Memories of Tomorrow - writing_as_tracey (2024)

Chapter 1: I

Chapter Text

Memories of Tomorrow

writing_as_tracey

I’m going to tell you a story. It’s going to sound ridiculous. The longer I talk, the more rational it’s going to appear…

- Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

Memories of Tomorrow - writing_as_tracey (1)

I:

I imagine death so much it feels more like a memory

When’s it gonna get me?

In my sleep? Seven feet ahead of me?

If I see it comin’, do I run or do I let it be?

- Hamilton, "My Shot"

For years after, Benjen would never be able to explain how it happened. He would be able to describe everything before, and everything after, in exquisite detail.

Before:

The snow was falling thickly, large flakes that floated gently from the sky but numerous in number, blanketing the horizon in a white sheen. The clouds that hung low in the sky were a dark, stormy grey, with the pale sun trying to pierce through but utterly failing except in small, thin beams that lit upon pockets of the Haunted Forest. There was no breeze, and the air was cold and wet, and each exhale was a puff of white in front of Benjen’s face. His ears and the tip of his nose were red and cold, and his joints ached, but his steps were soft and quiet in the freshly fallen snow.

Everything was muted in the Haunted Forest, even the breathy pants of his fellow brothers behind him as they trekked through the low-hanging branches, heavy with snows on them and under sweeping canopies of evergreen needles. Sometimes, they heard the faint caws of a raven or the skittering of some animal in the brush below as they made their way to the familiar grove where the weirwood heart tree stood near Castle Black.

There were a few new recruits with them, swearing to the Old Gods instead of in the bailey at Castle Black, and Benjen, who kept to his Gods, for all that they had failed his prayers in the years since Lyanna, Brandon, and his father’s deaths, led them past the wall to swear their oaths.

Then - there was a flash, like a sudden snowstorm that created an ensuring whiteout, the sun bouncing off the sudden influx and fury of snowflakes, causing him to squeeze his eyes shut and gasp as a wickedly cold wind swept through the trees --

The trunks shook and the branches rattled and scraped against one another, a truly awful sound --

A raven cawed loudly somewhere --

And then the wind died down, the sun muted, there was nothing but eerie silence --

After:

Benjen blinked back the ice that clung to his eyelashes and started barking orders immediately, checking on Edd and Alyn and their new recruits, only to pause, his voice dying as he stared at the ground at the foot of the weirwood tree in shock.

The once-pristine white snow at the base of the tree was dotted and splattered red with fresh blood, originating from two of the six bodies that suddenly appeared as the storm did.

The oldest and youngest seemed to be the injured ones: a young boy with a shockingly red mop of curls, gurgling as he choked on blood from invisible wounds. He was dressed in Northern fashion, tattered but good-quality clothes, even as he flopped onto his back and stared up at the overcast sky with bright blue eyes, spasming as he tried to catch his breath.

The other injured man - for he was, with his thick auburn beard - heaved and struggled to drag himself across the snow toward the tree, leaving long streaks of red behind, although there were no visible marks on his body. His clothes were good quality as well, and he had a thick fur coat in Stark grey - and most curiously, a crown made of iron.

Benjen stepped forward, ready to offer help when one of the other immobile figures shot up from where she rested, turned onto her side, and vomited, bits of her sick catching against her long red hair that reminded Benjen of his goodsister. She frantically ran her hands over her hair, her face, neck, and body as though checking for something.

It seemed that whatever held the other three had broken, and the dark-haired bodies jerked; the larger of the two was a man, older than the other, with a long, pale Stark face and wide eyes, rising unsteadily to his feet and grasping for an imaginary sword even as he swayed, his unfocused eyes moving around the clearing by the tree, his voice slurring as he demanded, “C’mere you f*ck’rs, I can do this al’day!”

The other rolled to their knees and sat on their haunches, and Benjen thought it was another young boy until he saw the sharp, feminine features on the girls’ face. She seemed to come to herself far quicker than the others, but there was something unnerving in her silent, assessing gaze.

The final figure was a young man who came into consciousness with a choked cry. His face screwed up and tears dripped down his cheeks as he rolled to his side, arms straining toward his thighs as he sobbed and cried, “Oh, Gods - oh, Gods, it hurts, it hurts so much!” and “I can’t see, why can’t I see? Why can’t I see?!

It was shock, Benjen decided, later, that kept him, and the Night’s Watch brothers from moving. Bodies where bodies should not be? Strange storms? Blood without wounds? There was no explanation.

Slowly, the young men and women turned to lucidity, the younger girl first, and then the one standing, who looked all Stark as he leaned against the heart tree; then, the redhead girl and the two curly-haired boys with auburn-brown hair and the final boy, still lying in the snow struggling, wiggling his way toward the tree, a hand stretched out to touch the bone-white bark.

“Ayra? Sansa?” the Stark-man asked, blinking to focus on the two girls.

Benjen’s heart stopped.

“You’re alive?” he continued with a breathy voice.

“Apparently so,” murmured the redhead, unsteadily rising to her feet. She moved immediately to the youngest boy, hauling him up and smoothing her hands down his chest.

“Gerroff,” the young teen muttered, weakly shoving against her.

“You’re bleeding, Rickon,” the redhead - Sansa?? Like his niece?? - muttered. “From - from - the arrows--”

The boy - Rickon, Gods, hadn’t Ned sent him a raven saying Cat had just recently given birth to the next Stark, who they named after his father, Rickard? - grunted, a hand touching several places on his chest and pulling it away to reveal they were clean, despite the dark shine on his clothing. “Not anymore.”

“Robb?” whispered the Stark-looking man, eyes wide on the other man, who was hauling himself up by using the tree as support.

The man turned his head to look at the Stark lookalike, recognizing the voice, but there was a weary, strained look to him when he muttered, “Snow. Jon. Where - where are we…? I thought - the Twins --”

The redhead woman choked back a sob, clutching the youngest to her.

“--Arrows - so many arrows - Gods, mother - Talisa,” the redhead broke off with a gasp, spinning quickly in the powdery snow and kicking up dust as he turned to the others. His entire front - Stark grey trimmed with black - was covered in blood; patches from arrow punctures, and then all around his neck from what should have been a slit throat. Benjen felt weak at the sight of the smudged, dry and flaking blood that was caked on his neck, despite there being no wound. “Where’s my wife? Jon? Sansa? Where am I - I need to go back, I need to get back to--”

He took a few faltering steps forward and the two Stark lookalikes were there to support him, the man and young woman.

This is not possible, thought Benjen, horror stealing over him as his eyes darted from one sibling to the next. This is not possible - Robb is ten, Sansa eight. And yet - these are my nieces and nephews, all the same, but grown…

The Stark-looking man - Jon, it’s Jon! - looked up with a frown. “We’re north of the wall. I - I swore vows here…”

“But - how?” murmured Sansa, glancing at him.

Was there a veil? Was he seeing a vision of the future? thought Benjen, wondering why none of them turned and saw him and his men standing there, silent and gaping.

“The last I remember, I was in Winterfell, and Daenerys had --” she broke off and shivered, blue eyes haunted.

Jon’s mouth tightened into a flat line, turning a questing gaze on the girl - Arya - helping him hold up Robb.

“Winterfell,” she agreed. “Stabbed.”

Understanding, sour, appeared on Robb’s face. “The Twins. The wedding.”

Rickon gave a small snuffle against Sansa, but muttered, “The arrows. Ramsay.”

They turned their eyes as one to the only other who had not spoken up, Brandon - Benjen’s brother’s namesake - and watched as he writhed in the snow, gasping for breaths and shuddering. There was something removed from Sansa’s face as she looked down at her younger brother; Arya’s was frighteningly blank, and Jon’s contorted.

“What did you do, Bran?” Jon finally demanded.

“Jon, Jon, I can’t see!” gasped Bran, eyes wide open and white. “I can’t - I can’t see -- it’s not there anymore, I can’t fly --”

For a moment, disgust slipped over Arya’s face before smoothing. “Good.”

“Good?” echoed Robb, his cheeks red and fury in his eyes. “What in the seven’s name is going on here?! Arya, let go - help Bran up --”

“Is he?” asked Sansa quietly.

Robb snarled at her, “Is he what, Sansa? Our brother? It’s Bran - he’s crippled - help him--”

Robb made a move to step forward, out of Jon and Arya’s arms, but Jon threw an arm out and pushed him back, dark eyes on Bran despite Robb turning and snarling at him. There was a fury and wildness in Robb that Benjen had never seen, something that frightened him and reminded him greatly of Brandon at his worst in the days following the raven speaking of Lyanna’s kidnapping.

“Damnit, Snow, move!”

“Is that you, Bran?” asked Jon instead, a mildly placid tone. “How many eyes do you have, now?”

Bran was still shuddering his breaths, gritting his teeth as he pulled himself up on his elbows to glare at Jon, even as he dragged himself back to see the siblings. His eyes were no longer white when they locked on Ned’s bastard. They were dark instead. “Just the two, Jon! Gods, it hurts as bad as it did when I first fell!”

“Just the two?” confirmed Sansa, inching the tiniest bit closer.

“Why wouldn’t he have two eyes?” demanded Robb, struggling against Jon’s arm across his chest. It was then that Benjen noticed details he hadn’t seen earlier: Jon was slightly taller, broader, with lines around his eyes from stress. Jon was barely a few moons younger than Robb, but here… standing side-by-side, Jon was in truth years older than Robb. And, as Benjen glanced at Sansa and Arya, so were the girls. But that wasn’t right - Robb was the eldest, then Sansa - not Jon, Sansa, and then Robb…

“Help me up, Jon! Sansa!” cried Bran, twisting his head to look at them both. “Help me - I need to go - I need to see--”

Jon snorted, letting his arm drop. “You lost yourself when you were the raven, Bran. I’ll not help you become him again.” He glanced at Arya and Sansa. “It’s our brother and not Rivers.”

“So that may be,” began Sansa, a bit scathingly, “But the last I checked, I was being burned alive by dragon fire - a last-ditch attempt, I’m guessing. How am I alive, Bran? Because you are the only person I know with that kind of power.”

“Bran?” sputtered Robb, fury receding into confusion. “What are you talking about, Sansa?”

At his side, Arya’s lips curled into a tiny, dark smirk. “Valar morghulis.”

Jon whirled and barred his teeth at her. “Do not utter High Valyrian around me, Arya!”

The girl shrugged. “It is true: all men must die. Yet, we say ‘not today’ to the God of Death.” There was a glint in her eyes when she finished, “And all men must serve.”

Jon gave a strangled shout of frustration, turning from the Stark clan and as he did so, his eyes fell on Benjen and the other silent brothers of the Night’s Watch. His eyes widened. “f*ck.”

Any other day and Benjen would feel terrible that he left Edd to deal with the new recruits beyond the Wall, but today - Benjen found himself lost as he led his nieces and nephews to Castle Black, although when Jeor Mormont met him at the gates, eyes wide, Benjen found he didn’t have an answer for him.

It was telling though, that as soon as they stepped into the castle proper, how Jon’s posture changed. He stood straighter, taller, eyes wary and glinting as they moved from one member to the next, a mildly blank face of polite disinterest on his face as his eyes skipped over Thorne and Marsh. When Benjen said they were going to go to the Lord Commander’s office to speak, Jon nodded and led the way.

He had been a brother; in whatever future, he came from.

But Sansa - oh, Sansa - she knew the way just as well, and how could that be possible? She took up a point beside Jon, her hand curled into the crook of his arm and Benjen stared, mouth open. The last Ned told him, Sansa had taken to her mother’s bias and ignored Jon where she could - and yet looking at them here, it was clear they were the two closest siblings now.

Even Robb was looking at them strangely when he wasn’t scowling or looking at the ground. Even as he did so, though, Benjen felt fear clench tight around his heart as the weak sunlight glittered off the crown he wore.

A crown! He fussed, thinking what that meant.

Arya seemed placid as she took in the sights like she was taking a stroll through the glass gardens at Winterfell, while Rickon vibrated in energy, snarling, and snapping, whenever he felt someone looked at him too long.

Alyn had returned with Benjen, helping him carry Bran whose legs were broken; his brother’s namesake could not walk.

What had happened to the Starks?

They drew a crowd as they strode through the castle, Jeor at the rear and barking sharp commands behind them to disperse the crowd, although Jon turned at one point and requested, “Maester Aemon should join us.”

“Are you sure--?” asked Sansa, looking at Jon.

He nodded once, sharply, at her, and she gave a slow nod back.

When they entered Mormont’s rooms, the Starks arranged themselves strangely, while Jeor stood behind his desk and Benjen stood near the door, Alyn having disappeared to fetch Aemon. Jon stood next to the fireplace while Sansa detached herself and went to the opposite side of the room and furthest from the fire. Arya moved to stand next to Sansa, and Bran was placed in the comfiest chair they had, grimacing in pain but no longer crying, despite the frozen tracks on his cheeks. Rickon prowled the edges of the room, hating the confined space before he finally found a corner, the space between the fireplace and wall, partially hidden by Jon’s bulk, and Robb sat in Jeor’s other free chair, stiff-backed but looking like he owned the room.

Despite the battle lines being drawn and the shifting of familial alliances, they were all rough, like wolves licking at their individual wounds and snapping and snarling at anyone else who got too close to them, their pride and hurt open for everyone to see. Benjen had never seen such divided siblings in his life.

Aemon arrived, confused, and Robb gave his chair to the man, standing behind Bran instead.

Behind them, Alliser Thorne slinked in and shut the door.

Jeor began, eyes drifting from one to the next when he asked, “You are Ned’s children? But… older?”

Sansa nodded.

“How?”

All eyes turned to Bran out of the children, who, feeling the weight of them, stirred from the dead eye gazing he was doing to answer Jeor. “I can see the past and the present. I have travelled to the past before, but not… physically.”

“Impossible,” spat Thorne.

“Improbable,” corrected Bran mildly, although there was a slump to him and a deadness to his voice that Benjen didn’t like. “But doable when I was being trained by the Three-Eyed Raven.”

Behind him, Robb muttered, “What is this importance for all of you and eyes?”

Bran turned to his older brother. “Because you can see better, see more, with more eyes.”

Robb’s brow furrowed, and Bran continued.

“I was the Three-Eyed Raven. I saw what was happening, what could happen, but…” he trailed off. “I was never good at seeing the future, not like him. I saw what was happening in the here and now, and it hurt.”

“Like who?” demanded Jeor, picking up on what Bran wasn’t saying.

“The one who trained me,” answered Bran.

“Who?” demanded Jeor again. “Some wildling from beyond? A skinchanger?”

The look Bran gave Jeor was one of utter contempt. “From the one who has a thousand eyes, and one.”

Aemon gave a soft gasp. “No…”

All turned to Aemon, who was facing Bran, although he could not see the younger Stark. “He still lives?”

“In a manner of speaking,” said Bran after a moment’s hesitation.

“Who?” demanded Jeor, again, although exasperation leaked into his voice.

“My great-uncle,” breathed Aemon, unseeing eyes wide, “Brynden Rivers. The Bloodraven.”

Silence descended on the room and Bran took the opportunity to continue.

“I saw what was happening, I reached for my family, throughout time, and sought to bring up together in our final moments,” the young man explained. He gave a tiny shrug. “I suppose I was holding on to us too tightly and thinking of safety when it all happened.”

“You are saying that you brought all of you Starks from the future to now?” gaped Jeor, disbelief strong in his voice.

“Thanks so much, Bran,” muttered Arya, arms tightly crossed.

Bran turned to scowl at Arya. “I didn’t mean to - I lost control when he showed up--”

“Of course, you did,” muttered Jon snidely.

Robb turned to his brother and snapped, “Watch your tone, Snow--”

But Jon rolled his eyes and ignored Robb’s sputtering.

“I really didn’t mean to!” protested Bran, his voice rising at the end. His eyes implored each of his siblings to believe him. “I really didn’t! I just - it was the end - and we were all - so I thought --” he slumped in his seat and finished miserably, “I just wanted us to be together again, like before. Before it all went to hell.”

“Perhaps I am missing something,” began Aemon cautiously, “But when were you from?”

“Three-hundred AC,” said Robb immediately, speaking on the subject with authority ringing in his voice.

“Robb died first.” Sansa snorted. “He knows the least of us. He knows practically nothing.”

At the phrase, Jon’s mouth quirked up into a small, sad smile.

Robb scowled at his sister. “I know things!”

“Three-oh-five,” interrupted Arya, “For the rest of us, except Rickon. He was killed in three-oh-three.”

“Gods,” muttered Jeor, eyeing them, “That’s three-and-ten years from now.”

Benjen stared at Robb, at his iron crown. “You were… you were King in the North?”

Robb inclined his head. “Aye.”

“Fat lot of good he was,” muttered Arya. “Less King in the North and more like the King Who Lost the North.”

Robb whipped his head around and wordlessly snarled at his younger sister (Was she though?), who looked entirely unbothered by his pulled-back lips and flashing eyes.

Alliser Thorne barely smothered a laugh.

“And where were you when I was fighting a war against the Lannisters for Sansa and Father’s safe return, Arya?” demanded Robb sharply. “Since all reports we had were that you were dead or in the wind!”

“The Riverlands,” the girl responded airly. “Harrenhal, for a time, as Tywin’s cupbearer, not that he ever knew it. Braavos, then, mostly. Until I returned to Westeros and murdered every single Frey for their actions at your wedding.”

Robb blinked in surprise, reeling back the tiniest. “I - oh.” He narrowed his eyes at her, speculatively. “Revenge?”

Arya inclined her head now, mimicking him.

“Oh,” repeated Robb, quieter. “Thank you.”

“But how?” sputtered Benjen, trying to decipher all he heard. “The Lannisters? Ned? What happened at this wedding, Robb? Whose wedding was it?”

“Joffrey executed Father and Robb called the banners,” explained Bran, with weariness seeping into every word. “He marched south and won his battles, taking Jaime Lannister prisoner. Then Mother let him go after he vowed to find Sansa and Arya and bring them home safely. Robb lost most of his support then.”

“You’re forgetting the part where he took a foreigner from Volantis as a wife,” added Jon pointedly. “Given that he was betrothed to a Frey, breaking his vows.”

Jon turned to Benjen and said, in a mock whisper, “That’s why they shot him full of arrows and cut his head off, Uncle - they took offence to the slight he caused and didn’t think Edmure Tully was a worthy replacement for a king.”

“At least he was f*cking a foreigner rather than his aunt when he lost the North and his crown,” spat Sansa bitterly. “What excuse did you have, Jon? You bent your knee within hours of arriving at Dragonstone. Did you give the North away before or after you f*cked Daenerys?”

Jon’s face - full of bitter mirth when he spoke of Robb’s failures - went straight past hard to icy in a span of a single second, while Benjen, Jeor, Aemon, and even Robb reeled back in shock at the words coming from Sansa Stark of all people.

“Sansa!” Benjen cried, taking a few steps closer to her. Her Tully-blue eyes moved and pierced him, freezing Benjen midstep. He stuttered, “W-What do you mean - aunt - and - and Daenerys Targaryen?”

Jon stifled a sigh. There was a hard look sent at Sansa when he turned to the fireplace beside him and thrust his entire arm into the flame.

Benjen shouted and Robb cried out in alarm - Jeor leapt to his feet, sending his chair flying back - Alliser Thorne even stepped forward in shock -

They should have realized when the others made no move to help their sibling. They should have realized when Jon’s face held nothing but boredom, instead of excruciating agony.

He withdrew his arm from the fire, the sleeve of his tunic flaking away around his unburnt arm. Everyone’s eyes were on the shiny, pink skin, and Jon flexed his hand and wiggled the fingers for them.

Jeor fell heavily back into his chair.

“Fire cannot harm a dragon,” said Bran to the quiet of the room.

“Holy f*ck,” said Alliser, before he fell over on his ass.

TBC...

Chapter 2: II

Summary:

The time-travelling Starks arrive at Winterfell and Save The Day. Ned is Confused. Catelyn is Inconsolable. Benjen is just Done.

Chapter Text

II:

Memories of Tomorrow - writing_as_tracey (2)

Catelyn was inconsolable, nearly comatose when she wasn’t in Bran’s rooms. If she wasn’t in Bran’s rooms, with Rickon, then she was flitting between the girls’ rooms, and then finishing her circuit to Robb’s. She never went near Jon’s, so Ned made sure to spend time there, just holding his hand.

Jon was pale, unconscious, and if it weren’t for the deep, even breaths he took, Ned would have thought him dead - like Lyanna.

Ned trembled at the thought. Catelyn was inconsolable? Ned was barely holding it together himself, managing it only for the sake of the servants who still relied on him, although most of them were listening to Rodrik and Luwin, who went beyond their duties while their Lord and Lady frantically tried to fix what happened to their children.

It happened to Robb first. He had been in the yard, listening to Rodrik demonstrate a new technique for him and Jon and Theon - Ned’s hostage - when the ten-year-old’s face had paled a milky white and he pitched forward onto his face, like a puppet whose strings had been cut.

Jon and Theon had been shocked, but Rodrik moved into action, scooping the boy up and racing him to Luwin immediately.

But then Rickon, who had been put down for a nap, refused to wake up as Winterfell began to clamour - then Sansa fell sideways, slumped in her seat during her sewing lessons with Septa Mordane; Arya was seconds before her but Mordane’s eyes had been on Sansa, praising her stitches when she tilted. Bran had fallen from his perch – climbing again, the Gods help him – and now had some bruising along his chin when he fell.

Amidst the chaos, it took Jory Cassel to find Jon, slumped unconscious against the wall outside of Luwin’s solar.

Six children. All unconscious.

Jeyne Poole was whisked to Wintertown, and any of the other servants under sixteen were sent away - Theon included despite his loud protests that he was nearly sixteen and should stay. Ned would not risk him, or Jeyne, or Edwyn, or any of the other children in Winterfell if there was an ill-humour infecting them.

But Luwin could find nothing wrong with any of the children, only that it affected the Stark children, nearly all at once. He tried anything he could think of, and then began writing the Citadel in Oldtown for help, but that had been last week, and they had not yet received a reply.

Three turns of the week. Nearly a moon. And there had been no change.

The children were wasting away in front of him, Rickon the worst although maids were working around the clock to wet cloths in milk or use honey to coat their lips. Luwin suggested massaging their unused limbs, and Ned, Catelyn, and others were quick to volunteer to help the children. Winterfell was rallying behind their Lord and Lady.

So, when Luwin presented a raven from the Night’s Watch that his brother was already on his way to Winterfell, Ned felt his frustration nearly boil over. He had a desperate need to shout Not now, Ben!

But Ned still met his brother when his horse and party were spotted, standing stiff in the courtyard. He was pale-faced, and his mouth had pulled down into a near-permanent scowl that lengthened his dour face further. There were bruises under his eyes, indicating sleepless nights, and there was a faint tremble to his hands. He had lost weight - unable to stomach food with his anxiety and worry over the children - and it showed.

Benjen was the first through the gate, sitting tall on his horse, a smudge of black against a dot of white as his face peered out from the hood of his furred cloak. Behind him were several others: Ned recognized Alliser Thorne, a Targaryen loyalist who led the City Watch during Aerys’ reign - and someone Ned knew Benjen hated, so the fact that the man was with him was beyond strange… even more so than he was not a Ranger or meant to leave Castle Black as its Master of Arms.

There were two tall men following Benjen and Thorne, both with curly hair although one had black hair and the other a dark auburn that looked brown; their horses were leading a cart with a young man sitting back in it. Following the cart were three other horses, with two women and one teenage boy.

It was the strangest procession Ned had ever seen and he turned to Benjen to address his confusion when his eyes drifted back to the two men behind the Night’s Watch brothers and his heart dropped somewhere near his feet. The tall, curly black-haired man had turned his head, facing Ned. His eyes were dark, a strange blue-grey, but it was his face that arrested Ned. He was pulled back, to another time and place, when a solemn-faced man trotted his horse past his wife to the Stark box with a crown of winter roses in his hands. It can’t be…

And when the procession filed in, and the two young women began to dismount, Ned’s eyes flickered toward them, sticking on the long, dark hair of the younger as she vaulted from the horse with ease.

Ned exhaled loudly, his knees shaking as he tried to remain upright. His eyes cut back to the tall man, and then to Benjen as he pleaded, “Ben - Gods... Ben - is that - is it--”

Ben was at his side then, gripping his brother’s arm tightly when he muttered, “Steady on, Ned. Steady. And no - that’s not… it’s not Lya.”

Ned’s eyes dragged themselves from his brother to the girl again, forcing himself to actually look at her: the colour was all his sister, but the face shape wasn’t, the coldness in her eyes wasn’t, and the still way she held herself was different to the flighty, angry young woman Lyanna had been.

“Who?” whispered Ned, eyes taking in the rest of the party. The shine of the red hair of the eldest woman, looking ridiculously like his wife; the auburn-haired man looking back at him with the Tully colours but the bitter expression on his face was one Ned saw in the polished glass; the downturn of the scowl on the youngest was all Brandon when he had been alive…

“It can’t be,” breathed Ned, turning to Benjen. His heart was still trying to catch up, pounding furiously in his chest.

“It is, Ned, it is,” he replied quietly. “I don’t truly know how, but it is.”

Ned turned back to the group, to the one man who looked the most like a Stark and saw how Thorne hovered closest to him, saw the melancholy as the man looked around Winterfell - in sadness, in nostalgia, in pain - that was all his father.

Benjen’s hands slipped from holding Ned up as the Lord of Winterfell stepped out of his brother’s help, closer to the five standing before him. The young man in the cart hauled himself to the edge, looking at him with a bland glaze to his eyes. But it was before the Stark-looking man that Ned stopped, seeing Rhaegar in his features.

Jon?

Rhaegar’s eyes turned to him, but it was his sister’s face, Lyanna’s mouth, that turned up into a parody of a smile when the young man replied, “Hello, Uncle.”

Ned’s solar was cramped. He sat behind his desk, staring out and cataloguing the differences in his children’s faces even as Benjen huddled at one side of the door while the six Stark children arranged themselves. Thorne had been sent away – this was a family matter – no matter how much he protested. He left, though, when Jon drew him aside and spoke to him in low whispers.

Ned’s heart clenched when his eyes lingered on his sister’s son. There were lines on Jon’s face – his forehead, by his eyes and mouth – and the faintest hints of grey already at his temples. The man was bearded and grown, with scars and blood on his hands and looked eerily like Lyanna. Anyone who had known his sister would see it in an instant.

Bran needed help getting into his solar, up the stairs, but Walder had picked him up easily, despite the pained look on Bran’s face. But Ned didn’t have it in him to reprimand the giant man if he jostled or hurt his son in transit.

And Gods! The crown on Robb’s brow – he knew that crown. He knew what it meant.

“How?” he rasped, hands clenched tight against the edges of his chair, despite the way his eyes greedily drank the vision in.

All eyes turned to Bran, who startled. He crossed his arms. “Must I say it again?”

“Yes,” drawled Arya, crossing her arms.

Bran sighed. “We appeared from the future, at a weirwood tree north of the wall. For some of us, it was the year 305.”

Ned blinked and reeled back in shock. But he heard what Bran said: some of us; meaning that those, like Robb, who was significantly younger compared to Sansa and Jon, were from a different time. Ned was not stupid – the changes in their appearances aside, how Arya was holding herself, Rickon looking just like Brandon when Ned had seen him at Lyanna’s nameday feast when their father announced her betrothal to Robert…

“We’ve been…” Jon trailed off, struggling to find the words. “The time we came from does not exist anymore. We exist here now.”

“Perhaps, with our existence here, we can create a new timeline so that the events of what we experienced do not happen,” mused Bran out loud, leaning back in his chair as he began to think. “What once was, can be made anew…”

“But…” Ned stopped himself from biting his lower lip. “Your… uh… younger selves? Younger yous? Still exist.”

“They do?” gaped Robb.

Ned’s face shuttered. “But they’ve… they’ve come down with a sickness. It happened all at once, sending them into unconsciousness. They stir from it, periodically, but only at night and for a few hours at a time. They’re—” he choked back a sob. “They’re wasting away.”

He did not see as the Stark siblings all shared guilty looks, but Benjen saw and called them out on it. “What? What is it?”

“Erm,” began Jon, shuffling in his spot, “That might be our fault.”

Ned’s head jerked up.

“If they’re only waking up at night, for a few hours, well, that’s when we’re falling asleep, isn’t it?” continued Jon, scratching at his beard.

Benjen grimaced. “We can’t just have them live when you’re asleep. That’s not good for either set of you.”

Sansa eyed Bran, who caught the look. “What?” he asked, defensively. His shoulders crept up to his ears.

“Between you and Arya, you know the most magic,” began Sansa.

“What?” interjected Ned, looking between the two, but he was ignored.

“Do you think you can do something?” finished Sansa. “Surely Bloodraven taught you more than just greensight.”

“What?” burst out Ned again, and again, he was thoroughly ignored.

“I only know death magic.” Arya shrugged. “Can’t help.”

All eyes turned to Bran, leaving Ned behind his desk, sputtering.

“It doesn’t work like that!” stuttered Bran, eyes darting between his siblings with a vaguely alarmed look on his face.

Jon scowled. “Aye? Well, try, Bran.”

Sending his cousin a dirty look, Bran settled mulishly in his chair, crossing his arms. “Fine, but we’re starting with you, Jon.”

Jon’s childhood bedchambers were much smaller than he remembered, given how crowded they were with his younger self on the bed, Ned sitting at his hip, Benjen hovering by his brother’s shoulder, with Bran in a chair near their father. At the foot of the bed, the rest of the Starks crowded uncomfortably together: Jon was pressed shoulder to shoulder with Sansa and Robb, and Arya and Rickon bookended them, lining the back wall from one end of the room to the other.

It was very cramped, and Arya made her opinion on it clear. “Can you hurry it up, Bran? Gods.” Her nose wrinkled up. “Rickon, you stink.”

Rickon silently bared his teeth at Arya in a parody of a wolf’s snarl, but Arya looked bored at the gesture, picking at the dirt underneath her nails.

Bran shot Arya a dirty look, and then turned his attention back to the Jon on the bed, a frown on his face. “You know I’ve never done this before—”

“I still don’t know what you’re doing,” grumbled Robb.

“That makes two of us,” muttered Benjen.

“—but essentially I’m going to try to peer into his mind and wake him,” finished Bran, ignoring everyone. “It would be easier by a weirwood—”

“And also easier for Bloodraven to get ahold of you,” argued Jon with a heavy scowl on his face. “I don’t think so.”

Bran matched the scowl and blatantly ignored his siblings as he reached a cold hand out to rest on young Jon’s forehead. He took a deep breath.

Watching him from Jon’s hip, Ned inhaled sharply when Bran’s eyes went white, rolling back in his head yet sitting perfectly upright. “What is…”

“He’s in,” said Arya, peering at her younger brother carefully, barely holding back a tsk. “He’s not greenseeing, though. He’s warging.”

“Warging?” repeated Ned, alarmed. His eyes bounced between Bran, Jon on the bed, and the others. “Surely—”

Then Jon, on the bed, took a deep, heaving breath in, eyes wide as his back arched off the bed. Both Ned and Benjen leaned over the boy, exclaiming, “Jon!” as Ned helped him sit up, and then crushed him to his chest.

And at the same time, between Sansa and Robb, Jon crumpled to the floor, his head cracking hard against the stone. Robb and Sansa shared a brief, concerned look, but then Robb drawled, “Oops. I haven’t yet regained my strength and reaction time, clearly. Poor Jon.”

“Uh,” began Rickon, looking between the two Jons, “Was that supposed to happen?”

Bran, his eyes returning to their original brown, blinked a few times. He sagged in his chair, wearily looking around the room, only for his eyes to land on the unconscious form of his cousin. “What happened to Jon?”

“What?” sputtered Benjen, turning to see what Bran meant. “Oh, for the gods’ sake…”

“I reckon you need to work on this a bit more,” said Arya with a tiny smirk. “This didn’t quite work out how we wanted.”

“Fine,” muttered Bran. “Let’s try this again.”

“F-Father?” weakly whispered the Jon on the bed. “What’s going on?”

Ned drew back on the slightest to reply, “I’d like to know that, too.”

“I’m just tweaking a few things,” answered Bran, in a slightly absent voice. “I think I know what I’m looking for now.”

“Tweaking a few things!” repeated Benjen, mouth open. “In my nephew’s brain?”

“You’re really making it sound much worse than it is.” Bran rolled his eyes and reached a hand forward again.

Benjen caught it. “I think not—!”

“Ben!”

“Uncle Benjen, really—”

Trust Sansa to lay on the thick disapproval, but with Arya cackling in the background and Robb just looking confused, Bran threw his hands up in frustration. “Well, if you don’t want me to do anything to this Jon, move the older idiot here.”

“Bran,” and there was Ned’s disapproval, but having gone nearly seven years without hearing his father’s voice and admonishments – as the voice in his head that skewed his morals sounded far more like Brynden Rivers’ – there was little weight.

Rickon and Robb hauled the unconscious Jon toward Bran, sitting him upright so that his dark head lolled back onto Bran’s knees. There was a giant bump on the back of his head, but it wasn’t bleeding. Jon would have a hell of a headache when he woke up though. He reached forward and place a hand on either side of Jon’s temples and furrowed his brow.

“Bran, wait – what are you doing—” Ned’s voice was cut off as Bran reached for something tangible but unseen, finding the thread that connected him, his siblings, to Jon, as well as Benjen and Ned and the strange double-layered thread that reverberated back to the Jon in the cradle of Ned’s arms.

It was a dual echo, like light bouncing off mirrors when Bran found the string between both Jons. Despite being unable to see his family, he was aware enough to frown. He drew back from the connection of Jon’s mind and looked at those he had travelled through time with. “I can block the connection between ourselves, between us and our past selves.”

“Fantastic.” Robb’s shoulders dropped in relief.

“There is a catch, though.”

An uneasy glint appeared in Sansa’s eyes. “What is it?”

“If I block the connection, I sever all connections on their end,” explained Bran. “There’s too much… um… bounce back… from us. I’d be cutting our younger selves off from any meaningful connections in the future.”

Ned and Benjen looked confused – the younger Jon was just plain lost – but it was Arya who understood it first, having experienced the most magic. Her lips were pressed into a thin line when she said, “They won’t warg.”

Robb sucked in a beath.

She continued, “They won’t have any connections with their wolves.”

Behind them, Benjen muttered to Ned, “What wolves?”

“Honestly, Benjen, I haven’t the foggiest about anything that’s happening right now,” replied an exasperated Ned.

The Stark siblings looked uneasily at one another. All knew what the connection to their direwolves meant, and out of them, Sansa, Rickon, and Bran probably knew best how it felt to have that connection sever before their time travelling. The younger versions may feel the loss, like a phantom limb – or they might not. There was no way to tell.

“Do it.”

All eyes swung to Robb. He swallowed thickly, his throat bobbing, but he looked kingly as he stood straighter and repeated, “Do it,” in a solid voice. “They’ll die if we don’t.”

Bran nodded, turning back to his unconscious cousin. He found the connection, that thread, even easier the third time he went into Jon’s mind and, after a quick check, snapped the cord that was sending echoes back between the two versions of the same person and then built a wall, shiny and slick and like the one separating the North and the lands Beyond as insurance.

The younger Jon in Ned’s arms shuddered as he felt like something cold was poured over his brain and then trickled down his spine. The Jon half-sitting on the floor groaned, rolling his head forward and then hissing. “Did someone hit me?”

Benjen gave a breathless, shocked laugh. “They’re both awake! Ned, they’re both awake!”

Ned, teary-eyed, clutched Jon closer and looked at his children. He opened his mouth to thank them, but the words wouldn’t emerge.

With a tiny sigh, Bran reached out and patted his father’s knee. “We know, Father. We know.”

It took some work to encourage Catelyn to take a bath so that she left the children alone, but somehow between Ned, Luwin, and Septa Mordane, they managed it. Bran snuck into the children’s rooms and severed their connections to their elder counterparts, and then quickly whisked himself away to the next until all the Stark children were weakly sipping at broth under the careful eyes of their servants.

They heard Catelyn’s shriek of surprise and loud wails of relief from Ned’s solar, where the man asked them to remain with Benjen while he checked on his children.

It was several hours later when Ned finally returned, beyond tired. He crept into his solar, gently shutting the door behind him. With a deep breath, he turned and faced the room’s occupants.

Sansa and Rickon were furthest from the fire and somehow had unearthed an old cyvasse board. Arya hovered over Rickon’s shoulder, offering aggressive moves that had Sansa smirking. Jon was the closest to the fire, in a chair with Bran opposite him. Robb stood by the thick mullioned windows, hands behind his back as he peered out over the wolfswood.

Benjen, looking lost, stepped toward Ned and muttered, “Be… be careful with them, Ned.”

Ned nodded, absently, and Benjen left, shutting the door behind him. At the noise, the Stark children all turned as one to look at him.

No one spoke for a long, long moment.

Then, Jon stood, catching Robb’s eyes. The two boys – who were once the closest of them all – grimaced at one another and had an entire conversation without words. Then, Robb dipped his head in acknowledgement, and Jon turned back to Ned, a serious expression on his face.

“Uncle…” he began, and Ned tensed. “I think we need to have a conversation about my mother and what happened at the Tower of Joy. Don't you?”

Ned closed his eyes, squeezing them shut as a rush of emotion hit him. Then, he blinked them open, cleared his throat, and moved as purposefully as he could to his chair behind his desk. When he sat, he placed his hands on the desk in front of him and said the words that, for this Jon, were long overdue.

TBC…

Chapter 3: III

Summary:

There's an awkward family dinner. Really. That's the chapter.

Notes:

As a reminder, this story is character driven, not plot-driven. I'm following the Stark siblings and their issues, and how they learn to live with themselves and their pasts while forging forward. That means the chapters are going to focus on the characters and their interactions while moving forward at a glacial speed... for now, at least. :)

As it is, arguing Starks got the best of me for this chapter and we're now behind in my plan to move them away from Winterfell, which will 100% happen in the next chapter (finally!). I also updated the tags, so you might have more of an idea of where this story might go... or not. BWAHAHA.

Chapter Text

III:

Memories of Tomorrow - writing_as_tracey (3)

**

They talked in circles. Jon would accuse their father of hiding the truth to keep Robert Baratheon happy; Ned would plead it was always about keeping Jon safe and honouring Lyanna; then it would be about Ned picking ‘safe and surviving wasn’t the same as living’; and then it was ‘better safe and unhappy than dead’—

But the fourth time they circled around to the same argument, Arya was thoroughly done. What did it matter, that their father had never told Jon? That was a different time. He had taken the secret to his grave, and Howland Reed could have stirred himself from the Neck at any time to speak to Jon after the fact and didn’t (for all the love he so claimed to hold for Jon’s mother, her aunt Lyanna, it seemed the men were more interested in their wallowing than their care for Lyanna’s wishes, whatever they were).

It was Bran who told Jon, Sansa who told Tyrion, and Tyrion and Varys who nearly upset the entire applecart when Daenerys learned the truth of Jon’s parentage and began another Dance of Dragons, despite Jon only borrowing Rhaegal. It wasn’t like Jon was going to win, or anything – the throne was never meant for him, despite his giving away of the King of Winter crown and his theoretical place in line for the iron throne. It came down to the fact that Robert Baratheon won through right of conquest, and while Jon could go for the throne, he was more concerned with the Night’s King.

Things all worked out, as far as Arya was concerned. They were in the past, people they loved were alive again, and they had a head start on stopping the Night’s King and his army of the undead. Should he win, the throne did not matter – there would be nothing to rule over, anyway. Besides –

“It’s not like Jon’s going to suddenly go around proclaiming he’s Rhaegar’s son,” muttered Arya, arms crossed.

It wasn’t quite quiet enough, as Ned swung his head to his youngest daughter. “I beg your pardon?”

Arya sighed, uncrossing her arms. “That’s what’s you’re worried about, isn’t it? That Jon, knowing who his parents are, would want to learn more about them or demonstrate that he’s more Targaryen than Stark. That he would push for his claim. In doing so, he would risk – well, I suppose, his younger self – but also the entire family, as Robert Baratheon would learn you lied to him about Aunt Lyanna. And then he would come for you, the entire family, the North, and Jon. You are trying to prevent death and destruction – and that’s fair. But Jon’s not going to do that.”

“He’s already done so!” argued Ned, his voice colder than she had ever heard it. “Those at the Wall know—”

“Only the Lord Commander, Maester Aemon, uncle Benjen and Ser Alliser know,” stressed an exasperated Jon.

“That’s far too many--!”

Sansa rolled her eyes from where she sat, daintily, in a chair. She had been brushing Rickon’s wild curls back from his forehead, lulling the young teenager who sat on the floor, leaning against her legs, to a doze despite the heated words between Ned and Jon. “I suppose secrets are fine when only yourself and your friend who never leaves his hard-to-find castle know them.”

“It certainly helps keep things contained, Sansa,” replied Ned stiffly.

“The truth will out,” said Bran in his stoic way, staring at their father and unnerving him at once. “You cannot stop it.”

“Honestly, it’s not that concerning,” added Arya, shrugging under the weight of several incredulous looks sent her way. “What? It isn’t. If we’re talking about keeping secrets and things quiet, perhaps we should speak of Robb and his need to wear his crown of winter everywhere?”

Startled by being called out, Robb flushed as the eyes in the room swung toward him. Sputtering, he tried to speak. “That’s not – that is, I wear my crown because – well, I was chosen – it’s respectful—”

“Honestly, what’s more troubling?” asked Sansa, an amused quirk to her thin lips. “A secret Targaryen prince, or the fact that both Robb and Jon were crowned by the Northern lords as Kings of Winter?”

“After all,” added Arya, sharing in Sansa’s pointed amusem*nt, “The North swore to Baratheon, did they not? So long as Robb wears that crown, we could secede and become independent once more. They certainly long for it, given how quickly they jumped at the chance of crowning Robb last time, over Stannis or Renly. I’m sure that’s much more pressing than a maybe-he-is, maybe-he-is-not doesn’t-even-look-like-a-Targaryen.”

Ned stared at his children; mouth open in shock. He groaned, buried his face in his hands even as he shook his head back and forth in dismay. “Why have the Gods cursed me so?”

“Cursed you?” repeated an incredulous Arya. “Father, we’re here to save you. Honestly, we’re the cursed ones, forced to relive this all over again and surrounded by idiots—Hey!

Robb glared at Arya, and she rubbed at her side where he whacked her. “Watch your tongue, Arya. Don’t disrespect our father.”

“We’re going in circles,” sighed Sansa, glancing between a glowering Jon and weary Ned. “Let’s adjourn and perhaps cooler heads will prevail on the morrow.”

Peering at his grown children, Ned spoke, his voice gravelly, “Your mother has been informed of the situation. She wishes to see you all for the evening meal.”

The siblings shared wary looks themselves, none interested in sitting in the Great Hall under the eyes of the Winterfell staff, many of whom they knew to die during Ramsay’s taking of the castle.

Sensing their unease, Ned continued, “We can have a private meal, in the family hall.”

“That is acceptable,” agreed Robb, glancing around as the rest of the Starks nodded their acceptance, in one way or another.

Ned smiled, but it was more of a grimace. “Very good. I’ll see you all then.”

Sansa and Rickon, who were seated, rose at the command to leave; Jon turned on his heel first to leave the room, with Arya on his heels; Robb turned to Bran and pushed him out – one of the first things they had all done together without arguing with create a movable chair for Bran to be wheeled from one room to another, based on what Arya knew of Doran Martell and Bran adapting the saddle design Tyrion once gave him – until they all left the solar.

Jon and Arya had waited just outside the room. As they all looked at one another, Robb suggested in a low voice, “My room?”

He didn’t mean his room – younger Robb was in it – but the room in the guest wing that he was given. While all the Starks had separate rooms, despite their feelings for one another, they often found themselves sneaking into Robb’s room by virtue of it being the largest. The morning would find them a puppy pile of tangled limbs and warm bodies as they cuddled and protected each other asleep as much as they were at each other’s throats during the day.

Once they were fully ensconced, Robb turned to Arya and scolded her. “You shouldn’t speak or treat father that way.”

“And you shouldn’t place him on such a high pedestal,” she countered, throwing herself on his bed and lounging there, peering at him with dark eyes from the recesses behind the curtains.

“Father was a great man—”

“Who made mistakes, Robb,” sighed Sansa, sinking into a chaise kitty corner to the hearth. “He was human. And he made mistakes.”

“Father did not—” Robb’s face was red.

“Keeping Jon’s parentage was a mistake,” interrupted Bran baldly, wheeling himself nearer to the window, which overlooked the inner bailey. He pursed his lips at the lack of view to the Godswood.

“He said it was to keep Jon safe—”

Jon snorted, crossing his arms and lounging against the bedroom door, chin nearly touching his chest with how he kept his eyes trained on the floor.

Ignoring that,” stressed Sansa, glaring at both Jon and Robb, when Robb’s mouth opened to refute, “Betrothing me to Joffrey; confronting Cersei about the truth about her children; ignoring Barbrey Dustin and Roose Bolton and how deep their hatred runs for Starks; being led by his own hatred for the Lannisters to be susceptible to Lysa’s letter that she sent mother… the list can go on.”

“You’re really not one to speak of trusting Lannisters,” Robb pointed out. “Or was it not you who sent me that letter telling me to bend my knee?”

“It was written at sword point,” replied Sansa stiffly, narrowing her eyes on her brother. “Do you think I had much choice about what I could or could not write while being their hostage?”

“Although you did tell Cersei about the ship father had for us,” Arya said with a tooth-barred grin.

Sansa swung her head to her sister, and hissed, “I. Was. A. Child!

“You were thirteen, you should have known better,” spat Robb. “Hells, even Arya at eleven knew better than to trust a Lannister—”

Arya frowned at the implied insult.

Poor Rickon was just staring at them, head swivelling back and forth between each speaker.

“I was their hostage! A prisoner! I watched father’s execution!” shrieked Sansa, rising from her chair. “Do you think I don’t feel guilt or shame for what my actions caused, or led to? I had to live with that knowledge every single day I was trapped, surrounded by enemies. Stupid, stupid Sansa! Stupid little bird, stupid naïve child.” Her hands clenched tight at her sides and her nails pricked her skin. “I have to live with that for the rest of my life, Robb! But I suffered for it – the Gods know I suffered.”

Robb scoffed with an eye roll. “Suffered? While I sent men to their deaths in battle, what did you suffer, little sister? A lack of lemon cakes?”

Arya inhaled sharply, sitting up on her elbows to stare at Robb in shock. Bran merely turned to watch, his face impassive, but it was Jon who shot forward and wrapped a fist around the scarf Robb had taken to wearing around his neck to hide the lurid, bright red scar from his beheading at the Twins.

Jon pulled his fist close to his chest, leaning his face down into Robb’s face while his cousin stared at him in shock. “Watch your mouth, Stark, or I shall close it for you should you make light of Sansa’s suffering.”

“Snow—what—” gasped Robb, grabbing Jon’s hand and trying to pull it away.

“Let him go, Jon,” said Sansa, tired and defeated. All anger drained from her. “He wouldn’t know. There’s no way he could have.”

Jon held on a moment longer, and then roughly released Robb with a shove. Robb stumbled back, regaining his footing and composure under the guise of rubbing a hand against his neck in a nervous gesture.

With a disgusted snort, Jon stepped back and turned to Sansa’s side, stepping forward. His broad shoulders blocked her from Robb’s view, and there was something tender – if not contained fury – in him as he raised a shaking hand to touch Sansa’s cheek. She turned her head toward Jon, eyes closed and face pinched. They weren’t embracing, although Jon’s grazing fingertips quickly turned to cup Sansa’s cheek tenderly; there was still something intimate and protective in their body language.

“What happened?” breathed Robb, shock coating his words.

“Much,” replied Jon for Sansa, sending a challenging look over his shoulder at his cousin.

“What did they do to you, Sansa?” continued Robb, speaking only to his little sister – now, his older sister – and ignoring the glower Jon sent him.

Sansa ignored him, instead presenting her back to Jon and gathered her hair over her shoulder.

“Are you sure?” Jon asked quietly.

Sansa’s shoulders slumped. “He needs to see. He needs to understand.”

Arya, on the bed, swore and noisily turned over so that she had her back to them. She glared at the far wall, ignoring the rest of her siblings in angry silence.

“See? See what?” asked Rickon, torn between continuing to hover in the corner of the room and inching forward.

Taking Sansa’s words as permission, Jon sighed and began to unlace the back of Sansa’s dress.

“By the Gods, Jon, that’s inappropriate…” began Robb, stepping forward, but the words trailed off as the dress peeled away, revealing white skin, a few freckles, and the top of Sansa’s shift… and a mess of silver and pink lines.

“No…” The word ripped from Robb, more a noisy whine than language as he stepped forward, eyes caught on Sansa’s back as Jon stepped away and she held her dress to her front, leaving it to split open to the small of her, where the scars grew in number and width.

“If it makes you feel better, brother dear,” began Sansa, the tiniest bit scathingly, “Most of these scars came from my second husband. But the ones on my sides? Nearer the bottom? Those are from the kingsguard.”

“I—” croaked Robb, tearing his eyes from the marks to Sansa, who peered over her shoulder at him.

“Every battle you won, they took it out on me,” she explained. Her tone implied facts, removed from all emotion. Sansa had time to learn to live with her scars. “Joffrey would have me stripped in front of the court and humiliated.” She paused. “Do you know who stopped that? Who cloaked me and protected me?”

“Sansa…” Robb trailed off. Sansa turned to face her brother, still clutching the front of her dress to her, but Jon moved behind and muttered something low that only she heard and helped her dress again by tugging her laces back into place, ignoring Robb and Sansa’s discussion.

Rickon, now facing Sansa’s back, saw the marks as Jon pulled her dress together. He howled, “San!” and barrelled forward, staring up at her, eyes wide and face pale. “Ramsay—?”

She nodded.

He let out another howl of rage and turned, eyes searching the room and finally resting on an empty pitcher and goblets on a table. He picked them up and hurled them at the far wall, the metal of the goblets denting and the pitcher scattering into hundreds of pieces at his second throw.

Robb seemed the most startled of the group; Arya, Bran, and Jon were entirely indifferent to Rickon’s tantrum and Sansa just watched him sadly.

“Tyrion.”

Robb turned from Rickon to Sansa. “What?”

“Tyrion stopped Joffrey from beating me,” she elaborated. “Tyrion Lannister, Robb. When the smallfolk attacked Joffrey, screaming for food and bread, they also attacked me and pulled me off my horse. I was taken away to be raped. The man who saved me? It was Sandor Clegane. A Lannister man.”

Jon finished with Sansa’s dress, placing a comforting hand on her shoulder before he moved around from behind to her side. “And for all that he’s an arrogant c*nt, Jaime Lannister came north on his own without the might of the Lannister army at his back, to help us fight against the Night’s King, Robb. He fought for the living when we needed help.”

At that, Robb looked skeptical. “Jaime Lannister? The same man who pushed Bran from the tower? Who killed Torrhen Karstark? My men at the Whispering Woods? The sister-f*cker?”

“No, the other Jaime Lannister, the Jaime Lannister from Lannisport,” snapped Arya from the bed, rolling and sitting up. “Aye, that one, you git.”

Robb remained unconvinced. “The only good Lannister is a dead Lannister.”

“And I’m sure there are Lannisters out there who think the best kind of Northman is a dead heathen one,” replied Jon. “Their names matter not when fighting against the undead.”

The Starks fell silent, each lost in their emotions and memories. Finally, Jon roused himself enough to state, “Come, let us ready ourselves for dinner.”

Despite the lingering hurts their conversation caused, none of the siblings wished to be too far from the others; Sansa got dressed with Arya’s help behind a privacy screen and the boys dressed and wiped any sweat and grime using hand towels and a basin Rickon had ignored in his anger.

Arya appeared from the screen first, shaking her head and looking amused.

“What is it?” asked Robb.

“Mother is going to have pups,” she said, glancing at Sansa as she emerged in a northern-style dress.

Confused, Robb frowned; but Jon was the one who sighed and went, “Really, Sansa?” when she brushed by him, toward the door; the entire back of the dress had been removed and the fabric hastily stitched to reveal the entirety of her back and scars.

Sansa shrugged. “I see no point hiding it. I am not ashamed; I survived, and my enemies did not.”

Jon fought the urge to bury his face in his hands.

“Well,” said Robb finally, “Dinner ought to be entertaining at the least.”

Catelyn was having trouble keeping to her seat, her eyes fixated on the door to the family’s private dining hall. Benjen was sure she would have already gone charging down to the guest wing hours ago, if Ned didn’t have such a strong grip on her hand, keeping her in her chair.

“They’ll be here soon enough,” his brother tried to soothe his wife, although Ned was pale.

From what Benjen understood, the private discussion didn’t go so well after he left; they hadn’t even touched upon Lyanna, just Ned hiding Jon away. He sighed, flipping the knife on the table over and over nervously. He had spent a moon’s turn with his nieces and nephews on their journey south from Castle Black and yet, still did not understand them. As it was, he was removed from the Stark family by nature of being a member of the Watch; he could only imagine how difficult it would be for Catelyn to see her children grown.

He cringed, glancing at Ned. Did he warn her of how different they were? If not, his goodsister was in for a shock.

The door opened and Catelyn sat up straight, eyes wide as Rickon pushed Bran into the room first, leading him to the table where an empty spot had been left at the head opposite Ned for his chair.

“My baby!” wailed Catelyn, attempting to rise. Ned yanked her back down.

“Mother,” replied Bran, in that same bland tone he used. Benjen tried to hide his shudder.

Rickon warily eyed Catelyn, but finally gave her a nod and a tight, “Mother,” before he sat next to Benjen, one seat down and opposite her.

Catelyn seemed stunned by the cold reception but then turned back to the door as Arya strolled in, wearing breeches and her lips pursed. “Arya, child, why are you not dressed—”

“Evening Mother, Father, uncle,” she said, throwing herself into the seat next to Rickon and grinning at him. He grinned back, the grin growing wider and more genuine as Arya slouched in the chair, and then pulled a tiny knife from somewhere on her body and began picking at her nails.

Benjen wasn’t sure if he should laugh at Arya’s passive nonchalance or Catelyn’s horrified face and settled for turning his laugh into a cough that he hid with his hand. Ned caught his eyes and Benjen realized he utterly failed to convince his brother.

Then, Robb walked in, his earlier, confident struts as King in the North subdued. But he was the politest of the brood, greeting his father first and then mother by taking the seat next to her and kissing her cheek.

Jon and Sansa entered together, Sansa on Jon’s arm. They were whispering lowly as they stepped into the room and paused when they viewed the table. Sansa pursed her lips and asked, “Where is Jon to sit?” when she counted the chairs and realized there was only enough for eight and not nine.

“I’ve got it,” replied Jon, spotting the discarded chair from Bran’s spot.

“He is not—” began Catelyn, a downturned scowl to her face.

“—Eating alone, no, I certainly don’t think so,” finished Sansa smoothly, turning to face Jon and beaming at him. “Oh, excellent, Jon, you’ll be opposite me.”

By turning to face him, she presented her back to her parents, and both gasped. Jon, of course, ignored all this, as were the other Stark children who had now seen her back; Jon hauled the chair from the wall to Arya’s side, causing her and Rickon to squish together. As they were both slight – Arya in size and Rickon for only being three-and-ten – they fit together to give Jon space between Arya and Bran's head seating.

Once done, Sansa nodded and moved to her seat next to Robb, deftly ignoring her parent’s open mouth gapes. Benjen's eyebrows shot up.Oh, well done, he thought, eyeing his niece.She used her scars to deflect her mother from Jon, successfully; it was such a departure from the younger Sansa he knew, who disliked Jon and odd to see her championing herself for him.

“Shall we?” asked Sansa, looking around the table. “I’m famished.”

To avoid servants and gossip – although that was a lost cause, given Benjen entered Winterfell with the older Starks without disguises and during the middle of the day, something Ned was going to have to address or figure out soon enough – dishes were presented on platters on the large table with a few pitchers of drinks on either end. Immediately, Arya and Rickon dove toward the large bird on the table, fighting each other over it with their forks and knives. Robb calmly served himself, ignoring his younger siblings, and turned to his mother to ask, “Mother? What would you like? I’ll serve you.”

Benjen just stared, as they went about their dinner, blithely ignoring the older Starks watching them in shock and wordless confusion. Finally, Arya asked with food still in her mouth, “So, it’s 292, aye? The Greyjoy Rebellion finished?”

Taking the lifeline Arya threw, and ignoring chastising her for her manners, Ned nodded. “Aye. Balon’s youngest son is here—”

Robb slammed his fork and knife on the table. “Theon’s here?”

Ned paused. “Aye.”

Nodding, Robb said, “Pardon me, I have a squid to kill.” He pushed back from his chair and made to stand, only Sansa grabbed his arm and forcefully yanked him back down into his chair, sending him toppling and listing to the side and into her. “Ow, Sansa!”

“Theon is not our enemy, Robb,” she said firmly.

“He burned Winterfell!” the once-king howled to Benjen, Ned, and Catelyn's confusion and horror. “He killed Bran and Rickon!”

At that, the rest of his siblings stared at him in disappointment, with Rickon even going so far as to say, like Arya, with a full mouth, “Funny, ‘coz I remember Ramsay shooting arrows at me, not Theon.”

Flushed with embarrassment, Robb sat in his chair and began moving his food around his plate. “Aye, well…” he frowned and muttered, mulishly, “He betrayed me. He was my brother…”

“And he saved me, and returned to Winterfell to fight,” finished Sansa. “Whatever issues you have, it’s between you and him from that time, and not the boy he is now.”

Robb continued to mutter under his breath, but he didn’t say anything else on that topic.

Catelyn rallied her courage and stuttered tearily, “Sansa, my love… what… your… your back, sweetling…”

“Oh, those,” replied Sansa airily, although Benjen could see Jon was watching her carefully from his spot. “They were from the kingsguard.”

“What.” Ned’s voice was low, vibrating with rage.

Sansa glanced at her father. “The kingsguard, father. Remember? They are sworn to do as the king commands.”

“Robert would never—”

“Laugh at slaughtered children and call them dragonspawn?” interjected Jon, bitterly. Ned froze. “Send assassins to kill a girl barely six-and-ten because her brother sold her to the Dothraki for their horses to retake a kingdom?”

Ned looked like he had significantly aged by the time Jon finished speaking.

“It wasn’t Robert, father,” Sansa chirped, cutting into her meal as though they were speaking of the latest court gossip rather than the scars on her back, “but rather, Joffrey. And Ser Barristan was long gone from his position. Cersei had him stripped of the title of Lord Commander for being too old.”

“So, not all the kingsguard,” mused Ned, in some sense of relief, but Benjen was observant, and saw the traps they were laying.

“Oh, no, it was all of them,” continued Sansa, taking a bite of her food. She swallowed and patted the side of her lips with her napkin. “Sers Oakheart, Moore, Blount, Trant.”

Benjen noticed the name not said. “Not the Kingslayer?”

Immediately, Sansa, Jon, Arya, and Bran frowned; Jon went as far as saying, “Don’t call him that.”

“He wasn’t there,” offered Bran, speaking up for the first time in his staid voice. He hadn't touched a single thing on his plate, either. “He was a prisoner of Robb’s. Although, I doubt he would have beat Sansa – he is conflicted enough regarding his vows, but it would have been too like Aerys’ beatings of Rhaella. He likely would have stepped in and stopped it from happening.”

“Jaime Lannister is an oathbreaker—” interrupted Ned, face going a bit ruddy.

Arya sighed. “Who killed a king that you would’ve killed anyway, for murdering uncle Brandon and grandfather. Who cares whose sword did the deed?”

“Arya!” gasped Catelyn, hand at her mouth.

“He was kingsguard, sworn to protect the king,” rumbled Ned angrily, a hand clenching tightly around his utensils. “What good were his vows to protect the man when he could turn cloak so easily?”

“Protect the king as sworn by his vows as a kingsguard,” murmured Jon, “Or protect the people of King’s Landing as sworn by his vows as a knight. Which trumps the other?”

Ned frowned. “What do you mean, Jon?”

Jon tilted his head and glanced down the table. “Wildfire. Aerys had caches of it placed everywhere under the city. When your army, and the Lannister army, appeared, he ordered the barrels lit.”

Catelyn’s eyes went wide, and her hand shot out to grip Ned’s. “No.”

“Ser Jaime made a choice: kill the pyromancers and the king to stop the order, saving thousands in King’s Landing… or protect his king and die,” finished Jon quietly. He turned back to his plate. “He made the right decision.”

“I… I didn’t know,” said a pale-faced Ned.

“You never asked,” reprimanded Bran, the slight downturn of his lips the equivalent to a scowling frown. “You saw him on the throne and Aerys’ body and that was that.” He paused. “You don’t ask many questions, in general. It’s a failing of yours.”

“Bran! Don’t speak to your father that way!” Catelyn snapped.

But Ned’s eyes narrowed. “No, speak Brandon. Tell me where else I should have asked questions.”

“Oh, here we go,” muttered Arya, elbow on the table and using that hand to shield her eyes from her parents’ end of the table as she hunched over her plate. She began shovelling more food in her mouth and upon seeing that, Rickon began to copy her, eyes darting between his parents and Bran.

Bran’s placid eyes calmly surveyed his father. “Promise me, Ned. Promise me.”

Ned went white and swayed in his seat, eyes ripping from Bran to look at Jon, who was ignoring him.

“Promise me?” echoed Catelyn, looking between her son and husband. “Ned? What does that mean? My lord?”

“Or perhaps, father,” continued Bran, “Instead of baiting the kingsguard by telling them you looked for them on the Trident, you should have spoken of your sister instead. You might have had five living Northern companions, no problems from Barbrey Ryswell and the Dustins, and protection for Jon.” There was a glint in Bran’s eyes that Benjen did not recognize when he spoke. “Our knees do not bend so easily.”

Ned shoved back from the table as he stood, sending his goblet clattering and tipping over across his full plate. He ignored Catelyn’s cries of alarm as he stared at Bran. “How could you know that? Those words?”

Bran’s lips quirked up. “I was there. I saw it all.”

“I don’t understand,” said Catelyn into the quiet of the room. “Ned, I don’t…? What does Bran mean, protection for the bastard?”

Sansa flinched at the term.

Jon, wiping his mouth on his napkin, sent a pained smile to his uncle. “Perhaps it is time you told your wife the truth, my lord.” He stood from the table, bowing in his direction. “Thank you for the meal, but I think it’s best I retire now.”

Arya and Sansa also stood, and Robb stood slowly as well, realizing that his parents needed the rest of the evening. Rickon scrambled after his siblings, grabbing a drumstick from the bird, and shoving it in his mouth. “Goo’ ‘ight,” he mumbled.

Benjen stared as Robb wheeled Bran out, the rest following.

“Ned?” Catelyn’s voice was trembling.

Benjen reached for his goblet of ale and chugged it down. It was going to be a long night.

TBC…

Chapter 4: IV

Summary:

Stark angst and chats abound; and the future!Starklings make a decision.

Notes:

Is this 10+ pages of Stark angst? Why yes, yes it is. On the positive, they are FINALLY ready to leave Winterfell! Huzzah.

As a reminder, none of these cool cats and kittens are justifiably in the 'right' or 'wrong' - they all made mistakes, they all should have known better, they all should have realized, etc. That's why we have favourite characters! I'm hoping to cover a lot of bases while giving hints and teases of what's to come and where they're going for their growth. These will not be the same Starks we know from the books/show (I am cherry-picking from both what I want to incorporate), but people who experienced trauma and now have to contend with that, accept it and move on.

ALSO EXPERIENCE MY MESSED UP OLD TONGUE LANGUAGE THAT MIXES RUSSIAN, WELSH, GAELIC SCOTTISH AND IRISH ALL TOGETHER AHAHAHAH I had a lot of caffeine when I conceived that.

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

IV:

Memories of Tomorrow - writing_as_tracey (4)

**

Arya and Rickon had disappeared after they sneaked out of the dining room, leaving Robb, Bran, Jon, and Sansa standing around, watching them slink down the hallway. With pursed lips, Robb turned to his siblings and asked, in eerie familiarity, “My room?”

The procession remained silent as they left the comforting familiarity of the family wing of Winterfell, passing by hallways and tapestries that they all knew well. For Sansa and Jon, it was bittersweet, having seen the destruction Ramsay inflicted on their home; for Robb, it was with a sense of regret and longing, as he had never seen Winterfell again after he left.

Eventually, they arrived in Robb’s new room, certain Arya and Rickon would be joining them shortly. They ended up near the large fireplace: Robb had pulled a chair closer and slouched into it, exhausted, with his legs spread and a weary expression on his face.

Bran, in his wheelchair, was next to him. Sansa fussed for a minute or two, laying a thick woollen blanket around his legs and tucking it in. Bran was silent, dark eyes watching Sansa knowingly, but when she looked up and caught his gaze, he murmured a quiet, “thank you,” to his sister, which made her beam.

Jon ended up sitting the closest to the fire, on the rug and facing the door. He shucked his heavier layers and furs and was dressed only in a shirt and trousers. All his weight was on one arm as he leaned back, one leg curled under and the other bent at the knee with his other arm draping over it in a very casual recline.

Sansa ended up sitting opposite of Jon, but much closer to Bran; she cast a wary glance at the flames before settling her skirts and arranging them comfortably, her back to the door even as she drew a blanket around her shoulders and covered some of the scars up.

The four sat in silence for several minutes, each lost in their thoughts. When the door to Robb’s room opened, with Arya and Rickon spilling in, they all jerked in surprise and looked up.

“We brought pilfered goods!” declared Arya with a gleam in her eyes.

“We raided the kitchens,” added Rickon with a wide grin on his face. With the mess of curls and his youth, Rickon looked like an angel, but the grin was all devil – and utterly charming, especially as he bounded forward with the crate in his arms, dumping it at Sansa’s feet when he threw himself onto the furs next to her.

Arya was far more restrained, moving with deliberation and grace when she sat between Robb and Jon, placing a few mugs down between all of them. When Robb sent her a searching glance, she answered, “I thought it was time for us to clear the air.”

Rickon opened the crate and pulled out two items, one for each hand: in one was a dark glass bottle, with bits of straw that protected it in the crate still sticking to its side; the other was a wineskin.

“Wine,” he began, hefting up the sloshy wineskin and then the other with that grin on his face, “Or the really good stuff: bhodka?”

Robb tried to look stern, glaring a bit at Rickon. “You’re the youngest one here—”

“If we’re going to be having a heart-to-heart, give me the good stuff, Rickon,” demanded Sansa, reaching for and taking the precious and heavy glass bottle from his hand. She uncorked the stopper with her teeth and took a swing even as Robb stared open-mouthed at her.

The fiery liquid burned as it went down and she sputtered, a little escaping her mouth. Arya laughed as Sansa wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, wheezing a bit. She passed the bottle to Jon.

“Well, cheers, Sansa,” her cousin said dryly. “This brings back fond memories, doesn’t it?” He ignored the mugs Arya brought and instead took a swig of the alcohol directly from the bottle like Sansa had, and did a much better job than her. He passed it to Arya who also took a drink like a champion and then passed it to Robb.

He stared at her, and then around the semi-circle of his siblings. “Who are all of you?” but he shook his head and took the bottle, coughing only a little and then passing it to Bran with only a moment’s hesitation.

Bran, however, did hesitate, looking at the bottle like it was the strangest thing he had ever seen, even as he clutched it. “I…”

“C’mon, Bran, have some!” cajoled Arya.

“Or hurry up and pass it back to Sansa so I can have some,” said Rickon, eagerly.

“You’re too young, Rickon, you’re only three and ten!” protested Robb.

Rickon rolled his eyes. “How do you think I recognized the drink, Robb? I’ve had it before.”

Wide-eyed, Robb said, “What?”

Rickon, with an air of superiority, leaned against Sansa and peered up at Robb, who was once his eldest brother. “What do you think they drink on Skagos to keep warm at night?”

Robb muttered something under his breath, but Bran interrupted him by admitting, quietly, “I never had a drink before. I never… I never had the opportunity to.”

“Then feel comfortable to start now with us,” said Sansa kindly, turning her face up toward Bran. She placed a hand on his knee, covered by the thick blanket. “We’re here.”

There was something hooded, sad, in Bran’s eyes when he murmured, “I missed out on so much…” but he then took a gulp of the liquid.

He immediately began coughing, his face going red even as Robb and Jon snickered. Bran shoved the bottle at Sansa, tears in his eyes as he rasped, “Take it. Take it.”

The others laughed at him – Rickon one of the loudest, which made Bran glare at him – but Sansa obligingly took the bottle, a small sip, and then passed it to Rickon who drank it like a seasoned alcoholic without the red face, the raspy voice, or cough. He then passed it back to Jon.

The bottle made a few circuits. Then:

“I don’t recognize them.”

Eyes turned to Rickon, who stared down at the rug. Sensing their weight, he glanced up and around at his siblings and cousin, and then let his eyes trail down again. He shuffled a bit and repeated, with more detail, “I don’t recognize Mother or Father. I was… I was five? Maybe six? – when Theon took Winterfell and Osha and I left. It’s been years and their faces, their voices faded and all I knew was Osha, and the cold, and Skagos.”

He looked up, glancing first at Jon, and then Sansa. He fidgeted with his hands as he tried to read the room. “I, uh.” He stopped, mouth opening and closing. “I don’t… they – they’re not – mine. I don’t… I don’t recognize them. I don’t know them, and I. I, uh.” He swallowed, thickly, and then whispered, imparting a secret, “I don’t feel anything for them anymore.”

“Oh, Rickon,” murmured Sansa at his side, drawing him to her as they cuddled.

Rickon gave a stuttered gasp, blinking back tears. “I see red hair and I think of you, Sansa. I see you on that ridge, looking down at Ramsay’s army. I think of what he said the night before – about how you and Jon had come for me. I think of safety and home, and I think of Shaggy’s fur, and Jon’s voice and the smell of smoke and dirt. Common Tongue is danger, and…”

His eyes were wide, almost unseeing. “Braithim níos compordaí yn siarad yr Hen Tafod aon rud eile, nawr.”[1]

Robb and Arya both frowned at the strange language that emerged from Rickon’s mouth, but Jon sighed. “Ég veit.”[2]

All eyes swung toward Jon, and Rickon’s head shot up at stare. Catching Rickon’s eyes, Jon gave a tiny grin and asked, “Did you think you were the only one of us who could live amongst the Free Folk and not pick up the Old Tongue?”

Rickon gave a wet laugh, unabashedly rubbing roughly at his cheek with the heel of his hand. A bond sparked between Jon and Rickon, something unique to only them – this was the man who tried to save Rickon’s life, who braved an entire army for him.

“Not fair,” pouted Arya. “I want to know the Old Tongue, too!”

“I’ll teach you,” promised Jon, bumping his shoulder with hers, and passing her the bottle. She toasted him and then drank.

Robb sat up from his slouch. “What! Me too!”

“How about we all learn?” suggested Sansa, always the peacemaker. Her eyes took a sly slant. “It could be our secret language.”

Amused, Jon pressed his lips tight and shook his head at her, but Robb and Arya both shared a grin, especially when Arya passed the bottle to Robb.

Bran broke the mood by stating, straightforwardly, “It will be advantageous for what is to come.”

“What’s coming?” asked Robb, blinking.

“Bran – did you see something?” demanded Jon. “What do you know?”

Bran turned expressionless eyes on Jon, barely blinking. “I don’t see as much, anymore. Not since… not since we returned.”

“But you did see something,” stressed Sansa, staring up at him, a furrow between her eyebrows.

Bran inclined his head, the tiniest, but then turned back to his staring, looking into the flames. Jon shivered, thinking it looked a bit too much like Melissandre seeking answers from R’Hallor in the flames. But there was the tiniest frown on Bran’s face.

“I… I don’t see things the way I did before,” he admitted, sounding more human as frustration leaked into his voice. His hands, resting on his lap, curled into fists. “I can’t see as far, or as much.”

“That’s a good thing, Bran,” said Arya quietly, sitting up straight and tense. “You weren’t you before.”

“Why can’t I be both?” demanded Bran, snapping his eyes at Arya, who froze under the onslaught. “Why can’t I be Brandon Stark and the Three-Eyed Raven? What was so bad about being him?”

“What was so bad?” repeated Jon hotly, glaring at him. “What was so bad was that you weren’t you – you were more the Raven than Bran Stark! It was like he completely erased who you were. You kept secrets, you thought only to tell us things when it was convenient for you, at the last minute. You can skinchange, Bran, and yet did you try taking over Dany’s dragons? Did you use animals to scout ahead to warn us of the Night King and his movements? One day it was all, ‘oh, the Wall has fallen,’ and that was it!”

Bran snapped, “I was marked—”

“And yet you crossed the Wall and allowed the Night King to follow, dooming us all!” snapped back Jon. “If you truly worried about humanity, you’d have stayed hidden north of the Wall!”

“Jon!” cried Robb, aghast.

“Jon,” chided Sansa, before turning to look at Bran. He was staring at Jon, shock across his face, mouth hanging open. “Bran… if crossing the Wall caused its protections to fail, why didn’t you just travel to Eastwatch and take a boat? Then you wouldn’t have crossed the Wall, would you? You’d have gone around it and the magical protections would remain.”

Bran’s mouth snapped shut with an audible clack as he turned to stare at Sansa and the calm manner, she delivered an alternative.

Robb cleared his throat. “I know… I know you felt useless after the fall. When your realized you wouldn’t walk again, and all your dreams… about being a knight – they all disappeared. But… but it sounds like you pinned everything onto the idea of being the Three-Eyed Raven more than anything because you would be different and special. Able to do things – erm, see things… although I still don’t understand,” the last was mumbled.

Bran was silent, weighting what Robb said. Finally, slowly, he inclined his head. “You’re right,” he said, quietly, looking down at the fists he made on his lap. He slowly let his fingers unfurl. “You’re right. I felt useless and he promised I would fly. If I couldn’t walk anymore… I wanted to fly.”

“One of the first things they teach skinchangers past the Wall,” began Jon quietly, “was that if you go into a bird’s body, you don’t stay too long. It’s too easy to simply wish to fly away and leave behind any earthly attachments.”

“Well.” Bran’s lips quirked up into wry amusem*nt. “That would’ve been nice to know.”

Robb passed Bran the bottle, and he took it was the same wry smile, taking a sip. Over half was gone. With a sigh, Bran passed it to Sansa, and admitted, “I lost so much of myself then. But… it’s been hard coming back to myself. All of Bran’s pain. His anger, his fear.”

Sansa and Jon shared a worried look at Bran talking about himself in the third person.

But Bran’s lips stretched from the tight, wry smile to something a bit fonder, if not tinged with sadness. “Father once told me that the only time someone can be brave is when they’re afraid. And I’ve been afraid for a very long time now.”

The others waited, sensing he wasn’t done. They were rewarded when Bran finished in a strong voice, “No more. I won’t be afraid anymore.”

“Good on you,” cheered Arya with a wide grin. “Fear cuts deeper than swords.”

“Who told you that?” asked Robb curiously.

Arya’s cheerful grin slipped. “My dancing teacher.”

Robb snorted, “You had a dancing teacher?”

Arya glared and punched Robb on the arm. “My dance teacher was the First Sword of Braavos, thank you! He taught me to water dance!”

Arya hugged her knees to her chest. “Swift as a deer. Quiet as a shadow. Quick as a snake. Calm as still water. Strong as a bear. Fierce as a wolverine. Fear cuts deeper than swords… and the man who fears losing has already lost.”

“Wise words,” said Robb, suitably chastised and impressed – and the closest he got to apologize.

Sansa took a tiny sip and passed the bottle to Rickon, who took a drink and then passed it back to Jon.

“Syrio was a good man who fought off the City Watch with a wooden sword.” Arya rested her cheek on her knees. “All I wanted, from that moment, was revenge. Revenge against Cersei, the Hound, Joffrey – everyone who hurt us.”

“I’d say you achieved that, with the Freys,” said Robb as dark pleasure curled in his stomach. It leaked into his voice as maliciously pleased, and so wrapped was he in thinking of the pain they felt, he missed Jon’s sharp look.

But Arya shook her head, letting her dark hair fall across her face, hiding it partially from view. “No. I lost myself as Bran did. Only, I lost myself in the House of Black and White.”

Sansa and Jon knew Arya had changed when she returned to Winterfell, but they never knew where she had been. Bran, who knew, kept silent; but it was Sansa’s gasp that alerted Robb and Rickon that the House of Black of White was important.

Jon, who had the bottle, took a very long pull, the lines at the corner of his eyes tight.

“To become a Faceless Man—”

Robb swore under his breath, eyes wide on his little sister who was now his age.

“—you had to leave everything behind. You became No One. There would be no revenge, no family, nothing.” Arya glanced at her siblings, the lower part of her face hidden by her knees and arms with only her dark eyes peering out from the veil of hair. “I tried. I honestly did. I went on missions. I killed people. But… I always came back home. I wasn’t No One. I was someone. It just took me a while to realize.”

“I hated myself,” admitted Sansa bitterly. “I hated myself for so long, for what I did and didn’t do in King’s Landing. I would go back and go over what I could change but what did it matter when it was already done?”

She paused.

“I wanted to die.” Sansa’s admission was calmly stated, but it was enough that Jon jerked where he sat, nearly losing the grip on the bottle. Quickly, he passed it to Arya. “Joffrey took me to see Father’s head. He told me he would give me Robb’s when he won the war, and I replied, ‘Maybe he’ll give me yours.’”

Arya, who was taking a drink, snorted and some came out of her nose. She hastily brought a hand up to wipe at the liquid and passed the bottle on to Robb, who was grinning widely.

“I would have, too,” he agreed, a dangerous look in his blue eyes, so like Sansa’s. He discarded the bottle at his feet.

“I know you would have,” she agreed, a fond look sent his way. “But Joffrey had his kingsguard slap me, and then – for a single moment, I thought about pushing Joffrey off the rampart, sending him to the ground below and breaking his neck. Oh, I’d be dead next, of course, but it would have been better than living.”

“What happened?” asked Rickon, who had been quiet for so long that Sansa thought he had fallen asleep next to her.

Sansa glanced at him. “The Hound. Sandor. He stepped forward and stopped me. He could read me so easily and saw what I was ready to do.” Sansa shook her head, remembrance coating her words when she brought her hand to her lips, unconsciously, and murmured, “He saved me quite a few times when I was in King’s Landing.”

“He was sweet on his little bird,” laughed Arya, but there was a teasing tone in her voice and she and Sansa shared a secretive, wordless glance that had Robb and Jon share an equally confused look.

Robb leaned forward, letting his elbows rest on his thighs and his hands hang between his open legs. His auburn hair, tousled, hid his eyes even as he rasped, “I’m so sorry it wasn’t me, Sansa. I’m so sorry that I wasn’t the one to save you.”

Sansa said nothing, just evenly looked at her brother: once, her cherished older brother who chased away the monsters under her bed, who was her hero in her eyes. The one who could do no wrong. Later, Jon took that position until he did do wrong, in her eyes, but there was something acrid and bitter in the first betrayal than the second.

Robb ran his hands through his hair. “I f*cked up. I f*cked up so bad—”

“You were a military genius,” replied Jon, in confusion. “People spoke of you and your plans with awe—”

“I let winning get to me,” whispered Robb, tortured. “I developed an ego. Gods, what was I even doing in the South? What was I thinking? That I’d march into King’s Landing with an army at my back and demand Father’s release?”

“Yes,” said Bran.

Robb snorted. “He’d have been killed. And then he was. And what did I do? I f*cked off to the Riverlands instead of going straight to the capitol.”

“Why did you go to the Riverlands?” asked Arya.

Robb’s mouth twisted. “Mother’s home was burning, and the Mountain was pillaging. I was going to help Uncle Edmure.”

“Erm…” began Jon, sharing a glance with Sansa, “Shouldn’t he have been doing that himself?”

“He’s got heart,” admitted Robb with a grimace, “But not the brains for battle.”

“Oh.”

“Aye, oh,” echoed Robb. “And then I was trapped there, winning against Jaime Lannister and then losing when Mother let him go – and Karstark killed those Lannister boys – and everything spiralled so badly from there.”

“Marrying your foreign wife wasn’t the best decision either,” broached Sansa carefully. Robb lifted his head and glared at her. “Not when you had an understanding with the Freys. Although, Robb – the Freys? What were you thinking there?”

“I didn’t!” he replied hotly. “Mother agreed! A Frey bride for a crossing!”

Aghast, Sansa, Jon and Arya stared at Robb. Finally, Arya said what they were all thinking: “You got the raw end of a deal there, brother.”

Robb moaned, “I know! But I needed to cross. What else was I to do?”

“Well, if the original plan was to continue down the Kingsroad to free father and our sisters,” began Jon sarcastically, rolling his eyes, “then continue down the f*cking Kingsroad!”

Sansa snorted, and Rickon looked delighted at the sound.

Robb groaned and rolled his own eyes, “I know. I know!”

“You got caught in the trappings of being King,” continued Jon. “Pulled in so many directions you didn’t know which way was up or down anymore.”

Miserably, Robb nodded. “I just wanted to do right to my people. But in doing right by the men, I forgot about Sansa and Arya. About why I went south, to begin with. I made bad decision after another and it—” he swallowed thickly, a shaking hand coming up to the scarf around his throat, hiding the grisly, lurid red line.

He turned to Sansa, sliding off the chair to his knees and reached for her. Holding her hands, voice hoarse, he implored, “Forgive me, Sansa. Forgive me. I am so sorry, little sister.”

She had waited so long for those words. She resigned herself to never knowing why Robb did what he did. It didn’t absolve him – nothing could and the scars on her heart would forever remain – but…

“I love you,” she said, opening her eyes without realizing she closed them. “I love you. You are my brother, and I forgive you.”

“Sansa,” whined Robb, yanking her forward and hugging her tightly, clutching her to him. Something hot fell on Sansa’s shoulder and she pressed Robb closer.

After a few moments, Robb drew back, his cheeks wet and eyes red-rimmed. He sniffed a few times and then cleared his throat as he sat back on his haunches, Sansa moving back beside Rickon.

Robb moved slowly into the chair, worn and weary. He passed Bran the bottle from his feet, but Bran shook his head and passed it to Sansa, who drank and then to Rickon. He shook it, and they heard the slosh of very little left.

Rickon held the bottle to Jon, who took it. “You can finish it. Besides…” Rickon trailed off. “You’re the last one.”

Jon frowned, shoulders falling, but he did as the youngest Stark suggested and finished the bottle. And then, Jon said, in a tired, thin voice, “Gods, I’m tired.” He closed his eyes and tilted his head back, the lines on his face deepening. “So tired.”

Robb – the most distant of the Stark children from the future Jon, Sansa, Arya, and Bran came from – was the one who was brave enough to ask, “Tired about what?”

There was a brittle smile on Jon’s lips when he glanced at his cousin. “Everything. Nothing – it’s just… just—”

He exhaled sharply and pushed out of his recline, leaning heavily on his bent knee. “I spent so many years wanting to be more than Jon Snow. I wanted to matter, to be someone important with a title and a purpose. I spent my whole life growing up Stark but never one, and it ate at me.”

“You were always one of us,” interrupted Arya hotly.

Jon shook his head. “No, I wasn’t. Do you remember Robb? When we played Come into My Castle? You were always the Stark in Winterfell, until that one time when I said I was going to be—”

“And I said you couldn’t be because you were just a bastard and my Lady Mother said so,” finished Robb, voice hoarse with shame. “I remember.”

“And then,” Jon laughed bitterly, “And then, one day, I am not Lord Stark – but I’m the bloody King in the North! I finally became what your mother always feared: the person who stole your birthrights.”

The Stark children were silent, wrestling with their own feelings and knowledge. Jon barrelled through, continuing to speak. “You know – for the longest time, I thought I should be upset with fath—with Lord Stark. For hiding the truth about me. Because everything I had done, for so many years, was to chase after the feeling of having a name and purpose of my own. So, I was more than just a Snow – that I was worth something.” His voice dropped. “That being King was worth something.”

Silently, Sansa reached out across the rug and space between them and held Jon’s hand. He caught her blue eyes with his and squeezed her hand, wordlessly. He dropped her hand.

“But it never actually mattered,” he continued, voice bitter. “Did it matter if I was Stark or Snow when I went to the wall? Did it matter when Robb named me his heir and our bannermen named me King in the North over Sansa? Did being a Stark or Snow matter when the dead rose?”

He paused; eyes caught on the flames of the hearth. Tentatively, he reached out and put his hands in the flame – and ignored Robb’s sharp intake of breath. “Knowing who my father was – and my mother – something I always wanted to know – it… it ended up being so unimportant, so useless. Half-Targaryen, half-Stark… it didn’t change how things ended. Everything I thought that defined me – my name, my lack of one, my relationship with Ned Stark, as father or uncle – Gods, even my… even Daenerys – I still died in the end.”

He drew his hand close to his chest, curling it into a fist and staring down at the appendage and the lack of burns and marks on the pink skin.

“We all did,” said Sansa softly, startling Jon enough to jerk and glance at her. “Whatever attempt Daenerys made, she burned Winterfell and the Godswood. That’s how I died, Jon. Everything I lived through – suffered, hoped, survived – and it was for nothing.”

Jon glanced at Arya and Bran – the others who had been with him at Winterfell – and saw Arya’s grim look and Bran’s mouth turn down.

“It wasn’t supposed to be that way,” admitted Bran. “We were supposed to win.”

“Then how did we end up here?” asked Robb, curiously.

In a very human move, Bran shrugged.

Jon settled back to brood; Rickon did lightly doze against Sansa; Arya gnashed her teeth and worried them between her lips.

Finally, Sansa murmured, “We need to decide what we do going forward.” She gazed around at her family. “We can’t stay here.”

Robb and Bran were the loudest protestors, while Jon and Rickon kept silent. Arya fell somewhere in the middle, glowering but realizing what Sansa was getting at.

“Stop it!” snapped Sansa, glaring at her brothers. “Stop it – you know we can’t stay here!”

“Why not?” asked Bran, mulishly and sounding so like the young boy Robb knew when he first woke up after his coma. “I want to stay! There’s the Godswood and the heart tree, and I could commune and try to figure this out—”

“And that’s exactly why you can’t stay,” stressed Sansa, staring imploringly at Bran. “Think of what happened last time when you came back to Winterfell, Bran. How much time you spent in front of the heart tree and how you lost yourself looking at the different possibilities you could and things happening around Westeros. You aren’t yourself when you do that.”

“I could handle it,” he muttered.

Jon finally spoke. “With practice, but not so close to the Wall and… and him. Maybe when you’re further away.”

Bran glowered; chin tilted down. “My connection helped prepare us for the Others—”

“Did it really?” muttered Arya under her breath.

“—So, I should keep working on increasing my abilities again, so I can see!” finished Bran hotly.

“You can see just fine without falling under the other Three-Eyed Raven’s spell,” argued Jon, curling his mouth into a scowl.

Bran had a similar scowl on his face. “Why do you get to make that decision? It’s my life!”

“Uh, because he’s the eldest of us now?” interrupted Arya.

“Because he was the King in the North?” added Rickon in mock confusion – although mostly because he caught Arya’s look and decided he would say things to bother his older brother.

“Because what he’s saying makes sense, Bran,” continued Sansa, a pinched look on her face.

Bran turned to Robb, who threw his hands up. “Don’t look at me – as you’ve all very kindly pointed out, I was dead first out of everyone. I have no idea what you’re speaking of, and figure it’s best if I learn to keep my mouth closed, for now.”

Feeling attacked, Bran twisted back to face Jon and spat, “Well, if you’re going to be telling me what to do, Jon, let’s talk about you, shall we? Not just the King in the North once before, but the legitimate youngest son of Rhaegar Targaryen. I suppose we should just name you King of Westeros and be done with it!”

Sansa winced even as Jon reeled back. “Oh, no… no, no, no.” He violently shook his head. “The last time I was king of anything, I didn’t exactly win any wars. In fact, I think we can unequivocally state that I lost the most important war there was!”

“Not really,” said Arya with a pointed look. “Didn’t Bran mention earlier that after all he had seen, we were supposed to win?”

All eyes turned to Bran. He shrugged and muttered, “We were. But something…” his brows furrowed. “Something changed, and it… it brought us here when I pulled us together.”

Sansa looked deep in thought even as Robb hesitantly asked, “Do we… do we know how you brought us here?”

“I can’t see that,” replied an exasperated Bran. “Why do you think I want to continue my training with Bloodraven?”

Robb choked on saliva. “The other Three-Eyed Raven – person – thing – that you learned from was the Bloodraven – Brynden Rivers himself?!”

Bran shot him a glare that was read as you dunce, yes and then ignored Robb’s stupefied look.

“Can we get back to Jon ruling Westeros, please?” asked Arya, eyeing her cousin from the corner of her eye. “Because I am ready for it.”

“I’m not!” protested Jon. “The realm is stable! We don’t need to go to war! We need as many people here alive as possible to fight the Night King!”

“Which won’t happen for seven years,” argued Arya calmly, leaning back and stretching her legs out. “A lot can happen in seven years.”

Jon turned to Sansa and wailed, “Sansa! Tell her!”

But Sansa was slow to reply, her voice hesitant when she replied. “Honestly… it might be a good idea, Jon.”

“What!” a chorus of voices – Jon’s, Robb’s, and Rickon’s – chimed together.

“I don’t mean immediately,” clarified Sansa, tossing them all a dirty look in response to their outburst. “But rather… well… when Jon Arryn dies. Or closer to the date when things began going wrong. The realm will already be disrupted, and it would be a perfect time for a Targaryen restoration.”

“Dany exists, you know,” groused Jon.

“I am well aware of that, Jon.” Sansa glared, her eyes holding his hostage for a long, long moment as she let her displeasure be known. “But Westeros is hardly her birthright as queen, is it? If you fail, then it would go to Viserys.”

“Who was insane, as far as rumours went,” happily added Arya. “So, he’s disqualified for being too much like his father.” She paused, adopting a mocking look as she tapped a pondering finger against her chin. “Why! By that vein, so is Daenerys!”

Jon crumpled. “She’s not insane.”

“Well, she wasn’t all right in the head, either,” muttered Sansa. “Who brings Dothraki to the North in winter without any winter clothes?”

“Or provisions for her army and forcing us to feed them with our meagre stores,” added Arya gleefully.

“What!” shouted Robb, face turning ruddy. “She did what!”

“Or go wright hunting with a dragon as proof, only to lose that dragon to the Night King,” added Bran, his lips curled into a rather vicious, but small, smirk.

“You’re japing,” gasped Robb, glancing between his siblings and cousin. “She had dragons – and… and if what you’re saying about the Others is true – practically gave them one?!”

“Aye, alright, you’ve all made your points clear,” muttered Jon. “If all we’re doing is playing a blame game, then there’s plenty to go around.”

Arya sat up, leaning forward. “Jon – of course. We’ve all made mistakes – some terrible ones that directly resulted in our deaths—” she glanced at Robb here “—or mistakes that got others killed—” here, Sansa’s shoulders dropped “—but none of us did this in the middle of winter, as the Long Night approached. Not with the stakes we were up against.”

Jon sighed, rubbing his hands against his eyes. “Fine,” he muttered. “I don’t fully agree… but I will admit mistakes were made on her part. And mine.” He sighed. “Definitely mine.”

“It still brings us back to the problem that we can’t stay here,” said Sansa after a moment. “Not only are our younger selves here, but our knowledge is dangerous. We’ll attract danger to Winterfell, and I don’t wish to see our family harmed.” She looked down at her hands as she whispered, “Not by my hands if I can avoid it.”

“Agreed,” said Robb, sitting up straight in his chair. “As familiar and comforting as Winterfell is, we cannot stay. We must leave.”

“And go where?” asked Rickon, fear in his eyes. “I trusted our bannermen once before and they handed me over to Ramsay. I won’t stay with them.”

“Nor should you,” soothed Sansa, leaning over and smoothing his hair back. He leaned into the touch.

“We could travel,” suggested Arya eagerly.

Robb stifled his snicker and Jon muttered, “Big surprise.”

“No, truly!” Arya looked at everyone. “If Jon were king – well, that would sort bringing people together against the Long Night, wouldn’t it?”

“I suppose…” began Jon hesitantly.

Sansa frowned as if running the scenarios through her mind; Bran was absently nodding, but Robb and Rickon were frowning in confusion.

“And if we travel Westeros, and not stay in one place too long, then we can subtly look for those who are still Targaryen loyalists!” Arya’s voice was rising with excitement.

“That won’t work,” interrupted Robb. “We’re Starks, Arya. We literally helped tear the Targaryens down for what they did to grandfather and Uncle Brandon.”

“But we have proof of a Targaryen Stark.” Arya jutted her chin out and jerked it in Jon’s direction. “He looks like a Stark but is fireproof. There’s no other bloodline like it that has that kind of magic. And… and – listen! We could travel and do things and see people and bring them to our side! To prepare for when the king dies!”

“Oh, are we planning treason now?” muttered Robb, but he was ignored.

“There is more proof, in your parents’ marriage certificate,” murmured Sansa. “At the Citadel.”

“Wait – there is?”

Everyone was ignoring Robb at this point, who threw his hands up and scowled.

“Heading from Winterfell to Oldtown isn’t going to take seven years, Sansa,” said Jon gently. “Perhaps only half a year at most, depending on if we travel by horse or ship. What would we do for the rest of the time?”

“I’d love to see Volantis.”

Everyone swung to look at Robb, who wiped the wistful look from his face when he realized everyone was looking at him.

“Volantis – why—” began Jon in confusion, but Sansa sighed and looked at Robb with something akin to pity. “She won’t be the same, Robb.”

Her brother’s cheeks flushed red and he looked down. “I know… but… I owe it to her, to see her… and I want—I want—” he sniffed and looked up, his eyes red-rimmed and watery. “I want to say goodbye. A proper one. Even if she doesn’t understand why.”

“We’d have to get past the Triarchs,” said Arya dubiously.

“We’ll be fine,” replied Bran, easy confidence in his voice.

Robb’s mouth dropped a bit. “Truly?”

“We’ve got Old Valyria blood with us,” shrugged Bran, glancing at Jon. “And we’ve magical blood of our own, thanks to the First Men.”

“Going to Braavos again and see Syrio would be lovely,” added Arya dreamily. “The canals… the food… the sword fighting…”

“The Faceless Men,” joked Jon in the same tone she used, “The assassination attempts on your life…”

Arya glared at Jon.

“Whatever you want to do, I’m fine with it,” shrugged Rickon, speaking up. “I just want to be with all of you.”

“Being back here, it’s… it hurts,” admitted Sansa, biting her lip. “I see Ramsay’s shadow and other ghosts. I lived here and remade Winterfell after what happened, but… the memory of how I died is fresh.”

“I wouldn’t mind tracing my parents’ steps,” whispered Jon, fear lacing his voice. His eyes darted up to test how his cousins took his admission. “I know I have no memory – and that they didn’t raise me, that was all your Lord father – but… Summerhall… the Tower of Joy… those were their places. Maybe it would bring me closer to them, and maybe… maybe I’d understand why they did what they did.” His voice went quiet, "Understand who I am supposed to be..."

Bran sighed, loudly, and everyone turned to look at him. “You’re not going to let me stay, will you?” When Jon shook his head, Bran sighed again. “Very well. If we’re to… travel and see Westeros and beyond… and crown a king… and save the world,” his lips curled at the words, “I would like to take a weirwood sapling with us. I still wish to practice my sight – it’s important to me… and strengthening my connection through the weirwood would help.”

“Well,” began Sansa dubiously, “I suppose a sapling is better than sitting beside a large, fully grown tree.”

Eyes darted around the semi-circle in front of a slowly dying fire, hesitant looks abound.

“Are we… are we doing this?” murmured Arya, inhaling sharply and holding her breath.

“I guess we are,” muttered Jon. “The Starks will be on the move.”

Robb shook his head. “No, Snow – the pack will be on the move.”

{TBC}

Notes:

[1] "I'm more comfortable speaking the Old Tongue than anything else, now."
[2] "I understand."

Chapter 5: V

Summary:

The Starks leave Winterfell, discover Braavos is Switzerland, find a whole lotta gold and begin their journey in the housing market of Braavos, and visit Summerhall, in that order. Oh, and Bran has a bad habit of planting weirwood trees everywhere.

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

V:

Memories of Tomorrow - writing_as_tracey (5)

It was clear that Ned was torn between worry at his children – the older ones – wanting to leave and absolute relief at them leaving and taking their chaos with them. Word had trickled out already – there was nothing for it – and he had been receiving ravens from his bannermen with all sorts of strange questions:

  • Did your future children really appear at the base of the weirwoods north of the wall?
  • Are they really your children? Are they Starks?
  • What age are they? Is your eldest daughter ready to be wed?
  • Will the older Robb now inherit Winterfell? Where do they fall in the line of succession?
  • Will they be fostered, Ned? I’d be happy to take them! Just say when!
  • What knowledge do they have of the future, and will you make use of it?
  • Blessed are your children and the Starks, my Lord! They are blessed by the Gods for where they arrived – in a Godswood! We should pray and give thanks.

The North was ripe with stories of magic and grumpkins and snarks and Others and wights – and the idea of his children… time travelling… seemed to be taken in stride by his bannermen, although the ravens Luwin was fielding from the Citadel were a bit more hysterical. He was sure it was only a matter of time before his goodfather in Riverrun or his foster father down in King’s Landing would send their inquiries and he was already dreading it, the headache a steady presence since Jon opened his mouth and said, ‘Hello, Uncle.’

Benjen seemed fine with them leaving.

“It’s for the best, Ned,” he had said when Ned confronted him for his shrug and well wishes when his children greeted him and Catelyn the next day from that disastrous dinner – at lunch. The bleary eyes and pale pallor to their skin, as well as the kitchen staff informing him of some missing wineskins, was all too clear what they had gotten up to after the meal.

Ned wanted to rail. He wanted to wrap his children in wool and the safety of Winterfell’s walls. Catelyn was no better – although she wasn’t quite speaking to him after he finally confessed the truth of Jon’s parentage. That, along with Sansa’s scars, Robb’s crown, Bran’s inability to walk, and the distant way Rickon and Arya had treated her, had temporarily shut down all thought, leaving her wandering Winterfell’s halls as she came to terms with the newfound information.

Of course, it was Alliser Thorne who reminded Ned that Jon – as the eldest of the returned – was four-and-twenty, and Ned himself was only one-and-thirty, and there were only seven years between them. Jon would not be coddled; Sansa was one-and-twenty; Arya and Robb were now the same age and nine-and-ten; Bran was seven-and-ten, and Rickon three-and-ten. Even at Rickon’s age, he would refuse to be coddled and swaddled in the ways he and Catelyn wanted to desperately do, even if he hadn’t been raised elsewhere and failed to recognize them.

What’s worse, was that they were leaving, and it felt like bitterness on Ned’s tongue that he and Jon had failed to really reach one another. Their conversation about why Ned kept quiet about his heritage seemed circular, going nowhere, and now they were leaving, and Ned felt things were still unresolved. But what else could he say?

“Where will you go first?” he asked by Winterfell’s East Gate. He, Catelyn, and Luwin were cloaked and furred in the early morning light, frost clinging to the roofs and overhangs of the walkways and buildings. A few snowflakes were falling in the weak sunlight.

His children all had the horses and carts that the Night’s Watch had allowed them to take – and Ned had compensated Benjen and Alliser appropriately with the gold coin to replace the horses or swapped the animals out with his own to give to his children. They stood by their steads’ sides, Jon absently petting his horse’s nose.

Robb was the designated speaker. “We’ll head to White Harbour first, and book passage on a ship.”

“Where to?” asked Catelyn, worrying her hands in her cloak as she twisted the material. They twitched, like she wanted to reach out and touch her oldest son.

Robb glanced back over his shoulder at Jon, Arya. Sansa smoothly stepped forward and answered. “We’re going to Braavos first.”

“Braavos?” echoed Ned, blinking in shock. “Whatever for?”

Sansa’s lips twitched into a small smile. “We can’t rely on your generosity forever, Father. We need to find our own coin to make our way.”

“By doing what?” protested Catelyn, her voice rising shrilly. “Please tell me you are not selling yourselves as sellswords! Robb!”

Robb stifled a laugh. “We’re not going to be sellswords, Mother. Bran was the one who suggested Braavos be our first stop.”

Ned goggled. Bran?

“We need to visit the Iron Bank,” added Bran solemnly, his dark eyes holding Ned’s gaze as he spoke.

Alarm shot through Ned. “The Iron Bank?” he repeated, eyes swinging toward Jon. “Please tell me you are not going to announce yourself to them to access any Targaryen funds!”

Jon grumbled, “Fine, I won’t tell you,” at the same time Arya burst out, “You’re worried about Jon announcing his heritage when Robb’s been the one walking around with a bloody crown on his head?”

Robb shot Arya a wounded look. “I thought we already discussed this, Arya!”

She shrugged, unrepentant.

“It’ll be fine, Father,” sighed Sansa. She looked weary and tired of the bickering, sitting on top of her dapple-grey horse, her furs blending into the colours of the horse’s flank. “We have a plan.”

Ned looked skeptical, and Catelyn outright dubious, although for clearly different reasons: Ned knew these older versions could handle themselves – but to Catelyn, they were her children, and she hadn’t yet disassociated the two.

“No one who doesn’t need to know about Jon will know,” said Bran, interrupting Robb and Arya’s quiet bickering, and drawing everyone else’s attention – except Rickon, he was just staring out down the dirt road toward Wintertown with longing.

“You can’t promise that Bran,” muttered Ned, worry creasing his forehead.

But Bran turned his eyes to his father. They were deep, dark, and much older than they should have been when he stated, “Oh, can’t I?”

Immediately, Sansa and Jon swung their heads toward him. Although Bran was sitting in the back of the cart with as much dignity as he could previously, there was a different mien to him now when he spoke, a casual lounging and grace.

“Bran,” warbled Sansa, eyes wide.

Jon slowly moved from his horse’s side, eyes intent on their little brother, his hand moving to his side, where a dagger was strapped and hidden under his cloak’s folds.

Bran caught the movement and his lips twisted downward into a wry mockery of a smile. “Don’t worry, Jon, I’m still me.”

“But—”

“Parts of Bloodraven didn’t bleed into me after all those years under his tutelage,” he said quietly, “And I’ve noticed it when I use greensight.”

Those at the East Gate all looked down at the small, potted weirwood sapling that Bran and Ned had painstakingly drew from the heart tree in their Godswood yesterday, the bone-white branch sticking straight up from the soil with already a few unfurling red leaves swaying in the gentle breeze.

Bran couldn’t stay in Winterfell – his siblings made that clear – and he only wanted to stay because of the weirwood. A compromise was made that a weirwood would go with them, and Jon and Sansa quietly hoped that it was too small, too insignificant to sweep Bran away, returning him to the Three-Eyed Raven.

“You’ve… you’ve seen things, my Lord?” asked Luwin carefully, brows furrowed, rheumy eyes darting to the potted plant.

Bran inclined his head. “Not as much as I used to – but…” he caught the glance Jon was sending him. “It’s better now. Muted, in a way, but I can still see. I’m not swept along as I used to be.”

Jon exhaled in relief, his tense shoulders drooping. “That’s – that’s good to know, Bran.”

Bran nodded and turned back to his parents. “So, I’ve seen it. We will be fine.”

And we’ll write!” chimed in Arya, a gleam in her eyes even as her horse skittered. She wanted to be gone, already off on their adventure. “Each time we arrive somewhere, so you can track us.”

Ned shot Arya an unamused glance at her words.

“We must go,” stressed Robb, quietly. “Please.”

The plea broke Ned’s resolve, and he sighed – long and loud, a resigned expression on his long face. “Go. I will not keep you here.”

Six bright faces greeted him, with ranging depths: Arya and Rickon had the widest smiles, happy to leave; Sansa, Jon, and Robb fell somewhere in the middle, pleased to leave; and Bran was despondent about leaving the Godswood, but nodded, as he, of course, knew it was time.

“But remember—” began Ned, his rough brogue rumbling, “The lone wolf dies—”

“But the pack survives,” chorused the time-travelling Starks, bringing a smile to Ned’s face and an amused chortle from Luwin. Catelyn, at Ned’s elbow, stifled a sob and clutched at his cloak.

Jon helped Sansa up onto her horse and then mounted his, Robb a pace ahead of him. With everyone on horses, or in Bran’s case, in a cart behind Jon’s, the Stark children were ready to go – no matter Ned or Catelyn’s feelings on the matter.

“Safe travels,” said Ned, the corners of his eyes crinkling as he looked up at them. “And know that you are always welcomed in Winterfell. Always.”

“We know,” said Jon, looking down at him. He paused, and then said, quietly, “Father.”

And as they rode away, down toward Wintertown and further to White Harbour, Ned felt like Jon’s final word was the greatest gift of all – and his heart felt thrice the size it should be, filled with wonder, love, and appreciation for his sister’s son, the one he raised as his own (mistakes and all).

“Come,” murmured Ned, wrapping an arm around Catelyn as she sniffed and tried to hold back tears. “They’ll be fine. We raised them, after all.”

House Manderly was one of the Stark’s most loyal houses – in both times – and Wyman Manderly continued to demonstrate that by not asking any questions about how the second set of Starks appeared – significantly older as well – and ensuring that they had privacy from those who were curious.

Wylis found them a ship; Wendel ensured they had appropriate clothing and initial funds for Braavos, and within two moon’s turns since they left Winterfell, they were on a ship heading east-south-east toward Braavos, with the Manderly’s well wishes behind them.

Although south of the North, as the ship sailed into Braavos between the legs of the giant titan standing guard, the air was warmer and held less of a bite. Arya and Sansa, who had spent more time in the south, and Robb, seemed to handle the increase of humidity and warmth better than Rickon, whose curls had fluffed up and remained in a perpetual flushed state.

The ship docked at Ragman’s Harbour, with Arya almost leaning entirely off the railing as she stared across the masts, rigging, and bobbing vessels, over red-tiled roofs and pale brown and yellow buildings – some with glass domes and others with tiled domes – separated by not roads, but murky canals.

As soon as they all left the ship, thanking its captain, Robb turned to Arya. “Lead the way.”

She grinned at him, turning to face the buildings, some appearing on top of one another in how close they were squished in, built tall instead of out with fabric hanging from windows and wrought-iron balconies overlooking water paths. She took a deep breath in, the scent of salt, dirty water, and the mingling fish, spices, and goods as they were inspected and moved off ships came together as a unique Braavos smell.

“This way,” she said, coming back to herself and leading her family through a series of winding paths – some narrow streets where Robb and Jon’s shoulders brushed the walls on either side, others wide enough to walk three abreast even with market stalls and people shouting at them in Low Valyrian – or any other dialect – and even over crumbling bridges and sturdy ones until Rickon was panting and whining, “Are we there yet?”

“Oh, shut it,” muttered Bran, who was forced to piggyback with Jon, who grunted and hefted the teenager higher up.

“Aye, you’re not as light as you once were, Bran,” grumbled Jon.

“We’re nearly there,” called back Arya. “We’ve just crossed the Canal of Heroes and are heading toward the Sealord’s manse. The Iron Bank is right near it.”

The bridge they crossed gave them an uninterrupted view of a series of islands, with several buildings in different colours and roof tiles, as well as shapes, on them.

“What are those?” asked Robb, pointing to those buildings, even as the siblings slowed to stare with him. “They’re different to everything else here.”

Arya pursed her lips, eyes darting toward Robb and then back to one building. Her eyes lingered on the black roof. “That’s the Isle of the Gods. Braavos practices religious tolerance, so anyone can worship anything. The temples for those religions can be found there.”

Robb goggled. “So there’s a Sept and a Godswood together? Like, at home?”

Arya shook her head, turning her back on her old home. “The Old Gods aren’t here.”

“And that black building?” asked Jon quietly, eyes slightly narrowed.

Arya paused but then answered, “The House of Black and White.”

Collectively, the siblings turned back to look at it and shivered.

“Let’s continue,” suggested Sansa quietly.

They continued northeast, quickly, until they stood before a large circular fountain and a tall, four-storey building. It had a cream exterior, with intricate building reliefs and designs on the outside; some windows were framed with columns, others were arched with designs etched into the glass.

Robb tilted his head back and gave a low whistle, impressed.

“Come on,” muttered Arya. “And… be polite.”

The group moved inside, Rickon openly gaping at the vaulted ceiling, the long, rectangular lobby of shiny marble floors as their boots squeaked across.

Arya took the lead, approaching a low-ranking representative who caught their eye. “We’re here to speak with a banker.”

The man’s eyes roved over the large group. He remained silent but nodded, waving for them to follow him. They were led down several equally stunning hallways of bright marble and arched windows, up and down stairs (some wide and grand, others narrow and rickety), until they reached a meeting room. It wasn’t the largest, but it wasn’t small either; rectangular, with large, mullioned windows overlooking the Moon Pool.

There was a table at one end of the room with a few heavy-looking chairs behind it and two benches before the table. The symbol of the Iron Bank was inlaid above a double door behind the table, indicating at whose leisure they were dependent. There a few other chairs spread out for clients to sit on while they waited.

And they waited.

Eventually, the doors opened, and three men – all swarthy looking with thick black hair and hooded eyes – stepped through in the dull, dark colours the nobility of Braavos preferred. In a synchronized move, they sat as one in their chairs.

By the expression on Robb’s face, he was mildly, albeit, grudgingly, impressed.

“Welcome to the Iron Bank,” the man in the middle greeted them, a mask of polite civility.

At Jon’s side, Arya gave a tiny, near inaudible sigh of pleasure at hearing the cadence. She then shook herself a little and gave a tiny bow. As she rose, she murmured, “valar morghūlis,” to the men.

They didn’t move, but somehow, Jon thought they were now watching Arya carefully. The man in the middle inclined his head, the tiniest amount. “Valar dohaeris, friend. Please – sit.”

The Starks did so, arranging themselves to the liking with Arya and Bran at her right side, in between the two benches and directly opposite the man in the middle. Jon sat next to Bran on the other bench, with Sansa at his side with Rickon standing by her, leaving Robb to take Arya’s free bench.

“What can the Bank do for you, Lady…?” the man in the middle trailed off, eyes narrowing. “Stark, is it?”

Arya’s pleasant smile was sharp. “Aye. And my siblings.”

“Forgive me, my Lady,” the man on the left interrupted, “But I am under the impression that the offspring of Lord Eddard Stark are children or babes. Not… grown adults.”

“You are correct,” answered Sansa primly, sitting with her back straight and her hands folded in her lap. She did not offer anything else.

The man on the left frowned. “Then, how can you also be Lord Starks’ children?”

“We are here due to the Old Gods,” answered Bran in a monotonous voice, sounding more like his self from before their deaths. Both Jon and Sansa glanced at him, but Sansa quickly schooled her face to wipe any concern from it.

“I see.” The middle banker narrowed his eyes. “Braavos does not interfere or argue with the Gods – any of them,” he finished with a sharp glance when Robb went to open his mouth. “Now, how may the Iron Bank be of service?”

Arya demurred and turned to look at Bran, who was evenly staring at the man in the middle, meeting his gaze. After a long moment where the two gazes clashed, the man in the middle darted his eyes away.

Sansa caught the tiny quirk of Bran’s lips, but it was gone just a quickly, especially when he spoke. “There is an account that Jon would like to access.”

The man’s eyes shrewdly looked over the Starks in front of him before trailing back to Bran. “Which account is that?”

“Viserys Targaryen’s.”

Only the barest details were shared with his siblings, so Bran was unsurprised when Robb shifted uneasily on his bench, but it was nothing compared to the mirth on the banker’s faces.

“Viserys Targaryen is known as the Beggar King for a reason, my Lord,” the central man said. “He has no account with us.”

“Aye,” replied Bran, “But Viserys the Second did.”

The mood immediately tensed, and Jon kept a careful watch on the bankers and their stillness.

Bran continued, like a wolf cornering his prey, although his explanation was more a history lesson for the benefit of what he said. “Viserys the Second may have loved his Lyseni wife, Larra Rogare, but after she left him, he was hardly going to entrust his goodfamily with his coin.”

“And they had a rival bank at the time,” breathed Arya as she began connecting the dots.

Bran inclined his head. “He was the Hand to the king, and then king himself for a short awhile until his son: Aegon the Unworthy.”

Jon snorted. “Very unworthy.”

The banker’s mouth twitched, but they all remained silent, content to listen to Bran’s story as he wove connections and a legacy that tied one particular Stark to the vault in question.

“By the time Viserys was king, his son already had several bastards and was known to indulge. Would you give your son access to coin if he was like that?” questioned Bran rhetorically, turning back to the bankers. “Viserys’ brother may have trusted him, but he only had Aegon, who became king; a daughter he married to his son; and another who became—”

“The Dragonknight,” gasped Robb, remembering all the times they would play as the great knight as children.

“Nerys and Aemon would have no reason to access the coin, so the vault in question has been sitting, untouched since around 167 AC,” continued Bran. “Just sitting, not being used, gathering interest on various investments Viserys set up with the Iron Bank before his death.”

“You are remarkably well-informed, my Lord,” said the banker idly, although there was a tension revealed in the tightness around his eyes. “Although the Bank does not discuss its clients’ vaults to outsiders.”

Bran’s returning smile was equally tight but hard. “Viserys the Second established House Targaryen. A Targaryen with knowledge of the account can claim the vault. Is this not so?”

“I see no Targaryen amongst you,” replied the banker, his tone even as he sat back in his chair, pleased with the direction the conversation turned. “The Beggar King is unaware of the account and is unlikely to ever specifically ask about it.”

His eyes were shrewd as he surveyed the Starks. “And I highly doubt any Northerners would tell him such, given your families were on opposite sides of your recent war that deposed of the Targaryens.”

“Aye,” agreed Robb cheerfully, although there was an undercurrent of something meaner, “That’s true enough.”

“But if you need proof,” continued Bran, eyes narrowed, “Then we can present it.”

“Oh?” the banker queried, in a polite, if disinterested, tone.

“Of course, we would expect the Iron Bank to uphold its reputation for discretion,” added Sansa with a cold stare.

The banker’s eyes narrowed as well, darting from Robb to Bran, to Sansa. “The reputation of the Iron Bank is well-earned. Discretion between client and bank is sacrosanct.”

“Can we hurry this up?” whined Rickon from behind Sansa. He fidgeted. “I’m getting hungry.”

“Well – you heard him,” goaded Arya, turning to Jon, who had been sitting still as his siblings began to speak.

All eyes turned to Jon – including the banker and his associates on either side – and Jon sighed, rising from the bench.

He involuntarily clenched his hands in a nervous gesture but turned on his heel and made for the standing torch, designed similarly to the room in a tall obelisk shape. At the top was a shallow bowl filled with oil and a continuous flame, unnecessary due to the light coming from the large windows. He stopped beside the obelisk and gave his siblings a long, dry look that screamed his annoyance and displeasure.

He then turned his eyes on the bankers and once he met them, he plunged his hand into the flame.

The bankers were remarkably resilient, with the only show of fear, or worry, or concern, or whatever it was, being a thick swallow of the middle banker’s throat as his Adam’s apple bobbed.

As Jon stood there, unconcerned with the passing of time – and the lack of burning flesh and its accompanying smell – the bankers turned back to Bran. The middle one said, “Well,” and faltered.

Having proved his point, Jon withdrew his hand and sat back on the bench, showing the men the pink but unburned skin.

“May I present Jon, the son of Rhaegar of House Targaryen and Lyanna of House Stark?” said Bran, his voice oozing smugness.

None of the bankers spoke, staring instead at Jon.

“So,” began Arya with an all-teeth grin, “About that vault…”

The Starks remained in Braavos for only a couple of months, but long enough for Jon to learn of the enormity of the funds he now had access to (less than the Lannisters and Tyrells, of course, but for the wartime frugality of Jon and Sansa, it was a lot), even after he used a portion to purchase a manse for the Starks at the north end of Braavos, not quite near the Purple Harbour or the Sealord’s property, but close enough that the building was three storeys, c-shaped with a garden courtyard and a low wall that overlooked the northern bay.

Arya immediately claimed a room on the ground floor, nearest to the stairs that led to the servants’ quarters as that was where she felt most comfortable. No one pointed out it was also her room that anyone coming through the front would approach first, making Arya their first line of defence in a city she knew best.

Robb and Jon, given their histories, both unsurprisingly took the most defensible rooms on the next floor up: both only had a single door and window as entry points, and both windows overlooked the wide canal and neighbouring buildings opposite theirs.

Sansa took the room between theirs, larger and wider with an equally wide, wooden double door and a sitting room. Her room consisted of several windows, framed by Braavosi-designed columns and a central balcony. But with Robb and Jon on either side of her, Sansa felt confident with her choice.

Unimpressed with his siblings, Rickon called them all craven and claimed the third-floor grand bedroom that overlooked the bay and choppy mountainous terrain of the islands that surrounded Braavos’ floating city, appreciating the balconies and numerous windows that offered the spectacular view. He threw himself on the bed, his dirty boots leaving a streak of brown against the beautiful light blue silks. Once, Sansa would have shrieked at the mess; now, she just smiled fondly at her brother and ruffled his hair.

And limited by his wheelchair, Bran decided that a parlour room with wooden latticed doors that opened to the garden courtyard would be converted into his bedroom, leaving two others (one on Bran’s floor, and the other on Robb, Jon, and Sansa’s) for any future guests, if they ever received them.

“But aren’t you worried if someone tries to attack you?” asked Robb, frowning as he looked around Bran’s new room, eyes lingering on the flimsy wooden doors.

“It’s not like you can run away,” added Rickon carelessly, both eyebrows hidden underneath his curly hair.

Bran levelled a disappointed stare on his brothers. “Oh, aye, I can’t run away. But if someone is stupid enough to attack me, I’ll just skinchange into their body and use their own knife to slit their throat.”

Silence followed Bran’s remark, and perturbed, Robb hastily blurted, “Did anyone catch that fight near the Moon Pool last eve?”

Jon rolled his eyes and muttered under his breath, stalking from Bran’s room.

Life in Braavos was simple for the Starks: they hired a small number of servants to manage their home, mostly Northerners: a young woman who came to Braavos looking for her husband but not finding him and happily eager to work for the Starks to avoid making coin by joining a brothel; another, older Braavosi woman whose children were all grown and sailors and had left her behind but made the most delicious lemon tarts; a bastard Snow who had been a sailor but lost his hand during a storm and was cast from the crew; and a distant Manderly cousin so far removed from the main family who had set out to make something of himself only to lose all his coin at the infamous Braavosi brothels and was unable to barter passage home.

The Starks themselves were novelties for the Braavosi, but rated interesting, but unassuming and therefore boring (as they rarely ventured out and when they did so, they were unfailingly polite with only one of the siblings speaking Low Valaryian). They were never invited to the Sealord’s, and while several courtesans tried their hands at seducing Robb and Jon into their houses, neither went, both too caught up in their past loves.

Eventually, the months passed, and Jon asked if the others were ready to move on. While Arya had yet to find Syrio Forel, she recognized the futility in locating the First Sword of Braavos (or, more likely, she was aware he was working with the Sealord and unavailable) and only the tiniest part of her was interested in tracking down Jaqen – but sensing Jon and Sansa’s growing unease the longer they remained in Braavos, and near the location of her unmaking as a Faceless Man – Arya agreed it was time to go. The manse would remain open, with the staff working it and being paid from Jon’s Targaryen account, waiting for them to return.

“Where to?” asked Robb curiously.

And Jon replied, in his usual grim way, “Summerhall.”

Half a moon’s turn later, the six Starks were in a row, their horses still under their legs as they stared at the overgrown, algae-filled lake and the caved-in ruined palace on its opposite bank, only accessible by a wide, dirty white stone bridge. Moss and low-lying creeping vines inched from the banks of the lake, rolling over fallen waterlogged trees, covering the ground with a patchwork quilt of green, brown, and grey.

The surrounding shore of the lake may have once been manicured and trimmed, but nature had reclaimed the land in the years since humans had last spent any significant time there. Thick trees with sweeping, low-hanging branches dipped into the lake or obscured entire swaths of the shoreline. Bristly bushes obscured hidden dangers or presented illusions of solid earth; cattails and water plants poked out from underneath bushes or between branches, denoting water over dirt.

Even from where they viewed the landscape, high above through a seldom-used Red Mountain pass that provided a natural chokepoint for visitors, they could hear the chirps from birds, the few croaks of frogs as they called back and forth, and then the background hum of insects. There was a scent of decay in the air, of rotten leaves and a pungent stink from the algae, but there was also the electrifying scent that occurred just before a thunderstorm – and given they had barely crossed into the Stormlands, it was apt.

Robb’s upper lip curled in distaste, his blue eyes narrowing on the mud and mosquitos at the base of the mountain where rock gave away to earth and mud and the marshes, and the uneven, rotted wooden planks that once served as a path to the palace. “Are you sure you want to do this?”

Jon, his eyes fixated further, past the lake, on the broken remnants of Targaryen madness, gave a sharp nod. “I need to learn what he did. Why he would come here and what answers he found.”

Bran, on top of his horse and tightly buckled in with a modified version of Tyrion’s saddle design, sighed. “Then we should continue.”

Jon gave a gentle nudge to his horse, and led the siblings down the winding, overgrown path, his horse carefully picking its steps.

Robb followed, with Bran next. Rickon, Arya, and Sansa remained behind a moment longer, with Arya giving her own sigh as her sharp eyes swept the desolate, quiet scene. “Well. Welcome to Summerhell.”

Rickon barely held in a snort. Sansa refused to comment, clicking her tongue, and encouraging her own horse to follow her brothers, with Arya and Rickon taking the rear of their party.

It took them thirty minutes to make their way down the mountain and to the marshes, and all of them turned their noses up at the stench as their horses kicked up mud and picked their way around the wooden planks, sinking into the water and soaking the bottom of Sansa’s dress.

But as they made their way through darkened recesses of leaf-covered canopies, swatting at buzzing insects and slapping their hands against the back of their necks from the bloodsuckers, they emerged at the shore of the lake and stared in open-mouth wonder.

“It must have been beautiful before the fire,” breathed Sansa, eyes wide.

An entire wing was blackened and collapsed inward, leaving nothing but charred and melted stone and some archways. Rubble collected at the base of what could have been a tower, overlooking the lake, but was now reclaimed by nature. What was once white stone was stained brown with debris and time, and green moss clung to any protruding lips or edges, trimming the stones, and bringing a sharp contrast in colour.

The other end of the palace was still intact, although all the windows had been smashed in or destroyed (whether by time or bandits), and while the white stone was also dirtied and moss-lined, the construction of its smooth walls and sweeping arches and decorative dragon motifs remained visible, including its dragon gargoyles, although some extended stone wings were chipped.

There were two towers, one much higher than the other, that finished with the remnants of a domed roof. The shorter tower was just as round, but its roof was shingle and peaked. Tiny slits for windows and a few larger ones with curved edges overlooked the marsh. At the base of the towers were two curtainwalls, and the outer wall included a separate building and pass-through entrance, which Jon led them toward as they made their way around the lake and toward a stone bridge.

They were silent as their horses trotted over, the hooves clacking against the stone as the only noise as the hum from the insects fell away as they moved from stone to grass before Summerhall.

Jon continued to lead, seemingly knowing where to go as they moved across the grassy lawn and toward the curtainwall. The pass-through held as they went under, the portcullis missing entirely. The courtyard between the two curtainwalls wasn’t large but roomy enough for their horses. There was even a wooden trough, filled with rainwater, near a wooden fence for them.

They shared a look, and Rickon ventured, “I thought Summerhall was abandoned?”

“Rhaegar came here. He must have come with his kingsguard, too,” muttered Jon, eyes darting around the space as the high walls from the first curtainwall’s building boxed them in. He felt like there were eyes on him – and maybe, there were. Summerhall was filled with ghosts.

“You know,” began Robb with false cheer as he slipped from his horse and led it to the post, “This reminds me of all those times we dared each other to spend an entire night in the crypts.”

“Are you planning on dumping flour on yourself to scare me silly, Robb?” asked Sansa with a glare at her brother as she too dismounted, leading her horse to the trough. “Going to go looking for some sheets to pretend to be a ghost?”

Nervously, Jon said, “I don’t think we’re going to need sheets for ghosts.”

Arya, who had been peering up at the windows that overlooked the courtyard with a hand on her hilt, pursed her lips. “You feel it, too?”

“Feel what?” echoed Rickon, his voice rising a bit in nerves.

“We’re not alone,” answered Bran as Robb unbuckled him from his horse. Robb paused, glancing up, but Bran shook his head. “No, not – not like that. We’re the only people here, certainly. But…”

As he trailed off, Jon took up finishing that sentence. “But it feels like there are others here.”

As one, the Starks shivered.

They were quiet as they removed sacks and bags from their horses; Bran’s collapsible wheelchair moved with difficulty across the weedy courtyard even as he approached the second, inner curtainwall, leading the siblings through rotted wooden doors and into the muted and cool interior of the old Targaryan palace.

The stone floor was cracked and uneven with weeds growing through the stones, leaving Bran’s chair to rock and jolt as he moved forward into the large entrance hall. Behind him, the Starks’ booted feet were eerily loud as they trooped in behind their brother, barely spreading out and instead keeping within touching distance as they looked around the main entrance. It smelled like decay, rotted leaves, and bird feces.

Thick square columns lined the hall, with smooth stone arches between each rise. Along the columns, halfway up, were edged building reliefs and tiny dragon motifs, barely visible. Some dragons were nesting places for birds, their wings used as support for their twig nests. Most were worn from erosion or covered in dirt, soot, or lichen.

Opposite the main door, they entered through, at the far end of the hall, was a semi-circular, tiled dais. There were several chairs – thrones – but other than the central one, the rest failed to withstand time and the elements. Several were rotted completely away, with mouldy and tattered fabric on the lopsided remains of chair legs, or only the seat remained, or just the wooden back as a large panel.

Light filtered into the entrance hall but only near the dais, where above a large glass dome with broken panels and glass shards littered the entrance hall floor. It framed the circular dais and was the focal piece of the hall. In the middle of the weak light on the floor, before the dais, were the remains of a fire pit, neatly stacked wood, and ashes. On either side of the fire pit, were two, long recessed corridors where light seemed to be swallowed whole.

Jon meandered down toward the corridor on the right, peering into the darkness nervously.

“Do you see anything?” asked Arya from where she stood near the fire pit.

“Not without a torch,” replied Jon, easing back, and returning to the group.

“It’s best if we stay here,” suggested Robb, trying to issue a command by steeling his voice, although his shook and his blue eyes kept moving around the long entrance hall. “With the thrones behind us, we at least have our backs against something.”

There were murmurs of agreement, and Rickon, Robb, and Jon began unpacking the bedrolls while Sansa looked after their food and equipment with Bran overseeing. Arya roamed the edges of the entrance hall, keeping in sight, but poking around at the walls.

“What are you doing?” called Jon, standing from unrolling Sansa’s bed.

“Looking for secret passages!” called back Arya from halfway down the hall, peering over her shoulder. “Targaryens liked to build ‘em, didn’t they? I’d reckon that Summerhall would have them, too.”

Robb and Jon shared a nervous look, and Arya continued her search and finding nothing in the entrance hall. She peered down the opposite corridor Jon looked at, hands on her hips and a frown on her face until Sansa called her back to the group for food.

They sat around a cheerful flame, refusing to let it go too far down even if it was midafternoon, quietly eating bread and apples and sharing slivers of cheese.

“Well Jon,” began Robb, “Now that we’re here – what did you want to do?”

Jon swallowed the last of his apple, a frown on his face as he contemplated his answer. Finally, he said, slowly, “I think… I think I need to see what happened that night.”

“What night?” asked Rickon, completely relaxed and reclining on his elbows with his legs stretched out in front of him – and with his back to the entrance door.

“The night Summerhall burned,” finished Jon.

“Whatever for?” spat Arya. “We all know what happened: another Targaryen went mad trying to birth dragons with wildfire. And the ones who survived were the ones who shouldn’t.”

Sansa cringed. “Arya… that’s still Jon’s family. His great-great-grandfather, and—”

“And if Aegon the fifth wasn’t so bloody obsessed like the rest of them, then maybe he would’ve been around longer to beat sense into Jaehaerys to stop him from f*cking his sister—”

“They were already married by then,” muttered Bran, rolling his eyes at Arya’s dramatics.

She ignored him and continued blithely on, “And then maybe would’ve stopped Aerys from being the sh*t he was, or forcing Aerys and Rhaella to marry, and then Rhaegar—”

“Would never have been born,” finished Sansa sharply. “And neither would Jon.”

“But there wouldn’t have been war,” finished Jon quietly, looking down at his hands. “At least, maybe not the same that became Robert’s Rebellion, but…”

“Don’t think that way,” argued Sansa, leaning forward to look intently at Jon. “Do not, Jon. You matter.”

Silently, Robb reached out and clapped a hand on Jon’s shoulder, nodding along in agreement with Sansa’s words.

“I didn’t mean that Jon shouldn’t exist,” said Arya, cringing when she thought back on her words. She flushed in embarrassment.

“I know,” soothed Jon, sending Arya a smile.

She returned it, tightly.

“If only Aegon allowed Duncan to remain in line for the throne,” groaned Rickon, laying flat on the stone. He crossed his ankles. “Things would have been so different.”

Arya snorted, crossed her arms, and stared into the fire.

Bran peered at Jon from his side of the fire, between Robb and Arya. He was on the floor, surrounded by a cocoon of blankets, with his wheelchair barely an arm’s distance away. “I can show you, if you like.”

“Show me?” echoed Jon, looking at him.

“Like how I saw Father at the Tower of Joy,” explained Bran. “Bloodraven showed me how to look into the past.”

“Don’t you need a weirwood to connect to?” asked Robb curiously. “And you left the sapling behind in Braavos at our house there.”

“You did what?” gaped Rickon, sitting up.

Flushing a little, Bran curled in on himself – his equivalent of squirming. “Well, I uh – I just thought – that planting a weirwood in Braavos was the right thing to do. Besides, the tree grew about three feet by the time we were ready to leave. I couldn’t carry a huge pot with us, could I?”

Arya’s second snort was less derision and more amusem*nt, now. “Does that mean you can see what’s happening in Braavos? Are you our spymaster, Bran?”

Bran scowled at Arya. “Yes, I can see Braavos if I want to. And no, I’m not a spy.”

“Shame,” sighed Robb, causing Bran to whip his head toward his brother, who was staring dreamily into the fire. “Between your weirwood greensight, and skinchanging, and our warging, we’d be the most effective spies and knowledgeable people in all of Westeros.”

“Let’s return to that later,” offered Sansa, an interested gleam in her eyes, “And clarify how Bran’s supposed to show Jon the tragedy that happened here without a weirwood.”

“Well…” Bran trailed off. “I never said I didn’t have a weirwood, did I?”

“Bran?” inquired Jon politely, although there was a hint of steel in his voice.

Sheepishly, Bran threw his arm out toward his wheelchair and caught the edges with his fingertips, drawing it closer. He reached into his own bag and withdrew a small pot – his original one from Winterfell. In the dirt was another weirwood sapling, a sliver cut from the other tree he had that was now planted in their garden in Braavos. Cradled in his hands, Bran peered over the top, where a small collection of red leaves sprouted like Rickon’s mop of curls, leaving bare white bark elsewhere.

“So?” Bran offered with a tiny grin.

Jon sighed. “Very well—”

“Not alone, surely!” protested Robb, glancing between the two.

Jon paused. “Do you… do you want to see it, too?”

Robb nodded, eagerly. “You’ve all had such interesting experiences with magic. It’s my turn!”

“Then Sansa should come too,” said Jon, glancing at her. “You might notice something that we miss.”

“The four of us, then?” confirmed Sansa, turning to Bran. “Arya and Rickon can keep watch.”

Those two murmured their agreements, keen eyes on Bran as he motioned for the elder Starks to huddle around Bran, all of them laying a single finger on the weirwood’s thin trunk.

“Ready?” asked Bran, although he gave them no time to answer.

One moment, Jon was pressed shoulder-to-shoulder with Robb and Sansa, hovering over Bran’s useless legs and awkwardly touching the weirwood sapling, and the next it was like the chill from the palace was swept away with a summer’s haze, shimmering, and twisting the dull colours of the ruins until all light from the dome and fire faded away to black—

Jon’s eyes snapped open. He stood, Robb and Sansa on either side of him, and Bran standing on his own opposite them, dark eyes already focused on the dais behind them.

Jon spun, mouth dropping open as he took in the faces of Targaryens he had never seen but knew the stories of: dark-haired Prince Duncan and his wife Jenny; another young, fey-looking woman at Jenny’s side; a pale-haired, pregnant, and unhappy young woman in a resplendent red dress who could only be Rhaella; a Maester in grey robes; a giant of a man, standing beside a throne with a white cloak that must have been Ser Duncan the Tall; and a long-haired man with an equally long, but handsome, face with large eyes on the throne. Peeking out from between strands of pale golden hair was a circlet of yellow gold, simple and unadorned: it was Aegon.

There were others milling around the Summerhall court, but Jon couldn’t tear his eyes from the man on the throne – the man who had the same large, dark eyes that he himself had – eyes so dark that many believed Jon had dark grey, but he knew… he knew that the moment the light hit them right, they were the darkest of Targaryen purple.

“Jon, Robb, Sansa,” began Bran, sounding different – confident and sure of himself – as he swept an arm toward the man on the throne, “May I present Aegon the Unlikely, on the day of Summerhall’s tragedy?”

TBC…

Notes:

🙃

Chapter 6: VI

Summary:

Did you ever hear the tragedy of Aegon the Unlikely? I thought not. It's not a story the Westerosi would tell you... ☠️

The Tragedy of Summerhall happens.

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

VI:

Memories of Tomorrow - writing_as_tracey (6)

There was a startling difference between the Summerhall they had left in the present to the Summerhall of the past. The walls were not soot or lichen-lined, the glass in the windows was not broken, and the entire wing on their left was intact.

“I know that everyone says you have father’s long Stark face,” began Robb, eyes stuck on the king, “But damn if you don’t look like him, Snow.”

Jon did not answer, staring greedily at long-lost family members. It was Sansa who took the time to nod and verbally agree, eyes darting from Aegon V’s long, handsome face to his eldest son, the disinherited one. Duncan had the colour from his mother’s Blackwood side of the family: thick black hair – hair that the Starks shared through their own connection to the Blackwoods; the handsome face and square jaw that Robb had – that their father had, as well.

“Betha Blackwood,” began Bran idly, “had an older sister named Melantha. She married Willam Stark—”

Jon sucked in a sharp breath. “Our great-great-grandmother.”

Robb curiously looked around the hall. “Can they see us?”

Bran shot him a look. “Of course not.”

“And nothing here will harm us?” Robb pressed, looking at Bran. “When the fire comes?”

Bran shook his head. “We’re safe.”

“Then let’s spread out,” suggested Sansa, catching onto Robb’s unspoken suggestion. “Watch the people – look at the sigils, see who is here – who they speak with, what is being said.”

“I’m – I’m going to them,” said Jon, breath hitching on the last word. His dark eyes hadn’t left looking at his relatives.

Sansa and Robb shared a pained glance; Sansa placed a hand on Jon’s arm. “Of course, Jon. I’ll join you – I know the southern courts best.”

Robb gave a sharp nod, spinning on his heel and disappearing into the crowd, a partially ghostly figure of dull colours despite his red Tully hair, mingling with the bright fabrics and press of the Targaryen court.

Jon and Sansa slid toward the wall and up along the side, away from most of the crowd until they were a few paces from the royal family, almost perpendicular to the dais. Duncan – ridiculously tall and handsome – had a gentle smile on his face and was partially leaning down to whisper in his wife’s ear. Jenny’s tanned skin flushed, and she sent her husband a flirtatious look in response.

“They look so in love,” mused aloud Jon.

There were musicians in a corner, reed and wood instruments and a lute, and several courtiers began to dance before the dais. Rhaella looked longingly out at the crowd, but her hands remained pressed on her extended belly as she sat next to Aegon, who was looking out at the court with a mild, pleased look on his face.

“He doesn’t look insane,” continued Jon, a furrow on his brow.

“They never do,” replied Sansa quietly, thinking of Cersei, Baelish, Ramsay. Her eyes narrowed on the two royals. “He looks content, though. Not… scheming.”

Jon hummed in agreement and then nudged Sansa in the side. “Look,” he hissed.

Sansa turned and both watched as a tiny slip of a woman, barely coming to Jenny’s shoulders – and Jenny wasn’t tall herself – approached the dais. She wore an unadorned dress without sigils stitched anyway, in a coarser brown fabric. She was tanned, weathered with lines on her face around her brown eyes. Her brown hair was pulled back but left loose; Sansa couldn’t tell if the woman was young or old – it was as though with each step the woman took, something shifted and changed.

“Syntyche!” greeted Jenny with a beaming smile. She reached forward and took the woman’s hands in hers. “Oh, you decided to come, how wonderful!”

“My princess,” the woman greeted with an equally beaming smile, her voice low and husky. Her unremarkable eyes turned to Duncan. “My Prince.”

Duncan chortled. “Witch.”

“Isn’t this marvellous? How kind of goodfather to host a banquet in his great-great-grandchild’s honour,” continued Jenny, glancing back at Aegon. “He’s been very pleased – having a child will make Rhaella happy.”

The woodswitch, Syntyche, frowned. “Nothing will make her happy.”

Jon and Sansa shared a nervous glance at the ominous tone of the witch’s voice.

Jenny laughed. “Come, Syn – you’re always so serious! This is a grand party, is it not? That child will be the Prince Who is Promised—”

“Maybe. Maybe not,” shrugged Syntyche. “The Gods informed me that the Prince will be born from his line – but not when.”

Duncan frowned. “Syntyche… father needs this. A promised prince against a great danger? One who will bring the light against the darkness? Father has been fielding reports of unrest in the Saltpans for moons now—”

“That war will come soon enough,” interrupted Syntyche with a dark look in her eyes. “But the Prince will not fight in it.”

“So, he is the Prince—”

Syntyche cut Jenny off sharply. “I can only see what the God’s grant me, Jenny, you know that. I cannot enforce their will onto our world. The Prince Who Was Promised will appear when he is meant to, and not a moment sooner.” She paused. “But I do not think the last of the Blackfyres is the darkness he is to fight.”

f*ck,” swore Jon with a quiet exhale, just as Sansa’s hand shot out and tightly grabbed at Jon’s arm, nails digging in.

Syntyche stiffened.

“What? What is it?” asked Jenny, turning to face the woodswitch. Her eyes were wide. “Syn – do you see something?”

Duncan, alert, cut his eyes through the room and quietly ushered his wife and her companion from the dais, barely catching his father’s eyes as he nodded to a darkened corner. The trio stepped into the shadowy corner, hidden partially by tapestries that no longer existed in Sansa and Jon’s time. The two Starks hurried after them – if the witch had a vision from the Gods, then they needed to know.

But Syntyche’s eyes were wide, and almost unseeing – in a way that the Stark’s eyes would go when warging, or when Bran would greensee – despite never losing their colour. But her eyes were duller, a flatter brown than before.

Jon moved closer.

“There is something… something coming…” murmured Syntyche.

Duncan leaned forward. “What is coming? Is it a danger to House Targaryen?”

Syntyche frowned, eyes darting around the hall. “It—”

She paused, tilting her head to the side, and then quickly spun, facing Jon and Sansa. Sansa yelped in alarm and Jon tried to stumble back, but Syntyche’s hand and sharp nails grabbed Jon’s and there was a pop, a pressure in his ears that burst, and suddenly everything was brighter and louder—

Instinctively, Jon reached out and took Sansa’s hand in his – she cried out in alarm –

Somewhere, behind them, Bran shouted their names—

Robb’s red hair bobbed through the crowd as he pushed through the ghostly figures of the court, turning them briefly into shadowy wisps as he dove for his siblings—

And then Duncan shoved Jenny behind him, a hand on his dagger as he demanded, “Who’re you?” staring directly at Jon, Sansa, and Robb once he flung himself at the two, sending Jon and Sansa careening into the wall at Jon’s left, his shoulder slamming hard against the stone.

“The Gods preserve us,” whispered Jenny, eyes wide. “Where did you come from?”

Syntyche’s mouth was pressed into a hard, thin line. “You are not supposed to be here.”

“Seven hells,” hissed Robb into Sansa and Jon’s ears. “Seven hells, they can see us!”

“And hear you,” replied Duncan dryly. His hand slowly slid away from his dagger, but he kept his wife behind, despite her curious peering around his body.

Syntyche was staring at Jon. “You…”

Jon, in return, swallowed nervously.

Duncan’s eyes darted between the two, a frown on his face. “Come. Let us speak somewhere privately.”

He turned, hand reaching up and pressing down on a tiny dragon motif at the corner of a stone. It clicked, and the stone slid inward, and then the wall went sideways, leaving a tiny gap and a secret tunnel.

Robb muttered, “Arya never found that one. She’s going to be pissed.”

Duncan ushered Jenny in first, Syntyche following her. Wordlessly, he gestured, and Jon followed the two women with Sansa clutching his arm. Robb followed, glancing back over his shoulder at Bran, who stared at them, pale-faced, ghostly now against the effervescent courtiers of the past.

The wall slid shut behind them as Duncan stepped into the tunnel.

Duncan stared at the three Starks, having stopped pacing long enough to run his hands through his messy black hair. “Let me understand this correctly: you three are currently in Summerhall in the future, but you, yourselves, are from a further future, having died and come back to life.”

Jon winced. “Erm, aye.”

They were in an antechamber that overlooked the hall, high above and closer to the glass dome. The catwalk they spotted earlier connected to the antechamber and gave them an unobstructed view of the events below while none could see them, thanks to the clever placement of stained glass, lattice, and murder holes.

“You should not be seeing the past,” muttered Syntyche, eyes on them. “It is done for you – you cannot change events.” Her frown deepened. “Or become part of them.”

The Starks looked at each other, and Sansa cleared her throat. “Aye, that… is something we are confused about as well. Our brother has greensight, and was trained under a great greenseer—”

Syntyche scoffed. “There are none alive now, nor in your time—”

Jon’s mouth tightened. “Brynden Rivers still lives.”

Syntyche’s mouth snapped shut and Duncan leaned forward, eyes wide. “My great-uncle…?”

Jon winced. “He’s… he’s more weirwood tree than man, or so our brother tells us…”

“A thousand eyes and one.” Duncan leaned back, and Jenny reached forward to rub his arm comfortingly. His eyes narrowed on them. “And he taught your brother this ability? To use it to spy on House Targaryen—”

“No!” burst Jon, shaking his head. “We’re not here… to… to spy—”

“We kind of are,” muttered Robb.

“But to learn the truth of what happens,” finished Jon, ignoring Robb.

“What happens?” echoed Jenny. “Something happens tonight?”

Sansa cut a sharp glance at Jon, who floundered.

Syntyche sighed. “These events are yet to come for us but have already happened for you.” There was something weary, broken in her. “We are already dead.”

“I’m sorry,” murmured Jon, looking away.

Duncan looked thunderstruck. “We die? Tonight?” His eyes darted toward his wife, who peered back at him, a pinched look on her face. “How?”

“We… we don’t really know,” replied Jon. “A fire, we think. But… those who survived never spoke of the Tragedy at Summerhall.”

“The Tragedy at Summerhall,” echoed Duncan, his mouth pulled into a scowl. “How many…”

“All but a handful,” answered Sansa quietly.

“But what do Starks care for this?” asked Jenny, causing everyone to look at her in surprise. She gave a tiny huff of laughter at Duncan, Jon, and Robb’s stupefied looks. “Look at the man, Duncan,” she said, gesturing at Jon. “Have you seen someone less Stark? I suppose he could be from your mother’s family, but…”

“No, you’re right,” said Jon quietly, looking down. “My mother was a Stark.”

Jenny preened. “See?”

“But my father…” Jon swallowed. Knowing Rhaegar was his father was one thing; admitting it out loud after keeping the secret was another. Robb put a hand on Jon’s shoulder. “My father was a Targaryen.”

Jenny gasped, hands pressed tight against her abdomen.

Duncan began assessing him with new eyes, lingering on his hair and long face. He brightened. “Are you ours, then? Our…” he did some mental math. “Grandson?”

Jon gave a tiny, slightly wet, laugh. “No. Gods – I wish. I think things would have been very different if I was.”

“You are the son of the one about to be born,” said Syntyche quietly, eyes locked on Jon; Duncan and Jenny whipped their heads back and forth between the two. There was something sad on her face.

Jon nodded. “My father, Rhaegar Targaryen, will be born tonight.”

Something shuttered across Duncan’s face, even as Jenny stepped forward and enveloped Jon in a tight hug. He stiffened in shock. “Oh, you’re family, Jon!”

Syntyche looked at Jenny fondly but then turned back to Jon as she released him. “But that does not explain why you are here.”

“It’s a long story,” sighed Jon, glancing at Sansa who nodded.

Syntyche pursed her lips, mouth open, but Duncan placed a hand on her shoulder. They looked ridiculous – like the Mountain next to Tyrion Lannister with their height differences – but Syntyche closed her mouth.

“We have time,” said Duncan, a look on his face that Jon didn’t recognize. There was something princely in him when he commanded, “Speak.”

And so, Jon did.

Hours later, the three Starks plus Duncan, Jenny, and Syntyche were mingling with the crowd and courtiers, now no longer in the great entrance hall but in the west wing of Summerhall – which, in the future, was entirely burnt. There were rows of long tables stretching along the length of the room with a head table at the front for the royal family. Behind the head table were floor-to-ceiling glass doors that doubled as windows, overlooking a tiered garden, slowly encased in elongating shadows made by the red mountains behind as the day progressed.

“Father’s plan was to throw a feast and follow it with a toast to Rhaella,” explained Duncan as they made their way down one of the far aisles made by the tables. He paused a few times to politely address some lords who spoke to him but continued to usher the group forward. “I don’t think that will change.”

Sansa was frowning after one of the latest lords who spoke to Duncan. “Did you notice that they don’t notice us?”

Duncan turned back. “Pardon?”

Robb nodded. “I saw that too – I think you are the only ones who can tell that we’re here. Everyone else moves around us if we walk, and their eyes slide right over us like they can’t focus on us at all.”

“Because you’re not here,” explained Syntyche. “You are a ghost of Summerhall, Robb Stark. Your brother maintains the gate between the past and present, allowing for slippage between the two – echoes, truly.”

“But then why can you see us?” asked Jon.

Syntyche gave him a tight, sharp smile. “Because it is the will of the Gods.”

The Northerners in the group shared an uneasy glance but continued to follow until they reached the head table. Duncan helped Jenny sit, two seats down on his father’s right, with Duncan taking the seat of at his right hand; opposite, on Aegon’s left, was an empty seat for his wife, then Rhaella, followed by the Hand and a few others. Syntyche sat next to Jenny, at the end of their side of the table.

“You know,” commented Sansa with a frown as her eyes skipped over familiar sigils from the Crownlands, Stormlands, Riverlands, the Vale and the Reach, “I still don’t understand why Summerhall and not King’s Landing. This is the royal family – it makes no sense to leave the protection of the capital.”

Jon frowned as well, looking over the crowd and saw what Sansa had earlier: other than Ser Duncan the Tall, the only other kingsguard in attendance was a very old, grey-haired knight who escorted a curly black-haired woman toward the head table.

Prince Duncan, who was still within earshot of them, shrugged with a wary glance at his father, who stood to greet his wife. Realizing he would be occupied, Duncan hurriedly hissed, “Father said he wanted to usher in a new era of dragons.”

“Dragons?” There was a worried look in Robb’s eyes, an echo of strain from when he and his siblings spoke of their time in the future and Daenerys arrived in the North with hers.

Sansa remained skeptical. “Does he have dragon eggs? They’re near impossible to find in our time.”

Duncan shrugged again and Aegon helped Betha sit, turning to address the room. Lords, ladies, Sers, and other courtiers either found their spots at the long tables or remained standing at the fringes, along the walls. There were fewer knights and swords in the room than Jon had expected, given the royal family in attendance, and something uneasy began to stir in his stomach.

“My Lords, my Ladies, Sers, and other esteemed guests – thank you for joining us for this momentous occasion,” began Aegon genially, his voice carrying. There was the slightest tension around his eyes, as although the court had settled, there was something hovering in the air.

Sansa leaned over to Jon and Robb to whisper while keeping her eyes on the king, “Aegon V’s reforms were always pro-small folk, given his experiences in travelling with Ser Duncan. It meant that the nobility did not like his decisions much.”

“And the nobility is what keeps him in power,” murmured back Robb, blue eyes keenly assessing the crowd anew.

“My great-grandchild will soon be born, furthering the Targaryen legacy for another generation,” continued Aegon. “We are here for their arrival – a new dragon in the world – and to reaffirm the Targaryen family’s strength. There is a darkness on the horizon—”

The crowd began to murmur lowly, shifting in unease.

“—and we must be ready to stand and meet it,” finished Aegon. “However, between now and then, please – eat, drink, be merry. The entertainment will commence after the feast.”

Sansa’s eyes narrowed.

“Was it just me, or…” Robb trailed off.

“No, it was not just you,” answered Jon, voice low.

Servants began leading out food for the many courses they were about to eat, and talk resumed in the room. Forks and knives scraped across plates; there was a gentle tinkle and clink of dishes and goblets being moved as food and drink were consumed; there was music and the lull of voices as ambient noise.

“I’m going to go read the room,” muttered Robb, leaving Sansa and Jon behind at the head table. He ducked and wove around servants carrying heavy, food-laden trays and empty ones, making his way slowly down one aisle, closest to the wall, and tilted his head in the direction of the court.

Most of the conversation was inane, but here and there, he received tiny glimpses of worry or frustration, people speaking in hushed tones about Targaryen madness or unflattering terms toward Aegon while speaking positively about Jaehaerys and Aerys. Robb shuddered.

“Are we able to get up and walk around then?” asked a lord, glancing up at the end of the first long table when Robb was about to turn and make his way up the opposite side.

Robb froze, eyes darting toward the man – blond-haired, purple eyes. A Dayne.

The man was looking directly at Robb, a frown on his face even as he looked around the room. His frown deepened. “Why are you standing?”

“My lord, who are you speaking to?” asked the woman at his side, placing a hand over his.

Robb looked at her, as did the Dayne. The Dayne blinked, eyes jerking back to Robb.

“I’m not really here,” Robb found himself saying with a tiny shrug.

The Dayne’s head turned slowly to the dais, where Jon and Sansa, still standing, clustered together near Syntyche; but it was Duncan and Jenny who kept glancing at them – while everyone else ignored them. The Dayne then turned back to Robb and gave him a slow nod before turning back to his meal and wife.

“Nothing, sweetling,” he murmured, back stiff as Robb rounded the table and continued walking.

But now that the man had interacted with him, Robb could feel other eyes on his back; he slowed his walk and took in those who were glancing at him, periodically, their grips tightening on their knives and forks as he neared.

Robb’s own eyes dipped to look at their colours and sigils, the names coming to him from a distant place, with Luwin’s voice in his ear: the thick, curly black hair and ravens of the Blackwoods, the purple and argent sword of the Daynes, a black portcullis grill over sand for Yronwood, the silver scythe on a black field from the Iron Islands of House Harlaw, the runes of House Royce, and even the red apple on gold for the Fossoways.

Their eyes lingered and followed Robb around the room, making him hold his breath and take care in where and how he approached the tables, who he paused and listened to; it only took him a few moments to realize… They were houses descended from the First Men.

There weren’t many at the Summerhall court, particularly the Northern houses, but there were enough that between them and the Targaryens – Robb shivered – there was a sense of something hovering in the air, something… magical. Something otherworldly, beyond their ghostly attendance.

Robb’s unease grew and he hurried back to Jon and Sansa, to tell them what he discovered, just as desserts were served and the meal ended. “There’s something else going on here,” he hissed, blue eyes darting around the hall. “Those with First Men ancestry can see us; most of the others here are unhappy about the king’s policies and are supporters of his son.”

Sansa’s eyes narrowed in thought, and Jon opened his mouth to speak but the king stood, and he snapped his mouth shut instead.

“Now that the meal has concluded, let us enjoy some music and dance,” cried Aegon, extending a hand to his wife. Betha smiled and rose, taking his hand. They were the first to make their way from the head table to the tiny space between the lengthy tables – split two and two, with a wider central aisle – and began to dance, the only people until Duncan and Jenny joined them, and then a few others.

As the court stood from their tables, servants rushed to quickly dismantle them and pile them toward the back, leaving the dancing space larger. Then, more joined in the line for the steps of a vaguely familiar routine that Robb didn’t remember much of, until the king and queen returned to their head table, a laughing Duncan and Jenny on their heels.

“Ah, dear sister! Are you not dancing?” called Duncan to another blonde at the table, far opposite to where the Stark stood, making them crane their heads in that direction.

The blonde woman rolled her eyes and the black-haired man at her side smirked. “Duncan, do shut up.”

When Duncan turned his eyes to the man beside her, he grinned, “Don’t look at me, goodbrother. What Rhaelle wants, she gets.”

Sansa gasped, hand reaching out and grabbing Jon’s arm. He hissed. “Rhaelle Baratheon, Robert’s grandmother!”

“And others,” muttered Robb. “I counted a few other Targaryens in attendance –”

“My cousins,” interjected Duncan smoothly, coming near them. “Vaella, and Maegor. Vaella’s mother is around here, somewhere, too…”

Jon’s eyes frantically darted around the room even as Sansa muttered, “Prince Duncan – surely – so many Targaryens in one place – surely that’s not a good idea…?”

“My brother and sister remain in King’s Landing, with their son Aerys,” explained Duncan slowly, carefully. He eyed the Starks. “Even if this… ‘tragedy’ of Summerhall takes place, the Targaryen line is secure. My aunts Daella and Rhea still live – although married into other houses with children – and Rhaelle has a son with her Ormund—”

“That’s not the same,” muttered Robb. “We are six siblings in total, and we all died—numbers won’t secure a dynasty.”

Duncan paused.

“Everyone who must be here is here,” interrupted a deeper, smoother voice, causing the group to turn.

Aegon V stood behind his son; his hands gently clasped behind his back where Ser Duncan the Tall lingered, eyes watchful. But the king only looked at Jon. “Young Jon Snow – please. Walk with me.”

Jon shared a glance with Robb and Sansa but pulled away from the group to walk at his great-great-grandfather’s side. The king moved toward the back glass doors, stepping out of the warm, overheated hall with the dancers, lights, and sweating bodies. The air outside Summerhall was cool and fresh and Jon took a deep breath, scenting moss, and leaf decay.

They were silent as they strolled along the terrace, parallel a balustrade. Aegon moved slowly, carefully, with all the time in the world as the revellers behind laughed and japed alongside musicians and schemed and plotted just as easily. Duncan was a looming, silent presence behind them, but Jon did not feel discomforted by the Lord Commander.

Finally, Aegon asked, “Did you know, when I was younger, I had dragondreams?”

Jon shook his head. “No, Your Grace.”

Aegon peered at Jon. Then, Aegon hummed thoughtfully and continued. “Yes, there was once a time in my life that I had seen things that had yet to happen or things that already happened. Things that would never happen.”

“Never happen?” echoed Jon, eyebrows meeting as he frowned. Unease crept up his spine.

“Like this,” elaborated Aegon quietly. “For many years, I dreamed of Summerhall. Of fire, dragons. Of you, Jon. My grandchild—” he quirked his lips at him. “Several generations great, of course.”

Jon blinked back in shock.

Aegon turned back to walk, Jon trailing alongside him. “But in my dreams, you never came. You were supposed to, I think. But you never did. Not until now, this time.”

“What… what happened in the other dreams when I didn’t arrive?” asked Jon, heart thundering as fear coursed through him.

“Darkness, Jon. An entire world covered with darkness and ice, lorded over by men with white skin and blue eyes,” murmured Aegon, eyes distant as he stopped and stared out toward the marshes. “A world dominated by the dead, where nothing living existed.”

Jon inhaled sharply. His eyes were wide.

“I would see you, and your siblings, at Winterfell,” continued Aegon. “I’d see you fight, with… with others I do not recognize but think I do – I see their reflections, hints of them in people in King’s Landing.”

“Then you see us lose,” muttered Jon bitterly. His hands clenched at his sides; eyes dark as they peered toward the marshes as well.

Aegon paused. “I do,” he eventually said. “And that darkness spills across Westeros to Essos and beyond.”

Jon let a loud exhale nearly fold him in two as the words were delivered like a punch to his gut. Gods, we failed that badly… he thought, a tight grimace on his face. That last stand at Winterfell had truly been the last of humanity if everyone else fell.

A gentle, comforting hand, a weight of commiseration, landed on Jon’s shoulder. His head jerked up and he stared at Aegon. There was understanding and sympathy in the man’s eyes.

“You are here now, Jon. That is something different, and—” the man smiled, “I think the sign we needed.”

“Sign?”

Aegon turned away but left his hand. “For so long, I have relived this evening. Wondered if it was the right decision to make.”

Jon narrowed his eyes. What decision?

As if sensing the question, Aegon looked at him, that gentle smile still on his face. “The only decision that can be made, Jon, is the one I make tonight. And I hope you can understand it. Because…”

Something flickered in Aegon’s eyes – sadness, weariness, determination, guilt, anger – and his hand left Jon’s shoulder.

“Because this?” he gestured back at the crowd through the glass windows. “This is all for you, my child, my grandson.”

Aegon reached forward and cupped Jon’s face, the same eyes peering into Jon’s as he murmured, “Forgive me, Jon, for the burden I am placing on you. But you are the only one who can bear it.”

“What—”

Aegon pressed a gentle kiss of benediction and affection on Jon’s forehead and Jon’s eyes teared up. Why did this feel like a goodbye and promise all at once? Jon blinked furiously as Aegon’s features swam, unshed tears in his eyes. He gave a startled, bubbled laugh at the thought of Jon Snow crying over a Targaryen – a dead one at that – and furrowed his brow, eyes darting all over Aegon’s face.

“Always remember, Jon,” murmured Aegon against his forehead, lips brushing the skin there. “You are just as much a dragon as you are a wolf. You are ice and fire, and within both, you can find balance.”

Aegon drew back, his smile now sad. His hands dropped from Jon’s cheeks, only to rise to his own head and the golden circlet that rested against his forehead and under his hair. It was slender, simple – very different from Robb’s iron and metal inlay crown of winter with spikes – and unadorned, free of jewels and pretense. It suited Aegon V, Viserys II whom Bran had spun a tale of in Braavos, and that of Viserys’ older brother Aegon III, the gloomy and dour Targaryen king. Jon was beginning to sense a pattern, here.

The crown glittered in the pale moonlight and reflected the light coming from the chandeliers and sconces inside the hall. On the inside rim of the circlet, High Valyrian words ran, lightly etched so much so that they were hard to read.

Aegon caught his gaze and murmured, “Nyke jāhor jurnegon nykeā ñuhoso, nykeā nyke jāhor mazverdagon mēre. I will find a way, or I will make one.”

Jon’s eyes tightly closed. It felt like his throat was swollen and thick, and his nose was stuffed.

Aegon reached out and put the circlet in Jon’s hand. “Keep this safe, Jon. It is yours, by right, anyway.”

Jon’s eyes popped open. “Your Grace—”

“For you, Jon,” said Aegon, now crownless, as he stepped back and away. Ser Duncan moved forward, shadowing his friend and king. There was something urgent in the king’s manners now. “This has all been for you, Jon.”

He strode away, leaving Jon blinking after him. After a shocked moment, Jon sprung into action, dashing across the terrace and back into the wing. A large pyre had been placed in the center of the room, and several red-robed pyromancers from King’s Landing were moving around the large wooden teepee while the few guards Jon, Robb, and Sansa had previously spotted bordered the edges of the room, eyes hard or uneasy.

Jon sidled up to his siblings. Sansa had her arms wrapped tightly around herself, staring pale-faced at the pyre and Robb’s lips were pursed in a heavy, unhappy look that was eerily like Ned Stark’s.

Aegon had strode toward his wife, bestowing a gentle kiss on her knuckles as he took her hand. They stepped forward toward the pyre, overseeing as Ser Duncan helped bring individual, small gold-gilded chests to line up in front of the pyre, facing the crowd.

The pyromancers each chose a chest – seven men for seven chests – and tipped the lids back to reveal something oblong on a velvet cushion.

“Are those…?” Robb trailed off, eyes wide.

“Aye,” replied Jon quietly. “Dragon eggs.”

Each was different in colour and texture that they could see from where they stood: one was the purest, deepest black; another white with red veins; another a shimmering, turquoise blue with gold flecks; a smoky, stormy grey with gold veins; sunny yellow with an under a sheen of purple; an ombre of cream to light brown and finally, a dark brown; and finally, soft green with spotted and speckled gold and brown. The eggs were placed around the base of the pyre, carefully designated locations of cardinal points and directions, of Andal worship, or the points of a star. Sansa slowly reached out and gripped Robb’s hand, squeezing it tightly, eyes locked on the scene.

One pyromancer took a torch to the wood and it lit with a quick and loud whoosh, flames billowing bright and yellowy-orange. The dragon eggs were obscured by the flames and the plumes of smoke that rose and danced in the breezeless room.

“My friends,” called Aegon. “Thank you for your attendance. Let us celebrate the birth of new Targaryen blood – the continuation of our line!” His eyes skipped over to Jon. “For the best of us to come.”

Jon frowned, his uneasiness roaring back. At his side, Robb shifted; instinct in them both warred against common sense. Something was happening. About to happen. And, then, several things happened at once:

The flames on the pyre grew stronger, the ceiling obscured by thick, grey smoke and the crowd murmured and back away, pressing against the guards and sides of the room. It took the shape of a dragon extending its wings and someone screamed.

Rhaella cried out, bending over as liquid dribbled down her legs and pooled at her feet as her water broke. Ser Duncan went to her side, a calm, resigned expression on his face.

Aegon glanced back at Jon, and despite being too far to be heard – especially over the crackle of the flames, the voices of the court – Jon heard him say, perfectly clear as though he was beside him: “A life for a life, Jon,” and then he and his wife stepped into the pyre, their forms disappearing into the flames.

What was a strong bonfire turned into a raging inferno, the flames reaching the ceiling and staining it black.

Prince Duncan, at Jon and Robb’s side, paled and hollered, “FATHER!

The screams reached fever pitch and bodies began crushing one another in their race to escape, pounding on the doors or going to the back glass wall.

“No, wait—!” cried Jon, turning as the first knight broke the window.

Others copied them, and as people poured onto the terrace, the fresh air swept into the room and fed the flames. A pyromancer was caught in the surge, his screams swallowed quickly.

Flames licked across the top of the ceiling, along wooden bannisters and crept across the tables that were once laden with food and drink, every single inch it took feeding the fire and stoking it to greater heights. Something, somewhere, creaked and groaned.

“This is a bloody stone castle!” complained Robb, looking around. “It shouldn’t burn!”

“Even stone can burn,” replied Sansa, thinking of Winterfell, even as she clutched at Robb’s side. “Everything else inside of it is fuel.”

Rhaella was gone; Ser Duncan had carried her out through the broken glass, but that path was now blocked as a beam fell from above and blocked the escape route. People turned to the doors, instead.

Prince Duncan was fighting against the crowd, trying to get to the overwhelmed pyre but the old knight in armour and a white cloak held him back. “My Prince, you mustn’t!”

“Father!” screamed Duncan, tear streaks down his cheeks, ignoring the kingsguard. “FATHER!”

“Duncan!” cried Jenny, jostled by the crowd. It tore her from near the Starks and Syntyche’s side, causing the woodswitch to cry out in dismay as her form was swallowed.

“Jenny!” Duncan threw himself away from the kingsguard and into the crowd, trying to find his wife.

Jon’s eyes met Syntyche’s. There was resignation there.

Someone managed to break open the door, but all it did was feed the fire as more air swept into the room. People were coughing, stumbling, falling where they once stood as they tried to navigate their way out of the wing and somewhere safe.

“Syn!”

Duncan pushed through the crowd, a pale Jenny in his arms. They were streaked with soot and sweat, and his blue-purple eyes were wide and wild. The fire crept closer to them as a burning tapestry fluttered to the floor, catching the edge of a tablecloth.

There was something flat in Duncan’s eyes when he turned to the Starks. His lips trembled. “Jon.”

“Duncan…” Jon trailed off.

“Do what you must, Jon,” said Duncan. He paused to cough, clutching Jenny tightly. She did not rouse, her chest barely moving. “You are the Prince Who Was Promised, and father gave his life for you to face your destiny.”

“Duncan, no, I—”

Duncan coughed again. He tried to smile, but it was a grimace. “Ensure our deaths are not in vain.”

“Prince Duncan,” murmured Sansa, with teary eyes.

He shook his dark head. “Go!”

The three did not, and his eyes darkened. Flames licked closer to them.

GO!” he shouted, stumbling as he coughed and fell to his knees, curling protectively around Jenny. Syntyche placed a hand on his shoulder as she stood by his side.

Jon tugged at Sansa’s hand and the three raced through the wing, dodging tables and passing harmlessly through flames that didn’t touch them, pillars of smoke that didn’t cause them to cough. Something loudly cracked as they reached the broken doors of the wing. They paused, glancing back.Duncan, Jenny, and Syntyche's forms were swallowed by a wave of flame, and Jon felt his heart clenched for his great-great-uncle and his wife.

“The eggs!” cried Robb. “The dragon eggs, can you see them?”

Jon straightened, craning his head and neck.

The floor underneath the pyre had collapsed, despite being stone, into a sinkhole. Some wood littered the hall floor, but most had gone through the hole, including the eggs. Flames eagerly spread through the gap made, racing through new, fresh hallways and rooms. There were caverns and passages underneath – maybe servant’s quarters or the dungeons – and the fire eagerly swallowed those as it continued to burn.

Jon shook his head, turning back. “Nothing.”

“We should go!” cried Sansa, eyes wide. She was trembling.

“Back to Bran!”

They turned and ran, passing a few gasping servants and one or two stragglers, collapsing against a wall as smoke overwhelmed them. Sansa had tears on her cheeks, eyes pained as she took on those who would die at Summerhall, knowing they could not help them.

They arrived back at the great hall, in the entrance, and saw Bran get to his feet as they approached. He had been sitting on the edge of the raised dais there. His eyes were wide when he saw them.

“What happened…?” he asked, eyes flickering at the red glow behind them, the tendrils of smoke creeping across the roof.

“Not now!” shouted Jon, lunging for his younger brother. “Get us out of here!”

Bran nodded. As soon as they all were touching Bran’s skin, somewhere, the ground around them lurched up and sideways, vertigo sending them spinning as the hall went dark, smoke suddenly filling their lungs and burning their throats.

Then Sansa opened her eyes and skidded back as she crab-walked away from the fire Arya had been tending until her back hit the dais behind them.

Robb, kneeling before Bran, lurched sideways and retched.

Arya was staring at them, frozen where she crouched. “Seven hells, Bran, what did you do?”

Rickon nodded, adding, “You’ve been sitting there for hours. It’s been so boring.”

“Hours?” rasped Robb, wiping the back of his hand against his mouth. Rickon wordlessly handed him a wineskin that Robb gratefully took.

“It’s near the hour of the bat,” agreed Arya, eyes dark and worried. She focused on Robb, then turned to Sansa, who sat in the shadows, trembling with her arms wrapped around her.

“Jon.”

All eyes swung to Rickon, but he was staring at something in Jon’s lap.

“What’s that you’ve got in your hands?”

Eyes followed Rickon’s, and Jon, blinking, flexed his hand against the cool metal. He stared down, mouth open, and the circlet Aegon had handed him on the terrace, smooth to the touch and free of soot from the fire.

The Valyrian inscription caught against the weak light from Arya’s fire.

I will find a way, or I will make one.

TBC...

Notes:

The High Valyrian inscribed on Aegon's circlet was translated using an English-to-Valyrian online generator, so it's probably shoddy. Not a direct translation, but the best we can do.

Chapter 7: VII

Summary:

In which Arya Stark channels Indiana Jones, but fails to say "This belongs in a museum!" Also, the effects of Robb, Jon, and Sansa being at Summerhall become (vaguely) known to them. (In other words: they done goofed.)

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

VII:

Memories of Tomorrow - writing_as_tracey (7)

Robb offered to carefully bundle Aegon’s crown next to his iron-spiked crown of winter, wrapped and hidden at the bottom of Robb’s travel satchel. Jon spent a long, long moment staring at the two crowns resting side by side, surrounded by Sansa and Catelyn’s Myrish silk scarves, at the way that the gold from Aegon’s crown caught the feeble light they had in Summerhall’s chambers, or the way the cold iron of Robb’s crown complemented Aegon’s so well.

It was like the two crowns were meant to be side by side.

But Jon carefully placed silks to cover the two crowns, and then turned the flap to Robb’s satchel down and latched it, turning to face the others. His hands shook the tiniest at the thought of them somehow being able to reach through time and space for Aegon to give his crown to his great-great-grandson.

Arya eyed him warily. “Alright, Jon?”

He nodded.

“Then… we are in accord of what to do next?” asked Robb after a minute’s hesitation, looking at the Stark siblings. Arya was practically bouncing on her feet, Rickon a hair behind her; both Bran and Sansa seemed pensive, but Jon nodded. “Well, then…”

The plan was simple and straightforward, for all that there were going to be several things happening at once: Arya and Rickon – the smallest and lightest of them all – were to excavate the hole in the west wing’s great hall, where Aegon had conducted the bonfire and the floor had collapsed. They were to find the dragon eggs, if at all, and then make their way through Summerhall’s underbelly back to the main great hall where they were still sleeping, cataloguing secret passages and the damage to the foundation of the once-great castle.

Robb and Jon would make their way toward the west wing, and with Bran’s guidance, begin to clear the remains of those who were unfortunate and did not make it out of Summerhall in time. Those closest to the fire were nothing but ash – those who had been too close to the bonfire – but others who died of smoke inhalation in the corridors would have remnants and Bran would figure out who they were so that they could be returned to their families.

Sansa, for the most, had very little to do; yet, she had perhaps the hardest task of all: practice her skinchanging. Not only was Sansa a capable warg – although she had the least amount of practice in comparison to the other Starks – she had inadvertently slipped into birds before when in King’s Landing and the Eyrie. While Bran and Arya remained the most capable skinchangers of the group, Sansa was to practice with the birds around Summerhall and perform scouting duties outside the palace.

Robb and Jon left Bran in the corridor with the first collection of bones, following Arya and Rickon instead to the hall. Both looked around with curiosity, their Stark faces long and without much emotion as they took in the soot stains, the haphazard placement of twisted or rotted wood and iron from melted swords.

“You were here when it happened?” Rickon finally asked, while Arya’s gaze lingered on the hole before them.

Robb nodded, back determinedly at the spot where he had last seen Duncan.

Jon, however, had his eyes glued to the spot. Nothing remained of his great-uncle, of course; the fire had swallowed him and Jenny whole. All he had were memories, less than twelve hours’ worth. Turning to Rickon, he said, “It all happened very quickly.”

“I wonder what he was thinking,” mused aloud Arya, carefully stepping her way across stone until she reached the edge of the hole. Her body leaned over it, peering into the gaping darkness below. “Don’t Targaryens usually light themselves on fire to birth dragons?”

“Not usually,” argued Jon feebly, just as Robb snorted and said, “Absolutely. Aerion Brightflame comes to mind.”

Jon grimaced. Perhaps there was something of Targaryen madness that went hand in hand with the flames, then; Daenerys had done the same, stepping into flame and sacrificing the woman who killed her Dothraki husband and child and birthed three dragons for the three lives the flames took. Had Aegon wanted to do the same?

The thought made Jon sick, and he turned from his siblings, blinding reaching forward and finding purchase on what was probably the melted remains of a Targaryen guard’s army and chandelier, merged. If Jon followed that thought through – if Aegon had really done the same as Aerion and Dany – he had not only killed himself, but his wife, and his two Targaryen cousins, and Duncan and Jenny, as well as everyone else, just to birth the seven dragon eggs.

He had all but implied he knew of the Long Night – outright stated it at other points – so he knew that dragons were a key to defeating the undead. But seven? Even if all his cousins could skinchange, and not just warg, there would still be a dragon left over and it was unheard of for a dragonrider of old to be bonded to two. What had Aegon thought to accomplish?

“Snow,” called Robb, causing Jon to turn. Robb, Arya, and Rickon had been staring at him, making him realize they had called his name several times. With Jon’s eyes on them, Robb continued, wariness in his voice. “Arya’s ready to go down. We need your help.”

Arya had rope coiled around her waist, looped under and around her legs as a seat, and behind her back for support. She wore her trousers and a tunic tucked into the waist, as well as high boots and carried Bran’s satchel, emptied of her weirwood sapling (as it was the largest of the ones they brought).

Jon pinched his mouth. “Are you sure this is safe?”

“No less dangerous than what I got up to as a Faceless Man,” she shrugged in response. “I used to scale buildings all the time without a rope.”

Jon’s pinched look turned into a scowl at the reminder of her other life, but he lined up behind Robb, who was behind Rickon, and then carefully lowered the rope, taut with Arya’s weight as she disappeared inch by inch into the darkness.

Only moments after she fully descended did she call back, “It’s a giant mess down here! There are beams of wood poking out like a death trap!”

“Should we pull you back up?” called Robb, grunting a little as Arya did something below, causing the rope to pull and the three of them to dig their heels in.

“What the hell are you doing?!” cried Rickon. For all that he was only thirteen – fourteen in a few weeks – he was still skinny with hints of the broadness he would inherit. He stumbled forward a few feet.

“Swinging!” called back Arya, her voice tiny. “Loose the rope!”

“What!” shouted Robb in alarm, but the rope moved across the opening, far to the right, and the three stumbled after it with Rickon almost pitching headfirst into the pit.

Jon launched forward and caught him, but the rope was left in only Robb’s hands, and he didn’t have the strength. The rope cut across his palms, and he hissed at the rope burn but caught the tail end of it before the rope disappeared like a fast, slithering snake, over the edge of the pit.

Jon cried in alarm and fell to his knees, shouting, “ARYA!”

There was a moment of silence, all three fearing the worst, when she piped back, distant and coughing, “I’m fine! Landed perfectly fine!”

Robb and Jon shared a look of relief, as the original two eldest. Robb tightened his grip and Jon and Rickon hurried to grab what they could but didn't pull Arya up. It was Rickon who called back, “What do you see?”

“Bugger all,” replied Arya instantly. “Give me a mo’ to find something to use as a torch.”

“Is that safe?” muttered Robb to Jon.

He shrugged. “It’s been thirty years…”

Robb frowned, turning back to the pit warily. The three peered over into the darkness, where, far to their right along the edge they were at, an eventual flickering orange orb caught their attention. Then another, and another joined it until the three of them could peer down into the hole and see the broken, crisscrossing remnants of wooden beams, dripping and hardened iron that glued the broken pieces together in a dangerous pile of sharp angles and pikes.

Arya stood off to the side, only her pale face obvious with how far down she was. “I think this was the dungeons!”

“Never mind that,” called back Robb. “What about the eggs? And the chests?”

“I’m not a bloody hound,” called back Arya, voice miffed. “I said give me a moment, so give me a bloody moment, Robb!”

Robb and Jon shared a look again, while Rickon snickered.

“I think she’s upset at me,” muttered Robb, eyes wide.

“You reckon?” replied Jon, dryly.

Rickon longingly looked at the pit. “I wish I was down there.”

Robb and Jon both wore panicked looks, Robb hastily saying, “Oh, Gods, no, the both of you? No. No, no, no, no…”

“Just be safe, Arya,” called Jon, leaning a bit further over, watching a faint, pale face move in and out of the shadows. “And keep speaking to us!”

Arya grumbled to herself as she wove through the debris left behind after the fire. Thick beams of wood were toppled this way or that, causing her to vault over them, like her training in the House of Black and White; other times, she would grip the wood and swing between gaps, feet first.

She prowled around the pitched pile first, lighting torches and wrinkling her nose at the lingering scent of decay, rotten wood, and sulphur. But whatever powder or oils used to light the bonfire from decades ago had long fizzled out – just like everything else in Summerhall, all that remained was a faint, sensory memory of what once was.

She spotted the remains of a chest on her third turn of the pit, hidden underneath what could have been a table. She shifted it out of the way, grunting, and knelt.

The velvet from the inside had moulted and faded, covering in ash and dust, and eaten by moths, but the gold jewels inlaid on the lid remained, as well as the golden latches. While they had access to the Targaryen bank account in Braavos, it certainly wouldn’t help to have more disposable forms of currency, so Arya pried the jewels out with a small knife she kept on herself and popped them into her pocket.

“Find anything?” shouted Robb, his voice strained and thin.

“I’m gonna find you a tomb to stick you in if you ask that again,” she muttered, but then pitched her voice loudly to her siblings, “I found one of the chests!”

So, the dragon eggs should be nearby, she finished with a thought, glancing around. Jon, Sansa, and Robb had described the room in as much detail as they could the previous day, trying to keep emotion from their voices. They had been badly affected by the deaths of Aegon V and Duncan, in particular, and it had taken them a few tries to cover everything they felt was important. Bran refused to show them the tragedy again, saying that that point in time was now locked from them ever visiting again.

But because of their retelling, Arya knew that the eggs had been placed around the entire bonfire, on the furthermost points like the Star of the Seven. When the floor collapsed, the eggs could have been buried under the giant pile, or skidded further away, into the darker recesses of the dungeons.

With her lips pursed, Arya climbed over a diagonally laying beam and then slid down, away from the torches and closer to the thick stone wall. The dungeons had a tall ceiling – nearly the equal height of the original hall above it, creating a drop from the floor above to the floor above of more than forty feet – and there were rooms with warped doors as well as sooty iron bars that hid pockets of darkness, and Arya was sure, bones.

She stumbled upon an egg by accident.

She stepped carefully, heel to toe, and as her boot came down there was a terribly loud crunch in the stillness of the pit.

She froze, eyes darting down as she carefully peeled her boot back, moving it to the side instead. There, revealed as she moved, were pieces of crushed, broken dragon shell in sunny yellow.

Arya’s eyes traced the shell, from the tiny particles that were more dust to the larger ones that were like puzzle pieces until she found an intact half of the egg. She gently moved it toward a patch of torchlight with her feet, eyes wide at the faint purple sheen the yellow made when the shell slid and rocked.

Inside the whole half of the shell, were tiny, delicate bones.

Something in Arya’s chest clenched in despair.

“I—” she croaked, blinking rapidly. She tried again, shouting, “I found something.”

“What?” called back Jon.

“A broken shell.” She paused. “The dragon didn’t survive.”

There was silence from above her.

Finally, Robb spoke. “Thank you for telling us, Arya.”

“I’ll – I’ll keep looking,” she replied, determination filling her. She did so, knowing now where to potentially look; she found another crushed egg, an ombre cream to brown one with the dragon bones scattered along with the shell to the point that Arya wasn’t sure if they were dragon bones or rat bones, and then another brown and green egg with the dragon bones a foot away from where the egg cracked open like the dragon had tried to crawl its way free.

She almost missed the pure black shell, except it glinted off the torch she plucked from the wall to dig in some of the wooden pile’s recesses. The shell had been crushed entirely under the weight of the woodpile and was nothing but tiny, thin speckles of starlight. Any bones had been ground to dust or burned up with the fire raging above it. The dragon had been too young, too fresh, to survive.

Arya found two other broken chests as well, bejewelled and gold-flaked, and solemnly pilfered the goods. She had grown a collection of rubies and emeralds and sapphires, but a part of her wanted to give Jon a dragon instead of tokens of Targaryen wealth.

It was on her tenth sweep of the pile when she finally gave up, a deep sigh of regret. She looked idly at the length of rope, still hanging and gently swaying; she heard the soft murmur of Rickon and Robb – Jon, she assumed, had long disappeared to deal with the bodies they had seen in the hallways and to compose himself –; and saw the floating dust motes in the pale beams of sunlight that came through the hole above her and mingled with the torches she had lit.

The pile was exhausted; she had moved what she could, combed the floor as best as she could, and there was nothing but broken dragon eggs. Jon would not find Aegon’s legacy of reborn dragons here.

Was that even what he meant? She wondered, biting her lip as she moved away from the pile and toward the rooms lining the sides, as well as the barred dungeons. Aegon wanted to bring dragons back into the world – what if it wasn’t literal but metaphorical?

Without a key, the dungeons weren’t available, so she moved to the opposite wall and yanked hard on the first warped door. Its hinges squeaked loudly, and she cringed.

“All well?” shouted Rickon.

“All well!” she shouted back in confirmation.

But she found a garderobe, its scent pungent, so she pushed the door shut again, braced against the wood as the hinges loudly protested. Her foot slipped as the door finally gave away, and she fell to the ground, stunned.

Her chin slapped hard against the rock, and she was dazed for a single moment, blinking in surprise. Arya groaned, squeezing her eyes shut. She wasn’t going to tell anyone what had happened. How embarrassing!

With a sigh, she pushed herself up on her hands and then knees, crouching as she rubbed at her chin, which smarted. She turned, ready to stand when she paused. Blinked.

“Holy sh*t,” she muttered, creeping forward. She reached a shaking hand out, gently rolling the turquoise blue dragon egg toward her. It wobbled, due to its oblong shape, but it was intact, glittering with golden flakes.

Holy sh*t!” she repeated excitedly.

She scooped it up and placed it in the satchel, standing up quickly and eyes darting around with fervour. If one had survived – maybe the missing others had, too? By rolling further afield?

Purpose drove Arya and she loped to another point, branching out and skimming along the floor in a crouch with her torch. The smoky grey egg she only spotted when her torchlight glinted off the golden veins that rain like lightning across its surface; it had been partially hidden under a scraggly nest of some kind, meters from where the woodpile had ended and down the hall.

The white egg, the one that reminded her of Ghost, was found by pure chance. She had spent another thirty minutes trying to find it, giving up and returning to her rope. And there it was: almost glowing preternaturally in a sunbeam. It had been hours since Arya began her search, and that spot had originally been encased in shadow when she first landed in the pit. It was like the egg had waited for the right moment to show itself.

Like with the others, Arya gently placed it in the satchel. She carefully looped herself back in the rope, tugging on it and calling, “Lift me up!” to Rickon, Robb, and Jon.

“Robb and Jon aren’t here,” called back Rickon, sticking his head over the edge, his red hair tousled. “Stay there! I’ll go get them.”

“Where else am I supposed to go?” muttered Arya in response, rolling her eyes. Honestly, Rickon was sometimes just so obvious.

Moments later, the rope began to ascend, and then Jon and Robb both hauled Arya up from under the armpits – which was a bit embarrassing, she was a woman grown and assassin, really! – and then she was standing before them, Sansa, and Bran behind, eyes curious.

She began her descent early morning, and the sun was on the other side of the mountains now. She had been gone the entire day, and her stomach growled, loudly, making itself known. Both Robb and Jon had dirt across their faces and solemn looks from helping to gather the bones; Sansa looked worn and wane from her skinchanging; and Bran looked tired from using his greensight, which was more than he normally did. Rickon looked utterly bored, having spent all day watching a pit and nothing else.

But all were looking at her.

“Well?” asked Robb, breathlessly. “Did you find anything?”

Wordlessly, Arya swung the satchel to her front and opened the flap. Robb, Jon, Sansa, Bran, and Rickon leaned forward, peering into the satchel opening.

Rickon’s breath hitched.

Sansa stuttered, “Are those – is that—”

Bran looked triumphant, and Jon was the one who murmured, blinking rapidly, “Aye. Aegon’s dragon eggs.”

They didn’t linger at Summerhall after that. Within a sennight, they had packed their horses, Aegon’s crown, and the dragon eggs, and had decided on their next location.

There was nothing left for them to discover at Summerhall; Jon learned what happened, how Aegon’s decisions left a gaping hole for a power vacuum taken over by his surviving children and then grandchildren, who made bad decision after bad decision. Maybe Jon would’ve liked to see Rhaegar at Summerhall, but if he did, he never said.

Instead, he let the others squabble about their next destination until Bran won by cleverly arguing for Oldtown.

It was going to be a hell of a ride – Robb estimated it would take close to three moons, at best; Sansa added that stopping at the holdfasts along the way would add time they could ill afford.

But while none of the Starks complained about camping under the stars – and Robb certainly thought Sansa would have, had he not known what she had gone through in the other timeline – by the time the new moon had come and Rickon had his nameday (simultaneously a year old and fourteen) – the Starks were grumpy, snappish, and soaked from a sudden downpour.

“I’ve had it!” declared Robb, a pout on his face. “We need to stop somewhere! With a bed! And a fire.”

“I have saddle sores,” agreed Sansa with a grumble.

“Oh, shut up,” muttered Bran, strapped into his saddle, and who constantly had saddle sores from the design.

“Ashford or push on to Cider Hall?” asked Jon, bringing his horse up from the rear to step alongside Arya and Robb, who took the front.

Robb and Sansa shared a look. “I’d suggest Ashford,” began Sansa slowly, “But…”

“Cider Hall,” finished Robb, definitively. He still looked hesitant, though. “They’re descendants of the First Men. There were Cider Hall Fossoways at Summerhall, and they saw us.”

“While I am all for a featherbed,” broke in Arya mulishly, “How exactly are we going to get through the gate? We know we’re Starks, but no one is going to believe us.”

“Father gave us a few sealed letters of explanation and introduction,” answered Sansa. “It has his signature and seal. We can’t falsify that.”

“Worse case, we’ll stay at an inn by doubling back to Ashford,” added Jon. “We’ve enough coin, loathe I am to spend any of it.”

The group consented, although reluctantly, and then they were off to Cider Hall.

They reached the castle in good time, despite the heavy downpour that hampered them for three days and broke on the fourth, just as they came to where the co*ckleswhent and Mander rivers converged. Orchards of red apples stretched along the side of the co*ckleswhent they were on, sloping gently up and over rolling hills. A light brown dirt road, quickly drying out after the rain, wove in and out of the orchards, all the while leading up to the pinkish-stone castle flying a golden flag with red apple on it.

Cider Hall was a long, rectangular fortress with a tall, narrow gatehouse and balcony overlooking the pathway, with thick curtain walls extending in either direction; the left hit the river, curving around to run parallel with the water, while the right curtainwall stretched only a few meters before ending on a square corner tower.

Compared to Winterfell’s round towers and long curtainwalls and baileys, with sloped roofs to keep snow off them and the thick, grey stone of the north, Cider Hall was completely alien to them, surrounded by nature and decorative corbels.

“Halt! Who goes?” called one of the guards, on either side of the large, open doors.

By design, Robb had been chosen as spokesperson – no one was going to give Jon Snow a chance to speak for the Starks, no matter what they knew. Robb cleared his throat and said, “Lord Robb Stark of Winterfell, with my siblings. We’ve come to call on Lord Fossoway and ask for his hospitality on our way to Oldtown.”

The guards goggled at the group, tilting their helmets back to look through the visors.

“Erm,” began the other at the door, sharing a glance with the guard on duty. “A moment, my Lord.”

He then turned on his heel and disappeared through the door with a fast clip that turned into a run.

The Starks were left to awkward shuffle their horses on the dirt path, looking at each other warily.

“Well, we can’t say that we didn’t expect this,” muttered Sansa, keeping an eye on the entrance where the other remaining guard began to sweat.

“What? People coming back from the dead?” asked Arya sarcastically. “Oh, no, that would never happen.”

Rickon snickered and Jon looked very put upon, rolling his eyes upward for divine help.

“Children, behave,” muttered Robb, as the guard returned, breathless.

“My Lord – Fossoway – bids you – welcome,” gasped the guard between heaving breaths, stepping back and to the side with a sidestep so that the entrance was free for them. The other guard dipped their head respectfully, and Robb led the group by clicking his tongue and nudging his horse forward.

Past the gatehouse, trees lined the path to another pink-stoned building, square with tall, thin glass windows facing the very large bailey. There was low, thick, and knotty grass spread across the bailey, with a well and several short and squat buildings with tiled roofs spread throughout the large space.

The castle proper was elevated a few feet, with a short staircase that framed the tall double doors. The front of the rectangular castle was extended, with an equal number of windows on either side of the entrance, three floors in height. Above the large entrance doors, on the third flight, was a recessed balcony. At the foot of the stairs were several people, and off to the side, a servant in gold and red livery with a tray of salt and bread.

The bald man at the head of the stairs was tall, ruddy-cheeked with the beginning of a potbelly and garbed expensively. There was a woman in a pretty dress, wisps of grey in her hair, and at least three grown men around them, with flyaway blond or light brown hair goggling at them.

“Welcome!” he greeted with a loud voice, eyes wide and skipping over each Stark as they spread their horses in a line before him and his. “Please, be welcome in my halls and accept guest rights.”

Robb dismounted first, Sansa next, both properly and with decorum; Jon helped Bran and both Rickon and Arya practically leapt from the back of their mounts.

“My thanks, Lord Fossoway,” greeted Robb, bowing as the servant approached. Robb’s hand hovered over the bread and bowl of salt, a breathless moment of hesitation that only Sansa and Jon’s keen eyes caught. He then took the bread with a thin, weak smile, broke it, and dipped it in the salt before passing it on to his siblings.

“It is an honour to house those who share First Men blood,” the bald Lord Fossoway continued, eyes strangely stuck on Robb, until they skittered to Sansa and Jon before turning back to the once King in the North.

What a strange thing to say, thought Sansa, eyes narrowing slightly.

Both Jon and Robb thought so as well, but Jon busied himself with helping Bran set up his wheelchair. Robb was the one who asked, a polite, “oh?” emerging from his lips.

Lord Fossoway’s smile strained. “I was a young lad, my father’s heir when I visited the Targaryen court, my Lord.”

Arya and Rickon tensed; Rickon went as far as taking a threatening step forward until Sansa stopped him with a firm hand on his shoulder.

“I’m sure you have questions, my Lord,” said Bran, pushing his chair forward.

“Many,” the man replied, but he turned to those standing with him. “My wife, Lady Emmaline, and our sons, Owen, Mathias, and Symon.”

Robb bowed to them and introduced the Starks. Sansa curtseyed prettily; Arya scowled and, given she was in trousers, bowed instead to the Fossoways. Rickon gave a sloppy bow and Bran merely inclined his head, which was perfectly acceptable. Jon gave a bow as well, lingering behind the group.

There were no ramps, so Jon and Robb carried Bran in his wheelchair up the stairs while Sansa and Rickon followed behind Lord and Lady Fossoway. The inside of Cider Hall was gorgeous, with tall ceilings, painted white or cream with images of the history of the First Men or the Reach. The floors were white or buttery cream-yellow marble; staircases were wide, white marble with curling bannisters of wrought iron or thick columns of pinkish-grey marble. There were swoops and curved borders around tall, glass-filled windows letting in light down wide, open hallways, framed with golden curtains held back by red braids.

Although they were given rooms to freshen up in, all separate, the Starks did as they had in Winterfell and found themselves in Robb’s room, where a servant for Lord Fossoway encountered them with instructions to visit the Lord’s solar.

Dutifully, they all trooped into the large, airy room that overlooked the Mander. Lord Fossoway sat behind a desk, his eldest son and heir Owen at his right. The other two sons were not with them.

Robb sat in the chair Lord Fossoway indicated, while Sansa took the other. Bran occupied the space between their chairs, and Arya and Rickon ranged themselves on either free side of Robb and Sansa, leaving Jon to stand at rest behind Bran.

“Remarkable,” breathed Fossoway after several long moments where he stared at Robb, Sansa, and Jon. “You haven’t aged a day since Summerhall.”

Owen Fossoway started at the name, head turning to look at his father incredulously.

Robb frowned, picking at a thread on his shirt. “I don’t recall you, Ser—”

“I had hair then,” the man interrupted wryly. “And I don’t believe you spoke to myself or my father, that evening. You seemed particularly startled after speaking to Andros Dayne—”

“I had been under the impression that I wasn’t seen,” scowled Robb, shooting a quick look at Bran, who looked back serenely. “So, I was startled. I then realized that more people could see us than I had thought.”

Fossoway’s forehead furrowed. “You didn’t expect to be seen, but you were walking around the hall?”

“It’s… complicated,” replied Robb cagily. “We had only spoken to Prince Duncan at that point and weren’t expecting anyone else to engage us.”

Fossoway’s frown deepened. “I am confused, but – no matter. I had not thought that the Starks would send anyone to the Targaryen court. Nor did I know Rickard Stark had a bastard brother who birthed Starks of age to his own children – less so that they were given the Stark name.” His frown turned contemplative. “Although, after what the Mad King did, it is expected…”

“Oh.” Robb nervously cleared his throat. “Oh. No. Erm. Rickard was our grandfather.”

Fossoway paused. “Your… grandfather?”

Cheeks red, Robb turned to Sansa, who pulled a small, sealed roll of parchment from her sleeve and reached across the desk to the Lord of Cider Hall.

“This may explain some things, my Lord,” she said prettily. “Rickard Stark was our grandfather and Lord Eddard Stark of Winterfell is our father.”

“But.” Owen, Fossoway’s son, was gaping at them, mouth wide. “But Lord Stark’s children are… are children. Not grown adults.”

Fossoway had unsealed the parchment and unrolled it, reading through the penned ink quickly. His eyebrows jumped up at the end, causing him to look over the collection of northerners before he reread the scroll.

Arya opened her mouth to reply to Owen Fossoway, but Robb leaned back enough to elbow her sharply. She glared in response but shut her mouth with a snap, scowling instead.

“I keep to the Seven, you know,” said Fossoway quietly, putting the scroll down on his cleared desk. “But our ancestor was Foss the Archer, the son of Garth Greenhand. They were First Men, kin to Bran the Builder. We might not keep to the Old Gods anymore, but I still have a healthy respect for them and those that do – especially after…” he trailed off, blinking as he collected himself.

“Father?”

“I do not confess to understand the manner in which you are here,” the man continued quietly, stressing especially at Robb, Sansa, and Jon. “I saw you years past in Summerhall, and yet you stand before me here, unchanged. And yet, you claim you are Lord Eddard Stark’s children grown, despite his children being half your ages, at least, in Winterfell. But I have his own words and hand confirming it, stating it is an act of the Old Gods.”

“As far as we know,” agreed Sansa demurely. “We did appear before a heart tree in the North, my Lord.”

Fossoway shook his head. “I will not question the Gods – the Old or the New, my Lady. If the Warden of the North tells me you are his children, then so it is so.”

Owen’s eyes bulged.

The man looked down at his desk, drumming his fingers for a few moments. Then, he looked up, tone wry. “Well, this certainly explains the strange ravens we received from Oldtown and King’s Landing.”

Ravens? thought Robb worryingly.

“How can House Fossoway of Cider Hall be of service to you, my Lords, Ladies?” Fossoway continued easily, leaning back in his seat. He was relaxed and welcoming, and Owen immediately copied him, relaxing his stance.

All tension leached from the Starks at the words, and the invisible, unspoken of worry that hovered over them dissipated, turning into relief.

“Merely a place to sleep tonight, my Lord,” answered Sansa with a smile. Owen melted where he stood at the sight of it, going a bit dreamy-eyed. Arya turned away to pretend to gag.

“Easily done,” agreed Fossoway. “You’ll join us for a feast?”

“Certainly.” Robb paused. “On the condition that Jon sits with us, my Lord. He’s our brother. Family. Where one of the pack goes, the rest follow.”

Fossoway’s eyes – a brown that looked golden at times – turned to Jon contemplatively. The bald man scanned Jon, from the top of his head to what he could see before Bran’s head blocked his view.

“Your… brother, of course,” the man finally said, with a slow nod of agreement.

Robb’s heart clenched. Was the man thinking of Summerhall? Had he seen Jon next to Duncan, or more worrisome, the king? Aegon and Jon’s facial features were close enough, and they had been next to each other before they disappeared before the fire. If anyone had seen – it would not be hard to see the similarities between the two – and put things together – to realize that Jon could not be Eddard Stark’s bastard –

“I would be happy to seat you at our table, my Lord,” finished Fossoway, his eyes fixed on Jon.

“’M not a lord,” Jon replied carefully, looking everywhere but at the Lord of Cider Hall.

“No,” the man agreed quietly, eyes still on Jon. “No, you’re not.”

Tension racketed up in the room. Robb saw Sansa’s hand tightly clenched, partially hidden by the folds of her dress.

“Well!” Fossoway stood, a beaming smile on them. “I’ll have Owen escort you back to your rooms to prepare for tonight.”

Robb stood at the dismissal, bowing shallowly while his siblings murmured their own thanks and copied him.

Owen strode first out of the room, Sansa on his arm and distracting him as she asked about Cider Hall and his own accomplishments. Robb walked with Jon, at the very back of the group.

“Why do I feel like we dodged the swing of a sword?” muttered Robb to him.

Jon replied grimly, “I’m not sure we did.”

TBC...

Notes:

I haz brain fart and cant math. Also, don't have two time-travel stories going on at once, because you'll confuse when Summerhall was between them. Whoops.

Chapter 8: VIII

Summary:

A chapter in which literally nothing happens because for some reason my brain thought it was a good idea to write 2 pages detailing what Highgarden and the Tyrells all look like. Or, well, I suppose: Fossoway confesses; the Starks plot; and Jon gains a babysitter for his and Bran's trip to Oldtown.

Chapter Text

VIII:

Memories of Tomorrow - writing_as_tracey (8)

There was no way to avoid it; they had to stop at Highgarden on their way to Oldtown.

Originally, the plan was to cross the co*ckleswhent in Appleton outside Cider Hall and bypass all holdfasts until they hit the Rose Road, making transit easier until they reached Oldtown. While the Starks were not avoiding people, per se, they were doing their best to limit their interactions with the nobility of Westeros wherever possible.

There were several reasons: the first being that, coming from another timeline, they had future knowledge and none of them wanted to tip their hands at what was coming unless they were the ones influencing things. Further, only Sansa and Arya were anywhere near capable of doublespeak, the language of the Westerosi courts, and while Robb and Jon were somewhat capable in the game of thrones, neither succeeded well, historically.

Secondly, as far as Westeros was concerned, they were merely Northern rumours. Despite their father’s best efforts – and that of Jeor Mormont at the Wall – the existence of “older versions of the current Stark children” had made their way across Westeros in the past half-year. While the North would take that knowledge with a pinch of salt – after confirming with their liege lord, who, by reputation’s standard, was honourable and incapable of lying, as truth – the rest of Westeros seemed to range between utter denial up with snarks and grumpkins to deifying them in the houses of the First Men.

The fewer people knew about them, the more surprise Jon would have on his side when it came to consolidating a Targaryen restoration, was Robb’s firm stance on the topic. It would mean people underestimated them and they could move their pieces in position without anyone realizing (“what pieces?” asked a confused Arya, her face scrunched up. “We’ve got nothing yet!”).

But while the Fossoways were accommodating, the Starks failed to realize that they had a connection to Highgarden and the Tyrells in the form of the youngest and only daughter of the family: Leonette, who was just recently betrothed to Garlan Tyrell, and whose siblings had dutifully sent her a letter detailing their arrival, as she was visiting her betrothed’s family in Highgarden.

And, in which the Tyrells extended an invitation for them to visit on their journey south to Oldtown.

“We have to accept,” said Sansa grimly. “We have no choice. Mace Tyrell is a Lord Paramount and Warden of the South, as well as one of the richest men in Westeros, with access to food and goods. If we slight them, he and Olenna could spite father and the North with a trade embargo. We can’t have that.”

“We’ve enough coin that Father and the North could trade instead with Braavos and the other Free Cities,” countered Arya sharply. “We can help the Manderlys increase their port, too—”

“Father would not accept increase trade from some of the Free Cities,” argued back Sansa, sending Arya a sharp look. “He doesn’t tolerate slavery—”

“But he’ll have Myrish glass in Winterfell’s gardens,” snorted Jon, who then looked chastised when Sansa turned her sharp look on him. He held his hands up, placatingly.

“Tyrells do things in excess,” mused Robb, carefully thinking of what his mother had spoken of when she had visited Renly’s war camp once upon a time. “He’ll want to show off his wealth. We can stay, but everyone knows Northmen are frugal and not extravagant; we can use that to limit our time in Highgarden.”

With the plan sorted, Robb, Sansa, and Jon went to Lord Fossoway to thank him for his hospitality and indicate that they were going to leave on the morrow to take up Lord Tyrell’s offer to visit Highgarden on their way to Oldtown. Unfortunately, the man shot the plan to hell.

“How splendid!” the man cried at the feast that evening, at the high table with his wife, sons, and the Starks, including Jon. “You will thoroughly enjoy Lord Tyrell’s hospitality. In fact, I miss it myself! I shall join you.”

Robb choked on his drink, turning to face the man. He sputtered, “I beg your pardon, my Lord?”

“I wish to see my daughter, Lord Robb,” explained Lord Fossoway, cheeks red from wine - although his eyes were suspiciously clear and sober. “And my sons should accompany us, of course. Owen and Mathias are close with Leonette, but she and Symon were inseparable as children.”

Symon appeared to disagree, with the heavy scowl on his face, but Owen turned a sunny face on Sansa and loudly enthused, “Our little sister is the darling apple of our father’s eye, my Lords, Ladies! Little Leo is a sweetheart, with the voice of a nightingale and the very image of the Maiden herself!”

Mathias – as well as Arya and Rickon – groaned at the terrible pun.

There was nothing Robb could say to that – was he supposed to tell the man don’t inconvenience yourself by coming with us to the location where your daughter is? Instead, he gave Lord Fossoway a tight smile and said, “Thank you, my Lord. That sounds like a plan. We will leave at your leisure.”

Lord Fossoway seemed to sense their haste in going to Oldtown, as he and his sons were ready to depart an hour past dawn the following morning, with all the Starks bright-eyed after their sleep, eager to be off.

Rickon and Arya bounded off ahead of the group, with Symon on their heels as the youngest and closest in age to Rickon, also eager for a horse race; Owen remained at his father’s right-hand side, with Robb, Jon, and of course, Sansa, whom he kept trying to engage in conversation, puffing his chest out as he extolled on his accomplishments and abilities; Bran and Mathias, who was interested in joining the Citadel, ended up in conversation, surrounded by the few knights and household guards Fossoway had joining them.

It severely strained Jon’s drive forward, taking what could have been a short, four-day horse ride into a weeklong experience. As the days passed, Jon’s jaw tightened and his mouth turned downward, and he often found himself slipping into his Winterfell habits of keeping to himself and growing quiet around others.

One evening, two days out from Highgarden, Lord Fossoway sat heavily next to Jon, as the young man threw bits of wood that he found around him into a fire, brooding. Jon glanced at him and then back to the fire.

“Had you visited any others on your journey south?” Fossoway asked, holding out a wineskin at Jon.

Jon hesitated a moment but then took the offered drink, took a sip, and answered, “No; we left Winterfell to the White Harbour and didn’t stay long – only enough to board a ship to Braavos. From there, we made our way south, never remaining overnight in a town unless we had to, and that was few and far in between.”

He passed the skin back.

“I see,” said Fossoway, looking rather pleased. He then grew contemplative. “Why Summerhall, then?”

Shoulders tense, Jon attempted nonchalance and shrugged. “Seemed a good enough place to stop than any.”

“And yet, somehow, you travelled through time once more,” mused Fossoway, a far-away look in his eyes when Jon turned to look at him. “And many of those with First Men blood saw you.” Fossoway turned back to Jon, catching him. “You’ll have to be careful.”

“Careful?” echoed Jon, wetting his lips nervously. “About what, my Lord?”

Fossoway stared at Jon, a soft, nostalgia-tinged smile on his lips. “I doubt I was the only one to see the resemblance – Your Grace.”

Jon froze, feeling as though he had taken a hit to his chest. It was hard to breathe, and his hands began to shake as his vision went fuzzy around the edges. He wheezed, trying to take in a breath.

“How – how did you—?” he gasped out, a hand reaching for his chest, instinctively landing over the final dagger mark over his heart.

Fossoway’s mouth twisted wryly, although his eyes were filled with concern when he passed the wineskin back to Jon, who drank greedily from it.

“I was a young man, I remember telling you that when you arrived at Cider Hall,” he began, watching Jon. His eyes moved all over the younger man’s face, taking in his dark hair, his brow, his eyes, the slope of his nose, mouth, and jaw. “I found it curious that Prince Duncan would spend so much time around three strangers, as he did when he had eschewed the companionship of others those few weeks the court had been at Summerhall. So, I was watching him, and then you, when the king approached.”

“And as you said, you saw the resemblance,” finished Jon, a bit bitterly. The laugh he gave when he ran a hand over his pulled-back hair was a tad hysterical. “You know, most say I have the Stark look.”

Fossoway snorted. “Oh, you do, Your Grace. You do; I can see the Blackwood in you, as well. But you favour your great-great-grandfather more than them, but I expect most would not have seen it unless they saw you both side-by-side, as I did. Certainly, there aren’t many alive from Summerhall or those who remember Aegon well enough to have noticed.” He paused. “And I doubt any would see it in your younger self, especially if you’re raised as Lord Stark’s get.”

“Father would be pleased to know his cover story worked as well as it did, then,” replied Jon, fighting the urge to bury his face in his hands or look for Sansa in clear need of help.

The two fell silent for a moment, letting the crackle of the flames in front of them fill the air between them. Then Fossoway spoke again. “We never met in the future?”

Jon shook his head, throwing a piece of wood into the firepit. “If we did, we were never introduced.”

“You didn’t push for…?” Fossoway trailed off.

Jon’s mouth was a twisted, bitter smile. “I was at the Wall for years, my Lord; and then named King in the North after my brother’s death. Then Daenerys was in Westeros and there were other things to worry about.”

“Other things?”

“The dead,” replied Jon, voice now creeping into bitterness. “It’s how I died – how my siblings died. Fighting the Others and their wights and trying to stop them from marching south.” Jon glanced at Fossoway, chuckling at his face. “You don’t believe me?”

The man wiped the disbelief from his face. “Well…”

Jon grinned. “I died and returned to the living in front of a heart tree north of the Wall, and you seem to accept that Robb, Sansa, and I were in Summerhall years past but have not aged – and yet the thought of Others and the undead seems ridiculous?”

“When you put it that way,” muttered Fossoway, wryly. “It does seem silly to think one is true and the other is not.”

“It is hard to believe until you see the dead rise,” admitted Jon. He then placed his hands on his thighs and turned to face Fossoway fully. “So, now that you know my secret – what will you do, my Lord?”

“What can I do, Your Grace?” replied Fossoway easily, although the title made Jon's heart race and his palms sweat. “I could tell the stag king, of course; I’m sure he still dreams of killing dragonspawn and I could earn a reward – but what use do I have of rewards when I am already rich enough and tied to the most powerful man in the Reach through my daughter’s marriage? No – during the war I fought for the Targaryens and only bent the knee when Lord Stark demanded it after Aerys and Rhaegar’s deaths. I didn’t care for Aerys, but I liked Rhaegar well enough, and for that, as his son, you have my silence.”

Thoughts raced through Jon’s mind, dismissing some and turning others over, until he asked, carefully, “And one day, should Westeros know the truth?”

Fossoway’s bushy eyebrows popped up, and a tiny smirk slipped onto his lips. “Well, then one day you’ll have my sword.”

The older man then groaned and stretched. “These old joints don’t weather travel as well as they’d used to, my Lord. Please excuse me – but it’s time I retire.”

Habit wanted Jon to say he wasn’t a lord – but there was no other way Fossoway would address him except by his name, and that would be too informal given the conversation they just had. Instead, Jon nodded and muttered his own goodnights, watching the man stumble from their seats and to the tents pitched nearby.

Rickon took Fossoway’s seat immediately, brows furrowed when he muttered in the Old Tongue, “What was that about? You looked like you were about to kill him at one point.”

“I was ready to,” replied Jon in the same language, glancing at Rickon, who was watching him solemnly. “He knows who I am, because of Summerhall.”

Immediately, something dark and ugly passed over Rickon’s face as he glanced toward where Fossoway disappeared. “Want me to take care of it?”

Jon shook his head. “We’ve reached an agreement, I think.”

“You think?” echoed Rickon, scowling.

“He’ll declare for me when the time comes,” explained Jon softly, voice low, despite the only people nearby who would understand their conversation was Starks.

Rickon’s eyes narrowed. “Can we trust him?”

The inclusive ‘we’ warmed Jon’s heart. “We’ll have to see.”

Rickon sniffed, unhappy with the decision. “Are you sure though, Jon? Really? I could make it look like he was savaged by a wild beast, Sigeric taught me how—”

Jon laughed, reaching over and ruffling Rickon’s curls and worsening the unruly mop. Switching to the Common Tongue, Jon shook his head and said, “I’ll remember that for the future, if I need it, little brother.”

It was clear Rickon had managed to spread the tale of Jon and Fossoway’s conversation over the course of the next travel day and into the evening before they reached Highgarden because, on the last half-day leg, Sansa had urged her horse ahead of the group to trot abreast Fossoway’s at the head of the procession. Robb engaged Owen and Symon in conversation, allowing a sizable gap between their horses and Sansa’s so that their conversation was private.

It was well planned out, Jon thought, eyeing the maneuvering with a tinge of pride. Ayra and Rickon took up point beside Jon on their horses, and Bran had a knowing glint in his eyes every time he twisted his head around to glance over his shoulder at them, allowing Mathias’ nattering to distract the man from realizing what was going on around him.

Eventually, Sansa nodded and wheeled her horse around, coming at a slow pace next to Arya’s.

“Did you threaten the poor man, Sansa?” asked Arya with a grin.

Sansa demurely looked askance. “Arya, sweetling, I never threaten.”

Rickon guffawed, loudly. “What did you do, then?”

“We discussed the situation, and he clarified some things that needed to be said,” explained Sansa unhelpfully, eyes forward. At one point, the sweeping branches of willow trees that lined the Rose Road moved in the mid-morning breeze and parted, revealing the sight of Highgarden.

Arya blinked, drawing back a little in awe.

“It’s beautiful,” breathed Jon, looking up at the long, squarish castle on top of a hill, spreading from one edge of the mount to the next, leaving sheer walls against steep inclines for a defensive position. Highgarden was not a castle with tall corner towers, like Winterfell; it was more in style to Cider Hall with its pale colour, made more jarring by the bright reds, yellows, pinks, and purples of the roses and other flowers that crept like vines along the curtainwalls.

There were taller sections to the castle, square blocks that jutted from the middle of the castle, not touching the curtainwalls for added protection and overlooked the Mander and the Rose Road; vines covered those buildings as well, giving the whole of Highgarden a mysterious and ethereal feel of merging with nature, full of hidden pockets and shadowy canopies as treetops peaked over the curtainwalls at different heights, indicating various levels of courtyards and gardens within the castle property.

“And to think,” murmured Sansa, “I was to be Lady of all this, once.”

Jon glanced sharply at her. When was that? he wondered, brow furrowed. Had Sansa not told him everything of before, or what this one of those small moments that slipped her mind because it was inconsequential to her?

“Looks a bit frilly,” commented Rickon, wrinkling his nose, even as his eyes darted all over the curtainwall and then lower, at the base of the hill, by the gatehouse, moat, and drawbridge. “Probably stinks too, from all the flowers.”

Arya, Sansa, and Jon turned to look at their youngest sibling, who caught their gazes and said, defensively, “What?”

“Erm, nothing,” replied Jon, clicking his tongue, and moving his horse forward.

The procession made their way to the guardhouse without fuss, but even as they passed through and rode their horses up the hill, privately Jon had to agree with Rickon; everything in Highgarden was a bit frilly – from the excessive cloaks and ornaments on the Tyrell guards, the gold-flaked and tipped spears they carried; the prettily trimmed topiary that lined the inner courtyard… it was a mix of decadent and ostentatious, all made to show how many coins the Tyrells had to spend on frivolous items.

Neither Arya nor Rickon could quite manage to conceal their thoughts on their faces as they brought their horses to rest inside the courtyard, where the Tyrells would greet them; both wore an interesting mix of disgust and astonishment at what they saw. Both Bran and Sansa had the blankest and most serene masks of the group, while Robb – and Jon – struggled into something polite if not mildly impressed.

The Tyrell family was waiting, on a patio of laid brick that turned into a winding path, angled off toward various side buildings in the courtyard and lined with short, squared greenery. The path also widened to accommodate those who entered through the drawbridge gate – particularly with horses, as Jon spotted a few quick and nimble stableboys sweep and collect horse droppings from the brick, whisking the smelly pieces away before they could stink up the warm air.

Mace Tyrell stood on a low stone deck, protected from the elements – in this case, a warm mid-morning sun – by an arching, stone balcony that was as wide as it was tall, and bracketed by two columns with vines that twisted up and around them. He had a belly that stretched the green of his tunic, trimmed with gold, indicating he ate well and joyfully. He had all his hair in comparison to Fossoway – closer to a blond than brown –, and a rather open expression on his face as his brown eyes darted from one Stark to the next, as well as Fossoway and his sons.

At his left, stood his wife, Alerie Hightower – a beautiful, thin woman that bordered on willowy with long brown hair in a half-bun (something strangely uncomplicated for a Southern woman), and a pretty silk dress with cutouts at the shoulders that revealed her décolletage that was matronly but still stylish.

At Mace Tyrell's right was a young man near twenty who inherited his mother’s height – tall and thin – with thick, wavy brown hair and a smartly trimmed anchor beard and disconnected mustache. He leaned heavily on a light wood cane, which complemented his deeper green tunic and honey-coloured doublet.

Beside him was a shorter man with light, curly brown hair streaked with gold, muscled and strong, eyeing them with curiosity and lingering on the men’s waists where Robb and Jon had their swords. A woman that shared Owen Fossoway’s looks, with long, loose strawberry blonde hair, stood at the man’s right, her hand resting on his inner elbow.

The last two figures next to Fossoway’s daughter were opposite in colour as well as significantly younger than the other two men by at least a decade: the boy had blond curls and was all elbows and knobby knees but a solid frame and the girl, willowy for her age with long, curly brown hair. At her side, finishing the line of Tyrells, stooped an older woman with a cane and wimple: the infamous Queen of Thorns, Olenna Tyrell.

Greetings were made toward Fossoway first, as the two families were soon to be united in marriage, and then Mace Tyrell turned to the Starks once they dismounted their horses and were lined up, with Bran already in his wheelchair – something that had all the Tyrells pause and stare at.

“Erm, greetings,” began Mace, stumbling a bit. “Welcome to – er, Highgarden – erm, my Lords and Ladies…?”

Robb bowed shallowly. “Robb Stark, Lord Tyrell.”

Olenna’s eyes narrowed on him, raking up and down. “Robb Stark is a boy of merely ten namedays.”

“That is true, my Lady,” said Robb as he rose, glancing at her. “And yet, I am who I say I am. I have a letter from my father, Lord Eddard Stark of Winterfell, to confirm such.”

He passed another sealed letter – as their father had written about a dozen for them to use – to Lord Tyrell. The man unsealed the letter and read it quickly as well as expressively, absently handing it to his eldest son to read, who then quickly passed it down to Olenna, who huffed at being last.

“Well,” she said finally. She looked Robb up and down. “If you weren’t before me, I wouldn’t believe it.” She eyed him a bit longer, looking like she was about to reach out and poke him.

Robb tentatively shifted away, then cleared his throat. “May I introduce my siblings? Erm, in order of age: Jon Snow—”

Jon gave a quick, sharp nod from where he lingered behind Bran.

“Sansa Stark—” Sansa curtseyed prettily and deeply.

“Arya Stark, and Bran Stark.”

“My apologies for interrupting, my Lord, but – Lord Bran – your chair—” Willas gestured with his free hand, sending a longing look at it even as his own hand tightened painfully on the top of his cane.

“I’m unable to walk,” explained Bran, his voice and tone stoic. “There was an… accident when I was younger.”

“And finally, Rickon Stark,” finished Robb, turning to the youngest of them all. Rickon bared his teeth in a parody of a smile.

Bread and salt were offered, as well as explanations that the Starks only were to stay a few days before continuing to Oldtown.

“Nonsense!” cried Fossoway, a glint in his eyes that made all of the Starks wary. “My Lord Tyrell – surely the Starks should stay and experience all the hospitality Highgarden has to offer?”

Excited at the prospect of showing off, Mace nodded. “Yes, yes! I insist!”

Jon shot Lord Fossoway a quick, dirty look that the man ignored, forcing Sansa and Robb to confer quietly. It was Sansa who turned back to the Tyrells and accepted the lengthened offer.

“I hope we won’t be here too long,” muttered Arya to her when they were shown inside the cool castle. “It feels like we’re prisoners.”

“This is no different than when we went south the first time,” murmured back Sansa, eyes looking around, despite her pleasant mask. “Just a different shade of it.”

“Wonderful,” Arya grunted, unhappily. “And I don’t even have a dancing master here to entertain me.”

“No,” answered Rickon cheerfully, slinging an arm across her shoulders, given they were the same height. Arya scowled at him, shoving his arm off. “But there’s us. If we’re to be here for longer than expected, why not show these Southrons what we Northern savages can do?”

Then, Arya grinned, a slow widening of her mouth until it turned as predatory as their direwolf sigil was known for. “Oh… this is going to be much better than I thought!”

“Just… don’t be too obvious, Arya,” said Sansa worriedly. “At least, not until we all agree on it going forward.”

“Fine,” the younger female Stark agreed, although it was given so blithely that Sansa didn’t have much hope of reigning her in, not with Rickon egging her on.

For the first few days, Jon had begged his family to keep their heads down and not make any scenes, something Sansa agreed, given she had the most experience with the Tyrells. They were to observe and be polite, only.

Mace Tyrell had been a wonderful host; generous with his feasts and banquets, encouraging activities with hawking and falconry, opening his library for Bran, inviting Sansa to join the ladies for their embroidery (Arya was given one look by the perfumed ladies of Olenna, Alerie, and Margaery's court and decided instead to explore Highgarden’s many mazes and walking paths with Rickon). Robb and Jon joined the Fossoways by default of their lord (knowing who Jon was and was not dismissive of the bastard in the group as some of Highgarden were), and they often spent time doing minor stretches or spars and helping the Fossoway sons.

Then, later, they converged in Jon’s given rooms (much further away near the servants, which had very much angered Robb, Arya, and Rickon), as his would be least likely for Tyrell spies to listen in, to discuss their plans forward.

“We can’t tiptoe around the people of Westeros forever,” argued Robb, arms crossed as he leaned against the wall. “Fossoway already knows – although I doubt he’s spoken to his sons—”Both Sansa and Arya shook their heads to indicate their agreement with Robb's statement.“—and eventually,” continued Robb then, “others will need to know if we’re to put Jon on the throne.”

“Maintaining the status quo is the best option right now,” refuted Jon quietly, from where he sat on his narrow bed, Sansa pressed shoulder-to-shoulder next to him. “As much as I might dislike it, doing as Varys does by keeping the peace and serving the realm is the best option. Gathering followers just means that sooner or later someone will slip up and endanger our plans, as well as my younger self. And we most certainly cannot have that happen while Robert sits on the throne.”

“He’s bloody rarely on it,” muttered Arya with an eye roll. “Too busy elsewhere.”

“You need allies,” Sansa pointed out. “The Tyrells were Targaryen loyalists—”

“They had the easiest position during the Rebellion,” interrupted Rickon, brows furrowed. “Didn’t they? They didn’t support Rhaegar at the Trident – they just had to siege Storm’s End, for months. They missed most of the action and immediately surrendered when father appeared.”

That stopped most of the discussion as they all contemplated Rickon’s point. Then, Robb offered, “Wouldn’t that almost be better? We want to proceed slowly – the goal might be Jon on the throne so that he can bring Westeros together to fight the Long Night – but having a strong ally like the Tyrells and the rest of the Reach who didn’t necessarily participate in the Rebellion would benefit us.”

“How so?” asked Jon from the bed. He was frowning, trying to work out the politics.

“Well, they didn’t engage the North and its allies at the Trident, so there won’t be any bad blood,” offered Robb slowly.

“And they weren’t affected too badly after the fact by reparations,” added Arya, tugging at a lock of her hair. “So, they maintained their riches and can help support you financially.”

“Which we don’t really need since Bran found us our account in Braavos,” countered Jon wryly, “But good attempt.”

Arya stuck her tongue out at him.

“Under Mace Tyrell, they didn’t make the best military moves,” began Sansa, gaze inward. “He doesn’t quite have a head for it – he’s much more interested in appearances than action. As your ally now, he wouldn’t do anything that would be a political or military blunder in accidentally revealing you.”

“Alternatively, because he’s not a successful military leader, he just might,” countered Jon tartly. “And as much as Sam went off about his father, Randyll Tarly is a military genius, and if Mace Tyrell tells his bannermen…”

“Which he won’t,” said Bran firmly.

All eyes swung to him, as he had been sitting quietly in his chair, listening to their debates.

“What did you see?” asked Robb carefully, still wrapping his head around Bran’s abilities.

“Nothing,” huffed Bran, rolling his eyes, “As I’ve said before – I can’t see the future with any certainty. But like Dorne, the Tyrells would seek out a Targaryen alliance. Oberyn already left for Braavos to find Viserys and Daenerys—”

“A marriage between Viserys and Arianne, then?” mused aloud Sansa.

Bran dipped his chin in acknowledgement. “And if the Tyrells had the means and knowledge, they would have done the same. They lack the connections Oberyn Martell has in Essos. It is only for that reason that they haven’t proceeded further with any plans—”

“And that Olenna will probably turn her eyes toward King’s Landing,” finished Sansa with a sigh. “Like originally.”

“But they married Margaery to Renly?” asked Arya in confusion. “Why do that if being the queen of the seven kingdoms is the goal?”

“He was apparently good-looking?” offered Rickon wryly from his spot against the wall next to Robb. “Strong? Strapping? All I remember about Joffrey was… wormy.”

Arya snorted.

“Renly had the charisma and the Reach through his, uh, friendship with Loras,” explained Sansa, “And quite a few of the Stormlords, too. He had a larger army and likely a higher chance of success compared to Stannis.”

“He and mother didn’t quite get around to speaking about an alliance,” offered Robb, looking down as he tried to remember those chaotic early days in the Riverlands. “I think he died when they were to speak of it. I would have welcomed his help, and alliance, if he agreed, so long as he recognized the North as independent.”

Slyly, Sansa shot him a long look and asked, “Not the Riverlands?”

Robb made a face. “They were more work than what was worth.”

“And you want to saddle me with them and everyone else?” Jon affected a hurt tone. “My thanks, brother.”

Robb grinned at him.

“To return to the point,” bit Arya, “Do we continue as we were or… relax enough to show them who we are rather than what people expect?” She glanced at Sansa. “It would mean acknowledging our talents just as much as our…” she paused, swallowing thickly, “scars.”

Robb rubbed nervously at his throat while Sansa looked down at the floor. They had the most obvious marks – Robb’s neck and Sansa’s back – but Jon and Rickon’s chest wounds would be clear if they sparred without their shirts. It was one thing to say with their father’s letter that they were from the future and have people vaguely acknowledge it and another for them to see the visual effects of that future in mortal wounds.

“I spent a long time pretending to be someone I wasn’t,” murmured Sansa. “And I don’t want to go back on that, to forget what I went through and survived.”

Jon reached out and took Sansa’s hand in his, tightly lacing their fingers together. She offered him a weak, but grateful smile.

“I want to learn from my mistakes and grow,” admitted Robb, hunching over a bit. “I want a second chance to do better.”

“I want to be worth more than my gender,” added Arya fiercely. “That I can fight just as well as anyone else and ensure that the other Aryas out there – daughters like me, like Brienne – can have opportunities.”

Bran looked around at his siblings and offered, quietly, “I just want to win. The Night King took everything from us – and I want to take everything from him. Whatever it takes.”

“I just want to live,” said Rickon quietly. “I died so young… I had so many dreams…”

Robb reached out and tugged Rickon against him in a side-hug.

Jon let out a gusty breath, looking around the room. “I was hidden, first purposefully, and then by design to avoid upsetting our already tenuous position before the Long Night. Hiding didn’t help us any, and it certainly didn’t help me. So…”

He gave one last look at Robb, Sansa, Arya, Rickon and Bran, pressing his lips tightly together and clenching his jaw.

“We need to be careful. The Gods know, we need to be so very careful,” he stressed, looking longest at Rickon and Arya. “But… no more hiding. What I will do – I do for the living. For Westeros. And…” he trailed off, voice dropping as he finished quietly, “For me. To be the person my parents wanted me to be.”

Sansa tugged on their joined hands. “No more hiding.”

“Whatever it takes,” agreed Robb, a twist to his lips.

“To live,” added Rickon with a grin.

“For everyone,” finished Arya, eyes alight with inner motivation.

The change was immediate and noticed the next day, when Robb, Jon, Arya, and Rickon appeared on the training grounds. While Bran was in the library preparing for Oldtown and Sansa was with Olenna and Margaery, the others joined the Fossoways and Garlan and Loras Tyrell. Initially, none had participated much beyond helpful pointers and being observers, but that day, they did.

Robb forwent his fashionable neck scarf that hid the lurid scar from his beheading, making Loras take a second glance at him when he entered the courtyard and caused him to walk into Highgarden’s Master of Arms in shock.

The Starks had commandeered a corner of the yard, a smaller training ring separate from the area where the Tyrells would practice. Robb’s lack of fashion choice had caught Lord Fossoway’s attention, as well as his sons’ and Mace’s, especially as the Starks warmed up and prepared for a free-for-all four-way spar.

Initially, it was slow: the four tested each other’s defences and methods. Robb and Jon were familiar enough with each other from having grown up and trained together, but Arya’s water dance was unique to them, and Rickon didn’t know what the word ‘finesse’ meant.

Then, once they were warmed under the morning sun, Rickon widely grinned at them and suggested, “First blood?”

The other three paused and glanced at each other, Robb’s chest heaving as he panted. “Aye, I’ll take that.”

Jon nodded his agreement, moving to a corner to shuck off his shirt, which already had a line of sweat around the neck and down the back. Robb did the same; Rickon left his shirt on but removed the doublet and untucked it.

Their scars were visible to everyone who cared to look.

“Gods,” someone muttered, their voice catching on the wind, even though the four ignored it.

Robb swung his sword in a loose circle as he rotated his wrist, then stood side-faced and ready, eyes darting to each of his siblings, while Jon went for a much more Northern approach and squared his frame, both hands on his hilt with the sword parallel to the ground in front of him.

Rickon copied Jon, while Arya turned sideways to mimic Robb.

There was silence between them, the air ripe with eager anticipation—

Rickon let out a loud cry and twisted on his heel, turning to swing his sword at Arya, who grinned and dodged the blade, weaving and ducking under and parrying it with a slash of her own blade.

Robb, who had never seen Arya fight, brought his own sword down, the two of them attacking their sister; she twisted, caught Robb’s blade, and deflected it, sending Robb’s swing into Rickon, who swore in the Old Tongue and batted it away with a glare.

Jon laughed and threw himself forward into the fray, beating down at Rickon who spat a slew of insults at Jon, each more descriptive than the last as Jon kept hammering at Rickon with his sword, forcing the teenager on defence.

“You’re strong, Rickon, but you’re like a rabid dog,” he panted, even as he parried Rickon’s latest attempt and turned to shove at Arya when she got too close to him during her fight with Robb.

“Jon!” she wailed, rolling forward in a tumble to avoid a hit and popping up behind Robb instead, who spun in surprise.

“All’s fair, little sister!” cheerfully called Jon, disarming Rickon with a fancy riposte that was more distraction by the way Rickon first blocked the sword aimed for his side, only for Jon to use the hilt to bash his nose in, gaining first blood with a broken nose.

“Dat wadn’th nice, Don,” mulishly stated Rickon thickly, balefully staring at him with blood dripping over his mouth and down his chin. He morosely picked his sword up and walked to the edge of the training pit, arms crossed as he settled in to watch Arya, Robb, and Jon. He did nothing to wipe the blood from his face, instead letting it pool in his mouth to spit out to the side, ignoring Loras' wide-eyed stare as he did so.

Robb was sweating furiously, a red flush not just across his face but also across his chest due to his Tully colouring, which turned the arrow scars on his pectorals silver and his neck scar a deeper colour, closer to purple. Both Jon and Arya had ganged up on him, Jon maintaining some distance with his bastard sword, moving through a series of smashes against Robb’s sword as the Stark heir struggled against Jon’s painfully thorough hits and Arya’s lightning-quick darts under and around him as she distracted and annoyed him.

Eventually, Arya knicked Robb’s sword arm, and he dropped his sword immediately, glaring at the thin red line from her first blood. He strode off to the side, muttering under his breath, and joined Rickon who had the Fossoway brothers clustered around him, their eyes on those in the ring.

“Just me and you now,” grinned Arya, keeping light on her feet, her hair in disarray and sweaty.

Jon nodded back. “Aye, looks like.”

The two eyed each other for a moment, and then Arya dashed forward, sword parallel to the ground in a forward jab as she used her momentum to dart to the side with her sword going the other way.

Jon easily blocked it, a quick parry with the flat of his blade. A twist of his wrist had it swing toward her, and Arya blocked the move by twisting on her heel and digging in, her sword clanging against Jon’s as it ran down the sharp edge to the hilt.

Now facing the opposite way from when she started, Arya forced Jon to turn and hold his ground, using his height and weight to swing hard and down, forcefully pushing her back step by step, gaining ground on her as she let him move her back.

There was a tiny furrow between her eyebrows as she fought with him; she was giving too much ground – but they had never fought against each other before, she had only fought with Brienne when she returned to Winterfell. Seeking an opening, Arya let Jon push her back; he wasn’t using his full force on her, and while a part of her was annoyed, another was grateful as she would’ve been black and blue or utterly dead.

Finally, Arya spotted a way in – Jon would raise his sword a smidge too high when bringing the bastard blade on the downstroke, and so she snuck under his defences and jabbed upward, catching his wrist; but at the same time, his sword hit her outer thigh and drew blood, bringing them to a draw.

Around them, spectators erupted into cheers. The two stepped back from one another, alike grins on their faces.

“Good show,” commented Jon. “I see training with Brienne did help, some.”

“It’s always fun to spar against bigger opponents,” agreed Arya. She brought a hand up and wiped at a collection of sweat against her brow. “I’d best take a bath before Sansa sees me, though.”

“Too late,” replied Jon, eyes over Arya and beyond, a slight flush on his face as he realized the size of the crowd.

Arya turned; her mouth parted in surprise. Sansa with Bran by her side, a placid look on his face, stood with Willas, Margaery, Olenna and a few of their Tyrell cousins, clapping with a pleased look on her face – and one of equal shock on the Tyrells’. The shock from the Tyrell’s matched the look on the others in the yard: Mace Tyrell, Garlan, their guards.

Loras had been hounding Rickon by the looks of things, talking his ear off and, upon the conclusion of their spar, hauled himself up and over the training fence to skid to a stop before Jon.

“That was amazing,” he gushed, his voice cracking. His green eyes were wide and – Arya snorted – filled with longing and awe. “That final move – the twist you did—”

Jon ducked his head and rubbed at the back of his neck, bashfully. “Ah, thank you, my Lord—”

“Can you show me that?” interrupted Loras, and then he turned to Arya and bowed. “And my Lady – I had never thought to see a woman fight as you did! Please excuse my ignorance. Your skills are superb. What is the name of the master swordsman who taught you?”

The two youngest Fossoways leaned in as well, eager to hear her answer.

Arya’s proud grin faded somewhat when she faced Loras. “I was taught for several moons by a Braavosi, who taught me their waterdancing. After that…” She trailed off and shrugged. “A few years on the run, being hunted hones your survival skills quickly until I found myself in Braavos, where I had the opportunity to continue my training.”

Jon exhaled quietly; glad Arya did not admit she had Faceless Man training; that would have been much harder to explain away. Yet, her words had some murmuring, discussing the topic of the other Starks, of what caused her to be on the run – and their gruesome scars.

“Jon, Arya,” said Sansa, catching their attention. “I’ve told Rickon and Robb, but Bran is ready to leave tomorrow for Oldtown at the Citadel. Willas kindly sent a raven to his grandfather Hightower for assistance, should Bran require it.”

Oh, Willas, is it now, Sansa? thought Jon, a smirk driving one corner of his mouth up as he held her eyes.

She refused to blush, arching instead one thin eyebrow in response, which made Jon laugh softly.

“Very well—” he began when Lord Fossoway approached the small group and spoke over him.

“My apologies,” he said, sidling up to them and sending a very beseeching and apologetic look toward Jon, “But should Lord Bran be off to the Citadel on his own? It is still a sennight’s journey.”

Sansa sent the man an evaluating look, from his boots to his bald head and gave a slow nod. “’Tis true, my Lord.”

“We’ve already journeyed with you this distance, my Lady, and my boy, Mathias, has proclaimed an interest in joining the ranks of the Maesters,” continued Fossoway. “Mayhaps he, and his brothers, can join Lord Bran? As an escort?”

Jon shot Fossoway an unimpressed look. The man was clearly trying to curry favour with him by focusing on Bran’s protection, and as one of the first to know Jon’s secret heritage, he was trying to integrate himself.

Bran was also not favourable to this, but for other reasons. “I can handle myself on the trip,” he said, indignant. His eyebrows met above his nose, and he looked between Jon and Sansa with a minor scowl on his face. “You know this. I don’t need babysitters, Sansa.”

“Just how are you planning on getting off your horse, Bran?” called Rickon from where he sat on the dividing wooden fence between the training yard and the smaller one. Loras was leaning against the fence as well, on an even height with Rickon. “Are you going to throw yourself over its flank? Dangle from the mane?”

Bran shot Rickon a nasty look.

“You need someone to attend you, Bran,” said Sansa softly, imploringly.

“I don’t need them,” hissed Bran in the Old Tongue, the guttural language forcing Fossoway, as well as Willas and Olenna who stood with Sansa, blink in surprise. Margaery looked back and forth between the Starks in surprise and calculation, but mostly amusem*nt.

“You do need them,” countered Sansa in the same language, although slightly tripping over the pronunciation. She switched to the Common Tongue next. “And that’s why Jon will be going with you.”

“Wait, what?” Jon’s head swivelled to face Sansa, and Arya hooted loudly, slapping a hand against her thigh.

“Lord Fossoway’s sons certainly wouldn’t be there for you,” continued Sansa, “Not entirely. The Old Gods know what Jon could get up to left on his own.”

“True,” laughed Robb as he strode up to them, a towel around his neck and hiding his scar, despite all knowing it was there. Sweat still glistened off him, though – it was as though he hadn’t used the towel properly. “Last time Jon went off on his own, ended up joining a bunch of wildlings and then dealing with a revolt at Castle Black, did you not?”

Garlan’s mouth dropped open. “You spent time beyond the wall?”

Jon ignored Garlan and stared at Robb. “Aye, thank you for the reminder, brother. How could I vividly forget my time? Or that my actions led to my first death?”

First death?” muttered Garlan to Willas.

“Please Jon?” begged Sansa, widening her blue eyes larger as she clasped her hands before her, just under her chin.

He scowled. “I know what you’re doing.”

She pushed out her lower lip, and it trembled.

“Damnit, Sansa, stop that.”

She blinked and batted her eyelashes. “Please?”

He sighed, a long and loud sound that signalled he gave in to her demands. “Fine.”

“Oh, thank you, Jon!” she enthused, throwing her arms around his neck, and hugging him, hanging heavily off him.

Jon grumbled under his breath but hugged her back and then peeled her off, fighting a smile.

“Well, I suppose we must have provisions set aside for you, my Lord,” said Willas happily, co*cking out an elbow toward Sansa. “Shall we, my Lady? You can tell the kitchen what your brothers require for the journey.”

Sansa slipped her hand in the crook of Willas’ elbow and wandered off with him, leaving Olenna to snort once they were barely out of earshot. “Twitterpated, that boy is.”

“Grandmama!” twittered Margaery, a hand brought up to cover her mouth in mock shock.

“At least it’s mutual,” replied Arya with an eye roll. She then turned to Robb. “What do you say? Rematch?”

“Very well, little sister,” agreed Robb with a sharp grin, “And now that I know your style, prepare to be trounced.”

“Ha!”

Jon stood at the side of the training yard, slightly bemused at his siblings’ antics. Looking at Bran, he said, “Just us, then, Bran? Anything to worry about for the journey ahead?”

“No,” answered Bran, his eyes lightening the dark colour to something warm. “I do believe that you’ll find exactly what you’re looking for.”

TBC...

Chapter 9: IX

Summary:

Jon discovers important documents, and it is Arya and Rickon's turn to journey to the past when they reach the next stop on Jon's Magical Heritage Journey: the Tower of Joy.

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

IX:

Memories of Tomorrow - writing_as_tracey (9)

The letter Willas sent to his grandfather in Oldtown certainly got them in the door, but the Maesters were not interested in letting Bran – or Jon, or Mathias Fossoway – loose in their cramped rooms, amongst their precious scrolls and tomes.

The interconnecting buildings by stone bridges and arches were a maze for the uninitiated – or for those who hadn’t already attempted to navigate Braavos’ canal paths – and they were cautioned to not go anywhere without a Maester as a guide. Which meant they spent four days at an inn in Oldtown proper, Jon lost in his brooding thoughts about what Bran had meant about finding exactly what was needed.

Mathias, however, was welcomed warmly as an acolyte when he indicated his interest in joining the Citadel. He was able to begin studying almost immediately as Lord Fossoway’s son (the hefty “donation” Fossoway had given his son as well help, thought Jon into his ale), and whatever conversation happened between Fossoway and his son before they left for Oldtown must have stuck with the youngest Fossoway boy, as the thirteen-year-old may have been interested in studying at the Citadel to become a Maester, but he had loyalty to his father’s request and was sharing information about the Citadel with Bran and Jon whenever he could.

It was a kind thought, but an unnecessary one, given Bran’s powers, realized Jon one evening, when Bran’s eyes rolled back in his head and went white, as he sent his mind careening through time and space for whatever information he was searching.

Jon sat on the edge of the bed in the room at the inn, remaining aware of Bran’s still form but also passing the time by bringing out a knife and inspecting the edges for knicks. He had gone through three knives when Bran’s eyes fluttered and the colour returned, the white bleeding back until his eyes were natural and dark.

“Found what you were looking for then?” Jon asked with a glance at him.

“Sam found it previously,” said Bran. “High Septon Maynard’s personal journals. That’s where we begin.”

“Well,” began Jon sardonically, “We’ll need to get inside the library, first.”

Bran rolled his eyes. “What do you think Mathias is for?”

Jon shifted uneasily on the bed. “Must we use him…?”

“He knows his duty,” said Bran cryptically, turning away from Jon, indicating that the conversation was done. Jon pursed his lips in response, tucking his annoyance at Bran’s high-handedness away; it wasn’t the time to confront him with the unsavoury parts of his new personality.

Mathias was eager to help the following day, growing confident in his role as an acolyte at the Citadel and snuck them in through a side servants’ entrance. Bran’s wheelchair made things a bit cumbersome, but with his eyes rolled back – something that spooked Mathias the first time he had seen it – they were able to use Bran’s greensight to remain out of sight from the Maesters and others until they arrived at the massive library.

“Eighth row,” murmured Bran, eyes fluttering as he dipped in and out of his sight in a way that Jon had never seen. He stared. Just how powerful was Bran? Was it still Bran, or Bloodraven? “Fifth shelf on the right, third from the bottom. Maynard’s journals.”

“Which one? There’s fourteen,” muttered back Mathias in a partial crouch, glancing through the thick tomes and gold letters on the outside.

Bran paused for a moment, then whispered, “Eleventh.”

Mathias quickly plucked it and passed it to Bran, who hid it under the sleeves and folds of his tunic and blanket, hiding the book effectively. Matthias shuffled the remaining books and scrolls to fill up the gap, so it wasn’t as obvious a book was missing and then turned to help them leave the library.

“Will you be back?” he asked quietly, turning down an empty corridor.

“Tomorrow,” replied Jon when Bran didn’t speak up. “Once we know what the next move is, Mathias, thank you.”

Mathias’ Adam’s apple bobbed, and he gave a very deferential bob of his head that Jon didn’t quite like. Jon eyed him suspiciously, but Mathias’ gaze skipped away and off to the side, making Jon’s stomach clench uncomfortably and drop.

Then it was back to the Inn – Bran doing Bran, and Jon leafing through the pages, almost half-heartedly, until he spotted Lyanna in cramped, spidery writing. He inhaled sharply, sitting up from his lounge on the bed, and pressed his nose close to the paper to read.

There were two entries, near each other but separated by a few months – although apparently nothing much happened in High Septon Maynard’s life worth documenting, so they were lines right after one another.

On this date, -- of --, 281AC, Rhaegar of House Targaryen, Prince of Dragonstone, has formally annulled his marriage with Elia of House Martell, formerly Princess of Dragonstone, Princess of Dorne; on grounds of inability to produce any further heirs. As so witnessed and signed by Maynard, High Septon of King’s Landing, and ---

And then: As witnessed by Septon ---, and sent for record-keeping to Maynard, High Septon of King’s Landing, Rhaegar of House Targaryen married Lyanna of House Stark on – of ---, 281AC at the Isle of Faces.

Underneath was information about where Maynard had slipped in the official wedding certificate at the Citadel with a trusted acolyte – beyond his personal journals, there was official proof of his parent’s wedding. Jon blinked and leaned back in surprise, unsure how to take the information he found. It was one thing to see that they were married – another that Rhaegar had annulled his marriage to Elia – was it all connected to Melissandre’s stupid prophecies? About Azor Ahai, the Prince Who Was Promised?

Jon’s mouth flattened in a hard line. He would find no information about Azor Ahai in Westeros… and Robb did want to go to Volantis… perhaps a stop in Asshai could be put forth? Volantis or Myr or even Pentos would surely have libraries of some kind? Or a place for archives?

“Bran,” muttered Jon, looking over to the other bed, where Bran was lying down, hands resting gently over his stomach. When he didn’t reply, Jon tried, louder: “Bran.”

Bran grunted. His voice was thick with sleep when he said, “What?”

“I know where we can find my parent’s marriage certificate.”

Bran leaned up on his elbows, blinking away sleep. His hair was a mess, and it was one of the few times that Jon felt he was truly himself. “Where?”

“Here, but in a different archive.”

“Mathias can get it then.”

Jon frowned. “He could read it and know – can we trust him—”

“You’ve trusted his father with the truth,” said Bran, lying back down but throwing an arm over his eyes. “You’ll have to start trusting people at some point.”

Trust, ha! Jon turned away from Bran, fingers caressing the still-open book lying on his bed. Trust did not get Jon very far in life: he trusted his brothers at the Watch, and they killed him. He wanted Sansa to trust him, so many times, but she did always find a way to undermine him by bringing the Vale soldiers (although that was a good thing, he just wished he had known), or telling Tyrion the truth about his parentage, which nearly caused Daenerys to erupt on him. Trust wasn’t something Jon had a good relationship with.

But it was exhausting going through life without trusting anyone. And he could admit it: there were times he looked at his brothers and sisters with a second glance, doubting them as much as he loved them.

Well, he thought with a small huff of laughter as he settled on his bed, I suppose that is something I’ll have to work on in this second chance. Trusting other people and hoping for the best.

Initially, Jon wasn’t sure they would find the Tower of Joy. In the few infamous retellings that would be spoken about in quick whispers around Winterfell, the rumours were that Ned Stark and Howland Reed had torn down the Tower with their bare hands in anger and despair before they returned North.

In Jon’s mind, that meant that the Tower was just that – a single, jutting architectural remnant from an old fortress or palace from a time before recording, during the Age of Heroes perhaps, or even a place for the Children of the Forest back when they roamed all of Westeros freely. As such, finding a singular tower, in a large, dense desert with only the knowledge of it being in the Prince’s Pass, could potentially mean weeks or even moons of searching.

“It’s near the base of the Red Mountains,” explained Bran with an air of exasperation. “I’ve told you this, Jon. On the western side of the range, about a hard day’s ride south of Vulture’s Roost through a mountain pass.”

“You can’t possibly be sure of that,” protested Jon, even as they followed Bran’s instructions and rode their horses south. At Jon’s side, Robb kept his mouth shut; for all he failed to understand Bran’s greenseer abilities, he had seen much in the months they had returned and knew better than to argue.

After finding his parent’s marriage certificate, Jon and Bran pilfered High Septon Maynard’s personal journal as further proof, said their goodbyes to Mathias (who would remain as an acolyte), and made their way to Horn Hill as a stop and meeting place for the rest of their siblings; it would also be where Fossoway's additional guards would leave them to rejoin their Lord, who remained at Highgarden. Jon and Bran had only been there three days before Robb, Sansa, Arya, and Rickon had arrived – which was good, as Jon was having trouble not intervening in his friends’ childhood difficulties whenever he saw Randyll Tarly berating Samwell.

They left quickly afterward and spent a long, roundabout journey from Horn Hill, skirting north and then northeast around the Red Mountains’ western caps and toward the Dornish marshes before turning south through the deep gulley and valley that was the Prince’s Pass. They bypassed Nightsong, hoping instead to manage on their rations until they reached the Vulture’s Roost (as they had a thing for staying in ruins) before searching out the Tower.

“I can be sure of that since I’ve been there before,” retorted Bran with an eye roll. They were just over a moon’s turn into their journey since leaving Horn Hill, and if one believed Bran, nearly where they needed to be.

“Have you ever thought,” began Sansa tartly at Jon, her red hair completely hidden by the silk scarf she had wrapped around her head for protection, “That the reason you are fighting Bran so hard on this topic is because you don’t want to see the Tower?”

“I want to see it!” protested Jon, even as Arya snorted from behind him on her horse. “I do! I just…” he slumped. “It was one thing saying I wished to see Summerhall and then we… well, we experienced that, didn’t we? I don’t exactly want to experience those last moments and my mother’s death at the Tower.”

“You won’t,” assured Bran. “I can’t return to a time that I’ve already been to, and I saw father’s fight with the Kingsguard and your birth. So, you can’t visit that time, either.”

All sense of fight seeped out of Jon at that. “Oh.”

“Yes,” echoed Bran flatly, exasperation leaking into his voice. “Oh.”

The Red Mountains of Dorne were not all desert; in fact, the deep, jagged valleys and gullies that formed passes on either side of the Prince’s Pass were cool respites for the scorching days, offering pockets of oasis springs or thick, canopied forests of hardy trees. It was only when they ventured out of those pockets, zigzagging their way along the base of the eastern mountain range, did they spot the famous red sand.

The reddish desert spread wide across the Pass, in gentle rolling dunes and speckled with clay-coloured rocks and fissures that jutted from the dunes in the same way that those who experienced the true North would say glaciers jutted up from the snowy expanse of Beyond the Wall. Still, cacti and tiny bushes with pink flowers dotted the landscape, breaking the monotony of the journey until, one late afternoon just as the sun was beginning to set behind the western range of the Red Mountains, casting long shadows, the Tower of Joy appeared.

“It’s not a single tower,” said Rickon stupidly, staring at the enormous, ruined fortress that sat at the top of a pile of sharp, red rocks. There was a gentle slope winding around the base of the rocks, leading to a single entry point, which they began to follow.

The fortress itself was of the same colour of the rocks, a rusty red, merging into the rockface itself and giving the impression that the Tower of Joy one day just erupted from the rock fully formed, with tiny slits for windows overlooking a near-perfect 360-degree view of the surrounding grounds. There were thick walls encasing the fortress, although parts appeared crumbled, creating a deep V in the fortified walls.

As they rode closer, growing silent, Jon tilted his head back, taking in the square guard towers at the corners of the fortress. There were curved archways that mimicked windows, providing a large space to look out from and most likely provided light for an enclosed walkway.

But it was the tall, round tower that was the focal point of the Tower of Joy, and most likely why it was named as such: located not centrally to the fortress, but close to the front entry, the tower rose and loomed over the other square towers by several stories and remained mostly intact, the same reddish colour as everything else. There were clear lines that noted the floors, running parallel to the ground and forming rings; additionally, there were no windows until the topmost floor, following that arched pattern elsewhere in the fort, except on a smaller scale.

Their horses slowed as they approached the entry, until Robb said, quietly, “Oh.”

Jon tore his eyes from the walls, looking toward his brother and then at what caught his gaze. The others drew their horses back to stop, and they fell silent, eyes downward at the row of long, but narrow, rock mounds just off the entrance. There were no grave markers, but it was clear they had found the hastily made graves that their father and Howland had made for their fallen Northmen.

“There’s three more over here,” said Arya quietly, jutting her chin opposite of the five mounds. Jon glanced over and saw that one of the three rocks had a strangely shaped helm at the head, with what appeared to be batwings emerging from either side.

“Father’s men and the kingsguard,” mused aloud Sansa. There was something sad in her voice. “How far from home they are.”

Robb dismounted first, helping Sansa absently while Arya and Rickon dismounted easily; Jon took his time, sliding from his horse before helping Bran, although he seemed more focused on surveying the land around them, dark eyes lingering on a small rise nearby.

They all seemed slow, hesitant in unpacking their gear. Robb abandoned his set chores first, moving to the five graves and then kneeling before them, head bowed. He was then joined by Arya and Rickon, all offering their own thoughts and prayers to men from the North.

Jon’s head swivelled between the five graves being attended by his siblings to the three left alone and found his feet taking him before the men who pledged to his father before their king.

What kind of men were they? he wondered. They all knew the stories of Ser Arthur Dayne, the Sword of the Morning; about his prowess and skill with the sword, his honour; but what did they know of Oswell Whent? Or Gerold Hightower, the Lord Commander himself? What made those men pledge to Rhaegar over Aerys, that they would willingly remove themselves from the battles Rhaegar was about to face, without his most loyal men at his side? Jon was sure that had they not been at the Tower of Joy, but at Rhaegar’s side on the Trident, it would’ve been Robert Baratheon who died that day, instead.

What would it have been like, growing up with those famous men guarding not just Rhaegar, but one day, Jon himself? He had never had a kingsguard, even when he had been King in the North – Tormund was the closest he had to someone who guarded his back during battles. After the betrayal of his men when he was Lord Commander of the Watch, Jon knew he had trouble trusting others to guard him. How would it feel to have the security of those men at his back? Supporting him?

He then grimaced; they were men and fallible, capable of betraying those they were sworn to if they had a good enough reason. Jaime Lannister had demonstrated that, and regardless of the Kingsguard existing to protect the king, there had been a clear split in the seven men in who they showed their allegiance, with many of them following Rhaegar instead. Perhaps only Darry and Barristan had been truly loyal to Aerys – Martell was only going through the motions with his niece and grandniece and grandnephew hostages in King’s Landing just as Jaime Lannister had been for Tywin’s good behaviour; Hightower, Whent, and Dayne had been with Rhaegar.

It doesn’t matter now, a voice piped up in Jon’s mind, and he gave a shuddering breath. They’re all dead anyway.

Dead, and forgotten.

Jon turned his back on the graves to return to the others, who had spread out, Arya starting a fire as night quickly fell. Soon, they were settled in a semicircle around the pit, their backs to the fortress foundation and wall behind them, looking out toward the Pass. They were steps away from the graves, and Jon felt his eyes constantly drawn to the kingsguard.

Robb caught the path of his gaze and leaned forward with a frown of concern. “What are you thinking, Snow?”

“Nothing,” he immediately replied.

“Horse sh*t,” said Arya, just as quickly from his side. She poked him with a bony finger, and it hurt. “I know that face.”

Affronted, Jon asked, “What face?”

That one,” replied Arya, her bony finger reaching up and poking him on his forehead.

“Ow, Arya!”

“What? You’re making your broody face,” she explained. “Heavy frown, thick eyebrows—”

The pout,” whispered Robb gleefully. “I remember that time when Theon and I—” his face shuttered as he realized what he was about to say, and he quickly cut himself off, swallowing thickly and looking away from the fire.

Sansa, shivering a bit as the air cooled quickly in the desert, spoke up next. “What is bothering you, Jon?”

“Nothing, truly—”

“You’re still a piss-poor liar, Jon,” snorted Arya. “Try again.”

He sighed, gustily. “Truly, it’s nothing important. I just…” he trailed off. “I don’t know. I suppose… I was just thinking about… well, them. The kingsguard. About what made them follow Rhaegar here. About why they fought with father – why they didn’t just… stop and think—”

“It was war, Jon,” said Bran quietly from his spot next to Sansa and Robb. “They did talk, you know – and maybe, I reckon, there was a moment when the swords could have been put away. But they were too unsure about father and his loyalties and their final orders from Rhaegar to do anything else when the time came.”

Tentatively, Rickon asked with a wary glance at Jon, “What did they speak of?”

“You mentioned some phrases before, to father,” added Sansa, almost gingerly, but also curious about what Bran saw that day.

Bran frowned and closed his eyes, thinking back to when he would stand on his own two legs, Bloodraven next to him. The heat from the Dornish sun, the quiet across the desert plains, the clink of armour all came back to him.

I looked for you on the Trident, father said,” murmured Bran, eyes still closed. “We weren’t there. Your friend the usurper would lie beneath the ground if we had been, they said.”

Robb snorted. “A bit rich of them calling Robert Baratheon a usurper given what Aerys’ ancestor Aegon did to Westeros when he arrived to conquer it.”

Shhh,” admonished Arya, eyes bright as she leaned closer to Bran, fixated on his words.

“Father said that both Aerys and Rhaegar were dead, and then he questioned why the kingsguard weren’t there to protect either of them,” continued Bran, eyes opening with a tiny frown on his face. “He kept… waiting. Hesitating. He didn’t want to fight them.”

“They were some of the best swords in Westeros,” offered Jon slowly.

“Father was a Northman, we fight all our enemies regardless of if we will win or not,” retorted Rickon, crossing his arms and leaning back against his saddlebag, stretching out. He wasn’t as interested in the conversation, now. He was also starting to bulk up, his body changing from weedy to filling out and taking up more space - and he was the one who was eating most of the rations, much to Sansa's displeasure and careful portioning.

“He just wanted Aunt Lyanna,” said Bran quietly. “He asked about her. It was Ser Arthur who tipped things when they didn’t answer him. Dayne said… he said,” Bran’s frown deepened. “I wish you good fortune in the wars to come.”

“They were never going to tell father where Aunt Lyanna was,” sighed Sansa, looking down. “They were too devoted to Rhaegar’s memory.” Her lips twisted bitterly. “I know the devotion that those kinds of men have.”

Jon shot her a worried look, knowing she was thinking of her own time with Joffrey’s kingsguard. How different would his life have been if there was just one of them who thought beyond their duty, beyond their orders? If there had been a Sandor Clegane on Rhaegar’s kingsguard who finally said, “f*ck the king”? Would things have been better? Or worse?

“Stop it,” chastised Robb, catching Jon’s attention and making him jerk his head up from where he was staring into the fire. Robb was staring at Jon, a hard look on his face. “Stop it. You’re overthinking it. What if this? What if that?”

“What do you know what I’m thinking?” asked Jon, a bit sharp at having been caught out.

Robb scoffed. “Do you think I didn’t do the same when I was named King in the North? I constantly questioned everything I did – every action, every decision I made. Oh, never aloud for my men to hear me, but every night, every quiet moment I had. I thought ‘what if’ – and you know what it did?”

“No. What?” asked Jon.

Robb’s response was wry. “Nothing. It changed nothing except stopping me from eating and sleeping properly. My fear began to rule me until uncle – that is, the Blackfish – took me aside and sorted me out.” His blue eyes bore into Jon. “So, this is me, sorting you out, brother. It’s in the past. It can’t be changed. We can only go forward.”

Jon let out a gusty breath. “Aye, you’re right.” He paused. “Only…”

“Only?” echoed Sansa.

“I know so little of my parents – mostly what others have said,” admitted Jon. “Summerhall helped, I think, speaking to Duncan and Aegon, but…”

“They weren’t Rhaegar or Lyanna,” sighed Sansa, eyes shining wetly with understanding. “Oh, Jon…”

“I can show you,” offered Bran quietly, “Take you back – not to that night, I can’t – but here. Maybe you can see them together, see if they were truly in love or if it were just lust.”

Jon certainly didn’t want to see his parents doing that – and the thought must have been on his face because Arya and Rickon began laughing when Bran cried, “No, no, Jon, Gods, I’m not going to show that!”

It broke the tension in the group, sending Sansa and Robb off laughing as well, and Jon felt the warm rush of heat flood his cheeks and he took the good-natured ribbing that came with his ill-placed thoughts.He grumbled as their laughs died down, Arya wiping tears from her cheeks.

“I just meant a random day.” Bran shook his head and then shot him a mischievous grin, something so alien on his face that Jon stared. “And should your parents be doing that, then perhaps you could watch the kingsguard and get to know them.”

“Do you think they’d see Jon? Like the Dayne and Fossoway did?” asked Robb curiously.

Bran’s grin slipped into a pensive look. “I… well, Ser Arthur was a Dayne, so perhaps? But Whent and Hightower were not the blood of the First Men. Nor was Rhaegar.”

“It’s a risk,” offered Arya. She turned to glance at Jon and then Bran. “Could I come? Not to meet your parents, but to watch the kingsguard? Sansa and Robb went with you to Summerhall and it’s not fair that I missed out—”

Jon laughed. “Aye, fine.”

Rickon perked up, sitting upright. “Me too?”

Bran groaned. “Fine. Can we do this now?”

There was a scramble as Arya and Rickon move from their places by the fire to squish in the tight space between Bran and then Robb and Sansa on either side of him, forcing Robb to cry out about Arya’s sharp elbows and Sansa to say something snarky about Rickon’s body odor – but they then settled and Jon was last, awkwardly hovering behind Bran.

“Ready?” asked Bran, uselessly, because the second they all touched Bran’s skin, the world was spinning like it had with Summerhall and there was a sense of vertigo, and then the cool evening air was gone, replaced with the blistering hot midday sun.

Arya blinked, holding a hand up to shield her eyes. She whistled, tilting her head back to look up at the Tower. “It’s the same.”

“Ugh,” groaned Rickon, bent in half at the waist. “Is that how it feels? Gods, I think I’m going to be sick.”

“You get used to it,” replied Jon absently, running a hand over his pulled-back hair. His dark eyes traversed up the path, through the entryway and what waited beyond. “Shall we?”

The four of them, Bran trailing behind, climbed the stairs and entered the Tower of Joy, passing through the thick, cool walls of the fortified wall and instantly were soothed by the temperature change. They entered a narrow, rectangular courtyard, made of stone with tiny sunken beds of foliage, giving life and colour to the dusty red walls. Brightly coloured tiles lined the border of the sunken beds, all different designs and patterns, and were repeated against one of the courtyard walls where a tiny basin caught water trickling out of a spout above it. A line with bedsheets and a green dress fluttered above then, hanging from one end of the courtyard to the other, between a window against a tall inner wall and an enclosed balcony opposite, a flight of stairs running parallel to the balcony to the second floor.

“Which way?” asked Arya, keeping hushed in awe and respect.

Bran nodded to a passthrough under the balcony, arched in the same design as all the other windows. There was a faint sound of ringing swords and cries. “I believe the kingsguard is sparring through there.”

Rickon and Arya shared an eager look and took off; Arya kept to the walls, using her training to move silently while Rickon practically leapt from shadowy recess to recess, moving quickly with a powerful stride as they passed under the balcony.

“Are you remaining here?” asked Jon, turning to Bran.

Bran nodded, looking around. There was a bench before one of the sunken garden beds. “It’s… relaxing here. Quiet. I’ll wait.”

“Are you sure?”

Bran nodded again, moving toward the bench, and sitting down in a sunspot, closing his eyes, and tilting his head back as he enjoyed the warmth. Jon hesitated, watching Bran carefully for any odd moments, but then walked away.

First, he edged through the passthrough but remained in its shadows, peering out at the larger courtyard. Rickon and Arya were slightly crouched behind two separate support columns (there must have been another balcony overlooking that yard, thought Jon), but neither had heard his feet skittering stones and kicking up dust as he approached. Instead, their focus was on the three men, swords held aloft, as they moved through a series of forms.

Jon’s eyes were drawn from one to the next slowly: first, it was a larger man with a shock of greying hair, sweat-slicked. He wore full kingsguard armour and was the one watching the forms of the second man, calling out different numbers and sets. His commanding nature and bark identified him as Gerold Hightower.

The second man, the one he was instructing, wore the helm that was on the grave outside the Tower, the bats’ helm. Oswell Whent was sweating profusely, wearing less armour than Hightower but every so often he’d stop and use the edge of his white cloak to mop the sweat from his reddish face, one that matched his reddish hair.

The last man, younger than the other two, was left alone, off to the side as he moved through his forms with a fluidity and ease that indicated he had slipped into a meditative state. His eyes were closed against his tanned face, his black hair messy with the tiniest curls to the ends. His arm muscles rippled as his sword swung quickly through the air, making a whistling noise.

Arthur Dayne spun on his heel, in a slight crouch, and split the air with Dawn fully extended toward his left with his right arm out to balance it; Jon felt his eyebrows rise. He hadn’t known that Arthur fought with a dominant left hand, like Arya.

He watched for a few moments longer as Arthur’s hands gripped his hilt and he moved to brace the sword upright, fighting an invisible enemy, or just losing himself in the smooth motions familiar to him. Quietly, Jon turned on his heel and slipped back down the passthrough to the original courtyard and then, after a quick glance at Bran who hadn’t moved, he climbed the stairs.

The Tower of Joy was enormous, with long, covered balconies that overlooked gardens and yards, some filled with greenery and others nothing more than dusty bowls of neglect. There were dark, wooden doors with latticed patterns and black iron handles recessed into the reddish walls, but most rooms were locked or empty when Jon poked his head in. Eventually, after having turned down another flight of stairs and across a lattice-covered path that created patterned shadows on the tiled floor, Jon heard a feminine laugh and paused.

When the peel of laughter rang out a second time, from the end of the path he was on, he hurried toward it and stepped into one of the few green gardens: tall trees, dripping with leaves, shaded the narrow space. There were terracotta pots filled with short, thin shrubs and others with larger trees with wide leaves leaving a sweet smell in the air, one that reminded Jon of Sansa’s namedays—

Oh, he thought, stepping off from the beige tiles of the latticed path to a bright green, white, and yellow diamond-shaped design that led straight and toward the raised pedestal fountain. Lemon trees.

A thin girl with thick hair piled in a messy bun, her back to Jon, was leaning over the pedestal fountain, bare feet poking out from underneath her gauzy skirt. She stood in a sunken star-shaped pool, with the pedestal fountain in the middle of it, cooling her feet in the overflowing water.

The girl laughed again, and Jon saw water in the fountain splash – a bird was bathing itself in front of her, ducking under in the water and rising quickly up and fluffing itself as it beat its wings. Water sprinkled and hit the girl in her face, making her laugh some more. Mid-laugh, she turned partially, giving Jon an unobstructed view of her profile: a long, pale face with a sloped nose and wide mouth.

His breath hitched. Lyanna. Mother.

He must have moved, made a noise, because the girl stilled, straightening her back and turning to look around the courtyard, eyes wary. “Ser Arthur? Ser Oswell?”

When no one answered her, she turned further, gripping the edge of the fountain until she was facing Jon, the fountain between them and her dress hanging loose. She narrowed her brown eyes at him.

“Who are you?” she asked, voice tart. Jon swallowed and stepped further into the yard, into a beam of sunlight and then he stopped, letting her gaze at him. Her eyes narrowed further, taking in his heavier leathers, his pulled-back black hair, lingering on his sword. “You’re from the North.”

“Aye,” replied Jon thickly, feeling as though his tongue was thrice its normal size. It made his voice husky. “I am.”

“Did my brother send you?” demanded Lyanna, not moving from the fountain.

“In a manner of speaking,” answered Jon slowly. Ned Stark had suggested Jon visit these old haunts if he could.

“What does that mean?” she spat, hand flexing on the tiled edge of the fountain. She slowly stepped around it, revealing her large, pregnant belly.

Jon inhaled, sharply, as his eyes dropped to it.

Lyanna’s hands came to rest protectively on the swell, a glare on her face even as she took a defensive step back. “I won’t go back—”

“I’m not here to take you back,” said Jon quietly, making no move to step forward or crowd her.

Lyanna frowned. “Then why are you here?”

“I suppose,” said Jon thickly, “I just wanted to speak to you.”

She stared at him, and Jon took the time to savour her: her face, so similar to Arya’s but altogether different and unique; the tall, strong quality of her frame and stance, the hint freckles on her face from the Dornish sun.

Desperately, as Jon already knew what Aegon and Duncan looked like, he went searching in her features for hints that he saw in the mirror and found them in the shape of her full mouth, the texture of her thick hair. He may have been raised at Eddard Stark’s son, but he was his mother’s through and through, her Northern complexion and colouring the one he inherited over his father’s Targaryen looks.

“Step closer, Ser,” she demanded, but her voice was cautious and hesitant.

“I’m not a Ser,” replied Jon, taking a step forward.

“My Lord,” she offered next.

Jon shook his head; another step was taken forward. “Not a Lord, neither.”

“Not a Ser, nor a Lord,” she mused aloud, eyes sharp as she watched him. “You don’t seem like a sellsword. Are you?”

“No,” he answered readily, a step forward. He was within an arm’s length of the fountain, now.

“A tradesman off the path?” she queried, her voice taking a teasing lilt as she smiled.

“I have no wares to sell you,” replied Jon, his own mouth turning upward exactly as hers did.

“No sellsword or tradesman and yet you are as Northern as the cold wind blows.” Lyanna’s eyes crinkled as she stepped away from the fountain and tilted her head back to look at him. She wasn’t nearly as short as Arya, who barely topped Jon’s shoulder, but she wasn’t as tall as Sansa, either. “What say you?”

Jon’s tongue came out to wet his lips nervously. “When the snows fall and the white winds blow, the lone wolf—”

“Dies, but the pack survives,” breathed Lyanna, eyes wide. Her eyes darted all over Jon’s face, from his hair to the scar that bisected his left eye, the other just over is right eyebrow; to his trimmed beard and mustache – her eyes catalogued his dark eyes and their shape, his full, downturned mouth.

He swallowed thickly, his Adam’s apple bobbing.

She raised a shaking hand and let her fingertips graze the rough skin just above his beard, skimming up his cheek. Lightning seemed to shoot from where she touched and Jon gave a full-body shudder, his eyes falling closed without thought.

Her hand pressed harder against his chin and Jon brought his hand up to press it tight against him, memorizing the feel of his mother’s touch.

“My son,” whispered Lyanna, and Jon’s eyes opened to look at her. She was staring up at him in wonder, mouth parted. Her other hand cradled her pregnant belly. The awe in her face quickly shifted to amusem*nt. “And Rhaegar thought you would be a girl.”

Jon gave a startled, wet laugh. “Mother.”

“Oh,” breathed Lyanna, reaching up and wrapping her arms around his neck to draw him down into a hug. And it was so strange, for Jon, to academically realize he was twenty-four and hugging his mother who was barely sixteen, a tiny slip of a girl who sent the entire continent into war.

But it was his mother, and as Jon hugged back to him tightly, burying his face in the crook of her neck with his eyes squeezed shut tightly, he realized that if dying twice meant this could happen, he would do it again, and again, and however other many times needed if he could steal a second longer with the mother he never knew.

TBC...

Notes:

Cranking them out, cranking them out. I couldn't sleep and ended up daydreaming/planning several scenes in further detail, so uh. Yeah. More updates sooner, I suppose? I say that now but it probably won't happen. But then again, I am using fanfic as avoidance for my Ph.D. diss... 😬

Chapter 10: X

Summary:

In which the author spends far too much time, again, in a place not in her notes. Jon and Lyanna have a heart-to-heart and Ser Arthur Dayne nearly has a heart attack.

Notes:

For Lyanna and Jon's section, I listened to a Anastasia ambiance playlist, which really set the mood. Everything else afterward was the Shadow & Bone OST, although in a random order on my Spotify.

I've also decided to change things up: Arthur has black hair and purple eyes, like my fancast of Ashara (Anya Chalotra, who plays Yennifer in the Witcher), instead of going the usual route of blond hair and purple eyes. I used Mark Rowley, who plays Finan from The Last Kingdom in the role.

Chapter Text

X:

Memories of Tomorrow - writing_as_tracey (10)

Lyanna and Jon began a slow amble around the expansive grounds that made up the Tower of Joy, her hand delicately resting on the inside of his offered arm. Lyanna was the one leading them, though, taking odd corners and down darkened pathways that were long, cool tunnels offering respite from the Dornish heat.

They were silent for a bit, allowing Jon time to marvel at their height difference, and the sound of Lyanna’s skirt swishing as she walked, her slippers dangling from two fingers in her other hand.

Finally, she said, quietly, “You missed Rhaegar. He rode out just two nights ago when Ser Gerold arrived.”

“To war?” asked Jon, hesitantly.

Lyanna nodded. “It’ll take him some time to link up with the Targaryen infantry. I believe the Reach is focusing elsewhere – or that’s what Ser Gerold said.”

Jon hummed in acknowledgement.

“Do you know where the fighting will be?”

“Aye,” said Jon, although the word was mostly a sigh. “The Trident.”

Lyanna grimaced. “So, he’ll face the Riverlands, the Vale, and the North – all against the Crownlands and Dorne.”

“Not the Westerlands?” asked Jon carefully, glancing down at her.

“No,” replied Lyanna, shaking her head. Her fingers tightened on his arm. “Not after Ser Jaime’s appointment to the kingsguard, I reckon.”

They fell to silence again, and Lyanna steered them up a narrow passage, taking the lead with Jon trailing behind her. The stairs wound round and round, and eventually, they entered a room, bathed with warm sunlight. There was a large bed piled with pillows of different colours, a few standing wardrobes, and a hearth opposite the wooden bed. There were a few books on a table, but otherwise, it was bereft of anything personal.

“Come, sit,” offered Lyanna, pointing to one of the chairs at the table, even as she perched on the bed and carefully fluffed pillows as support. She sighed in pleasure once off her feet.

Jon grabbed a chair and sat near her at the head of the bed, still partially mesmerized at being able to see and speak to his mother after so many years of wondering. Speaking to Duncan and Aegon had been – well, not necessarily pleasant, but still nice – but his mother? Lyanna stretched out a hand and Jon took it eagerly, the two peering at each other with identical dark eyes.

For a long time, they were silent, just watching each other, taking in each other’s presence, until finally, Jon squeezed Lyanna’s hand, and she let them gently drop. Her hands went to curl around her stomach, resting on the bump.

“I must ask,” began Jon carefully, wetting his lips as he looked at his lap and his hands, palms up. “Did you – did you run away, or – or, were you—”

“Kidnapped?” finished Lyanna wryly. Jon glanced up at her from under his lashes, but she was turned away, facing one of the windows, letting a shaft of sunlight break apart and splatter across her. Her brows were furrowed, and her mouth was turned down. She sighed. “I don’t remember anymore. It’s all – it’s all a blur, truly.”

“What do you mean?” Jon’s mouth equally turned down.

Lyanna reached out and played with a loose thread on her bedcover. “Did I run away with Rhaegar? Aye. Did I stay with him, after we heard what – what happened—” her breath hitched but she powered through, “to Brandon and Father? Aye, I did. I turned to him for comfort and—”

She glanced at Jon and then caressed her bump. “Well.”

Jon cleared his suddenly clogged throat. “Well,” he echoed, looking away.

“I would have told you this,” said Lyanna, quietly. But it rang through the room like a cloister bell, and Jon twitched in his chair, swallowing thickly. “I would have told you—but you are asking me.”

“Aye,” he said hoarsely.

“Tell me,” Lyanna demanded, imperiously, sounding like the noble lady she was and petulant teenager – Arya and Rickon rolled in one, truly – all at once. “I’m dead, aren’t I?”

“Aye,” repeated Jon, his throat scratchy and blinking quickly against the wet sheen in his eyes.

Lyanna fell quiet. “I never asked you your name.” She gave a tiny, annoyed huff, aimed at herself. “I was more amused that Rhaegar didn’t get the girl he wanted, enamoured with the idea of my child being as contrary as I, to not ask—”

“Jon.” Jon shut his mouth quickly with a clack of his teeth, and then continued with a murmur, “It’s ah – it’s Jon.”

Jon?” she repeated, bewilderment coating the word. Lyanna’s face was a twisted mixture of disbelief and dislike.At his look, she hastily added, “It’s a perfectly fine name, but uh…”

Jon’s mouth twisted wryly. “Not one you would have chosen?”

“Er, no,” she replied slowly. “I… well, I suppose I’ve been calling you other Northern names in my mind – if Rhaegar did not get his Visenya, I would have called you something Northern.”

“Like what?” curiosity roared through Jon – although he was quite partial to the only name he had ever known.

Lyanna gave a tiny shrug. “Perhaps Edrick, or Dorren. Maybe Rickon, after my father.”

“My youngest brother is a Rickon,” said Jon with a smile. When Lyanna stared at him, he elaborated, “I was raised with Father’s – er, Eddard’s – children. I thought we were half-siblings.”

“Ned?” repeated Lyanna incredulously. “My big brother Ned? Raised by Jon Arryn’s hand believing in honour and goodness in others? That Ned? Raising you as a Snow?”

Jon nodded weakly.

Lyanna sat back on the bed, expelling a burst of air, eyes wide as she stared at Jon. “Well,” she murmured. “That explains the name.”

“I could’ve been named after Jon Stark, the builder of Wolf’s Den,” protested Jon, but it was lightly done.

Lyanna snickered. “Of course, yet I reckon it was for Jon Arryn.”

“Makes sense, since Robb is the eldest of the Stark children,” sighed Jon. “Or, well, was. Time travel gets confusing.”

“Is that what’s happened? You’ve travelled here?” asked Lyanna.

Jon held up a hand, flat, and teetered it back and forth. “Mayhaps? It’s… uh, hard to explain.”

Try, Jon.”

Well, thought Jon, there’s that motherly tone I only ever heard Lady Catelyn demand of her children when they had done something she disagreed with. Never thought I would be at the receiving end of it.

He cleared his throat. “I, uh. We died. In our future. Time. At different points – Robb first, then Rickon; then well, I suppose the last of us – uh, Sansa, Arya, Bran, and myself – so we are much older in comparison. Robb and I are the same age, but I am four-and-twenty and he is still nine-and-ten, the age he died.” Jon frowned, blinking as he thought. “Oh, well, his nameday is soon, so he’ll be twenty—”

He stopped at Lyanna’s stricken face. “You’re – you died—!”

“I don’t really remember it much, at least, the second time—”

SECOND!” shrieked Lyanna, struggling to sit up in a quick, jostling manner that had Jon rising from his seat to help steady her.

Blabbering in panic, Jon attempted to fix things. “Honestly, the first time was painful – being stabbed repeated – but it worked out fine! Truly, Mother! A witch from Asshai resurrected me – Melisandre, an odd creature, for sure – and it was certainly better than being turned into a wight or fighting an Other, which certainly isn’t easy…”

Lyanna incomprehensively stared at Jon. “What?” she gasped, weakly.

Jon winced. “I, uh, should probably explain…”

And so he did: explaining not how he grew up as the Bastard of Winterfell, the one stain on Ned Stark's honour, but rather about his decision to go to the Wall, about Sam, Pyp, Grenn, and the others; about Qorin Halfhand's final orders and his infiltration of Mance's Wildlings and falling for Ygritte, about the truth of the undead and the Night King, Hardhome, the stubbornness of the Watch... and then, trailing off, of Davos, Melisandre, and a hundred stabs...

But Lyanna’s eyes were vacant, thoughts turned inward, and she murmured, “Rhaegar’s prophecy…”

Jon paused. “Prophecy?”

His mother’s eyes turned back to him, and for the first time, Jon thought he could see the woman she would have turned into, had she lived: the long face, the tense, pinched looked around her eyes and the downward turn of her mouth as the gravity of the topic took over her.

“Rhaegar’s prophecy…” she repeated slowly. “It was… well, there are letters between Rhaegar and me, where we corresponded for moons. He charmed me, and—” she looked away, a blush on her fair face. “I was charmed, despite knowing he was married. But – he made it all sound so grand, Jon! I didn’t want to be someone’s wife and be cossetted in some castle, embroidering my life away. I wanted to live, to ride horses and feel the wind in my hair, and be free to go new places, try new things…”

She trailed off, her voice wistful. Jon’s heart clenched. Was this how Arya had felt for so many years growing up in Winterfell, under Lady Catelyn, Septa Mordane, and Sansa’s shadow? Was this who Arya would’ve turned into, had their father not been executed and the war of the five kings never happened?

“You must think me so foolish,” muttered Lyanna, voice sliding into bitterness. “To have my head turned by a married man, who told me I could be part of something greater than myself, to make a difference in the very fate of Westeros’ history…”

“Is that what he told you?” asked Jon, careful to keep his voice neutral and soft.

She began tracing patterns on the cover. “Aye. The Targaryen prophecy, first; that the dragon must have three heads. Princess Elia could not carry another healthy child to term, and Rhaegar said another was needed, to balance out Rhaenys and Aegon. A Visenya.”

Lyanna gave Jon a rather pointed look, however self-deprecating it was.

“Rhaegar chose me – me, Jon – over beauties like Cersei Lannister or Catelyn Tully, or a Tyrell or Hightower. I felt… I felt so special,” gushed Lyanna, lost in the memories, although they were tinged with a vague sense of sadness to them. “He mentioned the Pact.”

Jon’s nose scrunched up. “The Pact of Fire and Ice?”

Her face lit up. “You know of it?”

“Vaguely…?”

“At the beginning of the Dance of Dragons, Prince Jacaerys Velaryon visited Winterfell to gain House Stark and the North for the cause of his mother, Queen Rhaenyra Targaryen. He supposedly wed Cregan Stark’s bastard daughter, but nothing came of it and no one knows if it truly happened,” explained Lyanna, smiling. Her voice was enthusiastic, and it amused Jon to think his mother adored history. “Had the marriage happened and they had issue, their firstborn daughter would marry Cregan’s son and heir, Rickon.”

“Which never happened,” finished Jon. “Rickon Stark married a Manderly.”

Lyanna’s head bobbed. “Aye – so the Pact wasn’t complete. A Targaryen and Stark were to marry and join their houses – and while Cregan received much praise and honour, there was no marriage.”

“Until you. And Rhaegar.” Jon was beginning to see things – the bigger picture – as pieces connected with solid, firm snaps in his mind. He felt sick.

“Until Rhaegar,” sighed Lyanna, not realizing the connections Jon was making - the ugly picture that she painted without realizing. “The dragon must have three heads, and the Pact would benefit House Targaryen, bringing the loyalty of the North into the fold.”

Jon did not hold back his snort of derision.

“I know.” Lyanna made a face, looking so young as she did so. “But at the time I didn’t see how wrong it could all go – I was caught up in the romance of it, Jon! I had thought we were being careful, safe – but I was attacked near Harrenhal. I was supposed to meet Rhaegar at the Isle of Faces but before we arrived, we were set upon by these… outriders. They were too well-armed for mercenaries or smallfolk, but Rhaegar arrived with the kingsguard and saved me. We left immediately for the Isle and married. It was… dashing, Jon.”

“Dashing?” Jon made a skeptical face. “I have always been under the impression that you had the wolf’s blood. Wild, untamed, independent—”

Lyanna rolled her eyes so hard that Jon thought they’d disappear completely. “So, if I have the wolf’s blood, I am unable to be a woman as well? I want to be known for more than just one thing – a woman and a fighter, both; can I not enjoy romance and stories of knights while wishing to bash my shield against a lowly squire acting poorly?”

There was no correct way for Jon to answer that, and he had no desire to upset his mother in the only chance he'd probably ever have to speak to her, so he kept quiet.

“Rhaegar and I married, and then we left immediately for here,” continued Lyanna. “At first, everything was wonderful. It was about more than just the Targaryen prophecy, or the Pact. He had alluded to this other prophecy – one he thought had meant him, initially, but then he believed it was about Aegon, his son, who was the Prince—”

“—Who Was Promised,” finished Jon with a scowl.

Lyanna paused. “You know it?”

“Oh, aye, I know that one well,” replied Jon bitterly. “It has been a bane of my life for the last several years.”

Slowly, Lyanna said, “You’re the Prince.”

“We believe so,” he admitted. “Melisandre thought it was Stannis for a long time, but Bran… well, toward the end, it seemed like I was the one it meant.”

“Why? How?” asked Lyanna, eyes wide.

“The coming of a hero to deliver the world from darkness, Azor Ahai, the Prince Who Was Promised,” repeated Jon with a monotonous voice of rote memory. “Born again amidst smoke and salt, under a red, bleeding star.”

“But—”

Born again,” stressed Jon. “Twice – I died twice, once when my brothers at the Wall murdered me, and then once again fighting the Long Night.”

To her credit, Lyanna did not speak, just watched Jon with wide eyes and a parted mouth.

“I was paraphrasing earlier – the bleeding star comes first,” explained Jon, bitter. “Ser Arthur Dayne. The Sword of the Morning – a falling star that bled red, the last of the Kingsguard during my initial birth.”

Lyanna had a hand pressed to her mouth, to stifle her shocked gasp.

“Or perhaps it means Lightbringer, the sword of Azor Ahai,” continued Jon, blithely, “Or perhaps the vows I took as a member of the Night’s Watch: I am the fire that burns against the cold, the light that brings the dawn.”

He shrugged. “Who knows what prophecies mean. They mean anything people want them to, and yet nothing all the same. But if I am the one who brings the people of Westeros together to fight for the living, then so be it: I shall be Azor Ahai, I shall be their Promised Prince.”

He cut a sharp glance at his mother, watching her carefully for her response. She was shocked, her face wrecked. “Jon… I – I wish I could be there for you.”

“’Tis fine,” he muttered thickly, glancing away.

Lyanna struggled up and off the bed, sliding her way toward him until her feet dangled off the side and she could partially lean over her pregnant belly. She extended her arm and cupped Jon’s face with her hands, forcing him to look at her.

“It’s not,” she whispered, voice stricken. “Rhaegar and I were swept along with this grand idea of a hero to save Westeros. I never imagined what it would mean for that child, not until – not until you. I’m so sorry, Jon. I’m sorry.”

He gave her a weak smile. What could he say? Lyanna had died young, in childbirth; that was not something she could necessarily fight against herself. She was a young and silly girl, running from her responsibilities but thinking she was part of something greater. It was Jon’s past – that couldn’t change. He was only given that moment with her, to learn some answers.

“I know,” he said instead.

Eventually, they spoke again, of inconsequential things, getting to know one another with tentative inquiries. What is your favourite colour? What food do you dislike? What was your hiding spot in Winterfell? But finally, Lyanna said she needed to eat and insisted that they leave the Tower in the fortress to visit the kitchens, which had been cleaned and partially fixed up over the years of Rhaegar’s visits to the Tower of Joy. It was still bare-bones, but functional.

“And perhaps I can meet my niece and nephews?” Lyanna suggested, eyes a bit red-rimmed but trying to inject levity into her voice.

“Aye,” agreed Jon.

They found Arya, Rickon, and Bran first, in a completely different part of the fortress than Jon had left them. It was a long, rectangular, and sand-filled courtyard with two high walls on the longer side, furthest from the entrance to the Tower. The outer wall was partially crumbled, thick stones creating a ramp to a V-shaped hole in the wall, which revealed a straight drop over the edge of the crest the fortress was built upon. Opposite the outer wall was a covered walkway, with columns separating several arched entries to the courtyard.

However, the focal point was the bone-white, dried out and twisted tree trunk along one of the long courtyard walls. It had bent and was partially uprooted by the crumbling stones, leaning it leaning precariously to the side. There was a faint etching of a face on the trunk.

Bran, Rickon, and Arya were all climbing over the large chunks of stone. Bran was closest to the ground, crouching before the trunk with a hand pressed against it and his eyes closed; Rickon and Arya had taken to the higher points of the rock wall with Rickon looking out toward the Dornish desert and Arya back toward the courtyard.

She was the first to spot them, muttering to Bran and Rickon, just as Lyanna came to a stop beside him, gasping, “A weirwood tree!”

“I thought you two were watching the kingsguard train,” called Jon at Rickon and Arya, who scrambled down the rock.

“It got boring after a while, just watching Whent get shouted at,” replied Arya.

Lyanna stifled a snort.

“Oh, she can see us, too?” commented Arya.

“Aye,” replied Jon, turning a bit to glare at Bran, who stood from his crouch. “I thought you said people wouldn’t see us. Once, at Summerhall, I could believe was a fluke, Bran, but now twice?”

Bran shrugged, dusting his hands off on his trousers. “I’m not sure why—”

“Is it the ‘First Men blood’ thing?” asked Rickon, looking over Lyanna from head to toe. She squirmed a bit under the look as Jon walked them closer.

Bran shrugged again, and Arya shook her head. “If that was the case, Ser Arthur and Hightower would’ve been able to see us.” At Jon’s inquisitive look, she explained further, “Rickon and I got bored hiding when watching them and eventually were out in the open.” She gave a cheeky grin. “We got sword training from the Lord Commander himself – not that he ever knew it.”

Lyanna laughed. “Oh, I like you!”

Standing before them both, it was easy to see the superficial similarities between Arya and Lyanna, in their colouring and body shape. But Arya was tiny – who knows where she inherited that from – and was sharper, in her chin and skinny, toned body, whereas Lyanna was taller and a bit more stout, strong in a different way.

“So, you’re Ned’s children,” she continued, looking them over, lingering on Bran and Rickon, both with their dark mahogany hair that had a red sheen only in the light. “With Catelyn Tully?”

Bran nodded.

“There’s two more of us,” added Arya, eyeing Lyanna with a careful expression on her face.

Lyanna’s nose scrunched as she thought. “Oh, aye, Jon mentioned… Robb?”

“Our eldest brother,” answered Bran, “Before everything happened. And then there’s Sansa.”

“She looks like Mother,” added Rickon unhelpfully, because Lyanna had only seen Catelyn Tully in passing once before, and then drove her from her memory, concerned with other things.

Lyanna was nodding along, a bit overwhelmed. “And Benjen—?”

Jon cleared his throat. “He went to the Wall.”

“Oh,” she said, her voice small. “I see.”

Rickon shuffled awkwardly in place; he had few memories of Benjen Stark, while Arya and Bran were still in that alien way of theirs. Bran, thinking he was helping, offered, “He died, uh, well. The second time. He uh, helped Jon get a wight to convince the Lords to fight during the Long Night.”

Lyanna shot Jon a glare. “What is it with dying more than once for Starks recently?”

Helplessly, Jon shrugged.

“The Long Night…” she trailed off, worrying her bottom lip. “You speak truly?”

Arya’s jaw clenched. “Aye.”

Lyanna worried her lip some more, mentally arguing with herself. Finally, she swallowed and muttered, “You must come with me. I have something that might aid you, then.”

Arthur wiped the sweat off his brow, pushing aside his dark hair. The sun had long stretched from midday to early evening, and the princess had been awfully quiet. Usually, she would come to bother himself, or Whent, or Hightower at some point, badgering them to teach her swordplay. Gerold forbade it, of course; and Arthur would have regardless due to her pregnancy.

Rhaegar indulged her, he thought, fighting the conflicting feelings that Rhaegar left in him. Rhaegar was his best friend, his brother, and Arthur would follow him anywhere. Arthur should follow him anywhere – especially battle.

And initially, he had been ready to, when Rhaegar whispered to him of the prophecies, the legends he discovered and the burden he thought he must bear. Arthur wanted to believe in Rhaegar, wanted to help him see the prophecies through. He disliked how he treated Elia, but both seemed resigned to the dissolution of their marriage by the end of it, even if Elia scoffed and thought the prophecy was codswallop.

Lyanna Stark, though… Arthur grimaced slightly, waving off Whent and Gerold as he strode out of the courtyard and began to search for their new, wayward princess. The kitchens first – she had not come to bother them for food, so there was a good chance she had scavenged on her own.

Rhaegar’s belief that Lyanna was the necessary ingredient for the prophecy sat unwell with Arthur. He didn’t think the Pact needed to be upheld, but it certainly would help if the Promised Prince’s story was one of “fire and ice.” But Rhaegar seemed to need Lyanna in ways that were beyond the prophecy, ever since they had discovered her trying to hide her Laughing Knight shield at Harrenhal. She became a fascination, and, at that moment, Arthur felt the first stirrings of unease in how Rhaegar’s single-minded obsession of the girl echoed his father’s growing paranoia and single-minded madness.

He said nothing though. It wasn’t his place. Or, that’s what he told himself after they came across the girl about to be kidnapped by Aerys’ men. From there, it was non-stop, racing to the Isle of Faces, their hasty marriage, then straight to Dorne and avoiding King’s Landing, to the Tower of Joy and two, blissfully ignorant moons until his brother sent a rider from Starfall informing them of Rickard and Brandon Stark’s deaths (murders, his mind whispered harshly), of the king calling for Eddard Stark and Robert Baratheon’s heads, of Jon Arryn calling his banners in response, and the war that followed.

Sitting out of it made Arthur gnash his teeth. He wanted to fight – oh, not for Aerys, but to depose him and place Rhaegar on the throne. That had been the plan at Harrenhal – gather support, call a great council, oust Aerys – but no, it didn’t happen because Aerys caught wind and he began the cascading effect by placing Jaime Lannister on the kingsguard.

Unconsciously, Arthur’s rather relaxed strides had turned into an angry stalk, and he consciously slowed himself by taking a deep breath and pausing to lean against the nearest cool stone wall. He leaned his head back and shakily exhaled.

After her brother and father’s deaths, Lyanna’s relationship with Rhaegar had soured, but not before he got what he wanted: another child, his Visenya to his Rhaenys and Aegon. Arthur was certain he didn’t need another child, didn’t need to repudiate Elia; but he was adamant, and Arthur was helpless to speak against him.

A low murmur of voices had Arthur stand straight, eyes peering down the darkened corridor. Some feminine, more men’s voices followed, and Arthur prowled down, keeping to the shadows despite his spotless, white cloak catching the fading beams of light that filtered through the latticed shades.

His heart skipped a beat. The armoury! They’re in the armoury!

He slowly withdrew Dawn, careful so that the blade didn’t rasp against his sheath, and relaxed his grip, just out of sight from the door. Then –

Arthur kicked the door in, making it slam hard against the opposite wall. A few torches were lit, and Lyanna whirled in surprise, a hand at her mouth. She had been near the back of the armoury, where Rhaegar had brought and placed the package he retrieved from Castle Black a year previous.

“Ser Arthur!” she gasped and then glared. “You frightened me, Ser!”

Arthur narrowed his purple eyes, darting them around the armoury. It was empty of anyone else but Lyanna, but Arthur was not fooled; he heard at least one other woman with her, and two men. They had to have been hiding.

“Who is here with you?” he demanded, stalking a few steps closer.

Lyanna took one back, then seemed to pause and tilt her chin up stubbornly.

“Lyanna,” chided Arthur. His hand flexed around his sword, trying to spot those Lyanna had spoken to. “Do not lie to me, Princess.”

“As you can see,” she spat, emphasizing her words, “There is no one else here.”

“I clearly heard others. Has your brother sent men to take you to the Usurper?”

Lyanna rolled her eyes. And then, there was a loud scoff; had Arthur not been staring at the slip of a girl, he would’ve thought the sound came from her, but her mouth remained closed.

He whirled around, striding forward, and tossing small crates and empty boxes to the floor with crashes and clangs, tipping over a sword rack as he peered behind and checked the dark corners of the room.

Lyanna shrieked. “Ser Arthur, what are you doing?!”

“There is someone here!” he grunted; his jaw was tight. “Where are they?”

“I don’t think he’s going to stop,” a feminine voice said, the tone bored and lower-pitched than Lyanna’s.

He whirled in the direction and saw only Lyanna had backed up, closer to the far wall at the back of the armoury. But the voice came from beside her… “Who said that? Show yourself!”

The female snorted again. “I doubt I could, even if I wanted.”

Arthur sharply inhaled. The voice was coming from beside the princess, but no one was there.

Lyanna bit her lip. “Ser Arthur – you can hear them?”

“Them?” he echoed, blinking.

“Aye,” came a rather northern brogue, a low voice, rough and gravelly. It was a man’s voice, and instinctively, Arthur clenched his hilt.

“Oh, put that away,” sighed another man’s voice, higher in pitch and as bored as the woman’s. “It’s not like it’ll do any good.”

“It’s skymetal, though, isn’t it?” asked a third voice, cracking. A boy on the cusp of manhood, then, thought Arthur. “Couldn’t it work like Valyrian steel?”

“I suppose…” the bored man hedged, disgruntled.

“Princess, what is going on?” asked Arthur, feeling lost. He let his hand slip from the hilt, craning his head around, looking for the owners of the voices. Were they ghosts? Cleverly hidden assassins?

Lyanna sighed. “Will you trust me, Ser Arthur?”

He frowned. “Trust you how?”

Lyanna gestured behind herself, shifting the slightest so that he could see she had gone for the package Rhaegar brought from Castle Black, and had partially unwrapped the cloth that kept the sword covered. The black Valyrian blade rippled in the flickering torchlight.

“What are you going to do with that?” Arthur’s voice was cautious, and he took a step forward, one hand in front of him, placatingly. “Lyanna, that’s not a toy—”

“I know that Arthur,” she snapped, glaring at him. “But I’m giving it to the person who should wield it.”

“Person who should wield it!” repeated Arthur, alarmed, but he wasn’t quick enough and Lyanna reached back, withdrew Dark Sister, and then held it aloft in her palm, out to her side.

Arthur stumbled.

“Take it,” she instructed, and Arthur watched in growing disbelief and awe as an invisible hand took the sword. Then, as the light flickered, a shimmering outline appeared, like a mirage in the desert, of a tall man. He shifted the grip of the longsword, growing more solid the longer he held the blade.

Arthur’s mouth dropped open, his eyes roaming the figure from head to toe. There was something familiar about the man…

Then three more ghostly hands touched the hilt, and vague outlines appeared of the other speakers: a tiny woman, smaller than Lyanna with sharp features and a dark look in her eyes as she stared challengingly at him; a tall, slender young man with a solemn expression on his face; and a teenager, with a thick mop of curly hair and the sharpness of the girl.

“What…?” he breathed out, glancing at them and then to the solid man standing beside Lyanna confidently.

Her mouth quirked up into a smile. “Oh, so now you can see them? Do you trust me now, Ser Arthur?”

His eyes lingered on the man. He was in northern leathers and had a very distinct northern look. Arthur’s instincts were warning him the man was dangerous. “Is he one of the Usurper’s dogs, then?” he sneered.

The man’s mouth turned up in a much smaller smile, one that was eerily familiar. Arthur’s heart began pounding in his chest. No.

“I can’t say that I’ve ever been an explicit supporter of the Baratheons,” the man admitted easily.

The tiny girl, looking similarly to Lyanna, rolled her eyes.

“Then you’re a Stark man,” said Arthur pointedly.

“Oh, aye, that I am,” the man agreed, a glint in his dark eyes. His chin lowered and the shadows flickered across his face and Arthur bit back a gasp. That challenging look - the dip of his chin, the way his eyes were hooded - he had been on the receiving end of that look recently when arguing about putting aside Elia for Lyanna... It can’t be.

His eyes darted toward Lyanna, dropping quickly to her belly, at the hand caressing the bump, and then back to her face. She nodded, once.Arthur’s purple eyes ripped back to look at the tall man, finding Lyanna’s smile in his face, her colouring, but Rhaegar’s height and his eyes and –

“Gods,” rasped Arthur, knees weak. He sank to one knee, staring at the man. “I don’t know how – I don’t, I don’t know why – but –” he swallowed thickly, eyes remaining locked on Rhaegar’s son. “My Prince.”

“Oh. Oh, no,” the man immediately said, shaking his head. “No, don’t call me that. Really. Don’t.”

The youngest boy with them snickered and jabbed him in the arm. “You’ll have to get used to that if we’re going to crown you konungur.”

He affected a wounded look when he stared down at the younger boy, a pout on his face.

Arthur watched the interactions greedily, taking in every move and gesture made, seeing parts of Rhaegar emerge and other parts that were all Lyanna and her Starkness. It was fascinating – even if he wasn’t the Visenya Rhaegar had been hoping for.

Oh. He paused. Ohhhhhh, no. Rhaegar’s plans – he needed two girls and one boy. Arthur’s eyes ran speculatively over the other three but found that while the girl and his prince’s son looked the most alike, she shared more in common with the others. Perhaps they were half-siblings? And not full?

“You have questions.”

Arthur’s head jerked around to face the man.

There was resignation on his face when the man sighed and said, “Well. Sit down. We might as well get this over with.”

“Actually,” piped up an embarrassed Lyanna. All heads turned to her. She had a faint red tinge to her cheeks. “Do you think we could find something to eat, first?” her stomach gurgled loudly. “We’re rather hungry.”

Climbing to his feet, Arthur immediately said, “Yes, of course, Princess. Please.” He gently led her toward the door, glancing back at the four figures behind. “Coming?”

“Aye, suppose so,” muttered the man.

“Cheer up, Jon,” said the youngest with a cheeky grin, “It’s Ser Arthur Dayne, the Sword of the Morning! How many people can say that they’ve broken their bread with one of the greatest swordsmen in Westeros? Even father used to say that, and he helped kill the man!”

Arthur tripped, missing a step. Wait, WHAT?

TBC...

Chapter 11: XI

Summary:

Arthur Dayne startles the Starks and things take a turn toward Serious Plot because MAGIC (but only for a moment - we'll return to a previously scheduled Stark sibling bitchfest soon enough).

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

XI:

Memories of Tomorrow - writing_as_tracey (11)

Arthur and Lyanna led the Starks to the kitchens, gathering up food with bowls and hands. At Rickon’s curious look, Arthur pursed his lips and said, “It won’t be long before the Lord Commander or Oz wonder where we are. We cannot linger here – nor speak for too long.”

Jon caught Arya’s glance, her own brow furrowed, but they silently followed Arthur as he ushered Lyanna with a hand on her back through the maze of the Tower of Joy until they reached a secluded courtyard, empty of any life or creeping vines: it was a barren bowl of sand and dust, close to the far outer edge of the fortress.

Lyanna sat on a bit of protruding rock – made from the thick and high walls around them – and the others settled nearby, following suit: Arya and Rickon sat on the dusty floor, uncaring of the sand, while Bran remained standing but leaned against the wall by Arya and Rickon. Jon and Arthur eyed each other, a bit warily, but when Arthur gestured for Jon to sit, he did so, gingerly, next to his mother.

Arthur Dayne was a tall man, barely twenty-six, with piercing purple eyes and dark hair. He had the lean form of a predator and held a commanding air to him that had Jon and Arya watch him with careful eyes. But there was a sense of something heavy hanging over him, causing a slump to his broad shoulders, a pull on his face to make everything appear stern. Stress caused premature worry lines around his mouth, turned down into a perpetual scowl, and there was the faintest tinge of grey already in his hair.

“I don’t know how you came to be here,” began Arthur, looking at the four Starks, making exactly none of them squirm, “But you cannot linger—”

“We know that,” interrupted Rickon with his own scowl, his voice defiant. He was staring at Arthur like he thought he was stupid. “We’re only here to meet with Aunt Lyanna. Jon wanted to since he already met Prince Duncan and King Aegon.”

Arthur stared. “I – what –”

Jon sighed. “Bran has greensight—”

“I’m the most powerful greenseer,” interrupted Bran calmly, without a hint of arrogance in his tone. He stated the fact like it was a regular conversation topic: oh, it’s going to snow today. Imagine that. “Trained by Bloodraven—”

“I…” Arthur trailed off, shaking his head a bit. “I’m not going to touch that one.”

“Best not to,” agreed Arya, casting a look at Bran that indicated displeasure.

Anyway,” stressed Jon, glaring at both Bran and Arya, and then Rickon for good measure. He then proceeded to state clearly but quickly, “Bran has greensight – he’s very good at it – we experienced Summerhall – I met with my great-great-grandfather and great-uncle—”

“Jon got his crown,” added Rickon, glee in his voice, “It’s so shiny.”

Both Arthur and Lyanna looked a bit overwhelmed, eyes wide and staring at whoever was speaking at any given moment like they were giving the next piece of world-shattering news – which, Jon thought, to be fair, they kind of were giving them information that was beyond imagination – and slowly, their mouths dropped open in stupefaction.

“But honestly, we’re not sure how Bran manages it,” continued Jon.

“‘Manages’,” scoffed Arya, rolling her eyes and leaning back on her hands. “That’s cute.”

Exasperated, Jon ran through his final words quickly, if only to stop his siblings from constantly interrupting him. Gods, he wished Sansa was here… “Look, we appear in the past when we’re at these locations, Bran does something, he said no one would see us but it’s a giant f*cking lie, and now we’re taking advantage of it so I can learn about my Targaryen heritage.”

“Sounds ‘bout right,” agreed Rickon.

“I…” Arthur just looked between them, voice caught in his throat.

“Where does you dying fit into this?” asked Lyanna, clearing her throat once and leaning forward a bit to look at Bran.

“Dying?!” echoed Arthur, startling a bit. His voice pitched upward.

Arya waved her hand. “It’s a long story and you said we don’t have time.”

“B-But!” sputtered Arthur, glancing at Jon. “The Prince—”

Jon winced. “I prefer being called ‘Jon’ if you don’t mind…”

“This is our past,” interrupted Bran, his voice only slightly running toward agitation from his usual monotonous drone. “It cannot be changed because it already happened for us. We are interacting with a single moment of time – more memory or echo – and once we leave, while you might retain some impression of us, nothing more will linger to change the outcome of your fate.”

“Which is to die,” said Arthur sourly, turning to Rickon who stared unabashedly back. He took a deep breath. “At least tell me I die in the service of my Prince.”

“Which one?” muttered Arya, causing Jon to sigh her name in admonishment.

Arthur frowned, glancing around and then slumping his shoulders. “I die here, don’t I?”

“Aye,” said Jon quietly.

Arthur’s eyes closed, and his hand clenched around the hilt of his sword, hanging from his waist. He let out a long exhale. “Very well,” he breathed, and then his eyes opened with purpose. “Very well. I accept this fate.”

“You shouldn’t,” said Arya. “You could have walked away when Father came, asking about Aunt Lyanna.”

Lyanna, being named, startled, a hand flying to her belly. “Ned came?”

“For you,” confirmed Arya.

“And the Kingsguard refused to let him see you,” added Bran, watching Arthur carefully.

“Whatever for?” demanded Lyanna.

“Because you were in labour,” said Jon quietly, keeping his head forward and eyes on the grains of sand that pooled in small, anthill-sized dunes beneath his feet. “And they worried that he would snatch Rhaegar’s child and present them to Robert Baratheon.”

At Arthur’s confused look, it was Arya, with some sympathy, who clarified. “Elia and her children didn’t survive the war. When the Lannisters sacked King’s Landing, she was murdered… and so were her children. Robert Baratheon called them dragonspawn.”

Arthur stumbled a step back in response.

Gently, almost, Arya added, “When the Lannisters sacked King’s Landing, after Rhaegar’s death, Tywin had Gregor Clegane and Amory Loch, uh… remove Elia and her children to make way for Robert’s kingship and a new wife.”

Lyanna snorted. “So, he didn’t expect me to return, I reckon.”

“More like Tywin would’ve had you killed if you had,” muttered Jon darkly. “He’s the same man who eradicated the Tarbecks and Reynes, who engineered the Red Wedding.”

Her eyes closed, painfully tight. Arthur glanced at her and began, trailing off,“And with Eddard Stark Robert Baratheon’s closest friend, we thought…”

“Ned would never!” protested Lyanna hotly, eyes popping out, struggling to rise to her feet. “He wouldn’t!”

“But they didn’t know that,” said Bran pointedly. “And so they fought.”

“f*ck,” breathed Arthur, turning away from the group of Starks. His shoulders were tight, and he felt like his armour was constricting around him, especially his chest. He felt hot and dizzy.

“It doesn’t truly matter,” continued Bran, completely ignorant of – or, rather, ignoring – the pained dual expressions on Arthur and Lyanna’s faces. “Since you won’t remember this enough to make different choices. I was there when you fought Father – and you didn’t notice me then.”

“You were?” asked Rickon, perking up and staring at Bran in surprise.

Bran nodded. “When I was still training with Bloodraven. When the fight was done, I stepped forward and called to Father in surprise – he paused long enough, as though he heard me – but then he continued into the Tower to Aunt Lyanna.”

“He couldn’t see you?” Jon’s brow furrowed. “But Mother can, and Ser Arthur; and so did Lord Fossoway, and others when Robb had been walking around Summerhall. This makes no sense.”

Bran shrugged.

The group sat in silence, lost in their own thoughts until Arthur cleared his throat. “You said – ah, you said you have King Aegon V’s crown, my Prin—Jon.”

Jon nodded, then glanced at Lyanna. “And Mother handed Dark Sister to me, as you saw.”

“Why do you need them?” asked Arthur.

The identical look sent his way from Rickon, Arya, and Bran made Arthur feel a bit stupid, but then he reminded himself he was older than them, and it didn’t matter.

“To take back Westeros, of course,” answered Rickon like it was the simplest thing in the world. “Jon’s going to be king.” He then turned to Jon and asked him something in a flowing, clipped language.

Lyanna’s eyes blew wider than she’d done previously, and she gasped, “Is that the Old Tongue?”

“Never mind that,” spat Arthur, eyes wide and a bit wild. “Why aren’t you ruling now? You’re a Targaryen Prince.”

“Because no one was going to support the Targayens after losing,” said Jon, with a tiny huff. “Not after what Aerys did.” He sent a mildly apologetic glance at his mother. “What Rhaegar did - regardless of the truth behind it or not.”

“And what's this about a Red Wedding?” asked Lyanna slowly, watching as her son and her niece and nephews all shuddered and went sickly pale.

“He made a deal with the Boltons and Freys to betray our brother Robb – who was King in the North,” explained Jon quietly, when the others refused; Rickon had a green hue to his face. “At Edmure Tully’s wedding at the Twins, the Freys broke guest right and massacred the Northern host, including Lady Catelyn and then Robb, cutting his head off, as well as his direwolf’s, and sewing it on his body.”

Lyanna went green and turned to the side to gag, although she didn’t throw up.

“Gods be good,” muttered Arthur, eyes wide. “I knew Tywin Lannister was ruthless, but that—”

“The Boltons took Winterfell, calling themselves the Wardens of the North,” said Arya bitterly, casting a glance at Rickon, who was looking at the ground with dedication. “It was… bad.”

“Understatement,” muttered Jon.

“Please tell me someone did something about that,” demanded Arthur, eyes darting between the Starks. “Please.”

“Eventually,” sighed Bran. “Rickon was Ramsay’s hostage and Ramsay killed him—”

“Ramsay?”

“Roose Bolton’s bastard son,” explained Arya grimly. “He was as mad as Aerys, except actually intelligent. Had none of the paranoia and all of the cruelty.”

Lyanna shuddered and Arthur swallowed thickly, trying to wet his suddenly dry mouth as the acrid taste of bile rose in his throat.

“But Jon fought for me,” muttered Rickon quietly, shoulders hunched. He finally glanced up at everyone, a haunted look in his eyes. “His face was the last thing I saw before we appeared at the heart tree.”

“Jon did beat him up.” Arya looked a bit proud at that, grinning at him. Jon merely grunted in response. “Beat Ramsay black and blue when he retook Winterfell.”

“Although it was Sansa who dealt the killing blow,” said Bran blithely, making both Arthur and Lyanna whip their heads around to stare at him. His mouth quirked the tiniest upward in one corner.

At Lyanna and Arthur’s confusion, Arya elaborated: “She fed Ramsay to his own dogs.”

“Don’t forget that Arya then infiltrated the Twins and fed Walder Frey his own sons, baked in a pie. And then poisoned the rest of the men involved in the Red Wedding at a feast,” continued Bran, carefully watching their aunt and the kingsguard as their faces grew paler with each admission.

“Erm,” emerged, a strangled sound, from Arthur’s mouth. He finally turned to Lyanna and looked at her with new eyes. Before, he had thought of her as some silly Northern girl who turned Rhaegar head because he was obsessed with prophecy, but he was beginning to re-evaluate that, considering their son and the other Stark children.

He shuddered. Those south of the Neck always considered the North a dangerous, wild place, with Northmen rustic – a polite way of saying “uncivilized” or “savage” – open and barren and full of lore and mystery. Tales of snarks, grumpkins, and skinchangers, of wargs and giants… No one believed that, of course, and everything that had made the North that kind of backward place – First Night, tree-worship and human sacrifice, flaying, warging – were all either abandoned or outlawed for hundreds or thousands of years.

Arthur was reconsidering that now, eyes lingering on Arya, the proud tilt to her chin, only made more obvious by the blank mask her face wore. There was something dead in the girl’s eyes that made him reconsider her to be the most dangerous of the group, despite how Northern and wild Rhaegar’s son looked in his leathers and armour.

“Anyway!” Jon shot the others a stern look and turned back to his mother. “Rickon’s right. Our plan… although it’s still a work in progress, is to eventually crown me king. To take back Westeros. I don’t care much for it, but I need the kingdoms united and working together so that we’re prepared when the Long Night returns. And we don’t have that much time.”

Arthur rallied himself much quicker than Lyanna, hearing the undercurrent of authority ringing in Jon’s voice. The soldier in him reacted and he felt his spine straightening in response. “What do you need?”

“I have Aegon V’s crown already—”

“How did—”

“—and with Dark Sister, plus the documentation of mother’s wedding to Rhaegar,” continued Jon, speaking over Arthur’s startled interruption, “I have everything I need to prove who I am.”

He paused, letting the words soak into his mother and the kingsguard’s brains.

“What I need,” he stressed, voice low, “is support. Allies I can trust to keep their mouths shut and pander to Robert Baratheon while we follow Rhaegar’s trail – or, at the least, try to learn more about the bloody Azor Ahai prophecy.”

“Why do you need to know more, Jon?” asked Lyanna, brow furrowed. “When we spoke of it, you seemed fairly certain about its instability and believe it nonsense.”

“Aye,” he agreed, nodding a bit, “I do think that. But the people out there?” He pointed aimlessly. “They believe it. And there’s something about it that… well… it seems off.”

“Off?” echoed Arthur.

Bran nodded, taking up the vein. “It’s about magic, isn’t it? And most people believe magic is gone from the world. But I’m the strongest greenseer in the world right now – trained by Bloodraven himself – and Daenerys had birthed dragons – and the Long Night is returning, bringing the undead and Others. My siblings are wargs. Arya can skinchange, as can I. Melisandre brought back Jon when he died, and Thoros of Myr did the same for others.”

Arthur’s eyes narrowed. “You want to follow the trail of magic. See where else it appears.”

“Yes and no,” hedged Arya. “As a Faceless Man, I was trained in their death magic—”

You’re a what?” squawked Arthur, his voice pitching upward. He threw an arm out toward Lyanna and pushed her back, away from the Starks, and placed himself between her and them out of instinct.

Arya rolled her eyes. “Ser Arthur,” she began primly, “If I wanted you dead, you’d have been dead. And what you think about it: you’re already dead to me.”

“Magic never really left the world,” said Jon, desperately trying to regain control, despite the sweat rolling down Arthur’s temple and the stare Arya had levelled at the man, entirely unimpressed. “But if the Long Night is true – as it is – does that mean that Bran the Builder is true? That there really was Brandon of the Bloody Blade? A Florys the Fox? A Foss the Archer, or Garth Greenhand? Despite what I wish to think, R’hllor to some degree must exist as well, or at least, the Red Priests and Priestess of Asshai have access to magic Westeros does not know. What remnants of Valyria exist – in how Dany used blood magic to hatch her dragons?”

“What magic did Bloodraven and Shiera Seastar have access to?” murmured Bran, who knew that magic intimately. “The Children of the Forest exist. Giants exist. Creatures who wield ice and snow and reanimate the dead, seeking to destroy everything that exists.”

Arya continued, her voice sharp, “What of the water magic of the Rhoynar and the connection with the Martell’s water palace? Before we died, I had heard rumours of Euron Greyjoy and the magic he rediscovered in Valyria.”

Overwhelmed, Lyanna and Arthur merely stared, mouth agape.

Jon took pity on them and gentled his voice. “The Long Night appears across not just Westeros, but in Essos as well. In all cultures, there is some type of last hero – an Azor Ahai. It can’t be a coincidence that everyone shares the same story. I must know all the pieces, know what their heroes did to survive. How they won the first time.”

“But they didn’t win,” protested Lyanna quietly, staring at Jon in horror. “They merely pushed the Others back. You said the Long Night came again.”

“It did,” confirmed Jon.

“Then… then… they didn’t win, Jon,” gasped Lyanna. “They only delayed things.”

“And we lost when we fought them,” muttered Bran, looking away. “All my training, all our preparations—”

“What preparations?” muttered Ayra darkly. “We had a diminished Northern host, a handful of those from the Vale, and a bunch of ragtag knights and soldiers who believed us. No one else came to help. No wonder we lost.”

“Do you see?” asked Jon, voice anguished. “Robert Baratheon might hold the realm together now, but he’s in debt and there are those who plot against him. Father will die in King’s Landing and then the realm goes to war. I must stop that – I must keep everyone together.”

Arthur took a step forward and said gently, “You’re going to go to war regardless, Jon.”

It was the first time he addressed him by his name and not his title. It was enough to startle Jon, to force him to look at Arthur with clear eyes. He inhaled sharply.

“It’ll be war because you’ll be fighting to take back your throne,” continued Arthur. “And you’ll deserve the throne because your intentions are true – fighting against the Others for all of humanity is a worthy and just reason to take back a crown.”

He paused, looking away, almost shamefully, before turning back to him. There was something pained in his purple eyes, but Arthur placed a hand carefully on Jon’s shoulder – they were of an equal height – and said, “I wish I could be there at your side when the time comes.”

“You can’t,” Jon found himself saying through numb lips.

Arthur’s face was sorrowful. “I know. But I’m still sorry.” He took a deep breath. “So, whatever you need now. Answers – information – whatever knowledge I can give you… I am at your service.”

Stunned, Jon stared at Arthur for a long moment, eyes skipping over his earnest expression, however, tinged with sorrow it was, and finally nodded. He opened his mouth and began speaking.

When Bran’s eyes finally opened, the white darkening and bleeding colour back into his irises, several hours had passed. Arya groaned, rolling away from where she had crouched, while Rickon grunted and stood on wobbly legs, moving out of the circle of light from the fire Robb had stoked as the evening progressed and the air grew colder in the desert.

Sansa, who had been resting her head on Robb’s shoulder as she dozed – and, incidentally, drooled on – snorted and jerked her head up, blinking bleary eyes as she took in her siblings coming back to consciousness.

“Good trip?” asked Robb, voice quiet. He addressed his next question to Jon, who had his back to him. “Did you learn what you needed?”

Jon turned, and Robb’s mouth dropped open at the sight of the sword in his grip.

“What is that?” murmured Sansa, reaching up to rub at her eyes. “Is that a sword?”

“Did someone give you something like Aegon did with the crown?” asked Robb, mouth in a grin.

“My mother.”

That stopped Robb and Sansa cold.

Jon continued, looking down at the dark blade, “She gave me Dark Sister. I suppose Maester Aemon gave it to Rhaegar when he last visited Castle Black, and it was in the Tower of Joy, waiting for my birth.”

“I wonder what happened to it originally, then,” mused Sansa, her thin red eyebrows coming together as she stared at the legendary blade.

Jon shrugged.

Robb and Sansa shared a look, both equally used to Jon’s broodiness as well as disturbed. Eventually, Sansa turned to Arya, who had propped herself up nearby, staring into the flames. “Did you have a good time in the past?”

Arya stared a bit longer into the fire before turning to address Sansa. “It wasn’t what I expected.”

“Oh?” prompted Sansa.

Rickon wandered back, a strangely solemn look on his face – he was one of the more expressive of the Starks, so it was an odd look on him, one that made Robb make a tiny, low noise in his throat. Sansa only heard it because she sat so close to her brother.

“I…” Rickon paused, then sighed and collapsed next to Arya, filling the space between her and Sansa. “Arya and I trained with Oswell Whent and Gerold Hightower.”

“Truly?” asked Robb, mouth open.

“They couldn’t see us,” continued Rickon. “So, we got a lesson from them.”

“But Hightower is the blood of the First Men,” protested Robb lightly, looking toward Bran.

“Don’t ask,” his brother groused. “Without asking Bloodraven, I don’t know why some people are seeing us and others are not. They shouldn’t.”

“Ser Arthur couldn’t. Not until we were pointed out to him,” replied Arya. “He had to believe.”

“Maybe that’s all it is,” said Sansa, eventually. “Belief in magic. Belief in something more than one’s self.”

Bran grunted, huddling further in his furs.

“He wasn’t too bad,” said Rickon, voice tired. “I thought he would be. For helping steal Aunt Lyanna. Except… it wasn’t like that.”

Unbidden, everyone’s eyes turned to the rocky graves behind them, the final resting place for the three kingsguard.

“They deserve to go home,” said Jon finally, voice firm. He had been quiet up until that point, lost in his own thoughts. His eyes darted in the opposite direction to the Northerners who died trying to get to his mother. “They all do.”

“Father didn’t have time when he was last here,” sighed Sansa, in mild protest. “Not with you… but yes. We should send them home.”

“In the morning,” said Robb. “They’re not going anywhere.”

With that, everyone hunkered down into their furs or curled up against another sibling, sharing body heat. Robb continued to keep watch, Jon at his side but moody and quiet. Eventually, he traded off with Arya and Rickon, and then it was morning as dawn spread over the rocky desert landscape.

Sansa and Bran did not help in digging up the graves, but they did go into the Tower of Joy to find enough wood to make coffins, but instead, they returned with empty but dirty crates that they could use instead.

Jon and Robb did the heaviest lifting, with Arya and Rickon doing the digging and trading off with their elder brothers every so often until they had dug up the graves of Willam Dustin, Ethan Glover, Martyn Cassel (whom they took much care with, given his connection to Winterfell), Theo Wull, and Mark Ryswell.

They took a break for a late lunch, and then were back to work under the hot Dornish sun: both Jon and Robb had their shirts off, reddening their skin and bringing out their freckles.

Gerold Hightower’s grave was first in a separate crate, his bones handled gently by Jon, whom the Starks agreed should be the best, given the circ*mstances. Then it was Oswell Whent, and finally, Arthur Dayne’s.

Robb’s hands were blistered when he finally said, exhausted, “Jon, I’m not going to dig any further.”

“But you must!” his cousin protested, glaring up at him from the six-foot-deep grave.

“Jon,” began Sansa gently, “There’s no reason to continue. Please.”

“Sansa!” cried Jon, aghast. “Don’t ask me to stop – not after all I spoke to him about –”

Robb tried again. “Jon, look. Truly look, brother. Everyone else’s graves were barely two feet down in the sand and covered in rocks. Retrieving their bones was easy. Even if I dig another twenty feet down, it won’t change anything.”

Jon pursed his lips. Robb leaned forward and helped haul Jon from the deep grave, leaving the rest of the Starks to stare down into the empty grave, the space where Arthur Dayne’s bones should be void of anything but sand and rocks.

After a moment, Arya looked up at her family and asked, “Well, where did he go, then?”

Jon glanced back at the empty grave; his mouth was turned down in his usual frown. “I don’t know.”

“Father said he killed him—” began Rickon carefully.

“Howland Reed killed Ser Arthur,” corrected Bran, eyes dark, “By stabbing him in the neck.”

Robb, looking uneasy and clearly thinking about his own experiences as he brought a hand up to touch his ruined neck, said, “I suppose you could survive that…”

“Father returned Dawn to Starfall,” argued Sansa lightly, frowning. “You’d think he and Lord Reed would have realized that someone was still alive.”

Arya shook her head. “You said it yourself, Sansa. They were preoccupied with baby Jon at the time and bringing Aunt Lyanna’s body back.”

They turned back to stare at the empty grave.

“Does this mean he’s been alive the whole time?” asked Rickon, blinking in confusion.

“That’s not possible!” argued Bran hotly, emotions boiling over as frustration oozed from him. “We were in the past. The past cannot be changed. If it could be changed, then we’d never have gone back to begin with, thus causing the event to never change, to begin with!”

“Well, something happened,” said Robb finally. “Because dead men don’t just get up and walk away.”

“Yet,” muttered Arya.

Robb shot her a glare.

“It’s… it’s possible Father didn’t know,” stuttered Bran, haltingly. He was wide-eyed and had a lost look on his face, like everything he had known or been taught had been upended. “That he didn’t know for sure and only told us his version of events.”

Sansa sighed. “We can speculate about this all we want, but the truth is we have an empty grave before us. That is all we know. Ser Arthur could be alive; he could be dead. His bones could have been scavenged well before we arrived and redidthe grave to avoid suspicion. He could have got up and walked away, seeking help from Kingsgrave. We don’t know.”

They all stared at the hole, again.

Finally, Jon spoke. “Do you ever feel like… feel that there’s far more going on than we thought? That it wasn’t just Bran’s fault that we came back?”

Bran shot Jon a very nasty look.

“Like someone else is controlling things?” asked Robb, and Sansa shivered.

“I think you mean something else,” said Arya quietly.

A breeze kicked up sand, swirling around them.

Rickon cleared his throat, nervously looking around. “I think we should leave.”

Robb hastily nodded. “Aye. Let’s pack up.”

Bran, frowning, looked over the desert, a bit of nervousness in his gaze, and Sansa and Arya shared a glance, speaking a language that only the two sisters shared before turning and striding away from the graves, with Robb and Rickon scrambling after them, Bran being pushed along.

Jon lingered the longest, frowning down at the grave. There was a tight feeling in his chest. For all that he spoke of magic and Azor Ahai, he was deeply worried – worried about what they would find if they continued their journey in discovering the history of the prophecy, learning about other magics of Essos (as was the plan).

But more importantly, he was worried about what it meant for him, if he was the last hero.

Because being the last of something, meant that everyone else was dead and gone – that those who came before had failed.And Jon had already failed, once before. He didn’t want to be the last, again.

With a thick swallow, he pushed down the panic that rose in him, and turned his back on the empty grave, joining his siblings, intimately aware that it felt like there were thousands of eyes on him at that moment, and equally aware of the weight of the entire world’s fate on his shoulders.

And he didn’t like it.

TBC...

Notes:

So, FYI: you know in the show, that scene where Bran travels to the past with Bloodraven when Ned fights the kingsguard? At just about 5:00 minutes in the clip, Bran shouts, "Father!" and Ned - pauses. Like he heard him. And THAT was the inspiration behind how, when the Starks travel to the past, they can interact with people. Because canon states so. Ha. There.

Edit on Oct 10/21 for continuity issues. Thanks for pointing it out - it's been a LONG time since I read the books (and never finished) or watched more than season 1.

Chapter 12: XII

Summary:

Mace Tyrell shows he's got some brains; Rickon & Jon get muddy while Robb & Arya demonstrate that Freys are their version of red flags for a bull; Olenna Tyrell gets outplayed and Does Not Like It. Loras gets his birthday wish.

Chapter Text

XII:

Memories of Tomorrow - writing_as_tracey (12)

There were two options for going forward.

One: journey southward into Dorne proper, make their way to any of the port cities like Starfall, or Hellholt, or even the Salt Shore, the Tor, or brave Sunspear, which was the height of stupidity given that they were Starks, and it was Lyanna Stark that Rhaegar had run away with, throwing over Elia Martell.

Or, two: go back north, stay a tense but polite night at Nightsong, and then hightail it back to Highgarden for the generosity of the Tyrells and the remaining Fossoways who were probably still lingering there, to Olenna Tyrell’s annoyance, and then make their way to Oldtown en mass so they could charter a ship and head to Essos.

“Highgarden,” said Sansa firmly.

“Because you want to see Willas—” Arya mocked in a singsong voice, finishing with kissy noises.

Sansa took one look at her sister, and then said, deadpan, “I hate you.”

“Jon coughed into his fist, hiding a smile.

“No, it’s because Jon needs allies. The Tyrells have a lot of coin, and we don’t like the Lannisters, who are the other option,” explained Sansa patiently, rolling her eyes upward. “They were also Targaryens supporters until the end, so we can trust them to throw their weight behind a Targaryen again – especially one with the proof we have.”

It’s enough that the other Starks all looked at each other warily, eyeing up which of them would crack first and either argue with Sansa, or agree with her (they all agreed with her, but no one wanted to speak first). Finally, Jon inclined his head.

“North it is.”

It was always North – back North – only it would be in a roundabout manner, and it would be years before they were truly back North where the real fight would be. They all knew it, so the words were bittersweet.

Robb smiled, although it was grim and he looked so much like their father, right then. “North it is.”

Out of all the Tyrells, Loras was the most excited that they had returned, followed – probably – by Willas and Margaery, and then Mace who loved the idea of boasting to his lords and neighbours that the Starks – yes, the ones that are said to have returned from the dead! Those Starks! – were staying with them.

Loras’ enthusiasm died quickly when Robb explained that they would merely stay the night and then begin to make their way to Oldtown to charter a ship for the next leg of their journey.

“But you can’t!” Loras cried, voice breaking.

Alerie went to shush her youngest son, and Mace flushed red in embarrassment. “Loras…”

“They can’t! It’s my nameday next month and Father is hosting a tournament!” the young teen pouted. “Lord Robb and Lord Jon and Lady Arya are some of the finest swordsmen I’ve seen! I wish to learn from them to becomes the best!”

Arya preened at the compliment.

The remaining siblings then shared looks between one another, with eyebrows lifted or pulled mouths – a wordless discussion that ended up Jon giving a shrug.

Robb turned back to face the Tyrells, who had been watching the conversation with fascination. “We wouldn’t want to disappoint Lord Loras on his nameday. We will stay until the tournaments’ end and then we will leave.”

“Splendid!” cried Mace, face lighting up. He beamed at them, at Loras (who beamed back, just as happy), at his two, amused, elder sons, and then finally at his wife. “Absolutely splendid! And you will compete, of course!”

Mace didn’t give them a chance to answer; Robb turned, wide-eyed, to Jon and Arya. “I’ve never been in a tourney.”

Arya snorted. “You’ve commanded an entire army; trust me, it’s much less work. Just remember not to kill anyone, brother.”

“And if you do kill someone,” muttered Jon, eyeing the retreating Tyrells, Sansa and Rickon already following them into the castle proper, “I’ll help you hide the body.”

Robb clapped Jon on the shoulder with a grin. “I always knew you were a solid sort, brother.”

“It’s because black is my colour, Robb,” replied Jon with an eye roll. “It hides the blood better.”

Robb laughed.

The tournament was, from the Northerner’s eyes, impressive, although Garlan had told them it was one of the smaller ones Highgarden threw. The tournament grounds were outside of the castle, down along the bank of the Mander and in a cleared field with hastily erected stands and rings for the joust and mêlée on either side of the road leading up to Highgarden.

The prize money was a generous sum, but there was an undercurrent of another prize to be had: Loras, turning three-and-ten, had finished his page duties, and graduated to that of a squire – and he needed a knight to squire for. Men from all over the realm were invading the Reach, hoping that their talents would catch Loras’ eyes and that they would be the honoured one in teaching the Lord Paramount’s son how to become a knight.

None of the Stark children needed the coin – Jon’s ancestor’s bank accounts were very healthy and before they had left Braavos, Bran and Sansa had sat the Iron Bank representatives down for further investments to keep the coin growing – and further, none of the Starks were anointed knights of the realm, so they didn’t have to worry about being flashy or impressive when participating in the tournament.

“We could always throw it,” suggested Arya lightly, from inside the tent the Tyrell family had given them for the duration. While they slept, ate, and socialized intimately with the Tyrell family inside Highgarden, for the mêlée and joust, they were given their own tent to represent the Starks and the North as a space to change and prepare.

Mace Tyrell had changed the order of the tournament around: instead of the joust first and mêlée second, the mêlée was first, as that would decide who Loras would eventually squire for, and the joust would be the finishing event.

Sansa and Bran were already in the stands the morning of the mêlée, leaving Robb and Jon to help dress each other into their armour and leathers; Arya needed no help, but Rickon was clueless when it came to Southron fashion and protection, so Jon was crouched at Rickon’s side, tightening the straps on his shin plates while Robb adjusted the ill-fitting chest plate.

And he was whining. “I don’t see why I need to wear this, Robb! It’s so heavy and restricting—”

“Well, unless you want to be cut in half when a knight twice your height and three times your weight slashes at you, I’d suggest you shut up,” said Robb cheerfully. “They need the armour to protect them, and so do you, Rickon.”

Rickon looked dubiously down at the shiny metal, poking at the chest plate. Jon had his head turned away and he couldn’t see the grin that was on his face from that angle. “If you say so…”

Soon a trumpet blared throughout the grounds, just as the male Starks finished with Rickon. Jon gave him a good, solid thump on the chest, sending Rickon rocking back and forth, glaring up at Jon.

“Mêlée first,” offered Arya, swaggering out of the tent with her brothers behind. “This ought to be good.”

“Stick by my side,” murmured Jon to Rickon. “You’re not used to fighting these sorts of men – this is very different from the north, alright?”

Arya turned and walked backward, facing them, and looking at Robb. “Still planning on entering the joust later this week, Robb?”

He nodded. “I never had the opportunity before, but I figured I might as well try it while we’re here.”

“Hmm,” replied his sister, rolling her neck. Jon winced, hearing the crack. “So long as we survive this.”

“Look at all the people!” breathed Rickon, eyes wide as they entered the mêlée stadium, furthest from the Mander and along the Rose Road. There were several knights milling around, joking and laughing with their liege lords; some stood by themselves, being fitted for final touches on their armour by their squires; two were swaying, already drunk – one of whom Arya recognized as a young Thoros of Myr – and another, pimply and weedy young knight was green in the face. He promptly turned and threw up, nerves getting the best of him.

Rickon wrinkled his nose.

All four were using castle-forged steel – Arya had spent the better part of twenty minutes lamenting that Jon wasn’t going to use Valyrian steel, which would cut through the men easily during the mêlée until she was reminded that Dark Sister was too well known and then Jon’s secret would be out – and Arya had a few extra blunted daggers she was bringing in since, out of all her siblings, she preferred close-quarter fighting.

They lined up by the officiant, stated their names to the man’s goggled gaze, and then stepped aside, inside the ring but well enough away from the other knights as they entered.

“Rules?” muttered Rickon, eyes darting everywhere and taking in some of the flashy armour and proud faces.

“The mêlée is a free-for-all fight,” began Robb in an undertone, watching the men around them. “The purpose is to either capture or render unconscious as many knights and lords as possible to ransom them back to their lands.”

“Do we really need to ransom anyone? We’ve enough coin,” asked Rickon, a frown on his face.

“The ransom is symbolic,” piped up Arya, eyeing a knight with a vicious look on her face. “First blood works as well, but most knights won’t leave unless they can’t or are unconscious.”

“The purpose is to showcase your skills and single out a knight at the end as the one who lasts the longest,” continued Robb quietly. “So, conserve your energy and fight smart. Stick by us – we’ll work together to thin the ranks.”

Rickon swallowed nervously, his grip tightening on his hilt.

Another trumpet blared, and suddenly the air was tense. Anticipation hung in the air as the knights around them readier their swords, eyed their opponents and waited impatiently for the next signal.

Bracketing Rickon and Arya into the middle between him and Robb, Jon sighed, “Here we go again,” just as the trumpet sang out another note.

Then, it was chaos.

The Starks did not rush into battle like many of the others around them. Instead, they stuck to the edges of the field, cutting down anyone who got close to them. They were also not the only ones sticking to the edges, carefully watching what was happened – although those soldiers and knights were often a bit older than the ones in the thick of it. The initial attacks were bloody and ferocious, but Rickon could see that the knights who leapt into the fray began to lag, panting heavily with sloppy thrusts or swings of their swords, and most began to drop from exhaustion or were knocked out.

What had begun with two hundred knights was down to less than half in barely forty minutes, the muddy space cleared of unconscious bodies or any severed fingers, but still bloody and uneven.

“Recognize anyone?” muttered Jon to Robb.

“I do,” hissed Arya, eyes down the furthest end and locked on a collection of proud-looking knights. “Lannister men – and the ones in the grey, by the Riverlands stand? Freys.”

Instantly, Robb’s attention was captured. “Freys, you say?”

“Aye.”

Their bloodthirsty eyes found their targets, and Jon sighed, a hand gripping Rickon’s shoulder. His mouth found his little brother’s ear and he whispered to them, “Try to keep up – we're going to be moving very quickly across the field, now.”

“What–?”

But Arya and Robb launched forward, leaving Jon and Rickon to scramble after them. Neither was too concerned about injuries or whom they were fighting – both Starks, invested in their target of the Freys, were shoving their way through anyone who stood between them and the expansive Frey family.

They passed a pileup of knights from the Stormlands, the large group attacking three figures buried beneath them, the sound of clangs reverberating as each sword strike hit the battered armour beneath it.

Robb roared, his sword cutting into one knight who lingered at the edges of the pileup, hitting hard against his armour, and sending the man to the mud. He cried out in pain, the hit from the sword strong enough to bruise the man’s side; his face was pale from the ringing blow as he collapsed. Jon surged past Arya and Rickon, matching Robb's speed as they progressed across the muddy field.

Arya just leaped over the fallen Stormlander, dodging under the retaliated swing of his companion’s sword, twisting in the mud to bring her sword up from underneath and cutting through the straps holding his armour in place, and sending the heavy pieces to the ground.

The knight cursed, but without protection, he wasn’t participating further. He turned back to shout at Arya, but she had already moved on.

Jon and Robb were shoulder-to-shoulder, taking on five knights ahead of Arya and Rickon. When Jon would go low with a parry, Robb was high with a downward swing; when Jon swung his sword up and over, sending sparks spitting down on him and his opponent, Robb was in defence, blocking the others as he moved fluidly from left to right.

Arya engaged one, overwhelming the knight as he was surprised to see a woman fighting; it left Rickon with an opponent, a weaselly-looking man with prominent front teeth and two towers etched on his chest place.

“They lettin’ little boys into tournaments now?” sneered the man, eyes narrowed. “S’almost not even a challenge!”

Rickon vaguely remembered the Frey boys who had come to Winterfell. He didn’t like them much and had little interaction with them when they were in Winterfell, although they were innocent of their family’s crimes. But he did know what the Freys had done to Robb, Mother, and Robb’s new wife. Who they allied with and what the Boltons had done to Winterfell – what Ramsay had done to Osha, Shaggy, and himself.

Rage overtook Rickon, and he screamed, raising his sword into the position Jon and Robb had drilled into him and then he attacked.

Rickon swung his sword, parallel with the ground and dropped his shoulder as the Frey’s sword missed him, leaving his side open for Rickon’s sword to continue through, unhindered. It wasn’t the flat of Rickon’s sword that caught the man’s side, but the sharp edge, finding leather, cloth, and skin in the small space between the chest and back plates.

The Frey shouted in pain.

Rickon grinned.

But the man rallied. The hand not holding his sword swept up and the heavy gauntlet caught Rickon in the nose. There was a crunch and pain spread across his face even as he tasted blood. This was the second time his nose had been broken in so many months! He was getting tired of that, actually…

Growling, Rickon let out a savage yell and leaned down, catching the knight in the knees, and sending him flying back into the mud. Rickon overbalanced and found himself face-down in the mud, the Frey groaning beside him. But then he rose, covered in thick, brown sludge, and sat on the man’s chest, his fist flying.

The first knock sent the man’s head to the side; the second dislodged his helm, and the third knocked it off completely. There were weak attempts to swat Rickon away, but he placed his hand over the Frey’s face, grinning, blood, and mud mixed, and with his other hand searched for the discarded helmet. Once he grabbed it, he took both hands, swung the helmet up over his head and brought it down on the Frey’s nose.

And then he did it again.

And again.

And again.

He was vaguely aware of Jon hauling him off the bloodied and unconscious knight, saying something to him, but all Rickon could hear was the pounding of his heart in his ears, chest panting and the feeling of elation radiating out.

“Calm down, Rickon, you’re coming down from the bloodlust,” he heard Jon say – had he spoken out loud? “That’s all this is.”

He looked down at his mud-covered hands. They were shaking.

When he looked up, the mêlée was winding down. Hours had passed from when they started, not that he had noticed, and the sun was in an entirely different spot, much further across the horizon. Both he and Jon were the dirtiest, covering in mud or splattered a mix of it and blood. Robb had a slightly crazed glint to his eyes, joined by the manic smile that stretched from one ear to the other. He was surrounded by four unconscious bodies, chest heaving.

Arya seemed to be the cleanest of them, calmly wiping her blade from debris with the tail of a Frey’s tunic, her eyes calm as she stood and surveyed those who remained on the field.

“Most of the Lannisters are out,” she commented idly. “Shame. I’d have loved to go at them.”

“Wait a few years and you can kill them instead of knocking them unconscious,” offered Robb, dark glee coating his voice.

“Thoros of Myr is doing well,” said Jon, watching the younger man than he remembered swinging the flaming sword. “He’s holding up against a Tarly man.”

“And those Stormlords – one of them looks like Beric Dondarrion,” offered Arya with a squint of her eyes. “Up against Fossoway’s eldest – the one that’s sweet on Sansa.”

The four Starks looked at each other.

“I’ll take Thoros,” offered Jon.

“I’ll take the Tarly,” said Robb, grin still on his face.

Arya glowered. “Dondarrion is mine – he was part of the Brotherhood Without Banners, especially if you’re taking Thoros, Jon.”

They looked at Rickon.

His shaking had subsided. “What?”

“Think you can take the Fossoway heir?” asked Jon with a frown. “Without trying to kill him? His father knows who I am and has pledged to me. It would be awkward if you did something.”

Affronted, Rickon said, “He’s not a Frey or Bolton, Jon, Gods. I can be polite.”

Three looks of disbelief met that statement, and feeling his ire grow, Rickon turned on his heel and strode toward Fossoway, grumbling the entire way.

Determined to prove his siblings wrong, Rickon approached Fossoway ahead of Arya, joining Fossoway first in distracting and working against Dondarrion until Arya practically pounced on the man. She hung off his arm and swung her weight around his back, throwing off the young knight’s balance and sending them both to the mud.

He then turned to Fossoway, said, “Sorry about this,” and then walloped the flat of his sword against the man’s helmet as hard as he could.

“What do you – arrrgghh!” Fossoway’s heir dropped to his knees and dropped his sword, armoured hands clutching at his head as the ringing in his ears made him dizzy, pitching him forward with a groan. The man groaned again, “I think I’m going to be sick.”

Rickon grimaced. “I did say sorry, and Arya wanted to fight Dondarrion.”

He groaned again.

Rickon turned away, knowing that he wasn’t getting back up, and then watched the most intense fights he had ever seen: Robb against Randyll Tarly – not just one of his knights – and then Jon against Thoros and his flaming sword.

Robb and Tarly were evenly matched it seemed, although Robb seemed to be fighting with inner rage. The blood splatter across his cheek and forehead, messy auburn hair, and wide blue eyes certainly gave him a deranged look, each swing of his sword practically a hack or slash meant to maim or slice. Tarly was giving equally back, but both men were sliding in the displaced and slippery mud, panting, and sometimes completely missing their swings.

Robb got close to Tarly, grabbing his forearm and headbutting the man; but Tarly didn’t’ stumble back, instead hauling Robb to him and overbalancing, sending the two into a tight embrace where they began to grapple. Rickon saw an elbow fly and then pound against someone’s back, but they were slowing down, both exhausted, their hits barely glancing off the armour now.

Rickon’s eyes turned to Jon, moving like fluid around Thoros, dodging and ducking the trail of fire from his sword although he never flinched when it came near. Thoros himself seem impressed with Jon, and when their swords met, there was a loud crackle and clang, embers and sparks showering the two men and creating a spectacle that the audience had never seen before. They were cheering, their cries echoing and shaking the grounds.

Rickon had never seen Jon fight – he died before the battle that Ramsay had wanted – but he could see now why Ramsay was, in some ways, scared of Jon. Jon’s fighting style was economic, a slash-and-hack, with each hit meant to dismember or incapacitate. It was a style meant to fight Wildlings or the dead, and against a knight and soldier, it was brutal.

Thoros was on the defence, the one being chased around the grounds with Jon systematically going after him, each landed hit in the same place, making Thoros grimace and then wince, and then hold back cries of pain as the bruises grew. Then Thoros was cornered, penned it underneath the Tyrell banner in the stands. At one point, Jon ducked under the flaming sword and then hit and hit and hit

He threw his sword down and that was it – people were erupting into louder cheers; some women throwing their handkerchiefs and favours down into the mêlée pit.

“Is it over?” he asked.

Arya, a few feet over from him, glanced his way. “It is. Jon won.”

Rickon let out a giant breath of air, and, knees wobbling, landed on his rear in the mud.

Robb placed well in the joust but didn’t win; he shrugged and wasn’t worried about it, having clearly enjoyed the experience despite his bruises and the black eye he sported, courtesy of Randyll Tarly.

Mace planned on hosting a closing feast, giving the knights, lords, and everyone else at the Highgarden court a chance to mingle and for Loras to make his decision about whom he would like to squire for. His answer threw everyone, though.

“I wish to train under Jon Snow,” he announced to his parents and siblings before the start of the feast, in their private rooms.

“But he’s not a knight,” was the first protest that emerged from Mace’s mouth, utterly confused.

“He’s a Snow; he won’t amount to anything,” continued Olenna, lips tightly pursed. “My boy, there are so many others – why, why not Prince Renly, the king’s brother?”

And that’s grandmother, always thinking about how we can "grow strong", thought Willas with a mental eye roll. Anyone with eyes could see that Loras was enamoured with Jon Snow and his swordsmanship, particularly after that rather brutal and effective tournament win; and anyone with eyes and half a brain could see the stars in Loras’ eyes whenever he saw the youngest, curly-haired Stark.

“He came to see Margaery earlier and brought up the idea,” the Tyrell matriarch continued. “He would be an excellent choice to squire for, sweetling.”

Loras, however, was not dissuaded. “Jon Snow might be a bastard, but his siblings don’t care. And he’s the best swordsman I’ve ever seen. I daresay even Garlan would have trouble fighting him, and he fights three men at once with two swords!”

All eyes turned to Garlan, who shrugged. “We’ve only had friendly spars, so I couldn’t say for sure.”

“But?” prompted Mace, wringing his hands.

Garlan grimaced. “Snow fights like every battle is his last; he goes into each fight with the expectation to survive. You don’t lose against a man like that.”

Olenna harrumphed, dismissive and cutting. “Mace, don’t be an idiot. You can’t send your youngest son – one of the most talented of the boys, as well – to squire for a Northern bastard! If he had to choose one of the Starks, he should at least pick the redhead boy—”

“Robb’s good,” interrupted Loras, chin tilted up in defiance, “But he’s not as good as Jon. And I want to be the best swordsman in Westeros. So, I need to train with Jon Snow.”

Olenna sputtered.

“Besides, if I squire for Jon, then I can still learn from Lord Robb and Lady Arya—”

Another thing – whoever heard of a woman fighting as she does!” barked Olenna, shaking her head.

“The Mormonts in the North, I’d imagine,” answered Willas dryly, who had read most of the North in his family since the Starks arrival, “And even Oberyn’s daughters fight grown men.”

Mace shifted, uncomfortable with the mention of the man who had indirectly ended Willas’ knighthood and crippled him, despite the strong friendship the two men had.

“I don’t care – squiring for the Starks doesn’t do our family any good,” continued Olenna. “They might be curiosities, but they’re Northern and they don’t even follow our Gods.”

“Grandmother, you don’t even follow the Seven,” sighed Garlan.

“That’s not the point, boy,” snapped Olenna.

“Let’s put this conversation to hold,” suggested Alerie, the family’s peacekeeper. “We can revisit it after the feast.”

“But I was to announce Loras’ choice at the feast,” whined Mace, looking put out at the idea of being robbed of the pageantry.

“It’ll hold, Mace,” soothed Alerie.

“Yes, and hopefully Loras will change his mind,” added Olenna, grumpy.

Willas shot a look at his youngest brother, taking in the mulish, downturn of his brow and mouth, the stubborn tilt to his chin and the clenching of his hands.

Mmm, he thought, a sinking feeling of dread in his stomach, I think grandmother is going to be disappointed.

Loras did not change his mind, just like Willas thought. In fact, he kept to his decision, digging in his heels so staunchly that Garlan joked he was growing roots to grow strong in his opinions.That didn’t endear Olenna to Garlan, who found himself dismissed from her sight whenever they crossed paths for a sennight afterward.

The Starks had been asked to remain in Highgarden, despite their plans to leave immediately following the tournament, much to their confusion. Other lords lingered, so it didn’t look so strange, as each privately dined with the Tyrells until it was their turn, ahead of the promised, if not slightly delayed, closing feast.

Dinner began with polite conversation, as none of the Tyrells had seen much of the Starks since. Both Garlan and Loras congratulated Jon on winning the mêlée and then passing on the tournament win to give it to Thoros instead. Sansa was enthusiastically speaking with Margaery and Alerie while Olenna kept a keen eye on those at the table. The conversation turned to the other contestants and their prowess in the mêlée; Loras’ recount of Rickon’s aggressive attack on the Frey was done with relish.

By the time dessert was served, Mace had several cups of Arbor Gold and had lamented, loudly, “If only Loras would make his mind up!”

Attention piqued, Robb turned to the Lord Paramount. “His mind up about what, my Lord?”

The Tyrells at the table shifted uncomfortably but Olenna had no compunctions about hiding her opinions. “He wants to squire for your brother.”

Loras flushed red at his end of the table.

“Anyway! Mother,” chastised Mace loudly, a panicked look on his face, “Do tell us, Lord Robb, where are you planning on going next?”

“Uh, Essos, my Lord,” answered Robb hesitantly, glancing at Jon, and wondering if it was supposed to be a secret or not. “We have plans to visit the Free Cities.”

“What’s in the Free Cities?” asked Garlan curiously. “Are you thinking of Myr, or further afield to Volantis or Astapor?”

“Volantis,” answered Robb quietly, looking down at his plate. “I have someone I must apologize to.”

Garlan’s brown furrowed in confusion.

“Aren’t the exiled Targaryens somewhere in Essos?” asked Mace, trying to change the melancholic atmosphere to something a bit gossipier. “You’d best steer clear of them, my Lords, Ladies, given your family’s histories!”

It was an attempt, but it only highlighted the awkward turn the evening had made. It also brought up the point that Sansa wanted them to focus on: the Tyrells had supported the Targaryens before, and they would need that support again in the future. Jon eyed Olenna, for a long moment. The only way for them to succeed was to get her on their side… His eyes trailed from the Tyrell family matriarch to Bran, seated beside him at the table, who gave him the tiniest nod – telling him to use the information he gave him earlier that evening before dinner.

He mentally sighed.

“Lady Tyrell,” he began, catching the group’s attention. He carefully put his utensils down so he could focus on the older woman.

“Snow,” she said, voice a bit raspy but mostly dismissive and bored. She idly stirred her teaspoon in a tea she hadn’t deigned to take a sip from.

Across from him, Robb griped his dessert fork tighter.

“There is a matter of which I – along with my siblings – would like to discuss with you, in private,” he began.

Loras, at the other end of the table, perked up, face full of hope. However, Rickon, on his other side in a place of honour (which had certainly annoyed a few of the visiting Reachlords and Renly Baratheon, none of whom had been invited to the private family dinner that evening), knew Jon’s tone of voice and kept a grim countenance, even as he began to aggressively chew to mash the decadent cake on his plate.

Olenna’s eyes did not narrow, but it certainly seemed so when she replied, “Is that right?”

Mace glanced between the two. “What matter would you like to discuss Snow?”

“It’s a… delicate matter,” answered Jon carefully, eyes darting toward Sansa, as though for reassurance, except she didn't notice. “And one I would prefer to speak to you, your Lady wife, and heir alone about.”

Willas frowned, green eyes moving away from Jon to search out Sansa, who, next to Robb, was delicately cutting her lemon cake into tiny pieces with a vacant smile on her face. Why had Jon looked at her?

Olenna snorted.

“Mother!” bit Mace, going red in the face from embarrassment. For all that Jon was a Snow, a bastard in the Reach’s eyes, he was connected to the Starks and was one of the Starks who mysteriously returned – making him an interesting dinner commodity. Upsetting him, and by extension, his siblings, would be a horrible blunder that Mace did not want to make, and his mother was doing an excellent job being herself.

“Bastards don’t bring up important matters,” replied Olenna, eyes focused on Jon, who met her stare face-on. “They have an inflated sense of self-importance when they are nothing but reminders of someone’s lust and wandering gaze.”

“Lady Olenna!” barked Robb, rising to his feet in protest, Arya a second behind him.

Mother!” wailed Mace, aghast alongside Garlan’s shocked rebuke, “Grandmother!”

But Olenna continued to stir her tea, watching Jon – and how he didn’t react. Her eyes did narrow the tiniest then.

“You are, of course, welcome to your opinions,” he said dryly, “But the matter must still be discussed. If this is your attitude, however, I would ask only to speak to your son and wife.”

“Yes, yes, of course,” blustered Mace, eyes darting between the two, sweat beading on his temples.

“You’re not taking my grandson,” said Olenna. “He wants to be a knight of the realm, the best swordsman since Arthur Dayne. He’s impressive at only three-and-ten, and he won’t learn more from you – you might be a Lord’s get, boy, but you’re no knight.”

Jon raised his eyebrows. “Noted, Lady Olenna. And while that is something that Lord Tyrell will decide – that is not the matter I wish to speak of.”

He took a deep breath, recalled Bran’s nod, and pointedly asked, “Have you always been so opinionated, Lady Olenna? I’d imagine your parents must have been quite shocked when you informed them that you wouldn’t marry Prince Daeron.”

“He broke the betrothal, boy, not me,” replied Olenna sharply, arching her eyebrows.

Jon pressed his lips together, and thought, sorry, grandfather, Duncan—and then spoke.

“And finding him and Ser Jeremy Norridge together certainly had nothing to do with it,” continued Jon, eyeing her. “Especially not when you threatened to tell the King and Queen about them when you knew Aegon had already had to manage three broken betrothals from Daeron’s older siblings, and he was scrambling to keep some alliances.”

Olenna stilled, but it was so carefully done that unless someone was watching her, looking for a sign, it would have been missed.

“And when Daeron threatened you back, about keeping quiet, you laughed.” Jon took a deep breath. “Because you didn’t give one whit about the Targaryens if they were going to be oathbreakers, and you were going to do everything you could to hold them in contempt and make them need you. So, you married Shaera’s betrothed – another spurned house – in Luthor Tyrell, bringing wealth and power to Highgarden from the Redwyne family.”

Mace’s mouth had dropped open. “Mother? Is that true?”

Olenna’s face was pinched, but she didn’t confirm or deny anything.

“Aegon knew his children had upset several Lord Paramounts – Tully, Tyrell, Baratheon – and amends were needed,” continued Jon, striving for nonchalance despite sweating buckets. His heart pounded; everything hinged on what Bran had told him, about convincing Olenna that they were worth speaking to because they had information no one else had, making them irreplaceable. “House Tyrell received tax breaks and the ability to set purchase price on their goods, and you took advantage of that. It’s because of your spite that House Tyrell is so rich and affluent, controlling Westeros’ food supply – and that made House Tyrell nigh untouchable by Aerys and his madness, keeping your family safe. He may have been stupid enough to burn lords alive, but he was smart enough to keep the smallfolk fed.”

He reached for his ale and toasted her with it. “Well done, my Lady.”

There was a terse silence around the table, eyes bouncing between Jon, who was calmly watching Olenna, and Olenna who was staring back at Jon with dark, shrouded eyes. Finally, something in her face shifted. While still looking at Jon, she demanded, “Clear the room.”

Garlan practically leapt to his feet, pulling back Margaery’s chair as well so she could rise; he then hauled Loras, sputtering, out of his chair. “Time to go, little brother.”

“B-But--!”

Rickon smoothly rose, turning to Loras. “Come; show me that move you did the other day – in the square? The one where you put your weight on your back foot?”

Robb and Arya, their faces tense, glanced at Jon, who nodded at them. Olenna’s sharp eyes did not miss this, and something speculative rippled over her face before she smoothed it out, finally taking a sip of her lukewarm tea.

Then, when only Jon, Sansa, and Bran sat at the table with Olenna, Mace, Alerie, and Willas, leaving several empty spots and discarded, half-finished desserts around them, did Olenna speak next. “Well, Snow? The table is yours.”

“Actually, my Lady,” piped up Sansa, her pleasant, absent-minded façade drifting away to reveal the stoic and hard visage of the Queen in the North. “The table is really ours for what we wish to speak to you about.”

Willas blinked, the equivalent of a loud gasp and dropped mouth from shock.

Olenna cackled. “Well, girl, you certainly played a good game if you’re finally showing your teeth. Very well.”

Jon gave the matriarch a terse smile, even as Bran took the bundled package from his lap, passing it over to his older brother. “We have a story to tell you, my Lords, my Ladies. It will sound strange, but the longer I speak… the more it will make sense.”

Mace blustered, a bit red and confused, but Alerie, brow furrowed, placed a hand over Mace’s on the table to calm him. “Then speak, my Lord.”

So, Jon did.

Much, much later, Willas walked calmly and slowly through Highgarden’s many tiered gardens, lost in his thoughts of the revelations from dinner that evening. Despite the lingering pain in his leg from where it shattered and healed improperly, going for walks always helped clear his mind and there was a lot to sort through with what Sansa, Bran, and Jon – a hidden Targaryen king – revealed.

His head remained bowed, floppy hair a curtain obscuring his vision, and his walking stick kept a rhythmic tap tap tap as he wandered, his feet automatically taking him to one of two of his favourite places: the kennels, where he bred his hounds. His hawks and horses would not give him comfort while he unpacked his thoughts.

Lanterns created a cozy, warm and intimate atmosphere, the scent of hay, wool, and dog as comforting as a warm drink on a cold night. But the kennel was occupied when he stepped inside, stopping just over the threshold.

Willas kept the sires and dams separate, to avoid any unplanned litters and to keep his breeding lines, but when he entered the kennel, all the crates were open, letting the dogs mingle – but there wasn’t a single sound of aggression, even though he knew at least two of the bitches were in heat. Instead, Willas blinked as he took in the mutual grooming, the lazy sprawl of a few others, the excited yips of two litters of pups, playing with one another, and the three dogs from different breeds that were clamouring for attention, whining, and pawing at the figure crouched over Brenna, his favourite wolfhound from the north. Brenna was belly-up, tongue lolling out of her mouth as she panted happily and the figure gave her friendly scritches and belly pats, cooing.

Sansa looked different from the stoic woman at dinner, a smile on her face and a lightness to her eyes, kneeling on the wooden floor of the kennel and uncaring of the dirt or dirty pawprints that appeared on her skirts.

When Sansa and her siblings had first appeared at Highgarden, led in by Lord Fossoway, Willas would have been blind instead of lame to not recognize her beauty. Taller than considered fashionable for a woman, Sansa had high cheekbones and wide blue eyes; she drew attention for those attributes, but kept the attention on her with her long, bright red hair – and when the sun hit her just the right way, she looked like her hair was on fire. It was glorious.

He had seen the looks Fossoway’s eldest had sent the girl, and while his heart had skipped a tiny beat when introduced, intrigued, and charmed by the woman near to his age (despite all the strangeness surrounding her and the other Starks), Willas had thought: what if?

Of course, he had shaken it off, his grandmother’s training reigning in any further butterflies in his stomach and he had stepped back, content to observe. And for the fortnight she had spent in Highgarden gave him ample time to learn about her: she was charming, kind; she giggled airily instead of laughed, reminding him of his dear, sweet little sister; her wide blue eyes were innocent and full of appreciation and awe when they went for strolls around Highgarden, and she had blushed a beautiful pink that matched the rose he presented to her one day.

Willas thought her sweet; they could hold conversations, although none of them were deep or controversial. Garlan thought she was a bit empty-headed and Loras had no thoughts at all, eyes instead on the other Starks when they were in the training ring, lingering longer and longer on one in particular…

Margaery thought Sansa was wonderful, and the two found much in common: embroidery, singing, dancing. Sansa fit in with the rest of their Tyrell cousins who lived at Highgarden with them and attended their father’s court, and all sung her praises well enough. His father liked her well enough, and his mother found another highborn girl to cosset. His grandmother ignored the Starks altogether, which, clearly, had been a poor decision after that evening’s meeting.

Unbidden, the words emerged, slightly bitter, from Willas’ mouth. “Was everything a lie?”

Sansa stilled, co*cking her head, and letting her long, loose red hair drape over her shoulder as she peered at him. She slowly rose to her feet, ignoring the loud whine that Marigold, his terrier, made.

“Is everything about you a lie, my Lord?” she asked, voice calm if not cool, eye pointedly lingering on his cane.

Willas winced. Reflexively, he tightened his grip around the handle, and leaned heavier on it, despite not needing to. Oh, his leg was bad – he couldn’t ride or lead men in battle from the frontlines – but he often exaggerated his limp to make people underestimate him.

“I feel as though I no longer know you,” he continued, stepping into the kennel. Marigold’s sister and littermate Blossom gave him a high woof, and he smiled down at her, although it fled quickly.

Her eyes were no longer wide or innocent; rather, they were slightly narrowed with shrewd intelligence, her chin imperiously tilted. The overall image was one of a confident woman, still and sure in herself. “I never lied when we spoke, my Lord.”

“Your body lied,” he replied, eyes also narrowing.

She rolled those blue eyes. “You saw a silly, little girl because that’s what I wanted you to see. But every discussion we had, that I had with your brothers and sister, your parents, and cousins, they were real.” She paused. “Surely, you understand what it means to hide a part of yourself to protect your family? That’s what I did – who I became was to ensure no one looked closely at Jon.”

“I do understand,” said Willas, annoyed, but mostly at himself. He glared at the floor, twisting the end of his cane back and forth and grinding it a bit. Because he made himself look weaker than his siblings, to play up his limp so that people didn’t see the spark of cunning in his eyes instead. How had he missed it in her? Was she that good that even grandmother had no idea?

“I didn’t wish for us to meet this way,” offered Sansa quietly.

He paused, eyes darting up. “Had we met before, in your past?”

It was still strange, the idea that there were two sets of Starks now, one younger and the other older: the older from a different time with different experiences and knowledge. It certainly did explain how Jon knew things about his grandmother, though. They must have learned that knowledge through remaining Targaryen loyalists.

“No,” answered Sansa, quietly. “No, we never had the pleasure. I knew Margaery and Loras, and your grandmother, when we were all in King’s Landing together… but I never had the pleasure of meeting you or Lord Garlan or seeing the majesty of Highgarden.”

“But you knew of me, through Margie and Loras,” sighed Willas. “And you used that to disarm me, my family. To play up to our expectations and perceptions.”

She gave him a tight-lipped smile, and then a tiny shrug.

Blast, thought Willas. They had been outplayed by their own hubris, even though Sansa certainly had a leg-up with her previous knowledge from the other timeline. He sighed and used his free hand to rub at his forehead.

“If it makes you feel any better,” she began, softly, “Our original plan was to avoid Highgarden. You weren’t supposed to be caught up in this.” Her eyes dropped. “I do regret that you feel differently now.”

“I’m not sure what I am supposed to feel,” admitted Willas, watching Sansa carefully and noticing the pronounced differences, although, at heart, they were still the same quirks and gestures, just less flamboyant. “Admiring, I think I can admit.”

Shyly, Sansa looked up at him from under her lashes. “Admiring, my Lord?”

“Well, it’s not every day that the grandson of the Queen of Thorns is outplayed,” sighed Willas mockingly, easing the sting with a bashful smile.

“I had some lessons at her hand,” replied Sansa, eyes sparkling in the soft torchlight, “But much of my learned behaviour came elsewhere – from two who would have been delighted at my ability to fool Olenna Tyrell. For they never did, you see.”

“Grandmother is one of the best,” answered Willas proudly. He shuffled a step closer. “But you’ve tipped your hand, my Lady. What shall you do next?”

“I suppose I shall have to hope that the Queen of Thorns’ grandson will forgive me and that he is still willing to spend time with me,” hedged Sansa, trailing off at the end, “As I have grown fond of him and fear I would be a poorer person without him in my life.”

Willas’ traitorous heart began pounding against his chest and his mouth felt dry. He swallowed, very aware that the action gave his thoughts away. Huskily, he offered, “The Lady will be forgiven, if only she promises to be her true self furthermore.”

Sansa – paused.

Willas’ heart fell to somewhere around his knees in response.

“I don’t think you’d like me very much if I were to show you all of myself, Willas,” she finally said, something hard on her face. “There is…” she huffed a tiny, dark laugh, “Very much that you don’t know about our pasts – about my past.”

Willas took another step forward and then, shakily, extended his hand to her. “Will you not share it with me, Sansa?”

She eyed the appendage, something pained and yearning in her gaze, before raising her eyes to meet his face. “I can’t always be my true self, Willas. I will have to play parts to protect Jon, and Robb, Arya, Bran, and Rickon. The lone wolf dies, but the pack survives. If you can accept that…”

“I can,” he answered easily. “My family comes first, too, Sansa. That is how one grows strong, after all; only when we work all together.”

She hesitated again, licking her own lips nervously. “There is one last thing…”

“Oh?”

There was a hint of challenge in her eyes, but also resignation. She took a step back from him and then, slowly, extended her arm, palm cupped and faced up, in a rising motion it was parallel to the ground.

It took Willas far longer than he would admit, to realize how silent the kennel had become. There were no more whines, yips, or woofs. Upon hearing his own heart thudding loudly and the blood rushing in his ears, he realized that all the dogs had risen to their feet and were silently staring at him, watchful.

They were unnaturally still.

He swallowed again, mind making leaps and connections. Sansa swept her gaze over the dogs, and one by one, they turned and retreated, entering their proper kennels, and then sitting on their haunches, still silent.

She’s controlling them, he thought. It was the only explanation – none of his dogs were that well trained, understood nonverbal commands or recognized the gesture she had made to return to their beds.

There’s a word for someone like her, in the North, he realized, recalling the hours he spent, burning the midnight candles after the Starks arrived, reading up on the North. She’s a warg.

“Can you accept that there are much greater things out there in the world that we know of, Willas Tyrell?”

The power – the control that resided in Sansa’s blood. Her cunning, her intelligence. The blue eyes – the colour of winter roses – and the hard stare hidden behind façades of playful innocence. Each facet of her called to him, to the man he was that enjoyed mind games, making his blood sing.

She must have seen something shift on his face, because her thin lips began to curl up at the edges, turning into a wicked, sinful, and confident slip of a smile that made his knees weak, his blood turn molten hot, and his chest feel ten times its size.

He closed the distance between them, eyes locked on hers; he was taller than her by a mere smidge. His eyes bore down into hers as she regarded him steadily.

“I do believe,” rasped Willas, his entire being focused on the northern woman before him, “That I find myself a believer, Sansa Stark.”

And then he bent his head the tiniest and kissed her. It was everything he thought it would be.

TBC...

Chapter 13: XIII

Summary:

Loras finally has his nameday feast (either watch A Knight's Tale in the background, or listen to Hildegard von Blingin' on YouTube for the feast scenes); Jon makes an awkward toast (and I shamelessly use lines from one of my favourite films of all time, The Count of Monte Cristo in a poor paraphrasing attempt); Olenna regains her plotting feet as she and Mace look North, and the Starks (plus Loras) finally leave Highgarden and Westeros for a new adventure elsewhere.

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

XIII:

Memories of Tomorrow - writing_as_tracey (13)

Mace’s feast for Loras’ thirteenth birthday was extravagant and decadent, far more than what was needed or expected for what Garlan had told them was a “minor” tournament held by the Tyrells in the past – and for something that had been delayed by a week while Olenna attempted to convince Loras to squire for Renly instead.

But after Jon told them – convinced them – of his parentage, and Bran and Sansa backed him up and he explained how he was going to, eventually, fight to claim back the iron throne for House Targaryen again, not only had Mace fully capitulated (and eagerly, Jon admitted to himself), but Olenna had seen the benefits of being the first second House at his side (at least the one with the most money and men, not that they needed the coin); only Willas had seemed a bit put out, but Jon was sure that had more to do with being outsmarted by Sansa.

He seemed in a much better mood the next morning when Jon and his siblings appeared in the great hall to break their fast along with the other Lords and Ladies who remained for the feast (which was nearly all of them). Fossoway was immediately at Jon’s side, his eldest Owen a bit despondent over his easy exit from the melee by Rickon’s young hands.

He perked up when Sansa floated by and sat on Jon’s other side. “Good morning, Lady Sansa.”

“Good morning, Lord Owen,” she greeted back, and Jon watched her from the corner of his eyes as she ducked her head and began to butter a roll. Owen turned back to his meal, thinking of something to say with his ears red, when—

There! thought Jon, catching Sansa’s eyes dart up at the head table, locked on Willas. She sent him a sultry look, a bit of an eyelash flutter, and was back down, buttering her roll when Owen looked up and began speaking about the weather outside, missing the entire exchange.

He rolled his eyes. Sansa could certainly be malicious and petty – even as a child – but he was also certain that she wouldn’t be playing with the heir of Highgarden’s heart after pushing Jon so strongly into an alliance with the Reach. She may have learned to use her body as a weapon, from Cersei and Baelish’s tutelage, but her past marriages would have made her wary of lingering touches. That she was mooning over Willas Tyrell was at least a sign of her pushing her comfort zones and slowly moving past one of her traumas.

“Do be careful with him, sister,” muttered Jon as he stood from the table, leaning down to breath his words against Sansa’s ear.

She blinked up at him, all innocent and sweet when she replied, “Whatever do you mean, Jon?”

Jon said his goodbyes to the Fossoway boys and left the hall for the training yard, knowing Arya and Rickon would already be there; Robb was, no doubt, caught by some of the Reachlords, many of whom had interrogated Robb as the heir of Winterfell – or, well, once the heir of Winterfell.

To others, the line of succession was muddled but the Starks knew differently: their younger selves were the true Starks in this timeline, not them. They were interlopers, aberrations, freaks of nature. Bran’s powerful greensight was developed beyond the vaguest notions his younger self in Winterfell could dream up; Arya’s magic was learned when she trained under the Faceless Men, and none of them – including Arya herself – would want the younger version of the girl to experience the things she did when on the run after their father’s beheading.

Even the warging abilities Robb, Jon, Sansa, and Rickon had – they were far more developed and for Jon and Rickon, instinctual to their nature from their bonds with Ghost and Shaggydog. Their younger selves had no idea of warging and now could never do so with their bonds broken to save their lives (perhaps, thought Jon, that was something they could revisit in the future if Bran's abilities manifested strongly enough for them to fix their mistakes. He couldn't imagine life without Ghost in it, and his heart clenched at the idea of his younger self not having that bond with his wolf, or, even, if those dragon eggs would ever hatch...).

They were true representatives of what Southerners thought the North was like: savage, cruel, uncivilized. Oh, they could play nice with their courtesies and chivalry, but at heart, the Starks were wild, untamed, and despite what they showed everyone, very, very broken on the inside.

Perhaps it was good that they were leaving in a few days, thought Jon, slipping past Tyrell men-at-arms and guards as he wandered through the many wide, light-filtered hallways that overlooked green gardens. A light breeze swept the scent of roses and other sweet-smelling flowers throughout the entire castle. The Starks were just too dark and dirty for such a place.

But first – they had to put up with one more night of being a spectacle for the Southern Lords and Ladies at Loras’ nameday feast.

The Starks were dressed befitting their station when they arrived for the feast later that evening: Robb, Bran, and Rickon were wearing fine doublets (Robb wearing grey, with white threads; Bran in grey with black threading, and Rickon – all the while protesting – in a doublet with a darker grey with silver threading) along with trousers tucked into polished boots that matched their belts.

Jon, who always preferred dour black, wore a fancy doublet made of the darkest fabric with faint brocade patterns that Sansa had stitched in for him in the deepest, darkest red she could find. Unless someone was specifically looking at Jon and thinking “Targaryen,” would they see the colours as a true representation of Jon’s heritage.

Arya was not in a dress, but a compromise: she wore tight trousers in black with the same polished boots as her brothers, and a thin linen shirt that was covered by a silver gambeson that split in an upside-down v-shaper just under the cinching belt, with a tiny bustle at the back for the skirt. It hugged her thin waist and emphasized Arya’s feminine attributes but remained unique that she could still fight in it.

Sansa dressed as though she were still Queen in the North, but used fabric suitable for Highgarden in layered, silver silks and thicker braided fabric to hold the front halter up and twist in crisscrossing lines and diamond patterns along her back, mimicking the silvery scars from her time in the Red Keep and Ramsay. She wore a shawl overtop though, keeping the scars hidden for the time being. The train of her dress draped heavily and spanned out, achieving the look of her floating across the floor.

They made a hell of an entrance, though.

As Loras had won over his family’s acceptance in squiring for Jon, and Jon, Sansa, and Bran had won over the Tyrells in their bid to help put Jon on the throne (eventually), the Starks were given the honour seating for the feast, at a table closest to the Tyrell family’s seat.

They ended up sharing the table with the Redwynes from Olenna’s side of the family, and the Hightowers from Alerie’s side – although, both families had intertwined with the Tyrells before in their ancestry.

“My dear Lady Sansa,” began Mina Tyrell, eyeing the sparkles of silver that flashed when Sansa cut into her meal. “Wherever did you get such a dress? Your seamstress should be commended.”

Politely, Sansa smiled. “Oh, I made it myself.”

Alysanne Hightower made a noise of appreciation.

People made small talk as the courses were served – an excessive ten-course meal that was nothing compared to the fifty that was Joffrey’s wedding in another time and feast Sansa had attended – stretching the emptiness of their stomachs with wine and ale, soft murmurs of conversation against the soft playing of the minstrels in the room.

Eventually, Mace stood, drawing attention to not just the movement but also his excessive girth. “My Lords and Ladies, many thanks in your attendance of my son, Loras’, three-and-ten nameday celebrations!”

A massive cheer rose from the crowd in the hall, many raising their drinks to toast the young Tyrell son, who flushed red at the high table, but grinned ear to ear in praise.

“Yes, yes,” soothed Mace, playing to the crowd and smiling broadly himself. “There were many great displays of swordsmanship and horsemanship had.”

Eyes darted to where the Starks sat; Sansa could see a few strain their necks to find them over the heads of others. Robb and Jon both kept their gazes forward, while Rickon squirmed in his seat. Bran was, as usual, unruffled.

“I’m sure many of you are also aware that Loras has also completed his page duties,” continued Mace, eyes moving around the hall. “Usually, a Lord picks the knight which whom their son will squire with, but—” here, he sent a besotted look at his son, denoting how much he placed importance on their happiness “—I gave Loras the opportunity to choose the man he wishes to squire for from amongst you.”

The crowd hushed, and men leaned forward to strain to hear Loras’ answer from Mace’s mouth.

“Loras has chosen the man whom he thinks he can learn the most from, in teaching him to be the best knight he could be,” continued Mace, drawing it out. “And for that, Loras chose…”

The hall held its breath.

“Jon Snow, from House Stark, in the North!”

There was the tiniest scattering of confused applause, but most of the hall was struck silent, mouths open and eyes wide, dancing between the beaming Loras at the high table, with his siblings and family loudly applauding and cheering, to where the Starks sat, backs rigid.

Whispers floated across the room to where Jon sat, blithely ignoring them.

“Jon Snow? Isn’t he a bastard?”

“I’m sure he’s a sellsword, did you see what he did during the melee?”

“Someone from House Stark, of all places! Why not a fellow Reachlord?”

“I heard Prince Renly offered to squire Lord Loras… why would he choose someone so much less?”

Mace had turned to Jon, facing him and the other Starks at where they sat nearby with the Redwynes and Hightowers who had visited Highgarden for the tournament and Loras’ nameday celebrations. “Any words, my Lord?”

Jon sighed, long having given up any of them not addressing him as such. He stood, turning to face Loras. The teenager was beaming at him, his smile stretching from ear to ear.

Something in Jon softened at the sight. He could barely remember his teenage years – fraught with tension in Winterfell, and later, tension at Castle Black and then focusing on survival – but he remembered enough of the idea of becoming a great knight, doing wonderful things for the realm, and making a name for himself.

“My Lord Loras,” began Jon. He was never one for speeches, but this was important. He could come up with something for the boy who was to join them. “I’ve made it no secret that I do believe I am one of the worst people to guide you on this journey of being a knight. I am no anointed knight, a follower of the Seven; nor am I a Lord. There are a great many other men – in this very room – who I am sure would teach you all kinds of things about chivalry, about courtly manners.”

“However…” He paused, looking down at the floor. “Since arriving in Highgarden, I’ve had the opportunity to watch you; to spend time with you in a training ring, crossing our swords and watching you spar with others. I’ve seen you with your family, with servants, and the guests that have visited your room for your nameday celebrations. You do not need to be taught chivalry – as you already embody the beliefs and courtesies, seeking to protect women and children, treating others with respect. You do not need to be taught courtly manners, as you live and breathe them, here in the South.

“But what I can teach you is how to survive. You do not know my story; you do not know my pain and trials, although you’ve seen evidence of them. The world is not a kind place, my young friend. The world is not a song,” he said, eyes fixed on Loras, who was looking back at him, not smiling as widely now, but still focused, taking in every word Jon spoke. “We have but one life to live, and that life is a storm. You will bask in the sunlight one moment be shattered on the rocks the next. What makes you a man, a true knight of a realm, is what you do when that storm comes.”

Jon took a deep breath, picking up his drink from the table. “I will give you the knowledge to face your enemies and survive. When facing odds that are stacked against you, when cornered and surrounded, bereft of all help – I will teach you to stand in that storm: strong, proud, and capable. I will help you Grow Strong, Loras, for when you look into the storm, I will have you shout, do your worst, for I shall do mine! And then, the Old Gods and the New will know you as we know you: as Loras Tyrell, the man, the knight, the best of us.”

He raised his drink to Loras. Sansa was the first to copy him, with his sibling’s quick behind, followed by the others at the table, and then the rest of the hall.

“To Loras!” shouted Garlan, standing and toasting his brother as his side, dropping bits of wine on his curls.

“TO LORAS!” chorused back the hall, chairs and benches scraping as others stood. Mace was clapping so hard that he nearly hit his wife in the face when his hands bounced back. “TO LORAS!”

Jon caught Loras’ eyes amidst the crowd. They were teary, and the young Tyrell mouthed, “Thank you,” to him. Jon nodded, taking a sip, and then sitting back down, the mood of the hall significantly warmer than it was before when Mace made his announcement.

The minstrels began plucking their instruments and music spread throughout the hall once more; this time, people stood from their seats and took to the middle of the hall, where a space had been cleared for dancing.

People began shuffling around, sitting in different seats as old friends from different houses got together, or rivalries were reinstated through insult, and two drinking challenges were given from opposite ends of the room.

“I’m going to go speak to a few of the other Reach lords,” said Sansa in an undertone to Jon. “I wish to hear how aggrieved they are with Loras’ decision.”

“Have fun,” murmured back Jon, watching as Sansa left her shift on the seat, floating away and causing double-takes and spit-ups as she moved past men and women alike.

Bran ended up near Willas, sitting at the head table and discussing something with the studious Tyrell heir, while Arya shocked everyone by accepting Garlan’s hand for the second dance.

With Garlan leading Arya, Jon offered a hand to Leonette, making Lord Fossoway smile; he danced with Margaery next.

“You’ve caused quite a stir, my Lord,” the young Tyrell girl said, a gleam in her eyes.

“I tend to do that,” he replied, looking down at the girl who, in her dress and hair, looked older than twelve.

She smiled prettily at him, turning away as the dance required. When she returned to his side, there was something different in her eyes. “Thank you, for Loras’ toast. That was kindly done.”

“He’s a good boy,” answered Jon. “I fear that he’ll be disappointed in me soon enough.”

“I doubt that,” she said, shaking her head. “You’ve already done more for him and his happiness than others would.”

She curtseyed then, as the song came to an end. Jon returned her to her seat at the head table; Robb had joined Bran and Willas, but was standing behind Bran’s wheelchair, leaning a bit on it with a drink in his other hand.

“Had fun there, Snow?” snigg*red Robb. “Reminding you of days back when we were in Winterfell and little Beth asked you to dance?”

“If I remember correctly, brother, you were asked far more than I was,” replied Jon dryly. “And it seems like that will be the case here, as well.”

That shut Robb up, his mouth snapping shut even as he replied, “what?” despite the gaggle of young women in the room who were sending sultry looks at him – one, a Hightower cousin, was even bold enough to make an approach.

Sputtering, Robb was resigned and led off to the dance floor, leaving Bran and Jon to share smirks.

This dance involved more twirls and twists, and the three watched from a position where they could see everyone dancing on the floor. Sansa’s silver dress was slowly progressing from the far end of the room where she danced with a Storm lord, the two moving down the line until they ended up near the front, by the head table.

Willas’ eyes had been following her, equally soppy and heated. “She’s magnificent, isn’t she?”

Jon smiled indulgently, a tiny press of his lips together, as he ducked his head. When he glanced up, Sansa and her partner were finally at the front of the line procession, finishing their partnered dance. Sansa was twirled around, bringing her hands up for a finishing clap, when she twisted just so, and her back was visible to the head table.

Willas stilled; somewhere, a few seats down, Alerie gasped.

Jon had an eye on Willas, as did Bran, although Jon could only tell Bran was watching through long-term exposure to his younger brother’s newest habits. Mostly though, Jon wanted to know how Willas was going to handle Sansa’s scars and her past.

Willas’ hand had tightened on his cane, his knuckles white from tension. His eyes bore into Sansa’s back, his eyes tracing the silvery lines that matched the silver of her dress. There was a splotch of red, high on his cheekbones one of the few outward signs of his anger, except for the stillness to his body and the cold fury in his eyes.

“Who?” he rasped, finally turning those cold eyes at Jon and Bran.

Bran answered, his own voice significantly cooler than normal, “Her second husband.”

“I see.” Willas’ hand trembled the slightest, even as Sansa detached from her dancing partner with a curtsey of thanks and breathlessly approached the high table. Her face was flushed from the dancing and there was the faintest sheen of sweat on her brow, but her happy smile faltered at the stoic expressions on the three men’s faces.

“Is something wrong?” she asked, first at Jon, and then Willas, looking at both before finally turning to Bran with a quizzical brow lifted.

“Excuse me, my Lords, my Lady,” said Willas abruptly, standing quickly. His breathing was slightly elevated, his nostrils flaring. “I find myself no longer in the mood for this feast.”

“Willas – I—” Sansa stuttered in confusion.

His eyes softened. “Nothing to do with you, sweetling.”

Jon gave a tiny cough, pointedly turning his gaze away to give the two of them some semblance of privacy, sharing an awkward look with Alerie, whose eyes were darting between her eldest son and Sansa with wide-eyed wonder.

Bran didn’t, though. “He saw your scars, San.”

“Oh.” Sansa’s voice was small.

“Sansa,” murmured Willas, “Not you, remember?”

She made an unsure noise, but then straightened her back as something on her face shuttered, causing her to hide her emotions. “I remember, my Lord.”

Jon winced. Sansa had fallen back on her courtesies as armour, and Willas, unused to her whiplash change, had opened his mouth, bewildered by her change.

Clearing his throat again, Jon suggested, “Why don’t you and Willas go for a walk in one of the gardens, Sansa? And you can tell him – if you want – about the Battle of the Bastards?”

Bran scoffed, even as Alerie leaned forward a bit more.

Unsure, Sansa glanced at Willas, even as she addressed Jon. “Are you sure?”

Jon affectionately cuffed Sansa’s chin, and she gave him a smile in return. She then turned to Willas, extending her hand to him. “My Lord?”

Confused, but willing to follow, Willas nodded, and the two turned to leave the hall, his limp much less pronounced than normal. The two had their heads closely pressed, whispering to one another, red and blond mingling. Then, something must have been said that eased the tension in Willas’ shoulders because his free hand daringly skimmed down her back as they reached a carefully hidden passage behind a lattice panel in the hall, landing on the topmost swell of Sansa’s rear.

Jon’s eyes quickly tore back toward the hall, while Bran chuckled knowingly under his breath.

“Will she be well, my Lords?” asked Alerie, slipping across from her seat to Willas’ abandoned one.

Jon nodded. “Sansa can take care of herself.”

“And…” Alerie trailed off. “Her… the scars?”

“Oh,” began Bran, vaguely cheerful, “He’s still alive in this time. I’m sure once Sansa tells Lord Willas about it, he’ll be happily planning the man’s death in no time if he’s anything like his grandmother.”

Jon rolled his eyes, knowing there was a good chance Bran had used his greensight to keep an eye on people like Ramsay, Baelish, and Cersei, among others.

Alerie looked vaguely sick, even as Rickon, Loras, and Garlan swung down from their head of the table to approach, Rickon leading the way.

“Jon, Loras wants to know what he’s going to be doing for you,” announced Rickon, throwing himself down in a seat near Bran, arms crossed. “I don’t know what squires do, so I can’t answer him!”

Loras, confused, whined, “But, Rickon, you’ve three elder brothers, didn’t you squire for one of them, in your pasts?”

Rickon rolled his blue eyes. “No. They teach me, of course, but I wasn’t raised or trained to do anything regarding knights. This is my first time in the South.”

Alerie asked, “Where did you learn to fight then, my Lord, if you didn’t squire with your brothers? Were you fostered out from Winterfell to another Northern house?”

“Yes, Rickon, please, tell us!” begged Loras. “I’ve seen some moves that you do are Robb’s or Jon’s—”

“Oh!” Rickon uncrossed his arms, leaning forward. Enthusiastically, he said, “After Winterfell was taken, I escaped with my Wildling caretaker and we were on Skagos for years, you’d love it Loras, really—”

Garlan spat out the drink he was sipping.

Jon groaned.

Not quite bleary-eyed from the late-night feast two days ago – but with Highgarden much quieter now that people were leaving, with the Fossoways as an exception – Jon joined Mace and Olenna in Mace’s solar to discuss Loras’ squiring and Jon’s plans.

Bran had paused when Jon asked if he was joining, his eyes going white for the briefest moment before he shrugged and said Jon would be fine, and that he was going to the Three Singers and to not be interrupted, a gaggle of wary-eyed Tyrell guards following him. Sansa also would not be joining him, instead preferring their last few days of quiet to be spent in Willas’ company and Jon knew better than to ask what his twice-wedded sister was up to.

Arya and Rickon chaffed under the new guards that Olenna and Mace had assigned them (“For your protection, Your Grace,” Mace had blustered; Jon replied, incredulously, “In your own castle?”) but Rickon only noticed them when he wasn’t in the training yard or with Loras, which was most of the time. Arya and Robb were paired by default then when Jon was locked away making plans and spent their time in the training yard. Robb hadn’t had much interaction with Arya one-on-one since their return, so both were benefiting from it.

“Loras’ role of my squire won’t be conventional,” began Jon as they sat for a light lunch to discuss the future. “We already know I’m not a knight, anointed by the Seven, nor do I have any plans to become a ser, either.”

“But he’ll still have the same duties, will he not?” asked Mace, a frown on his face.

“Aye – he’ll learn about our armour and care and take care of any horses we have when we travel,” agreed Jon easily. “That’s no different between the North and South. I’ll not be attending any tournaments for the foreseeable future, so his experience will come from training sessions with myself, or my brothers and sister.”

“And where will you be, if there are no tournaments?” asked Olenna sharply.

“Essos,” answered Jon promptly.

Both choked a bit.

Essos?” rasped Mace, eyes wide as he struggled to gain air. “What is there to do or see in Esoss, Your Grace? Surely, remaining in Westeros…”

Jon looked down at the table, contemplative. “My siblings were kind to indulge me in learning the path my parents took that led to my birth. Robb has… unfinished business in Essos, and after the love he has shown me, I shall return it. Besides… Rhaegar had, well, strange ideas. And I believe Essos might answer some of the questions he’s left behind.”

“Is Essos safe?” demanded Mace, a hitch to his voice. “Your Grace – Loras, he’s… he’s my youngest son—”

“He will be as protected and cared for as my own siblings are to me, Lord Tyrell,” said Jon quietly, holding the man’s worried gaze. “When I take him with us, he’s as good as a Stark to me – he’ll be family. One of us. The lone wolf dies, but the pack survives. None of us will let harm come to him without us dying first.”

Mace, soothed by the promise, deflated back into his seat, boneless. Olenna, on the other hand, peered at Jon with an inscrutable look.

“You can’t promise that,” she finally said. “You can’t promise that Loras will come back.”

“No. I can’t promise,” he said, but then paused. “But I can promise that, if he does return, he’ll be a changed man – and that he’ll have a story to tell for the ages.”

Olenna humphed. “Now, what’s this about Rhaegar chasing things? What answers was he seeking, and how do you know?”

“Maester Aemon at the Wall told me they wrote, often,” replied Jon, and the three resumed eating with Loras’ squiring talk complete. “It seems that Rhaegar believed in a prophecy and was searching for information on it.”

“Prophecy! Ha!” scoffed Olenna, rolling her eyes. “What utter sh*t.”

“Mother,” groaned Mace.

Jon grinned. “I agree, and I know what the prophecy is.”

Intrigue had Olenna leaning forward in her seat. “Oh?”

“The Prince Who Was Promised,” said Jon, with a tiny sigh. “Someone who would fight a great evil invading the world and deliver everyone to safety by vanquishing the great evil.”

“What a nice tale,” drawled Olenna.

“And the Prince thought he was such a man?” asked Mace, curiosity dripping from every word that fell from his mouth. “Where did he first learn of such a thing?”

“Somewhere,” shrugged Jon. “The origins, I’m not sure of, which is something I wish to rectify in my travels to Essos, as I only ever heard of the prophecy from a Priestess of Asshai. But in terms of the Promised Prince, Rhaegar initially thought he was the prophesized one, but then decided differently and that it was my half-brother, Aegon.”

“The boy is dead and therefore, so is the prophecy,” declared Olenna, tactless.

Jon mentally rolled his eyes, but verbally agreed. “Aye… And then I came along.”

Olenna paused, then narrowed her eyes. “Surely, you’re not as mad as the other Targaryens, Your Grace, to believe in such nonsense?”

“Not particularly,” agreed Jon, hedgingly. “But I’ve also seen strange things that I can’t explain – like being resurrected by a Priestess of Asshai, after being stabbed a dozen times. Like the dead walking and killing and fighting Others north of the Wall.”

Olenna stared.

Jon smiled, but it was done so humourlessly. “Hard to believe, is it not? That the stories, all those myths and legends of White Walkers and the wights can be true.”

Dubiously, Mace asked, “Are you… uh, sure, Your Grace?”

“An Other killed me the second time, the time that brought me here,” clarified Jon, something hard on his face. “I’m very sure.”

Both Olenna and Mace stared at Jon; Mace’s face held a slightly green hue while Olenna looked mildly disturbed, already mentally redoing her plans. Carefully, the matriarch asked, “Are you saying that fantastical nonsense is real? That the Long Night will return?”

“It’s already begun,” answered Jon solemnly. “Sansa, Bran, Arya and I were fighting at Winterfell when we died. Already, entire villages of Free Folk have been wiped out. Craster sacrifices his newborn sons to them, as men for their army.”

Mace shuddered.

“Why do you think I’m pushing to be king?” asked Jon quietly, looking at them both with a steady gaze. “We fought alone last time – no one came to our call – the other kingdoms had been destroyed by wars in the years before, after Robert’s death.”

Olenna’s face shifted with the knowledge that Robert Baratheon was going to die at some point in the near future, but there was a pinched look on her face, too.

Finally, it was Mace, who, far from the jovial man Jon had come to know him as, said, “You can count on House Tyrell, Your Grace. Whatever you need from us, we are happy to provide.”

The tiniest weight on Jon’s shoulders lifted and he gave a soundless sigh, sinking into his chair with a small smile on his face. “I do appreciate that, my Lord. Perhaps reaching out to the North – to Lord Stark – would be a good first move.”

“Your brother, the younger one, Robb,” began Olenna, eyes narrowed. “He’s the eldest of the younger set, is he not? What was he like as a young man unburdened as he is now?”

Jon sent Olenna a grin, one that transformed his face into a bit of a rakish, charming look. “I can hear your mind working, my Lady.”

She hmphed, and muttered, “Cheeky boy,” making his grin widen.

“Robb… he’s a good man, always was,” replied Jon, thinking back to a different time. “Eager to do his duty; cares about the family – all of us – and is a strategic genius. Not so good with politics, though, unfortunately. He’s raised to rule the North, not anywhere else.”

Eyeing Olenna and Mace, Jon continued, adding observations of the man who raised him, the North in general. He gave sparingly information about Lady Catelyn, honest that they didn’t spend much time together, and Olenna gave him a rather pointed look in response, knowing what he wasn’t saying.

It was Mace, of all people, who asked, “Your younger self, Your Grace. Does he know the truth of his parentage? You call Lord Stark your father instead of uncle, and I wondered of it…”

Jon swallowed. “I never knew. I was never told. Bran was the one who told me, years later. Sam and Gilly confirmed it, but it was… it was poorly timed. Daenerys wasn’t happy to learn I existed.”

“Oh, I’d say so,” muttered Olenna with a tiny cackle.

“I… I spoke with Father. We discussed the situation, and while I am still not happy with how it turned out, he did everything to protect me,” explained Jon, with a tiny sigh. He brought a hand up to rub at his forehead. “I understand doing whatever is necessary to protect one’s family – especially when there aren’t many left. Sansa strongly stressed that Jon – my younger self, that is – be properly educated as a lord, at minimum. He probably still has not been told the truth – even though Lady Stark knows now – but I won’t overstep Lord Stark on this… not yet at least.”

Olenna’s peered at him. “You plan to, at some point?”

Jon’s returning look was grim. “Let’s just say, from my previous experiences, I don’t imagine I’ll survive the wars to come. But if I can make sure that there is an easier path for my younger self – that King’s Landing will be safe for him? Then I’ll rest happily.”

Mace, flustered, attempted to give some reassurances that the king he was throwing his support behind wasn’t planning to gruesomely die at some point, but Olenna and Jon kept quiet – both were aware, if not considering – the possibility of those who were Baratheon or Lannister supporters who would attempt to assassinate him, or dying in battle, or dying fighting against wights and Others, again.

“Well,” began Olenna, voice thin but sharp, “I do believe I’ve heard what I need, Your Grace.”

It was the first time she addressed him as such and having the head of the family – the power behind the family – do so, warmed Jon in a way no fire could do. He had done it – the Tyrells were his.

Mace grinned, offering a hand to Jon to shake, which they did. He began speaking, almost absently, of things to be done. “Loras will be told, of course; he’ll need to pack. But then you can leave – perhaps a day or so longer? A raven to my goodbrother Hightower will ensure you have somewhere to stay – or they can charter a ship for you, already! The Free Cities, is that right?”

“Aye, Essos,” agreed Jon, nodding, and standing. “But I am not quite sure yet if it’s to Pentos or Volantis, just yet.”

Olenna remained quiet, lost in her own thoughts. The age difference between this Jon before her and her granddaughter was over twelve years – a large gap she wasn’t too fond of; but the idea that this king would ensure a path for his younger self to take the Iron Throne? Oh, she could have laughed herself sick at the idea. He was practically handing her the boy, and with the knowing look he sent her as he turned to leave, she knew he knew what she was planning.

“I must let Willas know,” mumbled Mace, looking around the solar. He turned back to Jon. “Your Grace, you saw Willas earlier this morn, did you not? He seemed much happier than he usually is.”

Jon froze. “Erm, aye. I did.”

“Did he say anything to you? Has his new bitch whelped? Or has he broken in a new colt?”

Jon’s ears went red, easily seen with his pulled-back hair. “Ah, no… no, I believe it was for another reason.”

“Oh?” Mace’s eyes were wide and innocent of the knowledge when he looked at him.

Jon squirmed. “I do believe Willas, and my sister Sansa, have entered into an… an arrangement.”

Olenna stilled, her hands tightening around her cane even as Mace, in confusion, sputtered, “I beg your pardon, Your Grace…?”

“Erm.” Jon’s eyes darted around, looking for a way out of the conversation. “Aye. They… they appear to be happy together?”

Mace’s eyes lit up, and Jon saw the moment he put two and two together and began thinking of royal weddings – for all that they were cousins, Jon considered the other Starks his siblings, and that translated to everyone else seeing them as princes and princesses of the realm, once Jon became king.

“We must begin preparations!” blustered Mace, a bit flustered. “A wedding to plan—”

“No, I’m sorry,” interrupted Jon, “But there won’t be a wedding.”

Mace sputtered to a halt.

“What of your sister’s virtue, Your Grace?” asked Olenna, eyes staring down at him, something hard on her face.

Jon sighed. “After what Sansa has experienced, I won’t ever presume to marry her without her knowledge. And as she’s coming with us… best speak to your son. If, when we return, they’d like to make it official, and she’s happy, then that’s all I care about.”

Silence filled the room after that.

Finally, Mace sighed and muttered, “Of course, Your Grace. That’s… that’s admirable and very kind toward Lady Sansa.”

Jon gave him a tight-lipped smile in return and turned to leave. He was almost at the door when Olenna murmured, “Just what have you all experienced in your lives, Your Grace?”

With his hand at the doorknob, without turning, Jon answered, grimly. “Much, my Lady. Much – and most of it was not good.”

It took them a bit longer than they wanted, but nearly a moon’s turn later, they were finally onboard Tide of the Rhoyne, their trunks and rucksacks in their assigned rooms and Jon’s dragon eggs carefully hidden and protected, still intact after all their journey.

Arya had already made friends with the ship hands, speaking to them in their local dialects and delighting them despite barely casting off, and finally trailed back to the group that stood at the bow, looking out toward the shining horizon in front of them.

Loras, torn between utter delight at having got his way – now, officially, Jon’s squire – and terror at the unknown ahead of them, asked with his voice cracking halfway through, “Where are we of to, my Lord?”

“That’s a good question,” answered Jon, eyeing Loras and then turning to the solemn Northerner at his side, shy of matching his height. “Robb?”

Robb took his time in replying. He was staring out at the water, something pained in his gaze. There was a tightness around his mouth, and the hands that gripped the edge of the rail at the bow were tight and the knuckles were white as the skin strained against the bone.

“Robb?” prompted Jon again, voice gentle.

Finally, Robb inhaled sharply and looked up, facing his brother. His eyes were glassy, and his face was etched in grief.

“Volantis, Jon,” he choked out, voice tight with emotion. “Please. To Volantis.”

TBC…

Notes:

I've made a very minor, blink-and-you'll-miss-it edit in chapter 2, which will have an effect much, much later on in the story but I wanted to go back and fix it to ensure this can happen.

Chapter 14: XIV

Summary:

Lys holds more secrets than the Starks were expecting, and more excitement, as they participate in a barfight and kidnap someone. Oops.

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

XIV:

Memories of Tomorrow - writing_as_tracey (14)

Two moons in from their last shore leave in Sunspear, everyone on the ship was intimately acquainted with one another and equally sick of one another, depending on the moment and the words spoken to someone at any given time.

To combat boredom, Jon rigorously trained Loras and Rickon in drills that Robb helped him with – throwbacks to days in Winterfell’s own training yard when Rodrik Cassell would do the same with them – and then engage in limited, tight-quarter spars where they chased each other around the deck and wove between annoyed deckhands shouting after them in High Valyrian.

Arya would join when she wasn’t participating in impromptu lessons from the men on the ship, learning the rigging, the sails, until she fit right in.

Sansa was even persuaded to learn a new skill: archery. That, however, stopped a few hours into the first session when she lost seven arrows over the rail to the ocean, making Arya despair. Instead, the charmed sailors taught her daggers with their thin, quick blades, playing dancing finger games and showing her the proper way to throw a dagger to stick it to the mast.

It didn’t quite stop all manner of boredom from creeping into their daily lives, but it was enough to keep them busy and put eager eyes on the horizon for Lys, the next stop for the ship and the end of their journey before they chartered another ship to take them to Volantis (plus, time off the rocking boat and back on solid ground was something they were all looking forward to).

The air was warm and salty, curling the boys’ hair and weighing the curls down with salt. Sansa’s hair was practically a fiery gold, while Loras’ blond head was sun-bleached. With the sun shining almost a full fourteen hours, they were all tanned a light golden colour – although Loras was a deeper hue – after burning their skin the first three weeks of the voyage. Furthermore, the Starks’ scars – the ones visible when the men were sparring shirtless, at least – were harder to see against their darkened skin.

“We’re not going to lose you, are we?” asked Sansa with a quirk of her thin eyebrows at her brothers, as the large group stood at the prow of the ship, watching as the horizon and the white beaches and pale wooden docks of Lys grew closer and closer. Lys was a walled city spanning three islands with smaller ones bursting from the turquoise seas in rounded, layered rocks with palm trees extended sideways or thick vines dripping into the water and swaying in the warm breeze.

There were numerous stone and wooden plank docks that stretched out into the shallows and coral reefs around the lush tropical island, and several more stone docks that extended from walled manses with tiered gardens and walls that butted directly up to the waterfront. Two large towers oversaw the entire island from the northeast, with a few other rounded, dome-top towers littered through the island, but for the most part, there was little architecture to detract from the abundance of greenery spread through the island and to the smaller ones nearby.

“Lose us?” replied Jon, incredulously, turning to face her.

“Well, Lys is well known for its pleasure houses,” answered Sansa, who then laughed at the faces both Robb and Jon made. There was no way Jon would visit one – he never had in the past, and the habit was too ingrained now – and Robb had been celibate since their return, too deeply wounded and grieving for Talisa to think of visiting another.

Bran, however, looked contemplative. Arya caught it and blinked at him in surprise, ready to open her mouth, but Bran said, seriously, “I could tell them about the night before we all fought, Arya,” and she snapped her mouth shut instead, blushing a furious red.

“Oh, what’s this?” grinned Rickon, eyeing up his sister. At his side, Loras peered around Rickon to look keenly at Arya as well. “Was there a special someone for you—ACK!”

“Shut your mouth,” grumbled Arya, bringing her fist back to her side even as Rickon nursed his barely wounded shoulder with an exaggerated pout.

“Children,” chided Sansa, but there was a twinkle in her eye when she spoke.

“My Lords, Ladies,” interrupted the captain. “The shallow waters make it impossible for the ship to get closer to the docks. We’ll disembark here.”

“Very well,” said Robb, speaking for them all. He and Jon went to help move their rucksacks and swords to dinghies that ferried them across the calm, see-through waters to the nearest dock.

The waters were calm, barely making splashes or waves as the confident sailors rowed them across the gentle waters in two boats.

“It’s warm!” Arya stuck her hand in the water, wriggling her fingers and watching as a tiny school of thin fish parted on either side and disappeared under the dinghy.

The dock, when they arrived, was busy – there were people unloading cargo from other dinghies, pirates with rough accents or grimy hands and oiled leathers, slaves with brand marks on them, and an aroma of spices and fruits that Westeros did not have much access to. Bright colours from clothing drew their eyes as the Starks hitched their bags on their shoulders and checked their swords; Loras’ head was swivelling left and right the moment their boots hit the wooden planks.

The entire island was wrapped with thick, high walls of crumbling, tiny bricks in dirty brown, bits of moss clinging stubbornly to pieces while other bits were eroded from the salt. They passed through a gatehouse, half-brick, half-rotted wood, and then were meandering along cobblestone streets for an inn.

Lys was entirely different from Westeros, beyond the obvious. Voices called over one another in different languages: High Valyrian, low Valyrian, Common Tongue, and other, garbled, and lyrical languages they had never heard before. Men wore wide-brimmed hats, some with bright feathers tucked into them; there were beautiful women, scantily dressed, leaning over wooden rails, and calling down to men and women who passed by, trying to entice them into their pillow houses. There were men shucking oysters opposite men grilling filleted fish; there were women selling seashell necklaces opposite slaves being sold at an open-air market.

Robb was wide-eyed, swallowing thickly as a woman passed by him, her bare shoulder brushing up against his chest with a sultry look, but he blushed and then turned to face his siblings. “Gods – this is – I’ve never—”

Arya struggled to keep a smirk off her lips. “The men on the ship said there’s a reputable inn near the northern side of the island, past a banana grove. We’ll get a few rooms there, I’m sure.”

“You spoke to them most, Arya,” said Jon easily, resting a hand on his hilt; he looked relaxed, but his eyes were constantly moving and Loras, at his side, mimicked him. “Lead the way.”

Arya did so, with Sansa linking her arm with hers, Robb pushing Bran along, even as people around them exclaimed at the wheeled chair, having never seen one before. Jon took up the rear of the group, corralling Rickon and Loras who walked on either side of him.

The inn Arya stopped outside of looked the same as many of the other buildings: a mix of thick rock and rotted, salt-blasted wood bleached by the sun into a pale, sickly grey. Vines climbed up the corners of the inn, clinging to the rock exterior and the wraparound wooden balconies of the second and third floors. There were floor-to-ceiling shuttered doors and window, all thrown open, but there was little to see peering in – the rooms were kept dart to keep the midday heat away.

Opposite of the inn was a pub of some kind, with several loud and drunk sellswords hanging off one another, haphazardly zigzagging their way across the cobblestones, disappearing into the inn they were standing outside of. One belched before entering.

Sansa shot Arya a look. “Are you sure this place is reputable?”

For a moment, Arya pursed her lips, perturbed. Then, she shrugged. “My Lysene is a bit rusty, but I’m sure Innaros said it was clean, well-known, welcoming, and safe.”

A yoo-hoo from above them had them all looking up, where a silvery-blonde-haired woman leaned over the balcony railing, her breasts pushing up against her arms, resting on the rail, and giving them all a view. There was a slit in her dress and when she stretched a leg out enticingly, the slit kept going, revealing more than just her leg but the curve of her hip. All that held her dress in place was a well-placed broach resting at the dip of her waist.

She sent bedrooms eyes at the Starks below and called in a lyrical voice, “Is there something I can help you Westerosi with? I’m eager to give you all a proper welcome to Lys!”

Rickon gaped at the woman, and Loras flushed beet red, but it was Jon who turned to Arya. She flushed under his gaze, and muttered, “Well, to be fair, he was probably talking about the whor*s. I did say my translation was poor!”

“Ahh, you’re a gem, Sonya,” the hardened man said with pleasure, eyeing the froth on his ale as the large tankard was slid across the bar top. The woman in question – Sonya – smirked. “My favourite ale.”

“Kept just for you, handsome,” she winked.

That was true, the man thought. Although he didn’t visit Sonya’s inn that often – slightly over a dozen stays in a decade – he usually stayed several moons and spent an ungodly amount of coin that he earned during his campaigns with the Golden Company.

He had finished one such campaign and was just – tired. Strickland wanted him to stay on for their next contract, but it put him too close to Braavos, which made him uncomfortable. He was in exile, and Braavos was still frequented by Westerosi, some of whom would recognize him even if he wasn’t shaving his head or dying his beard, trying to look like some Tyroshi.

Instead, he took his portion of the plunder and decided on Lys, for a few reasons: first, as a gateway between the east and west, he was able to hear any news and keep abreast on what the Usurper was doing in King’s Landing. As usual, it was the same: drinking, eating, f*cking. At least the man was consistent.

Second, the last time he had been at Sonya’s, there had been a wonderful bedmate, a pillow biter, lean in body with the silver hair and purple eyes of Valyria – oh so common to be found in Lys – that caught his attention and he had spent his coin on. The whor* in question certainly didn’t judge him, nor minded being called someone else’s name…

With his drink in hand, the man wandered around the ground floor of the inn, passing by women and men elegantly draped across loungers or feeding someone grapes, or running fingers down arms and skimming up legs. Sonya ran an inn, but all inns on Lys were also pillow houses, and hers was one of the better for the middling crowd – and her employees knew discretion, as well as when one was staying for the inn portion of Sonya’s and not the pillow pleasure.

Much like that group, he thought, passing by a large table near the back on his way to the sunken den in the middle of the room, directly underneath the open roof in the courtyard, surrounded by two, elongated u-shaped pools; the gaps were stone stairs leading down into the den where a table had been set up for a game of cards.

The table he passed was a strange, motley-looking group: two women, one exceptionally beautiful with her long red hair, and another dressed like a female sellsword; two teenagers, one who looked eerily like a young Mace Tyrell; a man in a wheeled chair contraption, and then two Northern-looking brutes, which was a rare enough sight that several of the other sellswords and pirates in Sonya’s were either staring openly at them or giving them shifty eyes, hoping to avoid catching their attention.

No matter, he thought, sliding into a seat at the card table, giving a thin, fake smile at the five men already there. I’m not here to revisit the past and past enemies if they are Northmen. I’m here to win some coin.

One pirate, with a scar across his left eye and down his cheek, hocked and spat out a glob of spit, a twisted sneer on his face when he muttered something in Valyrian, causing the other pirates to laugh. Then, he said in Common, “Well, well. If it ain’t Toyne’s pet. Got tired of fightin’ already, Griff?”

“I just needed a break, Valqa,” replied the man evenly. “Deal me in?”

The pirate glanced at one of the other men, with a fancy hat and peaco*ck feather, and nodded.

Cards were dealt, and Griff took a sip of his drink. Not a bad hand to start; he could work with it.And so, the evening went on, Griff drinking his ale and it being replaced, silently and efficiently, by one of Sonya’s girls. He was drunk, but not as drunk as the pirates, who were already halfway there when he joined them. But they were all laughing loudly at one another, upping their stories about who had the most embarrassing moment on a ship or during a fight, even as the coins – a mix of currencies – in front of Griff grew.

He may have been drunk, but he wasn’t that drunk that he was incapable of keeping his head and ability to count cards – but it was enough for one of the younger pirates with Valqa to snap at him in a Valyrian dialect that the Free Cities favoured, “you’re a f*ckin’ cheat, Griff.”

He leaned back in his seat, rolling his broad shoulders. He hoped he looked indolent, lazily looking around the inn. In a darkened corner, he saw the silvery hair of his pillow mate. The man caught his eyes and gave him a sultry look from the shadows and a grin stretched across Griff’s lips even as he turned back to Lazar. “I don’t need to cheat a drunk man out of his coins, Lazar.”

“No,” spat Lazar, tossing his poor hand down on the table, revealing nothing substantial, “You’ll just take them! Curse you, y'bastard.”

“You’re practically giving them away, you drunk,” jeered Griff. “Go sleep it off. Or better—” he picked up one of his won coins and flicked it with his thumb in Lazar’s direction. “Get yourself a bedwarmer on me. Maybe it’ll improve your mood, boy.”

Lazar caught the coin, an angry look rippling across his face.

“Let it go, Lazar,” cautioned Valqa, “You’re drunk.”

“So’re you,” the pirate retorted mulishly, words slurred, “And since when d'you side with Westerosi scum?”

“Scum, am I?” echoed Griff.

Lazar’s eyes narrowed and he stood, leaning threateningly toward Griff. “All Westerosi are scum,” he declared loudly in Common.

One man from the large party Griff had clocked earlier in the corner glanced up, hearing the words. They looked back and forth between them and then turned back to their companions.

Griff didn’t say anything, turning back to his cards and looking at one of the other pirates, uneasily looking between Griff, Valqa, and Lazar. He began to nervously deal out the next hand, his own hand shaking as the cards flicked across the tabletop.

Lazar slammed his hands down on the table. “Don’t 'nore me! I said it, all Westerosi are scum! You're scum, Griff, and,” he lowered his voice in a rumbling sneer, “your precious prince was scum too, an' worse, came from a family of sister-f*ckers.”

Griff exhaled, red descending over his vision.

It was one thing to insult him. Fine – after all he had done, he deserved it. But, to insult the one he loved? No.

“I’d ask if y'were a sister-f*cker, Griff, but you don’ 'ave any sisters,” continued Lazar. The others at the table had frozen. “But you 'ave a brother. D'you f*ck him? You do like your boys—”

Griff smiled at Lazar, a wild thing that was all teeth. In a fluid motion, he stood and took the table with him, flipping it toward Lazar.

The younger pirate staggered back and the others at the table popped to their feet, hands on their hilts or withdrawing daggers. Around them, patrons paused and turned their heads to watch, a careful, tense air hovering in the inn.

“Griff! Lazar!” shouted Valqa.

“You take that back,” ordered Griff, eyes hard.

“No,” petulantly spat Lazar.

You f*cking take that back!” shouted Griff, eyes blazing. “Say what you will about me but leave him out of this!”

Lazar sneered. “Can’t handle the truth, can you, Westerosi?” He spat. “I’d say your lover deserved his fate, but can’t say that can I? He wasn’t your lover; he didn’t give it to you up the—”

Griff roared and threw himself forward, bringing his ale with him and smashing it over Lazar’s head, drenching the pirate and sending him staggering to the side. The pirate then recovered and punched Griff, hard, in the stomach.

There was noise exploding around them, even as Griff grabbed Lazar’s jacket and dragged him forward to meet his own fist; vaguely, Griff was aware that the other pirates with Lazar were moving toward him.

Hands grabbed and yanked Griff back, another punch to his stomach sending him to his knees. But Griff rallied and threw himself forward, wrapped his arms around Lazar’s knees and pulled him to the floor with him.

They scuffled; someone shouted something above him.

The steel of a hilt descended from the corner of his eye, and Griff jerked his head back in time that the hilt and hand caught his chin instead of his temple instead, sending him reeling to the side.

Someone kicked him, and he curled up.

He brought his hands to his face and did his best to blindly wallop away any hands that came near, hoping that he would sink into unconsciousness soon enough and that the pirates would just toss him to the street. He’d miss his warm bed in Sonya’s, but still.

Then, there was a loud roar in some garbled language, and the feet and hands were gone, followed by a crash.

Griff looked up, one eye swollen and his jaw throbbing; he was dizzy from pain and ready to just give up. One of the teenagers from the large group (the darker haired one) had thrown himself into Lazar, sending both sprawling, Lazar draped over the elevated pond. The young teen was pushing Lazar’s head into the water and the pirate was struggling, arms flailing as he tried to pull his head out.

Valqa had his dagger out, in a reverse grip, but was mostly on the defensive as the small sellsword woman he spotted earlier was weaving around him in classic water dancer style, quick as lightning and striking with deadly precision as she caught Valqa’s wrist. The man swore and dropped the dagger, clutching the wrist with his other hand as blood ran freely down through his fingers.

There were two other pirates, one that hauled Griff up, dagger in hand, hoping for a killing blow as some form of vengeance. The last pirate, the one who dealt the card hands, was pressed up and guarded by the redheaded Northerner, hands held up in supplication.

“For Lazar!” cried the pirate, the one who had a tight grip in Griff’s jacket, even as the dagger descended.

Griff squeezed his eyes shut, swaying. I’ll be with you soon, Rhaegar.

But the blow never landed. His eyes popped open.

Standing between the two, perpendicular with shoulders pressed against both men, was the last tall Northman with a long, serious face. He had caught the pirate’s hand, holding his wrist in a tight, bruising grip. The hand opened and he caught the dagger with his other hand, the free one.

There was nothing but ice in his eyes as he considered the weight of the dagger, glancing between it, the bruises on Griff’s face, and then the pirate, whose eyes widened. He began to say, “No, don’t—”

But then the dagger was jerked upward, and the pirate’s voice trailed off into a gurgle. The Northman let go of the wrist and the pirate staggered back, hands falling to his stomach where the dagger protruded, blood already soaking the front of his shirt.

He watched the pirate fall, impassively with his cold eyes, before turning to Griff. There was something familiar in the man’s face – in the length of his face, maybe or the dour expression? Griff squinted.

“Ser—” he gasped out, reaching to clutch at his saviour’s shoulders.

Something flickered in the man’s face, icy impassivity morphing into concern and worry – and that was a familiar expression, the pinched tightness at the corner of his eyes, the downturn of his mouth despite it being fuller than he remembered.

A part of Griff was howling he’s not blond, you fool! but his mouth moved independently of his mind even as black encroached on his vision and his knees went weak. He began to fall, but the man caught him and held him.

“Rhaegar?” he whispered, and then succumbed to unconsciousness.

When Griff woke, it was slow. His head lolled forward and rocked with the movements of the ship.

He inhaled sharply, jerking his head up and yanked – only for his arms to remain tightly bound behind him, to the chair he was on. He looked around frantically, in a single spot of light coming from a porthole to his right. He was in a storage room in the bowls of a ship; he could hear the creak of wood and the thud of waves as they crashed against the bow. There were crates and a few trunks stacked in the darkness around him, but without much light he couldn’t see beyond his tiny circle of weak sunlight spilling in from the porthole.

Until one of the shadows by the crates moved.

He swore.

“Oh, he’s awake,” said a feminine voice cheerfully.

“Took him long enough,” said a derisive male, low and rumbling in a Northern brogue. “It’s been three days!”

Griff groaned. “Where am I? Who are you?”

The sellsword woman stepped forward from the shadows, arms crossed and an amused look on her face. Griff inhaled sharply, his eyes wide. By the Gods, she looks like Lyanna Stark--!

“Welcome abroad the Mermaid’s Tail,” she said. “We had to take you with us after the fight. Not all the pirates were dead, and they seemed rather upset at the loss of one of their own.”

Only one? thought Griff, thinking back. He knew the tall Northman had stabbed the one threatening him, but he had been sure the other had drowned. His confusion must have been evident because the girl continued.

“Robb stopped Rickon before he killed the one that had bothered you.”

Robb. Rickon. Those were Northern names. Were they all Northerners? He groaned. He had been kidnapped by a bunch of Northerners! If they knew who he was…

“I guess you owe us now, Connington,” the girl continued, and his heart stopped. “For saving your life.” She peered at him. “You were knighted, weren’t you? Or were you only a Lord?”

“He was knighted,” said a smooth voice from the shadows.

Irritably, Jon Connington wondered, just how many people were there, watching him? even as he jerked on the ropes that bound his hands and arms again.

“Going to kill me then?” he drawled. “I certainly wouldn’t expect any less from savage Northerners.”

The girl rolled her eyes, turning and glancing into the shadows. “He’s a real charmer, he is.”

“Be nice to our prisoner, Arya,” the owner of the thick brogue chastised, stepping forward. It was the tall redhead, dressed in leathers and grey, eyeing Connington coldly. His arms were crossed.

“Can we keep him?” a younger voice asked, near Connington’s ear. He jerked and glanced sideways, where the young teen who attacked Lazar was half bent, eyeing him. There was something wild in his face, an amused, if slightly malicious glint, to his eyes. “He’s a ginge, Robb! Like us. He’d fit right in.”

“Gods, Rickon, you can’t just keep someone because of their hair colour—” Arya protested.

“But—!”

“Stop it, both of you,” said the man, eyeing the two. He and the girl were of a similar age, Connington thought, looking between them. Robb, the man, frowned heavily and turned back to the shadows. “What are we doing with him, Bran?”

Connington swallowed. Bran. That was close to “Brandon.” His eyes darted over Robb’s shirt and noted a tiny direwolf stitched into the sleeve. Gods. They’re Starks. Or in the service of them.

“Jon will want to speak to him,” answered the smooth voice from the back.

The girl, Arya, moved around the cabin with ease, walking with the rolls of the ship as she lit a few other lanterns until the light chased away the shadows, revealing the boy in the wheelchair tucked in a corner, hands steepled and pressed before his mouth as he calmly surveyed Connington.

“Who’s Jon?” asked Connington, keeping calm. If he was free, he could take them on, he was sure of it… he just needed to stall…

None of them answered, just watched him. There was a thud, the beginning of loud, booted steps from behind him. Connington tried to twist around in his seat, to turn his head to see behind; that must have been where the stairs were, and each thud was as loud as his pounding heart.

There was a presence behind him, solid and large and sweat began to bead on Connington’s brow. He hadn’t felt this way in a long time, half-terrified, and half-furious. The last time had been at the Battle of the Stony Sept.

“Are you going to face me, heathen?” he spat, covering his rising fear. He fought against shifting in the seat.

The presence behind him moved, the air shifting, and then the man who saved his life stood before him, looking down from his standing position. Connington tilted his head back to peer up at the man.

He blinked in shock.

This was the man he vaguely remembered calling “Rhaegar.” Why had he done it? What had he been thinking? Well, groused Connington in the privacy of his own mind, he had been in a fight and probably suffering from a concussion. But still

Wetting his lips, Connington let his eyes trail over the man, thinking back to what he saw before he lost consciousness. The same dour expression, easily seen with the man’s pulled-back hair, although it was leaning toward stoic; the downturn of his mouth, the familiar look of concern, although it was absent now…

The height, his lean body. Connington’s eyes slipped over the broad chest, covered in a black shirt and leather, subtle red stitching holding it all together, to his belt and the sword at his side.

His heart stopped.

His eyes widened.

“Is that…” he breathed. “Is that Dark Sister?”

His eyes jumped to Jon’s.

“Aye,” he replied, his own Northern accent thick. He was watching Connington carefully, eyeing him and coming to some sort of decision when he elaborated, “My father entrusted it to my mother and the kingsguard before he died.”

The words swam in Connington’s brain, looping over and over as he tried to make sense of it – he did make sense of it – but still, the final thought eluded him. Father. Mother. Dark Sister. Kingsguard.

Everything snapped into place and his mouth dropped open as the man’s features became so obvious, how did he miss it the first time? How many hours had he spent in Rhaegar’s company? Had watched his prince’s face? Knew how his body moved when he fought?

Rhaegar disappeared with Lyanna Stark. Three kingsguard went missing. The man was Northern looking. But he had Dark Sister.

The age just didn’t add up.

There was something desperate in his face; that was the only explanation he had when Jon sighed. He turned, strode away to grab at a crate, a small one, and then brought it over before Connington’s seat. Once placed, he sat on it, elbows pressed into his knees as he stared at Connington.

“Will you listen?” Jon asked, quietly.

Connington nodded, mouth dry. He couldn’t form any words if he wanted, but he could listen. So, Jon spoke, the others hovered around him in quiet, silent support. Each word was a mix of horrifying, incomprehensible fantasy, but the weary look, the quiet determination – that was all Rhaegar’s.

Something burned in Connington. He had been so listless for so long, in one campaign after another, seeking absolution, seeking revenge, seeking something to fill the emptiness of his heart since Rhaegar’s death and his exile.

Rhaegar believed in prophecy.

Jon believed in time travel.

If he could support his father in his lunacy, what’s to say he couldn’t believe the son? There had been strange rumours around the Stark children falling ill before his campaign had begun, and of another set of Starks walking around but he had dismissed those rumours.

Maybe he needed to put more stock in rumours, Connington found himself thinking since it brought his prince’s son to him.

The thought, the admission and ease of which he took to Jon’s words should have shocked him. But, the man mentally sighed, he was always susceptible to Rhaegar. And, he added, peering at Jon, it seemed that transferred to his son, too.

With a fervour growing in him, Connington raised his bowed head and steadily met Jon’s eyes, and said, empathically, “My King.”

Jon eyed him for a moment, weighing him, and then reached out, placing a warm, accepting hand on Connington’s shoulder.

TBC...

Notes:

🙃🙃🙃

Chapter 15: XV

Summary:

Robb experiences a panic attack and his siblings don't care; Jon, Connington, and Arya play tourists to religious sites; and Talisa, very confused, receives a messenger parrot. Because who uses parrots to send messages nowadays?

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

XV:

Memories of Tomorrow - writing_as_tracey (15)

Westeros had been welcoming; same with Braavos, particularly after the Iron Bank opened their coffers when Jon proved who he was related to. Lys had been… unexpected, but overall, the people there were friendly to outsiders.

Volantis was not.

The wary gazes, the lingering looks that followed them and itched between their shoulder blades as the large group meandered from the harbour to find an inn was discomforting – especially as the only people walking were slaves while citizens were carried everywhere in palanquins with gauzy blinds, hiding from everyone while they could still peer out and judge.

On top of that, the group was struggling to add Jon Connington (“Best call me Griff instead,” he had insisted, with two Jon’s, in hope of avoiding confusion) so soon after the Starks had collected Loras; there was a frisson of unease. Connington stuck to Jon’s side, which was a bit awkward because Loras stuck to Jon’s side as his squire (he took his duties very seriously), which meant Rickon was there as well, but Connington and Rickon didn’t like each other very much…

The city was beautiful though: the harbour was a long pier of white stone, with equally white steps that disappeared into the deep blue waters of the bay, which turned murky brown with bits of green seaweed that clung to parts of the steps or the posts the pier rested on in the salty waters.

Butted up against a wide stone promenade were harbour buildings and warehouses, all made of the same white stone – with the more expensive warehouses lined with veined marble or gold filigree and decorated with stone sphinxes, elephants, or phoenixes. Moss from the damp clung to the bottom of buildings, pushing through cracked rock, and creating a fuzzy base. The roofs were flat with thick balustrades, and slaves with jade green tiger whisker tattoos on their faces guarding them at the corners; sometimes, there were shiny, copper-plated domed tops, but they were few and far in between. The windows and doors to the buildings were tall and thin, latticed to create shade and let the putrid, humid air move through the buildings to avoid stuffiness, but there was a significant lack of a breeze, creating a thick blanket of wet heat that covered both sides of Volantis.

Robb knew from Talisa’s stories that her family was the equivalent of a Lord’s family, and lived on the east side of the Rhoyne, in the oldest part of the city. But there was no way for the Starks, Loras, and Connington to have access to the eastern city without being explicitly invited in, leaving them to find rooms at the Merchant’s House, the finest and most popular inn in Volantis by Fishmonger’s Square.

The inn, a squat four-storey building with open-air balconies that ran around the entire square building was surrounded by pressed-in warehouses, brothels, and taverns. Each corner to the Merchant’s House boasted an equally squat, dome-tipped tower, overlooking the four corners of Fishmonger’s Square to the south, the eastern old city to the north-east, and harbour and ocean to the east and the impressively large and looming temple dedicated to R’hllor in the west at the far edge of the city’s walls.

It was Connington, his experiences in Volantis through the Golden Company, and his connections, that got them three suits of rooms on the second floor, mostly made from brick and stone, as opposed to the cheaper rooms at the top, an addition made of perpetually wet wood. Despite the decent quality, Sansa stared at the corner of the room they had gathered in, eyes fixated on the iron loop protruding from the wall and the length of chain that hung against and pooled on the floor. Rickon stared at it as well, and silently, at Sansa’s side, reached out and tightly took her hand in his.

They both shuddered.

Robb, furiously pacing the length of the room and back, didn’t notice; but Jon and Loras had an eye on both, while Arya and Connington sat with Bran, who was staring out the nearby window with a pensive look to his face.

“I can’t do this,” muttered Robb, bringing his hands up to run through his curls, gripping the strands of hair tightly as he fisted his hands. “I can’t – this is insane – there’s no point – what would I even say—”

“Calm down,” instructed Arya, with exasperation. “Tell us again what you know of Talisa’s family.”

Connington carefully kept his chin lowered, but his eyes moved between the Starks, observing, and listening as he was still very confused about why they were in Volantis, to begin with; he had thought they would go to Braavos or search out the Golden Company or Company of the Rose for Jon to retake the throne.

“Right, right,” muttered Robb, turning and throwing himself on the creaky bed, jostling Arya. “Talisa… has two brothers: one older and younger. Her family owns slaves, so they’ve coin. They live in the eastern, old city. I… I think her father is a general.”

Connington startled. “Are you certain of that, Stark?”

Robb turned to peer at Connington. “Not entirely. But Talisa implied that he had military experience and that her brother would follow in his footsteps. She wasn’t in favour of it – that’s why she went to Westeros. When she was twelve or so, she and a few other children went swimming in the Rhoyne, but her brother almost drowned. It was a slave who saved him, but if the slave was reported, they would have died despite saving her brother’s life. She hated that idea, hated the hypocrisy, and wanted to dedicate herself to saving others like the slave had saved her brother. We met when she was a battlefield healer.”

“The only people who are soldiers in Volantis – other than the slave soldiers, the tiger cloaks,” explained Connington slowly, staring at Robb, bewildered. “Are members of the Tiger party. Families who can trace their lines back, unbroken, to Old Valyria.”

Robb stared back at Connington. “Are you telling me Talisa has Valyrian blood? She wasn’t blonde!”

“Neither’s Jon,” said Bran dryly, turning to face Robb. “And don’t be presumptuous that all Valyrians were blond, Robb.”

Sansa seemed to shake herself out of her head, turning with Rickon, although she kept her hand tightly entwined with his. She turned, facing the lounging group. “Are you able to have an audience with Talisa’s family, Robb?”

Connington answered for him. “Only those who live within the Black Walls can invite foreigners in.”

“But if they don’t know he’s here, asking for a meeting, how do they meet?” asked Loras, who then frowned and went, “Oh.”

“Aye,” sighed Jon, running a hand over his pulled-back hair. It was too warm, and his hair too curly, to leave free. He followed behind Sansa and Rickon, placing himself near Connington’s seat and crossing his arms. “Is there some way to get word to them, though?”

Connington shrugged. “Not that I know.”

“f*ck,” muttered Robb, standing from the bed and beginning to pace again; Loras leapt out of his way and scurried over to Rickon’s side, warily eyeing the agitated redhead pace. “Then we came all this way for nothing—”

“Don’t say that,” admonished Sansa. Her eyebrows met above her nose, and she stared at the wall above the bed’s frame as she began to generate ideas. “We’ll get you in to see Talisa and her family, Robb. Somehow.”

“And besides,” added Bran, glancing at Jon, “The Temple of the Lord of the Light is here. If there is a place where Jon can learn more about R’hllor and the Prince Who Was Promised, it would be there.”

“Truly?” asked Arya, leaning forward. “Is it safe? Given… well, what we are?”

Bran contemplated for a moment and then waved a hand back and forth. “It’s fuzzy.”

The only two who had no idea what that meant – Connington and Loras – shared an exasperated look that only two outsiders could, despite being uneasy with each other. They had both experienced the Stark’s strange knowledge and intelligence (as well as confidence) and had no idea how to address it other than shrug and continue.

Jon snorted. “My thanks, Bran, but I don’t fancy being a Priest or Priestess’ plaything to be resurrected again.”

Connington frowned. “What?”

“Never mind,” said Jon absently with a hand flap.

Connington’s face was bewildered at the gesture and his frown deepened as Sansa stroked a piece of hair, musing out loud, “Sending you, Arya, Griff, and Loras would certainly free the rest of us up to consider Robb’s next move.”

“You have an idea,” said Robb slowly, eyeing his sister.

She nodded. “I have an idea.” A glance at the non-Starks of the group meant that it was something that only they should be aware of.

Loras shifted uneasily. “I beg your pardon, my Lady, but… but as a follower of the Seven…”

“Mm, yes, I see,” replied Sansa, vigorously stroking the hair. Her gaze went a bit distant before she spoke, zeroing in on Rickon. “Rickon, you and Loras should go… explore.”

Rickon’s eyebrows jumped. “Explore? Sans—”

“Explore. The. City. Rickon,” enunciated Sansa through her teeth, her mouth stretched in a brittle smile, eyes very wide. “Particularly the eastern side of the Long Bridge.”

Rickon stared at her for a long moment, then—

“Oh. Ooooohh. Um. Aye, Sansa. Um. Loras and I can, uh, explore the city.” He eyed Loras, who, utterly confused, just nodded in agreement.

The Starks were odd, the youngest Tyrell son decided.

The buildings may have been the same colour like those found in the Reach – a type of smooth, white marble or other white stone – but to Loras, the Reach was prettier and had far less moss and damp creeping around his ankles. The heat was also nigh unbearable, and he shifted awkwardly in the leathered armour that Jon gave him, feeling the sweat gather around his neck, down along his back where the tunic and leather pressed into him, around his waist, and his armpits.

Rickon seemed to be perpetually flushed, a charming pink tinge to his pale cheek that gave him a bit of an angelic appearance, especially with his curly auburn hair; Loras knew that was not the truth, because out of all the Starks, Rickon was very much the most devilish of them, and the glint in his eyes as they strolled toward the tall black wall made Loras wary.

“Do you have any ideas?” he asked the slightly older teen.

Rickon tossed his head a bit, a wild move, and sent Loras a toothy grin. “A few.”

Loras felt annoyance creep up on him. “Well, are you going to share?”

The grin spread wider. “Why? Not telling you gets you annoyed and it’s amusing.”

Loras grumbled something uncomplimentary under his breath and Rickon laughed, but then took pity on him and said, “We’re going to try the front door first.”

“The front door?” repeated Loras incredulously.

They turned the corner to the street they were on, one that emptied out into a large courtyard, an empty square before the black wall that separated Old Volantis from the rest of the city. They stared up at the tall wall, the tiny figures of Tigers patrolling the top and along the bottom, and the way people would shy away from the structure with their slaves and palanquins moving away from it.

Loras tipped his head back, eyes wide. Never in a million years had he ever thought he would be travelling the known world and would see sights such as the Black Wall of Volantis – he had always just aspired to be a knight, to earn the title “Ser,” and perhaps one day have songs of great victories written and sung about him.

He turned with shining eyes to Rickon, only to see Rickon frown, a derisive look on his face when he muttered, “The Wall is bigger.”

You must be japing, thought Loras, blinking after Rickon as he strode through the busy square, moving around palanquins, slaves, and other sorts of people moving this way and that – and quite a few merchants or pirates – and Loras scrambled after him. He caught up when Rickon stopped before one of the heavily armoured Tigers standing to attention by a large, metal gate deeply set into the wall.

Up close, the Wall was a gorgeous black stone, a seamless piece that had veins of silver – or something like silver – running through it. They mimicked cracks, but it was more of a discolouration that gave the Wall an otherworldly feeling to it.

“Afternoon,” said Rickon, although his courtesies were poor. Loras had to intervene.

“Good Sers,” he said instead, smoothly integrating himself by putting himself at Rickon’s shoulder. He nodded at both tiger cloaks who stared forward and ignored both completely. “We are hoping to gain entrance into the Old City so that one of our company can meet with the Maegyr family, on a topic of great importance.”

Neither tiger cloak moved, but Loras distinctly felt the air cool around them.

Rickon narrowed his eyes. “Oi—”

Loras yanked him back. “Ah, well, our thanks anyway—” He hissed at Rickon: “We need to go!” and pulled him back further, tripping over their heels as they stumbled.

Rickon shook him off when they were halfway through the square’s crowd. “What the f*ck was that?”

Loras stared. “Are you mad? They were more likely to skewer us than speak! They weren’t going to say anything, and we were just drawing attention to ourselves!”

Rickon scowled.

“Your idea wasn’t bad, but it wouldn’t have worked,” Loras tried to soothe. “Surely your other plans are better?”

“My plans are good,” muttered Rickon petulantly. He even crossed his arms, and the two continued walking until they crossed the square entirely and then stopped to speak next to one of the white buildings, completely juxtaposed in architecture and colour to the smooth Black Wall before them.

Loras wanted to shake him. “Do you have a death wish!?”

“No,” muttered Rickon, looking anywhere but Loras. He seemed to focus on the building beside them, and then looked across to the Wall, and then up at the building, toward the domed roof.

“You could have fooled me!” snapped Loras. “And then what would I tell Lord Jon—”

“He’s not a lord,” sighed Rickon, rolling off the building with his shoulder and walking along it until he reached a tiny, narrow space between that building and the next. The entrance was about shoulder-width for Loras in his armour, and Rickon (being a bit broader) frowned as he eyed it.

Loras trailed after him, ignoring his new friend. “I’d have to say that his youngest brother was murdered before me! How can I be a knight when I would allow something like that to happen? Well, I couldn’t, could I? I’m to be a knight, Rickon, a knight! I’d have to defend you – to – to the death, or something! And then where would I be? A dead body in a foreign country, that’s what!”

Rickon rolled his eyes, stepped into the narrow alley, and then began to feel the walls on either side.

Loras, pouting and feeling ignored, asked, “What are you doing?”

Rickon didn’t answer, finding a foothold and then beginning to climb up, climbing the wall and switching from one side of the building to the one next to him. Loras gapped at him.

“Find your way to the roof if you’re not going to follow me!” called down the young Stark who was clearly part goat.

Loras stared and then turned on his heel, grumbling, as he strode back out toward the square and then to the building’s entrance, passing a few startled locals as he found the stairs and began climbing them, two at a time until he reach the top floor. A narrow window was open, not letting in any breeze despite the wooden shutters latched against the side of the wall.

Loras stuck his head out, twisted, and looked up. The roof wasn’t too far away, and there was an overhang he could grab. He determinedly did not look in the opposite direction to see how high he was.

Instead, he hefted himself backward and out, bum on the window’s ledge, and the stood, carefully reaching around for handholds. His hands were slick with sweat from nerves and the humidity, but he swallowed thickly and reached out for the wooden shutter and began to edge his way along a tiny, rounded frieze while clutching to the shutter.

Loras looked up. He bit his lip and felt his legs shake. Slowly, he extended on arm, his hand grasping the ledge above him. He flexed his hand and tightened his grip, despite having a death-hold on the shutter with the other. He had to let go.

“It’ll be alright, Loras,” a voice from above said, and he jerked his head up. Rickon was leaning over the edge, a hand extended. “Take my hand.”

Loras stared for a moment and then nodded. He slowly let go of the shutter and extended his hand. Rickon took it, tightening his grasp around his.

Feeling a bit more secure, Loras put his foot on the wooden shutter and pushed up, his other hand tight on the ledge and with Rickon pulling.

The shutter broke, and then he was falling, heart in this throat, and his thoughts flying too fast to make out: I’m sorry mother Father forgive me I’ll never see Margie again – I’ll never be a knight that’s all I ever wanted – to make someone proud—

But a jerk on his arm made him gasp and look up.

Rickon strained under the weight, and grunted, “C’mon!” and then something else in a guttural language.

Loras scrambled, feet kicking off against the building, slipping on the slick stone from the heat and humidity, but eventually, Rickon hauled him by the waist over the ledge and Loras collapsed next to him on the roof, both their heads leaning against the copper dome; Rickon facing the sky and Loras practically kissing the dome with his butt facing the sky.

He gasped, certain fear of heights was now forever a phobia of his, “I never want to do that again!”

Rickon grunted his agreement. “You weigh as much as an ice spider!”

Loras sent him a glare. Rickon caught the look and was a bit abashed, but then his lips twitched.

“Don’t,” wanted Loras, his voice stern. He tried to sound like Willas and Garlan.

But Rickon’s mouth curled up.

Don’t,” he stressed again, but then Rickon was laughing, curling up on his side and clutching it.

“Rickon!” whined Loras, his own traitorous mouth turning up, and soon he was laughing too, the two of them rolling about the roof.

They wound down, lying there on the roof, and basking in the hot sun as their giggles died off. Finally, Loras asked, “Where did you learn to climb like that?”

“Skagos,” replied Rickon quietly, a slight smile on his face. “It’s mostly rocks and caves. Had to learnt o jump from one to the other when running away from the cannibals.”

Loras stared.

Rickon glanced over at him, that smile still on his face, curls awry. “You don’t believe me.”

“No, it’s just – well,” Loras struggled, biting his lip. “You’re a Lord’s son. Lord Stark’s son. Why would you be in Skagos?”

Rickon turned away, looking up at the sky and squinting against the sun. A dark, ugly look passed over his face. “Winterfell was taken. I escaped with Osha and we ended up on Skagos. I spent most of my life there. I didn’t even remember my parent’s faces until we came back and saw them again in Winterfell. I always pictured Jon and Sansa in their place.”

“Why would Winterfell be taken?” gapped Loras, sitting up on his elbows. “It’s a fortress! One of the most ancient and largest castles in Westeros!”

Rickon’s mouth turned down into a heavy frown. “Because there was a war.”

“A war…?”

But Rickon rose onto his heels, peering across the building to the Black Wall before them, eye level to the guards who had spotted them but otherwise did nothing, thinking they were two boys climbing to the roof to escape the flow of people below and engage in some tomfoolery.

“Rickon?” pressed Loras gently.

Rickon startled out of his thoughts, turning an apologetic smile on Loras, although the younger teen noted it did not reach his blue eyes.

“C’mon,” said Rickon, getting to his feet. “I’ve an idea that I can tell Sansa.”

He held out a hand to Loras, inviting him to take it.Slowly, Loras did so. Rickon hauled him up, his hand tight and warm in his, standing close and smiling at him despite smelling like sweat and something else that Loras noticed the Starks all smelled like: a woodsy, earthen scent that made him shiver.

“Let’s get back down,” said Rickon, letting go of his hand and turning to pick his way around the dome.

“We’re taking the stairs, right?” called Loras after him, a plaintive whine in his voice.

Rickon laughed.

Volantis’ temple to R’hllor was an architectural behemoth. They approached the temple slowly, still some of the few walking on their own power as opposed to the many worshippers who visited by their palanquins.

The temple itself was large and square, made of the same black, cracking stone that made up the Old Volantis wall, silvery veins running through the smooth material. Blocky, the temple had two sets of stairs running up to the elevated base, with a long strip down the middle between the stairs creating a channel filled with a dark liquid that perpetually burned, fire dancing on top of the liquid.

Jon, Connington, and Arya all shared a wary glance, but then began ascending the steps; Jon lost count somewhere near fifty and realized they weren’t even halfway up yet. However, upon reaching the base, he took a moment to turn and survey the entirety of Volantis and the darkened harbourfront, tiny pinpricks of torchlight wavering like stars against the sky. The laughter and ambient noise of the city were dulled that high up, creating a pocket feeling of removal from the people below.

Turning back, he faced the temple itself: the base extended into a rectangular courtyard with smoothed blocks of white stone that extended to a colonnade on either side, twisting up around itself and disappearing into the darkened recesses of the architrave. Only from the flickering flames could Jon vaguely make out that there was some type of frieze, but he couldn’t tell what the images were.

The three passed through a columned ambulatory, went up another four steps, and entered the temple proper. The floor was still the same shining white like the exterior, but the columns were black. In front of each column was a large brazier with a bright yellow-orange flame that generated a discomforting level of heat that hung in the temple despite the naos being open-aired. While this allowed for a non-existent breeze to pass through and make the flames around them dance, Volantis’ humidity and general weather made the temple feel smothering instead, especially as the flames gave off a sickly-sweet smell, with some type of incense burned in the coals.

In between the braziers and columns were humanoid statues, repetitions of the same two people over and over in various positions: closest to the entrance at the ambulatory, they stood, one male – presumably Azor Ahai – in a regular, relaxed pose staring straight ahead to the female opposite him, Nissa Nissa. As they walked down the naos, the figures changed; their faces warped into fear and worry, into acceptance and determination. Azor Ahai went from a relaxed standing position to hunched over, crafting something like the Smith; Nissa Nissa went from venerating to a resigned figure on her knees. The final Nissa Nissa statue was her statue lying prone on the floor, arm outstretched toward Azor Ahai, who stood with a sword, tip facing the floor.

The temple itself was covered with a high, domed roof; hanging from the ceiling beams and looking like they were floating, were flaming balls of light, creating an artificial reflection of the stars outside in the night sky. Stationary, they were situated around a large flaming ball representing the sun. Immediately below the sun was a tall masculine figure, standing aloft with a sword held out in front of him with one hand, pointing toward the entrance and the three visitors.

It was on fire, a vibrant rippling bluish-white that was warmer than anything else in the temple.

The three stared up at the figure in silence for a long moment, until Jon broke it. He kept his face turned toward the figure of Azor Ahai but spoke to Connington. “What was he like?”

Connington knew Jon didn’t mean Asshai’s Last Hero. “He was the best man I ever had the pleasure of knowing. Being in his presence was the greatest gift I could have ever received.”

Jon made a noise, urging Connington on.

“He was always kind; people loved Rhaegar,” said Connington, his voice low and taking on a soft quality as he reminisced of the prince. “He could play the harp better than any bard could – he made grown warriors weep and could quicken the heart with the right pluck of the strings. He was always generous to the people of King’s Landing. Sometimes, he’d sneak out and play his harp in taverns and then donate all the money he earned to the nearest poor house.”

Arya snorted. “Sounds too good to be true. No one is that perfect.”

“Rhaegar was,” protested Connington sharply, eyes cutting toward her. “He was that good. He was the finest warrior there was—”

“Second only to Arthur Dayne, I’m sure,” interrupted Arya.

“—but was well-read and scholarly,” continued Connington, blithely ignoring Arya. “He was the most well-rounded man I ever met. He could quote passages from the driest texts and even once schooled a Maester on the teachings of the Seven when we were in the Crownlands. He had the best riding seat of all of us…”

“You, Arthur, and who else?” asked Jon curiously, turning partially toward the tall, rough man.

“Myles Mooton,” said Connington, quietly. “He died at the Battle of the Bells. The Usurper killed him. He was just six and ten and recently knighted by Rhaegar, whom he squired for.”

Arya kept quiet, not offering anything there.

“Richard Lonmouth, too,” added Connington, despondent. “He disappeared after the battle. There was no body, that I heard of, but I was already exiled by then by Aerys, badly wounded from the beating Baratheon gave me. He nearly killed me there.”

The flames from the giant sun above Azor Ahai flickered and cast a sinister shadow across the statue’s face, making it seem like the man was looking down at them. Melissandre had said so much about the Prince Who Was Promised to Jon at Castle Black, about his role in the Long Night; about purpose – about duty.

“Did you know?”

Connington turned to Jon, perplexed. “Know what, Your Grace?”

Arya stifled a sigh.

Jon turned to face his father’s friend. “About the prophecy.”

The redhead froze, blinking in shock. “W-What? What prophecy?”

“sh*t,” muttered Arya, turning away, biting at her lip.

Jon shut his eyes and heaved a sigh. “That’s a no then.” He ran a hand over his hair, tightly pulled back in his bun. “Gods. Did he tell anyone?”

“What—”

Jon turned to Connington. “I know we told you some of it on the boat but couldn’t really elaborate because of Loras. I think you should know what some of the war was actually about.”

Connington stared, incredulity all over his face, weathered and lined from stress and age and exposure to the harsh Essosi elements as Jon went over what he was told of Rhaegar’s learning of Azor Ahai, Melissandre’s information from the priests and priestesses of R’hhlor, and even his death and resurrection.

“I – Gods above –” Connington brought his hands up and pressed the heels of his palms into his face, his shoulders curled. Stress made the lines of his face sharper when his hands pulled away. “How – How do you know all this? For sure?”

Arya quirked her eyebrows at the man, and despite the comical height difference between them, she came across as entirely confident and almost looming. “Haven’t you figured it out yet, Griff? We’re from the future.”

Connington gave Arya a bald stare and then turned to Jon, silently asking for the truth.

Wincing, Jon muttered, “Yeah, no, Arya’s right. We died and came back to life.” He paused, consideringly. “It was kind of neat, actually.”

“Then you have been blessed by R’hllor, praise be his light!”

Jon and Connington both jumped, startled, and whirled to face the speaker of the voice. Behind them, a red-robed priest of R’hllor stood with their hands clasped before them, the tight sleeves of their robe an ombre of colour to mimic a flame’s progression from black, to red, to orange and finishing on yellow and white around the collar. They were bald and had no eyebrows. Their eyes were a deep colour that seemed reddish, but that could have been a trick of the flickering light around them. A ruby broach at the high-collared neck of their robes caught the light and gleamed.

Casting a wary glance around, Jon saw that they were the subject of many stares; priests and priestesses had appeared, summoned from somewhere well beyond the columns from the dark recesses around them, and were either hovering just partially out of sight, with only the flames revealing them or milling closer and closer to the three.

Arya shifted a bit closer toward him.

“If you say so,” Jon finally said, hedgingly.

Connington caught onto his tone and shifted, seeing Arya’s hand resting lightly at her side. He took in the growing crowd of red-eyed priests and priestesses and swallowed thickly.

“Are you here to gain further wisdom from the Lord of the Light?” the same priest asked, head slightly tilted to the side. He held out a hand, sweeping it toward the statue. “Why don’t you look into the fire?”

Jon grimaced. “I’m actually here for information. Do you have an archive or anything like that?”

The priest blinked. “An archive?”

“Or is your information about Azor Ahai mainly orally passed down?” continued Jon, trying to push through the uncomfortable feeling of being around so many potential magic users. Perhaps not all were like Melissandre – after all, she was from Asshai or studied there and that didn’t mean this priest was the same – but there was an itch under Jon’s skin, a warning.

The priest paused, thinking. “We have had scribes take down the histories of our hero for thousands of years. But we have never allowed an outsider to see them.”

“Then perhaps you’d be willing to speak to us about what you know instead,” offered Arya bluntly, pushing a bit so she was shoulder-to-chest with Jon, given her height. “We wouldn’t wish to overstep.”

The priest looked at Arya, something shifting over his face as his dark eyes roamed over her face. “You are very expressive for one of your kind.”

Connington turned to the girl, confusion flickering over him once before realizing Jon hadn’t moved and knew what the priest was talking about. Instead, he shifted again into nonchalance.

“I left but retained my skills,” answered Arya smoothly. “And they certainly aren’t out of practice.”

The priest stared at her before decisively turning away to Jon. There was interest on his face when he looked at him. “Why do you wish to know of Azor Ahai? Not many Westerosi know that name.”

Jon’s response was wry. “I’m intimately familiar with the legend. A red priestess from Asshai was the one who told it to me, particularly after she brought me back from the dead.”

There was a stillness – the kind that comes from pointed, dedicated zeroing in on something – following Jon’s voice. The priest beside them looked at Jon hungrily, lingering on key vulnerable points visible on Jon’s skin.

“Oh?” the man asked, but when Jon failed to speak, he inaudibly sighed. His mouth twisted into a wry expression, himself, and he nodded once at Jon. “Very well. I shall speak to you of the Prince Who Was Promised.”

Connington startled at the name, eyes darting toward Jon in shock. The priest caught this, resumed his interested gaze on the curly-haired Stark, but shook it off and launched into an explanation of Azor Ahai that was commonly known to most: “Thousands of years ago, a great warrior rose to combat the growing darkness that covered the entire land – from Westeros to Essos, to Sothyros and further – it covered the entire world. We call this hero Azor Ahai, the Prince Who Was Promised, but many other cultures elsewhere have their own names for him: Hyrkoon the Hero, Yin Tar, Neferion, and Eldric Shadowchaser.”

At the last, Arya pursed her lips. “That’s awfully similar to the Northern name of Edric.”

“Eldric?” confirmed Jon, humming contemplatively. “Aye… it is.”

The priest nodded. “Just so. The North of Westeros speaks of a last hero who gained the aid of the children of the forest; perhaps they are one and the same. Tales from Yi Ti speak of a heroic woman with a monkey’s tail. Regardless, everywhere you go, there are stories of this darkness and one who leads the people against it.”

“I suppose over a thousand years of migration would ensure these stories continue and change to suit each locale,” suggested Connington, a bit snippily. He had his arms crossed. “They could all originate from the same location.”

“Perhaps,” the priest shrugged, “But who’s to say that they didn’t all come from truth?”

The man scoffed, both Jon and Arya frowned, both aware of the intricacies of magic and the potential of the prophecy being true – to whatever degree.

“The important part of the Prince’s story that you might be more interested in, Westerosi,” said the priest, turning back to Jon and lingering on him, “Is that Azor Ahai is to be reborn again as a champion sent by R’hllor, our Lord of Light.”

“Reborn.” Jon echoed the word flatly. “Meaning that there has been more than one Azor Ahai over the years.”

“Is that so hard to believe?” asked the priest, curiously. “The Prince Who Was Promised is meant to appear after a long summer when an evil, cold darkness descends upon the world. He will wield Lightbringer once again, Azor Ahai will stand against the darkness and if he fails, the world fails with him.”

“I’m more disturbed by the idea that the Long Night has happened multiple times,” muttered Arya darkly. “We didn’t survive the last.”

The priest stared at her.

“The problem with this is that we only know of the Long Night happening during the Age of Heroes,” replied Jon, frowning. “Because the Children of the Forest created the Others.”

“…unless there is something else out there worse than the Others that our ancestors fought in the darkness,” finished Arya, her tone tight with worry. “I’d rather hope both events were one and the same in this story.”

They shared an uneasy look while Connington stared at them, disbelief etched onto his face.

Jon turned back to the priest. “Did any Targaryens ever visit the temple? Particularly since the Doom?”

The priest sniffed haughtily. “The people of Volantis may have dragonblood in their veins from their ancestors, but she takes care of her own. We are a free city, young man; we are not beholden to the ruinous actions of the Valyrian freehold nor touched by the decay that spread through the remaining Targaryen line in Westeros.”

Arya’s lips twisted into a smirk when she muttered to the two men, “In other words, they’re not touched by Targaryen madness.”

“Ha!” barked the priest, rolling his red eyes in the most animated expression yet. “We’ve had people in the city on behalf of the Targaryens. We’ve had some Targaryens in the past – but none step foot in our temple. Snobbish, self-centred people; thinking they’re better than others of Valyrian descent.”

He began to grumble under his breath.

Jon plastered a smile on his face, stretched brittle thin, and said, “Well, thank you for your time—”

“Oh.” The man stopped, peering at Jon. “You’re leaving already? But you haven’t looked into the fire.”

“Not really interested in that,” said Jon carefully, backing away with Connington and Arya copying him. “I’ve more of a – uh, scholarly interest in Azor Ahai and R’hllor, and you’ve answered my questions. Thank you.”

The priest hummed thoughtfully, and stared, his red eyes penetrating as the three practically turned and fled. The man’s gaze remained stuck on Jon’s back even after they passed through the ambulatory, back onto the base and down the hundreds of steps, until they were amongst the tall buildings and dark allies that made up Volantis.

Jon shuddered. “The sooner we leave this city, the better.”

Arya rolled her eyes, making a slow amble toward the inn. “You’re the one obsessed with learning about the prophecy to see if Rhaegar was right about it or not.”

“It’s not about whether he was right or not, Arya,” protested Jon quietly, even as Connington watched, head swivelling back and forth, “It’s more that we were fighting creatures of magic. We were living in times of magic: direwolves, dragons, the Children of the Forest—”

“What, really?” gapped Connington.

“—and White Walkers,” continued Jon without interruption. “With a prophecy, it all seems too neat. Like it was all meant to happen. And to hear that the hero would be reborn – like… like a wheel…”

“Daenerys did mention breaking the wheel,” mused aloud Arya, eyes contemplative. “Although I don’t think that was what she meant.”

Jon huffed a tiny laugh, ducking his head.

They walked the rest of the way back to the inn in silence, walking into their set of rooms. Robb was slightly cowed, pressed against the end of his chair’s arm, leaning away from Sansa; Rickon and Loras were lounging on the bed, shoulders pressed together and speaking quietly to each other, and Bran was nearest the window, his eyes white as he skinchanged for some reason or another.

The three stopped in surprise when Sansa greeted them with slightly maniacal eyes.

“Oh, good, you’re back!” she held up an inkpot and a thin sheaf of parchment. “I’ve got an idea!”

Elsewhere, in a room of cold white marble and vaulted ceilings, a young teenager lounged on her bed of vibrant red silks, lazily eating some grapes off a golden plate left behind for her by a servant. The lattice blinds had been thrown open, letting the brief evening breeze waft through and for her to see the growing twilight, the tiny stars splattered across the evening sky.

Her older brother, fiddling with a curved blade their grandfather had given him on his recent twentieth nameday, lounged in a heavy square chair near the girl’s bed, bare feet kicked up and resting on a matching silver footrest, a sour expression on his face.

“—believe amma and baba won’t let me attend cousin Niya’s wedding next week,” he complained, tipping his head back and resting it along the back of the chair. He scowled and slouched further down.

The girl on the bed shot him a look. “I believe it, ’Ro. You nearly killed her betrothed the last time you were in the same room as him.”

The scowl deepened and the man exhaled noisily. “He insulted grandfather—”

“Many people insult grandfather and yet he does not have bravos fighting for his honour,” pointed out the girl. “Niya’s intended is one of the Elephants, Maerros. You can’t go around challenging them, not with elections so soon—”

“I know, Tali,” groused Maerros. When she didn’t do anything but continue to stare at him, he stressed, “I know!”

She shrugged and turned back to the grapes.

There was a brief silence except for the tinny noise of the flat of Maerros’ sword hitting the chair’s hard edge. “I overheard amma and baba speaking of you.”

“Me?” Talisa turned from her stomach to her side to stare incredulously at her brother. “Whatever for?”

“There’s some Westerosi foreigners asking about you,” he answered.

Westerosi?”

Maerros smirked. “Yes, little sister, Westerosi.”

“But I don’t know any—”

“Nor do I, or amma, or baba,” interrupted Maerros. “Or any of the other Tigers. We don’t exactly rub elbows with the new money, do we?”

“What do they want?” asked Talisa, sitting up.

“Not sure,” shrugged Maerros. “I think they wanted to speak to you. An audience – which we all know will never happen. Grandfather won’t let it.”

“How curious,” murmured Talisa.

“Put it out of your mind,” instructed Maerros sharply, eyeing her. “And certainly, don’t think of wandering from the inner city, either Tali—”

“I wouldn’t,” she protested, but they both knew it was a token protest, as she and Maerros, and their younger brother Banquo had all escaped their grandfather’s tiger cloaks to explore outside the Black Walls.Maerros opened his mouth to further protest when a deep caw interrupted them, causing both siblings to turn and stare at the pretty parrot resting on the back of the matching chair to the one Maerros sat in.

“How did—” He put his blade down and stood from the seat, moving toward the parrot. “Shoo!”

The parrot cawed again, flapping its impressive and brightly coloured wings, trying to gain purchase on the chair.

“’Ro, wait, look at its talon!” exclaimed Talisa, sliding off the floor futon and moving toward them. The parrot calmed and eyed her with a single, beady eye. “There’s parchment tied to it!”

Maerros stared.

Talisa was the one to carefully extend her hand toward the parrot, ignoring Maerros’ complaints, and gently untied the parchment. Once freed, the parrot flapped its wings and Talisa quickly retreated, the rolled parchment clutched to her chest.

“Well, what’s it say?” demanded Maerros, eyeing the bird but scuttling to her side.

Talisa unrolled the letter and peered at it. “I… it’s Common Tongue. Oh, and Valyrian underneath. I can read that.”

“Well?”

Talisa read it, stared, and then handed it to Maerros who also read it and stared.

To Talisa of House Maegyr – greetings! We hope this letter finds you, and your family, well. Our brother, Robb of House Stark, formally requests a meeting with Talisa of House Maegyr, or anyone else of her house on her behalf. We ask for nothing but a few hours of your time. If you – or anyone else – is amendable, please send a reply with this parrot, or visit us at the Merchant’s House. We await your reply. Yours –

“What is this?” muttered Maerros, baffled. “These must be the Westerosi. How did they get a parrot to deliver this letter?”

He turned to stare at the bird, which ruffled its feathers in response, eyeing him back with an all-too-human expression. He shuddered.

“They’re clearly desperate to meet,” said Talisa slowly, “Perhaps I should meet with—”

“No!” shouted Maerros. “You know nothing of these people. Let’s ignore this matter entirely. Sooner or later, they will leave Volantis and we will be free of them.”

Talisa eyed Maerros dubiously.

“Little sister, trust me,” he said, turning and tossing the letter onto a dresser carelessly, returning to his seat, fully ignoring the disgruntled bird. “They will lose interest soon enough. Now – with amma and baba gone for Niya’s wedding celebrations, what do you say about a trip of our own next week?”

TBC...

Notes:

Apologies for the delay in this - you might have seen I attempted a NaNoWriMo entry (I Could Not Stop for Death), which took over my life, and then I kind of delved into the whole antiwork movement and had a rough semester with my students doing online teaching. The final exam is tomorrow morning and it's just marking going forward, THANK GOODNESS... and also the last time I will be teaching! 😁 I've actually been very depressed with my career for the last year or so, but the money was good (as was the free time to write) but it was awful this past term.

So, I started sending my resume out and interviewing and as of January 2022, I will be starting a new job! 😎 It's a 9-5, so my time to write will be significantly cut; despite that, I remain interested and in love with this story so it won't be abandoned by any stretch. It just means much longer gaps between updates. That said, please know I do read every comment that comes in, but don't always get a chance to reply when my inbox gets clogged up (*looks at the 200+ in the inbox currently* 😭). But I utterly treasure each response, every emotion and emoji you leave. ❤️

Chapter 16: XVI

Summary:

The Starks & CO. take a break away from Volantis, only to muddle in right where they need to. Robb finally gains an audience with the Maegyr's, and the next part of the journey begins as they slowly make their way north.

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

XVI:

Memories of Tomorrow - writing_as_tracey (16)

Formally requesting to meet with a Maegyr yielded no results when approaching the Black Wall; attempting to slyly insert the request when meeting with Adario Nahiris, an Elephant up for elections and already campaigning, just had him smirk and say that was unlikely – although they did have a potential trade set up between Nahiris’ import business and the North’s export of ironwood fir.

Arya skinchanging into a parrot she had fed on the roof of the Merchant’s House to gain its trust had been a rather large letdown when she reported that the letter was delivered but neither Maegyr did anything beyond reading it.

That had been a week past, and Robb had black smudges under his eyes, his curly auburn hair was a riotous mess, and he had brought everyone to the end of their patience with his moodiness, outdoing even Jon at his most broody. The one who seemed immune was Connington, who, when asked, said: “Rhaegar was worse.”

“That’s it,” snarled Arya. “We’re getting out of this damned inn and getting some fresh air and you’re going to make a plan regarding your foreign wife else I am suggesting we cut our losses and leave this stinking city!”

Robb glowered, pouted, whined a little, but ultimately settled on a scowl, arms crossed, as the large group left the Merchant’s House. Jon and Connington rented a flat-bottom pleasure riverboat for a few days, with the decision to travel up the Rhoyne and for them to explore the ruins of Sar Mell and find a residence in its west bank sister-city, Volon Therys, for the duration.

Between Jon’s odd encounter at the Temple and Robb’s despondency, everyone had agreed getting out of Volantis to plan their next move was necessary. Between the contacts the Widow in the Merchant’s House suggested, and Connington’s own knowledge, Sansa and Bran were able to source provisions for the riverboat journey, and Rickon and Loras were the ones, six hours upstream from the Valyrian city, to suggest they stop at the bank where a few other pleasure boats were docked, just past the Volaena river met the Rhoyne.

The water was calm there, the shore pebbled and sandy, despite the width of the Rhoyne being a wide stretch where the western shore was a haze on the horizon. The air was warm and humid, but nowhere near as oppressing as it was in Volantis with a mild northern breeze, and the shore was dotted with tropical palm trees and droopy branches from trees that looked like willows, their thin leaves dropping into the water, except that the leaves were a pale yellow. Thick grass spread from the sandbar out toward the east, turning into swampy marshes and then into the Dothraki Sea.

The ramshackle dock that stretched wide was made half of wood, and half from stone, with a tiny settlement of dockside inns, a brothel, and two taverns, but the rest of the buildings were shipping docks to send Qohor timber south and Volantine beets north.

Despite the worn nature of the settlement and the busy dock with Volantine slaves, the Starks, Jon, Loras, and Connington were able to find a moment of quiet past the settlement near the northernmost stretch of the demon road, a broken, black glittering thing surrounded by sand, stone, and grass.

Sansa picked a spot near the demon road surrounded by the pale-yellow leafed willows, creating a shady sanctuary against the heat. There was a buzz of insects in the air and the rubbing of the grass against one another, as well as the gentle lapping of the Volaena against stone.

Bran was gamely, but miserably, wheeled across the bumpy surface by Robb, and soon the entire party was ranged around him and Sansa, with Jon and Loras bringing their picnic and Arya spreading the blanket.

Rickon threw a few pillows Sansa claimed were necessary on the ground and threw himself to the grass equally huffy, bringing his tunic away from his chest by plucking at the fabric and whining, “Gods, I’m so hot.”

“So, go for a swim then,” suggested Sansa, doing her best to not roll her eyes. She delicately folded her legs underneath her – but only after kicking off her boots.

“Fine,” said Rickon, standing. “I will!”

He strode toward the bank, shucking his shirt as he walked and negligently tossing it behind. In Sansa’s direct line of vision, Loras was covertly watching Rickon, a flush on cheeks. She glanced at Jon and saw the amusem*nt in his eyes and the press of his mouth as he tried to hide his smile.

Rickon whooped as he dove into the water, rising only a few meters from where they sat. He sprayed water everywhere as he shook his head, then turned and faced his siblings. “It’s brilliant! Nice and cool! Come in!”

There was a moment’s pause as those under the shade all looked at each other. Then, it was a flurry as both Loras and Arya stood and shucked clothing – Loras far more than Arya, who kept her bottoms on and her breastband but not her top – and Jon who had stood and was in the process of hopping on one foot as he yanked his other boot off.

Robb sighed, looking forlornly south toward Volantis instead of the water.

Jon paused. “Aren’t you coming, Robb?”

“No… I… I’m not in the mood,” he sighed.

Sansa did roll her eyes this time, sharing an exasperated look with Bran.

With Robb moodily staring out toward the horizon, he failed to see the look shared between Jon and Connington, who smirked in response.

“You know what would help?” began Jon rhetorically, boots off and hovering just at Robb’s shoulder as he pulled off his top, his pale white chest with its stab wounds on display between a smattering of curly black chest hair.

“What?”

“A nice dip,” finished Jon, diving at Robb.

Robb yelped as Jon came at him from behind, his arms hooking under his arms and lifting him. Connington was there then, and together they bodily carried a squirming and shouting Robb until they were knee-deep in the water.

They threw him in, with Loras, Rickon, and Arya laughing loudly at Robb’s plight.

Gasping, Robb rose when he managed to find his feet. He glared at Jon, looking like a sodden cat with his tunic heavy and dragging through the water. “You bloody bastard!”

Jon grinned. “Must I remind you that my parents were married, my Lord?”

Robb continued to mutter, struggling in the water as he walked forward toward the shore until a face full of water hit him. He spluttered, staring at Arya. “Oh, is that how you want to play, little sister?”

He launched toward her; Arya squealed and scrambled backward, and then it was a free-for-all as the Stark siblings ganged up against Loras and Connington and Jon until they all lost sight of who was on whose team.

The group made a lot of noise, but they were happy. There was a smile on Robb’s face – something that had been missing for some time now – and Jon’s shoulders seemed relaxed and not tense for a change. Rickon caught Loras around the neck and pulled the younger teen toward him, rubbing his knuckles in his curly blond hair to the teen’s protestations, and Arya grabbed Connington’s arm and hung off it, lifting her legs so they were above the water, dripping.

They were not the only ones enjoying a break in the water, though. There was a similarly sized party nearby, mostly slave adults but a few freeborn children, playing next to the river and further up the Volaena and away from the Rhoyne, where there were fewer trees and more swampy grass stalks. The groups ignored each other, as that party was clearly Volantine.

Eventually, Sansa called at them to return; Jon – the palest of the group – was turning a worrying shade of red along his shoulders and chest. Tiredly, the rest followed, dripping water, and caking their feet and legs in sand and grass.

The picnic meal was quietly devoured with minimal conversation. After consuming a few cold slices of meat and finger foods, Loras and Rickon wandered a bit away, poking at stones and pebbles on the shoreline. Jon fell asleep where he sat in the shade and began to snore. His mouth was very slack, and he had the tiniest bit of drool beginning to pool at the corner, making Arya sort and fondly comment, “Ah, look at his Grace – all poise and refinement, he is,” just as he snorted a loud snore.

Connington glanced at him, the pull of a smile on his weathered face. “Rhaegar snored like a demon. We used to joke that he dreamed he was a dragon, with all the noises he made.”

“We?” asked Sansa curiously.

“Yes, Arthur, Richard, Myles,” answered Connington, leaning back against the tree as he reminisced. “Rhaegar and Arthur were the best of friends, of course; but I squired with Ser Willem Darry, the master-at-arms of the Red Keep – he knew my father, you see. And Rhaegar soon squired for the man too—”

“Not Ser Barristan or Ser Gerold or any of the others?” interrupted Arya.

Connington shook his head. “They had their duties to the kingsguard and king. Oh, they took the time to teach us when we were all in the yard together, but not to dedicate their time toward squires.”

“And Richard and Myles?” prompted Bran, leaning forward, eager to hear of the famous kingsguard that held so many brilliant warriors. When he was younger, he had such dreams and thoughts about the men – about Arthur Dayne, Barristan the Bold, even Jaime Lannister. After all that had happened to him, even before returning in time, there was still a part of him that yearned for the boyish dreams of becoming a knight.

“Richard Lonmouth and Myles Mooton,” sighed Connington. “Myles… he died. At the Battle of the Bells. The… Usurper killed him.” There was something hard on Connington’s face. “He was only eight-and-ten, just recently knighted by Rhaegar.”

Sansa, Arya, Robb, and Bran were quiet.

“And Lonmouth?” asked Robb, finally.

Connington shrugged. “Disappeared during the Rebellion. He was one of Rhaegar’s squires, the same as Myles. We were all close, a tight-knit group with the prince. We loved him—”

He broke off, looking away.

A sombre mood fell over the group, prompting the returning Loras and Rickon to ask, “What’s happened?”

“Nothing,” said Sansa quickly, mustering a smile for their youngest sibling. “Nothing at all, Rickon.”

He eyed her, as though sensing the lie, but nodded. Instead, Rickon turned to Bran and asked, surprisingly free of any kind of bitterness or spite, “Did you want to go swimming, Bran? If you sit in the shallows and do not venture further out, you’ll be fine. There’s an undertow further that would drown you, but if you remain near the shore and with Loras and me, you’ll be fine.”

Bran, utterly surprised by the offer, stared at Rickon. “I – uh –”

“That’s awfully kind of you, Rickon,” said Robb, albeit, suspiciously as he eyed him. “What made you think to offer?”

Rickon shuffled a bit on the spot and then blurted, “It was Loras’ idea!”

All eyes swung toward the youngest Tyrell son, who flushed. “Um… after… after Willas’ accident, he had trouble swimming in the Mander. We learned what worked for him with his leg and what didn’t. I know it’s not the same as Lord Bran’s, but, uh…”

Sansa beamed at Loras. “That’s a lovely thing to share with us, Loras!”

His flush deepened.

Between Loras and Robb, they managed to bring Bran to the shoreline even with Rickon hovering behind them. There was a permanent look of stupefied amazement on Bran’s face when he finally sat in the water, deep enough that it lapped against his stomach.

When Bran trailed his hands through the water, he began to silently cry. Everyone politely ignored it, letting him have the moment.

It was broken when one of the Volentine adults from the other party began to frantically shout, the same word over and over again while the slaves rushed up and down the shoreline.

Banquo! BANQUO!

Robb turned, eyes wide, and caught a man around his age flounder in the water, ducking down and then up again, searching for something – or someone.

Caught in the undertow, a murky figure quickly approached where the Starks were, much further downstream than the Volentine group, near the mouth of the Rhoyne. Robb quickly dove in, away from Bran and Loras and Rickon, much further than where they had all played in the water earlier.

The Volanae was not nearly as wide as the Rhoyne itself, but it was still a fast-flowing body of water with deep, dark pockets. Robb immediately felt the crush of the current pull at him as he dove further, eyes open and searching for the figure he spotted.

There was nothing in the dark of the water, and Robb’s lungs burned.

Just as he was about to push up and get another gulp of air, his eyes landed on something – he swam closer – and reached—

His fingers caught on fabric.

Clenching, Robb didn’t stop the look, but instead pushed off from the muddy floor bed and rose, kicking as hard as he could, fighting against the current that tugged and pulled at him. He was the strongest swimmer of his siblings – their mother, raised in Riverrun, had taught them all – he gasped, bubbles escaping his mouth as he struggled for air.

Then hands caught him, pulling at him, and his head broke the water. Connington and Jon were there, sloughing him through the deeper parts of the river together, a tangle of limbs with the extra weight of the boy Robb had in his grasp.

Jon and Connington dropped Robb on the bank, the boy on his back, pale-faced despite his naturally darker complexion, with a blue tinge to his mouth.

“C’mon,” muttered Robb, leaning over the boy and beginning chest compressions. He ignored the loud, approaching noise of the boy’s companions, leaning down and breathing for the boy.

Connington was the one speaking to the group – the only one who had the best knowledge and fluency of High Valryian – so Robb ignored him the best he could. Compressions, breathe; compressions, breathe.

The boy sputtered, water spewing from his mouth as Robb helped him on his side. The boy curled, choking on the expelled water, and mixing it with bile as he threw up.

“Banquo!” the man who had been shouting the boy’s name earlier dropped to his knees next to him, gathering the boy into his arms and crying over him. They shared the same dark hair and curls, and the same long nose. He rapidly spoke in Valyrian, with the boy giving a muffled reply.

The others in the man’s group arrived, including a girl who fell to her knees next to them. Robb gave them privacy, slowly easing backward and toward his family when the girl looked up at him. All the blood drained from Robb’s face, and he swayed on his feet, Jon coming to his side and holding him up.

The girl spoke, her words grateful even if he didn’t understand. When he didn’t react, she frowned but tried again, in accented Common Tongue, “Thank you. Thank you for saving my brother.”

Jon shot Robb a strange look but replied for him. “No thanks are needed for saving someone’s life.”

The man, still clutching the boy, shook his head as he rose, passing Banquo off to a slave, who wrapped the shivering boy in a blanket. “It is a matter of honour.”

He bowed at Robb. “I am Maerros Maegyr. This is my sister, Talisa. You have saved our little brother’s life. I would have the name of the man who did this miraculous deed.”

Jon’s mouth dropped open. Robb cleared his throat, and shakily, said, “Robb Stark of Winterfell.”

There was a moment of stupefied silence, with Maerros and Talisa staring at Robb, Robb staring back at them, and the Stark group looking between the two.

Lamely, Robb finished, “I, uh. I’ve been trying to arrange an audience with you.” His blue eyes were wide, shock settling in, even when they skipped past the two older siblings to look at the youngest, shivering, wet, and miserable but nearby.

He gave a tiny, hysterical laugh. “This, uh… this wasn’t how I wanted to meet. But, um…” He looked back at Talisa, and then quickly shifted his eyes to a gaping Maerros. He gave a limp wave and a wobbly grin. “Hello.”

The palace behind the Black Wall where the Maegyr family lived was different from all the places Robb had seen and visited since leaving Winterfell – in either life.

The room was large, imposing, and lonely, made more so by the fact that although Maerros and Talisa had agreed for one of the Starks to join Robb, he had wanted to do this by himself. Sansa’s face had gone blank, and Jon had a grimmer disposition than normal when Robb made his announcement, but they supported his decision against Rickon and Arya’s refusals.

He was just slightly regretting that now, standing in the cavernous room. The walls were a cheery yellow-orange, with white marble columns lining the length. Between each column was an archway that led elsewhere in the palace. At the very end of the room sat an elevated platform throne, several meters off the floor with stone steps. On the floor, on either side of the platform, were statues of sitting tigers, made entirely of white marble.

Directly above the platform was a glass dome, letting in the afternoon light. Despite illuminating the location and the bright quality to the throne room itself, the air was neither as stifling as it was elsewhere in Volantis nor was it overly humid – which might have had something to do with the floor-to-ceiling climbing trellis behind the throne, lush and thick with tropical plants.

Some were blooming, pink and white flowers that sweetly perfumed the room to a pleasant degree, given the size; but mostly, it was climbing vines and leaves. Running down the middle of the trellis was a man-made waterfall, ending in a square pool that surrounded the elevated platform.

Maerros and Talisa stood off to the side, with Tigers surrounding Robb. They remained silent, the tinkling and splashing of the water from the waterfall the only sound in the large room, echoing slightly.

Eventually, from one of the archways, an older man and woman appeared, the man walking briskly toward Maerros and Talisa, ignoring Robb completely. The four had a hushed conversation before breaking apart and lining up on the right of the throne.

There was some fanfare near the back, but Robb did not turn to see what was happening. Instead, he hid his sweaty palms by curling his hands into fists and situating them behind his back. A palanquin passed by him, carried by slaves. There was an elderly man seated in the middle, his dark eyes familiar and cutting as they viewed him briefly.

The palanquin turned, and the slaves splashed their feet in the pool and then began to ascend the platform, carefully carrying the man until they were able to place the palanquin down.

Talisa’s grandfather was imposing. His hair was long, tied back, and a mix of salt and pepper while his neatly trimmed beard was all white. He had thick, bushy greying eyebrows that furrowed as he stared down at Robb with the same dark eyes his grandchildren had, from a square face and square jaw. His nose was on the wider side, and the wrinkles and lines on his face only made him look all that sterner and foreboding.

He wore a pale linen tunic and an elaborate, bright yellow over robe with orange and blue trim, a thick matching belt around his still-trim stomach. His fingers were adorned with rings that glittered in the sunlight.

Maerros’ father spoke loudly in the receiving hall, despite the small number of people in it; Robb assumed it was more for his benefit. “All hail for Malaquo Maegyr, Triarch of Volantis, Leader of the Tigers!"

By some unspoken and unseen signal, Maerros stepped forward and stopped directly before his grandfather, kneeling. “Grandfather, I present Robb Stark of Winterfell, from Westeros. He is the one who saved Banquo’s life.”

Malaquo Maegyr surveyed Robb coolly. “I believe that is not all you have done, Westerosi.”

Robb swallowed, glancing at Maerros who rose to his feet and stepped back into place with his family. Eyes back forward, Robb nodded. “Uh, aye.”

Malanquo’s eyes narrowed. “You may address me as Triarch Maegyr, Westerosi.”

The room chilled. Robb swallowed and gave a short nod.

“Now, you wrote to my granddaughter as well,” continued Malanquo. “Why?”

Robb shifted a bit, working his jaw, as he wondered how to best begin. Malanquo seemed to be a rather straightforward man, which Robb appreciated. With a sigh and a slump of his shoulders, he began, “Five years from now, my father was executed…”

He tried to keep to facts, succinctly explaining how the War of the Five Kings began and the decisions he made, and for the most part, he succeeded. But when he spoke of meeting Talisa Maegyr on the battlefield, her ordering him to hold a man down while she sawed his leg off, emotion began to leak into his voice.

It continued, in how Robb tried to avoid her, trying to keep to his vow to marry a Frey girl, but Talisa fascinated him, challenged him to be better, and that admiration was obvious in the retelling of his life. He did not dare glance over at her, at her father and mother, but he could feel the rising incredulity coming from their end of the room.

When he spoke of their wedding, the joy he found in his wife who was a partner in all ways for him, Robb could not suppress his love. His voice did harden, though, when he spoke of the Twins.

“I should’ve known,” he said, bitterly, choking a bit. “Gods, I should’ve known. I angered Frey in breaking our agreement and then flaunted my new wife in front of him. But I was too blinded, and I…” he blinked back tears. “I led us to our deaths.”

Malanquo leaned forward, over his knee. “Go on.”

Robb swallowed thickly. “Talisa had just told me she was expecting – and I was… I was so overjoyed with the idea of a child, of starting that life with her. She said… she said we could name him Eddard, after my father, if it was a boy.”

He cleared his throat. “Everything was going well, I thought, but… but then that godsdamn song began – the Rains of Castamere. It… it was a blur, after. Everything happened so quickly. The musicians were assassins, archers. I was shot, several times. Talisa…”

He bit back a sob, gasping in air as he slightly hunched over, feeling the phantom pain from the arrows but it was nothing to the terror of seeing Bolton come up to his wife and stab her through the stomach, where their child grew. Somehow, he managed to stutter his way through that, to explain it to those in the room.

Distantly, he heard Talisa’s mother let out a cry.

“I tried to get to her, I did,” he swore, blinking furiously to keep the tears at bay, but he tasted salt in his mouth and realized that was futile. He sniffled. “Gods, I loved her, I loved Talisa so much.”

He harshly rubbed at his face with his hands, scrubbing it clean.

“Why did you come here, Robb Stark?”

It was not Malanquo who spoke, but Talisa’s father, a man who shared much of Malanquo’s bearing, except his face was longer, not as square. His hair was dark, but there were hints of grey at the temples and in his beard, but more importantly, sorrow was etched on his face. He had his wife in his arms, holding her to him as she desperately tried to stem the flow of tears on her face.

“I—” Robb’s mouth opened. “I wanted to… to apologize.”

“Apologize?” echoed Talisa’s father.

He nodded. “Aye… it was… it was because of me that she died. It was my decisions, my path that she joined that led to her death. I wanted… I suppose all I wanted was the chance to say I’m sorry. To see her one last time – happy… and not… not…”

He cut himself off, realizing he was close to gasping, searching for air. His nose burned and he struggled to maintain some dignity. Refusing to say more, the hall fell into silence.

“Robb Stark of Winterfell,” began Malanquo slowly, staring down at him from his elevated position.

Robb tilted his chin up, waiting for the next words.

“What a pretty tale you spin, Westerosi,” the man spat.

He blinked in shock. “Triarch…?”

Pfft!” the man cut Robb off, an angry noise punctuated with an angry gesture. “Who are you to come to these shores, boy? Who do you think we are, to believe that bakavaas?”

Robb physically took a step back, rocking from the venom in the older man’s voice as the words were spat down at him.

“How dare you think you are good enough for my granddaughter, boy? In this world or any other? She – the granddaughter, the daughter of a Tiger – whose bloodline goes back hundreds of years to Valyria?”

Something burned in Robb, spreading through his body as he stared up at the man who, in another world, would have been family. A bitter, dark part of him was desperate to shout back: your daughter was lucky to marry a King of Winter, whose bloodline went back thousands of years, to men who were kings and conquerors long before your people were mere beet farmers!

But he wanted to leave the Old City alive; so, he bit his lip, hard, tasting blood. Still, the old man continued, his voice cruel.

“I do not know what magic you say brought you back to life,” the man sneered, “nor do I believe it. I think you are a fool, a greenboy, a young upstart from nothing who sought to overreach with my granddaughter’s hand, coming to claim it.”

“No, that’s not true—”

SILENCE!

Robb drew back, eyes wide.

The man’s face settled into a scowl. He didn’t rise from his seat, but leaned forward, looming menacingly. “Boy – I thank you for saving the life of my youngest, beloved grandson, Banquo. And for that, you have my gratitude.”

Robb swallowed, knowing there was more to come – and it did, each word falling like a blow.

“For that, and that reason alone, I will not kill you for this paagal, this outlandish tale you have told,” the man snarled. “But you are hereby banished from the Old City, and… and it would be best if you and your kin left Volantis – soon, else an accident befalls you and yours.”

It wasn’t quite shame at failing to convince the Maegyr family of their future, or at least, Talisa’s, but something like anger and humiliation coiled together that burned through Robb’s body and left his cheeks flushed. After so long – to have tried – he just wanted absolution

He gave a stiff bow, eyes forward and on the Triarch and not the family of five just off to the side of the throne platform.

“Thank you for your time, Triarch,” he managed to mumble, and spun on his heel, allowing the tigers that surrounded him to walk him from the throne room, his boots slapping heavily and echoing through the cavernous chamber.

Coming to Volantis was a mistake, he realized that now. What a foolish, stupid boy he had been; in both lives, he thought, feeling his nose clog up again as angry tears threatened to overwhelm him. A stupid, green boy who pissed green he was that fresh and naïve.

Instead, he sniffed, threw his shoulders back, and set a bruising pace with him practically leading the tigers through the palace to escape. The Tigers struggled to maintain his pace, but gamely escorted and moved him down the correct passages until they were out of the palace and then at the wall, and soon he was through it.

He made it to a nearby alleyway, one Rickon had mentioned before he hunched over and retched, taking deep gasps of air as the smell of sick wafted toward him on the humid air.

Foolish, stupid boy. You deserved your fate, he thought, and then let himself collapse to his knees in the dark alleyway, grief overwhelming him for the first time since he returned.

The docks were crowded with the faces of those from all over the known world. Tongues clashed and spoke over one another, and between the throng of people trying to either leave or disembark and those unloading or loading cargo, it was a busy place.

“What’s the ship called again?” asked Jon, turning to Connington.

The Starfish,” replied the sombre man, eyes darting around and his hand on his hilt as he stood at Jon’s side, practically pressed against him.

Robb watched, rather impassively, from behind the group where he was. Jon pushed Bran’s chair, with Rickon and Loras just behind him and Connington, and then Arya and Sansa. Robb knew he was dragging his feet, but he couldn’t help it. Jon had success since leaving Winterfell, retracing Lyanna and Rhaegar’s path to Summerhall and the Tower of Joy, gaining much knowledge of his Targaryen heritage, a crown, a famous sword, and even dragoneggs!

He wasn’t being fair, he knew. Robb had asked to come to Volantis to say goodbye to Talisa, and he had done so; he had even helped save her little brother. Maybe the change would be profound; instead of a servant in Talisa’s story, who would have died despite saving Banquo’s life, it would be a strange foreigner from the North of Westeros. His actions and circ*mstance were different from the slave’s – there would be no reason for Talisa to become a healer and journey to Westeros, now.

At least she’ll be alive, thought Robb, tinted ever-so with melancholy.

So lost he was in his thoughts that he failed to realize that they had reached the boat, as well as the beginning of the conversation Connington had with the Braavosi captain. But he certainly heard Jon’s low rumbling, a warning of an oncoming storm of annoyance and anger.

“What do you mean, we’re no longer passengers on your ship? We paid an advance!”

Robb’s head jerked up, his hand sliding to his side and sword.

Jon’s glower was thunderous, and Connington looked seconds away from running the Braavosi captain through, for all the man was confused and protesting.

“I have your coin! I have it! Here, take it!” the man shouted, shoving a pouch at Jon, who took it, testing its weight and quickly checking the interior. “You have a different ship!”

“We don’t have a bloody different ship!” snapped Jon, cutting his eyes at the captain.

He nodded furiously. “Yes, yes. The Black Diamond!”

Jon gave one last glower before turning sharply on his heel, Connington striding after him.

Robb, at the back, fell easily in line, with Rickon and Loras taking the back of the group and Sansa and Arya pushing Bran. “What was that about?”

“Someone paid the captain to remove us from his passenger list,” muttered Jon, in Old Tongue. Robb’s knowledge was weak, but he did his best to understand the language with the lessons he and Rickon gave in the evening. He didn’t understand all the words, but enough to understand the gist of what Jon said. “We’ve got our coin back, but it worries me.”

Robb nodded. “Danger?”

“Perhaps.”

“There,” interrupted Connington, jerking his chin at another ship, much further away and down the dock in a quieter area with less traffic. As the tallest of the group, Robb was silently resentful at how much they relied on the man’s height and shoulders to move them through a crowd.

As the three men approached The Black Diamond, Robb spotted a figure directing several crates of chicken, and two barrels of beets, onto the ship. There was something familiar to his bearing…

The man turned as they approached, a wide smile on his handsome face. “Ah, Starks!”

Jon’s response was a grumble. “Maegyr. What’s this?”

Maerros extended his arm in a wide sweep. “My ship! She is beautiful, is she not?”

“No, I meant why did you stop us from boarding our ship to Qohor?” asked Jon through gritted teeth.

Maerros blinked at them. “Why, because I am joining you, of course!”

“What.”

Even Robb grimaced at the short tone Jon used.

Maerros turned his grin on Robb, who froze under it. “I could not let my goodbrother go on an adventure without me!”

“What,” echoed Robb, just as flatly as Jon.

Maerros’ grin widened, and he stepped forward, hands on Robb’s shoulders. “Ah, my little brother—”

“I’m twenty—”

“What adventures we shall have!” finished the man dramatically, placing kisses on either side of Robb’s stunned face. “And think, my dear goodfamily, with the Maegyr name, and our numbers, our journey to Qohor will be, ah, how do you say? Smooth sailing!”

“Are there beds?” asked Sansa suddenly.

Maerros nodded. “And mattresses filled with feathers.”

Sansa and Arya shared a look and then took off toward the boarding ramp, leaving the boys behind, to Rickon and Jon’s protestations.

Loras slowly trailed them, a hunch to his shoulders. Sheepishly, he said, “There’s more space, my Lord…”

Jon sighed, turning to Bran. “Safe?” he asked in the Old Tongue.

Bran blinked. He tilted his head to the side, and his eyes went white for a moment; thankfully, he was blocked by Jon, so Maerros did not see what he was doing. When he came to, he nodded slowly, a tiny furrow in his brow.

“Safe,” he confirmed, though.

Jon sighed, turning back to face Maerros. “Fine,” he agreed darkly. “But if you do one thing—”

“Yes, yes,” said Maerros, waving a negligent hand. “Come, see your rooms! There is space for everyone!”

Connington snorted. “I think not, I’ll be sharing with you,” he said, glancing at Jon, who huffed his own sigh, aware that he’ll never have the same kind of privacy he had treasured in the past.

Resigned, Robb watched his siblings slowly make their way on board, leaving him with Maerros on the dock. “Why are you doing this, truly?”

Maerros mocked an overly affected face of confusion. “Whatever do you mean, goodbrother?”

“Shut it,” snapped Robb, stepping forward, into Maerros’ space. Although Maerros was taller, Robb had width to him and managed to crowd the Volantine man. “I laid bare my heart and soul before your family, trying to absolve myself of the guilt and fear I felt in Talisa’s death, in our child’s death. And I was mocked for it by your grandfather. Mocked, Maegyr! Are you here to say more? Tell me how pathetic I am? That I am a liar? Hmm?”

Maerros’ face shifted into solemnity. “Robb… no.”

His eyes drifted past Robb, to a figure behind. Robb whirled, partially, keeping Maerros near to his left, and the new threat to his right. But it wasn’t a threat – it was Talisa, standing near on the dock.

“Lord Robb,” she said, her voice higher than he remembered, but the accent was the same.

“Tali—Lady Maegyr,” choked out Robb, swallowing thickly.

She stepped closer but was still a meter’s distance from him. Maerros slipped away, toward the ship.

“What are you doing here?” he asked gruffly.

“I came to say goodbye,” she said – and Robb understood.

He nodded. “I see.”

“I believe you,” she said after a few moments of silence. “About… about your past. The future. No man could express the pain you did and it not be real.”

Robb looked away. “I led you to your death.”

“Perhaps,” she said. Then, with a tiny curl to her lips, “Were we happy?”

Robb blinked back the tears that were forming and looked up at the sky, wanting to bite down on his lip to stop its trembling. “Aye,” he rasped. “For the few, short moons we had… we were happy.”

A soft hand touched his. Robb’s eyes flew down and saw that Talisa had moved forward and stood before him. Her eyes, dark, were sympathetic. Then she was on her toes, stretching up. Her smooth lips touched Robb’s cheek and he held his breath, eyes fluttering shut.

His cheek burned where she touched.

Then she was stepping away. “I hope you find happiness again, Robb Stark.”

“My Lady,” he whispered, eyes intent on her as she stepped back again, and again, until she reached the few Tigers who had come with her to the dock, and the rest who were waiting with a litter.

And then she was helped onto the litter and gone, disappearing into the crowd.

A shuddering breath escaped Robb. He clenched and unclenched his hands, shaking them out, and then turned on his heel, striding up the gangplank to the ship, where Maerros stood, watching.

He stopped Robb, drawing him to the side of the deck. “You understand now, yes? We believe. Truly, it was that parrot but--" he trailed off, forcing a weak smile on his lips. "I am here for you, goodbrother. This future may not exist, but the past does. Tali wants you to find happiness. And I will help.”

He paused, a hand on Robb’s shoulder. “Because that is what family does.”

Robb, throat tight, nodded. “Excuse me, Maerros.”

Without waiting for a reply, he strode to the bow of the ship, away from any sailors who were testing lines and unfurling sails. His hands clenched on the rail, and he remembered doing the same when they left Oldtown, staring out at the horizon, the heat of the midday sun bearing down on him as it was now. He wasn’t sure how long he stood there, even after the captain and crew expertly maneuvered the ship from the dock and through Volantis to move up the Rhoyne.

He stared at the horizon, then blinked, and then it was evening, and the stars were out, twinkling brightly above him. Like before, Jon stood silently at his side, a sentinel, a firm presence of comfort and home.

When Robb turned his eyes to his cousin – brother – Jon stepped a bit closer and asked, lowly, “Is everything well?”

Robb took a moment to think before responding. “Eventually. I think.”

Jon reached out, an arm around Robb’s shoulders. Robb took the comfort, with a small sigh, and slumped against Jon’s chest.

Eventually, he reminded himself. He was never going to get his Talisa back. While he might see their unborn child in his dreams – a boy with her dark eyes and auburn curls, or a girl with dark curls and blue eyes – it was a life and future taken from him.

He had to close the door to Talisa. He didn’t have to forget her and the past he lived, but it wasn’t healthy for him to continue holding on to her; oh, the hate for the Freys, the Boltons, he’d hold onto forever… but Talisa didn’t deserve being lumped in with those emotions, a tangled web. He had to let her go. She wanted him to let her go.

But he could build a new future, find happiness again.

Eventually, he thought, once more, then turned and with Jon, left the deck to find his room and get some rest. It was long overdue.

TBC...

Notes:

I hope you all enjoyed this chapter; the last one didn't seem to have the same reception as I normally receive, so... well, fingers crossed this one was better.

I can't make any promises as to when the next chapter will be, as the new job begins on Monday and when going through with IT setting up my laptop, we hopped on Outlook and I may have accidentally said "oh my god, this is horrifying" at the reveal of 20+ emails before the job even began. At least that made the tech laugh for several minutes.

There are several more chapters before we return to Westeros, with a lot happening in between, but we'll eventually get back to those shores and see what's happening back in Winterfell. It's going to be a wild ride, and I've already written those sections because I couldn't help myself! Everyone stay safe, have a great start to your 2022, and take care!

Chapter 17: XVII

Summary:

Jon demonstrates his stubbornness - and perhaps shows that he is related to Rhaegar with blinders on when he gets an idea - and ends up in A Situation. Connington, Sansa, and Bran are along for the ride and none are impressed with the Sorcerers of Qohor.

Notes:

I am not particularly happy with this chapter. I struggled with Qohor, the magic, and the tone and ended up blocked. I actually wrote parts for much later in the story instead, and I really want to get to that! So I'm scrapping a few plot lines and plots post-Qohor to push the story along to where I want it to be instead of here. With that said, the next chapter should be a bit easier - fingers crossed.

Chapter Text

XVII:

Memories of Tomorrow - writing_as_tracey (17)

The turn of the year from 293 to 294 happened while Maerros’ pleasure barge travelled up the Rhoyne toward Qohor, in which they also celebrated Arya’s twentieth nameday (which was odd for Robb, who was also twenty, but a few moons older than Arya in this new timeline), as well as Jon’s six-and-twentieth nameday.

The celebrations were muted, with the Starks and Jon feeling a bit unsure about Maerros’ involvement in their journey – Jon Connington could be trusted to some degree, through Rhaegar’s memory and loyalty toward the Targaryens, and Loras was only three-and-ten and still in the dark about Jon’s parentage – but Maerros was an unknown. It meant that they were cautious and took care of what they said around the newcomer.

But it wasn’t just Maerros who made them cautious; there was something in the air, in the silence, as their ship slipped up the Rhoyne, passing ruins covered in green moss and creeping vines, half-crumbled or nothing more than misshapen lumps of the building that had once stood in the lush tropical forests that lined the river.

Selhorys was the last major settlement they passed, two weeks into their journey upstream. The city was larger than King’s Landing but had a charm to it that was uniquely Essosi with pretty-patterned tiles and smooth yellow or red buildings with colourful glass lanterns that hung outside the doors of the inns, brothels, and merchant houses. Maerros had wanted to linger there longer, showing off the Volantene city to his new friends, but Jon and Bran (backed up by Connington) had insisted on moving on after only a night and a resupply.

After they passed the neck of the Selhoru, there would be no other places to stop until their arrival in Qohor – a rather dangerous river journey, regardless. South of the Sorrows, Maerros’ ship had the benefit of sharing the waters with Tiger-patrolled ships, many attached to merchant ships from Qohor to sell their lumber; few Volantene ships made the journey northward, much more interested in passing their wares off to Qohoran merchants instead to sell on their behalf. It made many take a second and third look at The Black Diamond.

It was while they were passing through the Sorrows, all the Starks plus Connington, Loras, and Jon taking point around the deck with Maerros and his deckhands, keeping sharp eyes out for any stone men, when Maerros asked, his voice carrying, “Why Qohor?”

Robb gave him a sharp glance for breaking the silence, and Maerros continued, false joviality in his voice: “It is not much of a tourist destination, my friends!”

Jon answered him, instead, despite facing in the opposite direction with eyes on the lush, high banks of trees and ruins on either side of the narrow pass their ship navigated through. “We’re not going to be tourists, Maegyr. We’re going to the City of Sorcerers.”

“I…” Maerros stared at Jon, although he couldn’t see it. In High Valyrian, he continued, with a stuttered (though only Arya and Connington seemed to know what he said), “I-I beg your pardon?”

Jon turned. “The City of Sorcerers. They might know something about the Long Night.”

“The… Long Night?” echoed Maerros, dumbfounded.

Robb grimaced and muttered, loud enough for the Volantene man to hear, “Don’t ask.”

But Maerros stared at Jon. “You do realize that Qohor is a city of dark arts, Snow? That they practice blood magic? And necromancy?”

He looked ill, eyes flitting between one Stark to the next, noting that unlike Jon’s fervent expression, the rest seemed rather resigned. Shrilly, Maerros said, “You remember that you are all products of necromancy—”

“We are not,” argued Bran hotly, turning toward Maerros from his chair, near the entrance to the cabins, roped in place to keep from rolling away. “The Old Gods themselves brought us back—”

Maerros rolled his eyes. “The Gods care naught for us, boy – we are their toys and not much else.”

Bran sent him a scathing look in return and proceeded to ignore everyone.

“It’s imperative that we learn as much about the Long Night as possible, Maerros,” explained Jon, finally glancing at him from over his shoulder. “It’s the most important thing.”

Maerros stared at Jon like he thought he said he could fish the stars from the sky, but kept his mouth shut, returning to his position, and turning his gaze out toward the tropical forest. There was a tense undercurrent that ran through those on deck – especially those who heard the conversation – that went beyond the unease of potential stone men or the thought of what awaited them in Qohor.

Eventually, Sansa slipped from her spot in a sail’s shade to Jon’s side, keeping her face forward despite the corner of her eyes focusing on Jon’s profile. Finally, with her voice a low murmur, she asked, “Why Qohor, Jon? We’re three years away from when Lord Arryn died. We should be heading North, to Winterfell, to prepare, instead of chasing maybes.”

Jon sent her a dark look. “Are you doubting me, too, Sansa?”

She pursed her lips, turning to look at him, too. “We all know that Rhaegar never went to Essos, Jon. There’s no reason for us to remain here, either. Whatever knowledge he learned of the Long Night, of the Prince Who Was Promised, it didn’t come from here.”

And we could learn it all the better from others in the past back in Westeros, went unsaid by Sansa.

Jon exhaled, a harsh sound. “I’m trying to learn more about the Long Night. There’s information here in Essos that we don’t know about, being from Westeros.”

Sansa quirked her eyebrows at him, and he sighed, again.

“They had a Long Night, too, Sansa,” he said quietly. “Maybe there’s information here that we don’t know about that will help us.”

“And maybe there’s isn’t,” stressed Sansa quietly, forcefully.

Jon startled, staring at his sister like the idea had never crossed his mind. The idea completely baffled Jon, his mouth dropping open.

“What – San – no, there has to be—” he sputtered, eyes blinking furiously. He licked his lips nervously, face pale. His words were frantic, low. “Sansa. No – don’t say that. There has to be new information in Qohor, in Pentos, anywhere we can get to in time.”

“Jon—”

He leaned forward, into her space. His breath was hot. “Sansa, we failed once before! We can’t fail again, don’t you see? Don’t you understand? What happened to us was luck, Old Gods or New, or R’hllor or the Drowned God – I don’t know – but seven years is not much time to change things and prepare. Else we’ll repeat our mistakes and—”

Die.

Sansa gazed levelly at Jon, watching as something unravelled in him. Slowly, she reached out and placed a calming hand on his arm, stopping him. His mouth snapped shut.

“We failed,” she began carefully, “Or you failed, Jon?” There was something knowing in her eyes when she met his. “This isn’t all on you.”

“Aye, Sansa,” said Jon quietly. “It is.”

She rolled her eyes. “Don’t be ridiculous, Jon. No one is expecting you to be the Prince Who Was Promised, prophecy or not. We won’t find anything in Qohor.”

“We might—”

“Are we to base our entire lives on maybes now, brother?” asked Sansa, archly. “Maerros thinks it’s a stupid idea—”

“Well, what does he know—”

“Bran’s made his thoughts clear—”

“Bran doesn’t make his thoughts clear at all, Sansa—”

“Arya certainly doesn’t think this is a good idea—”

Wounded, Jon asked, “When did she say that?”

Blithely, Sansa continued: “I’m sure Griff also thinks it’s silly but won’t tell you because he knows it would hurt your feelings—”

“My feelings aren’t hurt,” he sniffed, mouth pulled downward in an indication of an oncoming sulk.

Sansa sighed. “I hope you know what you’re doing, Jon. What you’re leading us toward.”

She then turned and left him at his spot on the deck, letting her words linger between them, for however long it would take to sink in.

The boat slid into Qohor’s dock during a heavy rainstorm, blanketing everything grey and black. There were pinpricks of light – hanging lanterns – around the dock, but the light flickered weakly in the breeze, and it was only when lightning crackled across the sky that they were able to see the empty dock, made of dark, damp wood and thick, shiny black stone.

There was a mustiness to the air, a kind of humidity that was different to that found in Volantis, which was heady and swampy. Qohor was surrounded by woods, like the North and where the Starks grew up in Winterfell, making the musty scent more like rotted wood and leaves, a woodsy smell that they knew well.

But there was a tang to the air, one that made Sansa’s face go blank and Rickon warily look around as they slowly stepped off the boat, down the boarding ramp, and onto the dock. He huddled near his eldest sister, stuck at her elbow and a hand hovered over his dagger belted at his waist.

“What’s that smell?” asked Loras, lifting his chin the tiniest, miserable rivets of water streaming down his face and plastering his blond hair against his head. “It smells – metallic.”

No one spoke, inching their way forward as they nervously peered down the dock, both Robb and Connington gripping their sword’s hilts tightly.

“It’s blood,” said Jon grimly, stopping from where he was leading the group.

“What?” asked Loras, coming up to him, only to stop and stare.

Ahead, the dock opened to a wide avenue. Lining either side of the path were large metal spikes driven into the ground at an angle. Men – and some women and children – hung upside-down on the spikes, naked. Rainwater mixed with the blood that seeped out from their slashed necks and slit wrists, as well as their thighs and groins, pooling into the shallow basins of thick, dark liquid below each spike.

Quietly, Maerros said, “On holy days, the Black Goat demands a blood sacrifice of condemned criminals.”

“Where in the Seven Hells have you taken us, Jon?” muttered Robb, eyes cutting back and forth across the avenue, peering into the rain at the misshapen and lumpy figures that meandered from one inn or pub to the next, skirting underneath overhangs as they hunched over or flipped up collars to protect themselves from the rain.

Jon himself pursed his lips tight, a hard expression on his face. “We’ll find an inn for the night.”

The group, all the Starks with their longer than normal faces, and Connington, Loras, and Maerros kept closer than normal as they cut their way to the nearest, brightest inn, warm light and noise spilling from its doors. It was always a challenge finding a place that could offer four to five rooms for them, but the weather and Qohor’s own calendar worked their favour, even as suspicious and curious eyes followed them.

“The Black Goat is the main God here,” Maerros was explaining as they converged in the largest of the rooms, even as a serving girl brought them ale and bread. “But there are followers of R’hllor here, and some others. Nothing like in Braavos, though.”

“And the Sorcerers? Where could we find them?” quizzed Jon, ignoring Connington’s deep scowl of displeasure.

Maerros frowned, himself. “I do not see why you need to speak to them—”

“It’s important.”

“So you say,” he sighed, rolling his eyes. “You Starks carry more secrets than a woman carries jewels, and yet I know much of your secrets—”

“Not all,” interrupted Jon darkly, cutting a glare at Robb, “Unless someone spoke out of turn.”

“I haven’t,” replied Robb evenly, although he did shrug. “I told Maerros my part of the story – that’s all.”

“So, there is more!” crowed Maerros, eyes alight in triumph. “I had thought so…!”

It was Jon’s turn to scowl.

Both Sansa and Arya held a glimmer of amusem*nt at Jon’s discomfort, which improved the mood of the room. “Come,” said Sansa, tugging on Arya, “Let’s leave Jon to sulk. Hopefully, his mood will improve by the morning.”

It started a chorus round of goodnights, as everyone slipped away in groups of two, except for Bran who remained with Jon and Connington in the largest room. Bran wheeled himself to his bed and lifted himself onto it, bringing his legs afterward.

“You think I’m doing the right thing, don’t you, Bran?” asked Jon as they all settled in their beds. The room was already dark, with only a flicker of the candle by Connington’s bedside.

Bran turned to face the ceiling. “I don’t know, Jon.”

“What do you mean?”

“I can’t see anything here,” he explained, tiredly. “There’s no weirwood for me to connect to – not like I’ve been doing so elsewhere and leaving saplings behind. The past is murky and…”

“And?” asked Connington, a curious tilt to his voice, despite the gruffness.

“And things feel strange,” murmured Bran, closing his eyes. “Magic here is different. I am not sure if I like it all that much.”

Jon was silent for a moment or two, and then muttered, “You’ll still go with me tomorrow to the Sorcerer’s Temple, though?”

“Aye, Jon,” sighed Bran, wearily. “Although I don’t think you’ll find what you’re looking for here.”

Jon did not reply, and the three fell into an uneasy sleep.

Even in the light of the next morning, free of rain and low-hanging grey clouds, Qohor was a dark place. This was mostly due to the dark timber that made their longhouses, or the black stone used for their grander buildings, including the Sorcerer’s Temple, located all the way across the city, closer to the outskirts and the mouth of the Forest of Qohor, closer to the Vaes Dothraki.

The city itself was large but easy to navigate with everything was laid out in blocks, and the Qhoyne splitting the city in two – a northern side and southern side to the city. The entire city itself was enclosed by thick stone walls, mingled with timber watchtowers, and elevated bridges. The bridges linked up with sawmills and lumber mills, all built along the banks of the river, so it was easier for the cut timber to be floated downstream.

Despite the constant rasp of saws biting into wood, there was a muffled blanket that covered the city, creating an eerie stillness even in the morning as bakeries opened, butchers prepared their cuts, and – outnumbering all other industries other than lumber – the ringing of steel from talented blacksmiths, metalsmiths, and jewellers began their work.

Jon, Bran, Connington, and Sansa cut their way across town, a mist swirling around their ankles and the damp morning dew sticking to their skin and clothing, wetting down their furs and cloaks; beads of water clung to Jon’s curls and Sansa’s eyelashes. They could see their breath, despite the pale sunlight punching through the cloud cover; Maerros had warned them that by midday when the sun was fully out, the temperature would greatly increase from the chilly morning.

The Sorcerer’s Temple rose above the low timber buildings near the Forest of Qohor, a walled entity that kept itself separate from the rest of Qohor. There were no guards as they approached, Bran’s wheelchair creaking as they passed through the open gate of thick black stone.

The second they passed through, the noise of Qohor faded into a terse hush. Everything was muted. Sansa shivered, reminded of when she was younger and felt uncomfortable in the Godswood in Winterfell. She felt thousands of eyes on her and the others as they continued forward, following a stone path that meandered in a loose zigzag around monstrous stone carvings with grotesque faces and through long arbours grown thick with thorny vines.

They eventually emerged from a final arbour to the main entrance, a tall door made of the same black stone with etchings and designs incorporated into it. Sansa pursed her lips as her eyes roved over the images: animals of all kinds being brutally dissected; men, women, and children in various states of dismemberment; and at the top, bisected, the forward-face visage of the black goat, horns extending long and out, sweeping down to create the door handles.

It creaked open by unseen hands.

“Well, that isn’t frightening at all,” muttered Connington, eyeing the darkness within.

Jon swallowed thickly and then strode forward. Connington cursed and stepped after him, leaving Sansa to sigh and help wheel Bran across the grass and bump the wheelchair over the lip of the doorframe.

Jon and Connington had stopped just on the inside of the door, with the weak sunlight filtering in behind Sansa and Bran. The entrance hall – from what they could see – was a tiny, square space. It was dark though – the kind of inky darkness that came from being out in the pitch dark and because of that, none of them could see or sense the edges of the walls. It felt like the entire entrance was an endless abyss that stretched out in all directions – especially when the door slammed shut behind them, enveloping in that solid blackness.

Then, there was a hiss and the sound of a flint striking; a single blue flame burst into existence before them, illuminating the figure who held the glowing ball of flames.

The man’s face was long, an equally long, jagged scar bisecting one milky eye, the other a vibrant, glowing yellow. He had a septum piercing – a half-ring between his nostrils – and hair brushed high and back off his forehead, revealing a widow’s peak. He was clean-shaven and his clothes – a long overcoat that swept the floor in a heavy brocade – were mostly unadorned. The buttons on the overcoat, Jon noted was a wary gaze, were made of bone.

“Greetings,” he said in a wispy, paper-thin voice in Common Tongue, “to the City of Sorcerers.”

Connington gave a dismissive sniff and looked around. He muttered, “Not much of a city, is it?”

The man’s answering smile was thin. “This is merely the entrance, my Lord.”

Connington sneered.

“Our apologies, my… er…” Sansa trailed off, eyeing the man.

“I am Warlock Curwen,” the man said in the same mild, whispery voice that made Bolton seem like he shouted.

Warily, Jon spoke next. “Warlock Curwen, I am here to ask the Sorcerers for information about—”

Curwen held the hand not holding the blue flame up to halt Jon. “We do not give freely. We ask for something in return.”

Bran’s eyes narrowed. “What do you request for information?”

Curwen’s remaining eye gleamed. “Why, blood of course. The Black Goat demands it.”

Jon thought he should feel grateful that he wasn’t being hung upside-down and drained of his blood. Curwen had him lying on a stone slab though, and it was cold in the cavern-like room. He shivered.

Connington and Sansa hovered by his head; Connington’s frown was very pronounced, and his hand kept twitching at his side like he wanted to draw his sword. His blue eyes trailed on Curwen and his silent, robed companions as they prepped Jon.

They kept his shirt and trousers on, but he was barefoot. Cold, wet paint of some kind was used to draw shapes and lines on his face and hands. When he asked, Sansa said, “They look like Old Tongue runes, but it’s not the Old Tongue.”

Eventually, Curwen led the robed men to a circle around the slab with Connington, Sansa and Bran left outside of it, struggling to see over their shoulders and between their bodies as the one-eyed man led them through a series of chants and hums, their bodies swaying.

A long dagger appeared in Curwen’s hand, and he approached Jon, who watched him warily. He wasn’t strapped down – so if the man tried anything, he would leap up and hope the robed Sorcerers around him didn’t have any concealed weapons, too – and could freely move, but he also did promise to give the man blood for information.

Curwen approached and made two careful incisions on Jon’s forearms, where his sleeves had been rolled up, and the blood oozed out and drained into a recess of the stone slab, angled until it pooled in a chalice at his feet on either side. Once the two chalices were half full, one of the robed Sorcerers came and tended the wounds. They were both stitched up and slathered with a sweet-smelling poultice.

Then, the Sorcerers were gone, and Connington was at Jon’s side, carefully helping him sit up. Jon pressed a hand against his head and tilted into Connington.

“I feel woozy,” muttered Jon.

“You lost a lot of blood,” replied Connington darkly, shooting a glare at Curwen who remained.

Sansa and Bran slowly approached, the wheels of Bran’s chair creaking as they did so. Bran was the one who demanded, “You’ll give us the information we want – now.”

Curwen inclined his head. “You wanted to know about the Long Night, as it’s called in Westeros.”

“Aye,” rumbled Jon, slowly sitting up properly. He still kept close to Connington, who helped him off the raised slab.

“I do believe the information that you are seeking is one you do not know the question to,” began Curwen carefully. He hid his hands in his robes’ sleeves and watched them carefully through his singular eye, although it often drifted back to Jon. “The Priests and Priestess of Ashaii believe in a Promised Prince – a hero or champion of their R’hllor who will fight a great darkness. They call this darkness the ‘Great Other.’”

“I am aware of Azor Ahai,” said Jon darkly.

“So you are.” Curwen’s thin lips curled up. “But there are layers you do not know.”

“I do hope you’re getting to your point soon,” warned Sansa primly, eyes narrowing on the Sorcerer.

He inclined his head to her. “When it comes to the beings called ‘the Others’ in your land – they were created by the Children of the Forest.”

Bran audibly gasped, shock across his face. “No—”

“Yes,” Curwen bit back. “The Others were created by magic. They would take prisoners of the First Men during their war with your ancestors and experiment on them. Mutate them, change them into unimaginable beings and monsters. Most died during the experiments. Others went insane. And then, one day, they perfected their magic by answering the question: what can destroy life?”

Curwen waited patiently, like a teacher speaking to his pupils.

Finally, it was Connington who said, “Death.”

The answering smile on Curwen’s face was mocking. “Exactly, Ser. Death. Now, back then, they were the Children’s puppets, beings able to raise the dead and strike down all living things.”

“Creating the wights,” breathed Sansa, eyes wide.

“Of course, your ancestors fought the Children for years upon years – entire generations – before the Pact was made, correct?”

Jon, feeling sick, merely nodded.

“What many do not understand, is that magic demands payment,” sighed Curwen, turning away from the Westerosi to trail around the stone slab, his fingers dipping into the dregs of Jon’s blood where it clung to the rivets. “Magic is not controllable. My fellow Sorcerers might argue differently – but I know the truth. One cannot control magic. It grows, changes, takes over in ways outside our understanding and scope.”

Jon frowned, thinking back to Melissandre, reading the fire, and constantly getting the wrong answer – the magic was there, but her interpretation as a human was the error. And Daenerys and her dragons – could she truly control Drogon, Viserion, and Rhaegal? They were animals, beasts, and had several times gone off and done things she didn’t want them to. Even Ghost went off and did his own things, despite the connection Jon had with him.

“The Others eventually broke free from their masters – the Children – who then realized what they had created. They turned to your ancestors and together they fought them, drove them back into the darkness,” continued Curwen, his voice silky and loud in the very silent chamber. “There, in the darkness, the Others found a new Master. They themselves are not the Great Other and never have been despite what the Ashaii would have you think, although they do serve the Great Other now.”

Bran looked sick, green in the face. As the one who had spent the most time around the Children, he was under no illusions that they were perfect representatives of peace and goodness – but to hear the calculated tones from Curwen explain each step that led them to what had, thousands upon thousands of years later, been their deaths…

“How does one fight death?” asked Curwen, drawing the attention back to him and away from the bleak realizations the Starks had. “The Ashaii think it comes with Azor Ahai, the Prince Who Was Promised.”

“Promised again and again,” trailed off Jon.

“Exactly, Ser. Exactly. A champion against the Great Other’s minions, immortal, reincarnated time after time with the ability to fight against Death and potentially defeat Him – through life itself.”

The Starks stared at Curwen, but it was Connington who spat (as he certainly didn’t believe in the prophecy nonsense), “What does that mean, wizard?”

Curwen shrugged. “I do not know. I have knowledge but my area of interest and study is not in the Great Other. Ask yourself, Westerosi: what is the life that is used to defeat the Great Other? It is the Promised Prince, time and time again – a man who represents life through fire to defeat death through ice.”

Curwen paused.

“But, then again, perhaps that is wrong,” he said liltingly, partially turning as a robed and masked figure hurried into the room from a hidden door in the darkness, bowing and eager to speak to him. “After all, the Promised Prince has never defeated the Others and their master, has he? They’re still here.”

Curwen turned to the aide and listened to a hushed whisper. The Starks shifted uneasily, lost in their thoughts. Jon and Sansa caught each other’s eyes; Jon was pale and haggard like he had just told he was doomed to fail again – the exact worry he was trying to hide and desperately overcome by seeking answers.

“My, my,” said Curwen, making them turn back to him. His eye was glinting off the torches in the room. “You’ve been keeping secrets.”

“I beg your pardon?” asked Jon, trying to stand straight.

Curwen fixated on him. “Your blood, Lord. It was… illuminating.”

Connington heard a threat and immediately reached for his sword, withdrawing it and standing protectively in front of Jon.

Curwen tsked. “Put the sword down; it will do you no good. Besides, I do not want to hurt the man.”

“What do you want with Jon?” asked Bran carefully, eyes narrowing on the sorcerer.

“I wish to study the man – who appears to have died and been revived and is standing before me, not a wight or mindless beast,” enthused Curwen, eye wide. He had a flush to his pale skin and a breathless quality to his voice.

“Not a chance,” bit off Connington.

“It’s hardly up to you,” sniffed Curwen.

“We're leaving,” announced Jon, pushing his shoulders back. “I provided you with blood as payment for information. That was the deal.”

“Deals can change.” Curwen’s smile was all teeth.

No,” snarled Jon.

“You’ll see things differently, soon, I’m sure,” promised Curwen.

“What—”

With a burst of speed, the sorcerer lunged forward, his hand and fingers hitting Connington’s sword arm first; the man cursed loudly as his hand spasmed and arm flopped, limp, with his sword crashing to the stone floor. Then, Curwen was behind him, his hand at Connington’s neck, and the man’s eyes rolled up into the back of his head and he fell to the floor, unconscious.

Sansa screamed.

Curwen was then in front of Jon, his index and middle finger extended.

“What are you—” Jon leaned back to avoid the man’s fingers but was still woozy from blood loss and his reaction time was dulled.

Curwen’s fingers tapped the center of Jon’s forehead. To Jon, it was like someone dropping a rock in the middle of a still lake, ripples extending out and bouncing back against the walls of the chamber, and then he, too, dropped, unconscious.

“Jon!” screamed Sansa. She turned to Curwen, murder in her eyes. “What did you do?”

“Sent the man on a trip to make him more amenable to being saved later,” the sorcerer replied idly, uncaring of revealing any information. He seemed secure in his ability to stop a woman and crippled man.

As it was, Bran swore. “He’s done what I do! But I don’t know where Jon went!”

“What you do?” echoed Curwen, looking at Bran anew. “My, you Westerosi are quite the find. Are all of you so talented?”

His eye trailed to a dark corner, and Sansa heard the stone door grind as it opened and shut; an unspoken command had been given and now their other siblings were in danger. Sansa turned to Bran and found him already looking at her.

“Do it,” she said.

Bran’s returning smile was a grim, dark thing. “Gladly.”

“Do what?” asked Curwen.

Bran stared at the sorcerer, and then blinked; his eyes had gone from dark to fully white. Curwen’s own eye widened in delight.

“What is this? What is this?” he crowed. “Amazing! An utter delig—”

He squawked, blinked, and then went rigid. With slow, jerky steps, he walked toward Connington and knelt, picking through the man’s clothes until he found his dagger. When he rose, he turned to Bran and Sansa and then, stilted, roughly slit his own throat.

At the same time, Bran blinked, and his eyes returned to their normal pupils. Both Sansa and Bran watched impassively as Curwen realized what had happened – the loss of control of his own body under Bran’s direction – and choked, bringing his hands up to his neck to stem the flow even as it spilled past and down his fine robes.

Eventually, he fell to his knees and then back, his good eye as wide and vacant as the other.

Sansa waited a moment and then went to Jon, kneeling at his side. “Is there a way to bring him back?”

Bran scowled. “I’d have to go in and try to find him. But that bastard could have sent him anywhere, anywhen, Sansa. It could take hours or even days.”

“Do what you must, Bran,” ordered Sansa, turning from Jon to him. “I’ll attempt to rouse Connington. We need to leave this place.” She turned back to Jon, brushing loose curls from his forehead. “Oh, you utter fool, Jon Snow. Why did you insist we come here? We all told you this was a bad idea.”

When she looked back at Bran, his eyes were white and he was sitting boneless in his chair, indicating he had already left his body behind. With a sigh, she turned to Connington. She needed the men – they were the line of defence, and however annoyed she might be with Jon, he was family… and she wouldn’t let anything happen to him or Bran.

TBC...

Chapter 18: XVIII

Summary:

The Starks realize something is wrong when they're attacked just minding their own business (really); Maerros learns to play the Westerosi version of "Go Fish". Jon goes on a journey of self-discovery, meets someone, and doesn't like what they have to say. But what else is new?

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

XVIII:

Memories of Tomorrow - writing_as_tracey (18)

“This place gives me ill thoughts,” muttered Loras. The teenager eyed the shifty-looking barkeep even as Rickon rolled his own eyes, striding directly to the bar in hopes of ordering an ale.

“Where’s your sense of adventure?” teased the youngest Stark, amusem*nt dancing in his blue eyes as he surveyed Loras, shuffling uncomfortably behind him.

Loras grimaced. “I left it back in Volantis.”

Rickon scoffed.

“Besides,” continued Loras, “Should we really be here? I should be with Jon, as his squire—”

“Jon’s a big boy,” interrupted Rickon with an eye roll. “And he has Griff and Sansa and Bran with him.”

“I’m supposed to be learning how to be a knight—”

“And aren’t you? Jon’s teaching you what he knows. And Robb is helping, and so is Griff, too,” replied Rickon, turning and leaning on the bar as he faced Loras. He absently reached up and scratched a pimple. “Robb successfully fought in wars. Jon fought wights and Others and Free Folk and knights. Griff learned alongside the best swords in Westeros. I reckon you’ve got some of the best teachers on the planet.”

Loras frowned, scratching a nail on the wood of the bar to dispel some nerves. “Yes, but…”

Rickon ignored him and ordered a drink, something local, and Loras’ frown deepened – partially at being ignored, and partially because he thought Rickon was being ridiculous, overcompensating by ordering the drink. He said he grew up in Skagos, utterly wild, and there were times Loras definitely saw it and then other times – like now – when he thought Rickon was playing grownup. He was a year older than Loras! And yet Loras sometimes felt as though he were the responsible one!

Loras had spent the morning being dragged around Qohor by Rickon, although both spent an hour at the equivalent to the Street of Steel in King’s Landing, where rows upon rows of talented Qohorik metalworkers were shaping elaborate hilts for swords or banging away at rippled steel, so like Valyrian steel but not quite. In fact, they had ooh’d and ahh’d at one stall, the Qohorik barely hiding a smirk as they watched him complete a pair of daggers that had Rickon drooling.

After that, Rickon wanted to try the local food, as it was nearing midday. They ended up trying some type of fish dish, smoked on a plank of wood over an open flame with a side of shredded and pickled beets and cabbage, picking at the flaky fish and sucking at their burnt fingers as they ate.

There were few brothels, scattered closer to the harbour for travellers. Other than the steelworkers and lumber mills, Qohor was mostly open shrines to the Black Goat and that they both shied away from as worshippers always congregated, and soldier posts, tiny buildings dotted here and there where their city watch operated from.

By the mid-afternoon, Loras was beginning to feel the effects of playing tourist, always chasing after Rickon and his unbridled energy, that he had been pleased when Rickon suggested they grab a quiet drink and then return to the inn. Except… that led them to the dingy pub they were in now, Loras uneasily looking around as Rickon led them to a table, cradling his large drink between his hands.

“Is that a half-pint?” asked Loras, worrying his bottom lip.

“It’s a full pint!” replied Rickon eagerly. “Locally made! When in Qohor, right, Lor?”

Loras blushed at the nickname, sliding into his seat, and watching Rickon take a few gulps of the ale, then pause speculatively, slowly putting the drink down.

“Not to your taste?” asked Loras with a scoff.

“Erm,” said Rickon, eyes anywhere but on his friend. “It’s… uh, unique.”

He doesn’t want to admit he doesn’t like it, thought Loras from behind a smirk. “But you’ll finish it, correct? When in Qohor, and all?”

Rickon made a sour face, one that settled into pricked pride. He took another gulp of the black liquid and gamely tried to keep his face from being anything other than placid enjoyment.

Loras watched Rickon struggle to finish, then asked, “How much longer do you think Jon, Bran, Lady Sansa, and Griff will be?”

Rickon belched, causing Loras to grimace, and wiped his mouth with his sleeve. “However long Jon thinks he needs.”

“And…” Loras trailed off. “What’s he doing?”

Rickon eyed Loras. “Looking for answers.”

“About?”

Something in Rickon’s face shifted, and he was no longer the wild creature Loras knew, but someone who very much shared his features with his older brothers and their long, grim visages. “The Long Night.”

“That’s a story,” protested Loras immediately. He paused. “Isn’t it?”

“S’not,” replied Rickon shortly, looking away. “That’s how they died.”

“Who?” Loras held his breath.

“Jon. Sansa. Bran. Arya,” muttered Rickon. “Killed by wights and Others.”

The two teenagers fell silent, Rickon lost in memories and Loras staring at him in bewilderment. Finally, Loras cleared his throat. “Rickon – I, I don’t mean to disparage – but, surely—”

A cry and a dagger appeared in Loras’ vision, and it was only thanks to Jon’s training that his body was already moving backward, pushing away from the table, his foot hooking around the legs of his chair as he kicked it toward the dagger and the man holding.

The chair crashed into the man’s knees, sending him stumbling forward. Rickon pounced in that moment, a hand pushing up against the assassin’s elbow. The man cried out and dropped the dagger, Rickon catching it as it fell. In the same motion, he reversed the grip he had on the handle and stabbed the man in the throat.

Heart pounding, Loras looked away from the assassin to survey the room. Another man was too close for comfort and Loras picked up the chair and flung it at the closest man, giving himself the time to withdraw his sword for the fight – the first time he’d have to since becoming Jon’s squire.

Time to put my training into practice, he thought, only vaguely aware of Rickon at his side, hands and neck splattered with blood. He had the assassin’s dagger in one hand and his own short blade in the other.

Loras’ blue eyes met Rickon’s for a breathless moment – Rickon nodded, barring his teeth – and then they both moved forward at the robed men pouring in from hidden nooks and crannies, from the shadows of the dingy inn.

Moves were instinctual – the training Jon put him through, the repetitious forms and forcing him to spar against him and Robb simultaneously, all came together. Loras ducked under a wide swipe from a curved blade, letting his own momentum flow into a crouched spin as his blade cut across the assassin’s midsection. Hot blood spilled, along with body fluids, but Loras was already gone, moving to the next.

His enemies blurred as his focus narrowed. All he could do was fight, his sword an extension of his arm. He ignored the feel of hot, spilled blood spraying across his face and exposed biceps or the scent of bodily evacuations or the noise of the other patrons in the inn except for his harsh pants as he stood several meters from the table he and Rickon had sat at.

“Rickon?” Loras turned, eyes looking for his friend.

The youngest Stark was breathing heavily, eyes wide and almost unseeing. There was little of the blue left, his pupils large. He was also very much covered in blood and other bits, his stolen dagger from tip to the hand gripping it slick with red; his shortened blade was stained as well.

Slowly, the blue returned to Rickon’s eyes, and he zeroed in on Loras. “The others.”

Loras’ heart stopped for a moment. “To the inn, first. Then—”

Rickon’s mouth flattened into a hard line. He gave a sharp nod and together, they strode out of the blood-bathed inn, leaving nothing but corpses, body parts, and silence.

Maerros stared hard at the paper in his hands, then flicked his dark eyes at Robb and Arya. Arya had blanked her face, but Robb was biting back a grin. Maerros narrowed his eyes. “Do you have… any knights, Robb?”

Robb’s grin fell and he cursed, plucking two cards from his own hand, and passing them over to Maerros, whose lips curled into a pleased smile as he set his pairs aside.

“I thought you said you didn’t know Go on a Quest!” protested Robb.

“I do not,” replied Maerros serenely, looking over his remaining cards and then Arya’s five in her hands. “Alas, this is a rather simple card game, is it not?”

Arya snickered. “We played this as children, Robb. Of course, Maerros would pick this up quickly.”

Robb grumbled a bit, leaning over to take two cards to replace the ones he lost. He used to be better at this card game, he knew that! He glared at Arya’s five cards, Maerros’ hand down to six, and then looked in dismay at his near five-and-ten.

He was still looking at his cards when there was the faintest breeze from the shuttered window; his eyes cut to it just as it burst open and inward, splintered wood flying into the room. Arya was already up and moving, but away from the window and toward the door as it was kicked in, and Maerros had abandoned his cards for his long, curved blade. The Volantene man spat, “Sorcerers!” giving Robb a clue where the men had come from.

Robb flung his cards at the invading man in robes, blocking his sight for a moment. He grabbed the bottom of the man’s robes and yanked him forward, then punched him while twisting out of a dagger’s flail.

His sword was resting against the seat he was on, and he withdrew it smoothly, approaching the nearest robed sorcerer. His face was hidden, half-veiled by the bottom of his headscarf, but there was a blankness in the man’s eyes Robb didn’t like.

It was different fighting the man, compared to the tournament in Highgarden, the rage that took over when he saw the Freys and Lannisters. Robb was methodological, bringing his sword down with strength and weight behind each blow, aiming for the same location (although once it was a flat blow to the shoulder, then the thigh, then the man’s side), as many times as he could so that a bruise grew. He chased him across the room, closer and closer to the window.

Frustrated, the man let out a wordless cry and ducked under Robb’s sword, letting the blade slice his upper chest and slide off his shoulder. He raised the dagger, ready to plunge it down into Robb’s chest or throat.

Robb leaned back and kicked.

The man was sent flying back, his back hitting the window ledge, his arms pinwheeling. Robb ran his sword through the man’s chest and then pushed him off, letting the body fall to the ground outside the inn’s window.

He peered over, eyeing it to ensure the man was dead. When blood began to pool underneath the man’s head – and with his limbs sprawled in all directions – Robb nodded decisively and turned back to the sitting room.

Arya had a rather dispassionate expression on her face, eyes blank and dull, surrounded by dead bodies and little to no blood on her. Maerros had done equally well, taking two men. He nudged the nearest with the toe of his boot and his lip curled back. “Acolytes. From the City.”

“The others must be in danger!” exclaimed Robb. “And we’re still missing Rickon and Loras—”

The door burst open, what remained of it, and immediately the three brought their weapons up to defend themselves. Rickon stumbled in with Loras behind, both armed and ready as well.

Rickon blinked. “You didn’t need help?”

Robb relaxed. “You’re not hurt.”

“Were you attacked, too?” asked Loras, looking around the room with a grim expression that he picked up from the Starks. “Jon and the others must truly be in danger.”

“Aye,” agreed Robb, glancing at Arya and Maerros. “I think it’s time we leave Qohor. The Sorcerers have made it obvious we’ve outstayed our welcome.”

Arya nodded slowly in agreement.

“Arya, Maerros, can you get the ship ready? I’m sure there will be more acolytes waiting for you there,” instructed Robb briskly.

“We can handle it,” said Maerros, voice a bit clipped and his accent thicker.

Robb turned to Rickon and Loras. “We’ll go get the others from the temple.”

Rickon’s eyes lit up and Loras warily shifted, eyeing him. “We’re going to attack the City?”

Robb’s answering smile was all teeth. “Oh, aye. We’re coming for our pack. Let’s show these sorcerers what wolves are made of!”

He was falling.

Wind passed Jon’s ears in loud whooshes, cold and biting and causing his ears to go numb and his eyes to tear. He knew he wasn’t actually falling, but the sensation upended his stomach and made him dizzy.

The fact it occurred while in pitch blackness was another that disoriented him; without being able to see the horizon, he had no idea of knowing which way was up. That changed moments later, as he passed through something cold and wet, and finally, he placed the sensation. It was like the few times he rode Rhaegal; except they were diving through the air and there was no large dragon beneath him to keep him safe.

He passed through what must have been clouds, as light exploded across his vision, and he could suddenly see the entire expanse of the world below. The patchwork ground – a mix of lush, deep greens, and grey rocky outcrops – was coming closer to him, but was also entirely alien, islands surrounded by shimmering blue ocean and white-tipped waves. Some of the islands were smoking.

Bile rose in his throat, but Jon did his best to swallow it back, clenching his eyes tight to avoid in the inevitable as he met the ground.

But he didn’t. Instead, he felt the cool brushes of leaves slide past him like silk slipping against his cheek, and then the damp, cool feeling of the soil—

Then, it was hard rock under his palms, slick with wetness from humidity and water. Jon was lying flat on his stomach, and slowly, he opened his eyes. He pushed himself up, looking around at the large cavern he was in: The rock growth shaped like icicles dangling far above his head in colours of white, blue, and purple. Water dripped steadily off a few, the droplets echoing in the large space. Veins of silver and gold and something shiny black stretched like tree limbs across the far walls of the mishappen space.

“Hallo?” called Jon, grimacing as he heard his own voice echo back Hallo hallo allo allo lo lo

He turned around, looking for an entrance or exit; there certainly wasn’t a hole in the ceiling, the way he had initially dropped in. Behind him was a solid curve, a dead-end; ahead of him was a curving, unsteady path that wove between columns of rock and deep, dark crevices.

Well, only one way to go, he thought with a long and loud sigh. He stepped forward; each step echoed painfully loud in the cavern, his boots those he’d wear back in Winterfell, thick and insulated and not what he was wearing when he visited the City of Sorcerers.

It took him a few moments to realize he was not wearing the travelling wear he’d taken to in the warmer Essosi climate and cool but damp Qohor: he was in his woollen tunic and a heavy sheepskin cloak in black. At his waist was Dark Sister, and at his side was his leather satchel.

Jon flicked the flap open and peered in. He huffed an annoyed laugh, seeing not just his three dragon eggs, but also Aegon’s unadorned crown resting near the bottom, the gold gleaming through the silk folds of Sansa’s borrowed scarf, mused from travel.

This is the strangest dream I’ve ever had, he thought and with a shrug, continued forward. There was nowhere else to go.

For several long minutes – which painfully felt like hours – he walked, scrambling to grab footholds in uneven rock inclines, grabbing on slick stalagmites to haul himself forward. He eased around dripping stalactites, all elongated needles hanging from the ceiling or, in one case, creating the toothy maw of a creature that he had to pass through into its rocky belly.

The moment he passed through that opening, a putrid scent greeted him, one he was familiar with from Winterfell: the smell of rotten eggs meant there was a sulphuric hot spring nearby. The air itself was warmer and Jon was sweating horribly underneath his sheepskin, but he refused to undress even a single layer, clutching tight his satchel and the hilt to Dark Sister at his hip, eyes cast about, searchingly into the darkness. The only light came from what eked through natural holes in the ceiling and bounced off the glitter and shallow pools of water, creating eerie shadows that danced as he walked by.

“Aren’t you warm?”

Jon would never admit it, but he gave a high-pitched shriek and whirled to face the speaker, sword up and heart racing.

The girl – no more than what Sansa’s age might be back in Winterfell – looked at him like he dribbled his shirt. She was waif-like, with long silver hair pulled back into a fishtail braid and bright violet eyes. She looked very unimpressed, crouched as she was next to one of the steaming pools of water.

She repeated, “Aren’t you warm?” to him, and it took Jon a moment to realize she wasn’t speaking in Common, but High Valyrian. Yet he understood her perfectly.

“No,” lied Jon, finally finding his voice. He spoke in Common, but she seemed to understand him – probably hearing High Valyrian in the oddest case of translation – then again, it was a dream… “Who are you?”

“Baetrys,” the girl replied. “Who’re you?”

“Jon.”

Her nose scrunched up. “That’s a funny name.”

“Where I’m from, your name is funny,” he replied with a teasing tone.

She laughed.

“What are you doing here? How did you get here?” asked Jon next, looking around the large space.

“Through the temple,” she replied, standing. “And I’m looking for my egg.”

“Your egg?”

“My dragon egg,” she stressed, again looking like he was stupid. “Aren’t you doing the same? That’s why you’re here, isn’t it?”

“Ummm…”

Baetrys sighed, very loudly and put-upon, and eyed Jon. “You must be from one of the colonies. Papa says those families only send their most promising to Valyria to find their dragons and most do not since they’re not usually dragonriders like the principal houses are.”

Jon blinked, stunned. “Erm. Aye. That’s, uh, that’s me.”

“Well,” the girl declared, standing with her hands on her hips, “Let’s go find our eggs!”

Jon was incredibly conscious of the three eggs in his satchel, but he followed behind Baetrys, letting the girl lead him around the smoking hot pools, nosing into dark corners and even helping lift her so she could peer into crevices high above her eye-line.

“So…” Jon trailed off. “How does this work, finding your egg?”

Baetrys rolled her eyes expressively. “Great Valyria, you don’t know anything, do you?”

Jon suppressed the smile at the phrase – one he had heard repeated often enough during his younger years, from another spunky girl.

She sighed. “You close your eyes. You feel a pull. The egg calls to you – there’s one for each potential rider. It’s the bond, Jon. You feel the tug, leading you in the right direction, but you still must overcome hurdles to get to your egg. To be worthy of it.”

“I see,” he murmured. He looked away for a moment, rubbing at the growth of his beard around his mouth. Was he worthy of his eggs? “And…” he cleared his throat. “And to hatch them?”

“Whatever your house usually does, I suppose,” replied Baetrys with a shrug. She peered at Jon curiously. “What are your house’s words?”

“Winter is Coming,” he answered automatically.

Baetrys stared. “Winter is coming?” she repeated incredulously. “What is ‘winter’? How does it come?”

Jon flushed, resisting the urge to rub at the back of his neck. “Apologies, Baetrys. That’s my mother’s words – I was raised by her brother and his children, so I always thought of them as my own. My… uh, my father’s words. They’re, uh, fire and blood.”

“Fire and blood,” murmured Baetrys, her nose adorably scrunched up in thought. “House Targaryen? They’re rather small, but Papa has mentioned them before. Up and coming in the political arena, he says…”

Jon made an appropriate agreeing noise, without saying anything.

“Well, fire and blood is pretty obvious,” she continued. She then muttered, “Not like burn bright and hot…”

Jon stifled a laugh.

They both fell quiet then, with Baetrys leading Jon around the large chamber and into a small pocket off the main. At first, he exclaimed when he found a dragon egg – the first he found was blood red with golden veins – but Baetrys just looked at it and then shook her head, saying it wasn’t hers; and Jon knew it wasn’t his, either.

The eggs themselves were hard to spot unless your eyes caught them – some of them were so dark they blended in with the rocks. Others were bright, vibrant in colour and shimmering in pockets of sunlight. What Jon just didn’t understand was how the eggs got into the chambers, to begin with: the dragons laid clutches, and then… the eggs would mysteriously transport themselves here? To these caves?

When he tried asking Baetrys, she shrugged. “Don’t think about it,” she suggested. “It should be a mystery, don’t you think?”

Jon sighed, acquiescing.

They spent a few minutes longer in silence. As Jon nosed around one corner, his eyes caught on something glittering in the light. He inched forward, feeling a tug somewhere near his navel, urging him closer. He knelt, brushing a few loose rocks away, and stared.

The same shimmering, turquoise egg with gold flecks in his satchel was nestled in a crevice. Stunned, Jon nudged his satchel in front of himself and peeled the flap back – but no, his turquoise egg was still tucked away next to its egg mates, the three cozily placed with the crown.

“Did you find an egg?” asked Baetrys excitedly, appearing at his shoulder. “Ooo, it’s so pretty!”

Jon muttered something under his breath.

“Well! Pick it up!” the girl demanded.

Jon sighed and did so, feeling warmth radiate from the hard shell. He nearly dropped it in surprise – the other eggs weren’t as warm as this one. “It’s hot!”

“That tells you a live dragon is in it,” explained Baetrys. She rolled her violet eyes.

Jon goggled a bit but then turned back to looking around the cavern. If one of the eggs was here…

Within minutes, he found the weirwood white egg, hidden in a crevice, with its thick red veins blending in with the rock. He did the same as he had with the first egg: he lifted it and placed it in his satchel, where it shimmered like a mirage and then blurred, the two merging. Furtively, he glanced at Baetrys but it seemed like she hadn’t seen him pick a second egg up – and there was one more to find.

He found his smoky grey with gold veins the same time Baetrys found her egg – a pretty, quartz-like pink with a grey shimmer to it – and was tucking it in his satchel the same time she bounded over.

She faltered. “Did… did you find another egg?”

Guiltily, Jon froze.

Baetrys stared hard at Jon. “I… were they warm?”

“Aye,” said Jon, with a short, tight nod. Was there a rule that you could have only one dragon egg? The previous Targaryens, before Daenerys only had one; was that an unspoken rule that Jon had just broken? That no one said anything to Daenerys about because she was considered the last Targaryen and had three dragons anyway?

Baetrys stared at Jon, her face paling drastically. Her mouth dropped open and she backpedalled away from him a bit, stumbling. Jon automatically tried to reach out to steady her, but she skipped away.

She made some type of hand motion across her chest. “Great Aegnis… it’s you.”

“Me? Me what?” Jon stood straight, his brows coming to rest over his nose as he frowned heavily at the young girl backing rapidly away from him, her feet sure as she navigated the rocks. When she was a few meters away, she spun and sprinted, her egg clutched tightly to her chest.

Jon followed, without a moment’s thought. “Baetrys! Baetrys, wait!”

She was quick and lithe, but Jon had longer legs, and almost caught up with her when she did a quick turn down a passage he barely saw. He skidded hard against the rock, knocking some pieces free and kept his satchel safe by swinging it to his other side, and then careened down the passage, only to emerge and be blinded by sunlight.

He stumbled to a pause, blinking.

When his eyes adjusted, he stared, mouth agape. He knew he was around islands, from his fall, but the landscape before him was something foreign and, a part of him thought, must be the land of the Gods.

He stood on a rocky outcrop, located high up along a mountain. There was nothing but lush, green vegetation around him, from bushes with thick leaves in the shape of triangles, to purple vines, and even thin, dark brown trees with drooping canopies of white leaves that swept the ground in the warm, salty breeze.

Halfway down the mountain, the vegetation levelled out and buildings appeared: stacked, square buildings with pointed, sloped roofs made of shiny yellow tile and then larger, taller buildings with shiny copper domes or open bowls that looked like blossoming flowers. Beyond the buildings was a white beach and the clearest, most blue water Jon had ever seen – even beyond that in Volantis and Lys, although it looked like Lys, to some degree – in a shallow bay dotted with tiny fishing vessels.

But most impressively, were the dragons catching the airflow and sailing through the air, high above him, so far up that he couldn’t even hear their cries or roars as they swooped past one another, engaged in aerial acrobatics. Some wings clipped, sending dragons spiralling until they caught a gust and corrected themselves, others were content to soar, their bodies swaying back and forth.

When he finally tore his eyes from the impossible sight before him, he caught a flash of Baetrys’ silver hair between some green, and hurled himself forward, chasing after her.

Foliage whipped across his face and cheeks, smacking him but leaving no mark. His ankle rolled as he caught an exposed root, but he pushed through the sprain and jumped over another, eyes darting between the hard-packed earth and the flashes of silver hair he could still – barely – spot.

Then he lost sight of Baetrys, and Jon shouted, “no!” and pushed the large leaf away from his face and came to a stumbling halt, eyes wide.

A villa was built into the mountainside, low and flat, with exposed columns and covered patios. A tinkling of water told him there was a fountain of some kind in the villa, but he couldn’t see it. Lattice-work shutters were thrown wide open, allowing the mountain breeze to circulate through the villa, and gauzy fabric that served as curtains fluttered in the faint breeze.

A young woman stood on the patio, in a deep, dark blue, off-the-shoulder dress; a golden loop of some kind kept the front of her dress knotted at her shoulder and tied to the back. She turned partially toward Jon, and he was immediately struck by her beauty: her face was long, with a tapered chin, high cheekbones, and eyes that matched the colour of her dress. Her hair was partially up in a crown of braids and the rest tumbled down her back, the colour of spun gold and sunlight.

Her face was solemn, but not stern. The depth to her dark eyes told Jon she was wise beyond her years if he could even pin her age down – one moment she looked like Arya’s age, barely seven-and-ten; then she looked as unfathomable as Melissandre used to when looking at him.

“I had wondered if I would see you, too,” the woman finally said, her voice musical, with a strange lilt that Jon had never heard before in all his travels. “Many of our ancestors and their companions have had the opportunity.”

Jon slowly took a step forward, feeling very overdressed in his Northern furs and leathers compared to the loose, flowing fabric she wore. He also had his satchel and sword, and she seemed entirely unarmed. “You have me at a disadvantage, my lady. You seem to know who I am.”

Her lips curled into a smile. “Indeed. Jon Snow. Jon Targaryen. Lord Commander. King in the North. Maybe even one day a King of Westeros. Who knows what your father would have named you, had he known you were a male.”

“And you?” asked Jon politely, although his shoulders were tense. “You are?”

“You may call me Daenys,” she replied, amusem*nt in the quirking of her lips before they smoothed.

Jon blinked. Daenys the Dreamer? he thought, heart skipping a beat. He surveyed the woman once more, clinically, then the villa, and finally the view – only realizing then what he should have known the moment he met Baetrys but hadn’t wanted to acknowledge: he was in ancient Valyria.

Jon swallowed. “There… there was a girl when I was claiming my dragon eggs…”

Daenys nodded, slowly. “Yes. Baetrys. I saw.”

I bet you did, thought Jon a bit petulantly. “She ran from me.”

“She did.”

“Do you know why?”

“I do.”

Jon grit his teeth. It was like drawing blood from a stone, getting answers from the infamous Targaryen seer. “Will you tell me?”

“Come walk with me, Jon,” she said instead, turning and revealing golden sandals as her foot peeked out from under her dress. She gestured for him to follow. “I have a story to tell you.”

He sighed, nearly inaudibly, but did as she requested, stepping away from the greenery of the tropical forest around him and onto the smooth marble and stone of the villa. Daenys led him inside, first into a dark passage that was blissfully cool compared to the humid heat, and then turned down another hall. She stopped just inside, turning to face and wall, and Jon did so, too.

Along the wall were frescoes, in faded and muted colours of beige, brown, red, and black. Each was framed by the large panel that made the wall, with sconces interspersed between each panel to illuminate the frames. It took Jon a moment to realize what the first panel depicted: a man, falling through a crack in the earth and landing in a dark cavern, seeking a way out to freedom to survive, only to find dragon eggs, claiming the first one, then two, and finally three.

“Did you ever wonder why the Targaryen sigil, in your time, was a three-headed dragon?” asked Daenys quietly. “Why, in one world, Daenerys would have three dragons, and, in this world, you do?”

“I only ever thought of it from rumours of things my father – Rhaegar, that is – had focused on,” admitted Jon quietly, and moved with Daenys as they stepped to the next panel.

“No dragon rider has ever had more than a single dragon,” explained Daenys. “We can only bond with one dragon at a given time. It is… too much to control them, sometimes, even with one connection. They are not shackled beasts. Three is unheard of – mostly.”

Jon eyed her. “Mostly?”

Daenys gave him a small smile. “Despite being a low house, Targaryen can boast something no other dragonrider from Valyria can.” She gestured at the panel. “See for yourself.”

Jon did, turning back to the wall. The man who had found three dragon eggs hatched them, and there were three small dragons flying around him, against a backdrop of dead bodies and an exploding volcano. They moved to the next panel: the man was older, bearded, and his dragons were triple their size from the earlier panels. But this time he was riding one, at the head of a faceless army. The volcano was gone, forests and plains replacing the geography. The leaves were red and orange, and it looked like the man was leading an army on a wave of fire.

The following panel was a battle: the man on dragonback had a flaming sword – making Jon swallow thickly as his heart began to pound furiously – and on either side of him, his other two dragons were spewing fire down on their enemy when his army pushed their way through misshapen, grey corpses.

“This is the Long Night,” whispered Jon, voice trembling slightly.

“One of them,” replied Daenys, her voice just as quiet. “You have heard from the priests in Volantis, our sister state; you have heard the prophecy and even experienced it yourself through your Gods, Jon. Born again amidst salt and smoke.”

Jon’s vision went spotty, and he swayed as he exhaled loudly, bending to place his hands on his knees as he tried to regain his bearings.

“It is an unending battle,” she explained, his voice penetrating through the sound of blood rushing through his ears. “The Long Night comes and goes. Sometimes Azor Ahai is successful. Sometimes he is not. These are cycles our world experienced, time and time again, much like the seasons.”

“Seasons aren’t regular,” Jon muttered, focusing on that detail.

“They were, once.”

“Then what happened?”

“The Others’ power grew,” answered Daenys simply. “It has been growing the past millennia. Our Last Hero of the stories – the one you know best – barely managed to push them back. His companions were all dead in that story, were they not? Even his horse and dog.”

Jon rose, staring at the next panel, at the Targaryen (no longer on dragonback) and his flaming sword as he fought against a creature larger than himself, still humanoid but a pale, barely decipherable smudge on the wall. There were piles of bodies around them, some struggling to rise, others littered with black spears that had to be dragonglass.

The next panel showed the Targaryen champion, their version of Azor Ahai, as he and his three dragons cornered the Other; a coordinated attack of flame enveloped both the Other and Targaryen in the next panel. The last panel on that side of the hallway was a return to spring, the dragons riderless as they soared away, over the sea, leaving the survivors to build and recuperate from their devastating war.

Daenys directed him to the other side of the hall, and Jon followed the panels, breath stuck in his throat.

The survivors rebuilt, finding the tropical, volcanic islands of Valyria after trudging for years through what would one day by the Qohorik forests, the Dothraki Sea, the deserts of Meereen… the people building the tall spires, the sprawl of a city, of finding dragon eggs like their legendary hero. To honour him, they search the caves, ritualistically, hatch the dragons and then learn to ride them, to take to the skies.

It’s a history of Valyria. Of the Valryian people, thought Jon, their history tied to the coming of the Others and a hero to defeat them – just like Azor Ahai, like the Last Hero, and all the other stories across the different cultures he and his siblings had gleaned over their travels.

The Last Hero – whichever version, at whatever time – they were the same person. That was what Daenys was implying, just spread over different eras and millennia, different eons in Planetos’ past.

Will there, one day, be stories of Jon Snow? he wondered absently, a hand rising to his chest to rub at the ache from his stab wound on his chest. Who will pass into myth and legend as well?

“It is the Targaryen hero, the legendary Aegnis, who became the Great Flame, One-With-Dragons, who championed our ‘Long Night’ as you call it,” explained Daenys. “But Aegnis was once Azor Ahai, Hyrkoon the Hero, Yin Tar, Neferion, and Eldric Shadowchaser, too. Aegnis was once all these heroes and none of them.”

She paused, turned to Jon, and said: “And one day, your name will be added to the list.”

Jon blanched, stepping away from the wall, from the final frescoes of Valyria at its prime. “No—”

“Is this not the answer that you were seeking?” asked Daenys, damningly. “You have been searching, searching for answers this entire time. How do I defeat the Others? Am I the Last Hero? Is my title the Prince Who Was Promised? What is my connection to the prophecies Rheagar believed? Who am I?

Jon stared at her, the flickers from the sconces casting shadows around the hollow of her cheeks and under her eyes. She was once beautiful; now, Daenys looked sinister.

“Born underneath a bleeding star, amidst smoke and salt. Again and again, and again, and again.”

“I…” Jon trailed off, voice deserting him.

There was pity on her face now, as she stepped closer to him, frozen. “It is your destiny. It is your song, one of ice and fire, Jon.”

When she was barely a handspan from him, she reached out, putting her hands on his chest, staring up into his face. “Now—

“You should not be here, child. Leave. Fulfil your destiny.” She pushed him, hard and Jon didn’t quite stumble back, as he was lifted out of his body and soared through the air.

Then he was falling, again…

Falling into darkness.

TBC...

Notes:

Well, it's been a few months. Sorry! Real-life got in the way of any computer time, outside of work. Don't you just hate it when morning sickness isn't confined to the morning? I'm finally out of the dreaded first trimester and gaining my energy back, so I'm back to writing! Yay.

Chapter 19: XIX

Summary:

Bran meets someone very unexpected and learns the origins of the Long Night; Jon fights shadow demons; the Sorcerers of Qohor demand that blood must have blood -- but Jon doesn't take that lying down. Not anymore.

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

Memories of Tomorrow - writing_as_tracey (19)

XIX

Bran was not the Stark sibling to grumble and whine. That fell to Arya and Sansa, respectively, but he was awfully close to it. He had been sending his consciousness out, searching for Jon, and yet all he came across were not Jon.

There was the strange, Targaryen-looking man with long silver hair underneath a bronze helm riding a dragon, in which Bran took one look at the monstrous thing – larger than what Balerion was recorded as – and sent himself careening sideways down a nexus point, trying to hold onto the essence of Jon.

Then there was a shaggy-haired man, with arms the size of tree trunks (exaggeration, but it felt like that to Bran who was still a skinny stick), working a smithy. He was banging on his sword, twisting it this way and that to flatten the blade. He looked up at Bran once, a worried expression on his face. He asked, “Have you seen my wife? Has Nissa Nissa sent you to me?”

That was enough to shock Bran into stumbling sideways – an odd feeling given he couldn’t use his legs unless he was greenwalking – into another essence of Jon: a black-haired Northern-looking man, by himself, hunched over and shivering in the snow. He looked at Bran with bleary, tired eyes –

Bran stumbled again: a tall, lithe man with a spear that had a hook at the end, with red braided hair, leading the front of a warband. He had blue paint on his face, lines and dots, that looked like waves and swirls, and bright, bright blue eyes that caught Bran for a moment, faltering just a second before he turned back to his charge across darkened plains of shrivelled wheat or barely, toward what appeared a thunderous, low-riding storm of black clouds and lightning.

There were others, flashes of faces but with different hairstyles and colours, once a bald man with deep, black eyes, and different clothing and different voices, but always a leader, always doing something heroic or leading men. Sometimes the weapons changed, from swords and spears, to sickles and clubs; the armour was heavy steel, or bronze, or plain leather, and in one case, nothing at all. But each carried an essence, a tiny sliver of what Bran recognized as “Jon”, something that was uniquely him.

When the world finally stopped spinning, Bran stood in a rather empty, but opulent palace hallway, made of shiny gold walls and columns, inlays of mother of pearl and emerald and rubies pressed into fancy, sharp designs of jagged angles and slashes.

Jon was nowhere to be seen.

Bran huffed, annoyed. Now I need to search him out. Is it too difficult for Jon to remain in one spot?

Picking a direction, Bran made his way down one hall, going for a stroll. Most of the time, when he greenwalked, people failed to notice him – unless they were a Fossoway, or Aegon V or Prince Duncan, or hell, his dead aunt, and the legendary Sword in the Morning – but despite that, Bran felt confident enough that he was able to take in the scenery of the palace while looking for his wayward cousin.

Bran turned down another hallway, equally as opulent as the first, and just as empty. At first, he thought he was in an unused wing, but the longer he walked, the more uneasy he felt. There was something in the air, too, that made Bran’s step slow into a more cautionary pace.

For all that the palace was beautiful, it was also sterile, in the sense that everything was perfect: perfectly placed, perfectly clean, perfectly made. It made the hairs at the back of Bran’s neck stick up and he felt as though Bloodraven was watching him, unnervingly with his many, many eyes, despite Bran having been carefully cloaking his presence in the timeline. The longer they were in this new timeline, the clearer things were becoming for him, like the fog from Bloodraven’s tutelage was lifted.

He suppressed a shudder, still enjoying the feeling of strolling on his own legs, on his own power, despite the memories of his time under Bloodraven slowly returning – and of the way parts of him were leeched away to the older man, who twisted and warped reality and belief so that Bran would follow him.

During his musings, he pushed open a heavy gold door and found himself on a terrace overlooking an expansive tiered garden – again, perfectly manicured and maintained. There were pools of shimmering blue, with some type of large fish swimming in them; gazebos and arbours, winding stone paths and gravel paths, and strategically placed, neatly trimmed trees and bushes. There was a maze and stone garden, all spanning in different directions.

But there was no one on the grounds enjoying the fruit of the labour that so went into the upkeep.

Warily, Bran stepped further onto the terrace, eyes skipping beyond the garden to the high walls at its edge. Beyond the wall was a large tier filled with houses and green patches, wide avenues and flags and banners in a green that was soft and deep, lingering between emerald and sapphire. There were people milling to-and-fro on the avenues; the largest of those avenues led to another high wall and impressive iron gate.

The tier below that had the same style of houses, but they were cramped, closer together with less greenery lining the streets or hanging off balconies. The banners still hung and there were more people on the streets, busier with haggling carts – although they were the size of jewelry boxes to Bran’s eyes by their distance – and again, separated from the tier above it, and below it, by a high, thick wall and iron gate.

The furthest tier was, although Bran couldn’t make much out, cramped. It was a swarth of dirty brown and beige blended with tiny spots of the green banner and flags, but there were no patches of greenery, and the streets and houses were so close together on the lowest level that Bran couldn’t distinguish where one began and the other ended. And yet, beyond the lowest level and its high walls, there was endless jungle as far as Bran could see.

Unease crept up his spine. This doesn’t feel right. Where am I?

With a lump in his throat, he began to wander the garden, heading down the path to the left and toward one of the ponds and covered arbours. The garden was quiet, very still without any birdsong or insects. Bran didn’t pass anyone strolling down the gravel or stones, no picnics on the grass or relaxing figures idly fishing in the ponds.

It made the noise of the steps and the clang of sheet metal all that more jarring when he did hear it.

Bran threw himself sideways into a tall hedge, scraping his face and hands as he peeked through. A man in sandals, pressed bronze and leather skirt and leather jerkin passed by, leading a contingent of men behind him, all walking in step. He wore a golden helm with a long, red plume of feathers, yet those following behind wore helms that were also white masks, with only slits for the eyes.

Bran shivered.

He crept out as the last passed him, turning a corner. The curious part of him – the one he thought had died when he lost the use of his legs – urged him to follow, to snoop. The cautious part of him – the one that had grown and developed under Bloodraven’s tutelage – urged him to go in the opposite direction.

Bran stopped listening to Bloodraven’s suggestions years ago once he reconciled with his siblings.

He took a step forward, ready to follow the jangle of metal against metal, when a hand clamped down on his shoulder and pulled him back, spinning him around.

“What do you think you’re doing?!”

Bran gaped. It was the black-eyed man he had seen as he passed through the ether, looking for Jon. Except, he wasn’t that man yet – he was young, around Bran’s age, in his early twenties at most – and he had black hair. The sides were shaved but the top was long and pulled back into a ponytail. He wore the same kind of leathers as the soldiers had worn, but there was a dirty, washed-out tan tunic underneath.

“I—”

“Do you want to be caught?” the man continued, voice in a low hiss as he dragged Bran further under an arbour. “It’s like you have a death wish!”

“I’m sorry, but who are you?” asked Bran, jerking his shoulder from the man’s grasp. A perverse part of Bran was pleased that he was much taller than the other man and was able to loom over him.

Undeterred, the man rolled his eyes. “Very funny. Listen – just… just stay hidden under you manage to sneak back out of the palace.” He paused, eyeing Bran. “How did you get in here, anyway?”

“Easily,” replied Bran dryly, shoving his hands into the pockets of his trousers.

The man gave him a dirty look. “Fine. Just – stay out of my way, will you?”

Bran removed his hands from his pockets and held them up in a universal surrender sign. He even took a step back. “I’m not here looking for a fight.”

“Good,” the man said firmly, with a sharp nod.

“Good,” replied Bran, equally exasperated.

The man eyed him a moment longer, taking a small step back, and then another, until he turned and began down the gravel path, heading to the door Bran initially stepped through. Curious, Bran followed him, lingering behind and trailing, even though the man’s shoulders were stiff with the knowledge of what Bran was doing.

When they reached the door, instead of going through, the man slipped down the side of the building, stepping onto a thin ledge and edging around the corner where Bran lost sight of him.

Well now, he thought. This is interesting. He cracked his knuckles and followed. His heart was pounding and there was a grin on his face – one of the things he missed after walking was the ability to climb, and even just slipping along a ledge to follow the mysterious young man he had seen as a warrior with Jon’s essence later in life was worth the dangers.

It took Bran a moment to realize that they were skirting around a tower, coming to the far side away from the gardens and closer to the wall where there were fewer potential eyes on them. The ledge widened as well, only a foot or so, and Bran nearly stumbled upon the young man when he rounded the last sharp corner.

“Gah!” he exclaimed, staring at Bran. “Why are you following me? Did my uncle send you?”

Bran blinked and then shook his head. “You’re one of the first people I’ve seen in this place. And you didn’t want me to be found by those guards. I reckon it’s best to stick with you.”

The man sighed. “Fine.”

Bran watched as he leaned back, eyeing the tower’s height and the rough stone, as well as the single balcony high above them.

“Are you a thief?” asked Bran curiously.

“No,” answered the man, reaching forward to grip the stone. He began to haul himself up and then his foot slipped. He swore.

“Why couldn’t you use the door?” asked Bran, watching in amusem*nt as the man tried again, and only made it a bit further before picking the wrong rock. He slipped and his hand cut against the wall, bleeding.

“Because I don’t want anyone to know I’m here,” he hissed in reply.

“Why not?”

“Do you always ask this many questions?” the man asked, completely fed up with Bran.

He grinned in response. “Only when I’m faced with a mystery. What’s so important up there anyway?”

“My uncle’s solar,” the man replied with a sigh. “I’m certain he murdered my mother – his own sister! – and the proof is up there. He’s leading our people to death and destruction, and I must stop him! I can do that by destroying his work.”

Bran eyed the stone and the balcony. It was no higher than the Broken Tower had been back at Winterfell, and had Jaime Lannister not pushed him, well – Bran knew how to climb, once upon a time.

“I can get in there,” he said instead. “I used to climb all the time. Can you get to the door on the other side? I can let you in.”

The man stared at Bran. “You’d do this for me? Truly?”

Bran shrugged.

The man released a gutsy breath and stared at Bran in wonder. He reached forward and grasped his hands, putting them between his two as he said, “You would be doing me and my people the bravest and purest of things. I thank you for your help, my friend.”

Bran, uncomfortable, gave a weak grin and turned to the tower. He tentatively put a foot on a jutting piece of stone, and his hands grabbed the two holds he spotted earlier.

He took a deep breath and then began to climb.

It was like coming home – or wearing his favourite trousers – or picking up a cherished childhood toy. Warmth spread throughout him, and he suppressed a gleeful shout of pleasure. Climbing was as easy as breathing and he had missed it so much! Why didn’t he do this more when he was at Summerhall, in the past? Or even the Tower of Joy?

Bran never looked down, keeping his eyes on the prize: the balcony. When he finally reached it, coming from the side, he pulled himself up and over the low rail and onto the stone. There was no door, so he crept into the room.

The young man had called it his uncle’s solar, but that was a poor description of what Bran found, whose mouth dropped open. His flesh goose-pimpled and the hairs on his arm stood up straight as he slowly made his way around the cluttered space to the main door at the far end.

There were tables, filled with jars and beakers hovering over open flames of boiling, noxious yellow and green, foam frothing over the tops of the openings and spilling onto the wood with hissing noises. There were plates of bone – human bones – with pieces ground to dust or partially done with a mortar and pestle nearby.

Stuffed creatures that Bran had never seen before – half-cat, half-human; something that looked like a bird but with the shell of a turtle – littered the walls, as did rusty chains that hung long and loose.

A scratch on the main door had him looking toward it.

“Hello? Are you in there?” a voice barely whispered through the heavy wood. “Let me in! We don’t have much time!”

And in the center of the entire chamber was a deep well, an open space that reminded Bran of Sansa’s telling him what the Eyrie’s moon door looked like, except there was no protective covering.

Bran crept forward, leaning with his upper body to peer down. The gaping hole in the solar didn’t lead to a sharp, steep drop like the moon door did – instead, there was a swirling energy of black and deep, sickly purple that was liquid but appeared like gas, coming together, and breaking apart in violent clashes. Something sat in the middle of it all, revealed every so often as the cloud passed over it: a pulsing black stone, oddly shaped.

Looking at it made Bran sick and he quickly stepped back, bumping into one of the tables and then ricocheting off as he scrambled toward the door. He yanked it open and the young man from earlier tumbled in.

“What took you so long?” he hissed.

Bran swallowed thickly. “This isn’t a solar,” he accused the other. He pointed to a darkened corner, where a dead, slowly decomposing body slumped, their hands still elevated by the chains and cuffs they were attached to. “This is a prison! What in the seven hells is going on here?”

The man followed his finger. Sorrow passed over his face. “My uncle has done some truly horrible things. This is why I must stop him.”

“Aye?” asked Bran, crossing his arms. “How?”

“By destroying his life’s work,” the man replied grimly. He moved toward a nearby table, stacked with scrolls and a few open ones, held down by a skull paperweight. “The noise will attract attention, but it must be done.”

“Just who is your uncle?” muttered Bran, but he too moved to the table, opposite the young man so they could tip it over together. It made a terribly loud racket, the paperweight smashing as it hit the floor.

Together, they managed one more table before a smooth, velvety low voice interrupted their vandalism.

“My, my, nephew. What were you hoping with this display of wanton destruction?”

Bran whirled to face the voice, the man with him doing the same, although there was a moment of terror written across his face before he wiped it away to something that resembled pure hatred.

Uncle,” he hissed, eyes narrow slits.

The man stepped forward from the door, guards in the same uniform and dress Bran saw earlier behind him. He waved his hand and the door slid shut with a solid thud, mimicking the thudding of Bran’s heart at the magical gesture.

The man was tall – tall and skinny, but clearly muscular. He wore blood-red over robes, trimmed with gold and precious jewels. There was something delicate and somewhat androgynous in his manicured nails and body, but his face kept most of Bran’s attention.

He was bald, with several golden piercings running up and down his ears, one with a chain connected to a pierced nose. His lips were lined with something that made them shimmer – dusted gold, perhaps – and his eyes were lined with kohl. But his eyes – those were bright, blood red, lacking a pupil.

“Hmm, nephew?”

Bran’s companion didn’t say anything, instead content to stare hatefully at the man. Bran, on the other hand, swallowed thickly and took a tiny step back. Those red eyes swung in his direction.

“And who are you?” the man in emerald purred, eyeing Bran from his head to toes. Bran felt dirty and repressed a shiver. “You, who look so different to my subjects. Who are you, boy, and where are you from? How did you get into the palace?”

“At this point, I’m fairly certain I took a wrong turn,” muttered Bran, desperately seeking a way out the room that didn’t mean launching himself off the balcony. “Because I honestly don’t know where I am.”

The gold-dusted lips curled into a smile. “No? Then you don’t know who I am? I can overlook your ignorance, boy, in helping my deluded nephew if that is the case.”

A scoff came from the nephew.

The man took an elegant step forward; it was like he was gliding across the floor, picking his way carefully around the spilled scrolls. “Allow me to introduce myself, boy. I am known as the Bloodstone Emperor, and you are in my palace.”

Bran stared, his mouth open in horror. Oh, sh*t.

When Jon sat up, he nearly knocked heads with Sansa. She barely leaned back in time, her hand slipping from his shoulder. “Jon!”

He was on the floor, propped against a stone wall with Sansa on one side, tightly gripping a dagger and Bran on the other, head lolled back on his wheelchair. Connington was before them, sword out. He glanced back at Sansa’s cry.

“Your Grace,” he said, looking Jon over. There was a militant gleam to his eyes, and his blade was stained red. Blood dripped from the tip. “Are you well?”

Jon nodded. “Griff – are you – your head—”

“I’ll live.”

“Jon,” began Sansa, in a tone of affected patience, “How did you get your satchel? Wasn’t that left in the room with Robb and Arya?”

Jon glanced down. He was wearing the clothes he had when visiting the City of Sorcerers originally, but his satchel was strung across his chest, and he was cradling it protectively in his arms. He huffed a sigh. “Honestly, Sansa, I haven’t a clue anymore how any of this is happening.” He looked around and squinted. “Where are we?”

“Somewhere in the bowels of the City,” replied Connington, his voice terse. “The Gods-damned acolytes have been chasing us around in circles since your cousin killed the sorcerer.”

Jon turned wide eyes to Bran, and then Sansa for confirmation. She nodded. “He took over his body.”

Skinchanging into a human was considered forbidden, but that hadn’t seemed to stop Bran from considering it or doing it often, in either life, realized Jon. He shuddered. “Why’s he unconscious?”

“He’s looking for you,” answered Sansa quietly.

“We need to keep moving,” muttered Connington. “Your Grace – if you can – can you wield a weapon?”

“Aye,” replied Jon, glancing down. Still strapped to his side, like in his dream of Daenys, was the longsword Dark Sister. He stood and withdrew the blade from its sheath, stepping forward so he was shoulder-to-shoulder with Connington. “Let’s get out of this place.”

“Finally,” muttered Connington, and strode forward. He carefully eased around the corner, and Jon and Sansa (pushing the unconscious Bran in his chair) followed tentatively behind.

They barely made it ten steps before they were set upon by a dagger-wielding acolyte, snarling as they lunged out from a hidden crevice just slightly above them, shrouded in shadows.

Connington’s sword was up and sliding against the unprotected stomach of the acolyte, even as his other hand came up and knocked the dagger aside. Another acolyte, their head shaved and with facial tattoos, appeared behind the first and Jon stepped forward, Dark Sister cutting sharply through the air and splitting the acolyte’s neck cleanly, blood spraying.

The next acolytes they faced, down another hallway, had no weapons. However, the leader of the three – standing in a V-formation – began muttering a guttural language under his breath, red eyes gleaming in the darkened hall as his hands twisted and contorted into odd shapes and designs.

Connington and Jon stood shoulder-to-shoulder, ensuring Sansa and Bran’s protection, their swords at the ready.

The shadows in the hallway elongated, stretching and twisting into wild shapes that reminded Jon of the rumours around Melisandre and her shadow assassin.

“Be ready for anything,” Jon muttered to Connington.

He gave a sharp nod in response, eyes never leaving the three before them.

One shadow pulsed –

Jon launched forward, Dark Sister already cutting down through the air, a whistling noise accompanying the swing. The sword bit into the shadow, and it gave a loud, unholy screech as it split, turning into wispy smoke.

The other two shadows elongated and twisted, their forms monstrous in that they were humanoid but had claw-like talons for fingers, stretched heads that hosted gaping mouths with filed teeth. Those two shadows disappeared from the wall, stretching past the stone and into the surrounding darkness.

But Jon twisted on his heel, Connington behind him. His sword came up and blocked a talon’s downward slash. That shadow cried in dismay and pain, retreating.

He moved again, turning; it was like he could sense where the shadows would be before they moved, blocking each swipe of their paws, and keeping them from advancing past. It was only his Valyrian sword that was protecting them all, too – Connington’s blade was normal steel, and Bran and Sansa had no weapons on them.

When the shadow figures were destroyed, Connington rushed past Jon, his blade striking the neck of the first, shock acolyte who had summoned the creatures. Blood spurted and caught on Connington’s chest and cheek, but the man continued past the man as he crumbled to the ground.

His blade cut through the air and found no resistance from the other two men, even as they struggled to get their fingers in the correct positions to summon their shadow demons.

Connington turned back to Jon, blood splattering up one side of his face. His blue eyes were sharp and fierce on Jon. “Shall we, Your Grace?”

Jon nodded and helped Sansa maneuver Bran’s chair around the fallen bodies, and then they were rushing down the hall, Sansa panting behind them. Jon glanced back to see Bran’s head loll forward and grimaced. Why hasn’t he come back to us, yet?

“The rock is different up ahead,” called back Connington from the lead. “Less damp. I believe we’re getting closer to the surface. Finally.”

“Lead the way, Griff,” said Jon. “We’re behind you.”

Jon and Sansa shared a quick look, and then he glanced once more at Bran. Hang in there, little brother. We’re almost out of this hell. I’m sorry I ever dragged us here, to begin with.

The young man with Bran – whose name he never got – kept the Bloodstone Emperor in his sight as the man moved around the room. Bran was reminded of Summer when he hunted and distinctly felt like prey to the man.

“You have heard of me,” the emperor purred.

“Erm…” Bran squeaked out, eyes darting at the Bloodstone Emperor’s nephew beside him. He was never in the stories. What was his connection to Jon? “Vaguely. It’s come up.”

“Has it?”

Bran gave a tiny, sharp nod; his eyes darted away – as much as he hated taking them off the man – to glance at his nephew. He was edging toward the table with the phials and beakers and acidic liquid.

“I am curious what a foreigner knows of me,” the emperor continued.

“As I said, not much,” answered Bran carefully, drawing the man’s attention away from his nephew and his scheming. “I know who you are, and who came before you – your sister, the Amethyst Empress – but anything else is rumour and story.”

Keep to the truth as much as you can, Bran, he warned himself. This was a man who supposedly practiced necromancy and the dark arts – whatever that might be. There was a good chance he could do something like what Bran could do, and his escape would be a matter of timing.

“What sort of rumours and stories?” the man persisted, with his blood-red eyes boring into Bran.

Bran pursed his lips, slowly edging away, closer to the well in the middle of the room. “Just of what you did – do. What you do.”

The Bloodstone Emperor’s eyes narrowed on Bran, catching the slip. “And what is it that I do, foreigner?” Not giving time for Bran to answer, he then snapped, eyes cutting sharply to his nephew. “And you – Yin – do not think I don’t see what you’re doing, boy.”

Yin froze, his hands near a beaker.

Blood-red eyes turned back to Bran. “Now, what is this about things I did? I have yet to step on the path of greatness.”

“It’s nothing,” said Bran, uneasily. “Just a slip of the tongue.”

“No… I do not believe that,” the Bloodstone Emperor said, slowly. “You know something.” His eyes narrowed on Bran. “There is something… different about you, foreigner.”

Behind Bran, the pool hissed and spit, and the Bloodstone Emperor nodded.

“Yes,” he said, and Bran’s heart nearly stopped. He could communicate with the bloodstone and pool?! “Yes, I agree, Master. He lies.”

“I’m not lying,” Bran immediately and petulantly argued.

“Perhaps you are not telling me everything,” offered the emperor instead. “I will give you one chance, foreigner. Speak now the truth, else I will crush you and feast on your flesh.”

“I don’t know what you do,” argued back Bran carefully. “I don’t know what you did in the past. It’s just rumours, stories. I told you the truth.”

The emperor’s eyes kept on Bran, steady. He nodded, once, his eyes narrowed. “Yes, yes, you speak the truth. And yet it is twisted around you.”

Bran let out a soft sigh of relief.

It was premature.

“Do you wish to see? Do you wish to know?” the Bloodstone Emperor cried. Yin jumped in Bran’s periphery. “Then witness my glory! Know my greatness!”

He spread his arms wide and flung his head back. Behind him, the pool erupted with the black swirling cloud spiralling upwards. The cloud still contracted and expanded within its confines, flashes of purple and red lightning cutting through the oily blackness. Wind whipped through the room, sending the loose scrolls from the table he and Yin had tipped over earlier flying. The chains on the far wall were rattling loudly and the liquid in the glass beakers frothed furiously and bubbled over, spilling onto the tables – or, exploded.

Bran ducked, hunching down to protect himself. He could still make out shapes in the swirl of the tornado, though, elongated, tortured faces and claws or talons of some kind as they stretched, pushing the boundaries of the mass, trying to escape.

The Bloodstone Emperor’s chin dipped until his face was level. His eyes were vibrant, shining with some internal magic that bled through his skin and gave it a red, pulsing tinge. “I have seen what is beyond! I have seen the great destroyer! I will rebuild this world in His image!”

“We must go!” shouted Yin, grabbing his shoulder like earlier.

Bran nodded, tripping over his feet as the two ran from the Bloodstone Emperor, who stood watching them impassively.

“There is nowhere to run, nephew,” he called, his voice low and layered like thousands of voices were speaking at once. “Death is everywhere.”

“What does that mean?” demanded Bran.

Yin shrugged, yanking open the solar door. On the other side, the same guards the Emperor arrived with stood at attention, staring at them. They unsheathed their swords and readied them.

“Out of the way, you fools!” cried Yin, shoving toward them. He used his shoulder against one, knocking the guard with a gusty exhale of breath away, and then snatched his fallen sword. He barrelled through the rest and Bran brought up the rear, weaponless.

The other guards stood still for a moment in shock and then turned on the two young men; Yin was proficient with the Emperor’s style of sword – something that Bran had never seen before – and sliced his way through the soldiers.

Most fought back, meeting his parries and thrusts but Yin gained on them, inch by inch, while Bran searched the hallway for something to use as a weapon. But the halls were empty, and he ended up using a closed fist when one guard got close to him, sneaking past Yin.

Grimacing in pain, Bran shook out his sore hand and kept to Yin’s back when a gap presented itself. They had made it through the guards, several dead ones littered behind as those who survived regrouped.

Behind them, the Bloodstone Emperor stepped from his solar. The guards parted wordlessly.

The Emperor peered unpassionately at the dead bodies for a moment before turning his red eyes on Yin and Bran. “Do you think this will stop me, nephew?”

“Do you not care for your own people! Your own guards?” demanded Yin, brandishing his stolen sword.

“They are a means to an end for the Great Destroyer,” replied the Emperor. “Witness His might!”

The same shadows from the windswept tunnel that appeared out of the pool burst out from behind the Emperor, rustling his over robes and sending them forward in a cold, biting gust of wind that raced down the hall. Bran stumbled back as it hit him, and Yin brought an arm up to protect his eyes.

Following the wind were the shadowy demon creatures, their torturous wails making Bran, Yin, and the guards grimace in pain. They swirled in the hallway, seeking up to the ceiling, and then swooped down toward the dead.

Oh. Oh, no… Bran’s uneasiness morphed into terror when the bodies on the floor began to jerk, spasming in different directions. One flopped over and then pushed itself up on unsteady legs.

One of the nearby guards yelped and stepped back, only for the Emperor to step up behind him and thrust his hand through the man’s chest, clenching at his heart and withdrawing it. The man barely sank to his knees when another shadowy figure swooped in place and slithered underneath his mask. The man’s body jerked for a moment and then slowly stood – and through the tiny slits for eyes, Bran saw they were bright blue.

A very familiar bright blue.

“We need to get out of here!” cried Bran, turning to Yin. “We can’t fight them!”

Yin gave Bran an unimpressed look. “I have a sword and they are still flesh.”

“No—!”

But Yin pushed forward, to the nearest wight, and sliced its arm off and then across its neck. He stood back, triumphant, but that triumph disappeared when the wight staggered forward, its body unbalanced from its missing limb.

“What… what sorcery is this, uncle?!” he demanded turning to the Bloodstone Emperor.

“Sorcery? My dear nephew,” the man exalted, “this is but a mere fraction of the Great Destroyer’s power. His abilities – His means!” His lips curled into a smile as the remains of his shadow army floated around him and hovered over his shoulder, lingering in the open door to the solar. “Now… guards. Kill them. Let my nephew and his foreign friend be among the first of the ranks of my new, unstoppable army.”

The guards – at least, the ones who weren’t so terrified to step away from the wights – moved forward and into a coordinated position, their swords level with the floor. And then they attacked.

Yin cursed and took on three at once, his blade swinging through the air. Bran, without any means to defend himself, could only dodge and duck. He kicked out against one guard, catching his knee, and sending him to the ground, finishing off by snatching his helm and bashing him across the face with it.

He turned to the next guard in time to see his sword come down; Bran raised his arm to block the killing block and bit back a gut-wrenching scream as it sliced through his leathers and tunic, leaving a long, bloody gash from his bicep to the wrist. He was flushed, warm all over and felt his heartbeat in time to the throbbing of his arm. He clutched at it with his right hand, watching the blood drip to the polished floor.

“Bran!” he heard Yin shout, and then he was there, shoving him back and ushering him down the hall and keeping his uncle’s guards behind them. “This way, hurry!”

Bran couldn’t keep track of where they were or where they were going – he could only focus on blinking the spots away as he pushed through the agony of the cut. Was there a poison of some kind on the blade? Why did it hurt so much?

“Come,” Yin urged, shoving him into a room that smelled of poultice and salt.

Bran stood, blinking, as Yin grabbed something, chewed, and then spat the softened mush into a mortar and began to mix it with water and other ingredients that he snatched up from the tabletops nearby or hanging from the ceiling.

“The blades – you must be in pain,” he was saying, glancing at Bran worriedly. “It’s uncle’s special – well, never mind. We don’t have much time.”

Yin mixed everything together quickly and then, once there was a white paste, turned to Bran and ripped his sleeve open to reveal the long cut. He grimaced in sympathy, and then swiped at the paste with two fingers and began slathering it on the cut.

Bran bit his lip, making it bleed, to stop from crying out.

“I don’t – he has gone too far – Great Destroyer! Whatever that means. We are the descendants of the Maiden-Made-of-Light and the Night-Lion, not…” Yin grumbled under his breath.

“They’re wights,” croaked Bran, his throat dry.

Yin froze for a moment and then looked at Bran. “…Wights?”

“The dead. When they… start moving again,” explained Bran poorly. “They… they’re part of the Other’s army.”

“Who are these Others?”

Bran shrugged with his good shoulder. “I learned that they were men who had become corrupted by magic, created by the Children of the Forest. But… your uncle did the same. He raised the dead…”

“Perhaps these Children learned the same as my uncle,” offered Yin quietly. “By giving their soul and worshipping the wrong god.”

“They made the Others without… without the bloodstone,” said Bran in a quiet argument. He let out a loud sigh, and Yin finished with his paste. Bran looked down at the cut. “I don’t know anything anymore.”

“This is not your fight,” said Yin, eyes narrowed on Bran. “I still do not understand how you came to be here, Bran. But you helped me when I tried to stop my uncle and fought by my side bravely. I will not forget that.”

Bran gave him a tiny, sad smile. “I wish I could say that things will get easier for you, but… I don’t think they will.”

Yin scoffed. “Nor should they. He murdered his own sister – my mother! – and enslaved our people. He’s tortured, conducted experiments and now consorts with heathen gods. This is my fight. My uncle – the Bloodstone Emperor and his army of the undead.”

“Fire,” said Bran suddenly. “You can kill the wights with fire. And we learned you can kill Others with Valyrian steel. I’m… I’m not sure if you know what that is—”

“I do not,” admitted Yin, but there was something fierce in his eyes and tone. He gripped Bran’s good shoulder and squeezed. “But I thank you for this knowledge, my friend. I doubt it will end my uncle, given his abilities, but I will take any information and do my best with it.”

“Good luck, Yin,” whispered Bran, blinking back the spots from pain and taking a deep breath. It was time for him to go – he wasn’t going to find Jon by standing around in the past.

“I will need it,” sighed Yin wryly.

Bran hesitated, and Yin saw. He shook his head.

“No, Bran. This is my responsibility now. Thank you, but I must do this. I will dedicate my life – and beyond if I must – to end this atrocity.”

I believe you¸ thought Bran. He knew he had seen Yin before, older, stronger, and leading armies. He wouldn’t give up. But his connection to Jon – Bran’s Jon – was equally as damning. Maybe there is more to that Prince That Was Promised bullsh*te than I ever believed.

Bran mimicked Yin, clasping his shoulder and giving it a squeeze. It was a ‘thank you,’ a ‘good luck’, and a ‘goodbye,’ all in one. He then stepped back, returning his good hand to grip his bad arm, and sent his consciousness out, searching for that line back to not just his Jon, but Sansa, Robb, Arya, and Rickon.

He found it, and with a final nod goodbye, the world tilted sideways and he fell into darkness, Yin’s resigned face the last thing he saw.

They had no reason to be quiet, so Connington and Jon made as much noise as possible with their swords and steps, drawing attention and pushing around corners furiously with their swords drawn.

They encountered several more acolytes in varying shades of robes, indicating their proficiency in whatever they studied; they only ran into one more who tried summoning the shadow demons, but Jon’s Valyrian blade went right through the demon that emerged from the man’s hands and the acolyte’s chest.

Walls and corridors were becoming familiar again, as they thundered up a few stone steps, Jon in Sansa’s place this time to haul Bran’s chair up. Connington was confidently pushing them through the dark hallways, never too far ahead in case something snuck up behind them.

“Only a few more, I think!” he cried, rounding a corner. He gave a sharp cry, and Jon’s heart just about stopped, wondering what his father’s faithful friend encountered. Sansa was moments behind him, unable to stop her momentum, making Jon cry out after her – Jon himself stuck with Bran in his chair.

But when Jon turned the corner, he felt nothing but relief.

“Oh, I see you had some trouble, too,” said Robb with a grin, his own sword wet with blood.

Jon threw himself forward and thumped Robb hard on the back as they embraced. Rickon and Loras were with him – Loras’ sword out and bloodied, and Rickon with his favoured dagger and front already plastered red.

“It’s good to see you!” exclaimed Jon, stepping back. “Arya? Maerros?”

“Getting the ship ready to go,” answered Robb promptly. “I doubt we’ll be welcomed much longer.”

Connington nodded his head. “Smart.”

“Then let’s get out of here,” agreed Jon.

“What’s wrong with Bran?” he heard Rickon ask as he fell into step near Sansa, Robb at his side as he took over pushing Bran’s chair.

“He went looking for Jon,” answered Sansa, breathless from the quick pace they had kept throughout the halls, and because she also pushed Bran’s chair for most of it. “It’s hard to explain, but I shall do so when we’re on the ship and away from this cursed place.”

Loras took pace beside Jon and Connington, leaving the group in two rows of three. Jon glanced back to Robb to ask, “How far as we from the entrance?”

“Two hallways to the right, and then a few steps, and then a hallway to the left,” he called forward. “Loras knows the way, so he can show you.”

Jon looked at his squire, who flushed. He was still a teenager but had quickly grown into his role as Jon’s squire and helper, oftentimes doing things for the rest of the group, too, without being asked.

“This way,” the Tyrell pointed.

Connington and Jon followed on Loras’ heels until they finally reached the familiar, tiny entrance. This time, it was fully illuminated by blue-tinged fire on hanging torches bracketed off the walls on either side of the door.

Sansa and Jon audibly gave sighs of relief.

“To the ship!” cried Robb, pushing Bran’s chair ahead of the group and toward the open doors. They still had to manage through the winding garden to get to the gate, and potentially fight their way out through the city, but it was much better than fighting in the dark catacombs of the City of Sorcerers.

There was a rush of stampeding feet as the Starks, along with Connington and Loras, rushed forward, anticipating running through them of nearly being free.

“You will not leave!” screamed an enraged voice from behind them. “Blood must have blood!”

Jon and Connington turned to face it, just as a sorcerer in the same robes as Curwen had worn, indicating status. The man had his arms extended and behind him was a writhing mass of malevolent shadow.

Then, so many things happened at once:

Bran’s body shuddered and he gasped as he came back into consciousness, only to then scream and clutch his arm in agony.

Robb, behind Jon and Connington, who were the first line of defence, shouted, “Go, go, go!

And finally, the Sorcerer’s arms swung forward, and the mass of shadows followed, hurtling through the short space between them and at Connington and Jon, even as Loras and Rickon stepped up to give Robb, Sansa, and Bran time to escape.

There was no time to explain about the shadows – Jon leapt forward and attacked them first, cutting through as many as he could with Dark Sister, trying to give Connington, Rickon and Loras a fighting chance behind him.

He heard their grunts and cries as the sharp talons and shadows bit at them, but all he could do was concentrate on swinging his sword, pivoting to face the next bit of shadow he could see.

He was filled with rage – a cold, icy rage that spread through his veins. They had been so close to being free of the City, of his stupid mistake, only to be thwarted at the last by an insane man who was attempting to kill his siblings.

He wouldn’t allow that.

Jon let out a hoarse, primal shout as his strokes and slashes became choppier and precise; he was relying on his years from Beyond the Wall, against Wildlings and the dead as he hacked at the shadows. The brutal method quickly laid waste to the creatures until only he remained, panting heavily, and staring at the Sorcerer, covered in thick, heavy ichor.

“We will be leaving,” he gasped, a cold stare levelled at the man.

The Sorcerer’s mouth flattened.

“We will be leaving,” repeated Jon, voice low and threatening.

The man made no move, so Jon took it as his agreement, and slowly backed away – one step, then two, then five – and then turned his back on the man, facing Connington, Rickon, and Loras, all covered in fine cuts and the same ichor as he was, but much worse of wear with their regular steel blades.

Rickon bared his teeth at the Sorcerer, but it was Loras who screamed, “Ser Jon – look out!” and pushed him aside, his sword coming up and reverberating throughout the chamber as it prevented a hidden acolyte’s short sword from plunging into Jon’s back.

With a push, Loras threw the man off despite his height and weight and used a move Jon taught him. He followed the push but crouched, and then stabbed up with his sword until the tip of it burst through the other side. The acolyte gasped and blood spurted from his mouth in shock and pain, and then he slumped over on Loras’ sword.

Furious, Jon whirled around to face the Sorcerer – his triumphant smirk faded quickly as he realized Jon survived. Without taking his eyes off the man, Jon snapped, “Griff. Get them out of here.”

“Jon…?” Connington trailed off, warily.

“The Sorcerers want blood,” explained Jon without explaining anything. “I’ll give it to them.”

“Ser Jon,” murmured Loras, eyes wide.

“Rickon, take Loras and get out of here,” ordered Jon coldly. He added in the Old Tongue, “I’ll give these men what they want – just how my father’s people did it.

“Aye,” his youngest brother agreed quickly, dragging Loras backward and toward the entrance.

Connington paused, but a sharp nod from Jon, and an emphatic, “you don’t need to see this,” had him quickly following until they were out of the building and then onto the garden grounds. Only then did Jon give in to the temptation to speak further.

“You want blood,” stated Jon flatly. He took a step forward and saw the sorcerer swallow, a nervous gesture.

“The sacrifice the Black Goat requires—” the man attempted, but Jon took another step, and the sorcerer snapped his mouth shut.

“I willingly gave mine for an honest deal and you betrayed that!” snapped Jon. His voice lowered as he continued, “Then you wanted my siblings’ blood. Mine – well, a deal is a deal. My family? Never.”

He swung his satchel forward and slowly took a knee. The sorcerer watched in confusion and wariness as Jon reached into his satchel – that confusion turned to wide-eyed awe as Jon removed not one, but all three of his dragon eggs.

“Remarkable...” the man breathed.

“It will be,” promised Jon, rising, and moving to the side of the chamber. He paused at the hanging torch, levelling a stare at the sorcerer.

“What—”

“Blood must have blood,” replied Jon evenly.

He pulled the torch off and then swung it toward the sorcerer, as well as the body of the acolyte Loras killed to protect him from and watched as both caught on fire.

The sorcerer screamed, trying to put himself out; Jon moved to the other hanging torches and pulled them from the walls, smashing them on the ground and watched as the flames – the strange, bluebell-like flames Sorcerer Curwen had conjured when they arrived – spread across the stone and licked up them, somehow burning freely without kindling.

He went back to stand before his dragon eggs, closed his eyes, and waited for the inevitable.

Loras stared at the Stark siblings, bewildered by their complete lack of worry as the City of Sorcerers burned before them and yet Jon hadn’t emerged.

He griped Rickon’s arm tightly – or maybe Rickon had a hold on him, stopping him from going after his knight – and fought the urge to press forward, to run into the raging heat, to find the man who taught him to be a better swordsman.

Connington, on Robb’s other side, was equally struggling. Robb actually had to punch him to stop him from entering the City, sending the two into a rough tumble while Sansa ignored them, trying to help Bran – who had somehow woken up with a terribly long cut down his arm that wouldn’t stop bleeding.

“Rickon,” begged Loras, turning to his best friend, “Please. Please! We need to help Jon.”

“Jon’s fine,” replied Rickon tonelessly. Loras stared, and Rickon caught the look. “Truly, Lor. Have faith.”

“I—” words caught in Loras’ throat, dry and unable to formulate more.

“Ah,” said Rickon quietly, catching his attention. “There he is.”

Loras whipped his head around and stared at the entrance, narrowing his eyes as he peered into the wispy smoke, trying to see what Rickon saw.

At first, there was nothing. Then, slowly, a figure emerged, darker than the white smoke that billowed from the open doors. Slowly, with even steps, Jon stepped through the flames that spilled onto the gardens, catching grass and shrubs. He had no fear of the fire, only carefully cradling something in his arms.

Loras felt faint, swaying a bit where he stood. It’s not possible. No one can survive a raging inferno. No one, but—

Jon soon approached, still in all his clothes and his pulled-back hair with the strange Valryian blade Loras didn’t have the opportunity to look closely at, at his side.

Connington raced forward, ready to take Jon by the shoulders and look him over for damage when something in Jon’s arms squeaked. Connington visibly paused and stared down at whatever was in Jon’s grasp.

“Oh, they’ve hatched then?” asked Rickon nonchalantly.

Hatched? echoed Loras, eyes wide.

“Aye,” agreed Jon happily. “We’ll have the journey to Bravos to think of names. I’ll need some good ones that aren’t too Valyrian.”

“What, good Northern names for Southern dragons?” teased Robb, leaning forward to peer.

Loras just about fell over. “Dragons? But – you’re a Stark – how—”

Jon slowly turned to Loras and that was when he could see the tiny, delicate snout of a white dragon poking up from the cradle of his elbow, bright red eyes peering around curiously. A smoky grey, whipping tail escaped the hold and slipped underneath, hitting Jon’s leather armour.

“I’m so sorry we kept so much from you, Loras,” said Jon quietly, looking intently at him. Loras was caught in his dark gaze, unable to rip his eyes toward the dragons like he so wanted to. “We’ve – I – had my reasons. But you deserve to know. You saved my life earlier.”

“Ser Jon, I—”

“Loras,” interrupted Rickon. His voice was soft and kind, something Loras had never heard before as he tore his eyes from Jon to his friend. Rickon was looking at him carefully, watching for his reactions. “Allow me to formally introduce my cousin, Jon of House Targaryen, son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark.”

“Your Grace,” added Connington, reverently, his eyes locked on Jon. He slowly knelt.

Loras, seeing this, followed until he was peering up at Jon in shock and awe. That shock and awe grew when Jon withdrew his sword, shifting the dragons into one crook of his arm. A slim turquoise dragon scaled up Jon’s arm and curled its tail around his neck, digging its tiny, sharp claws in to hold him in place.

He missed the gesture Jon made for Connington to rise; eyes fixated on the sword before him. That’s Dark Sister. Jon’s got Dark Sister!

“Loras of House Tyrell,” began Jon and Loras’ head snapped up. Jon brought Dark Sister up and lightly tapped his right shoulder. “In the name of the Warrior, I charge you to be brave.”

The sword moved from his right shoulder to his left. “In the name of the Father, I charge you to be just.” Back to the right shoulder. Loras was beaming up at him, a wet shine to his eyes. “In the name of the Mother, I charge you to defend the young and innocent.”

Loras lost track of the taps of the legendary blade, instead of focusing on the words.

“In the name of the Maid, I charge you to protect all women. In the name of the Smith, I charge you to remain strong. In the name of the Crone, I charge you to exercise wisdom. And in the name of the Stranger, I charge you to do your duty in the face of battle and know that the end comes for us all. Do you so swear, Loras of House Tyrell?”

“I so swear,” breathed Loras, blinking back tears as he stared up at Jon, who watched him solemnly and ignored the strange chirps from the dragons in his arm. “My king.”

TBC...

Notes:

I wrote most of this chapter today and I'm just so freaking happy that we will be done with Qohor now. Not my favourite chapter, but it gives important background information to the overall plot. Onto Braavos as we creep ever closer to 297 and the beginning of TV!canon.

Chapter 20: XX

Summary:

The gang is reunited with an old friend, and they begin to prep for their return to Westeros.

Notes:

Timewise, we're coming up to the last 5 months in 297AC. In the books/TV show timeline, they received their direwolves around Feb/March of 298. So they'll be in Winterfell a little before that, to compensate for travel time.

To also help, by the last month of 297:
- Jon is 30
- Sansa is 27
- Robb and Arya, AND Maerros, are all 25
- Bran is 23
- Rickon is 19
- Loras is 18

Comparatively, their "canon" selves are:
- Jon: 17
- Robb: 17 (older than Jon by a few months)
- Margaery: 17
- Sansa: 15
- Arya: 13
- Bran: 11
- Rickon: 6

Jon Connington and Ned Stark are both 37 (Catelyn is 36); Robert B is 38, Stannis 36 and Renly 20; Cersei and Jaime are 35 and Tyrion is 26. Willas is a year younger than older!Sansa, at 26, and Garlan is 23. Arthur Dayne is 39. These are the main players for the moment, with others slowly being introduced or disappearing.

Had Rhaegar still been alive, he'd be 41 by 297. 😱 Wow!

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

XX:

Memories of Tomorrow - writing_as_tracey (20)

Braavos was the same as they had left it, even if they were all different. Before, when they first arrived in Braavos, the Starks had been fresh off their rebirth, still sore and wounded from their memories and uncertain of their goals and future. Bran’s knowledge and the money found in the Iron Bank certainly helped give them leeway and security, and the Wolf’s Den as a base in Essos was a smart move.

This time, in 297, they returned to their manse with three additions and far more knowledge about the Prince That Was Promised, the Long Night, and a working plan for Jon to wrest control of Westeros to prepare them all for the next Battle for the Dawn.

Bran’s wound from the Bloodstone Emperor’s guards in the past was still sore and oozing, leaving him in a poor mood, despite Sansa and Arya’s rudimentary healing skills and the relative safety the present gave. Everyone gave Bran a wide berth, leaving him to brood in his chair, even as Robb silently helped push through over cobblestone and down narrow alleys Arya navigated for them until wearily, they reached their Essosi home.

The Manderly cousin – Marlyn Manderly – was their steward while they were gone, running the house alongside Sara Browne, as their chamberlain, and both had heard of their arrival from the docks and the one-handed Snow sailor they had taken on as their everyman, the young Harlon. They, along with their Braavosi cook Ollah, were waiting for the large contingent when they staggered through the iron gate.

“My Lords, my Ladies,” greeted Marlyn, taking in the extra three men who lingered behind the Starks, men he had never seen before. “And guests. Your rooms were opened and prepared for your arrival. The Wolf’s Den is yours.”

“Thank you, Marlyn,” said Robb tiredly. “Sara, Ollah, if it’s not too much trouble at this late hour, could we have some simple refreshments in the downstairs solar?”

Sara bobbed a curtsey. “Of course, milord.”

“While you lot do that, I’m going to put my bags away,” said Jon, clutching his sack with Aegon’s crown and the cloth-wrapped Dark Sister in one hand, and the wriggling weave basket with the three dragon hatchlings that Maerros had procured for them in Norvos where they had abandoned Maerros’ pleasure barge to cross to Braavos by horse.

Connington opened his mouth, but Jon waved him off. “S’alright, Griff – I won’t be too long, and I’ll need to get something for, uh… the pets.”

Sara eyed the basket. Something audibly squeaked. “Kittens, milord? I can have some sauce brought to your room.”

“NO!” shouted a collection of four voices: Jon, Sansa, Connington, and Robb. They all stared at each other for a moment in shared panic before Sansa cleared her throat. Plastering a smile on her face, Sansa stepped forward and gently took Sara by the arm, steering her toward the main door.

“No, no, that’s fine, Sara, we know where the larder is,” she soothed. “There’s no need for you to trouble yourself further; it’s very late, after all…”

With Sansa leading the way, Bran, Robb, Maerros, Rickon, and Loras followed behind, the two newcomers looking around their manse in curiosity – Maerros no doubt comparing it to the palatial home he grew up in.

Jon nudged at Connington’s shoulder. “Go on. I won’t be but a moment.”

Connington’s mouth curled down into a frown, making the lines around his mouth prominent. “Your Grace…”

“A moment, please,” sighed Jon. His eyes pled with him, “Please, Jon.”

Using his given name felt like dirty cheating, knowing that it tugged on Connington’s heartstrings, likening him very much to Rhaegar, but Jon needed a few moments to himself.

Connington finally nodded, blue eyes wary, but trudged down the hallway and into the side solar the others had disappeared into, except for Arya, who peeled off from the group to make her way to her room in the lower bowels of the house by the servants’ quarters.

In the solar, Bran was placed in his chair nearest to the window and furthest from the group, allowing him to look out into the inner courtyard this room had as a view – and the flourishing weirwood tree he had planted several years earlier. Sara finished stoking a fire in the hearth – not needed as Braavos was temperate, but it was late evening the room was dark and the room slightly chilled from unuse.

Sansa was perched on a lounger, with Robb at her side. Rickon and Loras remained standing, with Rickon telling Loras about how they first arrived in Braavos in a low voice, answering the Tyrell’s questions about their manse in the Essosi city.

Both Sara and Ollah brought in a tray of mugs and a pitcher of ale and a carafe of wine, while Marlyn followed with a few bread baskets and a bowl of fruit, “to tide you over, milord, milady.”

“Thank you, Marlyn,” said Sansa prettily, even as she slumped, tiredly, against the backrest of the lounger.

“Of course. There’s correspondence for you to look over in the morn, as well, Lady Sansa,” the man added, bowing his head in her direction. “I’ve left them on the desk in your solar.”

Sansa inclined her head in response and Marlyn, Sara, and Ollah all left, leaving the group alone and in silence save for the merry crackling of the fire.

Maerros ran his hand over the fabric of the chair he stood behind, letting it drag behind him as he rounded the chair and then flopped into it, one leg over the arm and the other on the floor. Lazily, he asked in thickly accented Common, “Well. What is next?”

“A good night’s sleep,” retorted Robb quickly, grinning at his once-brother-in-law. Maerros rolled his eyes in response. “And tomorrow, we plan.”

“We’re returning to Westeros, aren’t we?” asked Connington quietly, stepping into the room but lingering at the door. He seemed to have one foot on either side of it, ready to leap out and up the stairs to find Jon. Even now, his body swayed and seemed ready to follow the invisible line that tied him to Rhaegar’s son.

Sansa nodded, and Loras’ face lit up. She caught and said, almost apologetically, “We must go north to Winterfell. We have a few moons, but… there’s something that will happen that we need to be there for.”

“What?” asked Rickon, his brow furrowing.

Robb, pouring ale into two mugs and passing one to Maerros, hid a smirk. “Don’t you remember when you got Shaggydog, Ric?”

Rickon blinked at Robb for a few moments, and then his eyes went as wide as saucers. “It’s already time?” he yelped.

“What’s a Shaggydog?” asked Loras, looking at Rickon and then around at the room at large, even as he reached forward and plucked a fresh bread roll from the nearest basket to rip apart and munch on.

“Our direwolves,” answered Rickon excitedly. “We all got one – a wolf for each Stark. Mine was Shaggydog, an’ Bran’s was Summer. Robb had Greywind and Jon had Ghost; Sansa named hers Lady and Arya named hers Nymeria.”

Connington stopped fidgeting enough to stare. “You had direwolves?”

“What is a direwolf?” asked Maerros, frowning as he looked around the room.

“A f*cking big wolf,” said Connington, shaking his head. “Why am I even surprised? You had a living symbol of your family’s sigil. You’ve died and been resurrected in the past. You know the future. Jon’s got dragons.”

He began to mutter under his breath, eyes looking upward in exasperation. Sansa was sure it was something along the lines of “Rhaegar never gave me this much trouble.” After four years together, Sansa liked to think that she knew Jon Connington well enough now, despite his single-minded drive in keeping Jon safe and the ultimate goal of putting him on the throne. The man was paranoid, intense, and wholly devoted to Jon that was a mixture of the remnants of love for Rhaegar, guilt for being exiled and not at his side when he died, and a desperate, all-consuming love for Jon – one that was sometimes entirely platonic, brotherly, and other times came across as romantic, even if the older man would never, ever, act on his feelings. What Sansa was certain of, was that Jon Connington would die before he let anything happen to Jon Snow – and that was all that mattered to her.

“How big is ‘big’?” asked Maerros, dubiously. He canted a look at Robb, who sat up and enthusiastically began to wax on about Greywind during the War of the Five Kings, even spilling his ale as he waved his arm about.

As he spoke about the rumours of him riding his wolf in battle, and how vicious Greywind was on the battlefield, Rickon interrupted, “Oh yeah? Well, Shaggy once tore a man’s leg off on Skagos—” and inadvertently began a one-upmanship contest of whose direwolf was better.

Sansa rolled her eyes and tried not to feel bitter about Lady’s death.

Arya slunk back into the room, easing around Connington as he leaned against the doorframe, arms crossed. She reached for the carafe of wine and passed a cup to Sansa and then crouched next to her, a hand delicately placed on the arm for balance, even if she didn’t need it.

Sansa peered at her from half-slitted eyes, hiding a yawn behind her hand. “Finished your security checks?”

“Perimeter is secure, but…” Arya’s mouth pursed. “Something feels off.”

“Off how?” Sansa sat up, coming awake at once. Her voice dropped, even though Robb, Rickon, Maerros, and Loras were incredibly loud. Bran stirred by the window, a frown on his face as he carefully and slowly looked around the room. “What’s wrong?”

“They only opened the rooms and upper floors today, when they had word we’ve arrived,” began Arya carefully.

“I think you should know—” began Bran, but Rickon made a loud, aggravated noise, making Robb laugh and slap his hand against his thigh. Bran’s voice faded underneath theirs.

“And there’s only the four of them in the Den,” continued Arya.

Sansa nodded slowly.

“There’s someone—” tried Bran again, but no one was listening to him. He huffed angrily.

Arya’s grey eyes met Sansa’s blue and held them. “Then why were there five used plates being soaked in the scullery?”

Sansa’s eyes widened. “Jon.”

Above them, there was a loud crash and bang, and then a shout, as well as a few startled squawks from the dragon hatchlings. Connington was already out of the room, feet pounding against the stone floor as he raced down the hall and took the stairs two at a time; Robb and Loras were seconds behind.

“There’s someone in Jon’s room, but it’s fine,” Bran finally snapped, throwing his hands up.

Maerros, Arya, Rickon, and Sansa turned as one to stare at Bran.

“Why didn’t you say so earlier?” asked Rickon, pointedly. “What’s the point of seeing things if you aren’t able to give us ample warning?”

Bran glared. “It’s not like anyone was listening to me or would have heard me over the noise you were making, brat.”

Rickon turned his nose up, aggressively biting into his bun, letting bits of breadcrumbs fly from his mouth. “I think you’re just jealous Shaggy’s better than Summer.”

“What!” sputtered an affronted Bran, two spots of red appearing on his pale cheeks. “Why you—”

Arya and Sansa shared an exasperated glance. Boys.

At six moons, the hatchlings were squirmy, wriggling dragons around a foot in length each and about as acrobatic as a cat trying to escape an unwanted grip. They caused no shortage of annoyance and trouble for Jon and his siblings and friends, even as everyone took equal turns taking care of them, hoping to socialize the dragons. How Daenerys had managed, Jon had no idea – but given Drogon’s aggression, perhaps she didn’t have as much control over her dragons as Jon hoped they would.

“Alright, alright, chickies,” muttered Jon lowly, the endearment slipping out despite the dragons being nowhere near as docile as chicks, “We’re almost there and you can be let out, so long as you promise not to light my bed on fire.” Again.

With a stifled sigh, Jon eased into his bedroom, muttering, and looking down as he dropped the sack with Aegon’s crown with a heavy thud. Dark Sister, wrapped, was gently placed on top – then he paused, his left arm still occupied with his basket of hatchlings.

The air around him was still, but something was off—

Jon glanced up, taking in the room with his hearth lit but nothing else, eyes peering into the shadows in the corners. Partially bent over, Jon slowly reached for Dark Sister.

“Oh, let’s not,” called a raspy masculine voice from the furthest corner, in Westerosi Common Tongue. It was a native accent, tinged with a courtly flair Jon recognized as like Sansa’s from her time in King’s Landing.

Jon’s eyes sharpened on the shadowy figure as it shifted but made no move to come closer.

“Are you the type that prefers to lurk in shadows, good Ser?” asked Jon instead, carefully rising to his full height.

The man snorted. “Hardly.”

“Oh, good,” replied Jon, a stiff smile on his face as he reached for the latch on the basket and opened it.

His three dragons burst from the basket, free at last after being stuck inside for so long. Their sinewy bodies, long and shiny, dipped in the air as their wings snapped out, gliding toward the shadow, squawking indignantly because they couldn’t roar yet.

The man shrieked, cursing a storm as he ducked and wove away from sharp dragon claws and tiny spats of fire that never amounted to anything but pretty sparks. His dragons were more of a distraction than a weapon at their young age, so all had banked and let their surprise unbalance the intruder while the turquoise and grey dragons found themselves a roost in the fireplace (and hissing angrily), leaving Jon free to attack the man.

Jon snatched up Dark Sister, the wrappings easily coming undone as he dove after his dragons, the blade cutting through the air and toward the man.

But his opponent was good, bringing his sword up and blocking Jon’s strike, shoving Jon back with a surprising amount of strength. He knocked over a chair. Jon grunted and disengaged his blade, moving out of range and back into the middle of the room, avoiding the edge of the bed.

With the distance between them, the shadowed man stepped forward. A brief flicker from the fireplace illuminated him; he was dressed in dark colours, a neck gaiter around his lower face hiding everything but bright eyes and dark hair. “I don’t want to fight—”

“Odd way of showing that,” muttered Jon, readying his sword but keeping it level with the floor. They stared at each other, gauging who would move first. Jon shifted his weight back, preparing to move—

The man tensed, bringing his sword up—

The bedroom door burst open.

Connington threw himself into the room with his sword drawn, placing himself before Jon and shoving the younger man back bodily with his shoulder as he took up the position as a shield.

“You won’t touch him,” snarled Connington, his eyes blazing but his face still as he concentrated on the figure in front of him.

Behind Jon, Robb and Loras arrived, crowding the doorway, their swords out as well.

“What’s going on?” asked Robb, just as Loras went, “Who’s that?”

Connington let out a cry and snapped forward, bringing his sword up and the shadowed man met it; their swords rang loudly in the room.

The weirwood white dragon shrieked and dove for a chair and hid underneath it, curling like a spooked cat and hissing when the shadowed man’s foot stepped nearby. He caught Connington’s blade, stepped forward, and into the light from the hearth. The two swords were shakily forced upward, the men’s faces scant inches from each other.

Connington faltered. “Arthur?”

The man blinked. “Connington?”

The two swords fell back as each man stepped away.

“I thought you were dead!” both men exclaimed at the same time, staring at one another.

“What in the seven hells is going on?” muttered Robb, watching both men.

Loras shifted, his grip tightening on his sword, eyes narrowed and focused on Connington and the man he apparently knew, worried he was about to betray Jon.

The shadowed man stepped forward, further into the light from the fireplace. He pulled down the fabric neck gaiter from his lower face, and Robb swore, loudly. “Bloody hell, it’s Arthur Dayne!”

“I thought the Sword in the Morning was dead,” gaped Loras, eyes darting between the infamous knight and Robb and then Jon. “What – how…?”

They were ignored as Connington and Arthur were reacquainted.

“Last I heard you were exiled,” exclaimed Arthur, looking Connington up and down. “I thought you died in Essos, as a sellsword!”

Me?” sputtered Connington, eyeing Arthur. “I wasn’t at the Tower of Joy, now, was I!”

Arthur grimaced.

“Aye, speaking of,” interrupted Jon, drawing both men’s attention. “We dug up your grave, Ser Arthur, to return your bones to Starfall. Except it was empty. Despite knowing that Lord Reed stabbed you through the neck.” He eyed the man warily. “Would you care to explain that?”

Sheepishly, Arthur looked around the room. “A tale best told with the rest of your kin, Your Grace.”

“Aye,” agreed Jon, voice low. He turned and frowned. “Where’s Rickon, Maerros, Arya, and Sansa?”

Robb stared for a moment, and then swore, turning on his heel and stomping out of the room. Loras eyed the two older men for a moment and then left as well, when Jon nodded at him.

“Also, erm, Jon – my Prince,” began Arthur, as Jon prepared to leave the room, “Now, it was dark, but – uh. Did you – do you have dragons?”

Connington began laughing, wiping tears from his face when he sputtered, “Ah… Arthur. You’ve missed much, my friend.”

His laughs had tapered off to chuckles when the three men returned to the downstairs solar, Arthur a bit befuddled while Jon maintained a scowl. A bit moody, he snapped, “And where the hells were all of you?”

Arya shrugged, and Maerros drawled, “After you left, Bran said it was fine, so we knew we did not have to follow.” He shrugged and held up his mug. “Have an ale, Jon?”

Jon muttered a bit but then wordlessly held out a mug and Maerros, biting back a smile, filled it. Jon then threw himself onto the lounger at Sansa’s side, squishing her a bit into her corner when Robb joined them, the three fitting poorly and pressed shoulder-to-shoulder. She gave Jon and Robb a dark look in response, looking distinctly dishevelled.

Connington remained at the door, as a guard; Rickon had seated himself in one of the free armchairs, opposite Maerros, and Loras moved to that side of the room, nearest the fireplace. It left Arya and Arthur standing, as well as placed strategically around the room at all points of entry for defence.

“Arthur,” spoke up Arya, eyeing him. “You’re looking very well for a dead man.”

He inclined his head. “Arya.” Then, he eyed Rickon. “Rickon. It’s good to see you two, again.”

“I think I speak for us all, Ser Arthur, when I ask: how?” Sansa raised her eyebrows. “Unless Bran would like to say something?”

“Ugh,” was Bran’s response. He had a hand pressed against his temple and squinted at the Sword in the Morning with narrowed, pained eyes. “Dayne gives me a headache whenever I look at him.”

“Lovely,” drawled Arya.

“What happened, Ser Arthur?” asked Jon, almost gently.

Arthur bowed his head, eyes downcast. “After you left, Your Grace—”

Quietly, Rickon began muttering to Loras about Bran sending him, Arya, and Jon to the Tower of Joy and their otherworldly encounter to bring him up to speed.

“—Princess Lyanna and I did our best to remember all you had spoken,” the knight explained, his voice strained with emotion. “We rushed to her chambers to write down all we could remember, but in each passing moment, it was like trying to capture a cloud. Your words, your faces – they all faded, so… so quickly.”

The room was silent.

Arthur cleared his throat, glancing up around the room and then landing on Jon’s gaze, holding his eyes. “We remembered enough of our final moments, though. We… we tried, Your Grace. Your mother tried—”

Jon bit his lip, hard, and abruptly stood, stalking to Bran’s favourite window, and remaining there, his back stiff. She hadn’t wanted to leave me, ran through his mind.

Behind him, he heard Sansa murmur, “Go on, Ser.”

Voice rough, Arthur continued. “We had a few moons before we expected Lord Stark, so with help of my family in Starfall, I was able to procure medicine and herbs that kept me alive long enough to reach them. Luckily, my brother and his men met me halfway. Otherwise, I doubt I’d have survived the desert.”

“I’m glad you’re here, Arthur,” said Connington quietly. I’m glad I’m not alone, all the Starks heard instead in his voice.

“It’s late,” suggested Robb in a very diplomatic voice, which Jon took to be his kingly one. “Let us get a good night’s rest and discuss this further in the morning.” He stood, Maerros slowly joining him without relinquishing his drink. When Robb passed Arthur, he paused and said, “I’m happy to have you join us, Ser Arthur.”

Arthur nodded in thanks.

Robb’s decision had the room emptying, one by one or in small groups: Sansa left with a soft, sweet smile for the legendary knight, and Rickon and Loras (the latter who stared in awe) both gave him respectful nods. Rickon urged a lingering Loras from the room, with a boastful, “I have the best room in the Den, Lor, just you wait to see it!”

Arya murmured something about the perimeter, and Bran mentioned wheeling himself to his room opposite the receiving room they were in until it was just Jon, Arthur, and Connington.

“Your Grace?” asked Connington quietly.

Jon pivoted on his heel to face the man. “I’m fine, Griff. Thank you.”

“Are you… displeased with my being here, Your Grace?” asked Arthur, voice hesitant and hoarse.

Jon shook his head, stepping away from the window and toward the knight. “Not at all, Arthur! I’m sorry if it came across that way. Truly, you weren’t expected, but having you here is wonderful. I—” he broke off, voice catching. “I’m just sorry my mother couldn’t be here, either.”

“I am too, Your Grace,” replied Arthur.

Jon shook his head. “I thought we went over this before, Ser. My name is Jon.”

“I suppose you’ll just have to remind me again, one more time, Your Grace,” answered Arthur with a slight teasing quality to his voice. Behind him, Connington beamed.

Jon huffed a laugh and clapped Arthur on the shoulder. “Come – where were you sleeping? We’ll get you and Griff sorted.”

With that said, the two men who knew Jon’s birth father best in the world, the two men who would follow him to the ends of the earth, followed behind their king, feeling that for the first time in almost two decades, the world was finally right.

Life in Braavos was as close to tranquil as the Starks ever experienced except for maybe those first few idyllic years they had in Winterfell before Robert Baratheon proclaimed their father Hand of the King.

Daily habits were formed.

Loras and Rickon often disappeared early in the morning to explore the island city, returning dishevelled and breathless with laughter hours later, only to go out again and try their luck with the bravos at the Moon Pool.

Sansa and Bran often holed up together, either in Sansa’s upstairs solar where she dealt with correspondence or in whispers outside in the large, walled garden courtyard behind their house. Bran would sit under the incredibly fast-growing weirwood tree, the lowest branches which had topped the eight-foot-tall stone wall that protected their manse, and Sansa would join him on a stone bench.

Robb once tried to cajole Sansa into learning dagger throwing, as Maerros was demonstrating his skill, but Sansa replied, “I have letters to reply to, Robb.”

Bewildered, Robb sputtered, “What letters, San? We don’t know anyone in Braavos! And the only people you might write to – our family, the Tyrells, the Fossoways – are back in Westeros!”

But Sansa gave him a sweet, secretive smile, and turned back to Bran.

Robb scoffed and turned back to Maerros for their mock fights and training in the courtyard, far enough away to be safe and not disturb Sansa and Bran. Maerros’ unique fighting style – similar to waterdancing – was always a fun challenge for Robb’s Westerosi Northern style, leaving the two covered in sweat and flip-flopping between victors.

But when Jon joined – and then Connington and Arthur… well, that was an entirely different game. At no point in Robb’s life – the one from before or the one they were living now – did he ever think he’d be able to learn swordplay from a renowned figure like Ser Arthur Dayne.

The two men, of course, focused on Jon. Day in and day out, they ran him through a series of forms and exercises in attempts to forcefully feed him techniques and styles that he should have grown up learning in the Red Keep under loyal Targaryen men-at-arms, the Kingsguard, and perhaps Rhaegar, had he lived.

Jon never said anything about it – still feeling far more wolf than dragon despite his new and swiftly growing sigils – because despite meeting his mother, and speaking to her, and despite Connington and Arthur’s fond, sad-tinged retellings of their time with Rhaegar, Jon still held contempt for the man and the execution of his plans.

Regardless, he soaked up the instructions.

At one point, he was slowly moving through forms Arthur wanted him to learn; they were a southern style that Loras had been taught by the Tyrell master-at-arms, and the young knight vibrated in excitement when Arthur asked him to demonstrate the forms with him so Jon could see the technique the other night.

As Jon seamlessly slipped from the first portion of the form (the sword was at the inside right, elevated above his shoulder with both hands on the hilt) to the second (a hanging left block), Arthur, standing a few feet away with his arms crossed asked, “Will we be going to war when we return to Westeros?”

“Not immediately,” answered Jon, moving into the third position, stepping forward with his left foot and moving the Dark Sister to a close right, his right arm tucked to his side.

“Oh?” promoted Arthur.

“If all goes to plan, when we’re in the North, my siblings and I will receive our direwolves,” explained Jon, with a long, controlled exhale. “I have no plans on upsetting Westeros until Robert Baratheon’s death.”

“You will not kill the Usurper yourself?” called Connington from the bench next to Sansa, who looked up at the question.

Jon scoffed. He lunged forward with one leg, moving into a thrust. “Why kill the man when a boar will do the job for me?”

“I—” Connington blinked in surprise. “I beg your pardon?”

“Robert Baratheon was mortally wounded when on a hunt, six moons after we arrived in King’s Landing,” explained Sansa. “It’ll likely be the same, this time around. The man is raging drunk on a good day; Cersei will take advantage and use that to make him sloppy when he hunts. It’s a convenient, less messy end.”

“I’d imagine being skewed by a boar is fairly messy, little sister,” admonished Jon lightly, stepping forward to complete the offensive move with a slash. “Besides, those six moons provide me with time to set things in motion. There will be many moving parts.”

“Care to share?” teased Arthur, coming forward and nudging Jon’s leg into a better position. He adjusted accordingly.

“Not yet,” replied Jon, in the same tone. “You’ll know all before we reach Winterfell, though.”

“Very well,” said Arthur. He hesitated, and then added, “However, when the time for war is upon us, I’d imagine we’d be fighting against the Lannisters.”

Sansa didn’t manage to hide her snort. She brought a hand to her mouth, trying to cover her mirth. “There’s nothing on this planet that would make Cersei Lannister give up being queen. They are very much our enemies.”

“Then you’ll be fighting Ser Jaime,” finished Arthur quietly. “And perhaps Barristan Selmy.”

Jon slid out of form, watching Arthur. “Aye.”

Something settled on Arthur’s face. “Ser Selmy – no matter what his age – is still a fine warrior and swordsman. You are more than capable of handling him, Jon. However… Jaime was one of the finest knights I helped train; the one with the most promise.” The final words were tinged with sorrow or disappointment. “But even as a young man, he had tells. He favoured a particular series of parries… and should you come up against him, you will need to counter it.”

Jon paused before saying, in a low voice only heard by the two of them, “He, alone, came North when we asked for aid against the undead, Arthur. When the realm needed him, he came. But—”

“But?”

“Ser Jaime is a complicated man who has made many mistakes,” admitted Jon. “And who will continue to make them this time around, as well. I can only hope that time, and perhaps different circ*mstances will help usher the man who helped defend Winterfell when the Long Night was upon us.”

Arthur hummed contemplatively but taught Jon the moves.

Arya spent little time in the manse, perhaps even less than Rickon and Loras. Somehow, she had managed to find Syrio Forel, her old dancing master. He was in the process of leaving the Sealord’s employ, looking to move on to his next adventure with eyes to the west. Arya, coming upon him, snagged the man’s attention and engaged his services for private lessons, leaving her deliriously happy. The man, himself, was impressed with her skill and talent (never realizing he provided her with the foundations of their shared craft, and the Faceless Men had honed it).

Perhaps, somehow, they all knew: it was the calm before the storm.

Their stay in Braavos lent to a false sense of security and complacency, even if none of the warriors necessarily let down their guard. It was comparable to an idyllic summer, with rose-tinted nostalgia.

That came to an end, several moons later, as 297 crept forward and the events of their past lives loomed. In mid-297 AC, they heard a rumour that Daenerys and Viserys Targaryen were invited to stay at Illyrio Mopatis’ immense manse in Pentos. Soon, Daenerys would be introduced to Khal Drogo, with Viserys under the impression that the horse lord would help his triumphant return to Westeros.

“Should we intervene?” asked Robb, one evening. He glanced curiously at Jon. “They are your aunt and uncle. Family.”

Jon grimaced. “Viserys and Joffrey would get along if only their egos wouldn’t get in the way,” he admitted. “Khal Drogo had him killed.”

“And… Daenerys?” asked Maerros, sensing tension.

Jon’s grimace is more akin to a flinch, with his eyes cutting toward Sansa, Arya, and Bran. “I… my judgment is not the best when it comes to her.”

Awkwardly, Robb remembered only too late some of the accusations Sansa had let fly early on in their return to the living – was that already five years ago? – and instead changed the topic of intervening to addressing the lone female Targaryen. “Will she still want to come to Westeros in a few years?”

Both Connington and Arthur turned expectantly to Jon, eager to know the answer. Jon cringed back in his seat, and Bran, pityingly, spoke for him. “If she has her dragons, she will be the Breaker of Chains again.”

“Breaker of Chains?” asked Maerros, confused by the term.

Arya nodded. “In our past, uh, life, Daenerys took her dragons all over Essos, to Meereen, Qarth, Slaver’s Bay. She um, liberated, the slaves there and ruled for a time. She had quite a large army of Unsullied at her back when she came to Westeros with Asha Greyjoy’s fleet.”

Stunned, Arthur sputtered, “Greyjoy fleet?” while Connington just stared and asked in a breathless, confused voice, “Unsullied?”

Loras, thankfully, pulled the conversation back on track. “Will she have her dragons? How did she get them in the first place?”

“Mopatis gifted them to her,” explained Jon, comfortable in stating facts. “Three stone eggs that his men had found somewhere. Dany managed to hatch them – through some rather impressive blood magic and fire – and Drogon, Rhaegal, and Viserion were hers thoroughly. She called herself their mother.”

“It’s likely she won’t have them again, though,” interrupted Bran and contradicting himself from earlier.

“Why’s that?” asked Sansa, although there was a sense of relief in her voice. After all – she, along with Bran, had been either near or in the Godswood last time and had burned to death by dragonfire when they lost the Long Night.

“Those eggs were discovered at Summerhall,” answered Bran. “Their colours – Drogon was large and red and black, Rhaegal was green and bronze, and Viserion cream and gold.”

“There were eggs that colour as part of the collection King Aegon had on display,” added Sansa thoughtfully.

Arya started. “I saw those eggs in Summerhall. In the ruins below the great hall. They were broken pieces, though.”

Maerros said what they were all thinking. “So, her dragons from before are dead.”

Everyone turned as one to Jon’s dragons, still unnamed.

The grey one was barely distinguishable from the ash and logs, hidden behind the flames of the fireplace. He purred happy little snores and tiny puffs of smoke curled from his nostrils.

The turquoise dragon was draped across Jon’s shoulders, a familiar perch. Its nose was tucked into the neck of his tunic, seeking warmth.

The white dragon, the most vocal and opinionated of the three, was on top of a nearby bookshelf, peering down at the group and eyeing Rickon’s plate as he loaded it with fruit, nuts, meat, and bread from the platter Sara prepared for the group.

Rickon, sensing its eyes on him, bared his teeth to warn the dragon away. The dragon, in response, flapped its still useless wings and hissed.

“Anyway!” interjected Robb loudly, eyes moving between the dragon and his youngest brother, “then that is one less threat to worry about.”

“Agreed,” added Arya quickly.

“Yes, we just need to worry about Cersei,” said Sansa wryly, “And Littlefinger, and Tywin Lannister, and Varys, and then many other players in the game like Tyrion, or Doran Martell, or the Faith, or Euron Greyjoy, or—”

“You’ve made your point,” sighed Jon. “Thank you, Sansa. We’re all aware of what’s waiting for us in King’s Landing.”

“In Westeros,” corrected Bran.

“Then we’d best make sure to set the cyvasse board in our favour, should we not?” asked Sansa archly. With Jon’s nod, she turned to Loras. “I believe it’s time you write Highgarden and inform your grandmother we’ll be returning to Westeros shortly.”

“We are?” asked Loras, eyes wide. “How soon?”

Everyone turned to Jon. “We’ll begin preparations and Maerros can find us the best ship heading to White Harbour. I’d say no longer than a fortnight from now.”

“Then I must write immediately.” Loras nodded respectfully at Jon and quickly rushed from the room, in haste to compose the letter, and in excitement at seeing his family again.

That was the signal to end the conversation; Connington drew Maerros aside to discuss supplies; Arya mentioned something about seeing Syrio one last time; Sansa and Bran returned to their letters and scheming.

Jon felt something heavy land on his shoulders – that wasn’t his turquoise dragon – and realized it was the weight of expectation to not mess this future up. They weren’t going to get another opportunity.

Two days before their departure, Robb burst into Sansa’s solar, although only Connington and Jon looked at him. They, along with Bran, were going over the final pieces of closing up the Wolf’s Den except for the live-in staff, who would maintain it, and their rough outline of how long they’d be in Winterfell for in the coming months.

“Robb?” asked Jon in concern.

“Jon. You and Sansa are the closest with Rickon now, and Bran,” began Robb, running a hand through his auburn hair. It had lightened some in the Braavosi sun, with streaks of copper shining through and contrasting with the tan he gained.

“Aye…?” agreed Jon slowly.

“Good,” stated Robb. “Then perhaps you know where he is.”

“Rickon’s missing?” Jon made to get out of his seat, Connington ready to follow.

“He’s not missing,” interrupted Sansa, although she didn’t look up from the letter she was composing. She scratched out a few more words and then slid the letter toward Bran in his chair next to her to look at. He nodded thoughtfully.

“What do you mean, ‘he’s not missing’?” repeated Robb incredulously. “He and Loras haven’t returned to the Wolf’s Den in three days! They’re normally back for evening meals at least.”

“Rickon and Loras are perfectly safe,” Bran answered for Sansa, glancing at Robb. “There’s no need to worry.”

Robb sputtered in outrage, his cheeks red.

Sansa finally looked up, sighing. She turned to look at Jon and gave him a very meaningful look when she stressed, “Rickon stole Loras away a few days ago. They’re holed up in the bolthole Rickon thinks none of us know about.” She paused, glancing at Robb and spoke with a bit of amused viciousness, “Well, perhaps you didn’t know, brother.”

“Oh,” said Jon, eyes wide. He slowly relaxed back in his chair. “Ooooh.”

“Would someone kindly explain what that means?!” raged Robb.

Connington was equally confused, but kept it off his face, given that Jon seemed completely content with the answer Sansa gave.

Jon flushed. “It’s, uh, it’s a Wildling thing, Robb.”

Robb stared. “What?”

“It’s something the Free Folk do,” he tried to explain, almost wringing his hands. “Rickon was on Skagos, and they’re very close to the Free Folk, in the sense that they have similar traditions. Rickon just – well, he. He took part in one with Loras.” Jon turned wide eyes to Sansa and whispered, “Do you think Loras knows?”

“I honestly don’t think Loras will care,” replied Sansa primly.

“I’m still lost,” complained Robb. He threw himself in a free seat.

“It’s nothing bad, Robb,” patronized Sansa, hiding her rolling eyes as she turned to her desk.

Robb turned to Jon for his confirmation, and Jon gave a sharp nod. “Truly.”

“Fine,” he grumbled.

But two days before they departed, when Rickon and Loras swept into the manse to pack up their belongings, Robb ended up saying to Rickon in front of everyone, “The next time you plan on stealing someone, little brother, kindly leave a note for the rest of us so we don’t worry. By the way – what did you two get up to that whole time?”

Loras flushed very, very red, and Rickon said, in a very, very bland voice, “I will literally cut your tongue out if you ever ask me that again, big brother.”

(Robb never brought it up again – and later, after meeting Tormund, Val, and Ygritte, when he asked what it meant to be ‘stolen’… he understood and flushed very red in second-hand embarrassment.)

TBC...

Notes:

I wanted to post this chapter because I hated Qohor and wrote ahead so these and a few other scenes and chapters are done, so. Yeah. Enjoy.

Chapter 21: XXI

Summary:

The prodigal Starks return to Winterfell, with "baggage." We learn a little of the myth and legend that they left behind in the North, and Ned narrowly avoids a heart attack. And little!Jon is more observant than people give him credit for.

Notes:

Happy Canada Day, Canadians! 🍁 Happy Friday to everyone else. Or, if you're ahead in time zones, happy Saturday!

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

XXI:

Memories of Tomorrow - writing_as_tracey (21)

It was a random day, nearing the last three moons of 297, when the maester brought Olenna the sealed letter. There were no distinguishing marks on the wax, just a thumbprint to seal it shut.

“Where did this come from?” she demanded waspishly.

“From Braavos, my Lady,” the man replied, bowing and backing away.

Margaery peered at it curiously. “Do we know anyone in Braavos, grandmother?”

Olenna narrowed her eyes, unsealing the letter. There were two lines written in an unfamiliar scrawl: We plan to arrive at White Harbour in five moon’s time. I hope we’ll see you in Winterfell.

A slow, pleased curl tipped Olenna’s lips.

“Grandmother?”

Her eyes cut to her granddaughter. “Prepare your trunks, Margaery. I must inform your father and Willas immediately. We’re going to Winterfell.”

“Winterfell?” echoed Margaery incredulously, already thinking of the snow, the cold, and on the other end of the spectrum, a certain young man that made her heart beat a bit quicker. To cover that, she demanded, “We were just there a few years ago! Why are we going back?”

But Olenna stood from her seat, leaning heavily on her cane. “Never you mind that, girl.”

Margaery blinked in shock, but Olenna was already hobbling out of the room at a fast pace. Finally, she thought, her old heart beating furiously as she struggled to keep the rising emotion at bay. It’s time!

Sansa was living a song, and she loved it.

She loved every moment of her life: from the pretty, flowing gowns in Southron fashion that her lady mother helped her design, from the pretty courtesies she offered to the few knights who came to visit Winterfell – she could sigh and speak of it all for hours and never tire of it.

Her life was a song, a beautiful story like something out of the tales of magic, curses, queens and kings, and happily ever afters.

Even though she had been ten, she didn’t remember how the curse began, so Old Nan would tell the story to her and her siblings whenever they requested it (which was very, very often). Robb and Jon, and even Theon, who were old enough to remember it, would give her details Old Nan ignored or embellished (except Theon wasn’t even in Winterfell when it all happened! Father had sent him to Wintertown with the other children), playing up to her fantasies until the story almost took a life of its own – unfaithful to the truth, of course.

Old Nan’s story continued past what Sansa preferred to hear, making the tale darker and scarier to Robb, Arya, and Jon’s satisfaction while she and Bran hated it. But both stories began the same way:

Once upon a time, in a land of ice and snow, there was a beloved wolf lord and his lady, and their five children and ward. The children, some with red hair, some with black, were precious to the land of ice and snow – for before they were born, their wolf lord lost his entire pack. But one day, an evil curse befell the wolf children, as they went to sleep and failed to wake the next day, or the next, or the next.

Stricken, the wolf lord and lady did whatever they could to save their children: they asked for help from their people, from their maester, from the king, but none could give them an answer why their children would not wake from their enchanted sleep.

The wolf lord and lady went to pray to the Gods.

The lady prayed for answers, one day, two days. She prayed for a week. She prayed for a fortnight and then a sennight and then a moon, but no answers came.

The wolf lord prayed for help, one day, two days. He prayed for a week. He prayed for a fortnight and then a sennight and then a moon, but no help came.

The wolf lord and lady began to despair as their children began to waste away before them, losing strength. Their red hair dulled; the black turned ashen. Their pale faces became paler than the snow around their castle. The land mourned; certain the wolf lord’s children were to die.

Almost a moon’s turn later, when the wolf lord prayed to his Gods, a blizzard passed through the Godswood. Snow swirled around the wolf lord, not touching him, but covering the castle in freshly fallen snow and icicles.

When the blizzard died – disappearing as quickly as it came – six figures emerged from behind the weirwood tree. They stepped forward as though they had just appeared, for there were no steps in the fresh snow behind them when they stepped toward the wary wolf lord.

They wore thick furs and feather cloaks of different colours, and kept their hair and faces hidden with hoods pulled low. The men had Valyrian steel swords. The younger woman had daggers and the older woman a bow and arrows. There was a stillness to them, something otherworldly that froze the very blood in the wolf lord as he lay eyes on them. Their clothes were not snowed over, no icicles hung from their horses, and they were not touched by cold.

“Hail!” greeted the six figures. “Hail, Eddard, the Stark in Winterfell, the Warden of the North.”

The wolf lord greeted the figures politely but warily. They sensed his fear, so they spoke again:

“In return for a night’s protection in your halls, I will heal your eldest son,” said a bearded, redheaded man.

“In return for a warm meal, I will heal your eldest daughter,” said a redheaded woman.

“In return for sharpening our weapons, I will heal your youngest son,” said a second redheaded man.

“In return for mending our clothes, I will heal your youngest daughter,” said a raven-haired woman.

“In return for a place to worship the Old Gods, I will heal your middle son,” said a third redheaded man.

“In return for the peace and quiet of a good night’s rest – for we have travelled very far –, I will heal your other child,” said the last man, raven-haired as the girl and the eldest of them all.

The wolf lord had no choice – his children were in danger and these strangers from the North were the only ones who could help. He accepted and had the children brought to the Great Hall, where his lady wife and the men and women of their castle watched as each of the strange figures approached the children.

The first redheaded man approached the wolf lord’s son—

“That’s me!” crowed Robb, nearly jumping from his seat, vibrating intensely. It didn’t matter that he was nearly seven-and-ten now, Robb still enjoyed the story. “That’s me, I was healed first.”

“Young Snow was healed first, my Lord,” said Old Nan wryly, “’Tis but a story. You were all saved.”

Robb pouted as Jon sent him a smug smirk. Sansa shushed Robb smartly, turning back to Old Nan. “Please, Old Nan, please, oh please, continue!”

The first man approached the wolf lord’s son. He drew his hood back to reveal a tall, handsome man wearing a circlet of iron with nine spikes. It was the Crown of Winter.

“Hail!” said he. The man gently removed the crown and placed it on the head of the wolf lord’s eldest son. “By bronze and iron, here lies Robb Stark, King in the North, the Young Wolf! Rise, and be well!”

The boy’s eyes opened. The wolf lord and lady cried in happiness.

A woman approached the wolf lord’s daughter. She drew her hood back to reveal a tall, beautiful woman. On her neck was a shiny necklace of snowflakes in silver and white gemstones.

“Hail!” said she. The woman gently removed the necklace and placed it on the neck of the wolf lord’s eldest daughter. “By hearth and harvest, here lies Sansa Stark, Queen in the North, the Red Wolf! Rise, and be well!”

The girl’s eyes opened. The wolf lord and lady cried in happiness.

The second man approached the wolf lord’s youngest son. He drew his hood back to reveal a young man with sharp, pointed wolf’s teeth when he smiled. From his ears dangled two fangs.

“Hail!” said he. The man removed one earring and placed it in the hand of the wolf lord’s third son, no more than a babe. “By swords and spears, here lies Rickon Stark, Prince in the North, the Wild Wolf! Rise, and be well!”

The babe’s eyes opened. The wolf lord and lady cried in happiness.

The raven-haired woman approached the wolf lord’s youngest daughter. She drew her hood back to reveal a short, beautiful woman. Around her waist was a belt of dragonglass daggers, sharp and glittering like stars in the night sky.

“Hail!” said she. The woman withdrew a dagger and lay it on the chest of the wolf lord’s youngest daughter. “By mercy and justice, here lies Arya Stark, Princess in the North, the Faceless! Rise, and be well!”

The girl’s eyes opened. The wolf lord and lady cried in happiness.

The third man approached the wolf lord’s son. He drew his hood back to reveal a handsome but blind man. His coat was not fur, but thousands upon thousands of raven’s feathers.

“Hail!” said he. The man plucked one of his coat’s feathers and placed it on the chest of the wolf lord’s second son. “By earth and water, here lies Brandon Stark, Prince in the North, the Three-Eyed Raven, the Winged Wolf! Rise, and be well!”

The boy’s eyes opened. The wolf lord and lady cried in happiness.

The last man approached the last boy who was the wolf lord’s son but not the lady’s. He drew his hood back to reveal a man with hints of grey in his thick beard and hair. He wore no adornments, no crown, and while he carried a sword, he did not withdraw it.

“Hail,” said he, placing a hand on the boy’s head and the other on his chest. Frost ran up the boy’s chest and a crown of fire surrounded his head. “By ice and fire, here lies Jon, King of All. Rise, and be well.”

The boy’s eyes opened. The wolf lord and lady cried in happiness.

There was more to the story, turning darker and making mention of bloody deaths and weirwood trees, and the Long Night, but Sansa always tuned that out once the children were free of the spell because that was far more important: gallant and knightly figures coming to save them, calling them kings, queens, princes, and princesses (except Jon, who should not have the titles Old Nan gave him in the story).

Whenever Sansa had a bad day, or Arya ruined her embroidery or dress, she’d sit on her bed and tell herself, “Once upon a time,” and remember the story. And things just became better too!

Like on her eleventh nameday, when Winterfell welcomed visitors from the south, who were not related to Mother! Lady Olenna Tyrell, her round son Mace, and his son Garlan and daughter Margaery had come to visit Winterfell and discuss with Father and Lord Manderly a new trade deal for goods from the Reach. Margaery was Robb and Jon’s age, but she took to Sansa and Sansa nearly swooned in pleasure, desperately emulating the girl in begging for dresses in the same cut and wearing her hair like Margaery’s.

Mother attempted to have Robb and Margaery spend time together, and while they seemed to get along, Margaery much preferred Jon’s quiet ways – something Mother failed to see even though Robb was quick to sneak off and leave them alone (with Theon and Arya’s help), especially as they were far more interested in Garlan. He spent time in the yard, training with Father’s men and soundly beating Jory and Rodrik and Harrion, and giving Robb and Jon pointers, smirking when they completed a move correctly.

The second Tyrell son was a warrior, a knight – it was even in his name! Garlan the Gallant! Sansa and Jeyne and Beth loved watching him. His manners were so polite at the feasts, and he always danced with Sansa first out of the girls. The only disappointment was he was married and desperately in love with his Fossoway wife, who remained in the Reach.

Mace was kind and affable, but Olenna Tyrell scared Sansa, with her pointed and probing questions and looks, so she often avoided her. Still, she and Margaery became good friends and Sansa kept a steady correspondence with the girl over the years.

Father and Mother seemed to realize that Sansa was lonely, too, with only wretched, dirty, boyish Arya, because six moons after the Tyrells left, Alys Karstark visited Winterfell, with her brothers Torrhen and Eddard, leaving heir Harrion behind at Karhold. And then Maege Mormont visited four moons after that, making Arya ecstatic with her warrior daughters, Jorelle and Lyanna; Sansa retreated to be with Jeyne and Beth, practicing their needlework and gossiping.

Winterfell was never quiet again after that year, with visiting lords and ladies and their children. Sansa was happier than ever, certain Robb and Margaery were to be betrothed (she planned on asking them to let her stay in Highgarden after the wedding, since that would be where it would take place, in Highgarden’s beautiful Sept), and surrounded by like-minded ladies in Alys and Wylla and Wynafryd Manderly and Talla Umber or Eddara Tallhart.

That had been five years past, and now Sansa was four-and-ten. Her nameday was a few moons away, and she was a silly girl with her head still in the clouds, daydreaming her way from one lesson to another, even as she entered her mother’s solar with the rest of her siblings and Jon.

Their father smiled at them all, lines crinkling at the side of his eyes.

“Children,” he rumbled, taking an open parchment from Maester Luwin, who stood at Father’s side, hands in his sleeves. “We’re to receive visitors, shortly. Within a moon’s turn.”

Sansa gasped, clasping her hands together. “Oh, Father! Is it Margaery? Is she to come to visit again?”

Arya groaned. “Who cares about the stupid rose?”

Sansa glared.

“Ah, no sweetling,” said Mother. “It’s um…”

“You know the story Old Nan tells, of when you were all sick?” asked Father instead.

Sansa nodded, going a bit starry-eyed; Robb said, “Aye, Father…”

“Well, it’s not just a story,” revealed Father, causing Sansa to gasp again, eyes wide. “When you were all much younger, you were sick. And you were saved with magic.”

“Who were they, then, Lord Stark?” asked Jon, a frown on his face. “The people who saved your children?”

That’s a good question, thought Sansa primly. She nodded. Jon was always the thinker of the boys.

Father shifted in his chair, looking a bit worried as he shared a look with Mother that Sansa didn’t understand. Then, he said, “They are… not quite reflections, but they are you.”

Arya was the one who spoke first into the silence, saying what they were all thinking: “What? How?”

“Something happened and your much older selves appeared one day,” explained Father poorly. “There is… a magical reason for it. But they appeared before a weirwood tree, brought back in time by the Old Gods—”

Mother shifted uncomfortably now, pursing her lips.

“—and had the ability to save all of you,” finished Father. “They realized they couldn’t stay in Winterfell, despite being Starks, because all of you were already here. So, they left the North to go on adventures elsewhere. They’ve been travelling Westeros and Essos for the past seven years.”

“Like Old Nan’s story?” gasped Sansa.

Robb’s jaw had dropped, and he stared at Father in surprise. “And they’re coming back? To Winterfell?”

“Aye,” answered Father, looking at them both. “With them are friends of theirs, guests who will be afforded the utmost courtesies. As one of them is Ser Loras Tyrell, his family will also be visiting—”

Sansa squealed in delight.

“—so, Winterfell will be very full,” warned Father. “And all of you must be on your best behaviour. Is that understood?”

Sansa and her siblings all echoed their affirmatives, but Sansa was already thinking of the coming moon, of the dresses and feasts, and wondered how beautiful her older self was, and how much of a gentle and wonderful lady she was – she couldn’t wait to meet her!

The Tyrells arrived first, coming by ship to the White Harbour and then travelling to Winterfell with a procession of men-at-arms. Mace remained in Highgarden with his second son, Garlan, but Olenna, Willas, and Margaery joined them in Winterfell. Willas was the only one of the Highgarden Tyrells that Sansa had not yet met, other than Loras, who would be arriving soon enough.

Willas was a handsome man, Sansa mused, but not handsome enough for her, with his lame leg and grimace as he walked in the cold, careful not to slip on ice patches with his cane. Despite being the heir and one day Lord Paramount of the South, Sansa thought the only thing going for him was Highgarden’s beauty – after all, even his younger brother was married off before him. No woman would want a lame husband.

Four days after the Tyrells, a raven from White Harbour arrived written in Wyman Manderly’s hand, stating that their other, older selves had docked from Braavos with their companions and Loras, and after a few days in White Harbour, were going to be on their way to Winterfell. It sent the castle into a tizzy, with servants and maids running around, finding rooms for the other Starks and their friends, opening rooms that had been shut for decades.

A rider alerted Father and Mother of a large party approaching a fortnight later, and Sansa joined her parents and siblings in lining up to receive the group. She took care in dressing in her finest Tully-blue Southron-style dress of light silk, offset with the softest rabbit fur and thicker lining, and had her hair done similarly to Margaery’s, for all that she sniped at her lady’s maid for pulling at her hair that morn.

Her eyes glazed over a bit as she wondered what her older self was wearing. Some silk dress from Volantis? Myrish lace? In the story, she wore a necklace of jewels – would she be decked in emeralds or diamonds? Sapphires to match her own eyes, or rubies for her hair? Would she have the finest mink coat or the warmest wolf’s fur?

Father looked imposing and stern in his furs, Mother beside him in her old house colours and a faint hint of red at her cheeks from the chill in the air.

Robb had been wrestled into shaving and having his hair trimmed but looked handsome and stood tall in his place at Father’s side despite the nervous look on his face.

Arya, the heathen, had a dirt smudge on her cheek that no one addressed, and her silver gown already had three inches of mud from the hemline up.

Bran fidgeted at Arya’s side, and Rickon was at Mother’s side, and behind them stood Theon and Jon, also clean-shaven, with Maester Luwin, Ser Rodrik, and Jory. Off on Mother’s other side stood Olenna, although she was bundled in the warmest furs Mother could find for her, complaining loudly of the cold, to Willas’ and Margaery’s amusem*nt. Both Tyrell children were dressed warmly, and Margaery looked beautiful in a green cloak with a white fox fur hood.

The sound of horse hooves thundered through the gate and Sansa straightened as ten very mismatched men and women rode into the yard; Manderly knights followed behind, as an escort, bringing the number of people significantly up and crowding the receiving yard, even as stable hands and stewards stepped forward to help organize the horses and chaos.

Father was grinning though, an unusual expression enough so that Sansa did a double glance when a tall redheaded and bearded man in furs and leathers easily dismounted his horse and approached, calling gleefully, “Getting a bit grey there, Lord Stark!”

Sansa nearly gasped in shock at the insult the man would lay at Father.

However, Father chuckled and said, “Don’t think I can’t see the wrinkles from here, Robb.”

Robb, beside Sansa, choked, eyes growing wide as he eagerly looked at his older counterpart, who laughed by throwing back his head. His cloak gapped open, and Sansa saw a vivid red line across his throat. Then, he and Father were hugging, loud and heavy thumps against each other’s backs by their hands. “I’m bloody five-and-twenty! If anyone’s got wrinkles, it’s Jon.”

“Jon’s going grey,” cheerfully added the youngest redhead of the bunch, launching off his horse while the curly-haired blond man beside him copied his moves, eyes immediately on a grinning Margaery. The shared looks meant he had to be Loras Tyrell.

“I am not,” grumbled a scruffy man, somewhat close Father’s age, with his black hair pulled back in a bun.

“Are so!” teased a beautiful woman with dark hair, wearing breeches and a vest, carrying several weapons. Sansa stared, scandalized, because there was only one Stark girl that could be… “And shall we count those wrinkles on your forehead, dear brother?”

Jon was still grumbling as he wrapped Father in a hug, muttering something against Father’s face that had Father sigh and clutch the older Jon tighter. As he drew back, Sansa heard him murmur, “My boy,” and Jon reply, “Always.”

It was Jon who cleared his throat and said, “Now, I’m sure we could continue down the line, but I’m certain my knighted squire would like to see his family.”

“Knighted!” gasped Margaery, delighted. She brought her hands to her mouth, not able to hide her beaming smile. “Oh, Loras!”

Olenna looked pleased, her keen eyes roaming over her youngest grandson for any obvious hurts, and it was Willas who patted Loras on the shoulder, saying, “Well done, Loras, well done!”

“Shall we go inside?” asked a tall redhead woman, and Sansa gasped, quietly, as her older self practically glided across the snow. She was tall and lithe, wearing a dress in dark grey and –

Sansa frowned. The dress was a heavy northern fabric, nothing at all in the cut and style as the southern courts. Her hair was simply braided back, and Sansa almost self-consciously raised her hand to touch her elaborate hair design. There was also something cool in her older self’s face, her eyes sharp as they took in those standing in the yard.

“Sansa, my sweetling,” said Father, eyes misty as he looked at her. “Look at you. Even more beautiful than your mother.”

The smile was wry, twisted, on her older self’s face. “Hello, Father. Shall we go to your solar? Our companions should be introduced to you there.”

Father’s face, with his teary smile, faded, and his eyes skipped over the older Sansa’s shoulders to the three men behind the noisy Starks, although Bran seemed very quiet, needing Robb and Jon’s help to dismount from his horse and sit in a chair for some strange reason.

One of the men who had joined them was shivering, despite the numerous layers of fur surrounding him so much that his body shape was discernable. His skin was much darker than anything Sansa had ever seen before, and his hair a deep, darker black than Jon and Arya’s were (almost blue at times when the sunlight hit him), as were his eyes. He looked miserable and sniffed, teeth chattering as he pleaded in a strangely accented voice, “Yes, p-please. W-warmth w-would be n-nice.”

The other two men seemed to handle the cold better; one was tall and bald, but there were hints of red growing through the short haircut he gave himself. He wore leathers in a utilitarian design and had a sword at his hip, and Father’s frown grew more pronounced, almost in a scowl.

“He looks like an Ironborn!” whispered Theon excitedly from behind her.

“Or a sellsword,” whispered back Jon.

The last man had a scarf or neck gaiter hiding the bottom of his face and a hood drawn over his hair, leaving only a tiny tuff of a black fringe hanging low over his forehead. He wore a mix of leathers, furs, and armour that was of a knightly design – like Loras’ – and had a wrapped sword strapped to his back, nearly as large as Ice.

Father’s eyes lingered on the men, then turned back to Sansa. “Once your… companions partake in guest right, we shall retire to my solar.”

Sansa’s older self nodded, regally, Sansa thought, and then Mother was ushering her and her siblings inside. Sansa glanced once more over her shoulder before they entered Winterfell.

Whatever happened to her other self, it was clearly not a song, thought Sansa, for once very solemn, and nearly froze when she caught the icy gaze of her older self, staring at her.

She shivered. No. Not a song, at all.

The solar was cramped, without a doubt: Ned, Catelyn, and Olenna took the chairs on one side of the desk, with Luwin standing by Ned’s elbow.

Willas and Sansa gravitated to each other and stood side-by-side, heads bent toward one another, barely taking up any space in the corner they found as they caught up. Ned valiantly kept his eyes forward and away from them, although his ears were red. Catelyn’s lips were pursed as she looked at them, a bit scandalized at their coziness. The others ranged themselves either in free seats or stood; Rickon and Arya sprawled on the floor, making Catelyn’s nose wrinkle, and taking her attention away from Sansa and Willas.

Loras was the only one of those who travelled with his time-travelling children that was not in the room, electing instead to spend time with his sister and to run interference with the other Stark children, if necessary. Olenna seemed to approve of that action, anyway – and it was one Jon agreed to, whispering to his squire-turned-knight some last-minute instructions, no doubt.

Ned eyed the unknown men, who stood behind Jon as he sat in one of the few chairs before Ned’s desk. After guest rights had been established – although Jon assured Ned that neither man behind him had to partake in the bread and salt and would vouch for them, which did sit ill in his stomach – in a stern voice, Ned asked, “And who might your companions be, Jon?”

Robb was the one who cleared his throat from the other chair, gesturing to the man who took up the last guest seat in the solar, nearest the fire. “Father, may I present Maerros Maegyr of Volantis?”

Ned blinked. “Volantis? I knew you had stopped there, but—” He paused when Luwin made a strangled noise.

Maegyr?” echoed Luwin, eyes wide.

The man, Maerros, attempted a grin but his chattering teeth and slight shivers destroyed some of the image he was trying to present. “At your service,” he bit out between punctuated sniffles.

“’Ros’ grandfather is a Tiger and one of the Triarchs of Volantis,” explained Robb, making Olenna renew her perusal of the man. “In another life, I… well, I married his sister, Talisa. He’s my goodbrother.”

Ned resisted the urge to rub at his face and heave a long-suffering sigh. Only his children… “Welcome, Maerros of Volantis. Winterfell has not had a visitor from Essos in some time, especially one of the Old Blood of Valyria.”

Maerros smiled tightly, shivering a bit.

Ned’s eyes turned to the last two men, narrowing a bit. “And these men?”

Jon visibly worked his jaw for a moment, but then sighed, glancing up at the man in leathers first. “Father, you remember Lord Jon Connington?”

Ned stiffened in his seat. From the corner of the room, Willas’ cane clattered to the floor in shock.

Connington, looking rather put-upon, uneasily eyed the Lord of Winterfell. “Stark.”

“Last I saw of you, you were runnin’ from the fight when our forces overwhelmed yours,” rumbled Ned, his voice thickening into his brogue. His eyebrows met over his nose and there was an ugly, dark look to him as he stared across the space at the man.

“Really, Father,” chided Sansa, bending and picking up the cane and handing it back to Willas, “We’re all on the same side, here.”

“Are we?” spat Ned.

“My sword remains loyal to the Targaryens,” replied Connington stiffly, “And as that is Jon, who sees you as his father, Lord Stark, then… yes. We’re on the same side.” He hesitated, something dark in his face, too, when he added: “Provided, of course, you plan on supporting your nephew over the Usurper.”

Jon heaved a sigh, putting his head in a hand that was propped up by his elbow. “Griff…”

“Everythin’ I do is for my family,” growled Ned, partially rising from his seat.

“Yes, yes,” interrupted Olenna, drawling. “We can posture and argue whose side who is on later, but who is the last fellow?”

The man dipped his chin to look at Jon, but Jon had his eyes closed with a tiny frown on his face like he had a headache, so he just waved a negligent hand of approval. The man slid into a soldier’s position at rest, only deviating from that long enough to bring his hand up to draw down his neck gaiter.

Catelyn, shocked, stuttered out, “The Seven preserve us!”

Ned stared. “Howland killed you.”

“And yet,” began Arthur, waspishly in his hoarse voice, “Here I stand, Lord Stark.”

Olenna, the wizened old lady, began to shake her shoulders with her head bowed until she lifted her head, cackling with tears running down her face. She wheezed and struggled to catch her breath, causing Willas to step toward her in alarm, but she waved him off.

“No, no, Willas. This is – this is – just too much. Even – even for me,” she gasped between hiccupped breaths. When she finally regained herself, she huffed out, “Well done, Your Grace. Oh, well done.”

“It wasn’t planned,” muttered Jon mulishly.

“It was for me,” replied Arthur.

“How?” asked Catelyn.

Arthur shifted a small amount and then cleared his throat. “I have told your children, Lady Stark, and they will be the only ones to know the story. Know that I am alive and that I am the same man who fought your husband at the Tower of Joy.”

To prove it, he tugged the neck gaiter down a bit further, showing a scar like Robb’s, except his was only at the front of his throat and did not stretch as a ring around the sides and back.

No one must know who you two are,” commanded Ned, glaring alternatively at Arthur and Connington. There was going to be bad blood between them, Jon knew, and his mouth tightened. “For however long you are here, no one can know.”

“Understood,” said Arthur, his voice bland.

Connington nodded.

Ned sighed, rubbing at his temples, and turned to his children. “And how long will you be staying? As much as your mother and I want you here in Winterfell…”

“It’s not our home,” sighed Arya, “Yes, we know.”

“There’s… something will be happening shortly,” explained Robb haltingly. “We’ll remain here for that long, for certain.”

“And then?” Ned’s eyes lingered on Jon. “Is it to be war?”

Sansa replied for Jon, her mouth curled into a tiny smile. “Hardly, father. We’ve only just returned to Westeros – do you think we’ve an army hidden in reserve?”

“You’ve the Reach,” reminded Willas with a quirky, lopsided smile as he gazed at Sansa, who replied with an equally dopey, if not small, smile. It dropped somewhat when he glanced at Jon. “Your Grace.”

“And yet, still, one day, it’ll be war,” sighed Ned, pained. “I had thought…”

“It was always going to go this way,” said Bran, his voice toneless. “War for Jon’s cause, or war with five kings, or war against the undead. War was inevitable.”

Grimacing, Ned looked at his desk instead of his odd time-travelling children. Finally, he focused on Jon. “Will you make me choose?”

Jon tilted his head in confusion.

“Between the king I swore to, or my own nephew, my blood?”

Rickon hissed, a noise that was loud and rude. When Ned, startled, looked at him, Rickon spat: “We know no king, but the King in the North whose name is Stark. And that’s Jon – he was the last King in the North, and he’ll be the King of Westeros!”

Several impassive blue and grey eyes, all sharing similar shapes, stared back at him, even as Catelyn made a strangled noise. Ned had to take a moment to remind himself that Robb had first appeared wearing the Crown of Winter, and that crown had passed to Jon. Almost half of his children had been leaders while Arya, Bran, and Rickon had been a princess and princes of the realm, two of them warriors trained for battle.

“If it helps, uncle,” said Jon with a funny little smile on his face, stressing the familial title, making Ned twitch, “I promise that I won’t make a move while Robert Baratheon lives.”

Jon stood, smoothing a hand down his jerkin in a strange gesture that seemed calming but was highly affected to look regal – which, it was. Both Connington and Arthur jolted behind him to move to flank their king. Arya lazily stretched and rose to her feet, Rickon hopping to his. It seemed to signal that the conversation was over.

“I – thank you Jon,” said Ned, but his voice was quiet and hesitant, like he realized he just lost something but didn’t know what. Catelyn reached over and put a hand on his.

The Starks, Arthur, Connington, Maerros and Willas left, a large exodus leaving Ned, Catelyn, and Olenna in Ned’s solar.

The lord and lady of Winterfell glanced at Olenna when she rose to her feet, shaking her head. “You need to pick your side, Stark. Your blood, your nephew, and a rightful Targaryen king – or the childhood friend who laughed at your nephew’s half-sibling’s deaths, who stole the righteousness of your war when your father and brother died to make it about him and your sister.”

Grim-faced, Ned sat in silence with Catelyn for a long time after Olenna left, thinking of her parting words.

For the next few days, the time travellers made themselves sparse, utilizing well-known passages and memories to avoid the people of Winterfell while they went about their own plans. That left Ned and Catelyn pulling their hair out, trying to pin them down, and their original children disappointed in not being to see what they would grow up to be.

Eventually, though, the training yard was overrun with the time travellers, with Jon continuing to work with Loras despite his knighted status. Loras’ knowledge of Jon’s goals, and training alongside Arthur Dayne of all people, only encouraged him to ask to join Jon’s eventual kingsguard and as such, made him eager to continue to hone his skills to live up to the legend that was the Sword in the Morning.

So, the younger versions of Robb and Jon found themselves staring, open-mouthed, at the large, free-for-all melee the older versions were having in the training yard a snowy morning a few days after they arrived. Both Jon and Rickon – used to the cold – had their shirts off and their wounds visible for all to see; Robb wore just a tunic, while Arthur (still with his lower face covered) and Loras fought in full armour and Connington stood to the side, observing, and calling corrections as he walked the yard.

Arya was in the middle of the training, too, darting low and splashing mud on her knees and breeches as she spun, kicked, and dropped, twisting on her knees to avoid swords. Maerros was struggling with his added layers, but gamely participating in the practice, his moves like Arya’s waterdancing.

“On your left, Stark, you’re leaving it open – on your f*cking left!” shouted Connington, emphatically jabbing one hand at Robb.

“I’ll f*cking stab you, Griff!” shouted back Robb, panting as he dodged under Rickon’s sword, who mercilessly took advantage of the opening pointed out with a smile that was all teeth.

Connington ignored the rejoinder, his eyes keenly picking other details. “Maerros, are you planning on worshipping for the rest of the day? That’s some sloppy footwork foundation you’ve got there – widen your stance else you’ll be kneeling and dead!”

Maerros whined, trying to adjust despite the rounded padding his layers of fur gave him. There was sweat coating along his hairline and his face was flushed but he refused to lose any of the warmth he acquired in the borrowed furs. Arya took pity on him and gave him time to adjust.

“Art, you—”

Arthur stopped fighting and slowly turned on his heel to face Connington. Despite not being able to see his entire face, there was something that lent the idea that Arthur was levelling Connington with a deadly glare, especially when he said in the sternest voice he could muster, “Griff, if you say one thing to me, of all people, about my fighting style and technique, I will ground your face in the dirt, do you understand me?”

Connington scowled and crossed his arms, ignoring Arya’s snigg*rs. He muttered lowly, but he kept his commentary to himself even as the younger Robb and Jon approached.

“Ser,” began Robb hesitantly, drawing Connington’s eyes, “Are they… are we truly such poor fighters in the future that we need this kind of help?”

Connington rolled his eyes. “What do you think, young Stark? Does that look like a poor warrior?”

Robb and Jon turned back to the yard, eyeing their respective older selves. Jon shook his head. “They’re awfully good,” he said, shades of jealousy in his voice.

“Yes, they are,” agreed Connington. “But even the best swordsman can make improvements. And it is good practice to fight multiple opponents since wars aren’t fought one-on-one.”

“Are you a knight, then, Ser Griff?” asked Robb eagerly.

“Once,” replied Connington, a bit bitterly. “And a lord, until it was all taken from me. I was a sellsword for over a decade before I met up with them in Lys.”

The three were silent, although it was clear Connington was struggling to keep his opinions in when he shifted and jerked, watching the practice melee. Eventually, Robb murmured, “I didn’t think I’d see Arya doing this.”

“What, fighting?” scoffed Connington, hearing him.

“She’s always been sneaking off to practice,” reminded Jon to Robb in a low voice.

“Aye… but there’s one thing seeing our Arya practicing and then seeing that Arya and knowing she’ll be deadly,” said Robb carefully.

“Your sister is an excellent warrior,” said Connington, eyeing Arya’s swift movements against Maerros, who gave a final groan and collapsed against a wooden fence, yielding to her. “Far more than you even know by looking at her. But she’s used to fighting single duels. See, even here? She fought Maerros and beat him down, ignoring her brothers and Art and Loras. Her specialty is finding and subduing enemies quickly, but that’s not always realistic. So, she’s encouraged to participate in these spars.”

“She moves differently,” commented Jon, eyeing her thin, rapier-like sword.

“She’s a waterdancer,” explained Connington. “It’s a fighting style made famous in Braavos. From my understanding, your father hired the First Sword of Braavos as her teacher for a few moons and she continued her training herself before picking it up again later.”

Jon stood in silence for some more, watching the melee with Robb and Ser Griff as Loras and Rickon naturally squared off; for all that Rickon was a vicious fighter, he was a brawler first and like Arya, seemed used to fighting on his own. In due time, he was subdued by Loras’ carefully placed blows and unyielding presence, wearing Rickon’s energy down when forced to overcompensate to defend himself.

When he finally lost his sword, Rickon laughed cheerfully and swaggered off.

Griff sighed and muttered under his breath, “He’s too soft on that boy.”

Loras turned to fight Arya; the elder Robb and Jon, and Art, made a three-way fight, although Jon and Robb seemed to have teamed up against Art.

Robb whistled at the coordinated attack his elder self and Jon were making against the man who refused to remove his neck gaiter. “You’d think Ser Art would be panicking. Look at how good our older selves are!”

“He’s playing with them,” scoffed Connington, and then sighed. “He’s always been the best knight in the realm and the years haven’t changed that.”

Jon looked at Connington curiously, before turning back to watch his older self. A lucky blow against Robb’s arm had him dropping his blade, swearing. He shook his throbbing hand and flexed it for feeling. He began to rub it with his other, shaking his head and stepping back from the melee.

Loras and Arya finished, deciding on a mutual draw, and had retired to the edge of the yard with Maerros, Robb, and Rickon, watching Jon and Art.

“He’s good,” muttered Robb, but Jon didn’t know who he meant. “It’s a close fight.”

“Art is the best sword in all of Westeros,” Connington reiterated with a sad, heavy sigh, “And it’s a shame Jon was robbed of growing up learning from him. He’d be even better than he is now.”

The younger Jon at his side glanced up at him in confusion. The way that had been structured – like Ser Art and Jon were supposed to be a done deal – had him frowning. Had Art known his mother? Were they related?

Art won, but it was a close thing. Both men were slick with sweat and panting heavily. The time-travelling Jon took his loss graciously, clapping Art on the shoulder and saying something to him while the Stark guards around them erupted into cheers and hollers, some even passing coin around.

“Come,” said Connington, startling Jon. “There’s no one better for you to learn from than your older selves.”

Robb’s face lit up and he immediately raced across the yard, skidding to a stop before his older mirror image, looking up at him and already begging for pointers.

Jon was slower, hesitant. His older self confused him: Jon was a bastard, the stain on Lord Stark’s honour, even if life was much better than it had been before he fell sick and couldn’t wake, like the rest of his half-siblings.

Before, Lady Stark was cold and ignored him wherever she could. Lessons with Maester Luwin had been easing off for more time spent on Robb and Theon and their lord’s lessons. Jon had even been slowly relegated to eating in the hall with the servants and lower tables.

After, there had been a significant change. Jon was placed back in Robb and Theon’s lord’s lessons, and other lessons were increased in diplomacy and warfare. He ate at the high table with the rest of the Starks, and whenever he saw Lady Stark, she had a pinched look on her face. The coldness didn’t go away, but she was not as cutting as before, and she didn’t stop him from spending time with Robb, Arya, or Bran.

But his older self… he moved like he knew his place and didn’t have a single care in the world. His shoulders were drawn back, and he stood proudly, confidently. He looked people in the eye and gave his opinion readily. People listened to him when he spoke. And… although he was sure Robb hadn’t picked up on it yet, Ser Art and Griff both deferred to Jon, like he was the heir to Winterfell rather than Robb.

He lingered behind, unsure if he should join the large group of Starks and his older self’s companions, hovering just to the side and looking in. His shoulders were curled and he had one hand gripping his arm, and eventually, he backed away.

Margaery found him on his way to the Godswood, a sullen look on his face. “What’s wrong?”

“I…” Jon huffed. How could he explain? “What are your thoughts on… my older self?”

“Lord Jon?” confirmed Margaery, and Jon wrinkled his nose. Was he that much of a ponce in the future that he would go around affecting a title? Did he even have a title? How did he get it?

“Aye.” Jon pushed the gate to the Godswood open, and after a moment’s pause, Margaery joined him.

“He’s quiet,” she began after a few moments, walking with him as they took a meandering path to the weirwood heart tree. “Careful, meticulous. The way he fights is… brutal. Effective. He’s very kind, though. His speech to Loras at his nameday feast was incredibly kind. It was obvious he hadn’t wanted to take on Loras as a squire, but when he agreed, it was as though Loras became a Stark. He was part of the pack.”

Jon hummed and they turned into the clearing before the weirwood tree. He stared up at it, his brows furrowed.

“Why do you ask?”

Jon turned to Margaery. “He confuses me.”

“How so?” she asked, moving to the rock his Lord father usually sat on when thinking, spreading her skirts, and folding her hands in her lap as she stared up at him.

“I can’t see how I’d ever… I’d ever rise high enough to be granted a title,” began Jon, tongue thick as he tried to form the words. Margaery didn’t interrupt. “And… and Ser Griff and Ser Art. They are my older self’s companions, not Robb’s. But Robb is the heir to Winterfell – you’d think that he of all people would have two incredibly talented swordsmen as his guard. Not… not me.”

“What makes you think they’re his guard?” asked Margaery. When Jon glanced at her, she was frowning contemplatively.

“They follow me. Erm, older me. They obey his instructions and orders. Their eyes follow him,” rattled off Jon quickly. “They… not so much Ser Art, but Ser Griff… he… it’s like the second he takes his eyes off my older self, he’ll vanish.”

Margaery nodded slowly. “I’ve seen this, too.”

“And—”

“And?”

“Ser Griff said something strange earlier,” admitted Jon quietly, stepping closer to Margaery as he dropped his voice to something like a whisper. “He said that… that had I grown up with Ser Art, like I should have, he’d have trained me in the sword, and I’d be even better than I was now.”

“You think Ser Art knew your mother,” surmised Margaery, eyes distant as she thought. “Or is related to you, perhaps an uncle.”

Jon nodded. “That would explain him, but… not Ser Griff.”

“Unless Ser Griff was a friend of Ser Art’s from childhood or knew your mother, too,” she argued, glancing at him.

Jon’s shoulders slumped. “Not that I would know. Father – Lord Stark – still refuses to tell me anything about her.”

“I’ll see what I can find out,” offered Margaery, offering Jon a bit of a wicked grin as she stood from the rock. “Willas must know something – he was in that large meeting they had when they first arrived, with Grandmother. And if he won’t say anything, Loras will. Loras could never keep a secret from me before.”

“It’s been five years,” argued Jon, “Are you sure he’ll still cave?”

Margaery smirked. “Would you not if Arya came begging to you?”

Jon gave a tiny laugh. “Aye, true enough, my Lady.”

“Come,” began Margaery, nudging Jon’s elbow into position so she could slip her hand in the crook, “It’s nearly time for the evening meal. Escort me back to my room so I can dress?”

“Of course,” he agreed with a matching smile, and the two left the Godswood, beginning a light discussion on a book they had both read from Winterfell’s library until they reached her rooms.

Neither addressed the heavy topic Jon brought up between them, but the words lingered, and both privately vowed to learn the truth – no matter what.

TBC...

Notes:

And we're now at the end of the written chapters, so you'll go back to waiting for when I can get to the next. I hope you enjoyed these and the quick updates!

Chapter 22: XXII

Summary:

Willas and Sansa have a moment that Robb doesn't care to know more about; Ned is introspective. And the Stark children reunite with some old (and meet some new, and complicated!) friends.

Notes:

Recognizable dialogue is from the pilot episode of Game of Thrones.

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

XXII:

Memories of Tomorrow - writing_as_tracey (22)

She’s plotting something, thought Willas, a fond smile creeping on his lips as he observed Sansa, seated at a vanity table as she brushed her long, red hair. There was something in her gaze – which he could only see through the reflection of the polished glass – that made his heart stumble.

Initially, when the Starks returned to Westeros, he wasn’t sure if Sansa would want to continue the arrangement they began in Highgarden. It had been five years – and seeing the swarthy Maerros whose Maegyr lineage was significantly longer than his Tyrell – he was sure that she had had other lovers.

But that wasn’t the case; they fell back into the same patterns they created in Highgarden, and within a day or two of reacclimatizing to Winterfell, Willas found Sansa in his bed… and finding a place in his heart, as well.

Although he felt like an awkward boy and not a man of six-and-twenty, he disliked hiding the full nature of his relationship with Sansa. He was hoping to one day turn his lover into his wife, and the future Lady of Highgarden – except he was sneaking around with her under her own father’s nose in his own house!

Sansa didn’t seem to care, though; she was entirely comfortable in his presence, as evidenced by her very thin, very see-through Essosi sleep garment that left her entire back – with her scars – on display. Willas felt a warm glow spread through him at the thought of her comfort and trust in him, although it certainly warred with anger at the sight of her scars. And now that he was in the North… so close to the one who committed the crime (in another timeline), he wanted to do something about it.

But, he also thought she did as well. Hence – “You’re plotting.”

Sansa’s blue eyes caught his in the polished glass. Her lips curled into a smile. “When am I not?” She then turned on her seat, swinging her knees around. “Aren’t you doing the same?”

“Oh, undoubtedly,” he agreed, sitting up slightly as he propped himself up against his pillow. He felt a surge of masculine pride as Sansa’s eyes dipped to his naked chest. “But I don’t think we’re plotting against the same people, dearest.”

“Division of labour, though,” she lightly protested, rising and walking toward him, and then crawled up onto the bed. “I handle my enemies, you handle yours, and together we change the world. I don’t see a problem with that.”

Willas scoffed, although his green eyes were crinkled at the corner as he teased, “If you don’t think your enemies aren’t mine either – regardless of Highgarden’s support for your brother –, we need to have a serious discussion.”

“Oh?”

His gaze darkened. “Did you honestly think I wouldn’t study the North in the years since? That I wouldn’t learn everything I possibly could about your ancestors, your history… and your enemies?”

Sansa’s eyes narrowed.

“Specifically, one enemy that the Starks may have subjugated in their past, but are greedy, cruel bastards?” Willas gave her a knowing look. “I did my research, sweetling. I sent my spies out.” His fingers skimmed up her back, lingering over the puckered, long-healed scars. “I know who did this. I know what he’s capable of. What he’s doing now.”

Sansa’s narrowed gaze remained on Willas, and he met her stare in a challenge. She then shifted so she hovered above him, letting her hair become a curtain that hid her words as she leaned down and murmured against his lips, “Are you planning on stopping him, Willas?”

“Yes,” he breathily replied.

“I fed him to his own hunting dogs,” she continued, eyes locked on his. His pupils were blown wide, and he barely blinked. She felt his chest rapidly rise and fall beneath her. “Can you improve upon that?”

“I’ve imagined his death thousands of times,” revealed Willas, shifting beneath her. “I’m sure one or two might be comparable.”

Sansa smirked, and she let her body fall on his. Willas wrapped his arms around her to hold her against him. She then crooned, “Tell me.”

Willas gave her a rather naughty grin, rolling them both so he was on top. His mouth skimmed down her neck to her collarbone, and he nosed the edges of her Essosi gown away from her breasts. “As you wish, dearest…”

Later, when they caught their breaths and the sweat began to cool and they were both languid in the late morning sun, Willas caught Sansa’s hand in his and pressed a kiss to the back of it. “Whatever it is you wish to do – I will support it.”

Sansa’s returning smile was beatific. “Willas…”

A pounding on the bedroom door had both turn their attention toward it.

“I know you’re in there, Sansa, so don’t deny it,” called Robb through the thick door, voice laced with exasperation and fondness. “And I don’t bloody want to know what you’ve both been up to, given that it’s nearly midday meal. But you should know that Ser Rodrik just told Father that a deserter from the Night’s Watch has been caught and he’s going to be riding out shortly to execute him.”

Robb, at the other side, paused. Sansa was trembling against Willas, in excitement, making him glance at her.

“It’s time, Sansa.”

“Go,” urged Willas with a smile. Sansa gave him a quick peck on the lips and then threw back the bedsheet, uncaring of her naked state, and began rummaging for her dress. “I look forward to meeting Lady.”

“As am I,” replied Sansa, clutching her dress to her chest. Her eyes were watery. “As am I.”

The two sets of Starks in one Winterfell soon fell into habits, although there were confusing moments for the servants who weren’t always sure about the chain of command – so Ned set that straight that the older Starks were guests and were to be treated as such; and for the most part, that worked out well as his older set of children went out of their way to be as unobtrusive as possible.

Sansa never asked for new fabrics or the seamstress to come to visit, and certainly never asked for a lady’s maid, which made Catelyn very confused, to the point that she once entered her room and abruptly left, confessing to Ned later that she saw Arya helping Sansa braid her hair back for that evening’s meal. The fact that the two older Stark girls were thick as thieves, while their younger counterparts were still at each other’s throats was enough for Catelyn to decide to not intervene – thus, she spent most of the Starks’ visit staring at them all in wide-eyed confusion.

(They were both in denial, as well, with how close Sansa seemed to be with Willas Tyrell, but Ned, who only wanted his daughters to find “good, kind, honourable” matches was disinclined to speak against the Tyrell heir. But he also was blissfully in as much denial as he could manage about how close the two were in how they skirted around propriety… especially after he caught their return from the glass gardens with twigs in both their hair and clothing. He did not tell Catelyn about that.)

Bran, stuck in his chair and unable to climb, was either in Winterfell’s library or the Godswood, and scared his younger self enough that their Bran went out of his way to avoid his older self, instead choosing to pester the older Robb and Jon (and, thought Ned grouchily, Connington and Dayne, for tips on his archery and swordplay). Bran’s avoidance was, perhaps, not because of the chair, but because of the monotonous way Bran spoke and the eerie, dark gaze he often settled on people (Theon, mostly), that unnerved them all.

Catelyn did, once early on, try to stop Arya from joining the others in the training yard, but that went over as well as it did with their youngest daughter: an order that was largely ignored. The older Arya oftentimes joined Robb, Rickon, Loras, and Maerros in their training (especially as the Volantine man was slowly becoming used to the chill of the North), and other times, she disappeared from Winterfell, boggling Ned’s mind in how she slipped out. He’d been worried, of course, as she was his daughter regardless of her age, but none of her other older siblings (or Loras, or Maerros, or even Connington and Dayne) seemed to be worried, so Ned tried not to be worried, either.

Robb was prone to moody fits of temper that only Jon or Maerros could pull him out of, much to Ned and Catelyn’s worry. Their Robb, his younger self, seemed perplexed at the dark turns the older man took – snappish, cruel in comment, and, later when those tempers would occur, drunk after Jon would pull him from Wintertown’s tavern, reeking of ale and sweat and blood, and suffering terrible hangovers the following day. The sight made Theon bounce between giddy – finally, Robb was doing what he enjoyed! – and terribly worried – Robb was very much acting out of character! – but Ned knew it came down to what Robb had experienced in the previous timeline and was related to how he became the King of Winter and received that awful scar around his neck…

Maerros was a perfect houseguest, and fond of Luwin. They often shared knowledge and the Maester was diligently updating many tomes in the Winterfell library or ordering new texts from Braavos. Ned liked Maerros: he was considerate, kind with his children (both sets), and when Jon disappeared, was there to prop Robb up and keep him busy and entertained. Ned was also sure that Maerros was equally as fond as Luwin as he was that the library’s reading nook had a large, perpetually tended-to fireplace.

Rickon was just as feral as his younger self, although Ned felt it was now mostly coiled, a writhing beast buried in Rickon’s chest that was just waiting for the right moment to erupt. He saw glimpses of it, during his sword training, and when he took out his daggers – the boy was irrationally fond of them in a way that disturbed Ned – but then he saw him, his sweet youngest child, whenever he was with his siblings or Loras (mostly Loras).

Jon – Ned sighed, staring out of his solar window and toward the Wolfswood, where he was certain he’d find his nephew and his companions. They’d often spend the mornings away from Winterfell and the family, returning early midafternoon, and then rejoin the others in training, meals, or conversation.

He couldn’t quite figure out his son – and Jon was his son, for all that he raised him and treated him as such. He may have been his nephew by birth, but Ned loved him like his own, like Robb, Bran, and Rickon, and that was never going to change. But that didn’t mean he understood.

So much had happened to Jon in his previous life and Ned barely knew any of it. He knew that Jon had gone to the Wall; he knew that he had travelled extensively as Jone spoke of places north of the Wall, of Hardhome, the Frostfangs, and then he even had detailed information about Dragonstone and King’s Landing. Ned knew that Jon knew who his birth parents were; he knew that the Long Night was coming, with the Night King and his army of wights, and that Daenerys Targaryen had come to Westeros with dragons.

He knew that Jon had died.

But that was it.

He could infer things – the scars, the way Jon’s eyes carefully watched those around him, the way he kept his back to walls and never to people…

“My Lord.”

Ned looked up; he had been so lost in thoughts he hadn’t heard the knock on his solar door – the sun was further than he thought it would be and felt a twinge of disappointment at missing Bran’s archery lesson. Ser Rodrik stood just inside the room.

“Ser Rodrik?”

“The men have caught a deserter from the Night’s Watch,” the man explained. “We await you to ride out, my Lord.”

Ned heaved a sigh and stood. A lord’s work – and that of the Warden of the North – never ended. “Find the boys and tell them. Bran, as well. He’s old enough to come now. Then, saddle my horse. We’ll ride out shortly.”

“Aye, my Lord.”

He tidied his solar and then left, making a detour to find Catelyn, and let her know his plans. There was a tense moment when she thought Bran was too young, but Ned put his foot down. Bran was a Stark, of the North, and he would witness Northern justice.

When he finally arrived in the yard, he saw Robb and Jon easily enough, helping their younger brother onto his horse, and Theon holding the reins to keep it steady. But then he did a doubletake, spotting the elder Robb and Jon and Maerros, with Sansa and Arya already on their horses. Rickon and Loras were also there, passing japes and looking far too happy to go to an execution. With a grimace of distaste, Ned’s eyes lingered on Connington and Dayne – both still disguised – as they joined the group.

It was a far larger number of people than Ned had expected to witness an execution, but time was of the essence. He mounted his horse and grimly called, “Let’s ride,” leading the procession from the gates.

He was lost in his thoughts for the ride, barely noticing Loras, Rickon, Jon and Connington gallop away and return with bundles of twigs and branches, until he spotted the outriders that patrolled the Stark lands. They were alongside members of House Cerwyn, as they approached their shared border. The Night’s Watch deserter had made it much further than he had thought.

There was some ruckus in dismounting – especially with Rickon in the group – but then Ned approached. Vaguely, he could see in his periphery that Robb and Jon had arranged Bran to line up behind them, along with their elder counterparts, which made the Night’s Watch deserter do a doubletake himself.

As Ned stopped before the man, he saw how skinny, pallid, and chilled he was – and importantly, how young. His fingers were frostbitten, as were his cheeks and nose, and his Night’s Watch clothing was nothing more than tatters. His eyes were wide, uneasily darting around, finally latching onto Ned.

“White Walkers,” he whispered through chapped lips. Ned strained to hear him, and his voice rose, in panic. “I saw the white walkers. White walkers. The white walkers, I saw them.”

Ned’s eyes narrowed, and he fought to glance back at his elder children. The men around him, from Winterfell, shifted uneasily at the words the young man stuttered. Theon, just hovering by his elbow with Ice, radiated disbelief.

The brother looked around, at the Winterfell and Cerwyn soldiers, at the Stark children, and then back at Ned. He began to plead, “I know I broke my oath. And I know I’m a deserter. I should have gone back to the Wall and warned them, but…”

He swallowed, his voice low. “I saw what I saw. I saw the white walkers. People need to know.”

Unnerved, one of Rodrik’s men shoved him to his knees before the executioner’s nook in the stone. The man went willingly, still looking at Ned and begging him to believe, to give some final words.

“If you can get word to my family… tell them I’m no coward. Tell them I’m sorry,” he choked. “Forgive me, Lord.”

Grimly, Ned glanced at Theon. He stepped forward and presented Ice’s hilt. Ned withdrew the great sword and let his voice carry.

“In the name of Robert of the House Baratheon, the first of his name, King of the Andals and the First Men, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms, and protector of the realm… I, Eddard of the House Stark, Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North, sentence you to die.”

It was quick, the beheading. Clean, too, and when Ned turned to give Ice to Rodrik to clean, he saw Bran’s pale face – but also Sansa and Arya’s placid ones. Whatever happened to them in their past lives, beheadings, or death, were common enough that neither woman had flinched.

“We need to burn him,” said the elder Jon, stepping out of the line he and his siblings had made.

“It’ll take too much time—” Ned wanted to protest, but Rickon and Loras were already preparing a pyre while Connington dealt with the body. They were using the twigs and branches they collected earlier. They had planned for this. Ned snapped his mouth shut and instead turned to comfort Bran.

“You did well.” He smiled down at his secondborn son. “You understand why I did it?”

Bran’s confused face scrunched as he looked up at him. But he then turned away, back to his horse. “Jon said he was a deserter.”

Ned pursed his lips and tried again. “But do you understand why I had to kill him?”

Bran bit his lips. “‘Our way is the old way’?” he guessed.

“Aye. The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword,” agreed Ned solemnly.

He made to help Bran up on his horse when Bran paused again, looking at Ned with wide, dark eyes. “Is it true he saw the white walkers?”

It was on the tip of Ned’s tongue to reply, the white walkers have been gone for thousands of years, but that wasn’t true. Jon, Sansa, Arya, and Bran all swore that they died at Winterfell during the Long Night. They had fought wights; Jon had seen and fought an Other. Instead, he quietly offered, “A man sees what he sees. Neither of us has been Beyond the Wall, so perhaps the tales are true.”

Bran’s face pinched worriedly, but Ned handed him his reins to take, effectively ending the conversation there. If Bran had nightmares, he’d deal with that – and Catelyn – later. The rest of their party mounted, except for those building the pyre.

“We’ll catch up shortly,” said Jon, effectively bidding him to continue and back to Winterfell.

With Jon’s permission, the elder Robb, Sansa, Arya and Maerros spurred their horses and quickly galloped away, Arya’s whoops of joy heard by everyone.

What’s gotten into them? he wondered, blinking at their quick disappearance over the hill. He urged his horse after them, but at a much slower pace, lingering even a bit so that Jon and Rickon could catch up, which they did.

There was a wild grin on Rickon’s face, and he kept stumbling over his words and tripping into the Old Tongue when speaking to Loras, who seemed to have no trouble keeping up in understanding what he said. The only recognizable words to Ned were “soon,” and “Shaggydog,” whatever that was.

As they meandered through a grove, Ned saw Sansa, Arya, Robb, and Maerros’ horses set aside and standing loose, one of them drinking from the nearby stream. Confused, he started to peer around, looking for the wayward Starks, when Jory exclaimed, “Gods be good! What is that?”

Just further past the horses was the carcass of a stag – large, once proud and majestic – savaged by something with claws and teeth. It blocked the dirt path through the forest and toward Winterfell, but that wasn’t what drew his guard’s eyes.

Standing on the bank of the stream were six direwolves, of varying colour and size. Fear arrested Ned’s heart when he realized that Sansa had the smallest of the wolves – a grey wolf with citrine eyes – hugged tightly against her, its paws draped over her shoulders and standing on its hind legs as tall as his eldest daughter.

At first, he thought she was being bitten, but as he dismounted, he realized that the wolf was licking all over her face and erupting with tiny, excitable yips.

“Oh, oh, Lady, I missed you!” cried Sansa, and Ned then realized: his children’s counterparts knew these wolves.

Robb was already pressing his forehead against a large smoky grey wolf, murmuring softly as he petted its ruff, digging his fingers into the fur. Arya was covered in mud, play-wrestling with her incredibly large grey wolf, laughing and crying.

The two largest wolves – a white albino with red eyes and a pitch-black wolf with green eyes – sat on their haunches, patiently waiting next to a silver-grey direwolf that was closer to the size of Robb and Arya’s wolves. At the sight of the wolves, though, Rickon, near the back of the group, flung himself from his saddle and hit the ground, practically stumbling over himself to reach the black wolf.

That wolf rose and loped toward him until they were a mess on the forest floor, covered in pine needles and twigs. Rickon, with tears streaming down his face, kept crying, “Shaggy! Shaggy!” Ned turned his face away because it was the first time he had seen his fierce youngest son be so emotional.

Jon, with Connington and Dayne both eyeing the wolves warily, approached the albino and threw his arms around its neck in a tight hug.

The last must be Bran’s direwolf then, thought Ned, flabbergasted.

“That’s a direwolf,” breathed Rodrik, eyes wide.

“There’s no direwolves south of the Wall!” protested someone else.

“And now there are six,” replied Ned, vaguely amused. This must have been the event Robb and Jon had mentioned waiting for.

“Actually,” began Sansa, letting her wolf down from the full-body hug, “That’s not quite true.”

Ned blinked at her, and Maerros pointed further downstream. He pivoted on his heel and took a step forward to peer around the massive form that was Arya’s wolf – even laying down next to a breathless Arya, the direwolf was the size of a pony and the bulk of an ox – and saw a wriggling mass of black-brown-and-red in a nest of leaves and broken branches. A mass of black-brown-and-red that squeaked.

Bran’s direwolf, with a much-too-human knowing look, trotted over to the mass, and sat next to it, nudging one brown blob with his nose. The blob squeaked in surprise and reared back, rolling over its rear and revealing a tiny, squirming direwolf pup with yellow eyes.

Helplessly, Ned turned his eyes on his time-travelling children, but his Robb had already wadded over and picked that pup up by its scruff. Bran, curious, followed, with stars in his eyes.

“You want to hold it?” asked Robb, grinning as he plopped the wolf in Bran’s arms.

Bran nearly swooned with pleasure. “He’s so soft!”

“There’s six of them,” Ned’s nephew exclaimed, kneeling next to the litter, and glancing between it and his older counterpart and his albino wolf. None of the pups matched its colour. “The direwolf is the sigil of your house, Lord Stark. Robb and Bran – and Sansa, Arya, and Rickon – are meant to have them.”

Behind his Jon, he saw his older counterpart mouth along to the beginning of what he said, and Ned internally sighed. So, this had happened before. He brought his hand to his mouth, hiding a tiny smile. Once he was certain it was wiped away, he looked sternly at his sons.

“There are six pups, so that means one is for you, Jon. As it is, you will train them yourselves,” he ordered. “You will feed them yourselves. And if they die, you will bury them yourselves.”

“Yes, Father!” chorused Robb and Bran, sharing a grin. Between Robb and Jon, they divided up the direwolf pups, handing two squirming tawny-coloured ones to a terrified Theon to hold as they mounted their horses; Rodrik helped hold the ones they chose until they were settled and then hurriedly passed them over.

“Where’s their mother?” asked Bran curiously, looking around.

“The mother died fighting the stag,” replied Rickon, standing next to his direwolf, which almost topped him in height. “At least, ours did.”

“None of the stag’s antlers were broken off,” argued Rodrik, glancing back at the corpse. A few of the Stark soldiers had tied its limbs together and dragged it to their horses for transport back to Winterfell. “If the bitch died, it wasn’t from that.”

“There’s no blood,” offered Maerros, glancing around.

“Perhaps it is a gift from the Old Gods,” added Dayne, although his hoarse voice was dry and Ned instinctively bristled, hearing the man speak of Ned’s Gods and not his. The man was teasing, though. Despite not being able to see the smile behind the man’s cowl, his purple eyes crinkled at the side and Jon – Ned’s breath caught in his chest – sent a wide grin at Dayne in response.

It was a bizarre enough look that the younger version of Jon stared, wide-eyed. But it was Connington’s stupefied expression that arrested Ned, and it only took him a moment to realize that while Jon had Lyanna’s mouth, he had Rhaegar’s smile and Connington was seeing a ghost.

At that moment, Ned felt very, very old… and very, very sad.

Without a doubt, Ned’s children loved their new direwolves. Presenting them when they returned to Winterfell was an utter joy, and Robb, Jon, and Bran were already beyond smitten with theirs; within minutes Sansa, Arya, and Rickon would be, too.

The elder Starks had already offered some insights and suggestions in training them – Robb’s large wolf, Greywind, was exceptionally well behaved, despite the spooked horses. It wasn’t until Ned was closer that he realized that Greywind and Shaggydog – Rickon’s wolf – had fur missing along their bellies and flanks and that Greywind had a matching (and disturbing) ring of lost fur around his neck.

The implication of Robb’s scar, and Greywind’s, made Ned’s mind stutter to a halt. It took a moment more to realize that the missing bits of fur was from arrows. A keen eye turned to Lady saw a missing patch of fur at the side of her neck – a clean kill, that one – while Nymeria had no discernable markings. Summer had long gashes on his flank and belly and neck like something had clawed him, and Ghost had matching gashes as well as a partial ear and scar across his snout.

Whatever happened to the wolves, it happened to his children. And he could only pray that the other set, the younger Stark children, would avoid their fate.

His stricken expression, even as he stood off to the side in silence watching as Robb and Jon handed off the tawny and red-furred direwolves to little Sansa and Arya, caught the older Jon’s attention.

He wandered to him, waving off Dayne and Connington. When he reached his uncle, he pressed his back to the stable wall and watched his counterpart for a moment in silence. Finally, he broke it.

“You’re scared.”

Ned felt the initial reaction to refute the statement. But then he nodded. “Aye,” he said quietly.

“Why?”

“Because I see what has happened to your wolves and I fear the same happened to you,” he admitted, glancing at Jon. He was still looking ahead. “Robb’s scar – and Greywind—”

“They were killed at the same time,” admitted Jon, equally quiet. “Murdered, actually.”

Ned shuddered.

“Summer saved Bran’s life. Ghost was with me nearly all the time when I was North of the Wall,” continued Jon blithely, providing far more information than he had ever given before. “Shaggy… Shaggy was killed before Rickon was but by the same man. Nymeria was still alive when we died, I think. Arya never spoke much about her wolf, but there had been rumours of a she-wolf terrorizing people in the Riverlands and Crownlands. And Lady… well, she died first.”

“What happened to her?” asked Ned, although he wasn’t sure he wanted to know the answer.

Jon just looked at him. “You killed her.”

Ned reared back. “I—what?”

“There was something of an encounter with Joffrey—the crown prince—from my understanding,” said Jon, carefully modulating his voice so his annoyance and anger at the situation – and people involved – didn’t bleed through. “You agreed these wolves were the sigil of our house, and they protected us beyond any threat. And yet, when Robert ordered it, you had Lady killed because Arya was smart enough to run Nymeria off to save her life.”

Ned tried to answer but his throat was swollen and tongue, thick.

Jon glanced at him. “It was an unavoidable situation, Uncle. But these wolves are a part of us. It was like a part of Sansa died that day. Remember that if this should happen again.”

“Gods,” breathed Ned, rubbing at his face. “What was I thinking?”

“That you were scared,” answered Jon. “Worried about your children and the future. Feeling overwhelmed and in over your head. Wondering why you were heading south – what good you were going to do. I remember.”

Ned gave Jon a strange look. “You weren’t there.”

“No, but Sansa and Arya told me later.” Jon gave him a wry smile. “And I felt the same way when I became the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. I was facing an overwhelming task, with failure all but guaranteed. I was scared then. I imagine so were you.”

Ned thought about what Jon said, as the two fell into a companionable silence. The noise of the yard began to die out as people disappeared, horses stabled, and the Stark children inside to lessons or the kitchen to feed the direwolves. There was barely anyone around, and those that were – like Connington and Dayne – were far enough away that a quiet conversation would not be overheard.

“It was never about you or Robert,” he said, almost nonsensically.

“Hmm?” Jon turned to him, a quizzical furrow to his eyebrows.

“When you first arrived – in my solar – I asked if I would have to choose.” Ned uncharacteristically stumbled over his words, feeling a bit flushed. But he had to have Jon know – to understand. “It was never about that. About choosing.”

Jon blinked.

“You said I was scared – last time – the truth is, Jon, I’m always scared,” revealed Ned, his voice hushed and almost shamed. “I’ve never stopped being scared since Jon Arryn received the raven from Aerys demanding my head. Since I learned my brother and father were murdered. Since losing Lyanna in the Tower of Joy.”

Jon stared at Ned like he had never seen him before.

“I’m scared that I’ll never be a good enough Lord of Winterfell or Warden of the North. I’m scared that I’ll fail Catelyn – or you, or the other children, no matter your age. I’m scared by what you said of the Long Night and preparing for winter. The fear doesn’t go away. I just learned to live with it.”

“But…” Jon trailed off.

“But?”

“You’re… you’re always so stable in everything you did,” blurted Jon. “Like you knew exactly what you were doing. Unmoveable. Solid. Ice.”

Ned huffed a laugh. “I’m glad it appeared that way. It should, from a parent to a child.”

“I’m scared to go to war, Jon,” he continued. “The last time I went to war, I lost nearly everyone. I lost my brother, my father, my sister. In a way, I lost Benjen, because he went to Wall so soon after I returned to Winterfell. All I had was a wife I didn’t know, a son, and… well, you.”

He sent a smile at his nephew, who was soaking up everything he was saying.

“I held on to what I knew as much as I could. I was afraid to take my eyes off you those first few years, certain that Robert would figure out who your father was,” admitted Ned, looking away. “I dreaded the day Howland would tell me there was an army marching on Moat Cailin. I was afraid every single moment that I’d lose one of the last pieces to my family.”

“I—I never knew you felt like that,” whispered Jon, stricken.

“I never wanted you to know,” answered Ned evenly. “My worries are not your burden to carry. But I wanted you to know that when I said – about you or Robert – it was never about choosing. There is no choice, Jon.” He turned to face him, and cupped Jon’s face in his hands, feeling Jon’s stubble and the rough skin from being out in the freezing elements. “It’s you. It’s always going to be you. Because you are my son, in every way that matters, no matter who your sire was.”

Jon rapidly blinked to hide his wet eyes at the admission. “Father…”

Ned’s returning smile was a bit wobbly. “If – when – we go to war, I’ll be at your side. Or behind you. Or leading the vanguard. Or being the Stark in Winterfell – whatever you decide, Your Grace. But know that I’ll be afraid for you, just like I’d be afraid for Robb, or Bran, or any of my other children. Because I don’t want you hurt.

“I’d fight all your battles if I could, Jon. I’d be your sword, but I do believe that Connington and Dayne would be most upset with me if I decided that.”

Jon gave a wet laugh, reaching up to clasp his hands around Ned’s wrists, holding his hands to his face.

“So, aye, I’m afraid. Constantly afraid. And maybe I let my fear guide me for far too long,” he admitted, “but know that it was only my fear for your life and safety that has held me back. Never because I think you shouldn’t claim your birthright. Never because I think Robert would make a better ruler of Westeros than you. But because I am an old man who has so much, which he considers precious, to lose.

“I love you, Jon. Son.” Ned leaned forward and pressed his forehead against Jon’s. “Never forget that.”

“I won’t,” mumbled Jon in return, closing his eyes and savouring the closeness. Something in his heart, like a band that had tightened around it, one he was so used to that he barely realized it was there, loosened. He breathed easier, deeper. “Thank you.”

Ned drew back, staring at Jon, noticing that as the summer light hit his eyes just so, they were the deepest of indigos. Targaryen eyes. “The lone wolf dies…”

“But the pack survives,” finished Jon.

His father nodded solemnly. “The pack survives.”

After, Ned retreated to the Godswood. The emotional wringer of the conversation he and Jon had – the confessional he had made, truly – sent Ned to the heart tree to relax and find balance within himself. For the first time in a long time, he didn’t have that all-consuming fear.

Later but before the evening meal, Catelyn found him there, hesitantly walking amongst the tall, thick trees until she reached the heart of the Godswood, where he sat underneath the heart tree.

“I am so sorry, my love,” she said, and Ned’s heart dropped. “There was a raven from King’s Landing. Jon Arryn is dead.” She said more, but that, and the next were the only things that stood out to him. “The raven brought more news.”

He looked at her, waiting.

“The king rides for Winterfell, with the queen and all the rest of them.” Catelyn took a deep breath, worry clear on her face when she continued: “If he’s coming this far north… there’s only one thing he’s after.”

He wants me to be Hand, finished Ned, dread filling him. That very fear that he had told Jon about, the fear he lived with every single day of his life, came flooding back in, like a sudden winter blizzard, freezing the blood in his veins. No…

Robb – who still carried his crown around, although kept it hidden? How long would it remain so with Lannisters snooping around Winterfell?

Or Jon – who looked Northern at first glance but as he saw earlier that day, one smile was all it took for those around them, in the know, to see Rhaegar in him. Robert knew his second cousin well enough; the Kingsguard travelling with him would see it too: Barristan Selmyand Jaime Lannister, especially.

And Arya – who looked similar enough to Lyanna that Ned even had to take a triple look when he first saw her, those years ago. What would Robert do, the second he laid eyes on her?

It was never a choice, he thought as he slowly stood from the rock. He never had to worry about a time when he had to pick – because that time never existed, to begin with. It was time to put away his fear. What was that phrase his father taught him, Brandon, Lyanna, and Benjen, all those years ago?

“The only time a man can be brave is when he is afraid.”

Ned had been afraid all his life – but that also meant he could be brave, too. It wasn’t black or white.

And for his family, being brave was the easiest thing to be.

TBC...

Notes:

Memories of Tomorrow - writing_as_tracey (23)

YOU GET A DIREWOLF, AND YOU GET A DIREWOLF! AND YOU! DIREWOLVES FOR EEEVERYONEEEEEE!!!!

Chapter 23: XXIII

Summary:

King Robert arrives; Joffery and Robb are made to feel their age, and Jaime Lannister gets spooked by a memory while a paranoid Tyrion channels Admiral Ackbar. And... Jon finally knows learns something.

Notes:

There is recognizable dialogue from Game of Thrones 1x01, as well as one of Jon's early chapters in the novel in this chapter (I believe it's chapter 6 or 7 - I was using an ePub version to skim).

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

XXIII:

Memories of Tomorrow - writing_as_tracey (24)

Winterfell was sent spiralling into chaos at the pronouncement of the King’s visit. Catelyn took the servants in hand, directing and planning with Luwin and Rodrik Cassel where so-and-so would stay, the feasts they would need to host, what their food stores were like, and what entertainment they could bring in on such short notice.

Ned spent about five minutes in petrified terror, before throwing himself into the planning as well, grim and foreboding with the knowledge of why Robert was heading North – for the first time, ever.

He did, along with Catelyn, carve out time to see the counterparts of his children for a private luncheon, held in the same room they ate the first night they appeared in Winterfell those years ago – it was one of the largest private dining rooms in the castle, and with the inclusion of Olenna Tyrell, Willas, Maerros, and Connington and Dayne, it was a tight fit.

Loras and Margaery were excluded; Margaery since she did not know the full truth, and Loras for being the one that Jon trusted to keep things quiet, and order maintained while the oldest Starks and their companions were essentially sequestered. It would be tempting for those like Bran or Arya to try to sneak in and overhear their conversation.

The lunch began tense: no one spoke – whether because they were fraught with nerves like Ned was, or because they were unsure of what to say. Eventually, he said, voice tight, “You cannot remain here when Robert arrives.”

“Nor do we plan to,” answered Sansa readily, daintily eating her lunch meats. “Well, some of us, anyway.”

“Some?” Ned’s mouth turned into a frown.

Jon nodded. “Sansa – and most especially, Arya–” Arya looked similar enough to Lyanna that it would cause enough double-takes with those who were aged similarly, and no one wanted to know what Robert’s reaction was going to be if he saw her “–will be heading south and leaving the North. I believe you’ll be going with them, Bran?”

“Yes,” the young man nodded, voice toneless, as it often was around those not his counterpart siblings and their companions.

“I shall accompany you, then,” offered Willas, turning to Sansa and then Arya. Sansa smiled prettily at him in response, and Arya rolled her eyes.

“We’ll leave within the next few days, Father,” continued Sansa, dabbing at the corner of her mouth with her napkin. “We will head to White Harbour and travel by ship from there.”

“Where to?” asked Catelyn, eyebrows furrowed, and lips pinched with worry.

Sansa smiled at her mother but didn’t say.

Ned, sensing that they were plotting and didn’t want him to know, turned to Jon. “And… you? And Robb?”

“We’ll remain here a little longer,” said Jon. “Well, myself and Rickon at least. Robb and Maerros will be travelling elsewhere soon enough.”

Robb’s head popped up at that, eyes wide.

It’s news to him, thought Ned, eyeing Jon and Robb equally. Jon was clearly their leader and making decisions but was also keeping things from the others until he felt it was best for them to know. However, Robb didn’t argue – he just nodded, eyes a bit hooded, and returned to his meal, silent.

“But… you’ll be here, then?” asked Catelyn, a voice a bit strangled. She had never been able to properly reconcile the truth of Jon Snow that Ned had hid from her, but oftentimes struggled in speaking to him.

Jon’s returning smile was a bit tight. “I doubt that Robert will want to remain long in the North. We’ll stay out of the way, though.”

Ned was sure there was much that Jon was not saying but turned the conversation to other topics – like his children’s new direwolves and what that meant for them considering Bran’s previous assessment.

“Yes, Bran, how is that possible?” drawled Arya, leaning around Robb to peer at her younger brother.

Bran glowered angrily over his meal, eyes dark and hooded. “Magic’s not an exact science, Arya.”

“Well, you haven’t been very correct,” sniffed Sansa primly.

Bran switched his glower to her.

“Aye, it’s true,” added Robb, flinching a little when Bran’s dark eyes landed on him. “What? Think about it. I know the least of this ‘three-eyed raven’ sorcery, but I do know that every time you’ve stated something it’s been… well, inaccurate.”

“That’s not to say you haven’t done some wonderful things,” rushed Jon to add. “Like ensuring our younger selves remained alive.”

“And seeing Whent and Hightower was interesting, even if they couldn’t see us. Who else can say that they trained when the likes of those men?” mumbled Rickon through his meal, nodding. Connington stared and slowly moved his gaze to Arthur who struggled and finally gave a helpless shrug in response.

“Exactly what did Bloodraven teach you?” concluded Sansa, staring hard at Bran. “We never discussed it before because, well, there was an army of undead marching on Winterfell. But we have time now.”

Bran’s glower turned into a scowl, and he stabbed at his food without eating any of it.

“Bloodraven?” echoed Ned skeptically. “As in Brynden Rivers?”

“The one and only,” sighed Jon in exasperation.

“The Targaryen?” continued Catelyn, just as skeptically, and giving Jon a look like she thought he had gone as insane as his ancestors.

“Yes, and Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch,” interrupted Arya snippily, “Master of Whispers, Hand to the King, son of Aegon the Unworthy.”

“But he was born nearly a hundred and fifty years ago!” protested Ned in shock.

“He’s not… quite… alive… anymore,” hedged Bran. At Ned and Catelyn’s stare, he elaborated, “He’s more, uh, weirwood tree than human.”

The staring did not stop, and this time, Maerros, Connington, and Arthur joined.

“He didn’t really teach me anything,” muttered Bran, looking down at this food. “He just took me greenwalking through time to understand the history of the Others and Children of the Forest, and then some other important moments in history—”

“Like Jon’s birth,” interrupted Rickon.

Bran nodded. “The Tower of Joy, yes. He’s a powerful skinchanger – he prefers crows and ravens—”

“A thousand eyes and one,” breathed Connington in understanding.

“—and he had a connection to greensight, as well,” continued Bran. “An incredibly powerful one.” He sighed. “He and I are probably the most powerful greenseers alive. Jojen Reed might be a contender, as well.”

“And… what does that mean?” asked Ned cautiously.

“It means I can see all that was and is,” answered Bran in a rather imperious tone.

“An’ that’s ‘bout it,” groused Rickon, mumbling around his food. “Everythin’ else, Bran’s been wrong ‘bout.”

Bran shot him a glare, and Rickon shrugged, unapologetically.

“It’s how you knew,” said Ned, eyes wide. “About what was said at the Tower of Joy, that day.”

“And about Jon,” added Sansa, reiterating the same points, “And several other things. But everything else seems a bit… woolly.”

“Magic isn’t predictable,” said Arya carefully, catching the attention of the table. She deliberately set her utensils down and folded her hands in her lap, stilling and sitting carefully. “It’s chaotic and emotional. Things that are done through potions, or spells, or even utilizing specific, uh, tools – it requires training and methodology. And you can usually only do one or two things really well.”

“How do you know so much about magic, Arya?” asked Ned, a frown on his face. “You were never interested in that before.”

Arya gave her father a thin-lipped smile. “I was trained in magic, just a different kind than Bran.”

Ned glanced at Jon, who shook his head. Don’t ask, he seemed to be saying. You don’t want to know.

“We know magic exists,” said Jon, drawing attention from Arya. “We’ve seen it here in the North with the connection we have with our direwolves; we’ve seen it with the dragons; we’ve seen it through Bran’s connections to the weirwood trees. But that doesn’t mean we understand it.”

“Then how is it safe?” asked Catelyn, face pale and a hand fluttering up to her throat.

“It’s not,” answered Arya with a dead-eye stare.

“Nevertheless,” interrupted Robb, “Now that our younger selves have their wolves, there’s a good chance that Bran can reverse the block he put in – probably now that we’re all separate enough that he can tell the difference between us and the wolves.”

Eyes swung to Bran. He shrugged. “I can certainly attempt it.”

Sansa’s returning smile was bright. “So, our younger selves will have their wolves! That’s wonderful.”

“Just don’t name yours Lady again,” cautioned Arya, with a morose sigh. “The pretentious name was enough the first time.”

Robb tried not to fidget as he and his siblings lined up, all on his right, awaiting the king’s arrival. Sansa stood perfectly still and poised, Bran beside her. Rickon clung to their mother’s hand on her left while Robb stood to his father’s right. Jon and Theon were clustered behind them, similar to when they welcomed their older selves. The only difference was that Olenna Tyrell, Margaery Tyrell and Loras Tyrell were part of the line, on Mother’s side.

Arya scooted in quickly, wearing a helm that had everyone do a double take, especially with Sansa’s scolding, “Arya!”

“What?” the girl replied petulantly. “The king’s coming, by the way.” She paused and looked around. “Where’s Jon and Robb and Rickon and Maerros and Ser Art?”

No one answered her, because at that moment through the gate rode several men on horseback. But Robb still thought about his older self and siblings and their guests – and the fact that they had managed to get out of being in the welcome. Father hadn’t even argued with them on it – in fact, he seemed pleased that they were not out front and that Sansa, Arya, Bran, and Ser Griff had all left the week before to White Harbour, neatly bypassing the king.

The crown prince was the first, dripping in golden armour and a Lannister red cape flapping behind and falling over the back of his horse. From the corner of his eye, Robb saw Sansa smile prettily at the prince, who smirked back at her.

He glared.

Others pulled up behind the prince as an honour guard – an imposing man with a dog’s helm, two kingsguards, and then a golden carriage, and following that, a large man with a bushy, untrimmed beard with two remaining kingsguard following him, including a good-looking blond that shared looks with the crown prince – the Kingslayer.

The large man struggled off his horse but as soon as his boots hit the dirt in the courtyard, at Robb’s side, his father began to kneel, and he realized that was the king. He quickly followed, eyes darting up and glancing at the man from beneath his reddish fringe, shocked at his lumbering and dishevelled appearance.

Robert Baratheon signalled for them to rise, and Robb surged up, hoping his face was schooled in something pleasant as the king approached and stopped before Ned.

“Your Grace,” greeted Ned.

Robert Baratheon looked his old friend up and down. “You’ve got fat.”

Ned pointedly looked at Robert’s own protruding stomach, causing both men to laugh.

The king began to work down the line, shouting his greetings (“Cat!”) even as he continued his conversation with Ned. “Nine years. Why haven’t I seen you? Where the hell have you been?”

“Guarding the North for you, Your Grace. Winterfell is yours.”

Distantly, Robb made out Arya being petulant and asking where someone was, and Sansa hissing a sharp response back, but then Robert Baratheon was before him, neither imposing nor kingly but certainly intimidating in sheer width and with the slight stench of ale on his breath when he chortled, “Who have we here? You must be Robb.”

Robb struggled but gave a weak smile in return and a mumbled, “Your Grace,” but the king was already looking at Sansa, and then Arya and Bran before circling back around to the start of the line, just as his tall and haughty queen, Cersei Lannister, stepped forward with a grimace of distaste on her mouth for her own introductions.

“Take me to your crypt. I want to pay my respects,” the king demanded, stopping Cersei’s progress forward, making her blink once.

Cersei’s voice was one of strained patience and Robb stared. “We’ve been riding for a month, my love. Surely the dead can wait.”

He didn’t even glance at her – just Ned – as he barked, “Ned,” and with an apologetic bow, Ned Stark followed Robert Baratheon, leaving the rest of them standing in the courtyard, looking all very uncomfortable.

Arya, of course, made it worse by asking, “Where’s the Imp?” Even though it was quiet, the unnerving, stilted silence made her voice carry.

Red spots on the queen’s face appeared, and she turned abruptly on her heel to walk back to her twin brother.

“Why don’t you ever shut up?” hissed Sansa angrily.

Robb sighed. It was going to be a long visit.

Robb was doing his best to ignore Myrcella’s blushes whenever he glanced at her, seated next to Sansa and beside her younger brother, with Joffrey opposite. He was the one stuck next to the prince, with Margaery and Theon as the only friendly company at the table, perpendicular to the head table where his parents and the king and queen sat.

If only Jon was there! Then Robb would have someone he enjoyed spending time with nearby. But… his eyes lingered on his mother, who despite the improvement of her attitude toward Jon (although Robb had yet to discover why), did not want him in the great hall or anywhere near the king, banishing him from all but a few spots in Winterfell, leaving his brother to sulk.

Robb morosely picked at his meal. He wanted to sulk – if he had a choice, he’d be with Jon right now, in the training ring, practicing the moves and stances their older selves had shown them.

As it was, he missed the beginning of the question from Myrcella. “—other selves?”

Joffrey snorted into his wine. “They’re not real, ‘Cella. Obviously. Only you’d believe in baby stories.”

The princess flushed – very different from her blush, Robb noted – and snapped her mouth shut while Tommen scrunched up his face in confusion.

“But everyone in Winterfell says they’re real!” he protested.

Joffrey rolled his eyes. “There is no such thing as the Stark doubles.”

“Aye, there is.”

Robb blinked when he realized everyone was looking at him, now, and that he had spoken out loud.

“Well, where are they?” drawled Joffrey, making an obvious inspection of the hall.

“Lady Sansa, Lady Arya, and Lord Bran went south Lord Willas,” piped up Beth Cassel, two seats down on Sansa’s free side, next to Jeyne Poole and Margaery. “They left a fortnight ago.”

“Convenient,” sneered Joffrey.

“They’re very real,” added Theon, trying to sound lofty as the eldest at the table. He took a long quaff of his ale. “The Lady Sansa is even more beautiful than her mother.” He then winked at Sansa, the younger one at the table, and she ducked her head bashfully, playing with a few loose strands of hair.

“Ser Jon, Lord Robb, and Lord Rickon are still in Winterfell,” added Margaery from where she sat near Sansa and Myrcella, as a place of honour being a guest. She was very calmly cutting her food into bite-sized pieces. “My brother Loras was Ser Jon’s squire. He continues his squiring duties despite being knighted.”

Doubt flashed across Joffrey’s face.

“See, Joff! They’re real!” beamed Tommen, pleased that he was right, and his older brother was wrong.

“I still don’t see them,” argued Joffrey, eyes narrowed. “Why are they hiding? Why don’t they wish to present themselves to their king and prince?”

The Starks at the table, closest to the head and Joffrey – Robb, Sansa, Theon and Beth, even Margaery – all struggled with an answer. Because even they didn’t know why Jon or Robb hid away with Ser Art or Maerros.

“What’s this?” boomed Robert, his voice cutting down the table. He had a serving wench on his knee, but a curious look on his face, despite his red, wine-flush cheeks and drunkenly glazed eyes. “What are you lot arguing about?”

“The other Starks, father!” offered Tommen happily.

“Other Starks?” repeated Robert, confused. “Wasn’t that something the Maesters were blathering on about years ago? Claiming it nonsense?”

Ned, nearby, sighed. “The older versions of my children, Robert. It was the will of the Old Gods that they appeared north of the wall and travelled south.”

Robert turned to his old friend, confusion still writ on his face. “But I thought that was a story?”

By now, the rest at the head table – Cersei, Catelyn, Olenna, Ser Rodrik, Maester Luwin, and even the lingering forms of Barristan Selmy and Jaime Lannister – were all listening in.

“It’s not,” confirmed Ned, voice quiet.

“Where are they?” asked Robert, unceremoniously shoving the girl from his lap (she gave a yelp and they scurried away) as his eyes cleared the tiniest and he craned his neck, searching the hall. “What do they look like? How old are they?”

Cersei, at Robert’s side, made a face, the thought obvious: great, more Starks.

“The elder Sansa, Arya, and Bran went south with Lord Willas Tyrell, Your Grace,” explained Catelyn, careful with her words and tone. “They left over a fortnight ago, for reasons of their own. But Robb and Rickon remain here in Winterfell.”

“And Jon!” piped up Bran helpfully, from further down the table near Arya, who was scowling and making more of a mess of her plate and food than eating it.

“Well, why haven’t I seen them?” asked Robert, a tiny scowl on his face.

“They do not wish to be seen, to take away from your visit, Your Grace,” tried Catelyn, glancing at Ned for reassurance that that was the right thing to say. “Your visit honours us.”

Robert made a face. “Pshaw. Where are they now, Ned? Send for them and let me have a look at what your children are grown!” He chortled, elbowing Ned in the side. “It’ll be like looking at a younger you! The memories it’ll bring up!”

“I’m not sure where they are, Robert,” admitted Ned, taking a moment to look around the hall. “They’ve been rather adept at hiding and remaining unseen until they wish to be so.”

Robert, disgruntled, grumbled into his lamb.

Joffrey, seated just below, turned back to the Stark children, triumph on his face. “See – not real, just like grumpkins and snarks and wights.”

But it was Olenna Tyrell who snorted into her fine wine, causing everyone to turn and stare at her as she hid her smirk behind the rim of the goblet. “Not real, Prince Joffrey? Well, I suppose you’ll see.”

Unsure of how to answer that, Joffrey floundered for a moment. Then—

Sansa shrieked, jumping back from the table as she stared in horror at the mushy mess of potatoes that spilled down the front of her bodice. She turned, red-faced, toward Arya. “Arya! You little beast!”

Robb burst into laughter. Trust Arya to diffuse any tense situations.

“Prince Joffrey, Robb, will you go another round?”

Robb was sweaty, a bit tired from an earlier bout against Loras who had decimated him, but there was a flutter in his chest. Joffrey had been momentarily shocked to see the curly-haired Tyrell, but the double-take he made at seeing Rickon – who looked like a sharper, leaner Robb – required a triple-take. He had swallowed thickly, eyes wide, until he realized he was being watched and a lofty mask fell over his face.

On the other hand, Robb preened. He and his siblings had been telling the truth! And the prince hadn’t believed them! Feeling smug, an offer to show up the young prince again, made Robb want to prove himself, and who better against the prince? Someone who had been trained by the kingsguard – by the legendary Kingslayer himself? He stepped forward eagerly.

From the corner of his eye, he saw Rickon frown, a puzzled furrow on his brow as he attempted to remember something.

Joffrey moved forward from where he was lounging against a building, his Lannister guards and his sworn shield, the Hound, arranged around him. There was a bored drawled in his voice when he replied to Ser Rodrik’s suggestion. “This is a game for children, Ser Rodrik.”

From the sparring ground fence, where he leaned against it, Theon gave a bark of laughter. “You are children.”

Robb shot him a disgruntled look.

“Robb may be a child,” Joffrey said, a derisive sniff to punctuate his feelings on the matter. “I am a prince. And I grow tired of swatting at Starks with a play sword.”

Robb flushed. “You got more swats than you gave, Joff. Are you afraid?”

But despite being a few years younger, the prince didn’t rise to the bait and merely raised an imperious brow. “Afraid of wooden sticks and tourney swords? Hardly.”

The elder Rickon’s frown deepened into a scowl, and he reached out and grabbed Loras’ arm, bringing the taller curly-haired knight’s head down to his mouth as he began to mutter something in his ear. Loras began frowning, eyes darting around the courtyard, searching for someone.

“What are you suggesting?” asked Ser Rodrik, a thoughtful look on his face as he peered at the prince.

“Live steel.”

“Done,” Robb replied quickly, breathlessly. “You’ll be sorry!”

Ser Rodrik was clearly aggravated, backed into the corner when he had a short, tense conversation with the Hound about weapons, too low for Robb to hear. His heart was pounding furiously in his head.

I want to do this, he thought, eyes locked on Joffrey’s smirking face. I want to use that move that my older self showed me – I want to be as good as him and show that I can be, too.

Rodrik walked toward Robb, a flushed look on his face. “Be careful, my Lord,” was all that he said at Robb, who lit up in pleasure.

“Live steel?” he asked for confirmation, only to be presented with one of the swords from the Winterfell guards. He swung it experimentally, testing its weight and balance and finding it suitable, while Joffrey withdrew his gold-flaked and bejewelled hilt. There was something unnerving in his green eyes, though.

“This is a friendly match, boys,” called Rodrik, voice barely trembling. “To the first blood or a yield. That’s it. Do you agree?”

“Aye,” called back Robb.

“Certainly,” said Joffrey, although it was rather indolently.

Robb prepared himself, lifting the blade and sliding his foot back into the position he had seen his elder self favour, mimicking the man’s stance.

Immediately, two things became obvious: one, Joffrey was a terrible swordsman and likely was not being properly trained. Two, Robb’s older self was an incredibly talented swordsman because it only took all of six moves to knock Joffrey’s sword out of his hand and send the younger prince stumbling back and falling onto his back.

“Yield,” demanded Robb, the sword point a shave away from Joffrey’s throat and scowling face. He didn’t even have the time to fully think that was quick, accompanied by a flash of pride as he had barely broken a sweat, as a part of his brain was already asking Loras for another go.

The prince didn’t bother replying, instead batting the sword away with a gloved hand as he struggled to his feet, an angry tint of red to his cheeks and murder in his eyes.

“Good match,” he offered, doing his best to ignore that and held his hand out.

But the prince spat on the ground, a glob of spit and blood from a blow to his chin that Robb had given him with the pommel of his sword before he had flipped it around and disarmed the dazed prince.

Robb pursed his lips and nodded once, then spun around to return the borrowed sword to the lingering guard.

“Robb!” Theon shouted, face pale.

Robb turned, barely catching a glint of a golden sword as it swung toward him, and his unprotected back—

Then Rickon was there, snarling as he caught the downward stroke of the blade with his daggers, shoving Joffrey’s weight off like it was nothing as he pushed back and forced the prince to make a quick retreat.

Within seconds, Loras was at Rickon’s side, a dangerous glower on his face and his sword withdrawn, staring down the Hound as the man and the Lannister guards moved to flank Joffrey.

Robb backpedalled a bit, eyes frantically darting around. This could easily spiral out of control— the Winterfell guards were grumbling and reaching for their weapons— Ser Rodrik was barking sharp commands, trying to diffuse the rising tension—

An icy, sharp voice cut across the courtyard. “Daliwch! Rickon, dè tha thu a’ dèanamh?”

Rickon immediately stepped back at the familiar Old Tongue, Loras a moment behind, with his daggers lowered but eyes still on Joffrey.

From a darkened pass-through between two stone buildings, the older Jon appeared, his thick, black-furred coat billowing behind him, revealing him like a ghostly wraith from Old Nan’s stories. His eyes were on Rickon and Loras, but they also swept the now silent courtyard, surveying who stood where and the weapons out.

Behind him, Ser Art was a mere breath away, his own purple eyes equally cool.

Robb shivered. He had known his older counterpart and siblings had seen things in their lives – the scars had all but ensured that despite never being told how or why they occurred – but it was the first time he could reconcile that idea with them, as Robb, and Jon, and even Rickon, were generally pleasant and friendly toward them all. Until now, at least.

“Is this what is taught in King’s Landing now?” asked Jon, voice carrying despite it being rather cool and even. “To fight with dishonour and attack someone’s back after a spar has been won?”

When no one answered him, he turned to Ser Art. “Has King’s Landing always been so, Art?”

“No,” the man rasped his reply. Robb was startled – at the confirmation that Ser Art had been to, or trained, in King’s Landing.

“No,” repeated Jon, although it was in a statement rather than a question. “No, they do not.” His dark eyes travelled over those in the training yard and then lingered on Joffrey. “Who is your sword master?”

Joffrey’s eyes narrowed. “Who are you to speak to me that way? I am your prince!”

“Very well,” agreed Jon, tone vaguely genial despite the cold look on his face. “I am Jon Snow. I ask again: who is your sword master, Prince Joffrey?”

“Jon Snow?” repeated Joffrey, a sneer on his face. “Stark’s bastard?”

He looked the older version up and down, from his heavy furs and scars, confronted with the near spitting image of Eddard Stark, albeit with something other hanging off the man. Whatever Joffrey thought he saw; it helped him make his mind up. He straightened, no longer slightly hunched and defensive but rising to his full, lanky height.

“I have been taught by the King’s own kingsguard, warriors all,” proclaimed Joffrey with a minor head toss. “And my uncle has taught me some – you know, the Kingslayer.”

Jon made a thoughtful noise. “I have heard of him and his skill. And while he may have stabbed Aerys in the back for reasons, I doubt he’d consider it honourable to do so when meeting an opponent in a field.” There was a pause, and then Jon swung his eyes off to the side, and pointedly called, “Is that not so, Ser Jaime?”

Robb startled, again, and followed Jon’s line of vision to see the Kingslayer lounging, with his arms crossed, against the wall that led into Winterfell’s antechamber. He had been hidden by the shadows cast down from the wooden catwalk above. His brother, the Imp, was at his side. Unlike the other Lannister soldiers, he had not moved to intervene when Joffrey had made to attack Robb, nor after, when the soldiers flanked their prince.

“I wouldn’t see a reason to fight in the first place, Snow,” called the man in return, after a moment’s pause. His voice was arrogant and posture confident as he pushed off from the wall and strode forward, Tyrion Lannister at his heels, an inscrutable look on his face.

“Oh?”

“Why, these two are just boys playing war,” the Kingslayer added. “If I wanted my opponent dead, he’d be so. I’d hardly have to wait for him to turn his back on me.”

Joffrey bristled at his uncle’s insult, while the Lannister guards around them shifted uneasily, looking between Jaime’s easygoing, if not tight, smile and Joffrey’s angry face. Robb carefully took a step back and withdrew from the line of sight, falling into place beside Theon.

Jon’s mouth made a tiny, upward tick before disappearing. “Indeed. Then, perhaps, you’d join me in showing them what a friendly duel looks like?”

Immediately, Ser Art was at Jon’s side, so like Rickon and Loras from earlier, muttering in Jon’s ear. Rickon and Loras were quick to cut across the yard, Rickon hopping the fence to reach Jon’s side. There seemed to be some type of conversation – hushed as it was – around them, convincing Jon it was a bad idea.

Ser Jaime didn’t seem to mind, rolling his shoulders back, watching the group. “Certainly, Snow.”

“Excellent,” replied Jon, stepping away from Ser Art, whose dark brows were a violent, harsh V between his eyes; from a scowling Rickon, and Loras, who nervously helped Jon remove his thick cloak, revealing Northern leathers.

Ser Jaime stepped into the yard, ignoring Tyrion’s heavy frown and muttering. Joffrey, the Hound, and the other Lannister soldiers stepped back and out of the way, hovering at the edges and the fence protectively.

“This will be something,” whispered Theon, excitedly.

“Aye,” murmured Robb back, worried, as his eyes darted between the golden-haired Lannister knight, one of the best in the realm, and his brother’s older self. “It’ll be something.”

“You’re being baited,” hissed Tyrion, keeping his mouth from mostly moving as Jaime removed his cloak and checked his sword for knicks – there wouldn’t be any. “It’s a trap!”

“It’s a Stark, even a bastard one,” retorted Jaime calmly. “There’s nothing to be worried about. You are still going to put coin on me, aren’t you?”

“I always put coin on you,” sighed Tyrion, desperately wanting to roll his eyes. Could Jaime be more obtuse? “Jaime. Please. There is something wrong about these older Starks.”

“Oh, stop worrying so much, little brother,” chided Jaime, flashing him a savage grin. “I am the best sword in Westeros. It’ll be fine.”

“There will always be someone who is better,” Tyrion muttered, but Jaime was no longer listening, stepping forward into the hard, pounded dirt that was the training courtyard. At the other end, Jon Snow stood, calmly, watching Jaime as he entered.

Behind the man, in a row at the fence, was the bastard’s youngest brother – although still a year or so older than the oldest current Starks – Loras Tyrell, and the mysterious Ser Art.

“How would you like to lose, Snow?” asked Jaime, in a congenial tone.

The Winterfell men at the opposite end of the yard grumbled, their pride already pricked, but Snow just huffed a tiny laugh. “First blood, yield, or a loss of the sword?”

“I’ll accept those terms,” agreed Jaime easily, confident in himself and his abilities.

Snow nodded, sliding into a ready stance that was already broadcasting what his next move would be, given the weight he placed on his back foot. Jaime stifled a sigh as he withdrew his own sword and readied himself. This was going to be a quick spar, then.

It was not a quick spar.

Whatever move Snow advertised, he countered Jaime’s attack, remaining on the defence and allowing Jaime to make increasingly aggressive, forward attacks as he tried to suss out the bastard’s weak spots. It was almost like Snow was patiently waiting, blocking each strike, diverting each thrust, parrying away his swipes, letting Jaime either exhaust himself – or learn his preferred attacks.

When he realized that, Jaime went on the back foot, letting Snow come to himso that he might understand the man’s methods. And while he was sweating – a line that clung to the neck of his tunic, down the length of his spine and pooled at the waist of his trousers – he could see that Snow was equally flushed. But there was a tiny glint of amusem*nt, a smile on his lips.

It took him a while to realize that he was enjoying himself too, a wide, breathless smile on his face. When was the last time he enjoyed such a spar? Barristan refused to spar with him since Robert's coronation, and the other members of the kingsguard were so beneath him in skill and ability that it wasn't worth the effort. He had lost the enjoyment that came from practicing his craft, from learning from another skilled warrior, all without the fear and adrenalin that came from fighting for his life.

The last time he had been this happy, Ser Arthur was instructing him, in the days just after Harrenhal, before Rhaegar returned to Dragonstone, before it all went to hell.

The match progressed from five minutes to ten, to almost fifteen, and Snow blocked every single one of his moves. It was like he knew Jaime and his fighting style. As such, Jaime stepped back several feet, giving himself some breathing room as Snow magnanimously did the same. Eyeing the dark-haired Northerner, Jaime finally spoke out loud the suspicion that was gnawing at him. “Have we fought before?”

Snow’s face didn’t change, but somehow there was amusem*nt writ all over it when he countered, “Have you ever met me before today?”

Jaime frowned. “No. I have not.”

“Then it is not possible that we have fought,” answered Snow simply, although his dark eyes were filled with humour.

He bristled at that – that Snow had some type of secret about him and he wasn’t privy to it. Eyes narrowed, Jaime hefted his sword up, ignoring the cheers around the yard that had become far more populated as their match drew longer. “Let’s dance.”

“As you wish,” replied Snow, bringing his own sword up.

Let’s see you wriggle your way out of this, thought Jaime, his mental landscape already moving through the stance and paces for a signature move of his, one meant to disarm and, in battle, maim an opponent. None he fought – in either training or a melee – had ever succeeded against him when using that move, except one man - one who had been dead for decades.

He dashed forward, and Snow met him, his sword clashing loudly from above. Their moves were lightning quick, thrusts deflected as Snow followed through with his own swing, that Jaime blocked. He retaliated with a slash, but Snow twisted and avoided the blade.

And then, the opening Jaime needed: he made to place his weight on his right foot, lowering his sword for an upward swing.

Triumph swelled in his chest, his green eyes alit with the pleasure of winning as he began the move, ready to switch midway to his left foot, a riposte, and then attack Snow, when—

Something gleamed in Snow’s eyes, and his body shifted into a defensive stance that triggered a memory, from long, long ago.

Arthur did something funny with his wrist, his sword overextending in a way that Jaime’s sword master would have whipped him bloody for. Whatever it was, it worked, as Jaime’s sword went flying from his grasp; his signature move, his best aggressive attack that was all but guaranteed to make his opponent lose his sword, turned against him. He stared in shock at his empty hand.

“I—” He looked up at the legendary Sword in the Morning, imploringly. “Teach me that!”

But Arthur laughed. “Surely you don’t expect me to give up all my secrets, Ser Jaime? A knight must keep some to himself.”

—Jaime stared at his empty hand, his gold-plated hilt flashing and catching the weakly filtered sunlight that broke through grey clouds, bright against the mud of the training yard. He was completely bewildered.

Snow stood before him, his sword pointed at Jaime but already lowered. His face was red from exertion, his curly hair damp and plastered down at his neck, and he was breathing heavily, but there was nothing gloating in his expression, despite knowing that the match was his.

Jaime would have gloated, he knew.

“Yield, Ser Jaime?” asked Snow quietly.

Jaime heard him clearly, despite the loud cheers that erupted the moment he lost his sword from the Winterfell guards, from Robert Baratheon, who stood watching with Ned Stark at his side from the catwalk above the yard, from the redheaded Stark heir and his Greyjoy hostage-friend, from Barristan, frowning in a dark corner. Joffrey had long since left, disgruntled with the match and possibly with his uncle for losing what could be construed as an honour duel against his own abilities.

“I yield,” he said instead, taking the extended hand offered. They shook, but the queer feeling in his chest, the memory that Snow shook loose, didn’t ease. He frowned as Snow walked away, back to a grinning Loras Tyrell who took his sword, and his quiet, mysterious friend.

“Jaime.” He looked down to see Tyrion, staring at him in something resembling shock. “Are you well?”

“I—”

How did Snow know that move? he wondered, blinking after the bastard of Winterfell. How?

It felt like something was so close – so within reach – but he couldn’t grasp it. Never had he felt so discombobulated, so unsure of himself, since the days his father would criticize him for his lack of ability and studies when he was a young boy.

“I don’t know,” he finally said, peering down at Tyrion.

“Well, you’d better figure it out, because when our sweet sister learns what happened here, she’s going to be furious.”

Jaime grimaced, running a hand through his sweaty, tousled hair. f*ck.

Jon gaped at Robb, finally turning his eyes to Theon for confirmation. The Greyjoy heir vigorously nodded. “It’s true – your older self decimated the Kingslayer.”

“I can’t believe I missed it!” Jon groused, repeating himself for the third time since Robb had found him and Lady Margaery, returning from the library where Jon had sequestered himself late into the evening, to avoid any of the royal party. Other than Tyrion Lannister, none ventured into the recesses of scrolls and tomes, but Margaery had joined him after lunch, keeping him company and working on writing letters to Garlan and Leonette, with their wedding date approaching.

“What led to the match?” asked Margaery, carefully controlling her tone as she prodded Robb and Theon.

Robb grimaced. “Ah, the prince and I using live steel in a match and me winning.”

“And him being a sore loser,” scoffed Theon, crossing his arms. “It was the talk on everyone’s tongues at the evening meal.”

Jon shared a concerned glance with Robb. “Robb…”

“Aye, I know,” the Stark heir sighed, nervously fiddling with his sleeve. “While the king certainly didn’t mind, father wasn’t much impressed.”

“Nor would he be, with you fighting with real steel just yet when he and Ser Rodrik don't allow it,” agreed Jon with his own sigh. “Well, what’s done is done, I suppose.”

“You’ll have to ask your older self for that final move, Snow,” continued Theon, eyes distant as he relived the match. “The Kingslayer just stood there, staring at his empty hand like it betrayed him.”

Robb laughed, snorting into his hand. “It was a sight I won’t forget!”

Jon groaned again. Of all the days to avoid the yard – he had to miss this! Then he sighed again, a bit more morose than his earlier exasperated one. “I’d have to track him down after evening meal to ask. He and Ser Art always disappear around this time.”

“Well, maybe not tonight,” declared Robb, eyes skipping over Jon and Margaery, just beyond them. They turned and saw the older Jon and Ser Art, as well as the older Robb, Rickon, Maerros and Loras, slip through the shadows and disappear down a dark passage between two outbuildings. “Let’s follow them!”

“What?”

But Robb was already dashing forward. Theon shrugged, turned on his heel and called, “You’re on your own, Stark. I’m going to visit the lovely Ros tonight instead of freezing my arse off chasing after your older selves.”

Jon rolled his eyes, glancing at Margaery to see what she thought, even as Robb disappeared down the same darkened alley. There was a glint of amusem*nt in her hazel eyes and a bright flush on her cheeks. He mentally sighed. He was surrounded by people who had no sense of self-preservation.

They dashed off after Robb, Jon carefully guiding Margaery around loose stones or uneven bits he could navigate in the dark from memory alone until they caught up with Robb. “Where are they?” he whispered, touching Robb’s shoulder.

His half-brother glanced over his shoulder at him. “They’ve entered the Godswood. They’ve their wolves with them, too, Ghost and Greywind and Shaggydog.”

Jon cringed, thinking of his own, unnamed direwolf pup stuck in the kennels, still too young for exploration and only allowed to play with the Stark children with the careful observation by one of the older Starks, usually Jon or Robb, now with Arya and Bran gone.

“Surely they’re not entering the Godswood every evening?” asked Margaery in a hushed voice. “They’ve been looked for in there.”

Doubtfully, Jon began, “It is rather large…”

“Let’s go!” interrupted Robb, bouncing forward and catching the swing of the gate as it creaked its way closed, holding it open and slipping through the gap, Jon and Margaery behind him.

They crept forward as silently as they could, following a track that Jon could pick out in the broken branches and pressed, fallen leaves and pine needles. They skirted around the pond and the weirwood heart tree, edging closer to the thick walls that protected Winterfell’s Godswood from the Wolfswood.

Eventually, Robb stopped them with a puzzled frown, glancing at Jon. “I… I think they used the Wolfsgate.”

“Wolfsgate?” asked Margaery, drawing her thick winter cloak tighter around her as the sun dipped below the high walls and shrouded the Godswood in a thick blanket of evening dusk and chill.

Jon spared her a quick glance, rubbing at his own chilled fingers. “It’s a secret gate that we Starks used in case we needed a quick escape. It's not well known.”

Margaery nodded, the weight of the knowledge pressing on her. “I shall keep it secret, Jon. I promise.”

“They must be heading to the Wolfswood,” muttered Robb, ignoring them. “Why? Why couldn’t they take the Hunter’s Gate and leave that way?”

“Perhaps they had no wish to be seen,” offered Margaery. “Why else would they sneak out of their own home?”

“Why indeed?” agreed Robb, darting forward, and taking charge as he led Jon and Margaery to the Wolfsgate, holding it open for them and then latching it behind as they shuffled carefully over the thin strip of stone used as a bridge across the moat, curling tight along the thick walls until they reached the second Wolfsgate and then were in the thick forest of the Wolfswood.

The tread the elder Starks took was carefully concealed, but not as much as it was back in Winterfell, showing that they felt comfortable enough with their subterfuge as they left the security of the old castle.

“Hopefully they haven’t gone too far,” muttered Robb.

Jon shot him a look. “A bit late to consider that, Robb.”

Robb grumbled something under his breath, but the three started a brisk pace, following the path the others gave them. They wound their way under low-lying branches, skirted around thick trees, and at one point, skipped over a thin stream that was beginning to frost over as autumn began to hint its arrival.

The older Starks had gone far – much further than Robb had anticipated and Margaery had expected, given she was wearing castle boots and not boots meant for hiking through the forest. Jon had her huddled next to him to share body heat as the sun completely disappeared. Robb managed to scrounge up some dried leaves and flint from Jon’s pack he carried with him, and they continued forward with Robb holding the torch he had made.

“What could they be doing this far out?” muttered Robb, obstinate now that they continue instead of turning back.

“Well, Rickon is with them, so ritualistic sacrifice is a high possibility,” muttered Jon mulishly. Beside him, Margaery stifled a laugh with her gloved hands.

Robb, all of sudden, frantically doused the torch, sending them into near pitch blackness. When Jon went to speak, Robb blindly reached out, patting him on his chest and shushing him.

“They’re ahead!” he barely breathed.

With hands roaming, and a few blushes that luckily no one could see, the three crouched and crept through a bush, Jon and Robb parting the branches for Margaery. Finally, they reached a covered spot and peered through the russet-coloured leaves.

They could see Rickon and Loras, lounging on a thick, fallen tree trunk, passing something back and forth as they drank from it. Shaggydog was at Rickon’s feet, stretched out so long that his belly was the width of both young men.

Opposite them were Maerros and Robb, but only Robb was sitting on a log; Maerros instead was hovering close to an open fire pit, a merry bonfire that lit the surrounding area. The Volantine man was gesturing wildly, laughing, and lighting up his handsome face as Robb jeered and cheered him on – the man eventually made a mad-dash leap over the bonfire, with Rickon cheering his success.

However, it was Jon that caught their attention – almost entirely out of the sphere of light the bonfire provided, lounging with one knee raised as he reclined and stared up at the night sky. He lounged on a mossy-covered rock above a cave, above and out of reach of the others. There was something shining white in the moonlight that broke through the cloud cover, a long snout that wasn’t Ghost resting heavily on Jon’s chest, his hand idly stroking along the forehead.

It was Robb who sputtered, “Is that – are those–?”

“Dragons,” breathed Jon, eyes wide, staring at the turquoise one, slightly larger than Ghost, that curled around Jon’s back and around its white sibling. Its long serpentine tail draped down and dangled in the cave opening. A grey one, blending cleverly into the shadows, was curled at the base of the rocks, by the cave entrance, partially hidden in the cavernous recess.

But Jon was not the only thing that exhaled loudly, as warm, putrid puffs of hot air dampened the back of their necks. Robb and Jon stiffened in surprise, and Margaery was the only one brave enough to glance back and squeak, “Ghost!”

“Two little pups and a rose, braving the cold,” rasped the familiar voice of Ser Art. The man emerged from behind them, his arms reaching forward and gripping the back of both Jon and Robb’s cloaks to yank them upright. Margaery scrambled – although she looked too elegant for such a word – and leaned into Ghost’s side as the man shoved the two young men she was with through the bush and into the light.

“It seems we have some trespassers, Your Grace,” he called.

Jon stumbled. Your Grace? He peered around, looking for Robert Baratheon, but that was ridiculous – there were dragons and the man famously hated anything to do with the beasts.

Margaery had been keeping even with them, but suddenly stopped, eyes wide, Ghost at her side and patiently waiting as he sat on his haunches. Her hands gripped his fur tightly and her mouth dropped into a perfect O, eyes darting over to Loras, who gave a slow nod.

A sinking suspicion began to half-form in Jon’s mind, churning his stomach.

“Your Grace?” Robb echoed, squinting as he investigated the dark, just as Jon had, for the king.

Ser Art shoved them forward some more, close enough to feel the heat from the bonfire. All eyes turned to them. Jon slowly sat up from his reclined position, the dragons at his back copying him.

Rickon was tense, hands flexing at his side as he warred with the idea to grab a weapon and defend whatever secrets this lot had and keeping calm because Jon and Robb were family. Maerros had carefully stepped back, closer to the older Robb, who had a rather solemn look on his face that reminded the younger Jon of their father.

Loras, however, had edged around the bonfire, placing himself directly in their way and kept carefully between them and the dragons, the grey one unfurling behind him and stretching to its full height, its horns just clearing the top of the sloping cave. But the Tyrell didn’t flinch, indicating he had been around the dragons enough that he felt comfortable presenting them his back.

“But where’s King Robert?” blurted Robb stupidly, and Jon closed his eyes, tight, as though to ward off the truth.

“Your Grace.” Margaery fell into a deep curtsey, her eyes on the ground and head deeply bowed with her skirt spread around her. It confirmed to Jon what he barely wanted to think. Robb swivelled to look at her, gaping in disbelief.

It’s not true, furiously thought Jon, only to see his older self nimbly push off from the top of the rocky cave, landing in a crouch and then striding forward, skirting around the grey dragon with an idle hand stroking its long, lean body. The dragon rumbled in contentment.

Jon cringed, nervously licking his chapped lips. Gods, it can’t be true…

“I had hoped to do this a different way,” said the older Jon, making him – the younger one – stumble back as the very thing he wanted to avoid was confirmed with the force of a physical blow to his chest, right into Ser Art’s armour-plated width. The man’s hands came up and bracketed his shoulders, holding him in place.

Jon?” Robb's eyes bounced between him, the dragons, Margaery, and then back. He slowly trailed off as realization settled on him. “What do you…?”

The elder Jon passed around Loras, who quickly fell into step behind him on his left, protecting his back; Jon continued until he stood before Margaery and helped her up, ensuring she stood on her own before turning back to Robb, and then finally, to Jon.

Dark eyes met dark eyes. But with the fire providing light, Jon saw that what he thought was dark, dark Stark grey was truly dark indigo - a Targaryen colour.

“I believe we have much to discuss,” sighed the older Jon, a furrow appearing between his eyebrows as something pulled at his mouth, turning into a sad frown.

“You think?” gasped Jon breathlessly, unable to even move from where Ser Art held him – not in place, but up, as his knees were jelly. “Just who are you? Who am I?”

That sad frown turned into a sad, wry twist of the elder Jon’s lips. “You are the trueborn son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark, Jon. And, if the Gods are willing, one day you’ll be the King of all Westeros.”

TBC...

Notes:

I know MANY of you are veeeeeery interested in some of the older and younger versions interacting. And I promise those interactions are coming. Just because some have gone south, or will be going elsewhere, doesn't mean that they won't be meeting up at the right time... patience, padawans. 😈

Also, the third trimester is upon me, so while I'm hoping to bank or at least write ahead once I go on mat leave, expect a significant delay between chapters this winter.

Chapter 24: XXIV

Summary:

Jon and Jon have a heart-to-heart. History (kind of) repeats itself. And Robb Stark channels his inner Luke Skywalker, minus any stormtroopers on a Death Star.

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

XXIV:

Memories of Tomorrow - writing_as_tracey (25)

The two sat opposite from one another, although within an arm’s span. Jon kept his emotions off his face, as much as he could, but his eyes still traced over his younger self’s unlined face, free of the scars and wrinkles he had accumulated in his life.

His younger self was eagerly doing the same, but the grim frown on his face perhaps lent itself to the knowledge that the life before him – for the older Jon – wasn’t as kind as he hoped… then again, what kind of life could there be for bastards?

“When… when did you learn?” the younger Jon finally stuttered to ask.

“Close to the end of things, in about oh, five or six years from now,” admitted Jon quietly, as the grey dragon inched forward. Cloudbreaker was the neediest of the dragons, always seeking to be near Jon or any of the others he knew, nosing them often for scritches or attention. “Bran was the one who told me, but Sansa and Arya knew, too.”

“Not… not Robb? Or Rickon?”

Jon grimaced. “Both were dead by that time.”

Shock coloured the younger Jon’s face. “Dead,” he whispered, voice rough. His eyes flicked toward his Robb, sitting side-by-side with his older self, with Maerros bracketing him in on the other.

Margaery sat with Loras and Rickon, still idly petting Ghost and using his bulk and heat to warm her back, and their fire in the pit warming her front. Both Loras and Rickon were quiet though, listening and keeping an eye on the two Jons.

Arthur Dayne, however, hovered like Cloudbreaker, just near Jon’s shoulder. The white dragon continued to lounge on the rocky outcrop above the cave, practically ignoring them; a turquoise-coloured dragon snoozed nearby, considering none of them threats. Its flickering tail thumped against the dirt near the fire pit every so often, causing the fire to briefly flare.

“How… why… are you…” the younger Jon swallowed. “Alive? Here?”

Jon shrugged in response. “I don’t know. Bran did… something, he says. Brought all of us together at the end and then something went wrong, sending us back. I can’t say I’m upset at being alive though – being dead is… well, it’s something else.”

“You died?” asked Jon, blinking in shock.

“Twice, now,” answered the older Jon, a tense smile on his lips. “There’s nothing, you know. After. It’s just… dark.”

Jon shivered.

“We decided not to squander our second chance,” continued Jon instead, picking up the vein. “Make things better. Do things differently.”

“What have you done so far?” asked Jon curiously, a bit guarded. This was his life they were talking about.

The older Jon peered at him, surveying the younger version before carefully speaking. “Made friends. Learned some truths.”

Jon huffed. “That’s vague.”

Jon huffed his own laugh in response. “I’m being intentionally vague because I remember being you. I know what you would do if I told you everything.”

Insulted, the younger Jon pursed his lips and glowered. It did not move the older Jon at all, instead making him bit back a grin.

“We spent much of our time travelling,” said Jon instead, drawing his younger self’s attention. “We went to where my – our – mother died. Bran’s abilities meant that we were able to somehow interact with her, and Arthur, at the time.”

Jon, incredibly jealous, shot a look at the hovered knight, one that was equal parts awe and ire.

“As you can see, we, uh, caused a change,” said Jon, waving a hand at the kingsguard. “Arthur was supposed to be dead—”

The man in question snorted.

“—but our interference in the past ensured he survived,” finished Jon.

“And thank the Gods for that,” muttered the knight under his breath, but still heard by the two Jons.

“I was able to learn more about why my mother did what she did; more about Rhaegar.” Jon shook his head. “It was all such a mess.”

“At least you got to speak to her,” grumbled Jon, his gut churning angrily. He had wanted to know about his mother for years and through some magical quirk, his older self had the opportunity to meet and speak to her? So unfair.

“I needed to know what Rhaegar’s plans were with her,” said Jon, a bit sharply as he eyed his younger self, his arms crossed as he pouted. “And to learn more about the prophecy.”

From where he sat, bookended, the younger Robb piped up. “Prophecy?”

Grimly, Jon glanced at him. “Aye. About the Prince Who Was Promised. The one who is to bring an end to the Long Night – Azor Ahai.”

The younger Jon paled, sucking in a sharp breath as he did so. “Long Night?”

The older Jon sighed, running a hand through his curly hair and then skimming over the bun at the top of his head. “It’s how I died. How Sansa, Arya, Bran and I all died. We were fighting the undead in Winterfell.”

“It’s real?” breathed Jon, eyes wide.

Jon nodded.

His younger self exhaled shakily.

Robb, from the sideline, asked in a trembling voice, “What do you need? What… what changes have you made and what can we do to help?”

Jon turned his body to face his younger cousin, glancing at his older version briefly. His Robb, the one who had been king, was looking down at his younger self, slightly pained, but immensely proud. He had never been the type to shy away from helping others, even if he sometimes got lost in the larger picture.

“Right now, nothing,” answered Jon truthfully. “My siblings and I have done the legwork for you. We have set the cyvasse board.”

The younger Robb narrowed his eyes, unperturbed by his older cousin’s reassurances. “And what does that mean, exactly?”

Jon sighed. “We’ve allies already.”

“The Tyrells,” said the younger Robb promptly, glancing at Margaery and Loras. “For some time now, I assume?”

Margaery certainly didn’t look shocked, and Loras was unrepentant, but there was something like resignation and slight annoyance in the girl’s countenance, the knowledge that she had been a piece in a game she hadn’t know was being played.

“Aye,” answered the older Robb for Jon, with a nod at Loras and Margaery. “The Fossoways, as well, although that wasn’t planned.”

Jon cringed at the reminder of how Lord Fossoway had cornered him on their way to Highgarden. He cleared his throat. “Obviously, Arthur here is with us.”

Arthur nodded solemnly, continuing his mother-henning by hovering at Jon’s side while looking ridiculously dignified and knightly in his armour and bearing.

“Father knows,” continued Robb, catching his younger self’s, the younger Jon, and Margaery’s attention at that.

“What?!” exclaimed Robb, nearly jumping up.

Jon gaped, eyes wide as they roved between the Starks, Arthur, and Loras in surprise.

“And Jon Connington; he was a friend of Rhaegar’s that we, uh, found in Lys who joined us,” added the older Jon. “He’s currently travelling, on a mission I’ve asked him to complete.”

Jon narrowed his eyes at his older self. “Mission?”

“To gather some more old friends,” answered Jon with a bland smile, one that said everything and nothing.

“Why are Sansa, Arya, and Bran in King’s Landing?” asked Robb, catching everyone’s attention. “Why didn’t they stay here?”

Robb snorted. “With Baratheon here? Arya looks similar enough to Aunt Lyanna at first glance that it would be asking for trouble. No one, least of all her, wanted that.”

“Sansa and Bran made a plan, and Arya will be the one to execute it,” said Jon evenly. At a particular word, he glanced at his cousin, and saw Robb nod in understanding. “They could only do what they need to in King’s Landing, unfortunately. And they’re not alone; Willas is with them, and I’ll join them eventually, as well.”

“And then what? You’ll just… say you’re the king? Rhaegar’s son?” asked a skeptical Jon to his older self.

“Not at all,” replied Jon carefully. “I won’t be doing any proclaiming. There are things that must be done first, anyway; Robb and Maerros will be leaving Winterfell shortly—”

“What?” exclaimed the younger Robb, looking at his older self in dismay. “But why? If Father is leaving soon to go south with the king as his Hand, I’ll need you here!”

“You didn’t need me the first time around,” said Robb to his younger self with a tight smile. “I managed.”

“You died,” retorted the younger Robb defiantly.

Robb paused. “Not from being the Stark in Winterfell.”

His younger self narrowed his eyes on him, sensing that he wasn’t being told everything and certainly wasn’t going to get the full story from him, either.

“Anyway,” continued the older Robb, looking at Jon, “I need to meet with Mance Rayder—”

“The King Beyond the Wall?” asked an incredulous Jon.

“—and the Wildlings, uh, Free Folk,” he quickly amended seeing Jon’s sharp glance at him, “to prepare for them surviving what’s to come.”

“Surviving what’s the come?” echoed Robb dubiously, staring at his older self.

Jon – the older one – cleared his throat. “Against the Night King and his army of wights, who have already decimated several of the tribes recently, and have spent the past thousands of years gathering the dead to them.”

Jon, Robb, and even Margaery stared at Jon. They had heard that the Night King – the Long Night – was real, but it was something else to realize it was already happening.

Jon turned back to his younger self, taking in his unlined face, the wide, dark eyes, and even the slightly green tinge to his pale face. But he also saw the determination in the jut of his chin, the stiffness in his shoulders – the bearing of a young man who had something to prove and was going to do it against all odds. Jon wanted to push that, prepare his younger self in ways that no one had quite done for him.

“I won’t ask you to do anything I wouldn’t do – or haven’t already done,” said Jon quietly to his younger version.

“Won’t I have to?” responded Jon bitterly. “Once everyone knows who you are – who our parents were – won’t I have to become someone else? I won’t be Jon Snow anymore. I’ll be – I’ll be Jon Targaryen. Or, uh, whatever Targaryen name I was given. I won’t be me.”

“You will always be you,” retorted Jon hotly. “Whether that’s as Jon Snow, or Jon Stark, or Jon Targaryen. But you will be a child of two worlds: of fire and ice, north and south; Andals and First Men. And some people will want you to pick one over the other.”

Jon reached out and touched Cloudbreaker’s snout, gently running his hand down the scales as the dragon made a pleased rumble. Ghost slunk forward and rested his massive head on Jon’s thigh, and he buried his free hand in the fur. There was a dragon on one side and a direwolf on the other.

You don’t have to pick, Jon,” fervently said his older self, leaning forward and catching his eyes. Dark eyes stared into dark eyes. “But what you do want to ask yourself, is whether you can settle for a less than ordinary life, or do you feel like you were meant for something better? Something more?”

Jon’s mouth dropped open. He glanced at Robb, who was equally stunned, but his newly discovered cousin had nothing to say. Robb gave a tiny shrug – whatever decision Jon was to make; it would be his alone.

“I…”

The elder Jon gave his younger self a patient smile. “You don’t need to decide just yet, Jon. But one day, you will.” He paused, standing. Jon shuffled back to look up at him, eyes wide. “And whatever decision you make… you’ll have to live with it for the rest of your life.”

Final words said, Jon turned, Arthur a step behind him, with Ghost rubbing against his chest. Cloudbreaker waddled back to his siblings, the other dragons, and the three slowly disappeared into the cave, the only hint that they existed coming from their iridescent eyes and the few flames they snorted out that briefly illuminated their scales.

Jon watched the dragons for a long moment, and then turned his eyes to his older self and the loyal, quiet direwolf, thinking of his own wolf back in Winterfell.

Maybe, he thought, as the group slowly began to stand and follow the eldest of them all back to Winterfell, a slow trudge through the snow and brush, maybe it’s not a choice, after all. He shook his head, waving off Robb’s wordless concern from his side.

But, like he said, that’s a choice for another day, Jon finished thinking, even though his heart knew that day would come far sooner than he would like, or was ready for.

It was in reverse, this time around, with Robb saddling his horse to journey north to the Wall, while Jon remained behind in Winterfell for longer. There was a long moment where Jon stared at Robb, who had his horse’s reins in his hands. Then, he turned to his cousin and Robb heard him form the familiar words from long ago. “You Starks are hard to kill.”

Although he knew the words – he had uttered them once before – Robb snorted. The irony was not lost on him, being the first of the Starks to die. It was amusing that it was Jon – the one who survived the longest and only half-Stark – to say that to him.

“Next time I see you, you’ll be all in black,” quipped Robb, following the script. Except… it might be true, just not the black of the Night’s Watch, but the black-and-red of House Targaryen.

Jon’s mouth curled into a smile. “It was always my colour.”

It truly was, thought Robb, his own mouth twisting into an acknowledging smile.

“Farewell, Snow.” He reached out, to shake Jon’s hand, but Jon pulled him forward and drew him into a tight hug, thumping him for good measure on his back. The hug was tight, and Robb buried his face for a moment in the fur collar of Jon’s thick cloak, smelling sweat and snow.

When they drew apart, Jon was once more grim-faced. “Be safe. It won’t be like anything you know.”

“I remember.”

Jon nodded, once. “Good. Then… And you, Stark. Until we meet again.”

“It’ll be soon enough,” grinned Robb, who then lowered his voice. He glanced around to ensure Robert wasn’t nearby. “And with a Wildling army!”

“Gods willing,” replied Jon, just as quietly. “Stick by Maerros and remember what to say when you meet Mance.”

“It’ll be fine,” scoffed Robb. “Don’t worry so much.”

“You’re going into wild territory where Others and wights walk,” said Jon dryly.

“Aye, and you’ll be dealing with Sothron politics.” Robb grinned. “I think I’m getting the better deal, here.”

Jon rolled his eyes.

A whistle pierced the air, and both young men turned to see their father swing himself up on his horse, while their younger selves arranged a loose goodbye around Lady Catelyn. Sansa, Arya, and Bran were already in the second wagon, not joining the queen and her children; and the rest of the party was slowly trooping out of Winterfell in a long, loose snake-like weave.

Maerros sat on his horse, calmly watching the line proceed him, with Benjen at his side and Tyrion with his two Lannister guards off to the side, once more joining the man of the Night’s Watch to journey north and piss off the wall.

Robb gave Jon a grin, another manly thump on his shoulder that Jon barely felt through the furs, and vaulted up into his saddle, wheeling his horse around. He took one long, last look at Winterfell – at his younger self, who watched him solemnly; at the other Jon, Theon, and even Ser Arthur Dayne off to the side, and his mother with baby Rickon while the elder and Loras stood with Margaery – and then he cantered through the gate, Maerros just after him.

They set a brutal pace toward the Wall – Tyrion Lannister complained about it often enough, although he did his best to keep a positive attitude, joking with everyone and telling lewd stories of his time in King’s Landing or Lannisport.

Robb barely paid attention – his focus was on the task Jon gave him. Maerros, as his companion, knew some of it, but the rest was spoken to Robb in hushed whispers late at night in the Winterfell crypts, information as currency to ensure Robb’s safety and passage not just at Castle Black, but beyond, into Mance Rayder’s camp.

When they finally approached the Wall, nearly two weeks later, Robb felt his mouth pinch into a tight line. The last time he had been here, after awakening from his death, he had been far too preoccupied with Jon, Sansa, and Arya’s older ages and their changed personalities, as well as his own grief and rage, to take stock of the state of the Wall.

He wasn’t making that mistake, now.

The king in him catalogued the repairs needed – the sagging, thatched roofs; the missing windows; the general state of neglect in the air – and felt grim resolve settle on his shoulders. That same grim resolve settled further into grim annoyance when they were let into the castle bailey, Ser Alliser greeting them alongside Uncle Benjen and the Lord Commander, Jeor Mormont.

Mormont approached Robb first, as he dismounted. “Lord Robb. It is good to see you.” Again, went unsaid, as his eyes flickered toward Tyrion and the Lannister guards with him. He didn’t want to say too much in case they weren’t in the know – which, they weren’t. Sansa and Jon might have had good things to say about the two Lannister sons, but Robb certainly wasn’t taking any chances.

“Aye, Lord Commander,” greeted Robb solemnly. “My thanks for hosting us.”

“Are you still planning to go beyond?” grunted Mormont, judgment in his eyes that clearly stated he thought Robb was being stupid.

Robb nodded.

Mormont sighed. “Then you’ll need a few days to gather provisions. I have a few men who will go with you on a ranging anyway—”

“No, that won’t be necessary,” interrupted Robb quickly, pitching his voice lower.

Benjen blinked, taken aback. “I beg your pardon?” He frowned. “Robb, surely you weren’t planning on going beyond the Wall with just yourself and Maerros.”

Robb’s hard stare let his uncle know that that was the plan.

“Robb.” Benjen’s voice was tight and strained.

“Uncle.”

The two stared hard at one another.

“Stark,” muttered Mormont, capturing Benjen’s attention. “They’re grown men. Let them make their decisions and honour that. You’ve got a job to do anyway – we’ve got three missing rangers out there and you need to find out what happened to them.”

Robb wanted to say they're dead, catching Maerros’ dark eyes. Bran had told them before he had left, the fate of Waymar Royce and his companions. They were already wights and were near the small cluster of weirwood trees that Robb and his siblings had appeared before when brought back to life.

“We’ll be fine, uncle,” murmured Robb, grabbing Benjen’s arm as the man sullenly went to pass by him; Mormont had already turned and strode back toward the tower. “Maerros and I are both skilled men, and I have Greywind with me as well.”

Benjen looked askance at the towering and scarred wolf, who sat back on his hindquarters and let his tongue loll out, panting happily. “Aye,” said Benjen, dryly, “Utterly fearsome beast, he is.”

Still, nothing more was said, and within a day, Robb and Maerros were on horseback with Benjen, watching the gate in the tunnel under the Wall rise, revealing the wild expanse of the snowy lands beyond.

Greywind burst through the mouth of the tunnel the second he was able to, shooting off toward the treeline with excited yips. The three men followed far more sedately, pausing only when they arrived at the weirwood grove in the Haunted Forest. The many faces carved in the trees made Maerros shudder even as he stared at them in fascination.

“I suppose this is where I say my goodbyes,” mused Benjen quietly.

“Not ‘goodbye,’ uncle,” replied Robb, a frown on his face. “You know what’s out there. What’s waiting for us. Be safe, and we’ll see each other again soon.”

Benjen gave Robb a tired smile. “I like that much better, Robb. Until we see each other again.”

Then, he gave him a nod and turned his horse to face west – and was then gone, a shadowy figure in between the brown branches and green pines until there was no hint or noise of him and his horse.

“Robb?” asked Maerros quietly.

“To the east,” said Robb in response, whistling for Greywind, who appeared through some bushes with enough force to scare and scatter some grouse. Both Robb and Maerros laughed, their voices a bit strained in the preternatural stillness of the forest.

“How long do you think it’ll take before we find this Mance Rayder and his army?” asked Maerros after several hours of silence and wary, watchful eyes.

Robb shrugged. “Jon said it took them weeks to arrive after he was initially captured.”

Maerros made a face. “I do not want to be out in this Gods-awful cold for weeks on end, Robb.”

“Well, I don’t control the weather,” griped Robb back.

The two were lost in their sniping and short-tempered quips (all in good nature), when Greywind suddenly stopped, ears perked up.

“What is it, Grey?” asked Robb, pulling slightly on the reins of his horse to come to a stop. “What do you hear?”

He and Maerros went quiet, both straining their ears and peering through slightly narrowed eyes (as though that would help them), through the foliage and snowbanks. As Greywind was not growling, and the temperature around them had not significantly chilled, they both felt confident it was not wights.

There was a moment of utter stillness. Then –

Two arrows shot past Robb’s face, sinking into the bark of a nearby tree. His horse reared up and Robb cried, “Whoa! Whoa!” as he tried to control the animal.

Maerros wheeled his horse around toward the arrows and armed himself with his odd-shaped curved sword, not holding it aloft but ready – and just in time, as several fur- and leather-clad figures burst from the trees, screaming as they raced toward them.

Robb swore, struggling to dismount.

Greywind snarled and leapt toward the bushes, sending someone shrieking in fright, tumbling out of the bushes with fear on their face, chasing the person around – almost playing with them.

Maerros met the first of the bunch with his sword, aiming to disarm them of their shoddy steel and axes; he knocked one completely out cold with the blunt hilt of his sword, sending the man crumbling to the ground.

A woman screamed murder at him, her voice high and pitched, making Robb wince as he came to Maerros’ side, his own sword out, but not wanting to engage. The remaining wildlings quickly surrounded and herded them, making a loose circle around the two men. They jeered and snapped their jaws at them, playing up their wildness.

“I thought you said the Free Folk could be reasoned with!” shouted Maerros over the war cries.

Jon said that, not I!” retorted Robb hotly, going back-to-back with Maerros to increase their chances of survival. They were pressed tightly against one another, and Robb could feel every shift Maerros made even through the thick fur and layers he wore underneath.

“Reasoned with?” shouted a large, redheaded wildling. His arm was raised with his sword, ready to swing down. “Reasoned with? We don’t reason with kneelers!”

“We just want to bloody speak to Mance!” shouted back Robb.

The large redheaded man frowned, slowly lowering his sword. “What do a bunch of kneelers want with Rayder?”

“Don’t listen to them, Tormund!” hissed another redhead, a young woman closer to Bran and Arya’s new ages.

Tormund, the large redheaded man, flicked his eyes at the woman but then returned them to Robb. Sensing he’d have to say something, Robb sighed inaudibly but lowered his sword too, prompting Maerros to follow him.

The wildlings surrounding them followed suit, especially when Tormund gestured for them to do so, but there were frowns on their faces, filled with suspicion.

“Listen – we know what’s hunting you,” began Robb carefully, keeping his eyes on Tormund. Greywind slunk forward and inched to be at Robb’s side, where he placed his hand on his direwolf’s head, calming him. “Wights and Others. There are those south of the Wall who know and want to help.”

The redheaded woman scoffed.

“Is that so?” mocked Tormund, although his eyes were on Robb’s wolf, wary. “Why, how gracious of you kneelers!”

Robb winced. “That’s not – that’s not what I meant. We just want to help. Let us speak to Mance. And then if he thinks we’re full of it, well, so be it.”

There was a terse silence. Finally, Tormund gave a loud exhale. “Fine.”

“Tormund!” the redhead protested loudly.

Tormund ignored her and continued speaking. “But if Mance thinks you’re full of sh*t, southerner, then I’ll take your head myself.”

“You wouldn’t be the first,” muttered Robb, but loudly enough that Tormund heard, sending him a queer look. Greywind huffed in amusem*nt.

“You’re a strange one, kneeler,” he said. He held his hand out. “Weapons.”

“Must we?” groaned Maerros, very reluctantly passing his sword over. “Be careful with that, will you? It is my pride and joy.”

“It’s a strange-looking sword,” the man he passed it to said, gingerly taking it and examining the curved blade.

“It is from my home,” explained Maerros, brightening a little, as he usually did whenever he spoke of Volantis. “I am Volantene – from Volantis – as is my sword.”

The man holding his sword gave it, and then Maerros, an unimpressed look. “I don’t know where that is.”

Maerros visibly deflated.

“How long until we reach Mance’s camp?” asked Robb instead, turning to Tormund.

The large man shrugged. “We get there when we get there.”

Robb sighed but held his hands out as Tormund wrapped a rope around them, and resignedly shuffled behind the large man as they began walking. It looked like he was getting the Jon Snow treatment and felt at least somewhat reassured that Jon had survived his journey to the camp and the initial meeting with Mance.

There was some small talk made over the next few days – Robb and Maerros had to explain that they weren’t ‘crows,’ the name the wildlings had for the Black Brothers but were still from south of the Wall. The redheaded girl, Ygritte, wanted to hear about the castles, so Robb described Winterfell and Riverrun to her and then Maerros went on a rant about the weather and how much nicer Volantis was—which led to an argument between him and Robb about cold, dry air versus hot, humid air and confused those around them.

Greywind decided Tormund was his new best friend and spent the majority of the time they spent being carted around the Lands Beyond the Wall helping the wildings hunt and cozying up to their leader – who made it clear he was very unnerved by the large wolf, skittering away whenever Greywind came too close.

Eventually, they reached a plateau overlooking a valley, and in that valley were thousands of animal-skin tents, and wooden lean-tos, smoke pits and shacks. It was a mishmash of buildings and open spaces for thousands of people: Mance Rayder’s army.

Tormund nudged them forward, their horses obediently trotting behind. Greywind wanted to lope forward – Robb could tell – but a sharp whistle and command in the Old Tongue had the wolf whine and slink back to the Stark. At his command, several of the wildings around Robb glanced at him curiously, one even going so far as to ask, “You speak the Old Tongue?”

“My two brothers are fluent,” explained Robb, “And so they wanted the rest of us to learn. It seemed right.”

One wilding nodded in agreement, while another scowled.

“This way,” muttered Tormund, tugging the rope that held Robb and Maerros. They were led down into the valley and then between the shacks and lean-tos, with people of varying ages staring out at them. Some were in the process of making their breakfast, others were completely ignoring them as they fought surrounded by a ring of shouting spectators.

Maerros eyed them all and muttered to Robb from the side of his mouth, “Are you sure this is a good idea, brother? That Jon did not just send us here to be out of the way?”

Robb grimaced in response, also eyeing the bloodied figures. “I’m beginning to wonder, myself.”

But then they were at a tent, Tormund tersely told them to “wait here,” as he dipped inside, with Ygritte and a few others keeping them in place with their own weapons. Then Tormund was back, a scowl on his face, and gesturing the two men forward.

Inside the tent was warm, a fire going in a brazier and a few rough, but lovingly made wooden stools and furniture dotting the room. It wasn’t anything near the quality and care that Robb’s own king’s tent had when he was on campaign in the Riverlands, but for what it was north of the Wall, it was more than he expected.

A man with stringy hair, with two women on one side of him – a brunette and a stunningly beautiful silvery-blonde – leaned back in his seat, a look of supreme calm on his face. “Tormund says you wanted to meet with me?” he gave them a shrewd look. “I must admit, this wasn’t how I was expecting to see people from south of the Wall.”

Maerros nudged Robb, hard. He glanced at his friend and saw the amused glint to his dark eyes before they turned back to the man who spoke. Robb shook his gaze off the blonde, swallowing hard and turning his attention to Mance. Jon trusted him to do this.

“Er, King Rayder—”

“Mance is just fine.”

“Er. Mance,” stumbled Robb, blinking. “Right. Aye.”

Mance was still watching Robb carefully and calmly, although there may have been some amusem*nt in his eyes now, too. “Aye. Now – if you are who I think you are – I must ask what exactly you are doing here and want with me and mine.”

“Right. Aye,” muttered Robb. He cleared his throat, stepping forward the tiniest. Behind him, Tormund and the others inched in after as guards made to move. “My name is Robb Stark. I’m here to save you!”

At his side, Maerros let out a long sigh.

TBC…

Notes:

Going to be a bit longer between updates now, as wee one is now here! Babies are... interesting. However, I am still committed and eagerly writing this story, and now that the background stuff is all out of the way, all the political and backstabbing bits will come out! 😈

There was supposed to be a Sansa/Arya/Bran section, but for some reason (??) I felt that the chapter was getting too long (it's not?? Tracey why) and will post, as is. But know that we're off to King's Landing in the next chapter to see what Sansa has cooked up...

Also: thank you all SO SO MUCH for your comments. It's getting to the point that I don't have time to reply to them all, but I am trying my best and know that I read each and every one as they come into my email and inbox here! I'm so happy that people like this story and leave me messages about it. ❤️❤️

Chapter 25: XXV

Summary:

Bran, Arya, Sansa and Willas arrive in King's Landing and the Starks begin to move pieces in the great Game of Thrones. Ned remembers why he hates the south, and little Sansa gets a shock.

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

XXV:

Memories of Tomorrow - writing_as_tracey (26)

King’s Landing was a dirty smudge on the horizon but closing in quickly, the buildings slowly taking familiar shape as Sansa stood at the bow of the ship. She hugged her shawl tighter across her shoulders, the only indicator of her feelings about their approach to the scene of much of her childhood misery.

Arya, at her side, glanced at her sharply. “Do I need to show you the passages I found? Would it make you feel better?”

“Later,” murmured Sansa, eyes still on the approaching city. “And… yes.”

“Things will be fine,” said Bran, from Sansa’s other side. Their time spent on Maerros’ ship, as well as all the others they had taken over the years, ensured that Bran had several chairs and this one was best suited for the rolling and rocking of their current method of transport. “Have faith.”

“The plan works?” asked Arya, all teeth. She wanted confirmation.

“If you stick to it,” answered Bran, raising his eyebrows at his older sister. “As much as you’re able, anyway.”

“Excellent.” Arya was practically rubbing her hands together.

“Dare I ask?” asked Willas, interrupting them as he approached, a wry and amused smile on his handsome face. He approached Sansa first, placing a solid hand low on her back. The redhead felt the tension in her drain at the familiar and comforting touch, and her shoulders physically dropped from where they had crept up toward her ears.

“Ask us not, for plausible deniability,” retorted Arya, although her tone was jovial. She was clearly eager and ready to utilize her skills.

“Then I shall not,” replied the eldest Tyrell, sending a grin toward Arya, which the girl shared. “Are we still to the house I’ve rented in the city?”

“Yes,” said Sansa. “Although we will have to present ourselves at court – whoever has remained behind.”

Willas glanced at her. “Oh?”

Sansa grimaced. “There are… roles we must play to keep attention elsewhere.”

Willas’ eyebrow rose higher and his look a bit sharper when he repeated, “Oh?”

Sansa’s lips pursed, and she cut a quick side eye to him. “Yes. Oh.”

Arya and Bran remained silent, and Willas wracked his brain for something to add to the conversation; it wasn’t like he, the grandson of the Queen of Thorns, was unaware of playing a role. He disliked the idea of Sansa doing so, and it was more out of him being used to, and enjoying, the relative freedom and openness in her expression that she gave him. Seeing Sansa shut down the closer and closer they came to King’s Landing had shown Willas just how much trust she and her siblings had given him, and the other Tyrells, over the years. The coldness of her face reminded him far too much of the younger woman he met the first time she and her siblings came to visit Highgarden.

“My Lords, my Ladies,” interrupted the captain apologetically, causing them to all turn to him. “We’re approaching Blackwater Bay. We’ll be docking in a few hours.”

Willas nodded, thanking him, and the man moved away as suddenly as he appeared.

The four were silent, all watching as the buildings began to be more distinct, more separate – they could begin making out the crowned Baratheon flags hanging off buildings and fluttering in the wind off rooftops, and the stench of the city quickly wafted over them.

“Are you ready to play the game, San?” asked Arya quietly.

With a deep breath, Sansa answered, “I never stopped.”

Without the king and queen at court, there was little need to formally introduce themselves, leaving the group to divide and conquer, in Arya’s words, at least.

Willas and the Tyrell and Stark guards who accompanied them turned in one direction, toward the manse his family owned in King’s Landing to air it out and prepare for their arrival. Bran joined him, as his presence wasn’t necessary to their plotting – at least, not the front-facing plotting.

Sansa and Arya, however, turned in the opposite direction and travelled a familiar, if not vague, pathway toward the red castle and seat of the throne’s power. They were taking the path by foot, enjoying the last vestiges of freedom and relative anonymity, and yet, every time Arya ended up in Sansa’s periphery, Sansa had to bite the inside of her cheek from laughing.

Arya, however, caught the glimmer in Sansa’s eyes and scowled. “Oh, laugh. You know you want to.”

“I’m sorry,” said Sansa, although her lips trembled as she tried to suppress her laughter. She turned her head to face Arya. “But I just – well, it’s rare – and Mother always—”

Arya sighed, smoothing her hands down the silky grey fabric. “I have worn dresses before, you know.”

“I’m used to seeing you in leather trousers and tunics,” retorted Sansa. “Especially from this older version of yourself.”

“I swear, dresses are a man’s invention,” muttered Arya, scowling even as she hiked up the hem of her dress a little. “It’s to stop women from running away. I fight so much better in trousers.” She slid a sly look at Sansa. “But not that I’m terrible in a dress. Much easier to hide the knives.”

Sansa let out a sharp laugh before containing it and smoothing her face. “Of course.”

They kept their faces calm of their thoughts, announcing themselves to bewildered – but utterly smitten – gold cloaks at the gate of the Red Keep, who allowed them entry into the castle proper.

They had hoped to enter unannounced and unnoticed, but a member of the Small Council stood waiting for them, his hands tucked in the long sleeves of his billowing robes, watching them with feigned curiosity on his round face.

If anyone knew they had arrived, thought Sansa, it would be Varys and his Little Birds. This was true, especially over Littlefinger’s whor*s, but Sansa anticipated the man showing up sooner rather than later.

“Ladies,” greeted Varys, eyes flickering between the two. “Welcome to King’s Landing.”

“My Lord Varys,” greeted Sansa, going into a curtsey. Arya, at her side, mimicked it perfectly. It seemed that the House of Black and White taught her more than just how to kill. “I apologize for not announcing our arrival. We like to keep quiet, to ensure focus is on our younger selves and not us, as interlopers.”

“My dear Lady Sansa,” began Varys, not needing any introduction from the two. He tittered, “I can fully appreciate when one tries to keep focus off themselves.”

“I’ll bet,” murmured Arya from the corner of her mouth.

“Shall I have a servant show you to some rooms?” asked Varys.

“Oh, we won’t be staying,” demurred Sansa. “We’re here just to participate in court, and watch until our father arrives with the King in a few moons’ time. But my sister and I will be staying in the city with our brother. It would be far too confusing with two Sansas and two Aryas and two Brans in the Red Keep!”

“Indeed, it would be,” said Varys with a tiny smile. “Of course. You timed yourselves well – court will begin shortly. Will you walk with me?”

Sansa was the one who slipped up to Varys’ side, while Arya took the outside, hands clasped behind her back as she kept to her sister’s pace. As they walked, Varys took the time to point out places of interest and bits of history of the part of the castle they were in, not asking whether either woman had been in King’s Landing before. It was a test, of course – their interactions would determine if they had been and perhaps, how entrenched in court.

Arya kept quiet, allowing Sansa to lead the conversation or answer questions. She had plastered on her ‘girly’ persona, the same that she used when they first arrived at the Tyrell’s, breathlessly sweet and doe-eyed.

At one point, Varys peeled off from them, apologetically citing Small Council business, but the two women were able to slip in at the very back of the long throne room, hiding near the pillars as others made their petitions known to the councilmembers at the front of the room at the base of the melted swords: Varys, Renly, Pycelle, and Littlefinger. There was an empty chair, for Stannis, but he had already left for Dragonstone – another issue on top of many others to deal with shortly.

Petitions were simple – the same as they were in any holdfast, despite being the seat of the king. With him still in Winterfell, the petitions were drier, being more about minor disputes and squabbles. Eventually, the smallfolk and lords tapered off, leaving behind only the regulars who came to court to witness the Small Council in action and to gather information for their own schemes.

That was when Arya and Sansa made their move – although, it wasn’t meant to be flashy or bombastic. Sansa made sure her bright red hair glittered just so, caught on the candlelight in the throne room and through the stained glass just so, so that Petyr Baelish’s eyes trailed to her, just so.

Arya, from the corner of her eyes, saw the man blanch and trip over the words he was saying to Renly, Varys, and Pycelle, causing the men to look at him in wonder before following where his eyes were locked.

Varys’ lips would have twitched in amusem*nt if it wouldn’t have given him away. “Ah, Lady Sansa, Lady Arya!” he called instead, waving the two women over and gaining the attention of everyone else in the room.

There was a moment of silence and then whispers as the rumours of the second set of Starks made their way through the crowd, just as Sansa and Arya parted it, walking down the middle toward the Small Council. Stopping nearby, both girls dipped into curtseys.

“My Lords,” murmured Sansa breathlessly in greeting, her voice high.

“Lady Sansa,” began Baelish, eyes wide. “You are even more beautiful than your mother was at your age.”

“Oh, how kind of you to say, my Lord!” twittered Sansa, fluttering her eyelashes, even as she thought, I’m bloody seven and twenty, and Mother had already been in Winterfell a decade by that time. When were you to have seen her to know what she looked like then?

“Goodness,” said Renly, looking between the two, flabbergasted. “I had thought they were rumours – but it’s true – Starks from beyond the grave!”

Pycelle looked as though he had seen a ghost, eyes on Arya. “You look remarkably like your aunt, Lady Lyanna.”

“I’ve been told,” replied Arya, a bit dryly. Then, impishly, she added: “Although we have different face shapes, and she was taller.”

Pycelle blinked, trying to figure out how she would know that.

“What brings you two lovely ladies to King’s Landing?” asked Renly, turning his charm up. He was young, fresh-faced, and radiating charm and geniality, but this one didn’t have the Tyrells at his back, a bit more isolated from Westeros as a whole, and tightly woven with his Stormlander houses with the Starks having snatched Loras – and the Reach – from him.

“We decided to travel ahead of our father and the king,” answered Sansa without answering anything. “Our brother, Bran, joined us as well.”

“Is he not here? Is he well?” asked Varys, affecting concern, even as he partially turned to Pycelle. “We can have him brought here to be taken care of under the Grand Maester’s purview—”

“Oh, no,” demurred Sansa, fluttering her eyelashes. Arya thought she saw Baelish swoon, the tiniest; it was all in the eyes as they locked on her. “Bran’s fine. He’s confined to his chair, though, so the many stairs in the Red Keep would be limiting for him. We have rented a place in the city.”

“Is that safe?” asked Baelish, attention firmly on Sansa. He really does have a weakness for her, thought Arya with a mental eye roll. “I’m not sure if you know, Lady Sansa – if your mother ever said – but I am an old friend of hers and have done well for myself. I would be happy to place some men in your rented manse. They’d keep you safe.”

“We’re quite well,” deflected Sansa demurely, gazing at Baelish from under long eyelashes. “Thank you for your concern, my Lord.”

“Of course,” he replied, lips thin and eyes gleaming.

There was some more small talk until Sansa managed to extract herself and Arya from the conversation but not without promising that she’d take a stroll of the Red Keep’s gardens with Baelish and a midday meal for her and Arya with Renly and his not-Loras secret paramour.

“That went well.” Arya was nearly whistling when they left the Keep, swinging her hands at her side with the full knowledge that at least three of Varys’ little birds were following them from different directions and heights. Both were aware that the building was far from secure, that Varys’ birds would find a way in, likely through the poorly designed sewer system, and that Baelish would attempt to bribe the guards or servants at some point.

“It went as I expected,” answered Sansa, approaching the rented manse.

There were guards on the doors – Tyrell people hand-picked by Willas, wearing Stark colours (which they all thought was odd)—, and a few actual Stark and Manderly guards who patrolled the interior of the tiny, three-storey high square building with a central courtyard.

Bran was in his chair, at the base of a tree in the courtyard garden. It was neither a weirwood nor a heart tree, leaving him frowning and glaring down at the potted weirwood frond he kept taking from whatever tree he planted when they remained put for any length of time.

“All well here, Bran?” asked Arya.

“Yes,” he replied in his monotone voice.

“You saw nothing concerned upon arriving here?” asked Sansa, allowing her doublespeak to come through.

Bran glanced at her. “Not at all.” Then, slowly, his Three-Eyed Raven façade slipped away, and an impish curl of his lips let some of the boy that enjoyed Old Nan’s bloodiest stories through. “In fact, you could say that everything is perfect.”

Arya did let out a cackle at that, and Sansa even allowed her lips to curl into a pleased smile. “That’s good, Bran,” she all but purred, blue eyes icy cold and gleaming in the fading daylight. “That’s so good.”

Arya joined Sansa for the first few court sessions – more petitions, and three banquets all hosted by Renly in Robert’s name – and then skipped the rest. Bran never attended, just due to mobility issues, but Sansa made sure that everyone saw her and remembered her over her siblings.

By the end of the third week – around the same time as when Robert had initially left Winterfell with her father – Sansa was a known figure at court and a popular one, too. Willas had joined her at court, once or twice, causing a stir when the Small Council realized a Tyrell was in King’s Landing (not for Varys or Littlefinger, though, of course).

That stir was doubled when he and Sansa sat next to each other and spend the evening talking, and he made her laugh. (It put a target on Willas’ back, courtesy of Littlefinger, but as Willas already had an idea of what the man was capable of, he relished the opportunity to outplay him.)

Only once did Baelish ask where Arya was when she missed more than two court appearances in a row. Sansa gave him a coy smile, and answered, “She’s wandering the city, my Lord. Taking in the sights.”

“Is that safe?” Renly interrupted, concern on his face.

“Why wouldn’t it be?” asked Sansa in response, a frown of confusion on her face. “Surely, no one would dare attack the future Lord Hand’s daughter – even if she’s the wrong age.”

Renly and Baelish shared a look, Renly with a pained smile at how naïve Sansa was. Baelish soothed her by promising to send some gold cloaks to watch for Arya without stepping on her independent toes, which Sansa demurely accepted, all the while knowing that Arya would gut the men and leave their bodies behind for the people of Flea Bottom to strip bare of anything worthwhile.

And maybe take their faces. That would be useful, down the line.

Maybe, once, long ago, that would have shocked Sansa, the thought of what her little sister could do. The Sansa that belonged in this timeline – the one slowly travelling south on the King’s Road with her father – would be horrified. But that girl hadn’t seen what Sansa had seen; hadn’t experienced all that Sansa had.

She never had to sing pretty lies to a mad king.

She never had to endure the sting of blades against her skin, striped bare and humiliated in front of hundreds of people.

She never had to flee for her life, hoping that the man she was placing her trust in was going to take her home and lead her to safety (he hadn’t).

She never had to feel the sharp pain and shame of being raped, of her husband’s knives against her skin, the feel of flesh peeling, or feel the phantom pain of a dog’s bite and the sick terror as she ran through the heavy snow and night, pushing forward and on, in hope that just one more step – one more – would mean safety.

No – that Sansa, that sweet, innocent Sansa – would not understand Arya Stark and never had. And if Sansa had a say in it, that little girl never would.

“Oh!” gasped Sansa, bringing a hand to her mouth, drawing Baelish’s attention to her lips. “My Lords! Both of you have been in the Red Keep for some time, have you not?”

“Indeed so, Lady Sansa,” agreed Renly with a genial smile on his face.

“Then, perhaps, can you tell me if there is a Godswood?” she asked.

Baelish’s eyebrows rose. “A Godswood? Are you a following of the Old Gods, my Lady?”

“Mother raised us on the Seven, but I am a girl of the North, my Lord,” she answered, all truth in her tone. “But my brother is keen to visit, as there isn’t a public Godswood in King’s Landing.”

Renly nodded thoughtfully. “Yes, yes, of course. There is one, with a weirwood tree, Lady Sansa.”

“It is off the second tapestry hall on the fourth level,” butted in Baelish, although smoothly, just as he smoothed a hand down the front of his tunic. He cast a mild look at Renly. “It is near my office as the Master of Coin, my Lady. I would be happy to show you.”

“Oh, would you?” simpered Sansa.

Renly pouted, for a moment, but then graciously backed out, but not without a vicious look sent toward the other man on the Small Council. “Lord Baelish speaks true, Lady Sansa. The Godswood is near his office, and he knows the way better than most.”

The smile Baelish gave Renly was not kind, a bit too smug. He co*cked an elbow out toward Sansa. “Gladly, my Lady. Shall we?”

“Oh, thank you, Lord Baelish,” said Sansa, resting only her fingertips on the man’s sleeve as he preened and began walking her down the hall, away from Renly. He spoke openly about the architecture they passed, the history of the Keep (which she already knew) and the court gossip he was all well filled on.

The courtyard the weirwood tree – the Godswood – was in, was a rectangular manicured garden with a long, columned outdoor hall and three walls, blocking the garden in. There were some bushes, and some flowers, but mostly it was neatly trimmed grass with one or two green-leafed trees that were dwarfed by the large weirwood. There was a sleepy face carved onto the white bark, and its roots were thick and knobby, rising from the earth to create basins and beds and then stretching out behind to the furthest wall and creeping through the mortar and brick there.

“Oh,” said Sansa, her voice a tiny gasp when she saw the face. She hadn’t thought – she had never really visited when she was stuck in King’s Landing previously, hoping to avoid detection – but there was a face.

All the better for Bloodraven to see them, she thought and shuddered.

“Cold, my Lady?” asked Baelish, eyeing her. “Or are you more a follower of the Seven than you thought? It is a ghastly sight.”

“I hadn’t expected the face,” she replied, keeping her eyes on the tree. “I thought it would just be the tree. The Targaryen’s were staunch supporters of the Seven, so…” She finished with a tiny, delicate shrug.

“I suppose even they could not stand the idea of desecrating a religious symbol of the land,” mused Baelish out loud.

He led Sansa down the stone path toward the tree and then stood to the side as she sank to her knees before it, head bowed as she closed her eyes and prayed.

After some time, she rose, turning to the man. “Could you escort me here again on the morrow, my Lord?”

Baelish’s smile of delight was worth the time spent with the slippery, disgusting, and treasonous man.

Sansa’s own returning smile hid her fangs.

With the king’s return a moon away – and their father and younger selves, included – Sansa felt they were at the tipping point. She said as much, one evening, when she, Bran, Arya, and Willas were secluded in one of the bedrooms of the manse Willas rented for them in King’s Landing. Both Arya and Bran had secured the room and premises earlier than evening through their skinchanging skills.

Bran was peering into the flames of the fire in the fireplace, a furrow between his brows as he contemplated what their best course of action was – or rather, the timing.

“I’m ready to go,” announced Arya with her arms crossed, the fire to her back. “Just say when.”

“Will anyone notice?” asked Willas, the only one who academically knew the plan but had never seen their skills in action. He rolled his walking cane between his two palms, almost a grinding motion. He slanted a look at Arya. “No offence.”

“None taken,” she said pleasantly. “And no, no one will be able to tell.”

He hummed thoughtfully, glancing at Sansa, who sat primly on the edge of a seat near where he stood. “I know I don’t need to ask – but you’re fine with—”

“Absolutely,” she replied firmly, her voice low and raw. Her entire body was tense with anger. “For everything that man did in our past. And everything he’s already done and has yet to do. I will have no regrets about my part.”

Willas eyed her for a moment and then nodded, once. “Very well.”

Arya, watching the two, sighed, and then turned to Bran. “So? When are we doing this?”

Bran finally looked up from the fire. “Tomorrow.”

“Excellent,” grinned Arya ferally, while Sansa mimicked her with a tight little savage smile. Bran’s own lips curled up.

“Yes,” agreed Bran. “Excellent.”

The court and small council were used to seeing Lady Sansa and Lord Baelish take long walks around the Red Keep and end their trips with a long rest in the Godswood. It was practically a pattern at this point – moons into the stay of the elder Starks who were once novelty but were now merely rote for the court.

As it was, when Petyr Baelish approached Sansa after court that day, he knew he had nothing to fear when he asked, “Shall we go for a walk, my Lady?”

“Certainly, my Lord,” she replied, giving an apologetic smile to Willas. “I’m sure we will speak again, Lord Willas.”

When her hand rested on Baelish’s arm, the man shot Willas a smarmy smile, his teeth on display. It was clear he thought he had won; Willas’ own mouth turned down into a frown. “My lady,” the Highgarden heir said instead, turning back to Sansa and giving a shallow bow.

Baelish led Sansa from the throne room and down the same, meandering hallways they usually walked.

“Are you looking forward to seeing your father again?” broached Baelish, breaking the silence first. “And, your other selves?”

Sansa gave him a bird-like smile. “Oh, yes! It’s been so long. There’s nothing like a little girl looking up to her father, you know. And I’m sure there will be a tournament for my father when he arrives?”

She fluttered her eyelashes and looked coyly at Baelish, who chuckled and patted the hand nestled in the crook of his elbow. “Absolutely, my Lady. I’ve already been putting the coin aside for the spectacle.”

“With knights and jousts?” asked Sansa in a breathy little gasp of excitement, leaning further into Baelish’s arm and letting her bosom – and the corseted dress with her assets on display – fall into his line of sight.

He glanced down, smirked, and then back at her. “And a feast and dances, as well.” His grin was a bit more lecherous when he asked, “You’ll save me a dance, won’t you, sweetling?”

“Oh, yes, of course, I will, Lord Baelish,” replied Sansa, eyes wide. “It’s only proper as Mother’s oldest and dearest friend and a member of the Small Council that my Father will be on as well!”

Baelish gave her a tiny, proud smile.

By then, they had made their usual path and entered the Godswood, Sansa and the man speaking of the upcoming tournament and what Sansa should expect of the festivities in King’s Landing. Baelish preened, enjoying her attention and the expert advice he was giving to the naïve young woman.

When they stopped before the weirwood tree, Sansa pulled her hand from the crook of his elbow and went to kneel.

“I shall stand and wait here, sweetling,” offered Baelish, moving a few steps back to give her a semblance of privacy.

“Oh, that’s so kind of you, my Lord!” Sansa looked up at him, and fluttered her eyelashes. “But not necessary. There are no secrets that I have that I keep from you.”

“Ah, all women have secrets,” laughed Baelish. “There’s no such thing as a person without them!”

Sansa paused, considering. “I suppose that’s true, my Lord.” Her eyes cut toward the tree and leaned backward, pushing her chest out a little and let her red hair fall over her shoulder as she stretched her neck. It was an uncomfortable position, but it showed off all her best assets at once, and Baelish seemed amused at the obvious gesture, but taken all the same. It wasn’t like he didn’t see women’s breasts and vagin*s on a daily, or even hourly, basis.

But Sansa was special. “In that case…”

“In that case?” repeated Baelish, amusem*nt lingering in his voice as his body swayed toward her, drawn by her feminine appeal and his own desires.

“Arya?” called Sansa, twisting away from Baelish and then bowing her head as she began to pray.

The lithe woman in question stepped around the white trunk of the tree, her eyes fixated on Baelish. Her face was very blank of emotion.

“Lady Arya,” began Baelish, confusion flickering across his face – briefly so that only Sansa caught it – as his eyes moved from one Stark woman to the other. “It’s been some time.”

Baelish was uneasy; this was a change from Sansa’s usual patterns, as they had always been alone in the Godswood – or so, Baelish thought – that Arya’s presence was enough to ruffle his feathers. He did not let it show and began to shift the gears in his mind to formulate new plans.

He glanced at Sansa, but she was still kneeling before the weirwood tree, almost ignoring him as she kept her head bowed and in prayer.

“Are you here to join us, Lady Arya?” asked Baelish.

“No,” the young woman replied, moving away from the tree, and stepping over the exposed root, her feet not making a sound.

Baelish swallowed. “Ah…”

“Lord Baelish,” began Sansa, dragging his attention back as her head came up and she looked directly at the weeping face on the tree, “Did you ever wonder why my siblings and I came into existence? Older than our younger counterparts in Winterfell?”

“It had crossed my mind a few times, certainly,” the man said slowly, carefully. He was trying to figure out where the conversation was heading. “But I would like to think that you would tell me when you felt comfortable enough to do so.” He smirked, trying to add a teasing, “Secrets, remember, sweetling?”

But Sansa still did not turn to look at him. “Secrets, indeed. We’re from the future, you know.”

Baelish had heard those rumours but didn’t believe them, despite the strange existence of the older Starks. He put even less stock into the New and Old Gods returning them to their bodies nonsense the Faith tried to explain away in the Septs.

“We died,” continued Sansa blithely. “In the future. Fighting against the Others.”

Baelish gave Sansa a look that translated to Are you sure you’re well? and began to say, haltingly, “Lady Sansa—”

“It was 305 when I died, Lord Baelish,” said Sansa, speaking over him. “I had been a political prisoner in King’s Landing, a girl pretending to be someone else in the Eyrie, a wife twice over and my second husband’s plaything and victim. I was a lady, a princess, and a queen. I started off as a stupid, silly little girl and grew into a formidable opponent in the game of thrones.”

She finally turned her head to look over her shoulder at him, and Baelish sucked in a sharp breath at the cool, icy look in her blue eyes. The young woman curled her lips as she all but purred the words out: “Sometimes when I try to understand a person’s motives, I play a little game. I assume the worst. What’s the worst reason they could possibly have for saying what they say, or doing what they do? Then I ask myself, ‘How well does that reason explain what they say and what they do?’”

Baelish felt his mouth drop open the tiniest, hearing the words that he spent so much time cultivating in his own mind, playing his role and his game to amuse himself and to create chaos.

“I learned from Cersei, from Tyrion, but I learned so much from you, Petyr.” Sansa slowly stood, brushing the tiniest specks of dirt from her dress as she turned to face him. It was like Arya was invisible, Baelish was so captivated by Sansa’s admissions, from using his first name, so intimately.

“From me?” he asked, finally gaining his voice but it was a bit weak. He cleared his throat.

“Oh, yes,” breathed Sansa. She took a step forward. “Everyone is your enemy. Everyone is your friend. Every possible series of events is happening at once. Live that way and nothing will surprise you. Everything that happens will be something you’ve seen before.”

“I – yes,” gasped Baelish, agreeing empathically with the words.

A tiny look of pity overcame Sansa. “If only you would follow your own advice, my Lord, and saw this coming.”

“Sansa…?” he began, but then felt the stare of someone between his shoulder blades – only for a moment, as a hand gripped his shoulder and then a dagger was in his vision as it slashed across his neck. His hand flailed and came up, trying to hold the skin together.

Arya stepped out from around him, a bloody knife in her grip.

Baelish teetered forward, toward Sansa, who sidestepped and watched impassively as he collapsed at the weirwood’s roots, blood splashing against the bone white of them.

With his last strength, he looked at Sansa, mouth flapping open to mouth her name. Sansa couched next to his head, so he didn’t have to strain in those last moments. Staring down at him, Sansa quirked an eyebrow. “A final gift that you gave me, my Lord – another piece of advice you should have taken for yourself: We’re all liars here,” she began, and his eyes widened, “And everyone one of us, better than you."

Baelish’s last image was of Sansa – even more beautiful than her mother, more dangerous, more everything, with Arya Stark stepping up behind to stand at her shoulder, an impassive look on her face as the world faded to black and Baelish was outplayed, for the first, and last time.

With his final thought, there was admiration and at least I lost to her—whether that ‘her’ was Sansa herself as a worthy opponent, or Sansa, as in the spitting image of the only woman Baelish ever loved, well… in the end, he didn’t know, either.

Dead was dead, after all.

Ned Stark arrived in King’s Landing three moons after Robert arrived in Winterfell, irritable, sore, and frustrated.

Sansa, Arya, and Bran were constantly at each other’s throats, and without Robb, Jon, and Theon to help mitigate them, poor Beth and Jeyne were left as poor substitutes with neither Arya nor Bran listening to the girls (and for good reason, neither had been very kind to Arya over the years). Jory was less of a captain of their guard and more glorified babysitter, and thoroughly exasperated.

He had a superfluous meeting with the Small Council; Renly seemed more interested in making friends and being seen at court, Varys was frustratingly vague and shifty, Pycelle was crotchety and useless, and Baelish – well, everything about that man rubbed Ned wrong, from the way he smirked at him, the insinuating comments the man made about Catelyn, about how he ran roughshod over Ned’s concerns about Robert’s spending. The man looked at Ned like he knew his every secret and then some more Ned didn’t even know he had.

Which, as Ned appeared in court the following day, with his children, may have been true when he did a doubletake and saw Catelyn in the crowd, lingering to the side with Willas Tyrell.

Not Cat, he thought, blinking twice more. Was King’s Landing where Sansa, Arya, Bran, and Willas Tyrell had gone? Was Connington at court, hidden in plain sight? Ned worriedly looked around but didn’t spot the man, even as he settled into his seat that the Small Council used at the base of the throne.

Robert wasn’t there to hear petitions – he wasn’t even awake, apparently, as Varys tittered to them, making the rest of the men chuckle even as Ned frowned – and the Queen was indisposed to come to court, as well. What was even the point of Robert and Cersei’s rule then?

There were some petitions, but mostly it was mingling and backstabbing, alliance-making and gossip-mongering. At some point, the Small Council left their seats. Ned gathered his children to him (they had been standing to the side, near the front, with Jory and Septa Mordane’s keen eyes lingering on them, with Beth and Jeyne bracketing Sansa), ready to make the rounds and receive well-wishes and congratulations for his appointment as Hand from sycophants.

Just as even Sansa’s eyes began to glaze over from the never-ending greetings, Willas Tyrell was in front of Ned with the elder Sansa on his arm. His little Sansa brightened, eyeing the beautiful blue dress the woman was wearing, and the way her hair was braided.

“Lord Stark,” greeted Willas, bowing at the waist at the perfect height. “Welcome to King’s Landing. I hope your arrival hasn’t been too odious?”

“King’s Landing remains the way it was the last time I was here,” replied Ned wryly.

“So, the smell hasn’t improved?” the grin Willas sent Ned reminded him that the Tyrell heir was intelligent, mischievous, and very much Olenna’s protégé.

Ned answered that with a small smile. “Unfortunately, not.” He then turned to Sansa, greeting her a bit more warmly. “Sansa, sweetling. It’s lovely to see you. Are Bran and Arya here, too?”

But then she did something unexpected – Sansa giggled.

Ned blinked.

His elder Sansa did not giggle. That Sansa, with the scars on her back, the cold, calculating look in her eyes, did not simper as she glanced shyly at Willas and all but breathily say, “Father! King’s Landing has been a dream so far. Everything has gone perfectly.”

The doting look Willas sent Sansa was familiar enough that Ned relaxed, the tiniest fraction, but the bewildered feeling didn’t leave his gut.

“Bran can’t enter the Red Keep, not with his chair,” continued Sansa, making the younger Bran perk up at his namesake. “So, he spends his time at the manse we’ve rented. And Arya,” Sansa gave a heavily affected sigh. “The Seven knows what that girl does! She’s running around King’s Landing, I’m sure, getting into all sorts of trouble.”

That made his little Arya gleeful and scandalized his Sansa by the look on his little girl’s face, but nothing about the Sansa before him was making sense. Where was the brilliant, cool woman he had come to know over the years? The woman who didn’t flinch at beheadings of Night’s Watch deserters? The woman who had made him swear on Brandon, Lyanna, and his father’s graves that he wouldn’t allow his children to bring their wolves south past Moat Cailin? Whose own direwolf remained in the North with its litter?

“Ah, you’ve other people waiting on you, Lord Hand,” said Willas, glancing behind. “My apologies for keeping you from them. We’ll speak later, I’m sure.”

“Of course,” agreed Ned, eyes moving between the two as Willas steered Sansa away, their heads close together as Sansa giggled, again.

He wrenched his eyes from them and plastered a fake smile that was more of a grimace on his face as he greeted the next lord or lady, the children next to him falling into bickering that was bothersome enough that Ned had Jory and Mordane take them back to the Hand’s tower – something about Sansa remaining vapid and boring or her dress being very flattering, Ned didn’t listen.

Ned’s thoughts weren’t with the remaining people at court, or afterward, his duties as Hand as he waddled through stacks of paperwork that Jon Arryn had left behind in the wake of his death. He was half-heartedly putting effort in when his mind was back to Sansa, her strange behaviour and yet her truthful words.

What had she and her siblings done in the moons they had been in King’s Landing? Why had they come here? What did Jon want them to do? Ned felt like he spent that entire evening trying to suss it out; he meant what he said to Jon, that he would be there to help him in whatever capacity Jon needed, but it was a bit of a punch to the mouth to think that Jon didn’t even trust him with the information of what his family was doing.

Unless there are many moving parts, a part of Ned whispered, the one that sounded like Jon Arryn, who cautioned him and taught him much in his youth. Jon had been Hand of the King for a reason and kept the capital running, so Ned eased into his old mentor’s words. The more cogs there are in the wheel, the less they need to know else something goes wrong.

Still – Ned’s curiosity rose in him. Robert may have accepted Jon’s death as old age, but Catelyn was sure that it had been a murder and the Lannisters involved (as per Lysa’s letter); but Sansa had warned him off it before leaving Winterfell, and Jon told him to ignore the Lannisters in King’s Landing (as did Sansa, and Bran, but Ned was inclined to think that was because they both liked the two Lannister brothers, much to Ned’s shock and disdain).

But there was no harm in doing some snooping was there? Into Jon’s death, whether it was murder or not, or into what his other children were up to?

Surely – there was nothing to worry about.

Even if Ned had wanted to investigate, he was kept busy for the first several moons in King’s Landing when Robert announced a Hand’s tournament to honour Ned’s placement. He had tried everything to get out of it – mentioning the lack of coin, the crown’s debt, he cajoled, whined, and even tried tugging on Robert’s heartstrings by bringing up the past – but nothing worked.

Baelish seemed disgustingly pleased with Ned’s grumpiness, taking pleasure in the lengthening scowl on Ned’s face every time they passed in the halls of the Keep or during the frequent Small Council meetings where nothing really happened except gossip, insulting potshots between Renly, Baelish, and Varys, and backhanded compliments that were really insults toward Robert and his lack of interest in running an entire continent.

Ned was getting rather sick of Baelish, and he didn’t care that he was Catelyn’s oldest friend and childhood ward. The man was insufferable, and Ned was becoming very tired of maintaining a court face; he missed the blunt honesty of the North, of Jon Umber’s loud voice or Rickard Karstark’s expressively disappointed eyes, or even Roose Bolton who Ned knew he could always count on to undermine him in whatever possible way.

His vague research into Jon’s death was hitting dead-end after dead-end, and so he put that aside to turn to the personality change of his eldest daughter.

He had invited Sansa, Arya, Bran, and Willas to the Hand’s Tower many times for an evening meal, but never had they accepted. He tried inviting them to events that his children attended – Sansa, sewing with the Queen and her ladies in waiting and court; Arya, with her dancing instructor, the famed Syrio Forel from Braavos; a private tutelage session with the Lord Commander for Bran, which had been incredibly difficult to get Selmy to agree to; but nothing worked.

He couldn’t figure out what they were doing in King’s Landing if they weren’t going to interact with the court. Sansa was the main figure there, but she mostly stuck to Willas – expected, given their, uh, relationship, thought Ned – or spent almost all her time in the company of Petyr Baelish, which made Ned nervous and jittery. They often took long strolls around the Red Keep after court met (the man smirking at Ned as they passed by), and from what Ned understood from Renly, it had been like that since Sansa’s arrival.

Why would Sansa spend time with a man his other older children – Bran, Arya, and Jon especially – disdained or outright hated? They had made their thoughts and opinions clear through veiled comments during the private lunches and dinners the Stark family held when the two sets of Stark children had been under Winterfell’s roof. What was he missing?

Of all the days for Septa Mordane to fall sick, it had to be the one where she promised to take her shopping! There were stalls being erected everywhere, lining the different streets as the lands around King’s Landing prepared for the Hand’s Tournament in the next few days (although Father hated it being called that), and Sansa was desperate to go see what wares were delivered, from faraway places she only dreamed of back in Winterfell.

Beth and Jeyne were interested as well, but Father wanted Septa Mordane to take Arya and Bran – as Bran didn’t have any swordplay lessons and Arya’s dance lessons involved chasing cats, apparently – but with her ill, plans changed.Father decided he hadn’t spent much time with his children – which, Sansa understood, really, he was the Hand of the King! Such an important role! – so he would be the one to take her and Beth and Jeyne, but also Arya and Bran (boo!).

Despite Sansa crying that Arya would ruin it because she ruins everything, Father insisted and poor Jory, with a frown of long-suffering on his face, joined them. Wrangling Arya and Bran took all of Jory’s ability, but at least he focused on them, leaving the girls with Lord Stark as he wandered the crowded streets, feeling comfortable and confident in his abilities and station to keep his daughter and wards safe.

Sansa was able to instead focus on the sight of the many knights, most of whom stopped to speak to Father. Their swords gleamed and their armour was polished and smooth, and they all stopped and gave Sansa a kiss on the back of her hand, complimenting her beauty.

Beth and Jeyne giggled behind Sansa as a young knight’s voice broke when he told Sansa she was a Maiden reborn – and when Sansa turned to bashfully look away, toward her father who should have scolded the boy – she saw he wasn’t even looking.

The knight scurried away, and Sansa frowned, taking in Father’s long face and the pull of his mouth as his eyes squinted toward someone in the distance. Sansa followed the line of sight and felt her heart clench.

A flash of red hair, exactly like her own, and Sansa watched her older – other? – self dipped into the alleyway between a carpenter and brothel, blending into the shadows even as she hiked the hood of her cloak over her hair, drenching everything but her pale face in monochrome.

“Father, what is she doing--?”

“Stay with Jory, sweetling,” interrupted Father, voice strict. He wasn’t even looking at her! And then he was moving through the crowd, toward the brothel, where the older Sansa went.

Sansa huffed, annoyed.

“Come, let’s return to the Tower,” suggested Jory, herding Arya and Bran toward Sansa, Jeyne, and Beth.

“We didn’t even get to see the seamstress,” groaned Beth, pouting.

“I wanted to go watch the knights in the training yard,” added Jeyne with a sigh.

“Jory won’t let us,” agreed Sansa, her mind already spinning an idea. She tilted her head and whispered, “Would you distract him for me?”

“Distract Jory?” asked Beth. “Why?”

“The other Sansa is here,” revealed Sansa. “She was in a beautiful dress, but she had a hood up and went into the alleyway between those two buildings.”

The three girls glanced at the buildings in question as Jory deposited Arya and Bran – both complaining loudly and over the three girls’ hushed conversation – next to them.

Beth and Jeyne made a face, but Jeyne nodded, and Beth said, “Very well. But I want to borrow your silk cornflower blue ribbon for the tournament!”

Sansa scowled; it was one of her favourite ribbons, but she needed Beth and Jeyne to escape Jory’s notice. She nodded.

Immediately, Beth and Jeyne raised their voices, on top of one another, and began complaining, loudly, about having to return to the Red Keep.

“What’s going on?” demanded Arya, looking around, her own voice pitching upward as they began to slowly walk away, trailing after Beth and Jeyne, who were on either side of Jory. “Where did Father go?”

“My – er, the other Sansa,” began Sansa, looking at her siblings, “She’s here.”

“Where?” asked Bran curiously, looking around even as Jory called back for them, glancing over his shoulder and trying to stop walking. The three Starks followed, but were dragging their feet and slowly, with Beth and Jeyne tugged Jory forward.

Beth turned and gave Sansa a wink, and then Sansa was spinning on her heel, going back the way they came.

“Where are you going?” asked Arya, keeping up with her.

“To find Father and my other self!” replied Sansa. “Go away, Arya! You’ll get us caught!”

Arya scoffed. “Caught? Me? I’ve been exploring the secret passages under the Red Keep and no one has caught me yet.”

“Have you really?” asked Bran, impressed.

“It’s part of my dance training,” admitted Arya, proudly.

Sansa stared. “Why would you need to search out secret passages as part of your dance training?”

“You wouldn’t understand.” Arya’s lofty tone and nose sniff enraged Sansa, but instead of replying, because she was a lady, Sansa sniffed back and scurried forward, dodging around people until she reached the same alleyway, she saw Father and older Sansa disappear down. She hesitated.

Arya did not, and neither did Bran.

“I guess you’re just a scaredy cat!” crowed the girl, plunging into the darkness between the buildings.

“Am not!” protested Sansa instinctively.

“Are too,” shouted back Arya from within the depths, “Because I wasn’t the one who screamed when Jon and Robb scared you in the crypts!”

Sansa stomped her slippered foot and screwed her eyes up shut for a moment before tripping forward, following Arya’s cackling laugh and Bran’s surefoo