This was not what he had been expecting when he’d first ridden here almost two weeks ago.
Jon ignored the freezing chill of the wind with an ease borne from long years of exposure. The men in rags before him, however, did not fare so well, whimpering and cringing every time the wind picked up.
He would have felt empathy for them, had he not known that these men— these supposed honorable men of the Night’s Watch— had deserted the order and were found in a farm, its former occupants brutally murdered.
But they hadn’t killed all of them, no.
Jon glanced at the child beside him— a girl of ten. She glared at the men with so much venom that it had taken him aback when he’d first seen it.
I suppose, knowing what happened to the poor thing, it’s only natural that she would be this way. He thought, sending the men a glare of his own. An expression like that should never be on a child’s face.
The doors to the Common Hall abruptly opened, and out came the procession of Night’s Watchmen, all looking haggard and browbeaten. Browbeaten by what, exactly, Jon could only wonder.
Aren’t you glad you went to King’s Landing, instead of throwing your future away, here? A part of him whispered.
Jon was about to answer his own thought, but he caught a strong whiff of something that made him grimace.
One of the traitors had soiled himself.
“That reeks!” One of the men of the Night’s Watch said. “I don’t know what I did to deserve this.”
“Imagine how we feel every day around you, Edd.”
Jon ignored the comments and focused his gaze on the fellow ascending the stairs to the raised platform so he could address the assembled crowd.
“Night’s Watchmen.” The man said, his golden, sandy hair waving wildly in the cold wind. “And Northmen. In the sight of Gods and men, we are here to bear witness to the execution of four of our former brothers.”
“Deserters!” “Scum!” A few of the more rowdy men among Jon’s cohort yelled at the four bound traitors!
“Enough!” Jon said sharply, and they quieted down.
With a nod to Jon, the man at the platform continued to speak.
“For the crimes of oathbreaking, murder and rape, I, Lancel Lannister, Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, sentence you to die.” He said and nodded to the Watchmen beside him. “Bring forth the prisoners.”
Jon suppressed the urge to curl his lips in disgust as he watched the murderers get dragged over to the raised platform, kicking and screaming the entire way.
“Please don’t do this, I didn’t mean to, I swear!” “You’ll be sorry, you hear me!? My cousin is a powerful and wealthy man, and when he finds out about this…!” “Let me go!”
Only the fourth man remained silent and didn’t struggle, choosing to face his imminent death with what little dignity he had left.
The Lord Commander’s eyes were stony as he watched the criminals being escorted to him.
With a nod to his men, they forced the deserters to kneel.
Lancel drew his sword, and Jon knew what was coming next. “If you have any last words, then now would be the time to say them— the only time you have left.”
“Please don’t do this!” The first man said, sobbing as he tried to keep himself under control.
“I’m going to die… don’t let them kill me.” The second man, the one who’d been threatening everyone, finally seemed to be grasping his situation.
The third and fourth in the group remained silent, though it was obvious one was tongue tied in fear, and the other simply had nothing to say, having accepted his fate by leaning his head forward to get it over with.
He was the first one on the chopping block. Lancel raised his sword high in the air before bringing it down, decapitating the man with one smooth, clean stroke.
The remaining traitors continued to struggle, beg and cry, but the end result was the same.
A minute later, Castle Black was now short of four men, but gained four new headless bodies.
“Bunch of nancies.” Jon’s sworn sword, Clegane, said. “Least they could have done is face their deaths like men.”
“Aye.” Jon said, his eyes still trained on the Lord Commander.
Wiping the blood off of the smoky blade, Lancel began barking a few orders to his men.
“Make sure you burn the bodies. We don’t want any of them coming back.” He said, sheathing his sword before turning to Jon, beckoning him to follow with a gesture. “Lord Stark, if you’ll join me in my study?”
Jon gave the man a nod and followed him, Clegane not far behind.
Lord Stark. The form of address still brought him feelings of joy, accomplishment and all around happiness. It was, after all, all he had wanted in his life since he’d been a child.
He’d always dreamed of being a part of the Stark family, but that was what it had been back then; just a silly dream.
Now that it was real, he couldn’t be happier about it.
And I have one man to thank for it. Jon thought, a smile coming to his face as he thought of his best friend, Harry. He’s off on his own adventure.
The smile came off when he turned his head to the sound of the girl screaming.
He stopped in his tracks and watched her send kick after kick into the corpses of her tormentors.
The world truly is a horrible place. Jon thought, frowning at the sight.
“Lord Stark?” The Lord Commander came back and joined him, seeing the girl as well. “Ah.”
“What’s to become of the child?” Jon asked, turning to the man.
Lancel Lannister grasped his sword by the lion-shaped pommel before answering. “We’ve sent men to the neighboring farms and Mole’s town, to see if there is anyone willing to take her.”
“Very good.” Jon said, nodding in approval. “If no accommodations are found for her, I will have the girl sent to Winterfell, to serve as a maid at the castle.”
“That is very generous of you, my Lord.” Lancel said, before gesturing towards the general direction of his solar once again. “Shall we?”
With a shared nod, the two men walked side by side, watching as both Northmen and Night’s Watchmen worked together to reinforce their combined army.
He spied a group of boys sitting in a circle, no older than twelve. Jon watched as they diligently fletched the newly forged arrows, drawing from the pile of feathers at the center.
Eventually, the two men found themselves inside, sitting opposite of one another.
“Shall we begin?” Jon said.
“We are waiting for someone, but I suppose we can proceed without him.” Lancel leafed through a stack of papers to his right.
Jon only nodded in response.
“Before all of that, however, I wanted to thank you.” Lancel said, setting down the papers. “If not for your arrival, I fear we would fail in protecting the kingdoms— whoever their ruling King may be.”
Jon frowned at that last part.
He knew that men of the Night’s Watch stayed away from the realm’s political landscape, but it still felt a little insulting to have him say that, especially after Jon had extended his hand in friendship.
“I mean no offense, of course.” The Lord Commander said, recognizing his blunder.
Jon sighed, trying not to take what he’d previously said as an insult.
“‘The Night’s Watch takes no part in the wars of the Seven Kingdoms.’ That’s how it goes, isn’t it?” Jon quoted, and Lancel could only nod.
“Precisely, Lord Stark.” Lancel said. “We have all sworn our vows, and we will not break them.”
“Nor should you.” Jon said, reassuring the man. “That is not at all what I intended.”
There was a knock on the door, interrupting further conversation.
Before Lancel could even as much open his mouth, the door burst open.
Instantly going into motion, Jon reached for the small knife at his side, ready for a fight. His sword, Ice, which he’d placed against the large desk, would be of no use here— cramped as the Lord Commander’s solar was.
But there was no threat, he realized. There was, however, a harried looking Night’s Watchman— a ranger, if memory serves.
It made him think of his uncle, Benjen, lost somewhere beyond the Wall, ever since the wars began.
He shook off the thought, lest the heartache take hold of him.
Jon sheathed his knife and stared at the man.
“I apologize for the interruption, Lord Commander.” The guard at the door said from beside the ranger. “But he claims to have—”
“Oh, will you shut up?” Clegane said with a glare. “Even an idiot like you should know urgent news when he sees it.”
“Qhorin.” Lancel said, with no small amount of surprise. “It is good to see you. I had thought the worst…”
That’s the Half-hand? No one’s seen the man for a few moon’s turns, from what I heard. He’s supposed to be a living legend.
Qhorin was a tall man, though clearly in a state of deep exhaustion from his sunken features. Still, his grey eyes shined with a certain vicious shrewdness. Jon knew he’d have to be careful with this one.
His eyes strayed to the man’s right hand, which was resting at his side. Jon spied the missing fingers, wondering just how the man was able to fight so well— or so the rumors went— with half a hand.
Qhorin Half-hand gave Sandor a nod of gratitude before turning to the Lord Commander, a grim expression on his face. “I hope you’ll forgive the lack of greetings, Lord Commander. The rumors were right: the wildlings have a hundred thousand men and three score giants.”
Eyes wide, Jon turned back to the Lord Commander, who was just as shocked.
“A hundred thousand.” Lancel breathed, leaning back in his chair as if he’d been punched in the face. “Seven preserve us.”
A moment passed before he spoke again.
“And they’re all under the command of another deserter?” Lancel said, leaning forward. “Are those rumors true?”
“Mance Rayder.” Jon said with interest. He’d heard tell of the man who had abandoned his vows to join with the wildlings.
“Aye, Lord Stark.” Qhorin said in reply. “They plan to muster at the forest and attack with their full force.”
Jon stared at the man for a moment. “How did you…”
“I’ve served with Benjen for a long time, and I’ve known his brothers and father.” Qhorin said quietly. “I recognize a Stark when I see one.”
Jon smiled, though it didn’t last very long.
A hundred thousand men. Jon thought, the number boggling his mind. And we have… five thousand at best— five and a half if I count the Watch.
Jon suppressed a curse.
With Robb and Theon leading the campaigns against the southern kingdoms and the ironborn, this was all the Wall had been allowed.
We didn’t know it had gotten this bad. We’re outnumbered, twenty to one. Not to mention the giants.
How was he supposed to pull off a miracle of this proportion?
More than ever, Jon wished he had the guidance of his friend. Harry always seemed to have the answers.
No. You must stand on your own, Snow. Jon thought.
“Your men?” Lancel asked, though, from the look on his face, he probably knew the answer.
“They held the enemy back.” Qhorin said, looking down slightly. “And paid for it with their lives.”
“…” Lancel grasped the arms of his chair so hard that his knuckles turned white. A moment later, he calmed himself down and addressed the First Ranger. “Their sacrifices will not be forgotten. Without this information, we would have never had a chance. We will need to meet to discuss strategy, your council will be most welcome— but that is for later. For now, go and rest, Qhorin; you’ve earned it.”
Qhorin nodded, turned and left without another word, Clegane closing the door behind him while pulling the guardsman outside.
“A hundred thousand men— and giants!” Lancel leaned back in his chair, taking a deep breath. “May the Seven watch over us.”
“I’ve never seen one. A giant, I mean.” Jon said. “I used to think they were the stuff of myths— old stories told to children.”
“The things I’ve seen at the Fist of the First Men…” Lancel said, eyes turning dark. “The dead coming back to life, the Others… I wouldn’t be surprised if grumkins and snarks were real, as well.”
Jon nodded. “It’s almost like we’re in a new Age of Heroes.”
“Funny.” Lancel said, though he did not smile. “Those stories always seemed so alluring. The thrill of a grand adventure… look at how that turned out to be.”
“You’ve made something of yourself at the Night’s Watch, my Lord.” Jon said, recognizing what Lancel was getting at. “I was there, you know. For your trial.”
The Lord Commander stared at Jon for a moment, his eyes unfocused. He was lost in the past.
“You were, weren’t you?” Lancel looked down at his hand. “I was such a child, then— a foolish squire with grand delusions. Sometimes, I wonder what would’ve happened, had I chosen to lose my hand instead of being sentenced to the Wall.”
Silence hung in the air after he finished.
“I suppose there is some grand plan in motion for us, isn’t there?” Lancel continued. “We were both scraping the bottom, but look at us now— staring down a wildling army the likes of which the Seven Kingdoms haven’t seen in centuries. More than that, the ones driving them here— the Others… That is our great purpose; to safeguard the realm.”
“Aye.” Jon agreed, forcing himself not to shiver at the thought of the Others. “The enemies we face— when we beat them, we will leave a legacy of valor, honor and courage that future children in all corners of the Seven Kingdoms may aspire to.”
Jon knew that his words were hollow, but this was the only remaining legacy Lancel could hope to create. The Lord Commander likely knew it as well, but the words seemed to put the fire back into his eyes, regardless.
“That’s right.” Lancel said, his voice strengthening with every word. “Whatever they will say about me, they will know that I was no coward. They will know that I defended the realm with everything I had.”
A comfortable silence ensued for a while before Jon’s gaze went to the door.
“Was he the one you were waiting for?” Jon said. “Qhorin, I mean.”
Lancel shook his head. “No. We’re waiting for someone else— he actually should have already gotten here, so I am unsure as to what happened.”
“You don’t seem angry.” Jon said, noting the man’s lack of reaction.
Lancel sighed. “There’s nothing to be done. Samwell currently has his hands full with scouring the books you supplied as well as taking care of Master Aemon.”
“Taking care of him?” Jon snorted. “I’ve never seen a man so old, yet with such vigor.”
His Valyrian blood must be singing to him. Jon thought. Just like mine.
He hadn’t had the nerve to go see the old man, just yet.
He’s over a century old. Part of Jon whispered. You’ll lose your chance if you just keep waiting. No one’s immortal.
I know. Jon thought back, pushing the thoughts away.
“No matter.” Lancel said, gesturing at the papers around him. “I shall seek him out later. For now, I must begin the preparations on our defenses.”
No one’s immortal. The previous statement continued to echo in his head.
“I’ll go talk to him, if you like.” Jon said, finally giving in.
Lancel looked up. “I wouldn’t wish to impose on you, Lord Stark. Having you do such a menial task—”
“It’s all right.” Jon stood, pushing the chair back as he did so. “I’ve actually been meaning to meet the Maester. A man of his age must know a good story or two. Wouldn’t you agree?”
“That I would.” Lancel smiled and nodded. “As you wish, my Lord. And thank you.”
Jon nodded and promptly left the office, Clegane right on his heels.
“Fucking hell.” Clegane muttered.
“Did the guard give you trouble?”
“Trouble?” Clegane said, scoffing. “If only— I’d have had a bit of fun pounding him into the dirt. No.”
Jon chuckled and kept moving. “Well, if you like, you can go and have lunch or a drink.” Jon said. “You don’t have to follow me around.”
“My duty is to guard you.”
“I’m going to see an old man and his caretaker.” Jon opened his arms, stopping. “Just how much danger do you think I’ll be in?”
Sandor stared at him for a moment, before gesturing at his scarred face. “Sometimes, the shit comes from where you least expect it.”
Jon frowned. He wanted to deny it, but with the proof staring him in the face, he found that he couldn’t.
“Maybe you’re right.” Jon sighed. “Nowhere is truly safe. I just feel that this kind of thinking ends up making you paranoid.”
“What it makes you is alive.” Clegane shrugged. “You can worry about feelings and dispositions later.”
He has a point. Jon nodded. “Let’s go then, Ser Clegane.”
As expected, the scarred man sent him a displeased look, but obeyed anyway.
If you were anyone else, Snow, he would have given you a beating for that comment. Jon thought, smiling.
Moments later, he began to taste blood in his mouth. Jon, used to that particular feeling by this point, shrugged it off.
Ghost must have found a meal.
His connection with his friend was strong to be felt over such a long distance, though he still had trouble seeing through the beast’s eyes— that is, unless he was asleep.
He supposed that he couldn’t have expected to have Bran’s god-like aptitude with that particular magic.
Besides, his true talents lay in his swordsmanship and latent ability of controlling flames.
Even now, he felt the fire lurking just underneath his skin, waiting to be unleashed.
Jon tasted the blood again and felt the wind on his fur— he shook his head, licking his lips in an attempt to clean blood that wasn’t even there.
Ghost’s feelings were so sudden and so intense that they tended to break through his concentration when he was in a state of rest.
Slow down, boy. Jon sent the thought. Savor your meal.
Instantly, the sensations eased to something manageable.
Jon got a mental nudge of gratitude from his friend.
“Your wolf?” Sandor asked.
“Aye.” Jon said. “Is it that easy to tell?”
“Maybe not for a stranger.”
Jon nodded and resumed course.
Before long, he entered the keep and sought out the Maester’s chamber.
When he realized there was no one there, Jon made for the rookery above.
Upon arrival, he was bombarded with the caws of ravens, as well as the overpowering stench of their droppings.
I don’t know how Maesters can endure this all day, every day. Jon suppressed the grimace and moved further in. It’s a good thing I never even considered becoming one.
“Samwell, we have visitors.” Came the voice from ahead. “Come!”
“I’ll guard the entrance.” Sandor grimaced at the smell.
Jon let him go with a wave before going further into the rookery. He found the two men attaching letters to ravens.
“L-Lord Stark!” Samwell— or so Jon presumed— said, his eyes wide with surprise and fear.
Fear? Jon thought, finding this strange. Why would he be afraid?
Now that he thought of it, Jon realized he’d already spotted Samwell in the mess hall, a few days before. His size had been a source of ridicule for his Northmen, and he remembered that they’d run him out with their laughs.
They certainly didn’t like the training drills, after. Jon thought with no small amount of satisfaction.
“Ah, Lord Jon Stark.” The old man beside the big fellow said, his voice soft but carrying a strange weight which Jon could not place. “We meet at last.”
It was quite strange; frail, old and with a thin, fleshless neck, the man looked like a well placed breeze could knock him dead. And yet, Jon felt as if those clouded, milk white eyes were staring right into his soul.
For such an old man, he has quite the presence. Jon thought, impressed.
“Maester Aemon.” Jon said in greeting before nodding to the other man. “And you are… Samwell, was it?”
“Yes, my Lord.” Samwell said, nodding. “Samwell Tarly.”
Jon raised his eyebrows at the last name. A Tarly, all the way out here? Then again, this place does seem to bring anyone and everyone together.
“Well met.” Maester Aemon said, pulling Jon’s attention back. “What brings you to us, if I may be so bold to ask?”
“The Lord Commander said that he was waiting for—”
“For me! That’s right!” Samwell blurted out, before realizing he’d cut Jon off. “My apologies, Lord Stark.”
“There’s nothing to forgive.” Jon said, smiling in an attempt to put the man at ease.
Tarly smiled back slightly. “Thank you.”
Then the smile fell. “Lancel is going to kill me.”
“He didn’t seem too bothered by your absence.” He said, gesturing at ravens around them. “He said that you’ve had to take on too many duties, as of late. I believe you’ve also been going through the books I’ve brought over?”
“Oh. Yes, I have.” Tarly said, relaxing. “It’s true; I’ve been overwhelmed these past few days. It is a relief that the Lord Commander is being so patient with me.”
“He was irritated, though.” Jon added, giving Tarly a pointed look. “You may wish to seek him out as soon as you can. Just in case.”
“You may have the right of it, Lord Stark.” Samwell said, moving to gather his things. He gave Jon and Maester Aemon a nod of acknowledgement.
“Maester. Lord Stark.”
Jon and Aemon nodded back, watching as he left the premises.
“I presume you did not simply come to tell young Samwell that the Lord Commander is seeking him out.” Aemon moved across the rookery, throwing bits of meat into several cages as he spoke. “Otherwise you would have set the task to one of your many vassals. You’ve come to meet me, personally. Why?”
He’s got a sharp mind. Jon was impressed, though he frowned. Why am I here? What will this even accomplish?
“You’ve a great reputation among the brothers of the Night’s Watch, Maester.” Jon said, going with a compliment in an attempt to avoid the real reason. “I just thought I’d meet you— get the measure of you.”
“Hm.” Aemon said. “That can’t be all, can it? You’re positively brimming with questions. I can recognize an excuse from leagues away, my Lord.”
Jon stayed quiet for a long moment, not really sure how to deal with this strange fellow.
“You saw right through my deception.” Jon said, wincing at his poor choice of words. “Sorry.”
“T’is but an expression.” The Maester waved it off with the air of a man who’d heard such a phrase thousands of times before. “And accurate, besides; I can tell when someone isn’t being truthful, Lord Stark— I grew up in King’s Landing, you see.”
I know you did, Aemon Targaryen. Jon thought, watching the old man smile at his own joke. Son of King Maekar Targaryen, the First of His Name. My great-great-uncle.
Jon licked his suddenly dry lips. What could he possibly say to him now?
Was there any point to it?
Just what was he trying to achieve?
“Go on. Out with it!” The Maester said in a sharp tone, picking up on the lad’s hesitation.
Jon jumped in place, the sheer force in the old man’s tone of voice almost compelling him to tell him everything, right then and there— as if there was some outside force urging him to speak, to reveal his deep, dark secrets.
Somehow, he managed to keep his mouth shut.
“You’re possessed of a strong will.” Maester Aemon said, nodding with approval. “Good. I expected nothing less of Aegon’s descendants.”
“You—” Jon trailed off, mystified by the events taking place. “That was a spell—”
The man’s words finally caught up with Jon. “Aegon’s— How do you…”
“Know?” Aemon finished for him as he stared the boy down. “It has been many years since I’ve spoken to my family. I’d almost thought they were all gone. Yet, here you are.”
A moment passed as Jon tried to make sense of it all. There was no way this man could know any of what he was saying.
“How?” He asked again.
“I have seen it.” The old man approached Jon, grabbing the younger man by his shoulders. “Not with my eyes, but in my dreams.”
“…Dragon dreams.” Jon breathed, eyes wide with the realization.
“Hm. You know some of your heritage.” Maester Aemon said and nodded as he moved to a nearby seat. “That is good.”
Jon said nothing as he joined him. This is beyond strange.
“Tell me, Jon Stark.” Aemon said. “What else do you know of your dragon’s blood?”
Jon stared at the man, and then he spoke.
Meanwhile, At the Port of Meereen…
“I still don’t think this is a good idea.” Bronn said from my left.
“I agree.” I said, nodding to the men who were loading the ship with supplies.
“But you’re still going to go.” Bronn scoffed. “You’ve gone mad.”
“I seem to recall something about you ‘believing in me?’” I sent my annoyed Lord General a smirk.
“I also think you’re insane.” Balthazar said from his position, coiled around the ship’s mast.
Fuck off, Balthazar.
“I won’t deny that.” Bronn raised his hands as if in surrender. “But I may yet take my initial belief back.”
“You’re probably not wrong about all of this, Bronn.” I shook my head, eyes full of mirth.
We both shared a laugh before the gravity of the situation got to me, and the smile fell off my face. “I have to do this. I can’t leave her there alone.”
“I know.” He nodded.
“Keep the city safe?”
“Aye, I’ll be working with the others to ensure that.” Bronn said, wiping dust off of his new black cloak. “When you come back, it’ll be as if nothing’s changed.”
‘When’, not ‘if’. I thought, cheered up by the man’s unconscious choice of words.
“I’d say safe travels, but I feel the words would be worth shit.” Bronn said. “You’re going into the heartland of the doomed Valyria, after all. Instead, I’ll tell you this: good luck.”
And with that, Bronn headed back into the city, followed by his personal guard. I turned to the ship, watching as Daenerys directed the people there. For a moment, she met my eyes and smiled, before addressing the crew.
“Get ready to set sail!”
I heard the general chorus of approval as I made my way onto the boat to stand by Daenerys. No words were said between us— there was no need.
Instead, I stared off into the horizon.
Hestia, wait for me…!