Robb knew he would get there one day, he was already far superior to both Jon and Theon, he could even hold his own against Mel and sometimes hit Fat Tom. 

 

After getting practice armor and tourney swords Ser Rodrik paired him up with Jon. Jon looked solemn with something like sorrow in his eyes. He looked around and saw that Father, Mother, and little Rickon with his wooden sword were watching and Robb gave them a small wave. Father nodded back to him, his mother smiled at him and Bran was waving getting his equipment on to fight with Rickon. 

 

Robb turned to Jon and prepared for the bout. Jon had a look in the eye that Robb had never seen before. His dark gray eyes looked like a storm cloud was brewing and Robb felt a little apprehension as he moved into his normal fighting stance. “Alright boys,” Rodrik started, “Remember what we talked about yesterday and improve on it.” 

 

“That’s a long list for Snow,” Theon chimed in. 

 

Rodrik didn’t look pleased with that comment, but bit his tongue and turned back to the two sons of Ned Stark. 

 

“Begin.” 

 

Jon moved then. Robb had less than a moment to process what was happening before Jon was on him and Robb struggled to even get his blade near Jon’s. Robb had barely deflected it and next thing he knew he was flat on his back, Jon’s sword was pointing at his throat. Jon still had that solemn face that betrayed no emotion. 

 

Robb was a little embarrassed, just yesterday the positions were switched. Jon held out his hand and Robb grabbed it and got to his feet. Robb swung the sword in his hand and said, “Surprised me, Jon.” Jon just nodded and Theon kept being an ass. 

 

“Oi, little Jon’s got some luck this morning.” chuckling at his wit. Not a moment after his partner Mikal, Mikken’s third son, brought his sword against Theon’s wrist, “Ah, damn you that hurt!” 

 

“Aye Theon, if you don’t pay attention it will happen again.” Ser Rodrick barked out. “Jon good work, Robb, get your blade up! Again!” 

 

Jon and Robb got into position again. This time Robb needed to show Jon that it was just luck. Robb moved first and pressed his advantage but he couldn’t get near Jon, as he kept escaping and countering Robb with ease. It went on for what seemed to be forever but was maybe half a minute. Robb closed the gap, but Jon moved so quickly that Robb’s legs were in the air and Jon’s sword at his throat in a heartbeat. Robb was shocked and got back up on his own. Ser Rodrik started coaching. 

 

“Jon good move to use Robb’s strength against him but sharpen up your parry. Robb, watch the footwork, you are reaching with your front leg too much. Again!”

 

Robb got ready again and waited for Jon, this time it took a quarter of a minute and Jon had disarmed Robb. “What’s gotten into you?” Robb said.  

 

“Trying to be myself,” was all that Jon said. 

 

“Again!” Ser Rodrick yelled out. 

 

Robb and Jon continued to spar for the next hour. Time and time again Robb was flattened, disarmed, covered in bruises and breathing hard. Every time Rodrick would yell out ‘Again!’

 

Jon was sweating and breathing a little harder than normal but still had that solemn face and fierce look in his eyes. Robb looked and saw Father nod with approval, but his mother was glaring at Jon and while Bran and Rickon looked at Jon with awe. Robb’s anger started to get the better of him and the last match he was swinging with wild abandon and Jon didn’t even raise his sword and just dodged each swing. Thrust, after swing, after cut, and his sword found nothing but air. Robb was so tired he fell to a knee. Ser Rodrik spoke again. 

 

“Robb, you need to work on stamina and know when to strike and not tire yourself out. Jon, well done. Theon, come and spar Jon, Robb rest for the next little while and study Jon’s movements.” The old knight’s attention was then focused on Theon and Jon. Robb grateful for the break, but embarrassed with his performance, left the ring in frustration. He watched from the side as Jon dismantled Theon’s attack and dispatched him even quicker. Theon was spitting insult after insult trying to make Jon angry, but Theon fared even worse than Robb. It ended when Jon brought his sword down and Theon yelled in pain. Jon stopped immediately and stepped forward. 

 

“Don’t touch me! You broke my fuckin’ wrist!” Ser Rodrick grabbed Theon and handed him to Mikal. 

 

“Take Greyjoy to Luwin, maybe this will teach him that he needs to learn to swing a sword before spewing horseshit from his mouth.” Ser Rodrik turned to Jon again, “How are you feeling Jon? Up to face Derrock today?” Derrock? He can’t face Derrock he would get killed! 

 

“Aye, maybe for a bit,” Jon replied. 

 

Ser Rodrick nodded, “Good lad. Derrock! Get your sorry ass over here!” 

 

“Aye, Ser,” Derrock responded as he made his way over. 

 

“Let's see if Snow here can get you good.” Ser Rodrick said. 

 

“Not likely.” Derrock said, then he smiled, “No offense milord.” 

 

Jon looked at Robb and the other Stark’s present with wide-eyes. Jon turned back to Derrock, “I’m not a Lord, Derrock just a Snow.” 

 

Then Ser Rodrick clapped his hands together and they fought, Derrock was taller, stronger and experienced. But Jon was quick, calculating and precise. Robb didn’t know what he was seeing, didn’t know who this was and where the stumbling brother from yesterday had gone. 

 

Bran came up to him and said with that stupid awe-struck look, “Jon’s amazing Robb, look how fast he can move! You should have seen him spar with Harwin! Even scored a few hits on him, Robb! Harwin!” Robb just nodded but he was seething, could Jon always do this? He looked at his father and saw the small smile grow and his mother’s glare deepened and Robb felt anger well up within him that he had never felt before. Over the next two weeks, it didn’t go away. 

 

Robb wasn’t just getting beat in the training yard every day, but in lessons as well. Jon was first to answer about acreage, supplies, and population and it drove Robb mad. Maester Luwin even asked Jon for help with some of the arithmetic for the predictions his father asked about, even though Robb was better with numbers!

 

 What made it worse was Jon did not gloat but excelled in quiet. Even worse, Jon would try and help explain the work he and the Maester were doing. Robb would ignore this help and glare in his direction, hindering his ability to concentrate on what was being taught. Robb was so frustrated that when Robb would place a lance better, dominate in mock battle scenarios, hit the smaller target with the bow or answer questions about roads, supply lines and geography he mocked Jon with a viciousness that Theon would admire.  

 

What didn’t help was Theon egging him on. “What a tricky bastard, lulls you in false security and pounces like that.” 

 

“Using underhanded tricks to win stupid sparring matches just to seem like he is better than us. Better than you!” 

 

“Seems like he is trying to impress Lord Stark and win his favor.” This fuelled Robb’s ire, and his sour mood was close to boiling over. 

 

After a full fortnight of this and only a week before the Noble Houses that were traveling with the Starks to White Harbor arrived. Robb was no longer able to contain his rage.

 

So here they were, Robb and Jon, nearing the end of their training. Robb was faring better than the bout only a couple of weeks ago and was able to get a small hit on Jon’s shoulder plate. Before Robb could relish, Jon’s blow came back more powerful on his arm and he kicked out Robb’s legs. Robb felt his sword fall as the ground came up to meet him. Jon’s damn blade was at Robb’s throat once again. Rodrik told them to finish up and admonished Robb’s footwork as always. Jon reached his arm down and said, “Well done Robb, knicked my shoulder good on that last one.” Robb had never hated his bastard half-brother more.

 

He slapped his arm away and Jon’s eyes had hurt in them but hurt disappeared and his grey eyes returned to normal. Jon turned around and Robb felt something snap. His bastard brother, beating him again and again, and doesn’t even care if I hurt his feelings? He doesn’t even care? Robb bounced up with newfound energy mixed with rage and ran full speed at Jon. “Ah, Robb what the-” Robb lowered his shoulder and tackled Jon. Before Jon could respond Robb threw a fist into Jon’s face. Then another one and another one, while Jon just tried to block but didn’t fight back. Robb raised a fist again but someone caught it and as he was pulled off Jon. 

 

“What in the seven hells has gotten into you!?” Ser Rodrik roared as Fat Tom and Hallis helped Jon up to his feet and was now sporting a broken lip, swollen cheek, and his left eye was watering. “Take him to Maester Luwin, Robb what were you doing? I dismiss you and your swinging at your brother?” 

 

“Bastard-brother.” Jon turned around at hearing those words. Instead of seeing a look of anger he instead saw nothing but dejection and Jon’s eyes were starting to water from the punch Robb threw, or so he hoped. Jon lowered his head and allowed himself to be escorted to Luwin’s tower.

 

Robb’s anger started to be replaced by something else as the yard quieted around him. Ser Rodrik gave him a disapproving look, as did a few of the other soldiers. None of them would say anything to him, as they can’t speak out against the heir of Winterfell. Robb’s anger was gone now, and it wasn’t when he saw Arya standing there is her little fists clenched and face snarled that the shame came. It was when he saw Bran and Rickon’s staring in shock at his words. 

 

Robb escaped the grasp of Ser Rodrik and started to move to follow Jon when he saw Father, Mother, and Sansa, who all had been drawn out by the commotion. His father went to Ser Rodrik. “Rodrik what’s going on here?”

 

“Jon had put Lord Robb on his back and I dismissed them for the evening. I went to train the other guards and I hear Jon yell something and I turn around and Robb is on top of Jon hitting him over and over again.” 

 

His mother spoke first, anger in her eyes and she turned to Robb, “What did the boy do? What did he say to you? Did he provoke you? Threaten you?” Robb was about to speak up, admit his fault but his mother continued, “Ned if he threatened my children I want him gone!”

 

Father tensed and turned his cold grey eyes upon Robb’s mother. He had seen Father stare down high lords into silence and now that look was used to silence his wife. However, Lady Stark didn’t flinch from her Lord husband's glare like so many other Lords had and this brought a chill to Robb’s blood that mixed with the shame blooming in his chest. “No more Catelyn.” His father’s voice had an edge Robb had never heard before. His Father turned to Robb, “Go to your room, change and wait until I send someone to get you.” Robb nodded quickly and trotted off the training yard and Theon came next to him and grinned. 

 

 “Nice swing you got, taught that cheating bastard a lesson, maybe you messed up that pretty face. Also, it seems the bastard’s time is running out here” Robb’s shame abated some as fear replaced it when he thought about Theon’s words. Robb just wanted to beat Jon in a fight, not permanently change him, not get rid of him. I called him a bastard . I called my brother a bastard. It was the thing that would hurt him the most, something that only someone you trust completely could say to you and Robb just said it? And for what? 

 

Robb took a lesson from Jon and kept his mouth shut, his anxiety about his outburst costing him a brother robbed him of any other thought. 

 

After bathing and changing, Robb sat in his room waiting for his father to come to get him. His door flew open and little Arya marched in looking angry, “Arya what are you doing in here-Ow! Ah! Geroff!” Arya started punching him as soon as she could and Robb struggled to catch her arms. “Arya, what the hells is wrong with you?” 

 

“I saw what you did, you hit Jon while he wasn’t looking and hit him while he didn’t fight back! You called him... You stupid coward! Mother says he will have to leave! I hate you!” She tried kicking and struggling when someone knocked and Sansa walked in. 

 

“Robb Father wants you to go to his-oh Arya!” Robb saw Sansa notice, Arya, trying to beat him when Arya stopped the assault and got down. She glared and Robb and gave him one last kick in the shin and ran out. Sansa was stunned and followed her out and told her about how rude she was being and to say sorry.   

 

Robb headed to the solar, rubbing what was sure to become more bruises and saw Jon waiting outside, his eye was starting to swell and his mouth had some sort of paste on it. He had a cut of beef in his hand and then Jon pressed it to his eye. Jon looked at him with the same hurt look he had before and turned away from his brother. Robb’s shame returned tenfold and Robb couldn't stand it anymore. Before he could say anything the solar door opened and Father said nothing and motioned for them both to come in. Once they were inside, Father pointed to the two chairs, “Sit down.” Once seated, Father asked, “What happened?”

 

Robb started, “Father this is-” 

 

Jon cut in, “I started it, Father.” Robb looked at him nonplussed. Jon continued, “Robb was able to hit my shoulder and I continued to attack him anyway until he was on the ground. Anyone would have reacted to that with anger.” 

 

His Father studied Jon for a minute, before turning to Robb, “Is this why you attacked Jon?” Robb looked to Jon’s lone grey eye, trying to understand. He turned to his father and saw two of those grey eyes staring back at him. Unable to hold the gaze he bowed his head as his own found the floor. “Robb?” his father inquired. 

 

Robb took a deep breath, “No.” 

 

“Then tell me why you attacked Jon?” his Father questioned. 

 

“I…... I was so…..angry. Jealous. Frustrated. Jon had never beaten me in anything really, then all of a sudden he moves like the warrior reborn and is smart enough to help Maester Luwin!” Robb was too worked up to stop. “Jon...he...you...were able to answer questions I could not even think to ask! It’s not enough that he looks like you Father, but it seems he’s as smart and strong as you as well, he’s a better Stark than me and I was jealous because I am scared everyone else will see it too and if I’m not your heir father than what am I? What do I do then? How do I live? Where will I go?” Robb was rambling, he knew it and was terrified to see the disappointment from his Father and he did not know what he would see in Jon’s. He didn’t even know what he wanted to see there. “I want to be a great Lord like you Father! But what if I’m not good enough? What if I fail in every decision? What if the North fails with me? What if-” 

 

He felt a heavy hand on his shoulder and looked up to meet his Father’s gaze and to see him give a sorrowful smile. Robb looked at Jon and all he could see was a concern. At that moment he knew. He knew he was the worst person in the entire world. He turned back to his father who was sitting at the edge of his desk, who was now looking....well Robb had no idea what that look was. 

 

His father took a deep breath, “I found out Jon was purposefully trying to be worse at a few things he could do better than you.” Robb looked at Jon who wouldn’t look anywhere but the floor. “He told me that he knew what he was.” At Robb’s confusion, “A bastard.” Robb flinched at his father using the same word he had used not even an hour ago. “Jon was so worried that if he excelled at anything he would be called a usurper and would be banished from this family. He said if he was worse he could protect you.” Robb looked back at Jon and Robb realized what a total arse he was. “I told him to push you, Robb, make you better than you already are. I told Jon the best way he can protect you is to push you where he is strongest and I want you to do the same for him.” Robb nodded, trying to replace the shame that was still there with adoration for his brother. “You may have been so angry these past two weeks so I doubt you have noticed the progress you have already made. Luwin says you are spending more time studying scrolls and figures and Ser Rodrik is impressed with the dedication you have shown in continuing to practice no matter how many times you fall.” 

 

Robb had to think back to his lessons and training. He began to remember them for what they were. Jon was attacking in a way that forced him to be lighter on his feet. In lessons Jon was just trying to improve Robb’s understanding, asking questions Robb had yet to form in his mind. Doing all of this, while trying not to belittle him, unlike how Robb handled his victories. 

 

Jon spoke for the first time, “I’m sorry Robb.” Robb’s sudden turn of his neck was so violent, for a moment he felt he injured himself. 

 

Robb's voice was almost a whisper, “Wh-what?”

 

“I lied to you and then I embarrassed you and I wasn’t trying I promise!” Jon's voice was desperate. “I...Robb...I just…. I like sparring but you are a far better lance and that is much more important in a real battle! And battles! You see things I cannot even fathom and are much better than me and I learn so much just by watching you think. I only know a few meaningless facts and figures. But you….you can talk to people easily, you are friends with every person you meet. I...I can’t..do that.” Jon was blushing so deeply he looked like an apple.  

 

Robb didn’t dare say anything, afraid emotions would overtake him. 

 

Robb’s father spoke again, “Robb those feelings you have...they are the same ones I have had since the day I heard about my own father’s and brother’s end. They never really go away, but you can use them. Use them to push yourself to be better. Even more, Robb, you have someone strong where you are weak, who is also weak where you are strong. You have the potential to be the best Stark the North has ever seen and I want you to have every advantage possible so you can reach that potential.” 

 

Their Father then turned to Jon, “Jon, your brother will need you. The responsibility of the North is too much for one man alone. Robb will need those he can trust, and who is better than you?” Robb felt the truth of this strike him, Theon was a good friend, easy to laugh with, someone, who would lift your spirits. But Robb knew Jon would do anything for him, even things he didn’t want but Jon would know what he needed, no matter what it cost to himself. “You both know the saying about the pack. One day the white winds will blow, and this pack,” Ned grabbed both of their shoulders, “needs to be together.” 

Chapter Text

Jon

 

For what seemed to be the hundredth time in two weeks, Jon was once again standing in the Winterfell courtyard. They were all waiting for the last few Houses before the massive party left for the wedding in White Harbor. The past two days have been a constant stream of greetings and pleasantries. 

 

The morning after his long talk with Robb and Father, the first house to arrive was the Cerwyn’s. Lord Cerwyn was accompanied by his two children and a half a dozen men on horseback. Jon had met Lord Medger many times due to Castle Cerwyn being half a day's ride to Winterfell. He was tall and thin with a trimmed black beard and a soft-spoken manner. Jonelle Cerwyn was twenty, thick around the waist and homely. Still, she was very kind and took after her father in that manner. Cley Cerwyn was of an age with Robb and himself. Cley was tall and thin like his father with what Jon assumed was an attempt at a beard growing on his face, but was only a few hairs under his nose. Cley Cerwyn was friendly with Robb and indifferent towards Jon. A win, really, in Jon’s mind as it allowed him to escape the boredom of the boy’s company. With them came Lyra Condon, the daughter of Cley Cerwyn’s master-at-arms Kyle Condon.  

 

Then came the Tallharts of Torhen’s Square. Lord Helman arrived with his two children and his brother, his brother’s wife, and their two children with nearly twenty soldiers and a couple of landed lords. Ser Helman Tallhart was a large man, with dirty blonde hair and a blunt manner, his son Benfred was a year younger than Jon but half a head taller and the spitting image of his father. At the same time, Eddara was a year younger than Bran, wide-eyed, plump with the same hair as her brother and father. Ser Leobald Talhart was as tall as his brother but more fit, dirty blond hair and pale blue eyes. He was quieter of the two, but he seemed to see everything. His son Brandon was a couple of years younger than Jon and had the dark hair and brown eyes of his mother, and his little brother Beren was his miniature at eight years old. Berena, Leobald’s wife, was a little thick at the waist but still had a pleasant face and seemed to smile with ease. Jon enjoyed the Tallhart’s blunt manner of speaking, and Leobald would tell him stories of war. 

 

A couple of days later, the Mormonts and Glovers had arrived with two minor lords as well. The infamously feuding Whitehills, south of Long Lake and Forresters of the Northern Wolfswood, along with 10 of their men each. Lord Galbert Glover came with his brother Robett. They were both of average height and average look, neither of them handsome nor ugly. With Galbert was his ward, the bastard of Hornwood, who at eleven years old had dark brown hair, with bright amber eyes and a good friend of Jon’s. They had met at a couple of feasts, and their bastardy forged a fast friendship. He was short for twelve years, but there was an excited look in his eyes when he saw Jon.

 

 The Lady Maege was a squat woman who brought her four eldest daughters. Dacey was nearly twenty and was tall and thin with a rugged beauty about her. Her sister Alysanne at nineteen and Jon imagined Maege looked the same when they were the same age, Jon had only met her once, but Jon could tell she was more powerful than she looked. Lyra at seventeen had the look of her mother as well, except she had bright red hair. Jorelle at twelve, had the look of her eldest sister, although her hair was a light brown compared to Dacey’s nearly black hair. Jon had never met the last two, but he assumed each was formidable. Each of the women was wearing mail and were armored with at least two different weapons, creating quite the spectacle to those not used to the warrior women of Bear Island. Arya was shaking with excitement to meet them. 

 

That spectacle paled in comparison to the tension that was brought in by the Whitehills and Forresters. Lord Gregor Forrester was nearing forty but had the posture of a man twenty years younger. He had a shaved head with a trim beard and a rugged face. He was solemn natured and had always shown Jon respect, and Jon thought it was because he had two bastards of his own. His eldest son Rodrik was twenty himself and looked like the younger brother of his father instead of his son. His second born was Asher, who was sixteen, and a rumor was that he was a formidable fighter already. With long light brown hair and a beard longer than his brother’s. Jon noticed him glancing at the daughter of Lord Whitehill. Gwyn, if Jon’s memory served. Jon didn’t especially like Asher as he reminded Jon too much of Theon. Next was Lord Gregor’s daughter Mira who at thirteen was small and thin with a comely face and long brown hair who could do nothing but stare at Robb. Jon smirked, many a Lord’s daughters looked at Robb that way. 

 

The Whitehills followed closely behind the Forresters, and it seemed they were not too happy about it. Ludd Whitehill was a surly looking lord who was short and squat, but he had heard stories of his strength. His eldest son died a year before, and his second was at the citadel. His daughter Gwyn had a striking beauty at seventeen, and Theon wouldn’t shut up about how that is how a woman should look. Jon did notice that she was always glancing at Asher, and avoiding catching the eye of her younger brother Gryff. Gryff Whitehill, a third son, and unsuspecting heir had the surly look of his father, but at fifteen was a couple of inches above six feet with a sturdy build. Jon never liked the Whitehills, as one of the few Northern Houses that followed the seven, they had never really treated Jon with anything but disdain for his birth. 

 

A day later, Jon was again standing in the courtyard when Laurence tapped his arm and nodded to the gateway. The Umbers had arrived with some of the roughest men Jon had ever seen. Mountain Clansmen. He saw the banners (if you could call them that) of Liddles, Knotts, Norreys, Walls, and Burleys. Jon could not see much of a difference between them. They were all heavily clad in fur, hairy, and the only distinguishing mark was the heraldry, faded though it was. There were nearly thirty of them. The single, distinctive mark was the grey streaks in a few of their beards. The Umbers, however, we're easy to see. 

 

The Greatjon was still the largest man Jon had ever seen, nearly seven feet tall with short brown hair and beard with a large, broad nose and a face with laughing marks etched into it. His son Smalljon had much of the same look, and at only nineteen, was a few inches shorter than his father with long brown hair and short beard who seemed as loud and jovial as his father. Greatjon’s younger son Harmond was half a head shorter, however, seemed a bit more serious. 

 

The arriving lords gave their pleasantries to Jon’s father, although the mountain clans referred to him as the Stark, which Jon knew was. Before the group could break apart, the horn blew once again, and a rider said that the flayed man of House Bolton was approaching. The Lords of the North gathered again to give a proper greeting. A party of fifteen arrived, headed by Lord Bolton. Roose Bolton was pale, and his blue eyes were much the same. He always spoke so softly that Jon could never really hear him. Jon was never comfortable around him. However, his Father said that despite their past, he was as loyal as any of his bannermen.

 

Those last few days before they were supposed to depart were so busy for his family that Jon, and being the bastard Lady Catelyn made sure he was not seen. He didn’t mind too much as it allowed him to do what he wanted. Whether Jon escaped down to the orphanage more often than usual, or spar with Derrock and Harwin when they weren’t on duty, or spend some time alone in the godswood. Jon had even brought Larence with him, enjoying the company of someone who understood what it was like, still though, Larence was a little naive. 

 

However, two days before their large party was supposed to depart, the last house to travel with them arrived. Jon once again found himself standing next to Larence, who was visibly shaking with excitement to see his family again. Jon was feeling quite nervous, as well. 

 

The last time house Hornwood had come to Winterfell was nearly three years ago to mark the end of Autumn. It was during the feast when he first met Ella Hornwood. She had asked him to dance, which Jon thought was strange because he was a bastard, and most girls at eleven were starting to understand what that meant. At ten years old himself, Jon didn’t think about girls that much, but Ella was different. Jon liked her face, and her hair was a beautiful color. Still, Jon remembered her because she talked to Jon when they danced, and Jon didn’t feel as shy and awkward around her as he usually did. Jon even made a joke that made Ella laugh, and Jon still remembered how that made him feel all these years later. L, which snapped Jon out of his reverie.

 

The bull moose of Hornwood on its orange backdrop entered into the central courtyard, and the Lord of Hornwood was the first to dismount. Halys Hornwood was nearing fifty and seemed to begin to gather some thickness around his waist. His wife, who, Jon remembered was Wyman Manderly’s cousin, dismounted with her husband's help. Donella Hornwood was only a year or two older than her husband and must have been a beauty before age started to take it from her slowly. The next person Jon saw was the heir, Daryn Hornwood, who was nearing seventeen and who seemed to have more of his mother’s features. Daryn was the last child of Lady Hornwood as her three other sons all fell during the Greyjoy rebellion. 

 

The last person in the group was a girl who had a lovely heart-shaped face, light brown hair, and a few freckles covering her. She was thin but looked more like a woman than the girl Jon remembered. Jon felt his chest warm, and that heat was rising his neck. After pleasantries and the gathering broke apart and Ella started walking towards him. Jon didn’t realize he was holding his breath until she walked past him.

 

“Cousin!” Her voice was warm and soft. 

 

Larence smiled wide, “ Ella!” Larence lost some decorum and hugged his cousin. She returned the hug with just as much vigor. Jon was still staring when she glanced at him and turned to Laurence. 

 

Ella turned to Jon and asked, “Who is your friend, cousin?”Jon felt his heart sink as he realized she had completely forgotten about him. He tried to fight the disappointment and focused on not letting it show.

 

“Come off it, Ella, you know Jon, you wrote me last year asking about him!” Larence said a bit too loud. Jon’s heart skipped a beat, hearing those words, and Ella’s pretty face blushed a bit as she punched Larence in the shoulder. 

 

“I know Larence. I was only making a joke.” Ella finally turned to Jon and gave him a curtsey, “Lord Jon.” 

 

Jon quickly said, “I’m not a Lord, Lady Hornwood.” Jon stood there a second. He then promptly bowed, remembering his manners. 

 

“Call me, Ella, Jon.” She said with a more serious tone. 

 

“Of course, my Lad-, I mean my Ella, I mean Ella!” Jon sputtered out, and he felt himself blush deeply as both Ella and Larence let out a laugh. 

 

Jon was so embarrassed that he awkwardly excused himself. 

 

He was too nervous to see Ella again, and he told his father that he would go to the orphanage to make sure they were taken care of before they left. 

 

“Just be washed before you return for the feast tonight.” His father said dismissing him, Jon nodded and made his way through the gates and waved to Fat Tom before he left. 

 

Fat Tom spoke in his rough voice, “Off again? Oh, alright, be back before milord Stark makes me come fetch yea, ya?” Jon just smiled and made his way through winter town before he saw a dozen kids running around a ragged older woman. 

 

Sera smiled as Jon neared. “Oh, thank the Old Gods you finally showed milord,” Sera said curtly. 

 

“I’m no Lord Sera, what needs to be done today,” Jon replied. 

 

“Try ta keep the children from killin’ each other so I can wash a couple of clothes.” So Jon tried to wrangle the rowdy children together but soon gave up and convinced them to play monsters and maidens. They were too eager to agree, and a seven-year-old girl named Lara demanded to be maiden, Jon, of course, played the monster who kidnapped her. 

 

“What monster should I be?” Jon asked the gathered group of kids. 

 

“Dragons!” 

“Wildling!” 

“Bear!” 

They all shouted but eventually agreed on Bear, and soon Jon was snarling and chasing the brave young boys and girls as they tried to save the young maiden. Soon the monstrous Bear was defeated, and the group was clamoring to play again. Jon had dirtied his tunic and cloak. Still, he smiled at the happy faces as he agreed to another round. It was better to be here than enduring the endless meetings that his father and Robb were currently handling, or so Jon repeated, willing it to be true. 

 

When Jon asked what monster he should be, he heard the same few suggestions, he listened to a warm, and soft voice say clearly. “Direwolf?” 

 

Jon turned to see Ella standing next to Laurence and a Hornwood man at arms. He immediately felt his face grow hot as he tried to clean some of the dirt off. She had a smirk as she approached him, and he finally found his senses. He bowed and barely spoke the words, “My Lady.” 

 

“Lord Jon,” She said mockingly. 

 

Jon’s heart started to beat faster, but he couldn’t stop himself from saying, “I am not a Lord.” Ella smiled playfully. 

 

Little Lara bravely walked up to Ella and said with as much authority a seven-year-old orphan could, “‘Pardons milady but Jon is playing with us right now, so if you don’t play, please leave him for us, because he is ours!.” Larence let out a laugh as Jon’s face reddened even more as he immediately scolded the girl.  

 

“Lara, please apologize to Lady Hornwood!”

 

Lara looked defiant as she shook her head from side to side as Ella came over and knelt in front of the girl and asked, “What was your name? Lara, yes?” Lara started to look uncertain and only nodded.“My name is Donella Hornwood, daughter of the late Daryn Hornwood .” She knelt beside Lara and said, “But you can call me Ella.” 

 

Lara looked immensely pleased with herself and found her manners. She curtseyed and said, “My name is Lara milady Ella.” Her little face darkened a little. “I meant no off...off...I didn’ mean to be mean, but Jon is leavin’ and won’ be ‘ere to play for a long time.” Little Lara looked crestfallen. Gods above, she would be a mummer when she was older.

 

Ella looked from Lara to Jon and smiled, “Then I won’t keep him from you. If...” Lara fidgeted, waiting for Ella to finish, “I get to be a maiden with you.” Jon and the children were shocked, but the children were soon excited to have another playmate. Ella made her way to the center. Larence decided to be a fellow monster and crouched down and started to chase the children around. Ella gave Jon a disapproving look as she said, “That is the poorest and least frightening monster I have ever seen.” Her smile betrayed her mocking tone, and Jon couldn’t help but smile back. Jon’s grin morphed into the snarl of a dire wolf as he turned to face the brave knights and ladies of the North. 

 

--

Jon

 

“Aye, get up, you bastard.” 

 

Jon tasted blood in the back of his mouth. He didn’t anticipate a fist, and he was paying for it dearly. 

 

It had been a few weeks since the party of two hundred people left Winterfell. They were heading for the fork of the White Knife, where the barges of House Manderly would be waiting for them to take them the rest of the way to the port city. The Wolf’s River was wide enough for a good-sized riverboat and to float down lumber. Still, its depth prevented barges big enough to safely transport a party of two hundred and all of their belongings needed for an extended stay. The White Knife, however, was broad, deep, and slow enough for those barges. Since they didn't have enough small vessels to take the Wolf's River, that meant their party had to make their way to a small town and holdfast on the northern bank.

 

Jon didn’t mind the slow journey to the fork. Ever since Ella arrived at Winterfell, Jon had found any excuse he could to talk with her. Conversing with her soon proved quite tricky as Lord and Lady Hornwood were very protective of the late Daryn Hornwood’s only child. Fortunately, Larence agreed to help distract his father. Unfortunately, Larence was doing a poor job of doing it. He would end up right next to Jon instead of being he and Ella’s lookout, which made it impossible for any prolonged conversation. In the end, Jon didn’t mind as much as he let on, because it gave him someone that could commiserate with the experience of being left with the other soldiers and men-at-arms. 

 

In the evenings, many of their group would spar, preparing for the upcoming melees. Whether it was the proper melee or the squires', all were preparing for their chance at glory. The highborn melee fighters only sparred with each other as it was not appropriate for lowborn soldiers and guards to fight their “betters” outside of the tourney. Jon was initially upset, but it allowed him to practice away from his father, which meant he could challenge the soldiers of each house, testing his mettle against real fighters. The first evening, many of the soldiers laughed at a Lord’s bastard who was not even a man who had come to spar with seasoned warriors of the North. His father’s men did not laugh with them. Jon knew they didn’t think he was the best, and they may not even consider him good compared to grown men, but he got up every time, and he learned. It took a few days, but eventually, they started to treat him like any other soldier instead of a lord’s bastard. Well, most of them anyway.  

 

“I said. Get up, boy.” 

 

The wind still hadn’t returned to his lungs, and his head was ringing. Jon tried to focus on the ground, and it seemed to steady. Jon slowly got himself back onto his feet. 

 

“Well, men, it seems like the boy has a little fight left in him.” Jon turned to face the man. Steelshanks Walton was the captain of the guards for Roose Bolton. He was a tall man who always wore steel greaves that made his legs look much longer than they were. The man’s usual dour face held something someone could confuse for a smile. The man pointed the blunted blade and aimed at Jon’s own. “Go on, pick it up.” Jon walked over and picked up the tourney sword. “Come on now, boy, you’ve done poor practice. At least make me sweat.” Walton lunged at Jon, and Jon barely had time to get his weapon up to deflect the blow. Steelshanks was powerful and quicker than Jon expected, and Jon could feel his own strikes get weaker, and every clash of steel shook his whole body. Jon tried to feint, but Walton was ready for it and countered with an attack that caught Jon above the knee. 

 

Pain flashed, and Jon grit his teeth as he knew it was going to be a bad bruise. Walton was starting to breathe heavier now, but Jon knew he wouldn’t hold out for much longer. 

 

Walton charged and swung. Jon rolled out of the way and grabbed dirt with his off-hand, and when he found his feet under him, tossed the earth at Walton’s head as Walton turned to face him. 

 

“Fuck!” Walton yelled as the dirt him in the face. The captain swung wildly, and Jon deflected the strike and brought the sword down hard on the man’s wrist. At the last second, the wrist moved, and Jon’s blade connected with Walton’s right above the crossguard. Walton’s sword clattered to the ground, and Jon felt some satisfaction until he felt something connected with his chest that made him stumble backward. Before Jon could look up, he felt a massive body run into his, and Jon was lifted for a moment before the ground came up to meet him, and Jon let out a grunt as the weight of Walton forced the air out. He reached for his sword when the was a hand around his throat, and a dagger raised. 

 

Then he heard the laugh. It was awkward, uncomfortable, and unpracticed as it escaped the captain’s mouth. “That was a dirty move, boy.” 

 

Jon could only whisper out, “It almost worked.” 

 

“Almost.” The man agreed as he brought his face closer, Jon could see the yellowed teeth and could smell onions on his breath. “Sand is better than dirt, the better chance it gets in the eyes.” Jon blinked twice before the man got off of Jon. The captain wiped the dirt off his face and left Jon sprawled on the ground. 

 

Larence soon appeared in his field of vision and held out a hand. Jon got up to his feet and retrieved the sword. “Why do you spar with Bolton men? They are much rougher.” Jon winced as the pain in his leg, ached with every step.  

 

“Because they are rough,” Jon said

 

“What do you mean?” 

 

Jon let out a breath as he stopped and rubbed the spot on his head where he was sure a bump would form. “They don’t hold back. My father’s men will push me, but they hold back for fear of my father if I am hurt, so they hold back. Even though I’m a bastard, they respect my father enough. Those men, though,” Jon pointed at the group of Bolton men. They were still sparring with one another while Steelshanks surveyed them, “they don’t have any qualms beating a bastard bloody.” 

 

“But your Lord Stark’s son?”

 

“Bastard son Larence. Same as you.” Jon replied. He tried to keep some bitterness out of his voice. After a few steps, Jon realized Larence wasn’t next to him. He turned to see the nearly twelve-year-old boy with his head down. Jon walked back to him and put a hand on his shoulder. 

 

“Jon?” 

 

“Yea?” 

 

“I don’t want to be a bastard.” The boy said so softly he could barely hear him. Jon felt a deep ache in his chest. 

 

“I know.” Jon put his hands on both of the boy’s shoulders. “I don’t want to be one either. Come on, let's get something to eat and then get some sleep.” Jon got out of the sparring armor and stored away from the training swords, then made his way through the camp. 

 

The two boys shared a companionable silence, but before Larence left for his tent, he asked, “Jon, can you teach me to fight like you?”

 

“I’m not a good fighter Larence. I am sure the Glover master of arms or even your brother Daryn is a better sword than I am,” Jon said. 

 

Larence shook his head, “Your really good, Jon! Please?” 

 

A sigh involuntarily left him, and Larence’s head started to drop again. “Fine, we have to do it in the morning.” 

 

Larence smiled, “Yes, yes, thank you!” and the boy left back to his tent. Jon ran a hand over his face. 

 

“That was very kind of you.” Jon looked to where the voice came from, and he saw Ella standing there. The evening light haloed around her, and Jon couldn't help but smile at her. 

 

“I don’t know if that is true. Larence would be better off with someone better than me.” Jon replied. 

 

“I’ve seen you spar for a couple of nights, you fight men twice your age and beat them most of the time.” Jon went to disagree even as his face flushed red. “Then again, what do I know about fighting?” Ella smirked at him as he stood there, “Goodnight, Jon.” 

 

Over the next two mornings, Jon and Larence woke up early and sparred for an hour, with Jon critiquing his stance, his grip, and balance. When they fought, the boy didn’t last long, but he kept quiet and didn’t complain. On both days, Arya would show up in trousers and a stick asking to join. Jon would refuse, causing Arya to storm off only to come back and watch from a distance, practicing against air. On the second day, after their morning spar, Jon was dragged by Robb to ride next to him and the other high born boys. 

 

Jon did his best to pay attention to the conversation. Still, his eyes kept wandering over to where the wagon where the highborn women who were tired of riding a horse were. Jon tried to catch a glimpse, Ella. When he didn’t, he turned his attention back to Robb, who was explaining to Theon the importance of this holdfast where they would meet the Manderly barges. 

 

Jon was excited to see this particular holdfast. He had grown up hearing stories about Castle Greydam. 

 

“Greydam was not its original name. It used to be known as Forkton thousands of years ago. It was a small but important holdfast as it held the key to the rest of the North after White Harbor. Maester Luwin said there used to be towers on banks of both the White Knife and the Wolf’s River and large chains that could block the passage of any boat. Maester Luwin taught that there were more than a few battles fought here but none more famous than the one that had saved House Stark.” Robb explained to Bran and Beren Tallhart, who were becoming fast friends. Theon, who was next to them, looked bored to learn about anything that didn’t involve a bow or breasts. 

 

“Long ago House Greystark, a cadet branch of House Stark, was given White Harbor to protect the North and hold the entrance to the White Knife. However, they eventually allied with the Boltons to try and usurp the Kings of Winter. House Bolton planned to draw the Starks from Winterfell and get their armies out in the open. Greystark forces were supposed to come up the White Knife, march along the Wolf’s River, and hit the Starks from the south, cutting them off from Winterfell. It would have worked except the small but loyal House Towers was able to forestall the Greystark force of three thousand. They only were able to muster a force of four hundred men, nearly half of which were not proper soldiers. With a stout keep and defensible towers, they were able to keep the chains taut for almost two weeks, forcing the Greystarks to march south and cross the White Knife fifty miles south and march back up from there, forcing them to have to cross at Castle Cerwyn and leave half their force to siege the castle.” Robb said with enthusiasm, and the two boys were smiling at the story. “This bought the Starks enough time to deal with the Boltons and turn south to crush their cadet branch. Since then, the castle and lands had been known as Greydam. House Towers was given White Harbor for their service but eventually died out, leaving only the last daughter who married into the family that held it now.” 

 

“The Manderlys?” Beren asked, and Robb nodded.

 

 

“Since then, Greydam has dwindled into a shell of what it once. Much like Moat Cailin to the south. The towers were torn down, the stone needed elsewhere, this made the chains useless, and they were soon done away with.” Robb finished the story lamely, which Jon thought was a poor way to go about it. 

 

Castle Greydam was still there, although in disrepair. The outer stone walls were torn down and replaced with wood. Only the inner keep had stone walls, and those were barely twenty feet high. It was said it used to have a sluice gate similar to Riverrun, although it too was no longer in use and was filled in a couple of centuries ago. Still, Jon was excited to see this vital piece of history, and he wondered if Ella knew all about Greydam. He turned his head around to search for her again. 

 

“Jon, she is in the back of the procession,” Robb said, and the other boys and sons of the North, all let out a laugh and Jon felt his face reddened. 

 

“Snow, sniffing around a highborn, as he’d ever had a chance,” Theon said with derision. Jon knew it came from envy, but that didn’t stop Jon from glaring.  

 

Cley Cerwyn continued, “She is quite pretty, thinking of taking a run at her myself Jon, a future Lady of Cerwyn or the wife of a bastard? I say it is an easy decision.” Robb turned, ready to silence Cley, but Jon spoke up first. 

 

“Lord Cerwyn, a bastard I may be, but at least I don't have to grow a beard to hide that monstrous mole on your chin.” Jon’s eyes went wide as he was unable to stop the words coming from his mouth, and Cley's face flushed with embarrassment and rage while Robb, Theon, and the other young Lords turned their laughter towards Cley.

 

“How dare you-?” Cley started. 

 

“Lord Cley, it was only a jest,” Robb said, "and quite a poor one at that. Jon tried to grow a beard once, and it didn’t turn out well." Jon accepted the untruth, and Robb tried to quell the smirk and failed. 

 

Cley turned to Jon and pointed his finger at him. “You should show some respect, I’ll be a Lord one day, and you-” 

 

“Will be a brother to the Lord of Winterfell.” Robb finished, the jovial tone still there, but there was something behind it. Cley went quiet, but the scowl remained. “However, you are right. My brother was out of line, but there are better ways to settle disagreements than childish jabs.” Jon looked at Robb with the anger of his own as his brother continued, “You could choose to settle with a spar, first to yield?” Robb turned and gave Jon a wide grin. Jon’s face paled and opened his mouth to protest.

 

“Robb, uh Lord Stark,” Robb rolled his eyes at the use of Lord, “I don’t think that would be a good idea.” Robb just shook his head, smiling and winked at Jon, while Cley Cerwyn snarled. 

 

“Oh, the Bastard of Winterfell nervous about crossing swords with a true Lord?” Gryff Whitehill jested. 

 

Robb’s face lost its amiability at the mention of Jon’s birth status. “I’ll put ten gold dragons on my brother to win.” The young Lords went silent, sure, they were all Lords, but a gold dragon wasn’t an insignificant amount. "Nobody wants to match it?" Robb dared them all.

 

Cley looked around and then scoffed, “Fine by me, Lord Stark, maybe I can buy something nice for Lady Hornwood. Tonight at Greydam?” Cerwyn queried. Before Robb could reply, Greatjon rumbled over, overhearing the conversation.  

 

“What is this young Lords, someone wagering over fight? Gambling?” They all look down embarrassed ready to be scolded by the giant man. Then they heard something they didn’t expect. “Who is going against who?” Greatjon voiced loudly enough a few more lords ears perked up. 

 

Robb answered. “My brother Jon against the young Lord Cerwyn, Lord Umber.” 

 

Greatjon thought about it. “I’ll match that two dragons, young Robb.” 

 

Harmond said. “Father, I’m going to put two on Jon here. Also, can I have two dragons?” The Greatjon roared in laughter and agreed to his second son's request.  

 

Leobald Talhart and Lord Helman came over, and the latter said, “Gamblin’ eh? Two dragons on the Lord Cerwyn, talented with a blade that one.” 

 

Leobald Talhart nodded as well, “Can’t afford a dragon but...two silver stags on Cerwyn.” 

 

The Lords Glover came over, putting a gold dragon each on Jon. Soon it seemed every Lord and men at arms were placing bets on Jon Snow and Cley Cerwyn. Marching was dull, and all men enjoyed gambling and fighting, and Jon had never been so nervous. He had been sparring quite a bit, but he had never fought with Cley Cerwyn since before the last winter, so he had no idea what to expect. 

 

As the sun was going down, they arrived at Greydam. The small little village surrounding the keep had maybe a couple of dozen buildings, and the small folk came out to greet the Lords of the North. Greydam was currently in possession of the old Lord Hobard Benyen. He was sixty-eight years old; all of his family had died, leaving him alone. Two grandsons in the past two years from sickness, his sons killed in either Robert’s Rebellion or at Pyke. The lands were not very rich, but the castle was stout, and the river could provide some coin, so Jon knew the issue of succession was causing his father a headache. 

 

Lord Hobard greeted the group and gave bread and salt to everyone there. The man looked weathered, with receding white hair that seemed to cling to his head desperately. His cloak was old but well made, and his servants and few men at arms lined the courtyard.

 

As soon as the group entered the castle, Jon and Cley and most of the men traveling went out into the training yard, and Jon and Cley Cerwyn started to armor themselves. His nerves were beginning to get the better of him, and Robb was there next to him, helping him put on the last bracer. 

 

“Jon, you’re looking a little pale.” When Jon didn’t return the smile, Robb’s face turned serious, “you’ve kicked my ass all over the yard, this is nothing.” Robb finished with a smirk, but it faltered as Jon didn’t respond in kind. “Jon, I want to show the Lord’s of the North that the best sword in the North is my brother, and they should fear that he will be by my side for the rest of my life.” This time Jon looked away as his mouth twitched. “Now Jon, go kick his ass cause I don’t have two gold dragons.” This time Jon did chuckle, and tension started to ebb from him. 

 

They stepped out to the small training yard, and it seemed everyone was there. He saw Bran and Arya wave at him while standing next, Father and Sansa. Sansa was talking to...Jon’s breath left him as he saw light brown hair and a heart-shaped face. Jon felt his nerves return tenfold. Still, Jon warmed up by swinging his sword a few times, trying to get that anxious energy out of his body but to no avail. Jon saw Cley Cerwyn doing the same thing, but he had natural confidence. Confidence that comes from knowing your future, confidence, Jon had never known.

 

“Jon.” the warm, soft tone made Jon jerk his body around so fast he almost fell over himself. Ella just stood there, smiling with Laurence and Arya, whose smiles mirrored Ella’s. 

 

“My Lady.” Jon bowed deep, unable to hide his smile. 

 

“Ella.” She said sternly. 

 

“Lady Ella,” Jon responded with a playful tone. 

 

“Ella.” She said, grinning broadly. 

 

Jon continued to grin. “Ella.” This was how every one of their conversations started the past two weeks, something Jon wished to maintain. 

 

“Jon. I bet a silver and twelve coppers on you. It’s all the wealth I have for the tourney. Please don’t make me regret it.” 

 

Jon just looked at her and could only muster a simple, “As my Lady commands.” 

 

Arya rolled her eyes, and Jon gave her a shove, and she tried to kick him back before she composed herself. “Jon, I wanted to wager on you as well, but Father said it was irresponsible to gamble and wouldn’t give me the coin. All I had on me was two coppers.” Arya was beaming proudly. “I told Ella all about how you fight, said you were the best sword in the world, please don’t make me a liar big brother.” 

 

Jon felt all his nerves melt away at those last two words, and he mussed Arya’s hair, but she hit his hand away. “Never little sister.” Before he turned around to face the young Lord Cerwyn, he addressed Lady Hornwood and Lord Halys’s bastard, “Ella. Larence.” 

 

Jon was only a few paces from Cley when the Greatjon’s voice boomed, “Alright lads, we go until one of you’re disarmed or your opponent yields. Don’t kill each other.” Jon and Cley nodded and readied themselves. Jon was in his usual stance; Cley was close to the ground. Their eyes locked. 

 

His breathing slowed. 

 

His eyes narrowed.

 

“Fight!” 

 

Before Greatjon’s echo stopped, Cley Cerwyn lashed out with impressive speed, and Jon was forced back saved only by instinct. Jon was back-pedaling in the mud as Cley hacked and slashed with a strength that rivaled Robb’s, but Cley was a shade slower than Robb. Jon did all he could to hold Cley off as he studied his opponent's movements. When Cley let out a particularly vicious swing, Jon danced out from under it and behind the young lord. If Cley was surprised, he didn’t show it and started with his attack once again. Cley was strong, but Jon was far quicker and moved away from swings and cuts striking back like a viper, slowly chipping away Cley’s confidence. Cerwyn swung once, twice, and Jon dodged, spinning and slashed at Cley’s leg with more force than necessary, and Jon felt the sword connect against the padded leather and mail. Cley cried out and to his credit did not drop. Cley struggled to put any weight on his leg, and now it was Jon’s turn to put Cley on the defensive. Jon went at Cley, attacking and slashing until the young Lord was sweating and panting, his breath coming faster and harsher. Finally, Jon took mercy, slipping past a jab and bringing the sword down on Cley’s wrist just hard enough to disarm him. With a sword at his neck, the heir of Castle Cerwyn was shocked as he mumbled what Jon believed was, “yield.” 

 

Jon smiled and heard most of the gathered men groan, and a few men heartily let out a yell in victory as quite a few coins exchanged hands, and a few people became a little bit wealthier. Robb came up to him, putting a hand on his shoulder. 

 

“Gods Jon, I’ve never seen you move that well, tell me you still don’t take it easy on me when we train.” 

 

“Never,” Jon said honestly. 

 

Jon didn’t see Arya but felt her wrap her arms around him and loudly proclaim, “that was incredible! You moved so fast and quickly struck it was like….” Arya moved her hands as if striking an opponent with an invisible stick as a small auburn-haired boy joined him. 

 

“Jon! That was really good! Can we spare some? Maybe with Beren? I want to be quick!” Bran exclaimed. 

 

“Me too!” Arya parroted. Jon just shook his head. 

 

“Only if Father says so.” Disappointment showed on his sister’s face while Bran’s brightened. 

 

Jon glanced up, seeing Ella Hornwoord walking towards him, and he quickly looked away. Bran’s little voice reached him, “Jon, your face is really red, do you need some water? I can go get some!” Robb let out a big laugh, and Arya unsuccessfully stifled a giggle as she gave a quick look between the approaching girl and Jon. 

 

“Come on, you two, let’s go collect my money.” Robb placed his hands on Bran’s shoulders and kicked at Arya’s legs to get her to move. Jon gave Robb a thankful look as Ella came to a stop in front of him. Her green eyes burned bright as she looked at Jon. She seemed suddenly shy but soon rallied to speak first.

 

“I would like to thank you, Jon.” 

 

“What for?” Jon racked his brain for what he had done. 

 

“Why for making me wealthier, of course!” Ella said, and her dazzling smile made Jon’s chest feel warm, and all he could do was give what he knew was a stupid toothy grin back. 

 

“Of course, my Lady, I would never fail you?”   Never fail you? What kind of dumb stupid- 

 

“I would hope not good ser.”   Am I... courting?  But before he could say anything, Ella’s tone became much more formal as she spoke. “I apologize for intruding, but I must now go and prepare myself for tonight’s supper.” She shot a look over his shoulder, and he turned to see Lord Hornwood make his way to him. Any good feeling he had was soon replaced with a measure of dread. 

 

The amiable Lord Hornwood came over, grinning and clapped Jon on the shoulder, “Larence hasn’t stopped talking about how good you are with a sword. I’m glad I listened to him! Taking a couple of stags from Lord Tallhart is the best I’ve felt in years!” He let out a loud laugh, and Jon gave a brief, stilted chuckle, and the Lord of Hornwood walked towards the great hall of Greydam, and Jon let out a sigh of relief.

 

“Oi, Snow!” He turned to see the Smalljon lumbering over with Dacey Mormont. “This young lass, and I owe you a drink!” Smalljon said playfully, winking and Dacey. 

 

“Watch it, Lord Umber.” Dacey Mormont said in her low throaty voice, neither playful nor reprimanding. But Smalljon just let out a loud laugh like his father and grabbed Jon by the shoulder.

 

“Come on, Jon, let’s get you cleaned up, your feasting with me tonight.”

 

Jon was enjoying the company of young heirs and sons of the North. They were eating well, and Harmond had snatched a mug of ale from his father. 

 

As far back as Jon could remember, this was the first time he enjoyed a feast, and for a brief moment, he felt like he was supposed to be here. Although to say it was a proper feast would most likely be wrong, but Jon didn’t care. Smalljon was boisterous and drinking for three men and was only matched by his father. Smalljon and Dacey Mormont were ribbing each other, while Maege was ignoring the Greatjon’s loud laugh at his own jape. Jon was in discussion with Harmond and Lyra, when Robb, Theon, and Cley Cerwyn walked over. Well, in Cley’s case, limped over. 

 

“Jon, I would like to spar some while we wait for the barges to loaded in the morning,” Harmond said. Jon felt a rush of pride until Harmond continued, “I’m only used to facing strong opponents, you’ll be a nice change of pace.” Harmond gave a sly grin, and Jon reddened, while many of the young lords around him burst out laughing. 

 

Still, regardless of the jabs and jests, he sat with the next generation of Northern rulers, feeling like he earned his place, so Jon spoke, “Your right Harmond, I have never fought someone with such poor form.” Harmond smiled back at, swung a fist, and Jon moved his head back in the nick of time. “Only proves my point.” Harmond quietly chuckled, conceding the point. 

 

“Aye, a quick bugger you are,” Harmond spoke. “When you get some meat on your bones, you’ll be a great fighter, Jon.” Jon reddened a bit at the compliment. “Pretty as woman, but a good fighter.” Harmond laughed with most of the table when Asher came over, in his cups a bit. 

 

“Aye, and what does a pretty fighter do when they get older, Snow?” 

 

Jon took a moment and looked at the five or six young lords who were looking at him in anticipation. Jon answered honestly, “The Night’s watch when I turn eighteen.” 

 

The merriment faded a little in Harmond’s face, “Why?” 

 

“There is honor in serving,” Jon said automatically. 

 

A passing Alysanne Mormont stopped and butted into the conversation, “Serving where?” 

 

“The Watch,” Jon said. 

 

Alysanne barked a laugh, “You sound like the Old Bear.” Alysanne continued. “He’s a good man, but only went on his fiftieth nameday, with a grown son ready to take over.” Alysanne then placed her hand on Jon’s shoulders. “There is an honor, yes, but wait till your older. Don’t waste your pretty years freezing your balls off.” Alysanne then grabbed Jon’s face and kissed him to the shock of the table. It was a quick and forceful peck, and Jon had no time to dwell on it before it was done. “Pretty but not a great kisser.” She slapped Jon’s cheek playfully and walked on to the uproarious laughter of everyone around. Jon got up from the table to the feigned ‘ah’s’ of all the lords, which soon turned to laughter. 

 

He needed some air, and some time to regain his dignity and his natural color. He walked out of the hall, past the training yard, and to the stables to where his horse was. It was an old horse that was gifted to Robb from the Ryswells, but he had received a new destrier this year, and he gave Jon this one. Jon found a brush and went to work, brushing his coat out. 

 

He was nearly done when he heard footsteps behind him and turned to see Ella there, looking pretty having changed from riding wear into something more suited to feast. She looked angelic as the evening sun framed her hair. 

 

“Lady Hornwwod.” 

 

“Jon..” 

 

“Ella…,” Jon replied, and it got him a smile, and Jon returned it. 

 

“I heard you had a new suitor.” Jon’s face reddened. “A she-bear from House Mormont.” Ella gave out a small laugh as Jon turned back to the horse, trying to hide his shame. “I hear she has a child already. She must be a great kisser.” The embarrassment was too high, and Jon put the brush away. 

 

“I guess.” Ella sat in silence at his reply. “She was my first.” Jon winced and turned to see Ella smirking. “What?”

 

“I never took you for a liar?” Ella responded

 

Her words confused him, “A what?” 

 

Ella hunched her shoulders and said, “Come now, Jon.”  

 

“It was!”

 

“Sure…” she said as she rolled her eyes, she patted one of the horses chuckling for a moment before looking back at Jon, her cheerful face falling for a moment, “Gods. You’re serious! But you’re so hands….” Ella’s voice faded as her face flushed. 

 

Jon’s face stayed the same shade of red as they remained in awkward silence for a couple of minutes, trying to keep busy. 

 

“I’ve been kissed once.” Ella finally said, and Jon felt something bloom in his chest that he tried to swallow back down. “It was a boy in a mummer's troupe, he had long red hair, and he sang to me.” Jon held his tongue while he checked the hooves of his horse. “It was a good kiss.” Jon finished with the hooves. “He asked me to come with him, but that is no future.” 

 

Jon felt a punch to his gut, and he couldn’t stop himself, “Aye, that’s what matters most.” Jon got up. 

 

“Jon, that’s not what…”

 

“No, it was,” Jon said. Ella went to speak, and Jon raised his hand and kept looking down at the straw on the ground. With a gentle voice continued, “It should be, you deserve someone with lands and a keep and servants, so you never have to want. More than anyone I know, you deserve it.” 

 

Jon felt a hand on his face, and he reflexively leaned into it and looked up, and Ella was staring at him. She spoke so softly he had to focus on hearing her. “You deserve that too.” 

 

Jon gave her a sad smile, “I won’t have it.” Ella frowned slightly. “Lady Stark won’t allow it, the Riverlands won’t accept it, but my brother will ignore sense and do it when he becomes Warden.” 

 

Ella gave a smile, “That’s…”

 

“That’s why I can’t let him. It’s a mistake, he has two other brothers that need land, but he’s a stubborn ass, so I can’t let him.”

 

“Jon, what do you mean?” Ella said nervously. 

 

“When I’m eighteen I’ll join the Night’s Watch, it's the only way,” Jon said, and he lowered his gaze, four weeks ago he would brim with pride, but now….

 

He didn’t even see the hand, but he felt the burn from the slap. Jon stepped back in shock, holding his hand over the mark. “What the hell?” Jon said. He was continuing to rub the mark on his cheek.

 

Ella’s eyes held a quiet fury even as they were brimming with tears. Jon was about to speak again, but Ella grabbed his cheeks, and soon her lips crashed into his. Jon overcame his shock and kissed her back. It may have lasted hours or only a few seconds, but far too soon, it was over. Jon’s cheek still burned, but he felt lighter than air, but it disappeared when he opened his eyes, and Ella still had some tears. “Don’t take the black Jon, there are…options, we….we could go across the sea, live in Braavos.” 

 

“You deserve more, more than I could give you. More than anything, I could give you across the sea and away from your family. No. I know you deserve more than what a bastard can give you.” Jon said, defeated. 

 

“You don’t know that.” 

 

“I know your Uncle would never accept it.” 

 

“I don’t care.” 

 

“I do,” Jon replied. “I think you do too.” 

 

“I don’t, and you shouldn’t either,” Ella shot back.

 

Jon's mouth formed a tight line, “I am a bastard.” 

 

“I. Don’t. Care.” Ella said as she leaned toward him for another kiss. 

 

Jon placed a hand and stopped her, “You should.” 

 

Ella’s eyes opened, and she scowled and pushed him away, “You’re a coward, Jon Snow.” She turned to exit the stable. 

 

“Ella,” Jon said, but she had fled into the night. Jon felt pain, not like a beating in the yard but something sharp and deep inside him. He felt that he needed to go after her, explain himself so she would understand that he wasn’t worthy of her. That she was kind and beautiful and witty and deserved everything, the world had to offer. What if he did receive a holdfast, it would be small, with poor land and poorer people and unsuitable for someone like her. 

 

Jon was about to take a step forward when he heard someone call for him. Jon was about to respond when he saw Larence turn the corner, and the boy’s face was in a snarl, and he was carrying a wooden practice blade. When he saw Jon, his eyes narrowed. “What did you do to Ella?” His boy’s voice tried to make it threatening, but it didn’t work. Jon stifled a chuckle, but it didn’t go unnoticed by Larence, whose snarl deepened. Jon’s eyes went wide as he saw Larence raise his wooden blade to strike, and Jon moved to get out of the way. “What did you do to her, Jon,” Larence spoke again as he brought the blade up back to his chest. 

 

“Nothing!” Jon protested. 

 

“Nothing wouldn’t make her cry like that!” Larence swung again, and Jon moved, but the boy had gotten better, and the tip connected with Jon’s arm, and pain bloomed, and Jon knew he would have a new bruise. 

 

“Gods, Larence, calm down, and let me speak.” Larence’s scowl stayed where it was, but the wooden blade stopped, and Larence raised it, so it was pointing at Jon’s chest. 

 

“Speak. Now.” Larence gritted out. 

 

Jon reached out and moved the wooden blade from his chest. “Your cousin...She’s…” Jon struggled to find the words that he wanted to say. Jon plowed through, “I told her I am joining the watch when I turn eighteen.” Larence eyes went wide as he forgot to scowl. 

 

“W-why?” Larence sputtered out. 

 

Jon shrugged, Larence was young, and he still seemed to have some innocence left to him. “Your cousin, Ella, is a good person, and she’ll make a great Lady one day.” Larence furrowed his brow. “But I can’t be her Lord. At least, not the one she deserves.” Jon’s throat tightened. “I told her that. That she deserves someone better, that your father won’t let a bastard like me marry someone like her.” 

 

“But, you love her?” Larence questioned. 

 

Jon thought hard on that. Did he love her? Jfancied her. He enjoyed spending time with her. He liked that kiss. “Maybe. I think I would, but it doesn’t matter.” 

 

Jon then looked at Larence, his head was down, and Larence muttered out, “Cause we’re bastards.” 

 

Jon leaned back against the post and took a deep breath. He then let it out. “Aye, cause we are bastards.”

 

“Will I have to join the Watch too?” Larence said.

 

Jon gave a sad smile and put a hand on the short boy’s shoulder, “Not if you don’t want to, you could go south, become a knight and marry a merchant’s daughter. You could go across the Narrow Sea and be a famous sellsword. You can travel across the world and see all the wonders in Lomas Longstrider’s tale. You could go to Oldtown, learn to be a maester, and serve a great lord.” Larence face brightened a bit. “Being a bastard isn’t all bad, Larence, we have some freedom. Not much, but we don’t have the responsibility of our brothers so we can choose to do what we want.” Jon said. He didn’t know where the words came from. He wasn’t sure he even believed them, but it comforted his friend. Jon wasn't sure whether if it was a lie or not. But comforting Larence, just for a night, seemed like the honorable thing to do.

Chapter Text

Eddard 

 

Ned was exhausted. Truthfully he was not sure the last time he felt rested. The journey to White Harbor was slower than he had planned, the barges trudged alone and one barge hitting a bar in the river three days into their journey, forcing them to stop and spend two days getting it ready to move again. Now, instead of two weeks before the wedding, it was down to six days. Six days for Ned to set the North right, consolidate Winterfell's power and authority, and to ensure the relationships between the North and South were in good standing. Six days to establish good relations with the Northern lords before the month-long slog of hammering out the finer points and details. Ned also had to sit to meet with sycophantic southern lords and greedy merchants from across the Narrow Sea. At least Ned would see Jon Arryn again.

 

Jon Arryn, Ned's second father, the one who taught him what it meant to be a man, the man who allowed Ned to watch him rule the Eyrie for those few years before the world broke apart. The only reason Ned had held the North together for the past thirteen. Ned felt the corners of his mouth flicker up, thinking of seeing the old man again. 

 

However, his good mood was interrupted by the thin pale man, with haunting blue eyes to his left. "Lord Stark, thank you again for allowing me to accompany you and your heir, Robb, through the gates of White Harbor, when you do have time, however, there are a few more things we need to discuss." Roose Bolton spoke with what was almost a whisper, causing Ned to have to concentrate on every word he said. Ned, never liked Lord Bolton, the ancient animosity was legendary, but Lord Bolton's father was amicable, and no reports were coming out of his lands. Not one record, except that which Lord Bolton gave him. 

 

"Of course, Lord Bolton, I look forward to our talks." Lord Stark said back. Lord Bolton bowed in his saddle. 

 

Ned thought back on the journey here. Every day, Ned rode with a different Lord, so he rode with every major lord at least twice, sometimes three times.   I need to make sure to meet with those that only rode with me twice. 

 

The first time riding next to each lord turned out to be the same. They spent the time discussing how their household was, how the small folk were fairing after the three-year winter, what needs to be done in their lands, the strength of arms, opinions on the North, and the limited trade that had with southern kingdoms and even discussion on the tourney. Those talks were long, but necessary and allowed Ned to get a general census of how that portion of the North was. The hardest to talk to was Greatjon. He was a good, loyal man, but to get him to stay focused was a difficult thing indeed. 

 

The second or third time was when Ned would ask what was needed, both by him and the Crown. All of them complained about the Crown's taxes increasing for the sixth year in a row. This became more and more difficult through the winter, and everyone knew the Crown raised taxes in the summer years. It was especially challenging for Ned because word of Ned shouldering the debt of House Mormont seemed to have got out, so many seemed to exaggerate the circumstances of their coffers. Still, the talk of taxes and trade did not compare to discussions of betrothal offers that came from everyone he spoke to.

 

 Every lord offered a son or daughter to Ned's children. Each detailing why an alliance with their particular house would be advantageous for everyone. Daughters, cousins, nieces for Robb and Brandon, even Rickon. Sons, brothers, and nephews for Sansa and Arya. Gods he hated it, made him feel as though his children were only pieces on a map, coins for bartering and wool for trade. It was the same sentiment his father had, but it was necessary.   Gods, I'm defending my father. 

 

 Usually, to finish the talks, they would all implore him to visit, saying that the Warden of the North must see more of the North. All of this made Ned weary, and the only solace he found was with his children. 

 

Ned would see Robb following his lead, spending time with each of the future leaders of the North that were there, speaking to them, joking with them, and doing something Ned envied, which was making them like him with ease and grace that only Ned's older brother could accomplish. Despite his envy, it made Ned proud to see his son being so dutiful. 

 

Sansa was enjoying spending some time with the Northern ladies, and Ned believed it would do her good to escape some of the southron traditions Catelyn so studiously employed. Sansa may act like a lady of the south, but her heart was of the North, and it was beginning to show. She laughed louder, joked with the other ladies, she even saw her take a swing at Robb but stopped and blushed immediately before muttering an apology. They all told her she would be beautiful, and at ten years old, Sansa simply beamed at any praise.   Gods.   Ned was going to struggle to see his girls married off. Only to see them on a rare occasion.   Well, maybe just Sansa.  He looked to his other daughter to see her following Dacey Mormont like a duckling following its mother. 

 

Arya seemed to idolize the warrior woman. Asking them questions about weapons and hunting and stories of their house. Dacey Mormont especially was indulgent his youngest daughter, but even Ned could see Dacey starting to become weary with questions.   Maybe I could foster her there.   Catelyn would fight him on it.   Maybe let her visit three months of the year at the least.   

 

Bran spent his time with the other lads his age, play fighting, racing around the group and causing general mayhem, mostly with his large shadow, big-little Beren Talhart. 

 

The last was Jon, who spent a bit of his time with Robb. However, according to Jory, Jon was spending with soldiers or being around Ella Hornwood. This made Ned nervous, Halys was very protective of the only piece of his late sibling he had left. Halys even suggested a match between young Donella and Robb. The few times he'd seen Jon and Ella together, it simultaneously lifted his spirits and deepened his anxiety. They would laugh together and talk intently, even drawing in a few other people into the conversations, but anytime that happened, Halys would move over and end the conversation. 

 

Ned was under no illusions, Jon may have Stark features, but his other half refined them into a much more handsome face than Ned or any of his siblings ever had. What saddened Ned most was that his son looked, but Ned knew it was for naught. Jon said he wanted to go to the Wall, but Ned had no desire to see that happen, unless...  No, it would be foolish and political folly . Alas, it looked like the issue resolved itself as Ned had heard from Jory that Ella and Jon had been nowhere near each other since Greydam.

 

The party approached White Harbor, and the horn announced their arrival. He looked at his children, all on horseback for the final leg. He was excited to see their faces as they were led into the port-city. White Harbor was the most populous and one of the only actual cities in the North. With almost fifty thousand people, it was much more crowded than his children were used to, and Ned wanted them to get a taste of city life was like. 

 

However, as they came upon the White gates, Ned's military mind started working as he analyzed the tall white walls, thirty feet tall with parapets every fifty or so feet. There seemed to be fewer guards than Ned would deem acceptable, but he assumed that it was due to the influx of people here for the wedding. Outside the city-gates, there were a few hedge knights in their small tents, and Ned knew that would see more before the wedding and tourney were through. When the gates opened the fattest man, Ned had ever seen on a horse that seemed it could pull three plows at once. Next to him appeared to be his doubles, only fraction thinner who mirrored their father's expression. Fools they may seem, but Ned knew better. Still, he liked the Manderlys, ambitious maybe, but loyal. "Lord Stark, welcome to White Harbor we are ever so thankful that you join us for my son's wedding. We will feast your arrival, and every night after that, you chose to bless us with your company." 

 

 So it begins.  Ned forced himself to grin back, "Thank you Lord Manderly, I look forward to your hospitality, it has been quite the journey here, and we would like to look as lords should for the wedding." Lord Manderly laughed a bit too hard for such a weak jest. 

 

"Aye, that would be the best for us all," Wyman said. 

 

"Lord Wyman, this is my son and heir Robb." Robb came and bowed a little on his horse as Wyman, who returned the gesture. "My daughters Sansa and Arya." Sansa gave a perfect response, and Arya looked like her back spasmed. "And this is my second to last, young Brandon." Bran was looking around in awe at the many buildings and could only nod when he noticed the silence. 

 

"Welcome, welcome all of you. My eldest, Lord Wylis, will escort you as I greet the rest of the Northern Lords you have traveled with." 

 

"I appreciate it, my Lord." Ned and his family made his way through the gate, each taking some bread and salt when they did. Wylis was Ned's age with a bald head and think mustache giving him the appearance of a walrus that often occupied Seal Rock in White Harbor's bay. Wylis led them down the main road, which boasted of choice inns, shops, blacksmiths, and a few apothecaries. Side streets shot out in every direction leading to the other places of the city, some less reputable but where the cheaper fares could be found, and the closer to the harbor, the more reasonable the expense. The main road led straight to the Harbor, but the largest side street led to the center of the town and forked in two similar but distinct directions, one headed towards the old castle-turned prison the Wolf's Den, while the other led to their final destination, New Castle. The New Castle was as white as the Harbor's name and was high up on a hill overlooking the city, and as Ned rode up to it, he had memories flash before him of a red castle he once rode up to. Ned shook the thoughts from his mind, and instead, he and Wylis talked about his brother's upcoming wedding. 

 

Ned asked who had arrived, and took a deep breath, "House Grafton obviously and the Arryns of Gulltown, and with you most of the Northern Houses. Lord Karstark is here with all of these children. The Ryswells and Lady Dustin as well. House Locke made it only an hour before you. We are still waiting for the Flints of both Widow's watch and the Fingers to get here. We have no idea if the Reeds will attend. The Lords, Corbray Redfort, Royces, and Lady Waynwood and few more Vale houses will arrive in the next couple of days if the seas are good. The houses of the crown lands will be here the day or two after that. The Hand of the King will arrive a day or two before the wedding, and Lord Arryn wrote that he will have the Crownlords with him, as well as a Lords of the Narrow Sea. We also have a magister from Pentos and four merchants from Braavos, not to mention the knights and soldiers who wish to participate in the tournament. We did hear that your good brother would attend as well, and wanted to meet his nieces and nephews." Wylis talked for so long without a break. He became nervous, "Apologies, my Lord, it has been a stressful few weeks." 

 

"No need to apologize Lord Wylis, I can sympathize with your situation, if you need anything of me, please don't hesitate to ask." Wylis looked relieved, and Ned continued, "Your two lovely young daughters, how do they fare?" Wylis' expression softened and talked at length of his daughters. Wynafryd, who just turned fifteen with hair like his wife's who was was a bit shy. His daughter Wylla, a year younger but was wild and care-free with a sharp tongue and sharper wit. Ned gave a genuine smile, "She will get right along with my Arya, then." Wylis was very pleased with this, and they discussed their children until they entered the Merman's Court. 

 

As soon as they stepped into the Great hall, Ned was quickly greeted by Lord Karstark and both the Ryswells and Lady Dustin. Ned made his excuses to get away and to get his family settled. 

 

They were escorted to their rooms. Which were on the floor underneath the Manderly families who were at the top. They were left alone to unpack. This was the first time he noticed Jon, whose happy demeanor was nowhere to be found and was replaced by his typical brooding face. Ned decided this could wait and decided to talk to his children about what would be expected. "Robb and Jon, you will spend the mornings with me as we meet with Nobles from all over Westeros and a few from Essos to discuss anything and everything. Afterward, you may travel only to the Harbor, tourney grounds, or training grounds but no more gambling, please?" The three boys only snickered while nodding their heads. Ned's voice grew serious again. "You may not cross the main road. Alyn will be your escort. Sansa and Arya, you will do what is expected of Ladies," Arya's mouth opened to protest, "to the best of your ability, but you will have two guards each with you. Bran, no climbing. I mean it! This is not our home, you may also not leave the Castle, and will only travel to the tourney grounds with me when the tournament takes place. I know how slippery you can be, so you will have three guards with you at all times. Do I make myself clear?" 

 

An echo of agreement found him. 

 

Ned turned to Theon, "Theon," the young boy turned to him, the smirk falling from his face, "You need to be careful, every northern house here lost men to your father's rebellion. This is your chance to show them you will be different, and you are not your father." Theon frowned at him, and Ned decided to push the issue further, "I'll have four guards with you at all times, and I mean at all times." 

 

Robb spoke up, "Guest rites protect him, father, he doesn't have to worry." 

 

"Of course, but I just want to make sure," Ned finished and dismissed his children. 

 

The next few days went about as well as he could expect. Robb and Jon did well, paying attention to the various negotiations Ned had them be apart of. Robb struggled to follow it all but did well while Jon seemed consumed by it and listened with eagerness as deals were done with the Northern Lords. The only meetings that didn't go as expected were the meetings with the Whitehills, Karstarks, and Hornwoods and unfortunately, they were one right after another, 

 

Ned never liked Ludd Whitehill, as he was a minor Lord sworn to the Boltons, and they rarely met face to face, but as tensions were getting out of hand between House Forrester and Whitehill, it was time to intervene.

 

Ned cleared his throat and began speaking, "Lord Whitehill, Lord Bolton and Lord Glover have asked me to speak to you and Lord Forrester. I have spoken to Lord Forrester, and he has told me you have been making more aggressive claims," Ned held up his hand to forestall an interruption, "I understand that this is only one side to the story, so I want to know your's." 

 

Lord Whitehill stared at the people present in the room, first Ned, then Robb, to Jon and Ned's guards on either side. "Lord Stark, you know of the long-standing enmity between Forrester and us." Ned inclined his head. "You know that both of our main trade is in lumber, some trapping, and hunting but mostly lumber." Ned knew where this was going. "As you well know, the forest under the rule of Ironwrath is well stocked in a wide variety of wood. The woods around Highpoint have some variety as well, but the most prized are the ironwoods. Highpoint has four hundred acres, but as you know, the Forresstors have a thousand times, maybe even more. I know that lumber is traded nominal outside the North, our way is the old way." Lord Whitehill was becoming flushed with anger. "Most of those forests are ours, Lord Stark. Unlawfully taken. Those ironwoods are ours, they are the reason we struggle Lord Stark." He was shouting now. "Lord Gregor isn't just satisfied which is already taken but is pushing for villages and mills. I demand justice be done." 

 

Ned fixed him with his best imitation of his father's stare until Ludd Whitehill cooled off. "You do not demand of me, Lord Whitehill." The old lord's scowl lessened a bit. "However, Lord Forrester said much the same, I could find the ancient laws and borders if we were in Winterfell. Instead, I will only make the suggestion I made to Lord Gregor." Whitehill seemed a little more interested. "Marry your young son and heir Gryff to Lady Mira, have Gregor, as part of dowry surrender some acres of land, be it mills, villages, whatever. Join the houses, end this nonsense." Whitehill's scowl returned with rage and a snarl. 

 

"Marriage, Lord Stark, that is your counsel? I will not sully the line of my house with Forrester blood! How dare you suggest this! No wonder the Mor-" 

 

Ned cut him off, "Watch yourself, my Lord, this is the second time I warned you, there will not be a third." Old Ludd was still angry, Ned sighed, "Lord Forrester had the same reaction, my Lord, I do not want any more escalation between you two. Give me some time, let us find a solution while we are all in the same place. However, this meeting is overall the same, You are dismissed." Whitehill gave a slight bow and left. Ned looked at Jon and Robb, who were both frowning at Lord Whitehill as he went. 

 

"He is an unpleasant man, but he is one of our Lord's, so he gets his way," Ned told his sons.

 

"Even when he is acting like an ass?" Robb asked, smirking. This caused Jon to chuckle.  

 

Ned silenced them both with a look, "An arse to you or me, maybe. But this feud is deep and goes back to the Andal invasion, hundreds of years of malice between the two houses. It ebbs and flows, but it has been reignited in recent years, and if your duty as a Lord, Robb, is to listen, hear their complaints and try and find a solution." 

 

"Won't one of them be mad at the outcome?" Robb asked. 

 

Ned smiled at both his sons, "If you're lucky." Robb gulped, and Ned put a hand on his shoulder, "You'll have plenty of practice Robb, and you will make some mistakes, but you will be successful as well. Come, let us speak to Lord Karstark." 

 

Lord Karstark came in soon after. The tall, gaunt, bearded Lord of Karhold was an imposing figure and one that had taken time for Ned to earn his respect. That respect, unfortunately, did not end the lord's ambition. 

 

"Lord Stark," came Karstark's raspy greeting. 

 

"Lord Karstark," Ned tilted his head towards the chair across from his desk. "Good to see you come sit." As Rickard Karstark sat down, Ned started, "What do you wish to discuss?" 

 

"A few things, my Lord." Ned waited for him to continue, "We need to discuss the taxes you are imposing my lord, taxes are necessary, of course, but every year since the Greyjoy rebellion they have increased, little by little. Until now, we are paying a quarter more than we ever did under the Mad King, and we helped Robert win that throne, and when winter came, did he send us to aid us, no, he took more when spring arrived." Ned could only agree, it was frustrating and hitting the North harder than most. It was always a delicate balance in the North, and too much one way or the other will cause it all to topple over. "Even then, though, the Mormonts have received a reprieve from paying their taxes. They were headed by a slaver, and yet they get a reprieve?" Rickard Karstark started to ramble, half in anger and a half in frustration. 

 

Ned stood up, "Lord Karstark." When Karstark kept going, Ned raised his voice, "Lord Karstark!" Karstark slowly stopped when Ned again affixed him with his gaze. "What would you have me do with House Mormont? I went to execute their lord, but he fled to Essos. Should I take all that they own? Punish the entire region, bankrupting the house so that they can never again be valuable assets to the North? No. That is not our way. If we don't band together, aid each other, the North fails. We punish those guilty, no more." This didn't assuage the Lord of Karhold. "However, I understand the burden the Crown has been placing on us. Lord Jon Arryn, the Hand of the King, arrives soon. It is one of the first things that we will be discussing as I share your frustration." 

 

"Aye Lord Stark, you were raised with the King and know you are friends, but what he is asking of the North is not an act of a friend." 

 

Ned knew this was bordering on treason, "Careful Lord Karstark, I share your concern, but outside of this room, to people who do not know you, that would be a treasonous statement." Lord Karstark was brash but not stupid. He understood he said all he could say on that. 

 

"Lord Stark, I also understand your young son has no betrothed." Ned looked to his left, where Robb was squirming, looking down, while Jon was trying not to smirk. 

 

Ned gave a look at Jon. His son quickly regained his composure. Ned then addressed Lord Karstark, "Aye, that was another reason for me to come to White Harbor, I was hoping to meet the younger Lords and Ladies. This visit will allow me to help to see what was best for my family and, of course, what was best for the North." Ned finished, and Rickard seemed to weigh his words. 

 

"Then I would want you to meet my daughter Alys why you are here, young Robb. She's a good young girl, and since the Karstarks and Starks haven't been joined together in many generations, it would provide a stable foundation going forward." 

 

"Aye it may, but I have to consider all options and take into account young Robb's opinion as well. Thank you, Lord Karstark, you may go." The Lord of Karhold left, and Ned sagged in his chair.   One more to go. 

 

"Will, you really take into account who I want to marry?" Robb's voice surprised him. 

 

"Aye, but it will be a small factor Robb, I want you to be happy, but the North must always come first." Robb looked resigned. "You know I was never meant to marry your mother, but eventually we found happiness, you could as well." Robb nodded, and Ned motioned to the guard to bring Lord Hornwood. 

 

When Halys came in his usual jovial manner was replaced by something he just saw on Ludd Whitehill. "Lord Hornwood, please sit." As he did, Ned kept going, "what do I owe the pleasure? We had only just met yesterday when you so kindly offered your son for marriage to my Sansa. Which is still being considered, of course." Ned noticed Halys glaring at Jon, and Ned realized this would be a very different conversation. "Jon, leave us." If his son looked surprised, he didn't show it. Instead, he looked a bit guilty as he walked out. 

 

Halys sent his stare towards Ned, "I love my niece very much, Lord Stark, more so than I loved my younger brother, who you know I adored. I want Ella to be happy, in a large hall, supported by servants and good land with incomes so that she wants for nothing." Ned knew what came next. "It will not do. To have her ruin her chances at a good future by running around with a bastard that has none." Ned clutched the side of his chair, and he saw Robb out of the corner of his eye purple with rage, Robb opened his mouth to say something, but Ned stared at him until his mouth shut. 

 

"I understand your frustration Lord Halys, but that is my son, bastard, or no." Lord Halys calmed and started to regain his composure. 

 

"I'm sorry, my Lord, I have a bastard myself. Jon is a good lad, or so my son Larence says, really looks up to him, he does. He's a strong fighter for his age, many of the lords speak highly of him, and Ella was quite taken with him." 

 

"Was my Lord?" Ned turned his head towards Robb with a questioning look. 

 

"Aye Lord Stark, they were inseparable during the journey as much as they tried to hide it, but I am no fool. But no more, Larence wouldn't say what happened only that he was there." Lord Hornwood said. "Nonetheless, men talk, and I have heard soldiers say that she is taken with him and that your boy cannot keep his eyes from her." 

 

"They are but children, my Lord." 

 

"Not for much longer, and I know what those looks will lead to, and I will not have her chances at a good husband ruined." Halys was heated, and Ned fought to keep his frustration from showing. "Pardon me, Lord Stark, but how would you feel if my Larence looked at your Sansa like your boy looks at my Ella?" 

 

Ned felt a pang within him. Damn him. He was right, but damn him. And damn himself for agreeing. "Aye, so be it I will talk to him. Is there anything else?" 

 

"Aye, and I am grateful, however, since Greydam, I have noticed she is decidedly unhappy and decidedly not near your son." Lord Hornwood gritted the last bit out. 

 

Ned thought for a moment, taking in the implications of Lord Hornwood's words. Or what thought the lord was insinuating. "Have you talked to your niece?" 

 

"I have, and she says nothing." 

 

"And what would you have me do?" Ned knew what he wanted, but he wanted to hear the man say it. 

 

Lord Halys rubbed his hands together. "I would like to have your son sent to my chambers so I can question him." Ned could hear Robb breathe out sharply. 

 

"No," Ned stated, "But, I can call for Jon, and we can question him here and now." Ned flatly stated. 

 

Halys stared at Ned for a couple of heartbeats. "Of course." he gritted out. Ned called for Jon, and Jon surveyed the room his pale face looking paler than usual, but Jon held a neutral expression. 

 

Ned gave his son what he hoped was a sympathetic look, "Jon, Lord Hornwood has noticed his niece Ella has not quite been herself, and she hasn't said anything about what happened, we thought to ask you," Jon's went even further white which Ned found odd, now Ned was starting to get nervous.   Did Jon do something? Please, gods, don't let Jon have done something.  "Jon, be honest now. Go ahead, my lord." 

 

Lord Halys studied Jon, "I love my niece Jon, I want her happy, and with a good marriage, so I must ask a few questions about the nature of your relationship with her." Jon nodded, not able to meet his eyes. "So Jon Snow, what is the nature of your relationship?" 

 

Jon slowly raised his head and met the lord's eye, still pale but more resolute. "We, uh, we met my lord at Winterfell." Jon swallowed. "We started speaking to one another, quite often, my lord. The last we talked was the night I sparred with Lord Cley." Jon was starting to sweat. "We spent a good deal of time together speaking about many things, but that night I uh mentioned my intention to go to the Night's Watch on my eighteenth name day." Halys raised his eyebrow at that, but Jon continued. "Ella, I mean Lady Hornwood said she would be displeased if I did, she uh, I'm sorry my Lords, she uh kissed me."  Shit. 

 

Halys Hornwood jumped to his feet, "You what?!" Halys said, and Jon flinched back, and Ned was on his ready to step in, but Jon recovered from his flinch, and instead of looking apologetic, he looked...defiant. 

 

"It went no further my Lord I swear on my honor, I know that means nothing to most, but it's all a   bastard  has." Lord Hornwood was still angry and standing, his snarl was there, and his hand was hovering over his dagger. "I am fond of your niece Lord Hornwood, and she is fond of me. I know it is folly, and I told her as such. She slapped me and left me, upset and crying, and called me a coward. She hasn't spoken to me since." Lord Hornwood's snarl disappeared, and the space was silent for a few moments. Jon looked around the room, and Ned felt anger in his chest. Anger and pride and profound sadness. His thirteen-year-old boy spoke like a man ten years older. With a distinct idea of what his life would be and what he specifically would never have. Jon broke the silence. "You're right, my lord, she deserves more than me, and I am too fond of her to allow her to have less. To ruin her chances of having that life. No, that would not do."  

 

Lord Hornwood's anger had abated, and he slowly took his seat. "Aye, your right, you would not do." He noticed Jon's jaw shift, but the tone of Halys's voice wasn't meant with ill intent, but resignation. It was a while before the Lord of Hornwood spoke, "I appreciate your honesty Jon, I will talk about this with Lady Ella." He got up to leave, and as he reached the door, he turned to Jon, "You're a good lad, Jon...if…." Halys Hornwood trailed off, shook his head, and left the solar.

 

Jon was in pain, it was easy for anyone to see, Ned spoke, "Jon?" 

 

"Excuse me, father, I'm not feeling well." Jon left, wiping his eyes. 

 

Ned sat back exhausted and closed his eyes, thinking about how to fix all of this, He heard footsteps to his right and then a sigh as someone sat down in front of him. "Father, we need to talk about Jon." 

 

Ned opened one eye and closed again, "What about Jon, Robb?" 

 

"Father, Jon is not joining the Watch," Robb said. It wasn't a question merely a statement of fact. 

 

Ned sat up and opened his eyes, "It's not our place to force him not to. It's his choice." 

 

"I want to change his mind, I want to, I don't know, there must be something I can do." Robb started pacing around. "He's my brother, Father, my brother, and he feels he needs to leave?" 

 

"He doesn't…" 

 

"He does! I know how he thinks, its probably because he thinks it will give him honor, or purpose or maybe because I was an ass to him."

 

"Robb, do not interrupt me." His son stopped and muttered an apology. 

 

Ned took a deep breath, but he knew his son would not be quiet for long. His hands were on his head. "Father, please. Something, anything we can do?" 

 

Ned had never been more proud of his son. He felt his tears start to form and blinked them away before they could develop, "I know Robb, I've told Jon he is always welcome at Winterfell, but he's a Snow, Robb." Robb's face fell, then he looked up determined. 

 

"I can give him land, give him a holdfast, make him a bannerman to Winterfell! We could have him close, make him my advisor, he could build it as his own!" Robb was excited and walking around. Ned told him to sit, it was time for a hard truth. 

 

"You could Robb, but where? How much would you give him? How would it affect the North, what would the Lords of the North think?" Robb's excitement started to drain away. "I love Jon, I would love to do what you suggest, but how can I face other Lords just giving away land?" Robb was starting to get angry. 

 

"We rule the North, the other Lords can shove it." Ned let out a chuckle, and the anger in his son's face broke a bit as his lip curled. 

 

Ned's chuckle turned from joy to something more hollow. "We are not Tyrant's Robb. We must be strong, sure. We have held the North for thousands of years because we are strong. But our strength comes from our men. Noble and smallfolk alike. Our job is to ensure their safety and to make sure they feel valued. Granting keeps and land, no matter where, to someone, especially someone.." Ned swallowed a lump in his throat, "like Jon just because he is your brother will cause problems." 

 

"But Brandon and Rickon.." Robb started to say, but Ned cut him off. 

 

"Are Starks, Jon is a Snow." Ned gritted out, and it tasted sour. 

 

"So, we do nothing and let Jon rot at the Wall because he is a bastard!"

 

Ned sighed and rubbed his forehead and trying to force his headache away. "No. Nor can we just give him land because he is your brother. With Rickon and Brandon, although it isn't expected, it is normal enough, but for Jon. No." He paused for a few moments. "Not yet, at least." Robb's eyes flashed with hope. "Your brother is a good man, but he has not proven himself. He needs to make a name or wealth or both, and then, we can give him land, and the North will think it just and fair." 

 

"How do we do that?" Robb asked. 

 

Ned blew out his breath. "I don't know, but I could ask someone to squire him, he's a bit old, but we can get him knighted. That could help." 

 

Robb laughed, "Jon is a better fighter than any squire and most knights." 

 

Ned shook his head, "He is a good fighter...for his age. But for him with grown knights and fully armored, he would be dismantled." 

 

"Tell that Ser Rodrik," Robb spoke out of the side of his mouth. 

 

Ned gave a small chuckle, "He is gifted, Jon is, quick as a hare and patient as a Shadowcat. But he is still half a boy, he isn't strong enough to kill man, isn't tall enough to battle their reach." 

 

Robb rolled his eyes, "Says you." 

 

"Says I." Ned stood up and arched his back as a few pops escaped. "I'll talk to some Vale Lords, Yohn Royce has a few sons that may need a squire, and I have known him for a long while." Robb nodded, and they parted. 

 

----

 

Over the next couple of days, Ned found his mind wandering back to Jon thinking about what Robb said.   How could I do this? Could I give Jon something?  The thought didn't leave him as he was writing letters bound for Winterfell when he heard a knock at the door. 

 

"Come in." 

 

Ned kept his eyes down when a soft but stern voice familiar greeted him. "Eddard, you always worked too hard, with no time for pleasantries." Ned shot out of his chair and saw the broad-shouldered, white hair and blue eyes of his second father.

 

"My Lord Hand, I was not told you arrived." Ned knelt until he felt a hand on his shoulder. 

 

"Get up, Ned. We do need to speak though on official matters between the Hand and Warden of the North." The seriousness in his tone struck Ned as odd until a smile showed through and opened his arms, and Ned embraced him. They soon broke apart, and he and Jon sat back down at either side of the desk. "Ned, tell me how fares the North." 

 

Ned shook his head. "I'll be honest, Lord Arryn, this winter may have been brief, but no more devastating. Here in the North, as you know, we need every year of summer to make it through winter. Robert's rebellion than the Greyjoy Rebellion, however brief, depleted our stores and our men much too fast. Add to that the tax increases and Lord Mormont's treachery, The North is in the toughest position since my father went south." Jon moved his head, agreeing silently. 

 

Then Jon spoke, "I understand the position you are in Ned, I really do, but the crown isn't doing well." 

 

"What do you mean?" 

 

Jon Arryn scratched the back of his head, an unlordly gesture, but they were close, "You haven't seen the King in what? Six, seven years?" Ned nodded. "He's not well Ned, he's drinking more than ever, demands feasts constantly we have tournaments almost every month, and The King hasn't been to a small council meeting since we planned the counter-attack of Pyke." 

 

Ned sensed the news got worse and spoke, "Jon, how bad is it?" 

 

"Bad Ned, you think your taxes are bad? They should be nearly double. Double Ned of what they should be if we were to break even." Ned jumped out of his seat and nearly shouted. 

 

"Double?! How? That would break the North Jon, and I assume only Highgarden and the Westerlands could burden it, not that they would want to. The Vale would struggle, and possibly get past it." Jon's words were fully sinking in, and Ned's eyes snapped to Jon, "How? How is the Crown breaking even?" 

 

The Hand of King, Lord of the Vale, and Ned's father head his head down in shame, "Borrowing." 

 

"From who?" Ned thought he knew the answer, but his voice was barely a whisper. 

 

"The Iron Bank." Ned felt his face pale. "And the King's good father. The Faith." Ned's legs went out from under him. "I have had to send inquiries to some Archons of Tyrosh, Lys, and Myr as well."

 

Ned struggled to speak, "How much? The North is struggling, but we can try...try to help, White Harbor has had a little trade increase." 

 

"4 and a half million" Ned's eyes went wide. "2 to the Iron Bank. 2 million to House Lannister and five hundred thousand to the Faith." 

 

"By the Gods, Jon, you let the Crown go into such debt? How? It has only been thirteen years?" 

 

"I know." Jon put his head in his hands. "I know. Once I could control...No assuage the King's nature, but I can't hold him back, He has maybe three to four of the highest quality whores a day, the queen spends the Crown's money on anything and everything, tournaments, and feasts cost so much to house everyone." 

 

"Aerys left a full treasury!" Ned said. 

 

"The Mad King was paying for a war, and Robert and I bought the goodwill of those defeated with the rest of that coin," Jon Arryn said, rebuffing Ned. 

 

Ned worked through the numbers of how many taxes the North collected a year, gave a guess of what the other Kingdoms received as well. As the figures were totaled, panic started to set in. This debt, as it stood now, would take years, maybe decades to solve. Ned felt a weight settle on his shoulders, exhausted, "What can we do?" 

 

"Honestly, Ned, I don't know." Jon feebly spoke." The only one with sense on the small council is Lord Stannis, but the brothers hate each other and won't listen to the other. Everyone else, Baelish, Varys, Pycelle, Renly. They all are either sycophants or leeches, but they serve their purpose." 

 

"I can't leave the North Jon, let me write a letter that you alone will carry to the King. Maybe I can get through to him, maybe I can…." They both looked at each other and knew that Robert would never be swayed from his nature. He was as stubborn as a bull. 

 

They sat in silence for a while. Ned only thought, thought about the North, their traditions, and being content in their near poverty and comfortability with being on the brink. In ordinary times, they could weather these issues, and Ned started to form a plan but was interrupted by Jon. "I came to the North Ned for more than talks and trade, I came to force him into that chair, to take responsibility and start to rule. He has a good heart, and maybe facing the responsibility will give him a challenge." 

 

"You think that will work?" Ned asked.

 

"Honestly?" Jon lifted his hands. "I don't know, men don't change, they are what they are, but I am old, old and tired, and I won't be here much longer, and Robert needs to learn, or his son will be forced to clean up his reign." 

 

Ned nodded along, "How is the crown prince?" 

 

The Lord Hand's eyes found him, but his head didn't move. "He...is difficult." 

 

"Difficult?" 

 

Jon scratched his chin quickly before continuing, "More spoiled and coddled. I hope in time that he improves." 

 

"Has the King thought about fostering him, having him squire to anyone." 

 

"Aye, I've put forth a few names, someone to discipline him and hold him accountable, but the Queen will never accept," Jon answered with a hint of exasperation. 

 

"The King should order it done, it is in the best interest of the realm." 

 

"And I agree, but Robert doesn't have the energy to fight his wife. Nor do I think he has energy for the Prince." Jon said lamely. 

 

"Still, it would be good for the prince to be away from the capital, serve and listen to someone," Ned said, absentmindedly moving papers around.

 

"Aye, like Robert's closest friend," Jon said, and the blood in Ned's body froze in place, and he went still. Ned found Jon staring at him, "Yes." The Lord Hand said, "Yes. Yes." The Hand of the King became more energized, the more he repeated himself. "This could work, and this is something Robert could get behind. Something he   would   fight the Queen on and get his way." 

 

Ned felt his heart start to beat faster, "Lord Arryn, it woul…."

 

"Be perfect, Ned truly. It would get him away from court, show him what it is like to earn people's respect instead of being entitled to it." 

 

"I don't know the first thing about raising a prince!" Ned protested, but Jon Arryn waved him off.

 

"Robb seems like a great young man, and it would tie the North to the Iron Throne and build a bond with the Greyjoy heir as well. When Robert dies and gods help us, it is not for a time yet, the next King would have close ties to two regions, two more since your Robb is related to my heir, and Robb is nephew to the Riverlands." Jon spoke, explaining it as if it is already done. 

 

Ned started grasping at straws, "The Prince is only ten years old!" 

 

"Aye, it may take a couple of years, but I can get Robert behind this idea. Thank you, Ned, remember this is for the good of the realm." Jon finished with a tone that Ned knew there was to be no more discussion on this subject, and Ned feared he had taken on something he was not ready for. 

Chapter Text

Jon 

 

White Harbor was incredible; Jon never loved being surrounded by people. However, the Northern city was exciting, new, and crowded due to the number of Northern warriors and southern knights. Every time Jon walked through the proper training yard within New Castle and saw heraldry from all over the eastern half of Westeros. Houses of the South included all the Lords of the Narrow sea, Houses Celtigar, Velaryon, Bar Emmon, and Sunglass all had a member of two and at least four knights in their service, House Tarth was there as well, but it was just the Evenstar and a knight who had impressive size. Even a few lords of the crownlands arrived; House Rykker, Rosby, and Stokeworth were in attendance, but only House Rykker brought any proper knights to compete in the tourney, Lord Renfred Rykker was there with two younger men, maybe sons? Jon could not remember. 

 

However, the Lords of the Vale were what made White Harbor seem so crowded, especially in the training yard. As Jon walked with Larence at his side, he saw the Redfort sons sparing with Lyn and Lucas Corbray and Robar Royce. Jon then saw the older but no less fearsome, Bronze Yohn Royce sparring with his eldest Andar and beating the younger man with seeming ease. Jon continued walking, seeing Belmores and Waynwoods, Hunters and Moores, Melcoms and Templetons, Coldwaters, and the reason they were all here, Graftons.   

 

House Grafton was there in full strength, Lord Gerold Grafton, with the bride to be Mereth. She was a heavier woman, somewhere in her early twenties, but she had a pleasant face, and Jon had only ever seen her laughing, simple maybe? Lord Gerold had only one son with him, his heir Gerold the younger, who was close to twenty. Broad chest light brown hair and clean-shaven. He was sparring with what seemed to be numerous cousins or bannermen, while a couple of women watched. Jon learned those were the two other daughters of Lord Grafton and were destined for better matches because they were all prettier than their sister, with names that sounded too much alike. 

 

One of who, Saryn, Jon thought but wasn't sure, was currently blushing while speaking with one of the most bizarre-looking men Jon had ever seen. He had tanned skin with deep laughing lines and dimples of both cheeks. He had light-brown, slightly curled hair, wearing bright red flowing clothes and a small, skinny blade on his hip. Jon stared so long it took Larence urging him to move forward to continue through the full yard. 

 

Jon continued to walk through the yard, seeking out a Northerner who would spar with him. The squires' melee was in only three days, and Larence was only there to watch or practice with a page near his age. 

 

Since it was only a day until the wedding, Jon's Father allowed him and Robb to explore the city and mix with guests, but Jon had no desire. He had trained nearly four hours a day over the past couple of months, and he was excited to see how good he actually was. Since his confrontation with Ella, Jon was on edge, never wanting to run into her, so when he wasn't with his father through midday, he stuck to beating the frustration out on whoever sparred with him. It kept him busy and allowed him to be able to blend in with the number of men-at-arms and squires fighting. So far, he only sparred with the men of Winterfell and a couple of young Lords from the North. Jon went to the quartermaster then made his way to his usual corner to warm his muscles, loosening them up for the day. It was only then he saw one of the few highborn willing to spar already hacking and swinging at another man. 

 

Jon was able to see the Umbers towering over everyone and headed out that way, looking forward to sweating out his nerves. Greatjon Umber saw him first and bellowed out, "Jon Snow! Come here, my boy. Smalljon is finishing up with young Eddard over here, and he needs someone to make him work to hit them !" Greatjon roared as the young Karstark's shield was twisted, and the young giant kicked him onto the ground. Jon had thus far been able to avoid most of the bad blows when sparring with Smalljon, but he never could prevent them all. "You are quicker than a shadowcat, and facing you has got him accustomed fighting someone tough to land a decent blow on..." The giant of a man slapped Jon's back, and he felt the wind rush out of his lungs. 

 

Smalljon was not aptly named, and the young man was nearly as tall as his father, just as strong but twenty years younger. Jon was moving as fast as he could, but the Umber man was able to deflect and defend nearly every attack. The few hits Jon did score didn't have the strength to end the fight, but Jon knew they must have hurt him enough to slow him down. Jon had to be wary, knowing one hit would be his undoing. Jon was able to duck under the swing and counter, but he only scrapped Smalljon's greave but nothing more. Then Jon moved to avoid a well-timed strike he felt a hand grip his shoulder and throw him what seemed to be ten feet, and Jon landed in the dirt. Jon slowly looked up to see a green dress, and continued looking up and saw green eyes on a freckled face under light brown hair. Jon paled, and the young girl had a perfectly neutral face that bored into him. After a few moments, she gave a small smirk then turned and left as Jon felt as if Smalljon had just thrown him through a wall.

 

Jon got back to his feet to see a small gathering had come to watch the skinny boy spar with a giant Umber. Smalljon came over with a broad smile and a sheen on sweat on his brow, "Oi Snow, you move well when you hit there is not much power, though, but you got time to build some muscle. Until then, I'll enjoy our little battles. You make me move more than I am used to." 

 

Jon was barely listening, thinking about Ella and just gave a non-committal shrug, "Aye, I knew if you got one hit on me, that'd be the end." Smalljon bellowed like his father. 

 

"Aye, you got the right of it! You'll be a hell of a warrior, Snow! Come on a couple more rounds! I am starting to get used to fighting a rabbit-like you!" Jon gave out a deep breath and turned to face the huge man. Jon improved little in the subsequent bouts, but he was proud that the only hits on him were glancing blows. Still, even those felt like getting kicked by a mule. The last one was to his forearm, and Jon couldn't use his left hand as it went numb and decided to call it quits. 

 

Jon wasn't tired, but the fight was all out of him, and he just wanted to go back to the bed he was using and sleep until they could leave for Winterfell. However, he knew he needed to fight in the squires' melee. Jon needed to make sure Robb didn't get seriously hurt by doing something to impress the women present. Those who weren't a knight or over the age of eighteen years of age were allowed to enter. With Jon and Robb being the youngest to put their names in, he was nervous. Jon only hoped not to embarrass his father. Three more days . Three days and then the squires' melee and Jon's chance to start making a name for himself. He started walking towards the castle when his way was blocked by bright red and purple clothes. 

 

"Who are you, boy?" The accent was so thick Jon could barely understand him. 

 

"Jon Snow, my Lord." The strange man let out a loud laugh at his answer, and Jon's hackles rose. 

 

"Lord? I am no Lord, and we only have one with such a title where I am from. Nobles, captains, even a few magisters, but Lords? No, just one." The man said with a smile. 

 

Jon studied him for a couple of heartbeats, "You're from Braavos?" 

 

"Braavos," the man gave out a sigh and placed a hand over his chest, "the greatest city in the world, aye, my home, my heart, my very blood." Jon wasn't sure what to think of this odd, dramatic man. It seemed whatever moment the man was having passed, and he noticed Jon again. "My name is Tamir Fregar; my brother is Tormo Fregar, Tormo to me, soon to be magister Fregar to all others, but I am no Lord, but my family name once was quite respected and shall be again." Jon could tell by the way this Tamir carried himself, he was used to some sort of privilege. 

 

"It was a pleasure to meet you, my Lo-, nobleman Fregar." Jon's stumble, made the man laugh once again. 

 

"Call me, Tamir." 

 

Jon simply said, "Tamir, good day." Jon went to walk around him but found his way again blocked by this man. Jon was frustrated and glared at this Tamir from Braavos. He was slim, but there was a strength to him, he was close to six feet, and he assumed women would find him handsome. 

 

"You have talent boy, and I would like to test your skill, teach you even, most boys would be fearful of facing someone much stronger and skilled than them. Yet I have watched you these past few days. Nipping at the heels of experienced men. Yet if you spar with one who you are getting the better off, you leave and find someone better, yes?"

 

Jon only shrugged, "Can't learn if I'm winning every time." Jon's remark made the man's face brighten.

 

"You are smaller than most men you fight, but quicker, though. You use your advantages well, and make a decent fight of it." Jon felt his pride swell a small amount, but it did not last long. "Yet your core is weak, and your balance is lacking, you move too much, making you tired when you don't need to be." Jon felt his cheeks grow hot, from shame or anger he didn't know. That made the man smile further. "You are angry, and it will make you sloppy, come, raise your sword, hit me." Jon's anger disappeared and began to wonder if this was a trick. 

 

"Is this a trick?"

 

"A lesson." Jon gave him a quizzical look, and he barely saw the steel before it connected against his helm. White lights appeared as Jon stumbled backward. "Raise your blade Snow, or you will find yourself dead." Jon's anger reappeared, and his blunted blade was out. Jon was already swinging against the Braavosi. Jon knew he was an excellent swordsman for his age, but every swing of his sword met only air as Tamir smiled and moved. Tamir moved like a leaf in the wind, just enough to dodge Jon's sword, not even raising his own to deflect. Jon had to keep his admiration in check as he fought Tamir until Tamir decided to end it. Before Jon could react, his sword was gone, and he felt bruises already forming. 

 

Jon was breathing hard, while Tamir still just smiled and picked up Jon's sword to hand it back. Jon could barely get the words out, "How..how, do you move that way?" 

 

"You Westerosi, only focusing on brute strength, raw footwork, and armor. Important, but not all. You must move with precision, but with grace. Connect your weapon to your body and move with fluidity like a dance, do this young Jon and you could be a great warrior, perfect it, and no one could match you." Tamir finished, and his smile was gone. Jon could not decide if he liked this man, but he knew he could learn from him.  

 

"I appreciate your concern Tamir, but I must go to my family, but I would appreciate another lesson," Jon went to leave when Tamir grabbed his shoulder. 



"Ah, Jon Snow... do not leave so quickly." Jon tried and unsuccessfully glared at Tamir Fregar. "I once learned there are no houses named Snow in Westeros. You are a bastard?" Jon felt his blood boil, and Jon no longer hid his glare. "You Westerosi are prudish, except maybe those Dornish, but they have no sense of humor. Bastard or no, Essos, you can make your own way, regardless of birth." Jon raised an eyebrow.



"Aye, but who wants to live in Essos Lord Fregar," Jon asked before he could stop himself. 

 

"Oh, and have you been to Essos?" Tamir retorted. Jon didn't answer, and Tamir slowly spun his sword and returned to his progression. 

 

"So Snow's are bastards of high lords of the North? So who begat you young Snow? Cerwyn? Woolfield? A Hornwood?" 

 

"Eddard Stark." Silence followed for a long while, "But if you asked about me, you already knew it." Comprehension dawned on him, "So what do you want?" 

 

Tamir feigned shock initially, but a sly grin spread over his face, "I enjoy having friends, and more importantly, so does my brother Tormo. A son of the Northern ruler seems like a good friend to make." 

 

Jon's anger started to rise, "I am no use if you need a friend, find my brother Robb; he is the heir." 

 

This confrontation didn't perturb Tamir and simply said, "That was my plan Jon Snow, but you are much more interesting, if it leads to better relations with the North, it would be a win for everyone." Jon could not hide his anger, he was just a pawn to be used to get close to his father, and he was about to say that he wouldn't allow it, but Tamir continued. "However, if it came to nothing….well, I still have made a friend, a broody one, but there is something more to you," then paused before saying, "I think." Jon didn't know how to respond. Tamir just grabbed a practice sword and started to move a unique style Jon had never seen before. 

 

"In our lessons, could you teach me to move like that?" Jon sputtered out, and Tamir just looked at him. "If...I mean, you had offered…." Jon saw the sword flash towards him, and Jon barely got his up in time, and Jon struggled to keep up with Tamir's strikes. This time Jon was able to hold on for more than half a minute before being disarmed. 

 

"You are improving Jon Snow, slow, but I can see it." He attacked again with no warning, and Jon was moving back to avoid the sword. He was hit again and then was on his back. He felt for his blunted sword hit his side, and Jon got back onto his feet and readied himself again. On and on, they sparred, Jon being beaten over and over again. Tamir didn't seem disappointed but impressed by the end of the session. "Morning and evenings, be here." With that, Tamir left, and Jon started to limp his way back to the Stark quarters when Larence found him

 

"You were amazing, Jon! You moved so fast against that Braavosi." 

 

"Aye, maybe, but it was all for naught the man is untouchable," Jon replied. 

 

Larence shrugged, "He won't last in the melee with that skinny blade, and he is more than ten years older you Jon! No one your age could do half as well as you!" Jon gave him a small smile. 

 

"I don't know about that. In a few years, Larence, I'm sure you'll be leagues better than I am." Larence puffed out his chest and beamed. Jon genuinely enjoyed the boy's company, and he was going to be a good sword the older he got, but Jon had a pit in his stomach thinking about the boy's future. His future. 

 

They walked, and towards the entrance of the keep, Jon spotted Ella again, and Jon put his head down to walk past. "Larence! Jon." The contrast in how she said the two names were startling, but Jon could not resist her and looked towards her voice. 

 

Ella was speaking to the two Rykker men while wearing a pained expression fixed into what Jon assumed was supposed to be amusement. When they approached, Ella introduced them to the two men. "Larence, Jon, this is Hemly Rykker and his twin Ser Lenfred Rykker, they are the nephews of Renfred Rykker, Lord of Duskendale. Sers, this is my cousin Larence, and this is Jon Snow." Jon noticed the contempt she was able to put on his name, and his chest tightened while he affixed his neutral expression.  

 

"Sers," repeated Larence and Jon.

 

The two Rykkers barely glanced at him, and Jon studied them further. They were both near eighteen, a couple of inches shy to six feet, average looking and well built. However, it was their eyes as they looked at Ella that Jon noticed, and something in him was rising to the surface, and Jon fought to keep it down. Jon recognized the looks like that, the ones Theon gave any woman that had a chest. 

 

The one called Lenfred spoke first, "My lady, as we were saying, you are quite the beauty and hoped to win your favor in the coming tournament." Jon's clenched his fist as the Hemly spoke. Angry at this pompous southerner and more so that Ella called him over.

 

"Oh, and what will you two be competing in?" Ella said. 

 

Hemly spoke first, "I would join the proper melee, but the knight I squire for forbids it so I must fight with young children and teach them a thing or two."  

 

"While I will be in both the proper joust and melee, as I already have my spurs," Lenfred said. Gods, Jon hated this boastful prick. Lenfred continued, "Which is why I must ask a beauty from this wondrous land for their favor, and I cannot find anyone that holds a candle to yours." Others take me, what a pompous arse.

 

Hemly continued, "Aye, someone from such a harsh land to be so beautiful is rare indeed, if not your favor, allow us to dance with during one of the feasts." 

 

Jon glanced at Ella as she spoke, "That would be lovely, if you, please excuse me. I need to speak with my cousin." They Rykker brothers left but not before smirking at Jon. Then Jon, Larence, and Ella were alone. 

 

Jon spoke before he could stop himself, "Ella, be careful of those two. They do not look trustworthy." 

 

Ella turned so violently that Jon flinched backward, "I will speak to, dance with, give my favor to whomever I please Snow!" She nearly yelled the last bit, and Jon flushed red, feeling his heart sink so far in his body, he wasn't sure he'd be able to find it. Jon saw Larence also turn a little red, but whose own face was flushed red. Jon muttered an apology and left the yard.

 

Larence's voice had an edge Jon had never heard, and as he was leaving, he could hear him say, "Your selfish cousin, you know it could never happen, then mock him for being a bastard? I thought you were better than that." Jon felt a sad smile form as Larence ran to catch up to him. Jon struggled mightily not to turn around and look at her again. Alas, he was successful. 

 

 "You didn't have to do that," Jon said. "I don't want to get you into trouble with your family." 

 

"Aye probably will hear it from my father." Larence said, "But it's the honorable thing, and it's something you would do." 

 

"I don't know about that." Jon felt his face redden, knowing he could never tell off his family. 

 

Larence was silent for a moment as they continued to climb the steps. "I do."

Chapter Text

Robb

 

 

Robb felt the wedding itself was a rather dull affair. The sept of White Harbor was an elegant building, well made, and seemed to have as much wealth as the New Castle. That said, Robb did not understand the need to have such opulence to worship the Gods, old or new, nor did it make sense to need to have full-time worshiper to tell you what the Gods wanted you to do. Strange gods the Seven were. They were his mother’s gods, and he had sat through the teachings and worship every so often, but they held little sway to him. Still, the ceremony seemed to go as planned, and unfortunately, he sat next to Sansa. 

 

“Wasn’t Lady Mereth’s dress incredible?” Sansa said to no one in particular. “I hope my dress has that much color when I am wed.” As she said this, Robb noticed the quick glance towards a group of Northern Lords. Robb felt his protective instincts start to overcome his apathy as he searched for one she looked at. “And the stitching did you see how complex it was! I must learn how it was done.” 

 

Robb noticed his father doing the same thing as he was. “Aye, but let’s pray that day does not come for many years yet,” his father grumbled. Sansa’s face flushed as she smiled. 

 

Robb’s Uncle Edmure appeared and put her hand on Sansa’s shoulder, “Oh, Sansa, you will be prettier than your mother when you are older, and your father will be beating away the number of suitors who come for you!” His father just grunted in reply. Edmure had arrived that morning, and Robb enjoyed his carefree Uncle, but Robb suspected his father was already growing tired of him. 

 

Bran came up to his father’s side and said a little too loud, “I think it was boring, but at least the tournament starts tomorrow! Robb! Are you excited to fight? I wish they had a page’s melee! Then I could kick Benfred’s butt in front of everyone! Who do you think will win? Mychael Redfort is supposed to be the best young sword in the Vale. I overheard the hand say so! And the jousting Robb, I want to be a champion jouster, be like Barristan and become a mystery knight at only 10! I could do it! “Bran continued to ramble on about the favorites to win all of the competitions. This soon turned to an argument with Arya about who was more skilled in what, including the archery. Robb’s father had also allowed Robb and Jon to participate in, on top of the squire’s melee, but neither felt they would have a good showing. Although he would still attend as it was the only thing father had allowed Theon to participate in, as few accidents happened there.  

 

Arya and Bran continued to argue even after the feast had begun. “Greatjon is the tallest, strongest man he has to win!” Bran pleaded with his sister. 

 

“But he fights with a team! Greatjon cannot beat ten men by himself, idiot!” Arya yelled back. 

 

Ned used his serious voice, “Bran, Arya, that’s enough talk of the tourney for now.” 

 

Edmure had a curious expression when he turned to Robb, “What does Arya mean Lord Umber can’t face ten men? Doesn’t he only face one man at a time?” 

 

Robb gave a laugh, “The joust isn’t as popular in the North Uncle, the melee is where northerners prove their mettle and if they fought one on one it would take the whole summer.” 

 

“Then how will they decide a champion?” Edmure asked, now looking earnest. 

 

“Champions, Uncle. Last I heard there were almost 400 participants!” Edmure spat out his wine over his tunic, which caused an uproar of laughter from the Stark family and their neighboring tables. 

 

Edmure, still coughing, “How...is...the melee..done?” 

 

“Teams uncle. Although I do not know how many teams or how many will fight at once. Also, depending on how many men participate, even the number of men on each team, may change. Though the squire’s melee will be every man for himself.” Robb finished, letting his eyes wander over his competition. 

 

Bran spoke up then, “I heard that they will allow the champion of the squire’s melee to participate in the proper one.” 

 

Edmure scoffed at that, “Don’t you think it is a little dangerous?” 

 

Robb shrugged his shoulders, “Probably, but it is still an honor. It would show the North you are ready to face men in battle.” 

 

Dacey Mormont came by as Robb spoke, “Just men Lord Robb? Surely you haven’t forgotten what I can do in the training yard?” She playfully slapped Robb’s shoulder, and Arya just gave an admiring look at the new heir to Bear Island.  

 

Robb only blushed, “I apologize, my Lady, you and your sister’s prowess will serve you well in the next few days.” 

 

“Thank you, Lord Robb, do seek me out for a dance, will you.” Dacey Mormont left them, and Robb watched her go. Although she wasn’t a classic beauty, there was something about her that was captivating. 

 

Edmure spoke up, “I cannot believe you Northerners allow women to fight alongside the men. Women are the gentler sex, meant to run a home, not a battlefield.” He shook his head, disbelieving. 

 

Robb heard the deep voice of his father respond, “There are no gentle people in the North Lord Tully, they would not be able to survive it.” 

 

Edmure continued to shake his head, drinking his fourth cup in one swallow. Music started playing, and Robb surveyed all the women in the great hall and noticed Jon sitting with young Larence Snow and the pages and squires of the many knights in attendance. The Merman’s Hall of New Castle was nearly thrice the size of Winterfell’s own great hall, so Robb only noticed Jon because Robb knew him so well. Robb had been upset when his father told him that Jon could not sit with them, and Jon, as always, only nodded his head, saying he understood. 

 

Robb was shaken from the memory when his Uncle prodded him. Robb turned to him, and Edmure motioned with a nod, and Robb looked and saw Wylla Manderly walking towards him. Robb wasn’t keen on the younger of Wylis Manderly’s daughters. Wylla was a year or so younger than Robb, she was pretty but not very thin, but not fat like her father. Wylla was rude and spoke like Arya would to him, which Robb found quite annoying. Robb was much more interested in Ysillia Royce, the daughter of Bronze Yohn, but he saw that she was already dancing with Torrhen Karstark, so he prepared himself for this confrontation. 

 

This brought Robb back to Wylla, and he remembered their first conversation nearly three days ago.

 

“Your hair’s green?” Robb had asked when he first saw her. 

 

“Aye I chose this color, but you were born with that color of red, I have a few dyes if you want something better!” Wylla’s words were sharp, which earned her a scornful look from her family but a huge laugh out of Theon, Arya, and Bran. Robb had been furious with shame, and when their fathers weren’t looking, Wylla even stuck out her tongue to him.

 

So when Wylla stopped in front of Robb and asked him for the first dance, Robb begrudgingly agreed. Wylla didn’t miss the tone of Robb’s agreement, and as he took her hand and led her to the floor, she whispered to him. “You think I want to have the dance, Lord Red Hair ?” Robb looked at her with a glare, and he was about to respond with an insult of his own. “I am only here because my grandfather thought I was rude to you a couple of days ago.” Wylla continued trying to hide the look of frustration off her face. 

 

“Well, you did insult my appearance  Lady Manderly,” Robb muttered with insincere sincerity. 

 

Wylla looked at him with her lips tight as they started to dance. “Only after you said my hair color was bad.” 

 

“I never said it looked bad,” Robb interrupted. 

 

“Yes, you did! You said-” 

 

“I said your hair’s green.” Wylla just stared at him as Robb continued, “I was just surprised is all, I have never seen hair dyed like that before. It does suit you.” Robb was shocked that he said it out loud. It does suit her. In a weird, unique sort of way. Wylla was a little taken aback, and then her face blushed bright red, clashing with her green hair. They didn’t speak again, and Robb just focused on moving his feet correctly. Wylla’s face finally returned to its natural coloring as the song ended. “Thank you for the dance Lady Manderly,” Robb said. 

 

“Wylla.” She muttered. 

 

Robb was already looking for Ysilla, “Wylla.” Wylla’s face flushed red, but she had a frown again and quickly returned to her family, and Robb returned to his. Robb spent the next hour and a half dancing with every lady of the North and a few ladies of the Vale. He enjoyed dancing with the Mormont’s because they were easy to talk to, speaking mostly of their chances in the upcoming tournament, different strategies, and how Bear Island was faring. Alys Karstark was awkward while Karla Flint was nervous and fidgety and even stepped on Robb’s toes. Dance after dance Robb found himself with a new partner engaging in pleasant but stilted conversation, but Robb did not mind, this was his duty, and if there was one thing a Stark did, it was his duty. 

 

He did finally get to dance with Ysilla Royce, who was beautiful, fair-haired, and laughed at what he said. She even squeezed his arm when they were about to be parted. “Lady Royce?” Robb asked. 

 

“Ysilla, Lord Stark,” She said, smiling sweetly at him, and Robb felt a small blush creep up his neck. 

 

“Ysilla, I was wondering if I could have your favor for the squire’s melee?” He asked. 

 

She gave a demure smile, “Oh? I do not think Waymar would want to see that.” 

 

Robb turned to where the Royce’s were placed, and he could see Waymar staring daggers into him. Robb gulped a little bit, “What would you like to see Ysilla?” 

 

Her smile turned coy, “I would like to see you win.” 

 

Robb gave his own smile then, “It may be only possible with your favor, my Lady.” 

 

“We will see then.” Ysilla then pulled out a brilliantly embroidered kerchief holding it in her hand with your palm facing the floor. Robb, in a move of pure bravado, reached and grabbed her the kerchief and hand. Then in one motion, placed a chaste kiss on her the back of her hand as well while taking the favor. 

 

Ysilla seemed pleased at that act, and Robb could only smile as he turned back to his table. Sansa looked ready to swoon, and Robb rolled her eyes at her. He then noticed the Manderly’s looking decidedly neutral save Wylla, who was pointedly not looking at him but was frowning at her cup in front of her. 

 

Robb didn’t even think about it and instead, sat back down. Still smiling like a fool. Robb didn’t feel exhausted, and he surveyed the room to see how the rest of the Northerners were fairing. Dacey Mormont was laughing and smiling with Smalljon as he was explaining some humorous story. The Karstarks and Hornwoods were in a good-natured argument about something meaningless. Domeric Bolton, who had arrived with the Redforts, was singing with his harp quite well, and Robb noticed Sansa tearing up, then stopping when Arya teased her, Robb had laughed along with Arya. Robb then looked over to the Royce’s and caught Ysilla’s eye then quickly looked away. 

 

Soon the bedding was announced, and he went to join the men until Jory but a hand on him and told him his father told him not to. Robb was disappointed and looked to see if Jon was moving to join in. Robb found him near a side entrance of the hall, wearing his solemn expression, and then Jon got up and left through an opening. 

 

Robb thought that odd, so he whispered to his father, who just nodded his approval. After the long procession of men carrying away Mereth and the immense crowd of women, were carrying away Wendell. Robb got up and left the hall, trying to find where his brother had gone. Robb saw a few couples hidden away in corners and dark places doing things Robb only had a cursory knowledge of, courtesy of Theon Greyjoy. Robb spent longer than he thought possible looking for Jon within the castle and then slapped himself on the forehead for being a fool. 

 

Five minutes later, Robb was walking down steps that led from the terrace and down to the training yard, and it was then he heard the clash of steel against steel. 

 

“Move, boy. Good, now shield up, down. Parry. Step. Counter.” He heard a thunk of steel against the helm and Jon yelp in pain. 

 

“You said, counter! Not block.” 

 

“I did say block.”

 

“No, you didn’t.” 

 

“I said it with my body.”

 

He heard Jon let out an exasperated sigh, “so you lied?” 

 

“With my words? Of course. All men lie with their words, few can stop their body from lying. That is the lesson today. Listen with your eyes, and look with your ears.” Robb reached the final step, confused at what he was hearing. 

 

“Do you want me to smell with my mouth and taste with my nose?” Jon said with a mocking tone. 

 

Robb then saw the foreign man, dressed in a jerkin and trousers that were both striped purple and black. The man was holding out a hand to his brother, who was still on the ground. The man was beaming, “Aye, yes Jon Snow. Yes! You are starting to understand.”

 

“Understand what? I was joking.” Jon replied back. 

 

“Oh, I think you think you were joking, but I think you think you are getting it,” as soon as the foreign man helped Jon to his feet, the man struck out, but Jon had expected it. “Block. Counter. Move. Move. Block.” But as the man said this, Jon lashed out and scored a hit under the arm. “Ah-ha, yes! Good, now again.” 

 

Robb watched them train as the rest of the castle enjoyed the feast. Jon was sweating, but he wasn’t breathing very hard, and Robb watched his brother and this strange man fight back and forth. It was easy to tell that the foreigner was superior and was only testing Jon, but still, Robb could see Jon had improved even since that day at Greydam. Robb blushed slightly, thinking he had only trained three times in the past week, and they were expecting to fight tomorrow. 

 

“Can I join?” Robb finally said and soon felt sorry as a distracted Jon got a hard hit against the forearm.

 

“No.” The Braavosi said.

 

Robb was a little flustered at the refusal, “Why not?”

 

“Because you have drunk too much wine and eaten too many rich foods. However, you should swing your sword and sweat some of it out before you sleep tonight. You will feel better in the morning.” Robb was about to insist he should be allowed to join, but he saw Jon shake his head, so Robb contented himself with going through some forms. Robb was soon lightheaded and felt like he may be sick. Jon shortly finished up with the foreign man and came over to him. 

 

“Sorry about Tamir Fregar. He’s a brilliant fighter and agreed to train me for three days, but his training is mad! He tells me when and what to eat, he makes me run before we start and then stretch forever. Then he does things as you saw! Now, he’s making me sleep before Bran!” Robb looked at him in horror. 

 

“Why do you do it?” Robb asked. 

 

Jon just shrugged, “He’s the best fighter that would train with me, and I do feel good at the moment. Don’t know about tomorrow,” Jon said as he playfully shoved Robb. 

 

Robb rubbed his head, he was feeling a little less nauseous, but not much. “Aye. You’ve been smart though, I haven’t sparred properly in a couple of days.” 

 

“Aye it’s alright, we can show these soft boys how Northerners fight tomorrow.” Jon joked, and Robb only gave his brother an unconvincing smile. 

 

“I just don’t want to yield early, I know most the boys will be three or four years older than me, so I won’t win but still. Halfway through, that’s all I want.” Robb said despondently. 

 

“Aye.” Jon agreed. “Don’t worry, we’ll work together, I’ve even roped Harmond Umber into an alliance.” 

 

Robb raised his eyebrows, “Really? Why?” 

 

“Cause I won’t last heartbeat without at least two good fighters,” Jon asked. Robb could only agree. Jon then reached out and grabbed Ysilla’s kerchief. 

 

“Oh? And what is this?” Jon said. 

 

“Oi, give it back,” Robb said, and Jon only smiled more. 

 

“Oh, and who may the fair maiden be that has bewitched my brother’s heart so?” Jon said, jumping to his feet. 

 

Robb just looked at him, “Who are you, and where is my brother?” 

 

Jon just gave a small laugh, “Tamir must be rubbing off on me.” Jon then held it up and examined it. 

 

Robb got to his feet as well, “Seriously, Jon, give it back.”

 

“Whose is it, Robb? Young Lady Alys? Or Karla Flint? Maybe even Wylla Manderly?” Jon gave a mischievous smile.

 

Robb was starting to get annoyed, “Ella Hornwood.” Jon’s smile disappeared, and a look of hurt appeared on his face. Robb then smiled and snatched away the kerchief, “I am kidding you, dolt, I would never do that.” Jon took a little longer to recover, and Robb decided that may have been too harsh and told his brother the truth, “It’s Ysilla Royce’s.” Robb slowly folded it until it was manageable enough to stow away. 

 

Jon gave a small smile, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “Well, thanks for that, Robb, every young lordling in the Vale wants her favor, and you have just painted a target on our chests.” 

 

Robb looked up, “What do you mean?” 

 

“Well, we will have squire’s from the vale waiting to teach us a lesson in front of Ysilla tomorrow.” 

 

“Oh,” Robb said. 

 

Jon gave a sigh, “Well, good thing we have Harmond with us. He should take some of the pressure off.” Jon arched his back and gave a yawn, “well I’m off to sleep, Tamir is breaking his fast with me at dawn. You headed to bed as well?” 

 

“No, I think I need to move around for a while more,” Robb said. Jon said his farewell, and Robb stared up into the night. Tomorrow was the first time he would fight in anything more than a group of three, and he just realized a lot of the fighters would want to embarrass him. He was nervous, but he had Jon at his side, so if he went down, he would go down swinging with his brother. And Harmond. 

 

Robb perked up and looked at the Merman’s Hall. The sounds of merriment could still be heard from where he sat. Jon was right, they needed allies in their melee, and Robb left the yard to return to the feast, hoping that the other boys he needed were still there.

Chapter Text

Jon

 

"Hey, Forester! I saw your sister, and she looks like something a donkey would fuck!" Shit. Jon thought. 

 

It had been going well so far, Robb had convinced both Asher Forrestor and Cley Cerwyn to fight with themselves and Harmond Umber. What started as sixty young fighters were now only twenty-five with Jon just forcing Darron Coldwater to yield. Jon had thought they just might be able to pull this off. Jon was to the left of Robb, who so far had handled himself well, but Jon could see him tiring. Harmond made their center, and with his size and strength kept them steady. Asher was to his right, and Cley making up the other edge of their line. Jon thought it was foolish, but Cley had insisted, and Jon was pleased to see that Cerwyn had so held up well enough under the strain of the melee. 

 

Then Eddard Karstark spoke like the horse's arse that he is.  

 

Asher let out a roar and broke from their defensive formation towards Eddard Karstark, who was with a Manderly cousin and Arthur Glenmore. As Asher engaged with Eddard, the Manderly and Arthur both separated from their own line and attacked a now lone Cley Cerwyn. Before Jon could tell him not to, Harmond was already making his way over to Cley to try and help. That left him and Robb on their own, and soon they were under pressure from Morton Waynwood and Humphrey Arryn of the Gulltown Arryn's. Humphry had taken Robb and Morton, Jon. Jon and Robb stayed close to each other's side to not allow them to be flanked. The two Valemen would attack, trying to split the brothers, but Jon stayed close to Robb, which protected Robb but didn't allow him to take advantage of Morton's mistakes. 

 

They may have been there for seconds. It may have been minutes, but Jon heard Robb cry out, and Jon knew they couldn't stay like this much longer. Jon waited for Morton to lunge forward and caught the blade on his shield and deflected the blow, opening up Morton's guard with his sword and slammed Morton's head with the edge of his shield. 

 

The boy fell to the ground, dazed. His was face protected from real damage by the visor of his helmet. That still didn't he didn't feel the force of the blow. 

 

Jon didn't finish him off but instead whirled his blade around and deflected a blow that was headed toward Robb's unprotected shoulder. Jon wasn't quite quick enough as Robb's shoulder still received part of the strike, and his brother fell to one knee. Jon thrust his shield forward and forced Humprey to step back. "Finish Waynwood!" Jon shouted as he engaged with Humphrey Arryn. Jon felt something of a peace come over him as he didn't think, but only attacked. He and Humphrey were clashing steel, parrying and striking, neither able to get the upper hand. Until Humphrey feinted left and Jon pretended to fall for it and countered it by ramming his shield into the squire's foot, Jon ducked on instinct as Humphfrey's own counter passed by him, and Jon felt the blade graze his helm. Jon brought his sword underneath the wild swing and caught the man's shoulder and rammed his shield in the stomach hard enough to force Humphrey Arryn to the ground. 

 

Jon pointed the dull tourney sword at Humprey Arryn's neck, "Yield." 

 

"Fuck." was the only reply Jon got, but the heir of House Arryn of Gulltown let go of his sword and removed his helmet, and Jon took that as confirmation and turned around to find Robb, pointing his sword at a disarmed Morton Waynwood. Jon smiled, but Robb was breathing heavily and looked as though he would fall over. 

 

He turned to see Cley Cerwyn fighting alongside a big squire from the stormlands with quartered yellow sun and white crescent moons on the shield. The squire and Cley were pitted against Lucas Corbrey, and Seldon Templeton and Seldon were pushing Cley onto his back foot, the one Jon had bruised badly not two weeks ago. Jon shut the visor on his helm and moved quickly to intercept them. Jon was only ten feet away when Seldon performed a beautiful counter to disarm Cley. Cley moved backward to avoid the next swing head towards him. Jon sprinted the last few feet as Templeton's blunted blade moved towards Cley. 

 

Jon rammed into the Valeman and lifted Seldon up and drove him into the ground. Jon heard something snap as he and Seldon landed. Jon raised a fist, but Templeton had moaned out, "I yield!" as the future Knight of Nine Stars grabbed his own arm. Jon turned back to Cley Cerwyn, who was struggling to raise himself off the ground. Jon grabbed his fallen sword and went over to help him up. 

 

"Are you okay?" Jon asked, and Cley looked at him, and Jon could see his eyes weren't focusing. Jon patted the side of Cley's helmet, seeing a small dent. 

 

Cley mumbled something incomprehensible, and Jon looked to the edge of the tourney ground and waived over to a servant. Cley tried to move away from Jon, and as Jon let him go, Cley took two steps, faltered sideways, and went down to one knee. Jon walked over and patted his shoulder and lowered his visor to return back into the remaining contestants. 

 

The Stormland squire and Lucas Corbrey continued to pair off. Jon headed in that direction but saw something move to his right. On instinct, he raised his shield, but Jon was too slow. His shield arm was struck, and Jon's hand slipped from the strap he was holding. Jon grabbed the band that was, only moments before, over his forearm and swung the shield towards his opponent with wild desperation. Jon raised his blade to deflect the next swing and was soon being driven back, his shield held in a useless position. Jon kept trying to create space, but his opponent was determined. Jon mistimed his parry and suffered a blow to his thigh, and Jon's leg gave slightly, and he knew that he would be forced to yield. Jon swung his shield forward and let go, throwing the shield, but his aim was off, and the iron rim only clipped the armored leg of his opponent. The squire stumbled, and Jon limped up onto both feet. 

 

It was then that Robb came out of nowhere, yelling loudly, and tackling Jon's opponent to the ground and they rolled in the hard dirt wrestling. 

 

Jon didn't have time to intervene as a squire with the Massey heraldry was coming towards him. Jon noticed the squire was limping terribly. They engaged, but it wasn't much of a fight as squire couldn't move side to side, and Jon was able to slip past his guard, and with a blade pointed at the neck, the young Massey yielded. 

 

Jon turned back to Robb, who was now under the older and stronger fighter, and Jon recognized the bronze runes of the Royces. Robb was struggling to get out from under the youngest Royce. Waymar raised a fist and brought it down. Robb threw an arm up to deflect it and retaliated and hit Waymar in the face. Unfortunately, there wasn't much power, and Waymer returned the favor, and Robb's head snapped backward. Waymar raised again to strike, but Jon yelled out, "Enough, he yields." Waymar's fist didn't move, and Robb laid there exhausted. 

 

" Do you yield?" Waymar questioned him, and Robb nodded. Waymar got up and looked from his discarded sword and back to Jon, whose sword own was pointed at Waymar.  

 

"Will you force a defenseless man to yield?" Waymar sneered.

 

Jon lowered his sword and grabbed Waymar's, which was near Jon's own feet. Jon gave it a few swings before offering the hilt to Waymar. Jon stepped backward a few paces, and Waymar rolled his shoulders as he gathered his feet under him. Then he spoke, "I am excited to say that I will have defeated all that House Stark has to offer." 

 

The dying ember was ignited within Jon, and he tried to fight it to keep it under control. "I am not a Stark," Jon growled out. 

 

Waymar only shrugged, "Then there will be no glory in defeating you." Jon's temper flared again, he knew what Waymar was trying to do, and he was even more angry that it was working. Jon studied the squire, and they slowly started to circle one another. Waymar was a good looking boy, nearly a man, and would probably be a knight in a few years. He was half a head taller than Jon now, but he was the third son. The third son with few prospects. Robar was the second and maybe could marry and have a small keep if he was lucky, but Waymar would get little or nothing. Just like Jon. Well, not really, but it would piss him off.

 

"What will your father say when you were beaten by a bastard three years younger than you?" Jon smirked back. "Two older brothers, young but showered in glory, then there is you." Jon couldn't see Waymar's face clearly, but he knew it was working as the grip on his sword tightened. "A disappointment, what do families like yours do with disappointing third sons?" Waymar roared out in anger and was on Jon in an instant, and Jon backpedaled, allowing Waymar to lead this dance. Waymar was known as a skilled and graceful fighter, but he was angry and wild that day, and Jon was able to read Waymar's intentions with ease. Eventually, Waymar started to slow, and his breathing was more difficult, and Jon struck back at him, flashing his sword, and taking control of their dance. Jon soon saw his opening and took it, and Waymar's sword was on the ground, and Jon's sword steady and pointed at his chest. "Yield." 

 

Waymar said nothing, and Jon inched forward, and his blunted steel pressed against the bronze rune embedded in the leather armor, over Waymar's heart. "Yield Lord Roy-." Like a viper, Waymar grabbed the sword with one hand forcing it up and lowered himself to tackle Jon by the waist. Jon lowered himself on instinct, and Waymar's legs churned, trying to get Jon on the ground, but Jon slammed his pommel on the back of Waymar once. Then twice, and on the third time, Waymar stopped working to lift, and his knees went to the ground. Jon backed up a half pace and then slammed his knee into Waymar, who fell to the ground moaning. Waymar was splayed out, and Jon's temper was still flaring, and what he witnessed next only made it worse. 

 

There were only four other competitors left, and the squire with quartered suns and moons was fighting against three. Lucas Corbrey, Hemly Rykker, and Mychael Redfort all moved well, and the other squire, tall and graceful, was trying his best to hold them all off. 

 

Jon started to move over when the blunted morningstar the tall quire was holding was wrenched away by Hemly Rykker, the shield was moved out of the way by Mychael Redfort and Lucas Corbrey's sword connected against the squire's shoulder. Forced to their knees, the squire lowered their helmet. Jon was too far away to hear if they said anything, but the three only opened their visors, and all their eyes were wide. 

 

Lucas tore off the helmet of the squire, and Jon saw short, fair hair fall loose. He then saw the three young men start to laugh. 

 

"A woman!" Lucas said. 

 

Hemly turned to him, "Are you sure? It seems more like a freak." 

 

"She does seem quite the monster, luckily we didn't break her teeth, or she would never marry!" Mychel Redfort said.

 

"I don't know." Hemly feigned interest. "It may improve her look." The three squires all stood mocking their defeated opponent. Jon looked around the melee ground, and scattered chuckles were starting to be heard throughout the crowd. Jon started to approach, and he saw the woman's face. She was ugly, there was no denying that. Her nose was broad, her lips too large, face covered in freckles, and her jaw looked more manly than feminine. Jon only saw her blue eyes for a few moments before tears overcame them, and she hid them in her hands. 

 

"Apologize!" Jon roared. The three turned to see him with surprise. Jon himself was shocked he had said something. The three squires were all close family to powerful lords. 

 

Hemly was the first to speak. "Excuse me?" 

 

"Apologize to her. She fought well, she deserves some respect." Jon was no longer yelling, but his voice was still firm.

 

The three looked at each other and laughed again. Lucas spoke next, "She is a woman, pretending at being a knight." 

 

"And it took three of you to beat her," Jon said. "I think that is better than just pretending." Lucas Corbrey's face turned into a snarl. 

 

"Will, one of you, shut that bastard up," Lucas growled. 

 

Hemly Rykker moved forward, "Aye that I will. You two stay where you are, when I am done with him, we can decide the winner." Hemly shut his visor and made his way to Jon. 

 

"This is your last chance," Jon said. "Apologize, or I will do to you what you did to her." 

 

"Fuck off," Hemly said. 

 

Jon had never known what his father meant when he talked about the wolf's blood. Jon got angry like everyone else, but years of being a bastard forced him to channel it. Channel it towards something productive but to never lose control. This was the first time Jon could remember his anger truly threatening to overtake him. He fought to channel it where he needed it as the squire from House Rykker approached, sword and shield ready. Jon held only a sword, so he looked in desperation and found a blunted ax only a couple feet away. Jon grabbed it off the ground, swung it a few times with his left hand, and looked at his rapidly advancing opponent. Hemly was ten feet away, and he approached at a steady pace. 

 

Hemly started an insult saying, "Well, bastar-." Jon moved quickly feinting left, and when Hemly moved his shield, Jon hooked it with his ax and used Hemly's momentum to open him up for a strike. And strike he did. Jon's blade came whirling down and connected with Hemly's helm. Hemly, dazed, swung his sword around, and Jon leaned back to avoid the cut. Jon kicked the off-balance squire as hard as he could, and Hemly fell backward. 

 

Jon never pointed his sword, and before Hemly could yield, Jon kicked him full in the faceplate, and the squire went limp. Jon turned to Mychael Redfort and Lucas Corbrey, who stared at him with surprise on their faces. Jon hadn't meant to be so ruthless, or maybe he had as he felt these squires deserved it. He pointed at the two and said, "You humiliated her, she fought well and lost, but you weren't content with your victory," 

 

"She's a woman!" they sneered. Jon noticed the girl was looking at him with wide bright blue eyes. 

 

"And it took three of you to beat her, so I have no fear of losing to either of you." 

 

Jon charged at Mychael Redfort and raised his sword and Mychael raised his shield on instinct, he used his ax to hook the bottom and saw Lucas was lowering his blade. Jon’s axe moved Redfort's shield forward just enough that Lucas's blade deflected and landed on Redfort's arm. Jon shifted his sword to block Redfort's cut, but he was too close to the boy now for either strike to be effective. Jon rammed his head into Mychael's, and he stumbled back, but Jon felt his ax tug out of his grip. As Mychael dropped to the ground, Jon's blade was already moving as it met Lucas Corbreys. The man was angry, and when Jon caught the edge, Corbrey's fist hit Jon's helm, and Jon disengaged.

 

Lucas was attacking him like a mad dog, but Jon felt his own rage turn into a calm clarity, and he was again no longer thinking just reacting. He was tired, but his wolf's blood fueled him, so he barely felt it. The youngest Corbrey had to be drained as well, but the squire kept coming, one blow after another. Jon saw that Mychael Redfort was regaining his feet, and he would join the fight soon, and Jon knew he could not face two at a time, not now. Jon took his chance and pushed both their blades up, and Jon lowered himself and launched his whole body into Lucas's, just as Waymar did to him. When they hit the ground, Jon used his left forearm to block the punch aimed at him, and Jon knocked Lucas hard over the head with the pommel of the sword once, then twice, then a third for good measure. 

 

The helmet was showing a dent, and Lucas was moaning in pain. Jon stood up, and Mychael was stumbling towards him, his daze wearing off. Jon stood and grabbed both his own and Lucas's sword and marched over to Mychael Redfort, the lazy swing was deflected, and Jon just thumped him hard across the chest with the left sword, then with the right. Jon finished with the flat of the left sword across the helm, and the squire dropped. Jon stood over the down squire, and Mychael Redfort tried to swing his blade from his back, but Jon kicked it away and stepped on his sword hand. Mychael Redfort yelled out, and Jon put more weight on Redfort's palm. Jon then pointed his sword, the squire's exposed neck. 

 

"I yield." He yelled out. 

 

"Not enough. Apologize!" 

 

"I'm sorry!" Mychael grunted out in pain. 

 

"Not to me!" Jon growled. "To her!" Jon pointed his sword to the young woman who looked at him then at Mychael. Tear tracks still visible on her dirty face, but the tears no longer flowed.

 

"Why?" Mychael asked. Jon's anger faded for a moment when he saw genuine confusion. 

 

"She fought well. Better than you, even. You insulted her, it was wrong." Jon answered, but no comprehension crossed Mychael's face, but the young man still nodded. 

 

It was quiet for a moment before the sound of cheers overtook him. The squire's event didn't draw much of a crowd, but it was more people than had ever seen him fight. He didn't know what to do until the herald spoke. "The Champion of the Squire's melee, Jon Snow of Winterfell!" 

 

The cheers went up again, and Jon was handed a crown of roses. He looked around and saw familiar faces. Ella looked conflicted, while Larence next to her was bouncing with excitement and whooping his name. A week ago, Jon would have given Ella the crown, but he was still angry, so he broke their brief eye contact. 

 

He saw Robb and Bran, who looked at him smiling, Robb looked worse for the wear and Bran was yelling his name. Jon saw his father, and though he didn't say anything, Jon's pride swelled. He looked to find Sansa but only saw Arya, who was beaming and cheering, and in the end, it wasn't a hard choice.

Chapter Text

Ned

 

Ned spent the next hour with Jon congratulating him on his victory. He had been proud of his boys as Robb had held up well lasting much longer than anyone would expect of him. Which made what Jon did even more impressive. Many of the squires he beat would become knights in the next year or so, and the way he finished off the last three had been a marvel to watch, moving with brutal efficiency. 

 

However impressive Jon's martial prowess was, he was far more proud of him for standing up for the young woman who he later learned was Brienne of House Tarth. The girl was maybe ten and six, but well over six feet tall and had moved well for a woman. Hells, she moved better than most men. 

 

Gods, Ned thought, another woman Arya could look up to. Ned later learned his youngest daughter had spent quite a bit of time with Brienne for the rest of the tourney. Regardless, Jon had done what was right, even if it could have ended poorly. 

 

Ned was sad to leave his family, but he had a business to attend to, and his two boys seemed to enjoy the attention they were starting to receive. Well, Robb was enjoying it while Jon seemed uneasy and awkward and fending off Theon, who was trying to use some of Jon's now heavy purse of 300 gold dragons.  

 

Ned had just finished speaking with Lord Bolton, and that had gone better than Ned could have hoped. He had no trouble convincing Roose to give up a claim to a hill and surrounding area to the Hornwoods as Ned permitted him to start construction on an extension of the small harbor near the estuary of the Weeping River. 

 

Ned wondered if Lord Bolton's good mood, no, not good, but the less chilly mood was due to seeing his son and heir for the first time in two years. Whatever it was, Ned was happy to take advantage of it. 

 

Ned was preparing for his next meeting when his door opened, and Jory stuck his head in. "My Lord." 

 

"Yes, Jory?" Ned said while looking down at a few of the scraps of parchment he had on his desk. 

 

"You have a visitor, my lord." 

 

Ned looked up then. "Is it my next appointment?" 

 

Before Jory could speak, a hooded figure came in, and Ned's hand instinctively went to his dagger. The man lowered his faded green hood quickly, and Ned's hand moved away from his blade as the figure spoke. 

 

"Hello, Ned." Ned sat there in silence for what felt like a few minutes. He hadn't seen his friend since they parted ways at the Moat nearly thirteen years ago. 

 

"Howland?" Ned said, and his friend gave him a soft smile. His friend looked well, older but well. The sandy brown hair was starting to grey above the ears, and wrinkles were forming around the eyes.

 

"Aye, it's me." 

 

"What are you doing outside the Neck?"

 

Howland's soft smile slowly faded as he spoke, "I have come to ask you a favor." 

 

"Anything Howland, you know that." Ned certainly did, his friend had saved him more times than he could count. 

 

Howland's smile returned, "No more than I owe you, Ned." 

 

Ned rolled his eyes, it had been more than twelve years, but they had had this argument more times then he could count. "I've told you, Howland, you don't-" but Howland only raised his hand as a chuckle escaped the crannogman's lips.

 

"Ned, we will never agree on that, although that reminds me I need to congratulate you on Jon's victory." 

 

Ned smiled, "Thank you, the boy is gifted with a blade." 

 

"Aye, he reminds of his parents." As Howland said this, Ned's smile vanished, and ice went through his veins. "Ned I meant-" 

 

"You will not speak of this." Ned hissed out. "Not here!" 

 

Howland, as always was implacably calm, "I understand, but he is getting older, he needs to know." 

 

"He needs to be safe!" Ned fought to keep his voice down, "he can never know, and since the gods are good, no one has had an inkling so far. He is my son." Ned rubbed his temples with his left hand. "Is this the favor you came here to ask? The thing to bring you from Greywater after all this time?" 

 

"No. I only bring it up because it pains me that Jon doesn't know her, what she is to him." 

 

Ned's heart tightened a bit, "Enough of this Howland, why did you come here?" Howland sighed and reached into his sack and withdrew a clay jar and put it on the table. "What is this?" Ned asked as he reached out and grabbed the clay container. 

 

"The reason I need to ask you for a favor," Howland responded. Ned opened the jar, and inside was a greyish powder. Ned looked up, confused. "Seven years ago, there was a small outbreak of Greyscale." 

 

"Gods Howland! How-"

 

 Howland stopped him from speaking and continued. "Crannogmen are not afraid to isolate themselves if one becomes infected, and we live solitary lives, to begin with. This is not the first outbreak of Greyscale in the swamp, nor will it be the last." Ned only nodded his head as Howland collected himself before he continued, "In the swamp, all people who are destined to die, have a duty. Those with Greyscale more than others. They burn all their possessions and travel to a small collective and avoid all contact with other people and...end things... when it is their time. However, this group searches out anything the swamp can give to alleviate their suffering." Ned stayed quiet as something in his gut was building. "This group of damned men and women devote the rest of their painful lives studying medicines and trying it on themselves regardless of the cost, that," Howland pointed at the jar, "is the culmination of many generations and thousands of lives." Howland gave out a deep breath and continued "and could potentially save many more."

 

"It is a cure? For Greyscale?" 

 

Howland nodded, "Among other things. Wounds covered in a paste made from this powder do not get infected, even if it becomes infected, this can cause the infection to pass. Most boils and sores are healed as well, but Greyscale, rot, and infections of the eye all are cured."

 

Ned's eyes never left the jar in front of him. "Howland, the amount of gold this could bring you.." Ned tried to grasp the figure in his head. 

 

"Is not what the people of the Neck want. Only enough for us not to starve in the winter and protect our lands." Howland finished the last bit with more emphasis while looking at Ned. 

 

"Protection." 

 

"Protection." Howland agreed. 

 

"What is in this powder? Where does it come from?" 

 

"There is a type of fungus that grows in the Neck." 

 

"Powdered mushrooms?" Ned asked, and Howland shook his head. 

 

"Sort of, it is combined with some other things until you get that." Howland pointed. "We want to share it, and trust me, Ned, when I say this. It can only be grown in the Neck. For the most part, we can protect ourselves in the swamp from individual trespassers, but your ancestors showed a large enough force can overwhelm and subjugate the crannogmen."

 

Ned nodded, "You have the protection of Winterfell. Now and always, my friend." 

 

 

"Thank you. You have always been fair, so we will make it and give it to House Stark and House Stark only, give us what you feel is just and use the rest how you will." Ned could only shake his head. 

 

"Howland, you should have all from this." 

 

"We have little need for gold. Steel and furs, however, are worth far more, and even then, the need isn't great. Come now, let us make this deal in writing, I have never been comfortable in large cities."

 

Ned chuckled at that, "I remember riding in King's Landing, I thought you would be ill." 

 

Howland smiled softly, "Can you blame me?" 

 

"No, I guess not," Ned continued to laugh, "Come, let us get the unpleasant part of the discussion out of the way."  

 

So they did, the only arguing there was between them was Ned trying to give more and more and Howland shaking his head and arguing back. Eventually, they agreed, Ned made two copies, and they signed and sealed both. 

 

"Ned, it was good to see you again." Howland stood and grasped Ned's arm. 

 

Ned looked at his friend once more, "Gods, we are getting old, bring your family to Winterfell sometime, with the first shipment." 

 

"That won't be for a month or so, Ned, but I do not know, perhaps I will send my daughter and son in my stead." 

 

Ned gave the nod, "I understand, but you are and always will be my friend Howland, and I feel I do not see enough of you." 

 

Howland gave Ned a soft smile, "Nor I, you, Ned." As Howland reached the door, he looked back one more time. "Tell him stories of her, Ned. Not as what she is to him, but of who she was at least. Don't let her memory fade." Howland didn't wait for a response, taking his leave and leaving the clay jar behind. 

 

Ned's next meeting wasn't nearly as nostalgic or pleasant. 

 

The two had been talking for nearly a quarter of an hour. Ned was becoming frustrated by the lack of progress towards anything substantial. 

 

"And the ale Lord Stark! So dark and rich that it may warrant another trip to White Harbor for that alone." The Braavosi merchant was a wealthy man, and Wyman had impressed the importance of this meeting. However, Ned was starting to wonder if the man simply preferred to hear himself speak. 

 

"Aye, it is a good brew," Ned replied. 

 

"Good! Ha, Lord Stark, do not be modest. No ale in Essos is so fine." 

 

"Aye, but I wouldn't know." 

 

"Come now, Lord Stark, come visit Braavos, bring your sons and daughters, and let me show you the bounties of Braavos. Where trade from all across the world gathers, you will see and taste spices and delicacies you will not find anywhere else." The Braavosi went on to wax on about the virtues of Braavos and then sung praises of the North. Ned was starting to feel the ache in his temple return. Ned couldn't handle it anymore. 

 

"Lord Fregar, I love the North, but I am not a fool. Though I may see its beauty and worth, many think otherwise, and you have never left White Harbor. No, speak plainly, what is it you want." Tormo Fregar looked at him, the facade he wore cracked, then slowly faded.

 

"You are right, of course." Tormo then stroked his beard, and the jovial expression slowly dropped, "But only in part. True, there has been some trade with the North, pelts, and wool, yes. But I see the true value of the North, Lord Stark. The value many of my fellow countrymen refuse to acknowledge and fewer still that think it a waste of time to pursue." 

 

"Timber," Ned answered. Tormo only nodded his head in acknowledgment. Ned continued on hand, waving, "We send some timber to Braavos as it is."

 

"Some lord Stark, but not enough, not nearly enough. Do you know where Braavos gets most of its timber?" Tormo asked, but Ned stayed silent, so he continued. "It used to be the inland hills of the Lagoon, but the old trees were gone in the first hundred years when Braavos was founded. Men started to cut down the pines on Sellagoro's Shield, but that was quickly stopped. After that, there were still a few trees of worth to be found, but it was further and deeper into the hills. So further into the hills, we went. The further we ventured, the more untenable the terrain, even still, we have cut down what we could have. So we looked elsewhere. The Braavosian coastline held some timber, so we settled some towns there, and within a couple of hundred years, those too vanished. Then we moved east and south, always searching for more and more. Then the forest of Qohor was suggested. You do not hear of our wars in Essos, but much of it is fought over timber. We have battled Qohorik, Norvoshi, and until recently, Pentoshi, all over resources, but mostly timber. Braavos has an unquenchable thirst for wood, but battles and wars are tiresome and costly. Qohor and Norvos agree to sell us an amount, but when one side does not like the terms, there is fighting, and terms are re-done." Tormo seemed more annoyed at the implication of war than anything else, "But those lulls Lord Stark, those lulls nearly cause Braavos to die of that thirst. If the North sold us more, we would purchase it, and at a premium. The trees in Essos are young, and the old are guarded fiercely. But the North of Westeros, in your Wolfswood…" 

 

Ned put a hand up to stop him, "What would stop you from going to war if you do not like our price? What is to stop you from cutting down the entire forest?" Ned knew this was a weak argument, as the men of the North have only held the forest back, and over the past few centuries, the wood had started to become overgrown. But Tormo did not need to know that. "No, we sell what we sell as we always have." 

 

"As I said, Lord Stark, Braavos would pay, the North's wealth would increase, and we are not fools. How many have tried to invade the North? No. Braavos could possibly rule the shoreline, but we are not as foolish as the Andal ancestors, and the costs alone would be substantial and not worth the effort. This is not to mention the wrath of the other kingdoms. We are merchants first and foremost, and fighters when we need to be. Although I know my brother would dispute that claim." Tormo gave a soft chuckle at that last thought. 

 

Ned rubbed his temples together, "Why. Why do you want this? What is in this for Tormo Fregar?" 

 

Tormo became a little more serious, "I am a wealthy man Lord Stark, but compared the true powers of Braavos, my wealth is still lacking. When my father took over from my grandfather, the Fregars owned nothing, our vast wealth squandered. We are original key holders of the Iron Bank, a founding family of Braavos, a name that was respected for a thousand years, and it took three generations of foolishness, gluttony, and poor fortune to undo that all. My father was a harsh man and obsessed with one thing, the repair of the name Fregar. But that repair took more than his life and possibly more than mine as well. I have done well, a boast it may be, but I am proud of what I have done for my family name."

 

Tormo took a breath before he continued, "I am ambitious, Lord Stark. I know, this is something many men frown upon, especially here, but in Braavos, those without ambition are swallowed whole. I control quite a bit of trade, importation of food, a foot in the garment trade, even a hand in exporting our famous dye. However, the timber trade of Braavos is controlled by a select few. Those that control it keep it in a stranglehold. If I could get a contract for myself, I could break that hold, and that is what the North would provide for me." 

 

"So, more wealth is the extent of your ambition?" 

 

Tormo raised a brow, "Wealth, yes, wealth is good, and that is all many men could ever hope for." Tormo leaned forward a bit before continuing, "For me, wealth is just a tool Lord Stark, this wealth and control of trade can give me an opportunity." 

 

"And what opportunity would that be?" Ned asked. 

 

"What do you know of the Braavosian politics?" 

 

"What?" Ned said, confused at the question. 

 

"You have lords in charge of land here in Westeros, what do you know of how Braavos is governed?" 

 

Ned shrugged, "You have a Sealord who rules." 

 

"Yes, and he is powerful, but his son will not be Sealord after him." Then Tormo shook his head, "No, let me rephrase that, his son is not guaranteed to be Sealord after him." 

 

"He is chosen, yes?" 

 

"Yes, do you know how?" Tamir asked.

 

Ned thought on that, his father had mentioned it once, but even Rickard Stark found the process too convoluted to be sure about it. "I know he is selected, and I know the process is to difficult to follow." 

 

Tormo gave a chuckle at that, "You are not wrong." Tormo chuckle turned serious again, "He is chosen from the Great Council. This Council has forty-five magisters. My grandfather's grandfather was once on that Council, and it is my wish my family is represented there again."

 

Ned began to understand, "So, you want to power." 

 

"As do all men." 

 

Ned knew it. He couldn't stop himself from scowling. Tormo was ambitious, proud, and power-hungry, just like the other four Braavosi merchants Ned had met with already.  However,  Ned thought, while the others used tricks and flattery to reach similar ends, Tormo seemed to be instead honest when asked about his ambition, while the others had been evasive with their answers. 

 

"The North values honor more than ambition Magister Fregar," Ned said, "We do not sell it so cheaply." 

 

"Nor do you have to, just your timber, and even then, I know it won't be cheap." 

 

"Which you will use to fuel your ambitious rise?" Ned asked. 

 

Tormo shrugged, "If not my ambitious rise, it will be used for someone else's." 

 

"Or we can keep doing as we have always done and limit everyone's ambition." 

 

"You can try Lord Stark," Tormo said, " and I respect your commitment to honor even at the obvious costs it takes." 

 

Ned studied the man, trying to understand him. Ned alas gave up, "You know how Northerners are, and you no doubt know of my character. Why say what you have when you know what my reaction would be?" 

 

"I am a good merchant Lord Stark, great even. I pride myself to succeed in making deals where others have failed. I have heard how the meetings with my fellow countrymen went, and I know each of them well. As merchants, they are not what I am, so I thought I could win you over. What may seem excessive flattery is sincere. There are many things in the North people in Braavos and beyond would find pleasing. With timber just being the beginning." Ned quickly glanced at the drawer where the jar was stored, and he knew Tormo had noticed, but the man continued anyway, "You are also known far and wide as being honorable, so honesty was my only option." Tormo stood as he finished, "But it has not worked either. I do not beg. Well, I do not beg when there is no change in outcome, so I know this gambit has failed. Alas, I will try to find additional wealth and power elsewhere." 

 

Ned stood as well and reached out his hand, Tormo shook it as Ned said, "It will not be with the North, no. However, I appreciate honesty." 

 

Tormo gave what seemed to be the first genuine smile, "Good to know. Good day Lord Stark." 

 

"Good day Lord Fregar." 

 

"Lord Stark, we only have one Lord in Braavos, and I am not him, Tormo is fine." Then the man left. 

 

After their farewell, Ned thought about their conversation. The North had timber to spare. Usually, the timber trade was quite slow after winter and picked up as summer went along for the preparation of the following winter. However, three years into this summer, and it wasn't picking up. Was it the taxes from Robert, maybe? Or the Reach only having a mild winter? Ned wasn't sure. Whatever it was, it hasn't been as profitable as it should have been. They may need this deal with Braavos, but Ned could hardly stomach the merchants he had met with. 

 

Especially Tormo, but Tormo had been honest. He showed Ned who he was and laid forth his ambitions. There was something to that. Or was there? Robert shows what he is, so does Tywin Lannister, and desirable partners, they were not. Ned thought of what his father used to say, 

 

"The demon you know is better than the demon you don't. You, Ned, you are unmovable as a mountain, but other men will not be so, however, if you know their wants, you can know how to deal with them." 

 

Thinking of his father had always made him feel ill, and this was no different. For all of his faults, Rickard Stark only wanted to strengthen the North, and Ned thought he knew what decision his father would make if he were here now.

 

Ned still had a week or so left to decide, he had no doubt it would be profitable, but with the powder from the Neck, House Stark would see its wealth increase regardless. But how would they transport the powder? How to distribute it across the seas, throughout Westeros and beyond? 

 

Change was coming to the North. 

 

Ned hated change.

 

Chapter Text

Jon

 

“Wake up, Snow,” Jon just growled in response. “Get up Jon, you asked me to train you, and you don’t get to rest.” 

 

“Go away,” Jon mumbled. His head was going to kill him.

 

Jon was a champion, even though it was only the squire’s melee, he was still a champion. Which meant at the final feast, he was going to sit at the champion’s table near the front. Last night, however, he was permitted to sit near lesser lords, and Harmond and Asher had made him drink more ale than ever before. Now he was angry he had been so stupid, and his head and body were letting him know how foolish his decisions were. It was one of the few times he had been recognized by the highborn, and this time it was to celebrate his achievements. 

 

Still, the pain in his head was almost too much to bear, and the annoying Braavosi was only making it worse. 

 

“I have fought in battles far harder than that simple spar you won yesterday. One time I was fighting for an entire day, and it never let up. Then the next day, the enemy attacked again. Then again and again, and I constantly fought every day for two weeks.” 

 

“Liar,” Jon mumbled. 

 

Tormo snorted in response, “I exaggerate, I admit, but I have been in a siege, and it does feel much of the same. Come, boy.” 

 

Jon curled his body more underneath the furs as a response. 

 

Suddenly cold water was on him. “Ahh! What in the hells is wrong with you?” Jon said as he shot out of bed. He looked to see Tamir smirking. 

“Come we have training.” 

 

“But I won yesterday!” 

 

“And will you never fight again?” Jon glared with silent indignation, and his Braavosi friend continued, “Regardless, you are sore and tired, training will help you not be sore,” Tamir spoke again as if explaining it to a child. “Also, as I am sure you are aware, the winner of the squire’s melee has the choice to fight in the melee proper.” Jon had known, but he also knew that he couldn’t win, but if I lasted long enough against real fighters, maybe. Maybe what? Prestige, honor, or glory. Power. No! Jon chided himself. I am not what they think I am. 

 

Jon thought of Ella then, could he just have some power and glory? Enough to...Jon just shook his head, trying to clear the ache from between his temples. It was too early to think about such things.

 

“Fine, give me a few moments-” Jon was hit in the face with his training clothes and heard Tamir leave his chambers chuckling.

 

So Jon went to train. He was tired and groggy, and he threw up three times in the first fifteen minutes to the laughs of both Tamir and a few of the other lords and knights training at that unholy hour. Jon swore to himself he was never going to drink wine again. Or was it ale? Jon thought there was an argument about wine at some point? Gods, he couldn’t remember.

 

Jon knew he had to push through the pain in his head, stomach, and right leg. With only the last of those coming from the melee the day before. With the squire’s melee over, there were still five days of tourney left. Two days of jousting, one for archery, one for the Proper Melee, and then the final day of jousting. Three days for Jon to prepare, so he tried to push himself.

 

After the worst session of training Jon had ever had, he was nibbling on some bread and sipping some watered cider to settle his stomach when a small man, with a faded green cloak, came to sit in front of him. 

 

“I remember a quiet, brooding Stark at a tourney. Though that was years ago.” Jon studied at the man. He had straw-colored hair, a scar across the temple, and a gentle smile. 

 

“I’m sorry my Lord, I think you are mistaken, I am not a Stark,” Jon said, he wanted to be angry with the man but found he couldn’t be. 

 

The man only smiled and patted Jon’s hand. “Your name may be Snow, young Jon, but that can’t hide that you are a Stark.” 

 

“That is kind, my Lord-.” Jon couldn’t recognize him nor see any heraldry. 

 

“Reed, Jon. I am Howland Reed, and please, crannogmen are not so formal.” Jon’s eyes grew wide, he had heard stories of this man. His father told him Howland Reed was a cunning fighter and a dear friend to House Stark. The man in front of him just smiled, letting Jon sit with the information. 

 

“I came to meet with your father yesterday, and I leave in a couple of hours, but I did not want to leave without congratulating you on your victory.’ 

 

Jon bowed his head, “Thank you, my Lord.” Jon felt a hand touch his chin and raise his chin. 

 

“You never have to thank me, Jon.” Jon didn’t know what that meant, and it was awkward for a few moments as he tried to come up with a response. 

 

“How were your talks with Lord Stark?” Jon said, not knowing what to say. 

 

“Nothing to worry about, good news for both of our houses I dare to hope. However, I did not come to find you to speak on that. I wanted to find you to tell you that your victory reminded me of another.” 

 

Jon sat there in silence and let Lord Reed continue with the story, “Once there was a boy from the Neck who traveled south to a great tourney at a burned rundown castle.” 

 

“Harrenhal?” Jon was unable to stop himself, and the man only smiled sadly. 

 

“Yes, Harrenhal. The one where the smiles died.” Howland Reed looked a little more downtrodden, but quickly recovered. “But before the unfortunate events there was a young man, who was set upon by three squires, the young man was beaten badly, before being driven off by a she-wolf. She told them it was her father’s man they were beating. She was a fierce one and saved the boy from further embarrassment.” 

 

“Sounds like Arya,” Jon whispered. 

 

Howland smiled at the interruption, “So I have heard.” 

 

Despite himself, Jon could only smirk. Howland continued, “She brought him to her family’s great tent, made him sit with high lords as was his right, but was something he feared. The young man saw the squires that had hurt him were there as well, and the she-wolf saw them and told her more fierce brothers. They offered to give the young man some armor, to set them right, but the boy knew he never could and declined. If it was rowing a canoe or spearing maybe, but atop a horse?” Howland just shook his head. “No. The next day the three knights of the dishonorable squires rode out for the joust, and a mystery rider in mismatched armor came and challenged them all.” Howland was smiling now, his eyes focused on nothing as he recounted the tale. “The mystery knight was short and spoke in an odd voice. The shield the rider bore was a black field with a white weirwood with a laughing, red face.” 

 

Jon was too old for stories, but something about this one bemused him, and the Lord of Greywater Watch continued. “The three knights laughed at their challenger and all accepted. First was a knight with a porcupine on their shield, and he fell on the first blow. The next was the one with a pitchfork, and it took three turns before he too fell. The last was a knight of twin towers, and it took eight lances before that knight fell as well.” Howland smiled, and there was a tear in his eye. “The smallfolk loved that mystery knight. The Knight of the Laughing Tree, they called him, and when the three knights went to ransom their horse and armor, all the knight said was ‘Teach your squires honor, that shall be ransom enough.’ Then the rider disappeared.” 

 

Howland quickly wiped his eye and took a few breaths to collect himself before continuing. “That rider saved my honor.” Howland grasped Jon’s hands tightly. “For that, I am forever grateful, and you young Jon, remind me of that mystery knight.” Howland gave a brief smile, then raised himself from the bench and turned to leave. Lord Reed shifted back to him before saying, “Jon, I am leaving now for my home. However, you are always welcome at Greywater Watch.” Then the lord left, and Jon was speechless but mostly confused. 

 

That being said, it did give him an idea of what to paint on his newly purchased shield. 

 

Jon’s thoughts were interrupted by Tamir throwing a stale roll at him, and Jon left again to train some more. 

 

---

 

Jon had never been well-liked, and he still wasn’t really, but over the next few days, more Lords and sons of lords spoke to him more than ever before. Some Valemen were angry, mainly Horton Redfort, but Mychael was courteous enough in defeat, even asking for a rematch. Mychael may be a pompous arse, but at least he didn’t hold a grudge. 

 

The Royce’s were much warmer, Robar, especially as he told Jon his brother was too arrogant and needed to be humbled and was glad someone had done it before he got himself killed. Jon liked Robar straightaway, seemed more a Northman than any of the other southern lords. He even let Jon spar with him once, and Jon had managed to not look too much of a fool. Though the one victory Jon earned was due to Robar being distracted by Lyla Condon, Ser Kyle Condon’s only daughter. 

 

Other Vale Lords like Lyn Corbray and Symond Templeton congratulated him as well. However, Lyn Corbray told Jon that Lucas was not likely to forgive him for the embarrassment, “and as his older brother, I will have to defeat you to avenge him.” 

 

Jon could only think to say, “Good luck.” Which caused the famous knight to laugh and slap Jon on the shoulder, leaving his hand their as the bearer of Lady Forlorn finished his laugh. 

 

The most bizarre encounter was the woman squire, who wasn’t even a squire. She was from the Stormlands and named Brienne of House Tarth. She had thanked Jon profusely, and awkwardly, “That was truly gallant Ser…” 

 

“Snow, Jon Snow, but I am not a knight, so please call me Jon.” 

 

The burly girl then blushed a bit, “Thank you again, Jon.” 

 

“Of course, my Lady.” He responded, but before Jon had the chance to leave, a man, an inch or so taller than Brienne came over and shook his hand. 

 

“You must be the boy that fought like the Warrior in defense of my daughter,” He struck out his hand, and Jon clasped it, “Selwyn Tarth, what is your name?” The man had a rugged and weathered face that held little emotion, but his eyes had something like hope in them. 

 

“Jon Snow, lord Tarth,” Jon said, and at the mention of ‘Snow,’ some of the gaiety left his eyes. Jon tried not to be too hurt and kept his face fixed as warm as he could make it.  

 

Selwyn recovered, “Well if there is anything you need, House Tarth is in your debt.” Selwyn looked thoughtful for a moment, “I am a bit old to have a squire, but if you desire, my master-at-arms Goodwin has a son who is a knight and one day soon will take over for his father. Say the word, and I’ll make you his squire, and if rumors of your ability are true, you could be a knight in three years.”

 

Three years? A knight? Jon could rid himself of the name Snow, be a Ser, travel the Seven Kingdoms. Jon realized he had been silent for longer than appropriate, “Of course, my Lord, I would be honored, but my father would have to approve.” 

 

“Of course, please let me know before we leave.” The formidable man said. Jon just nodded and then saw where Brienne got her stature, and unfortunately, her looks from. Then the lord got uncomfortable then asked, “I must ask, why did you defend my daughter?” Brienne’s face burned bright red at the question. 

 

Jon looked around the hall and found what he was looking for, “You see them there?” The two watched, and Jon continued, “House Mormont has many warrior women. Dacey and her sister Alysanne that you see there are far better fighters than many men I know. In fact, the only reason Alysanne isn’t competing is due to her pregnancy.” 

 

The two Tarth’s looked at him, confused, and Jon shrugged, “I respect your daughter as a warrior, and any warrior that did what she does deserves respect from everyone else.” 

 

Lord Tarth gave a small smile then, “You are right, they do.” They excused themselves and left, and Jon felt like Selwyn was a good man, and maybe being a squire in his household wouldn’t be too bad. 

 

Still, no matter how many interactions like those with the Royce’s and Tarth’s, there were many more that continued to remind him that he didn’t really belong. Most of which came from House Rykker. Before, they ignored Jon like everyone else, but now insulted him whenever they could. Hemly could only scowl as he still couldn’t talk very well due to his tongue being so swollen. Apparently, when Jon kicked his helm, he nearly bit through his tongue. Damn shame, that. 

 

Still, this left his younger twin Lenfred to spew insults. The insults did little to bother him, or so he showed, but if Jon was caught alone, an extra shove here or there would be given in retaliation. But that is all they would dare do, as anything more sinister would breech guest right, and even those two wouldn’t be stupid enough to do something so foolish.

 

The most stunning development was the attention of a few girls as well. There was the youngest Royce, Rhea, and Mira Forrester, both of which started to look at him like most girls looked at Robb. Even a daughter of Lord Belmore, though he didn’t remember her name, tried to offer him her favor. Luckily she was scolded by her uncle or cousin, and Jon was able to escape the embarrassing situation. This still didn’t stop Asher, Harmond, and Theon from taking the piss out of him. 

 

However, none of that mattered as the only member of the fairer sex he wanted to talk to was still ignoring him. Worst yet, she seemed to be dancing with Lenfred and Hemly Rykker every evening, which was more painful than any insult those arrogant arseholes could invent. 

 

“She doesn’t enjoy their company.” Larence had said the morning before the proper melee. Jon must have grumbled about it out loud instead of in his head as the two bastards sparred. Larence had started to train with Jon after Tamir finished with him, which gave Jon a chance to lessen the intensity while still forcing him to build his stamina. Larence was quick, small, but quick and a fast learner.is, “She knows you don’t like it.” Jon only scowled at that. Jon then disarmed and hit the boy harder than he thought. 

 

“Gods, Jon!” Larence said as he rubbed his shoulder. Jon knew it would leave a bad bruise, nothing severe but still too harsh for a friendly spar. 

 

“Sorry,” Jon mumbled, and Larence had the good sense not to say anything else. Well, not anything about Ella. 

 

“So your fighting in the proper melee? Against real knights and lords?” 

 

“Yes.” 

 

“You could get hurt!” 

 

“They only use blunted weapons,” Jon replied.

 

“So Lyn Corbray won’t use Lady Forlorn ?” Larence asked with disappointment. 

 

Jon laughed, “Good thing too, or he would take off my head.” 

 

“I hear he is the quickest sword in Westeros!”

 

“I hear he is the only one that says that.” Jon shot back, and this got a chuckle out of Larence. In truth, Jon knew this was a bad idea, but he had to make a name for himself. Earn some more glory, prove that he....he was worth...something. 

 

Jon had trained hard every day leading up to the real melee, with Tamir pushing Jon as far as Jon wanted to be driven. “A man is only as good as he wants to be, and you, Jon Snow, need the desire to be great if you want to be anything worthwhile. I see it within you. Use it and push yourself, and I will mold you into something to be feared.” It wasn’t enough time, though. He was better now, sure, but ten days of training would not make him into something formidable. 

 

That being said, the rigorous training regimen had made Jon feel pretty good. But Jon was not a fool, he knew he wouldn’t last long in the melee. Still, Jon knew he would last longer than anyone thought, especially if he could get on the same team as Tamir.

 

Later that evening, during their routine training, Jon finally spoke up. “Tamir, I have a question,” Jon asked. 

 

“Speak it then.” Jon just rolled his eyes, and this response and spoke anyway. 

 

“Tomorrow, during the melee, can I fight by your side?” Jon asked. Tamir gave him a smirk and then shook his head. 

 

“If it was up to me, Jon Snow, yes, but the game master picks the teams one hour prior, and if we are on separate teams, I cannot.” Jon nodded, understanding the rules. 

 

“If my team is all lost and I am alone, can I join your team during the melee?” Jon asked, hating how much he sounded like a helpless child. 

 

Tamir took a moment to respond before he turned the question around, “If my team is lost, Jon Snow and I am the only one left, will you allow me to join you.” 

 

“Of course!” Jon answered quickly, and Tamir gave a genuine smile. 

 

“Then do not worry, Jon Snow.” 

 

--

 

In the end, Jon didn’t have to worry. He was selected in the same group as Tamir, but as they were preparing themselves in their team’s tent, Jon was a little dismayed at his fellow fighters. 

 

Gryff Whitehill had not hidden his displeasure of being selected to this team, especially when one fighter as young as Jon, “Aye little Snow, run around while the real fighters win this for you,” was the first thing he had said when he had found out. 

 

The other men of the group seemed to share his opinion. Although Jon was known for his prowess for his age, compared to the older fighters, he was average at best, and since he was still growing, he didn’t compare to the others in height or weight. The only one that he did compare to was 18-year-old Willem Evrett, a newly minted knight from the Vale, who looked as nervous as he was. The announcement of the teams and their members started. The herald, with his booming voice, cut through the rising murmur of the crowd. The number of participants in the melee was more than any of the lords could have guessed with nearly four hundred and fifty men who put forth their name. It was a hotchpotch of competitors with lords and common men-at-arms from the North, knights from the south, and a handful of foreigners like Tamir. 

 

Jon’s team was an underwhelming mix of men. There was Jon, Tamir, two other foreigners that Jon did not know, Ser Evrett, Gryff Whitehill, a ragged man with black chainmail and a dented helm and nose guard, a soldier in the service to House Dustin, two Norrey cousins and, Jon was happy to see, Jory Cassell. Jory had been quiet the whole time, preparing himself as another of the forty teams were announced. There was a roar of approval as some names of well-known fighters were given. 

 

As more and more teams were announced, Jon’s stomach was in knots and felt as if he was going to embarrass himself, his family, and bring shame onto all of them. His mind was racing when he felt a hand on his shoulder. 

 

“Jon.” 

 

It was Tamir, he was in simple chainmail and leather armor, he didn’t have his thin blade but a shield, spear and short sword, all blunted. He was flanked by two men, one had a similar skin tone as Tamir’s but was three inches smaller, but built broadly. The other was a couple of inches taller than Tamir and a bit thin but was heavily scarred. His skin was as dark as charcoal, and Jon had a hard time looking away. “Jon.” This time Tamir patted the side of his face to wake him from his reverie. “Jon, these are fellow members of the company I am a part of.” 

 

“You never said you were a sell-sword!” 

 

Tamir gave Jon a look of offense before saying, “Do you think I practice arms because it is a useful tool to woo women?” 

 

Jon stared uncomfortably at the ground and said the first thing that came to his mind, “Yes.” 

 

Tamir and the other Braavosi let out a roar of laughter, and the darker-skinned man even smirked. “Well, you have a point as it does help woo women, but no, I have been fighting in battles since I was little older than you. But that doesn’t matter now. I was able to bribe the gamemaster in including these two on our ten-man team.” 

 

“You cheated!” Jon said outraged. 

 

Tamir gave him an odd look, “Aye, so did most others. Have you seen the groupings, Jon? Most of the wealthier fighters have paid to have their men on their team.” 

 

Jon just shook his head, “There is no honor in that!”

 

“Ah, but there is glory.” 

 

“And gold.” The knight in black ringmail shouted from across the tent.

 

“And gold.” Tamir agreed. 

 

Jon snarled in response, but Tamir forced him to look at his eye, “There is no honor in battle Jon, even a mock battle such as this. There are only those that win and those that lose.” 

 

“It’s dis-” Jon was interrupted harshly as a hand slapped his face. 

 

Jon stared at Tamir in confusion and pain, but Tamir gave him a pointed look, “Now, shut your mouth, and listen to me, Snow. This is Arridos,” Tamir pointed to the other Braavosi, who gave Jon a nod, “And this is Medvjed.” The dark skin man looked at him and nodded as well, but it lacked any warmth. 

 

“It is a pleasure sers,” Jon said, with the barest courtesy.

 

Medvjed gave him another nod, while Arridos said, “Pleasure is mine Snow, you fight well for someone so young.” Arridos turned to Tamir, “So what is the plan, captain?” 

 

Tamir became sober for the first time since Jon had known him. “Our best chance is for us to be on the defensive, let the over-eager men rush into the crowd. Hold our ground, work together, fight as a single unit, and take down those that come.” 

 

“Aye, sure, fuck about in the corner like the pansy merchant you are.” Gryff spat on the ground, “Fuck your plan.” 

 

Medvjed and Arridos stepped forward, but Tamir put a hand on their arms. Slowly Tamir looked at each fighter, one at a time, landing on Gryff last. Jon felt the authority shift in the tent, it was palpable, wordless, and Jon couldn’t pull himself away. Jon only realized then that Tamir was a leader of men, that he genuinely has seen war in a way many in the room had never known, and that he had survived, no, thrived in it. 

 

After nearly a minute, he continued, “Feel free to join the madness at the beginning, you will yield, and our team will be poorer for it.” Gryff, to his credit, didn’t back down but became less defiant, as he was complimented and reproached in a single moment. 

 

The man in black chainmail stood up, “It’s as good a plan as any, which of the companies do you fight for in Essos?” 

 

It was Arridos who spoke first, “Müqeddes Cinler.” Jon knew it was Valyrian as he had a passable education in the language, but Jory stopped polishing his helmet, and his father’s captain looked up with his eyes wide. 

 

“So you’re Demons?” the gruff man in black chainmail said. “I was part of the Stromcrows for a season, fought your men near the Velvet Hills for some Norvoshi cunt.” 

 

Tamir raised an eyebrow, “Will that be a problem?” 

 

The gruff man gave a quick laugh, “Not in the slightest. Our commander was a shit, poor pay, and worse food. Saved most of the money for himself. So thanks for killing him.” The man stuck out his hand, “Name’s Bronn. Thought we were fucked for this fight, but with three Demons on our side, we may have a chance. What do you need me to do?” 

 

“Do you have a shield?” 

 

“Never saw the need.” Bronn shrugged his shoulders. 

 

Tamir spoke Valyrian to Medvjed, who turned at left the tent and returned thirty seconds later with a round shield of oak and iron. He handed it to Bronn, who simply shrugged and grabbed it. 

 

Tamir then spoke to the rest of the room, “We form a shield wall, tight enough not to let anyone through, but loose enough where our tired foes can be let through to be finished off.” 

 

“By who?” Jory asked, speaking for the first time. 

 

Tamir looked at Jon and then at Willem and pointed at the knight, “You and the boy.” 

 

Gryff scoffed, “Him? So we are protecting Snow, so he and the southron ponce get the glory?” 

 

“Yes.” Tamir said, “But not for glory, but because they are the weakest ones here and the shield wall will fold if I have them be apart of it.” If this was meant to improve Jon’s confidence, it was not working. Gryff just smirked at Jon.

 

Tamir turned to address the room, “We can’t kill, but still, hit weak points, joints, ribs, you all know where. When you feel you have them tired, they shout, ‘Munhaz.’ 

 

The older Norrey looked up, “What’s a ‘Munhaz?’ 

 

“It doesn’t matter, just yell it and then wait for five counts and let them through the line, Jon and, I’m sorry, what was your name?” 

 

“Willem Evrett.” The newly anointed knight said in response, his voice wavering a bit.  

 

“And Evrett here will finish them as one.” Everyone looked at Tamir, seeming to weigh their options. Eventually, they all grunted in agreement then Tamir spoke with them all about placement on the line.  

 

Jon felt his hands shaking a little and looked at Tamir and his two fellow mercenaries. They were all calm, breathing evenly while checking their gear one more time. 

 

Jon took a breath, trying to find their calm that eluded himself. 

 

He took another deep breath, trying to visualize the fight before him and felt some sort of peace, but when he opened his eyes, Ser Evrett was there, looking as bad as Jon felt.

 

“Nervous?” Jon turned to see the man who called himself Bronn. Jon simply nodded in agreement. 

 

“Me too.” Jon just gave him an incredulous look, Bronn just said he fought in wars and battles across the narrow sea. 

 

“Why?” Jon asked.

 

Bronn shrugged, “We are using blunted blades. If we were allowed to kill, I’d walk away from scrap a wealthy man.” 

 

Despite himself, Jon gave a small chuckle, and the man smirked back. Jon felt some of his anxiety fade. Bronn gave him a pat, “Don’t let anyone flank us, I still want that gold.” 

 

“Don’t get overwhelmed, I don’t know if I want to save you,” Jon said. 

 

“Oh, don’t worry. If it gets too bad, I’ll throw that boar of man, Whitehill, into the enemy.” Jon couldn’t tell if Bronn was serious, then realized he probably was. Jon gave a laugh anyway, the last of his tension fading. 

 

The rest of the team was gathered, ready to walk onto the tourney ground to be announced. Bronn went to join them, and Jon was left alone for a moment. Jon listened to the cheering crowd, hungry for skillful violence. They had almost drowned out the herald, and Jon took two deep breaths and opened his eyes. Jon looked at the corner to his shield, which was smiling back at him.

Chapter Text

Ned

 

Ned was tapping the armrest of his chair in an erratic pattern. He looked around to stands filled with thousands of people. The tourney ground had to be extended just to accommodate the size of the melee. Most of the fighters were sitting there, anxiously waiting for it to begin. The shuffled in the melee grounds that were now covered in a thin layer of sand. 

 

Ned leaned over to Lord Wylis to his right, "What is the sand for?" 

 

Wylis looked nervous before responding, "In case there is a lot of blood, ensure that the men cannot slip as easily." 

 

Ned nodded, fighting his nerves, hoping that Jon was forced to yield early and before he suffered a significant injury." Thirty minutes had passed already, and they were just now finishing the announcements of teams, with Jon's being announced last. 

 

The herald's voice was hoarse at this point, and if Ned hadn't been so close to him, he wouldn't have been able to hear the poor man finish the announcement. "With the last team, Arridos of Braavos, Me-mg-ah-djev of the Doquu, Tamir of Braavos, Gryff Whitehill, Jory Cassell, Ser Evrett of Wickenden, Erin of Barrowton, Rend Norrey, Lem Norrey, Bronn of…..somewhere, and lastly, the winner of the squire's melee, Jon Snow of Winterfell." 

 

Arya, Robb, and Bran jumped from their seats and yelled, cheering for their brother raucously while Sansa politely clapped while Jon, who just exited the tent with his new purchases. The fresh leather covering his mail, the padded gambeson underneath, the freshly forged steel helmet, and a new shield that was-. Ned felt his heart stop as he saw the weirwood tree with a laughing face painted on the front. "Godsdamn him," Ned muttered to himself. 

 

"What was that Lord Stark?" Ned turned to his right where Wylis Manderly was sitting. 

 

Ned waved his hand, "Nothing important, Lord Wylis." 

 

Wylis grunted in reply, and Ned turned back to his son, wearing his light armor huddled in a circle while the Braavosi was speaking to their group. Ned found it unusual that Jon was standing to the Braavosi's right, focusing intently on what a foreigner was saying. 

 

Robb was speaking to Arya and Bran, "You should see how they train! You know how Jon is in the yard and how hard Jon works, but it seems mad. Tamir Fregar controls what Jon eats when he sleeps, when and with what weapon they train, he even makes Jon slow down his movements so much that it seems he stands still mid-strike! He has to sit in a pose to trust for nearly ten minutes!." 

 

"You think he could-" Arya started, but Ned interrupted. 

 

"Tamir Fregar?" 

 

Robb turned to him, "Yes, that one there, the Braavosi." 

 

Ned saw the man Robb pointed to. This Tamir was leaning over towards Jon and Ned assumed they were speaking to one another. "His name is Fregar?" Robb nodded his head confused. "How does Jon know him?" 

 

"He's been training Jon every day since a couple of days after we arrived in White Harbor. I think he's why Jon won the squire's melee." Robb said, still beaming with pride at how his brother beat three squires, all older and more skilled, in only a handful of moments. 

 

Bran turned his head, "Can I train with him as well? If I moved like Jon, I could be a knight in no time." 

 

"Ser Rodrik is more than capable," Ned grumbled, but his mind was already thinking. Was this some sort of trick Tormo's to gain support? 

 

A horn interrupted his thoughts, and the roar of half a thousand fighters seemed to shake the stands. The crowd joined, and the cheering soared as blunted steel met wood, and the melee had begun. Ned searched for his son, ignoring all the other fighters and saw the weirwood shield next to a shield with a bull on it. The two stood behind a line of eight men. Ned was shocked that they all agreed to guard Jon, but then a smaller fighter slipped through the line. Their opponent was struggling to stay up, and Jon disarmed him as the Bull-shielded knight kicked him to the ground. The attacking knight yielded, and Jon and the Bull knight, Evrett, he thought, moved back into position. Soon there was a hole in the line, and Jon pushed forward, closing it, then retreating when the knight dispatched by the man named Bronn. 

 

In the chaos of the melee, Jon's team held together reasonably well. The plan seemed simple and effective as they fought well as a unit, each of them having a job to do. It appeared the clansmen anchored the shield wall holding both flanks, while the three foreigners stood in the middle, directing the shield wall. Every so often, someone would be let through, and Jon and his companion fought well together, dispatching those that slipped in. 

 

Ned was impressed by his son, it seemed he had improved even since the squire's melee and facing men one at a time, gave his quickness the advantage. Combined with the help from Ser Evrett, they helped their team slowly whittle down the competition. 

 

Then the line broke, and three men rushed through at once. Two were Wull clansmen, and another seemed to be a knight in the service to House Celtigar. The two Clansmen moved towards Jon. Ned felt himself rise and heard his children grasp as they stood. Jon was forced away from his team. He was backpedaling, as the two Wull attacked with their blunted axes. One hooked Jon's shield to throw him off balance, but Jon, to Ned's surprise and the surprise of the crowd, let go of his shield, the change of resistance, opening the clansmen up to a blow. Jon delivered then spun so quickly the other clansman's blow struck his comrade instead of Jon. Jon then moved and delivered a crushing blow to the man's arm, who dropped his ax, and Jon pointed at both clansmen who yielded. Jon grabbed his shield and sprinted back to Ser Evrett, who was hard-pressed, and his son delivered a blow to the man's back, and the two forced him to yield. 

 

The crowd roared in pleasure at what Jon did. Ned found himself speechless at the display. His children, on the other hand, cheered wildly, even Theon seemed impressed though he said nothing. 

 

"Father, did you see that!" Bran yelled. 

 

"Of course he did, stupid," Arya said.

 

Bran didn't seem to hear her, "That was incredible, he moved so fast, and did you see what he did with his shield!" 

 

Robb smiled, "Yes, gods, he's gotten better than even a few days ago." 

 

Yes, he has. Ned was worried though, Tamir Fregar seemed to take him under his wing. Was this a ploy of some sort, to ingratiate into his family through his son. Ned felt his irritation grow but kept it to himself. Ned forced himself to concentrate on watching his son put on an impressive display. 

 

"Your boy is a credit to you," Wylis said.

 

"Thank you, Lord Wylis, he's a good lad," Ned said. Ned looked at the Manderly's sitting next to them. Mereth Manderly was seated next to her new husband, and both were speaking to each other. Ned saw that Mereth was smiling. 

 

"How is the newly married couple?" Ned asked. 

 

Wylis smiled a bit, "They are warming up to each other, I think." 

 

"That's good," Ned looked at his daughter Wynyfryd. "Where is your other daughter, Wylla?" 

 

Wylis waved his hand, "She stays for the beginning, but most tourney's do not hold her interest for long." 

 

Ned nodded, turning to Sansa, whose initial enthusiasm for the melee was switching between a mix of boredom and apprehension at the extraordinary violence. Ned could relate but still turned back to his son, who was garnering acclaim, both for his prowess and age, but also the unique shield he had on. 

 

After nearly an hour, Jon's team had only lost two men, one of the Norrey cousins and a man-at-arms from house Dustin. Jon's team responded by having their line shrink closer together as the knight, Ser Evrett, who had been next to Jon, stepped up into the shield wall. Still, the chaos of the melee seemed to swirl around them all, breaking against the shield wall like the waves crashing against the rocks of White Harbor.  

 

Smalljon Umber had fought savagely and defeated nearly ten men himself but made the mistake of separating from his group to face the last three men and was eventually defeated by Dacey Mormont and two Mormont fighters who sprung the trap and the heir to Last Hearth's team soon folded in on itself. Greatjon held his group of ragged Umber men together and pushed towards the center, swinging the immense Greatsword in wide arcs, keeping attackers at bay. The two elder Karstark sons, Harrion and Torrhen, fought side by side, forming an impressive duo. Robin Flint fought valiantly alongside Avery Locke but were both eventually defeated by Lyn Corbray in a stunning display of swordsmanship. Andar and Yohn Royce were doing quite well, while Marlon Manderly and the Ryswell brothers were tiring out and were each defeated in turn. 

 

As the competition approached the two-hour mark, the initial enthusiasm of the melee was waning. The squire's melee lasted maybe an hour and was much less viscous. 

 

Men were unconscious, bleeding and broken, and were being dragged off by servants and squires alike as the middle of the tourney ground turned into a brawl more than a skillful display of arms. The smarter teams stayed at the edge and picked off the stragglers one by one. 

 

Jon, tired as he looked, was still standing behind a line of five men. It seemed Ser Evrett, Gryff Whitehill, and the other Norrey all were forced to yield. Jon's team had the most members standing, but the chaff had been sifted away, and Ned's anxiety only increased as the likelihood of significant injury was growing every moment Jon stayed in the melee. 

 

Ned was incredibly proud, though, his son was the youngest fighter left by almost a decade and had made it into the final fifty. Just pull out of the fight . But Ned knew his son. He would fight to the bitter end to prove he belongs. Ned felt guilty at those thoughts, knowing he hadn't done enough to curb that behavior. 

 

A hole their wall opened up between the dark-skinned man and the other foreigner and Jon jumped into the gaps and Ned watched as the two men with Jon in between moved in cohesion, with Jon using his shield to block a strike from Dacey Mormont's mace, and Arridos covering Jon's exposed side with his own. Then all three thrust out in different directions, Jon with his sword and the two foreigners with their spears, pushing back their opponents. They even managed to force one to yield. Soon their whole line advanced, and the two foreigners forced Dacey to yield, much to Arya's disappointment. Jon took the small moment of reprieve to return to his place behind the wall as it closed back together.

 

Only then, a man in black chainmail, Bronn, moved too slow, and Andar Royce's morningstar landed a blow on the poor man's shoulder, and Bronn fell to his knees with a hand up yielding. Jory then was then separated from the group trying to fend off the heir of Runestone. With Yohn Royce forcing Tamir out of the line and Lyn Corbray holding the other two at bay. The shield wall had been broken apart. 

 

"Jon, look out!" Arya screamed, and Ned felt his blood run cold as he turned to find Jon narrowly avoided a strike from a knight with two war hammers crossed on a blue and white field. House Rykker. The young knight was pushing Jon hard, and Jon was struggling to keep his weapon up. Jon then separated from the group, trying to put some distance between him and the Rykker knight. 

 

Ned watched, gripping the armrest of his chair, and didn't notice as his knuckles turned white. Jon ducked and parried, and the knight stuck with him, scoring a few glancing blows here and there. Ned then understood what Jon was trying to do. Then Jon seemed to finally start to take control of the duel, as the knight he faced was moving slower as Jon, with more open space, was tiring him out. Jon was able to score a rough hit under the shoulder, and Ned knew if the blades had an edge, his son would have rendered the knight's arm useless. The knight tried a backswing with the sword, and Jon was able to trap it and disarm the knight in a single, smooth move. Ned sighed in relief, though even from here, Ned could see Jon breathing heavily. The knight from House Rykker lifted his arms in surrender, and Jon turned back to return to his team's broken line. 

 

Ned felt himself rise from his seat as the knight from House Rykker raised his shield to strike Jon from behind. 

 

"No!" Robb cried out when a spear flew past Jon's shoulder and hit the knight right above the chest plate, knocking him onto his back. 

 

Ned looked to see the dark-skinned fighter, who had thrown a tourney spear, immediately suffered a blow to his unguarded shoulder, and yielded to Lyn Corbray. Jon turned in confusion to the knight now on his back. Then Jon must have seen the knight from House Corbray advance towards him as his son lowered himself into a fighting stance once again. 

 

"No, no, no yield Jon. Yield." Ned muttered to himself. 

 

There were only twenty fighters left, and many were dropping quickly now. Whispers about the Weirwood fighter could already be heard. Yield son, there is no need to keep going . Jon didn't back down, and Ned could see Lyn laughing as Jon did his best to hold him off, but Lyn was a man grown, experienced warrior, killer of Ser Llewyn Martell and wielder of Lady Forlorn. Jon fought admirably, but he was not quite a man yet. After three minutes of Jon trying to evade and counter against his opponent, Jon's blade hit the dirt by a brilliant counter that his exhausted son couldn't react to in time.

 

Thank the gods . But unexpectedly, Jon moved as quick as Shadowcat and struck out with a kick. The crowd gasped in shock as Jon's leg connected with the knee of Lyn Corbray, and Jon dodged the swing, and Lyn's knee buckled a bit as he stepped forward. Jon swung his shield and the laughing face connected with the front of Lyn Corbray's helmet, and the knight stumbled backward but kept his feet under him. Jon pushed forward, wielding only his shield. Jon tried to push his advantage, but Lyn Corbray steadied his feet under him and swung his sword. 

 

Jon couldn't move swift enough and was once again on his back foot. Lyn Corbray was no longer laughing, and Jon could only move his shield as Jon was battered over and over again, and his new shield's iron rim was denting, and the wood underneath took a beating from the force of the blows. Ser Corbray's sword feinted up, and Jon fell for it. The sword whirled towards his son's leg. Jon's shield caught some of it, his leg caught the rest, and Jon stumbled to one knee. Lyn didn't even wait for Jon to raise his hand but swung his fist, and Jon crumpled to the ground. 

 

"Jon!" Arya cried out while Sansa gasped. Robb and Bran sat there in silent horror while Ned was already out of his seat, rushing down the stairs to the tourney ground. He turned back to Tomard, "Find a maester and bring him to Jon immediately!" 

 

It took longer to reach the healer's tent than it should have, and when he made the stands cheered loudly, and applause broke out, the herald shouted out the champion, but Ned wasn't paying attention. His son, his only piece of her, was unconscious, and nothing else mattered.

Chapter Text

Jon

 

Jon moaned as the taste of dirt-filled his mouth. He was trying to get his body to turn over through the sheer force of will. But try as he might his body didn't want to acquiesce, so he sat there, lying face first in the dirt. 

 

Suddenly, he felt his feet were grabbed by someone, and another pair of hands cupped his upper body. Jon was lifted off the ground, and then there was nothing but air underneath him. His head muddled, and he tried to move his left leg. "Ah!" Jon groaned the pain slicing through his hazy mind. The same damn leg as before. He needed to see if he could walk on it, test to see if it was permanently damaged or just a bad bruise. Jon tried to escape the clutches of the encompassing hands, but they only grasped him tighter. 

 

"Calm down milord, calm down milord! You are almost to the healer's tent." 

 

"Wurrt hepind?" Jon's speech slurred. His head was hurting, there was a cloud in his mind, and everything was moving too slow, but at the same time was way too fast. As they carried him through the melee grounds, it was starting to lift. The bright light was dimming, and the fog in his mind was now clearing, giving comprehension back into his control.

 

"Blow to the head, young Ser. Your helmet had a nice little dent to the side." 

 

Jon was trying to remember what occurred, he remembered Lyn Corbray coming towards him, he remembered losing his sword and kicking the famous knight in the knee. After that, it was hazy. 

 

Then in one moment, it rushed back to him, the fist he didn't even see. 

 

"Corbray…." Jon mumbled. 

 

"Aye, the knight did well, rung your bell good, beat back the Giant Umber Lord, don't know if he got hit in his head as bad as he hit yours, though!" Jon couldn't see the man, so he leaned his unsupported head backward to get a better look at the man. He had a soft face and round shoulders. He was also sweating profusely. 

 

"Shield?" Jon said softly.

 

"Sorry, milord?" 

 

"My shield." Jon tried to escape again to find his shield, he couldn't lose it, he just bought it!

 

"Oi!" The man holding his feet shouted, "Oi enough! We'll drop you if you keep squirmin' like a worm!"

 

The man with the soft face spoke, "Your shield will be fetched, ser, don' worry none." Jon acquiesced. 

 

"Who…..who won? Jon mumbled, but he thought it was a little bit clearer than before.

 

"Not sure milord, melee still going on," the soft faced-man spoke, it was an oddly deep voice, Jon realized. Just then, a loud cheer went up, and a roar of applause followed, Jon thought the herald was saying something, but Jon couldn't make out what it was, but the uproar that followed couldn't be missed. 

 

The two men carrying Jon reached a table in one of the healer's tents, and they laid him down gently. As soon as Jon felt the wooden table under his armor, he tried to sit up when a firm hand held him in place. Jon slowly saw a dark-skinned hand, and Jon followed the arm up to see Medvjed staring down at him. 

 

"Still boy," Medvjed put his finger on his head. "The head is paining. Pain for time, rest until no pain." His Westerosi was stilted and had a thick accent he didn't recognize. 

 

Jon tried to get up again in defiance, and the man placed his other hand on his shoulder as well. 

 

"Stay." 

 

"This rangy bear of a man is right young Jon. You took a good blow." Jon looked around to see Arridos walking towards him with a slight limp, "Unnecessary by that cunt of knight, though thank the gods he didn't use the sword, or they would still be picking your brain from the dirt." 

 

Jon couldn't help but smirk and shake his head, "Aye." Jon looked at the dark-skinned man, 

"Thank you, Medvjed, for the spear." The man cocked his head, then Arridos said something in Valyrian too quickly for Jon to understand. 

 

Medvjed seemed to comprehend then turned back to Jon, "Müqeddes Cinler, are one. We fight with others or…" the man seemed to try and find the right word, "or slip." 

 

Jon looked in confusion at Medvjed, and he turned to Arridos, who listened then said, "What my inarticulate compatriot is trying to say is that us Demons fight as one, and if we did not we fall on the real battlefield."

 

"I am not a Demon," Jon said. 

 

Arridos stuck his arm out, "Today you were." Jon gave a sheepish grin and grasped the man's forearm. 

 

Arridos just patted his shoulder and looked up, and the smile slipped a bit. Arridos turned to the dark-skinned man who both shared a look. Medvjed looked back to Jon and patted his chest once and said, "Rest, byka cinler." Little demon. Jon nodded in thanks. 

 

"Lord Stark," The two men said with a nod of their head and turned to leave. Jon felt his body grow stiff. 

 

Jon's father entered his field of vision. His grey eyes were not as hard as they usually were, replaced with something Jon thought was a concern. 

 

"Thank the Gods you're okay," Ned said as he embraced Jon quickly. Jon was too shocked, and instead of returning it, an involuntary groan from the pain escaped him. "Others take you, Jon, challenging Lyn Corbray with no sword?" 

 

Jon gave a weak grin, "Thought...I thought I could catch him off guard." 

 

His father's face of concern morphed into a face Jon recognized a little more, "Jon, he bested you already, there was no shame in that." 

 

At the word of shame, Jon's felt his smirk faded, and he bit back his retort and instead said, "Yes, father." Jon turned his head, so he wasn't facing his father again. 

 

"Jon. That's not to say-" 

 

A flat voice interrupted his father, "Lord Stark, I am maester Theomore. Excuse me for interrupting, but I need to see the injured fellow." A fat fleshy man with pink cheeks and a permanent frown came and looked at Jon. "Follow my finger." Jon did so. "Good. Can you tell me your name?" So Jon did. 

 

The maester spoke to him and asked a series of bizarre and unrelated questions. Then he harshly prodded and poked Jon up and down his leg and head, not stopping to ask any more questions then turned to his father. 

 

"The young man has a very, very mild concussion, maybe not even that. The leg will have a bruise but isn't broken. He is exhausted and needs a good meal and night's sleep. No ale or wine, only water. He will be back to normal in the next week or so. Try if you can to not stress the leg, it won't make it worse, but it will hurt like the seventh hell if you try to put too much stress on it." Then the maester left with barely a nod of respect. 

 

Jon let his head rest against the table, his exhaustion was starting to overcome him, two hours of fighting, and he felt as though his shoulders would never lift another object. I need to train more, to get stronger, to last longer in a fight. I need Tamir-

 

"Jon!" Jon smiled at his little brother's voice and turned to see Bran running full speed at him. His father stopped Bran from hitting Jon but did not see Arya, who slipped past their father's arms, and Arya connected against Jon's bruised leg. 

 

Jon groaned again as the pain lanced up his body and seemed to make his head hurt worse. 

 

"Arya Stark!" Jon's father spoke with a harsh tone of disapproval, and Arya stepped back with wide eyes. 

 

"Jon, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry," She repeated as Jon as the pain subsided. 

 

Jon rubbed his palm against his forehead as he laid flat on his back. "It's okay, little sister, just took more of a beating than I thought." 

 

Bran spoke up then, "I can't believe you kicked Ser Lyn without a sword! Then he struck you, and your helmet flew off! Ow!" Bran yelped as the flat of a hand hit the back of his head. 

 

"I'm sure he doesn't need the reminder of getting his bell rung," Robb said as he approached the cot. He held out his hand, and Jon grasped it. Robb lowered himself and whispered, "You are a damn fool. Brave but a fool, Snow." Jon could see the smile on his brother's face and couldn't help but retort. 

 

"Aye, it was something you would do, Stark." Robb playfully punched Jon's shoulder. "So who ended up winning?" 

 

Bran wasted no time to inform him, "You should have seen it, Jon! After you fell, Ser Lyn and Ser Symond fought Lord Royce and his son Andar! Then the Greatjon faced both of the Karstark brothers and beat them both! Fregar then faced two Wulls, and you should have seen it, Jon, he went like this," Bran started dancing around acting like he was getting attacked from all sides, "Then he defeated them! Then Lyn Corbray, Greatjon, and Tamir were left, and all three fought each other, Jon. It was amazing!" 

 

"It was indeed young, Stark! Shame that your brother was unable to participate." Tamir stepped into the tent, holding Jon's weirwood shield, and Bran's eyes went wide with awe. "I believe the mysterious Weirwood Warrior will need his weirwood shield," He placed it onto the table next to Jon. "Lord Stark, it is a pleasure to meet you." Tamir bowed with his characteristic flourish. "Lord Robb, it is good to see you again. I haven't had a chance to meet this young northern beauty, nor you, young Stark. I, am Tamir Fregar, a captain of the Müqeddes Cinler." 

 

"What's that?" Bran asked, too young to know it was rude. 

 

However, it was Lord Stark who answered with a glare, "Braavosi sellsword company." Robb and Arya's eyes went a little wide, while Bran took a small step back. 

 

Tamir ignored the comment and continued, "I fought as well as I could alas the Giant out there would not falter. Still, I earned a decent purse for myself and my team." Tamir shrugged and ribbed Jon's side, "I would rather have had the victory though, no matter, I must train harder," Then he turned to Jon, "As must you. Though I must admit, young Jon, you lasted longer than I thought, especially to someone as talented as the one who dented your helm." 

 

"Aye," Jon said, "I am not strong enough." 

 

"No, you are not, but we-" 

 

"Will do nothing as you will not see my son again," Lord Stark spoke, and a chill entered into the tent. Jon turned to his father and then to Tamir, who, for the second time since Jon had known him, was not smiling. 

 

"Father-" Jon started. It was a mistake as Lord Stark turned to him, and the 'Lord's Gaze' was on him, and Jon felt the next words die in his throat. 

 

"Lord Stark," Tamir started, "I see a great warrior in Jon, he needs someone who sees that as well, he needs to be challenged or his talents-" 

 

"Will be in the North, trained by and for the North, to be used to protect the North. Not to sell for a bit of gold," Ned growled. 

 

Tamir wouldn't be cowed though, "Yes, he will make a wonderful bodyguard where his martial prowess and keen mind will be wasted away." Jon's face flushed, and something in his mind clicked. Tamir had a point. Jon looked at his father, whose teeth were clenched, but Tamir continued, "Or deprived of joy by serving on a frozen wall, killing barbarians." 

 

"It is an honor to serve at the wall, my brother, their uncle, is First Ranger and serves the realm." Lord Stark retorted. 

 

Tamir scoffed, "He serves as a prison guard. The Wall is a place for criminals that your country does not want to house. A clever ploy, but let's not pretend it is for anything else." 

 

"It is for them to regain their honor." Lord Stark replied, and Jon flinched at his words, and Jon saw Tamir notice. 

 

"What honor did your brother lose to have to serve there." Tamir shot back. Jon saw the eyes of his stoic father widen and him trying to come up with a response, Tamir spoke again, "What honor does Jon need to regain?" 

 

Jon sucked in his breath, and no one moved. His father's usually imperturbable mask slipped, and it morphed into something feral. However, his father's voice remained calm and under control, "My son has no need to regain something he has never lost." Jon felt his eyes water slightly, and Tamir's lips curled. "You, however, profit off of death, and I will not let my sons fall down that path and be corrupted by killing for nothing but wealth." 

 

Tamir now matched his father's snarl with one of his own and pointed a finger the Warden of the North, "You know nothing of the workings of Braavos you insuffe-" 

 

"Tamir, that is enough!" A new voice carried through the tent, and Jon turned to see a man a little older than his father. He wore a simple, yet elegant dark purple tunic with a black frock and a gold inlay. His hair was graying, but Jon could tell he was related to Tamir. He was flanked on either side by Medjved and Arridos. 

 

"Tormo he-" 

 

"Is the Warden of the North and deserves, no, has earned your respect." Tamir opened his mouth, but Tormo spoke up, "Leave." Tamir stood there in defiance, but Jon could see the resolve start to crack. "Now." Tamir huffed and left his fellow Demons following him. Tormo turned to those left in the tent. "I apologize for my brother's discourtesy Lord Stark, especially in regards to the matters of how you run your land and your household." 

 

Lord Stark had placed his stoic mask back on but only nodded, then spoke softly, "I do not appreciate anyone manipulating my children for their own benefit."

 

"Nor do I." Tormo responded, nodding in return, but before he left the tent, he added, "Whatever you think of me, Lord Stark, my brother is not the honorless and warmongering mercenary you believe him to be." Tormo looked around and then found Jon. "My brother sees something in you." 

 

Tormo opened his mouth to speak again, thought better of it, and then left. 

 

Silence permeated the tent, and Bran and Arya only fidgeted while his father had a look of irritation that was mirrored by Robb. 

 

His father broke the silence, "Robb, go find Alyn and bring him to help get Jon to his quarters. Arya and Bran, I need you to go find the steward and tell him to bring food and water to Jon." His siblings left quickly to accomplish their tasks. "I-," But his father stopped, 'I-, You did well, son." 

 

"Thank you, father," Jon said coolly, still angry about how Tamir was treated. His father turned to leave, and from somewhere within him, courage bloomed, and Jon spoke again, "Tamir is a good man." 

 

His father stopped and turned around, facing him again. "Is he?" 

 

"Yes," Jon said adamantly. 

 

His father looked at him for a long moment, "How do you know?" 

 

"How do you know he isn't?" Jon shot back, "Is it because he is a sellsword? Rodrik Stark, your grandfather, was a sellsword!" 

 

The tent was quiet after Jon's outburst, and his father was silent, taking in his words, "Aye he was." His father took a deep breath before continuing, "He was, and he was paid well for it and traveled around the world fighting other peoples' wars."

 

"Then how can you be angry about Tamir doing the same thing?" Jon asked. 

 

His father was silent for a moment, seeming to collect his thoughts before continuing, "killing someone does something to you, and knowing my grandfather and fighting in a war myself, I think killing for money did something even worse to him. He was not a good man, Jon, not until he met my grandmother. Old Nan used to tell me when he had returned to the North for good, my grandfather drank his nights away and was violent towards many people."

 

Jon was silent, uncomfortable hearing this about someone he thought to emulate. His father continued anyway, "Apparently he eventually changed, I don't remember much of him from when I was a young boy, only stories he told us. Stories children shouldn't hear." His father trailed off, then started again, "Killing a man, Jon, it haunts you. It still haunts me sometimes, and every time I killed someone, I could justify it. My grandfather killed more than I ever could, and it did something to him that took years to recover from if he ever did. I don't know if it was because he was a sellsword or if that was just how he was." His father stopped, staring at the tent.

 

His father was quiet for a long moment, "Your right, Jon, it wasn't because he was a sellsword." Ned took a deep breath and got to his feet, and walked around, "His brother wants to make a deal with the North, and I thought Tamir was trying to use you at his brother's behest. I do not like underhanded tactics such as those, I reacted poorly." 

 

"Tamir told me as much when I first met him, I told him I wouldn't, but he didn't care." Jon tried to explain. 

 

"And he trained you anyway?" His father asked, and Jon nodded. "I see." His father scratched his beard with his right hand, "Did Tormo come to you at any time during training?" 

 

"No," Jon said, a little confusion. 

 

"Then I'll make sure to apologize to Tamir and then thank him as well." 

 

Jon felt a little relieved at that, "Thank you, father." 

 

His father waved it away before asking, "Do you want to be a sellsword, Jon? Be apart of the Mueq...Meq...?"

 

Jon smiled at the inability of his father to pronounce the name, "Müqeddes Cinler,"

 

"Yes, that one," He said with a small smile, "I am glad I forced you and Robb to learn some Valyrian. But yes, do you want to join them?" 

 

Jon looked down at his hands and nervously rubbed his left hand with the index finger and thumb of his right. "I...I…maybe," Jon stopped then started, "Would that displease you?" 

 

"It's not something I would have the strength to do, and you're right, Jon, I shouldn't besmirch someone that does something I could not do. No, if it is what you want, I won't be displeased. I just want you to know it could be difficult. It was for the few I know who tried." 

 

Jon nodded, thinking over it, killing was something abstract to him, but that was what he was training to do? What were they all were taught to do? Jon looked up to his father, "Lord Tarth says he has a knight in his service I cold squire for." 

 

His father's eyes widened a little, "Oh, do..do you want to? Go to Tarth, I mean."

 

Jon shrugged, "I could become a knight." 

 

"True, but you could become a knight here in White Harbor. Or I could ask Lord Yohn Royce to squire you if that is what you want." Jon bristled a little at that, which came as a surprise to him. Why did he feel that way? 

 

"I don't know, father, Tamir is one of the best fighters I have ever seen." 

 

"Aye, he is a good fighter." His father stated, Jon could hear the trepidation and little confusion and the sudden change in topic. 

 

Jon looked up, trying to explain it, "Tamir.." Jon stopped, then started again, "Tamir doesn't care. That I am a bastard, that I am your bastard." 

 

His father nodded, and Jon saw he didn't look convinced, but spoke anyway, "And Lord Selwyn?"

 

"His daughter was in the squire's melee." 

 

"Ah," was all his father said. "What about the Watch? Last time we spoke, you were dead set on joining." When Jon didn't answer, his father just gave a small smile, "It is okay, Jon." 

 

Jon just nodded, "I don't know, father. I wanted to, but now…" Jon drifted off. 

 

"You aren't sure." 

 

"No. What should I do?" Jon asked. 

 

"If it was up to me, I would have you never leave Winterfell. Stay there away from danger until I have passed, but there are many things you can do, and it seems you have options as well. But we can talk about this more when you are a little more healed." His father smiled then patted his healthy leg. Lord Stark got up and opened the entrance. When the flap of the tent was moved aside, Jon saw Ella pacing back and forth, and when he caught her eye, he noticed they were watering. She looked immediately relieved, but the tent flap closed again. 

 

Jon got up from the table and moved gingerly over to the entrance when he opened it she was standing there. 

 

"Ella." Jon sputtered out, grimacing as he put weight on the leg. 

 

Ella didn't respond, looking to the ground and wiping her eyes. When she finally looked up, her eyes were red, "You are a damn fool, Jon Snow." 

 

Jon knew it was a jest, but he was still angry. "You don't speak to me for more than a week, and that's what you say to me." 

 

Ella gave a disbelieving look, "I spoke to you six days ago." 

 

"What a pleasant conversation that was," Jon said, turning back into the tent. 

 

Jon felt her hand grasp his forearm. He stopped, "Gods above Jon Snow. This is not the conversation I wanted to have."

 

Jon faced her again, "What conversation did you want to have?"

 

She sat there, moments passed as she collected her thoughts, "I thought you were seriously hurt," she said, quickly finding the ground again.

 

"Why would you care?" Jon asked, trying and failing to keep the coolness. 

 

Ella gave an irritated look, "You know why." 

 

"Do I?" Jon asked. Jon felt some satisfaction as she looked a little crestfallen.

 

"Don't you?"

 

Jon took a deep breath and let it out, "Not anymore, after all, I am just a lowly bastard."

 

"I-, I'm sorry for saying that," Ella said. 

 

"You shouldn't be," Ella looked at him in surprise, "It is expected of southern ladies to put us bastards in their place." 

 

"What's that supposed to mean?" 

 

Jon nodded to a few tents down, where Lenfred Rykker was glaring at them both, "Your southron knight would expect such behavior." 

 

"He is not 'my knight,'" she snapped. Jon hated that he felt himself smile and inflate at those words and tried to let his frustration back in.

 

"Well, Ser Lenfred ceratinly seems to think so." 

 

"Yes. Well, unfortunately, he doesn't have the quickest wit," Ella said. 

 

"Or the quickest sword," Jon said immediately. They looked at each other, then smiles cracked before letting out a chuckle. They sat there, staring at each other as the laughter slowly subsided. It felt good to laugh with her again. But Jon felt the hurt still and dropped the smile, she did as well. 

 

"Can you forgive me?" Ella asked.

 

Jon immediately opened his mouth to say yes, but stopped himself, "I don't know." Jon saw her eyes water, "at least not yet," he said. He cursed himself for how quickly he relented, even though it was just a little bit.  

 

She nodded, "What can I do?" 

 

"I don't know," Jon said honestly, he hurt her, yes, but she cut him deeply. Jon looked back over to Lenfred, who was speaking to his brother, still glaring at him every few moments. "Stay away from the Rykkers, I meant what I said, I don't think they have good intentions towards you." 

 

Ella looked uncomfortable and shifted back and forth, "Lord Rykker asked my father for a betrothal." Jon felt the anger rise in his chest, but she added, "My uncle hasn't said anything, and I don't think he will agree, not yet at least." Jon calmed a little, not much but enough to feel it. 

 

"Still, stay away from them. Lenfred and his twin don't seem accustomed to not getting what they want." 

 

"Jon," she said one more time, "I want it to be you." 

 

Jon didn't say anything, just nodded, too unsure to say anything affirmative or dissenting. 

 

She tried to find something else to speak on when it became uncomfortable, "You know everyone is talking about the Weirwood Warrior." 

 

Jon shrugged, "Not the worst name."

 

"I think it fits," She said. Robb, Alyn, and Theon came then, "Goodbye, Jon." 

 

"Goodbye, Ella." 

  

Robb gave him a pointed look. Jon glared at him, "Don't." 

 

Robb raised his hands in surrender, stifling a laugh. Theon unsuccessfully doing so. 

 

Jon's mood soured a bit as Alyn took his right arm under his shoulder, and Robb took his left. Theon grabbing his shield and helmet, "Gods above and below Jon, look at these dents, how are you not dead?" 

 

"Cause I can actually swing a fucking sword Greyjoy," Jon grit out, the melee and his conversations with his father, and Ella had him exhausted, and he was not in the mood to deal with Theon's japes. 

 

"Not the one between your legs," Theon said. 

 

Jon just glared at him, face going red, "How has your luck been here? Have you returned to Old Reliable yet?" Jon said, raising his right hand. 

 

Robb laughed aloud, and Alyn tried to hide his, Theon only snarled, "I don't know Snow maybe I'll visit your mother tonight down by the docks, there was one whore with big tits maybe she-" He didn't finish as Jon's fist connected with Theon's nose, and he sprawled into a group of knights and nobles they passed. Theon tried to get up, but Jon was on top of him. Jon could only hit Theon two more times before Robb and Alyn pulled him off. The whole area outside the melee ground was crowded and most slowed down to watch the scene unfold. 

 

"You broke my fucking nose!" Theon yelled out. 

 

"Gods Jon," Robb said, going to Theon's side and lifting him up, "It was only a joke." 

 

Jon just glared at his brother, "Was it?"

 

Robb looked in confusion, then opened his mouth as comprehension dawned. Robb tried to say something, but Jon spoke first, fishing out a handful of silver stags at the same time, "Here." Jon said, throwing them at Theon, "For your nose and for your whore. If you do find my mother tell her to thank her gods, I didn't turn out like you." 

 

Jon turned away, cuffing his eyes surprised they were a bit damp. He was limping badly when he passed Arridos, Medjved, and Tamir, who witnessed the whole thing. Arridos was whispering to Medvjed, who then looked at Jon with wide eyes. 

 

The dark-skinned man bounded over, "Here Byka Cinler, help." 

 

Jon tried to shove him away, "I'm fine," 

 

Arridos was there then, "I don't think you are," he said with a little too much pity, but that disappeared, "Though with a rung bell and bruised leg, you still pack a punch." 

 

Jon smirked then, blinking rapidly to get rid of any trace of tears, "You should remember that." 

 

Arridos laughed then and took his left arm and slung it over his shoulders, Medjved doing the same. Tamir approached slowly, "Well, for you, it seems one melee isn't enough," Tamir smirked, "That makes for a good Demon." 

 

Jon looked away sheepishly, but his father's words about his grandfather were still in the back of his mind. Is that what he wanted to become?