AN: Thank you all for the reviews and support. This chapter was edited on 7/22/23. I hope you enjoy the polished version of the chapter.
There it was; the question that Ned had been dreading and avoiding ever since Jon had first found out that he was not like the children that he had grown up with and considered to be his brothers and sisters. The Lord of Winterfell sighed heavily as he considered how to best answer the question posed to him by the young man who he considered to be a son, by the boy that was the final gift given to him by his late sister and by the boy who could tear the kingdom apart if his paternal lineage was made known to the kingdoms.
"We must not speak of this here and we must not speak of this now. There are too many ears that could overhear the answers that are for you alone. What you choose to make of these answers is up to you but speaking carelessly could cost you that choice and so much more."
Jon's eyes locked with those of the lord who had raised him and taught him what it meant to be a man and, for a second, it seemed as if he would protest what could have been looked upon as a dismissal, though it was anything but that. The weary eyes of the lord were stripped of the façade that he presented to the world and shone fiercely with care and conviction.
It was evident that Jon was not going to be deterred for long but he did incline his head to acknowledge the words that were spoken to him before changing the subject, "As you say, my lord. There are other matters that we must discuss that may also bring with them serious consequences. The traitor from the Nights Watch spoke true when he said the dead are rising. Before we were able to capture the traitor, Ghost and I looked upon dead men that walked upon the realm of the living, with eyes that glowed with a deathly magic that shouldn't exist in this world."
Ned Stark appraised the young man before him and released another deep sigh after quickly looking around to see if any were present to hear the words that had been uttered so matter-of-factly. "It would seem that events have been set in motion that will not be so easily ignored. I do not doubt that you believe what you saw to be true but could there not be any other explanation?"
A dark chuckle preempted Jon's response. "You saw what happened in that room with Bran. From my readings with Maester Luwin, I think that Bran must have been cursed before he fell. Otherwise it should not have taken such drastic measures to heal him of his injuries. If that could happen here, is it so unreasonable to think that other curses could be coming for us?"
"Nay, it is not unreasonable but it is deeply destressing and there are many that would willingly turn a blind eye to such a thing if the prospect is not presented with care."
"Should we not show our care by facing the threat before those people would come to harm?"
"If it is as you say then such a threat must not be taken lightly which means that alliances must be struck and rekindled to match the threat that is bearing down upon the realms."
Crossing his arms over his chest, Jon considered the course of action that had been presented to him. "Then will you call the banners?"
The question caused Eddard to grip his fists tightly. "Calling the banners is not an action that should be taken lightly. To do so without definite proof of these claims could see the honor of House Stark diminished in the eyes of our bannermen. The bannermen must not think that House Stark has become a group that sees enemies in the shadows where there are none."
"Then we give them proof," Jon proposed while moving his hand to rest on the hilt of his sword. "We go north of the Wall and find the proof that they will need and we march while they are still amassing their strength."
Reaching out his hand to rest it on Jon's shoulder reassuringly, Ned Stark replied, "You have done enough ranging for now. Let me take care of bringing allies together for this fight. Everything has its time and the time for the kind of action that you desire will come. However, this is the time for words. I ask you to put your faith in me at this time. I've already made my promise."
Before the two could continue their conversation, the door to Bran's chambers was pushed open by the king who was followed in by several members of his guard. "Your lady wife told me that I would find you here. Now that your bastard is back and this one seems to have made it through the worst of his troubles," the king's eyes swept over Bran's form that seemed to be sleeping soundly and gave an approving nod. "I would have your decision in regards to the matter that we spoke to in the crypts."
After having granted the king the appropriate deference by looking upon him as he spoke, Jon's attention turned to the man who had raised him as a son and he cast a questioning look towards the man.
"Aye, after speaking on the matter with Cat, and after recent revelations, I know that I must do my duty for the realm by accepting your offer."
The king's face broke into a boisterous smile before he loosed a full belly laugh. "Right you are! You'll do your duty to the realm and I'll have someone I can trust while I thrust myself into my most enjoyable past time since we brought peace to these kingdoms!"
Confusion was evident on his face as Jon looked between the men and asked, "Your most enjoyable past time?"
His confusion only increased the king's mirth as he let loose guffaw before cocking an eyebrow and giving Jon something that could be considered an answer, "Surely you must have found comfort of the warmth of a woman's flesh with those three beauties that you have been traveling with on your return to Winterfell!"
Now understanding what the king intended with his previous statement, Jon's face colored slightly before he attempted to direct the attention elsewhere. "Surely a man of your stature has many noble pursuits."
"A man of my stature," the King clapped a hand on Ned's back as his laughter filled the room. "Oh, I have many noble pursuits, indeed! By the gods, Ned! What have you been teaching the boy? Once the war is won on the battlefields, we must wage a much more pleasurable type of battle between the sheets! Surely this hasn't been left out of his teachings!"
Though Ned's face did not color at the implication that such a crucial element of the human experience would either be given increased or decreased importance in the way that the king was suggesting, the line formed by his lips seemed to become even more defined as he formulated a response. "I assure you that every Stark in the current generation has been provided with the best education available in all regards."
The laughs of the king indicated that the reserved response did nothing to sate the king's mirth. "Indeed, Lord Stark? For some reason, I can't see you providing 'every Stark in the current generation' with the kind of first-hand experience needed for a proper education in these matters."
Though the insinuation was veiled by the humor the king found in the situation, the patience of the castle's lord was clearly wearing thin. "Your grace, perhaps we should discuss the logistics of this new development rather than dwell on topics that we will not see eye-to-eye on such as the merits of your pursuits and whether such pursuits should be encouraged in others."
The king's eye's narrowed momentarily as he took in his friend before he broke out in another high-spirited grin. "Right you are! Gods, it will be good to have someone in the court that knows how to speak their mind rather than hiding behind flowery words and words that seem to mean one thing when they are saying something else entirely. Come, Lord Stark, there is much to discuss before we set out on our next great adventure."
At the proclamation, Ned met Jon's eyes with a look that seemed to promise that they would continue where their previous conversation left off once the king had had his fill of discussing official business and the novelty of having his friend to support him in his ventures.
As the king and his entourage left in the company of the Lord of Winterfell, Jon was left alone with the brother that he had recently been able to save through the use of magic that didn't fit neatly in the categories that he had become accustomed to since the power had become awakened in him by the decision to walk through the door to light.
Thinking on his decision, he couldn't help but wonder whether he had made the wrong decision as he had given magic to people like Yohan. No he thought to himself Even if there are people like Yohan that would use the power against their fellow man, how could I live with myself if I condemned people to fight against the magic of the true north without giving them a chance to defend themselves? Even if there are only a handful of people that ever figure out that they could use magic, is that power any more or less fair than people being born to power simply because they happened to be born into the right family?
Jon sat himself back down and proceeded to grasp his brother's hand, for that is what Bran was to him, at least in the ways that mattered, No. Even if some people, seven hells, even if the majority of people would disagree with the decision, if it allows one family to defend themselves against the powers that are growing in strength beyond the Wall then it would justify the decision.
Scoffing at his internal attempts to justify his action, Jon willed the young Stark to wake up as he continued mulling over the decision that may have been made in haste. Ok, there is no way that I could have known that there would have been such a threat growing in the place that the majority of the realms have written off as a barren wasteland filled with degenerate trash that could be quickly subjugated by the might of the king and his armies. I didn't know of the threat when I made the decision but I feel that it could be a deciding factor in the wars to come and, unless this Ring will let me go back in time, there is no way that I can change that decision now.
Jon gripped Bran's hand tightly but not harshly as his inner monologue continued. Now, I just have to make the best of what may be a bad situation. Magic is rising both north and south of the Wall. North of the Wall there are those undead beings with their glowing blue eyes and south of the Wall there will undoubtedly be more like Yohan.
Bran seemed to stir as Jon finished the thought and Jon felt a familiar feeling travel from his hand where it held Bran's through his arm, into his chest and up his spine into his mind until his vision went black before opening to view something that he would have thought to be impossible not long ago.
The first thing that Jon noticed was the bitter cold; it was as if the heat was being siphoned from his body, as if the winds of winter were howling with the singular purpose of forcing him to give himself up to their power. The second thing that he noticed was the way that snow had covered the ground like an oppressive blanket with the intent of smothering anything that it came into contact with and spreading its reach.
Jon had to force himself to move lest the ferocity of the cold sap his strength and resolve. As he started moving, an anguished cry of impossible volume filled the air. Jon's mind immediately recalled the image of the sea serpent that he had encountered in his travels beyond the Wall.
In response to the cry, Jon drew his sword as he sought the source of the sound. He would defend himself to the end if necessary. Though the snow falling from the sky and the drifts being kicked up off the ground made visibility incredibly poor, he was able to locate the source of the cry and what he saw caused his mouth to fall open in shock.
In the distance, he was just able to make out two behemoths in the sky shooting streams of what he assumed to be fire at each other. Though he couldn't quite make out the features of the beasts, he could only think of one word that could possibly describe the monsters clashing like titans of the sky.
Contrary to what instincts of self-preservation would dictate, Jon pushed himself forwards and moved closer to the beasts. As he pushed forward, he was able to differentiate the aerial combatants. One of the dragons seemed to be almost as white as the snow that threatened to obscure it from his vision though it was covered with something dark, possibly blood, Jon thought to himself. But if it's blood is it its own blood or the blood of the other dragon?
The other dragon was black as the darkest night and seemed to be moving much more slowly than its counterpart. Though the two seemed to be comparable in stature, it appeared that the white dragon, with what Jon was able to identify as glowing blue eyes, had taken far less damage than its dark counterpart. Or maybe it was just dealing with whatever injuries it had taken better than its foe.
Getting steadily closer, Jon notices that there was a spot of color on the back of the black dragon, a rider. Though he was unable to determine the gender of the rider he was able to make out a braid of blond hair that trailed behind the rider as the black dragon maneuvered through the air snapping its gaping maw at the white dragon that would dare to challenge its dominance in the sky.
A quick evasive maneuver revealed that the white dragon also had a rider perched upon its back. The skin of the rider was pale as death and the eyes seemed to glow with the same ethereal blue as seen on the dragon. Or maybe it's the other way around, Jon thought. Maybe the dragon's eyes glow the same shade of blue as the rider's on its back. Could the rider have used some sort of magic on the dragon?
The white dragon had succeeded in capturing the throat of the black dragon with a bite punctuated by dagger-like teeth. A garbled roar was head as the white dragon's jaws latched onto its foe and the dragons started to lose altitude as the black dragon thrashed about in midair in its attempts to escape the wrath of the white dragon which seemed to have proved itself to be the superior combatant in the short time that Jon had observed the contest.
As the dragons descended closer to land of men, they brought Jon's attention to a sight that took his breath away.
Winterfell was burning.
The once proud ancestral home of the Starks had been humbled and brought low. Large sections of the walls that had been raised by Bran the Builder had been reduced to rubble. An invading horde was pouring in from the north and it was all that the resistance could do to stave off the advance. It was clear that they had been pushed beyond what they could withstand. For every invader that was taken down by a flaming arrow or the slash of a sword, two more ready and willing to take their place.
What made it worse was that when the any of those fighting against the invading army fell they would soon rise with eyes glowing with that same shade of ominous blue and join the charge against their former comrades.
His steps finally brought him to the crashed remains of Winterfell's gates and Jon threw himself into the battle with a reckless abandon. Though he couldn't see himself, Jon cut a deadly dance of devastation through the enemy combatants. The glowing blue eyes did nothing to protect his enemies from the vicious and calculated swings of his sword, heads rolled on the ground separated from the necks that had supported them beyond the time that they should have given in to the forces of entropy.
As his breathing became labored, Jon changed his strategy and began blasting his foes black using the destructive power of his fire magic. The flames allowed him to hit multiple foes at once and succeeded where other options failed. Though they were not stopped, his magic was able counter the overwhelming numbers to an extent as he was able to secure one of the breach points.
Why isn't anyone else using their magic to defend Winterfell from these monsters? Jon asked to himself as he was forced to parry a blade that had been launched at him from another attacker that had launched at him after making its way into the castle from one of the many other breach points in Winterfell's walls.
After having depleted his magic to secure the initial breach, Jon was pushed to the limits of his skill as he dodged, parried and attacked for all he was worth to stay alive in the increasingly slim hopes that he would be able to drive away the attackers that threatened the home of the people that he considered family.
An explosive crash, an anguished scream and a blood curdling roar cut through the sounds of the battle being waged within the walls of Winterfell. Following the sounds, Jon raced through Winterfell's grounds until he found himself in the most sacred space of the Stark's lands, the Godswood.
He had lost track of the battle being waged in the skies above Winterfell when he threw himself into the battle being waged on the ground. Apparently the black dragon had managed to recover from the compromised position it was in when he saw it last but was unable to turn the tables on its adversary. Judging from the blood on the ground that pooled around the great beast, it would seem that the battle had been decided.
The dense canopy that had previously been so thick that it could prevent the winter snows from landing on the sacred ground had been all but destroyed by the dragon what had plummeted to what would seem to be its final resting place. The blonde rider was crying as she, for it was clear from this vantage point that it was a woman, tried to rouse the felled beast from the cold embrace of winter, the chilling embrace of death.
With a roar that seemed to rumble like thunder, the white dragon landed upon its vanquished foe and forced the blonde woman away. The rider with the sinister blue eyes shared by its comrades dismounted and landed with other-worldly grace that should not have been possible given the height of his perch.
The being approached the blonde woman and grabbed her by the throat, his unnatural blue coloring seemed to cause that same unnatural coloration to spread from the point of contact as the beautiful blonde's throat, for there was no questioning her beauty given her proximity. As the last of her alabaster skin succumbed to the invading blue color, her eyes shifted from their lovely shade of lilac to the blue that he had come to associate with the invading forces.
Jon readied himself for battle when suddenly everything around him came to an abrupt halt. The ancient weirwood tree that had stood vigil over the Stark family since the days of Bran the Builder seemed to take the shape of an older man with a long face, deep frown lines and almost painfully tired eyes.
"Do you understand now, Jon Snow?" the man, if that was the right way to consider him, asked. "You stand before the Three-Eyed Raven. I see all that ever was, all that ever will be and all that ever could be. You were unsure of the decision that you made to spread magic throughout the realms. What you have seen since I brought you here is the most likely of the possible outcomes that could have come to pass if you made the decision to withhold magic from the other realms of man."
Jon recalled the feeling of futility that had permeated the battle and could not help but feel vindicated despite the fact that the decision he made was not made explicitly for the reason provided by this 'Three-Eye Raven.'
"Though there can be no disputing that magic will likely make navigating the realms of man more treacherous, if you had failed to release magic to the world at large, the consequences would have been much more severe when the true enemy comes for you."
"Why would the enemy come for me, out of everyone?" Jon asked hesitantly while gesturing the blue skinned creature that had, for lack of a better word, infected the blonde woman. "I'm not even a true-born Stark."
The man, or was it a tree, covered his face with his hand to stifle the laugh caused by Jon's question and proclamation. "Indeed. You are not a true-born Stark; you are more. Though, had you made the selfish decision to withhold magic from the realms of man, it would have almost certainly resulted in the events unfolding here as you have seen. However, by being unselfish in your decision to spread magic throughout the realm, you have assured that you will at least have a chance against the true enemy when he starts to make his advances against the realms of man."
"But how can you say that," Jon asked as he realized he was back in Bran's chambers, as if he never left, gripping the hand of the boy that would forever be his brother despite what the lineage books may say on the matter. Jon's tone caused Bran's brow to furrow. "Easy there, Bran."
The tension on Bran's face seemed to lessen slightly at Jon's words but it did not dissipate entirely. Though he was loathe in doing so, Jon released his hold on Bran's hand and rose from his seated position and witnessed Bran's face shifting to a look of tranquility.
Apparently the Three-Eyed Raven or whatever power was acting though Bran's body has released its hold on him Jon speculated to himself. It's good to see him resting peacefully but what could have led to him being injured to such an extent that a magical lion would attempt to stop me from healing him? Could the Lannisters be involved?
Remembering that the Vengeance is Coming quest had been activated; Jon knew that he needed to investigate what had caused Bran to fall in the first place. So, with a parting look to his brother that carried the unspoken promise that he would get to the root of the reason behind the boy's inexplicable fall, Jon moved to the door but had to take a quick step backwards as it was forcibly pushed in by a short girl with brown hair that wasted no time in throwing her arms around Jon.
"Arya," the name escaped from Jon as the small girl did her best to force all of the air from his lungs. "It's good to see you too!"
"Why did you leave?" Arya asked with a strange pitch to her voice. "I don't care what any of the people say! You're my brother and are just as much a part of Winterfell as Sansa or anyone else."
Jon could not help but laugh at Arya's words. "I didn't leave because I was worried about what people were saying. I, er, had to go to do something important that only I could do."
Arya's eyebrow seemed to rise involuntarily because of Jon's words. "What would make you leave?"
"I had to go beyond the Wall." Jon answered in a way that did nothing to soothe the confusion that was blatantly visible upon the face of his sister. "People were in trouble and I had to help."
Though the quirk of her head indicated that his explanation did little to clear up the confusion that she felt, the upturned corners of her lips seemed to indicate that she agreed with the reason even though she did not understand why the prospect of helping strangers would be preferable to staying at home with his family.
"Sometimes, even if it's not what we would want to do, it's necessary for us to help people who can't help themselves. I think you would understand if you met the people that I was able to help because I left Winterfell. Ysolda's village was attacked by the very same people that were supposed to protect it from the world. Arachne was trapped and would have spent her days locked away from the rest of the world." Jon tried to keep the descriptions vague while also providing enough detail to hope for understanding. "If I had stayed at Winterfell it is possible that they would not have been able to travel here today."
Arya's seemed to accept the explanation and she gave Jon a crooked smile as she seemed to make her mind up on the matter, "You're like one of those characters in the stories of the Age of Heroes that the Septa used to tell when we were younger."
Jon had to laugh at what he thought to be an unjustified comparison. "I wouldn't go that far. Those characters went out of their way to act with bravery. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time and was able to help."
Arya's eyes narrowed as she assessed the member of her family that had been the closest to her throughout the years. "But Jon, you left Winterfell because you knew that there were people that needed help. I'm pretty sure that at least one of the Septa's stories started off that way."
Offering the younger girl a smile Jon tousled her hair before responding, "There is a difference though. In the stories that the Septa told us, the hero knew that there were people that needed to be saved and chose to leave to help them. When I left, I did not plan on leaving. I got caught up in a series of events that were beyond my power and I just did my best to make the most of the situation."
A familiar chortle that brought a grin to Jon's face caused him to turn away from the younger sister that was still trying to reconcile her brother's words with the expectations that she had for him based on the tales that seemed so similar that she had been told while growing up.
"So that's what you've been up to while father has been so concerned about finding you, eh Snow?" Robb Stark moved into the room with an easy smile playing across his face. "Playing at hero for damsels in distress?"
Jon moved his right hand to his chin while grabbing his right elbow with his left hand as he adopted what could be considered a thoughtful look. "Well there are Ysolda and Arachne... They were both in distress, but would damsel be the right word for them? Maybe Ysolda but Arachne's distress does not quite fit what you would hear in those tales."
The sleeve on Jon's left arm was pulled by Arya forcing him to break the contemplative pose that he had struck. "Who are Ysolda and Arachne? Did you save them from Wildlings?"
The thought of how the Septa had portrayed Wildings caused Jon to laugh as he thought of the Free Folk before his laughter came to an abrupt end as he remembered the cannibals that would also fall under that classification. "Not exactly. Things aren't as black and white as the Septa's stories would lead us to believe. I met some Wildings that were every bit as terrible as the worst from the Septa's tales but I met other people that would be considered Wildlings that I would be proud to consider as friends."
A gasp caused Jon's attention to shift back in Robb's direction where he noticed that the eldest of the Stark girls had appeared. The look on her face relayed what Jon had trouble distinguishing as either disgust or mortification which caused Jon to roll his eyes and resulted in Arya sticking her tongue out at the girl.
The reaction and the look on her face seemed to indicate a level of disapproval from her that he hadn't seen since he had rescued Lady. Jon was taken by surprise and reverted to the formal manner of speech that he had learned, at a young age, was the safest way to address the elder Stark sister. "Lady Sansa, it is so good of you to come. Bran will be alright. While traveling I learned much and was able to help him. I will leave you to your purpose."
Sansa's eyes widened at the distant and matter-of-fact address and she opened her mouth as if she wanted to say something before schooling her features and giving him a nod before slipping past Jon and the other Stark siblings to take a seat at her brother's side before taking her brother's hand in her own.
Shaking his head at the interaction, Robb swept his arm in a gesture for Jon and Arya to leave the room.
After giving one last look to Bran and, by extension, Sansa, Jon nodded and moved to leave the room pulling Arya with him as she had not yet let go of his sleeve. Realizing that something was missing, Jon looked around quickly before quirking an eyebrow at the eldest of the Stark siblings. "Where are Grey Wind, Nymeria, Lady and the boys' direwolves?"
Robb let loose a slightly incredulous laugh. "Where do you think they are Snow? You leave here with the runt of the litter and return with a true beast of a direwolf that looks like it was plucked from the Age of Heroes. I think it will be some time before the rest of the direwolves become used to the Ghost that returned with you."
Arya giggled childishly, "It looked like Lady was in love."
Jon looked at Arya as if she had grown a second head. "They can't be in love, Arya; they're brother and sister."
This declaration caused Arya's lip to quiver as she pulled away from Jon. "Does that mean that you don't love me?"
Realizing how Arya had interpreted his words, Jon lunged forward and scooped Arya up before the girl could take off. "Don't be silly, little one. Of course I love you." This caused Arya to stop struggling but she still eyed Jon suspiciously. "But, since you're my sister, I can't be in love with you the way that Lord Eddard loves Lady Catelyn. That would be weird."
A strange look crossed her face before she gave a tentative nod. Jon gave her a smile before setting her down and tousling her hair. Realizing that it may be a while until he would have a chance to talk to Robb and Arya together without having to censor his words in front of others, Jon decided to start his investigation. "What happened to Bran? He never falls."
The easy smile that had graced Robb's face was replaced by a grim expression at Jon's question. "That's the thing; no one knows what could have caused it to happen. All that we know is that Bran was found on the ground at the foot of the First Keep. Based on what we have been told, he was climbing and fell from there. If not for the king's guard patrolling the area there is no telling how long it would have been until Bran was found."
"Have you already looked around the tower to see if there were any clues that would help us figure out what happened on that day?"
Robb shook his head but it was Arya who replied, "After Bran fell, father forbid anyone from going to the First Keep."
Continuing where Arya had left off, Robb attempted to clarify, "Though he hasn't said anything about it to me, father has been acting differently since that wave of light swept through the lands. I suspect that he thinks it had something to do with Bran falling."
Jon considered what he had heard for several moments before nodding as much to his pseudo-siblings as to himself. "That settles it, then. To figure out what happened to Bran, I will have to go to the First Keep."
"But Jon," Arya started. "Father has forbidden going to the First Keep. What if he finds out?"
"After the discussion that I had with him earlier, I think that he would be willing to let me look around the First Keep even though he has forbidden others from going there."
His words caused Robb's eyes to narrow as he appeared to consider what could have been discussed that could cause Jon to be so sure that he would be able to do as he pleased in this matter. "You speak with certainty in your words, Snow. What could you and father have possibly discussed that would let you be so certain that he would allow such a course of action that he has expressly forbidden?"
Inclining his head to appraise him, Jon's eyes sought out the malice that many had when they reminded him that he was a bastard, less than a true-born Stark, but found none. "Like I told Sansa, I learned much while traveling and the Lord of Winterfell witnessed what I was able to do to help his son. Since I intend to investigate what caused Bran to fall, I believe that he will be willing to let me look into the tower, despite what he has declared for everyone else."
The explanation seemed to mollify Robb's curiosity as his face slipped into a casual acceptance. "I'm not trying to give you a hard time, Jon. One day I will be Lord of Winterfell and father has made it clear that he expects me to start acting the part."
"Peace, brother. One day you will be a great Lord and I will do everything in my power to make sure that a Stark is never injured in such a way at Winterfell again."
Maybe it was because of Jon's words or maybe it was because she was feeling forgotten but Arya threw herself forward and wrapped her arms around Jon in a hug. "Will Bran really be alright?"
Rubbing her back, Jon answered, "The worst of it should be behind him. Now it will be up to him to wake up. Let's go and figure out what happened to Bran."
The two legitimate Starks nodded at his words and the trio made their way through the castle to begin the investigation. While the presence of the king in the castle made it much more difficult to travel in the areas around his location, it also made it far easier to navigate in other areas of the castle. Accordingly, the trio was able to make great time exiting the castle with minimal interactions with other the other people that had populated the Stark's ancestral home.
In short time, the trio had made their way out of the castle and to the base of the First Keep. Jon was surprised to find an indention on the ground overlooked by one of the First Keep's windows.
"How could it be possible?" Jon asked to no one in particular, not expecting an answer. "Even if it was only a day ago, there shouldn't be anything to mark Bran's fall on the ground. Could it have been the magic?"
"What do you mean by the magic?" Robb asked in a tentative tone that effectively relayed the unasked question, how could such a thing be possible?
In response, Jon nodded. "That 'wave of light' that you mentioned was more than just light; that was magic. Things have changed in our world. A member of the king's party, Ysolda's brother, has shown that he can use ice magic in combat. If I am correct, there will be others that prove to be equally, if not even more formidable, with magical abilities making themselves known in the near future."
"But how could such a thing be possible?" It seemed that Robb did not know what to do with his hands but eventually they found a place on his sword's hilt.
"I assure you that it is possible. If you are to become the Lord of Winterfell, you must know of such things and prepare accordingly." Jon placed a hand on Robb's shoulder causing the tension in the other young man to dissipate. "Now let's get to the bottom of this and figure out what happened to Bran."
The other two did not argue against Jon's words and the trio began their search in earnest for the entrance to the First Keep. After minutes spent searching, the three regrouped.
"It's impossible!" Arya exclaimed. "We can't find the entrance anywhere."
Robb considered her words Arya's words then brought his palm up to cover his face with an audible groan. "Why didn't I think of it earlier?" Robb's voice was muffled but it caused both of his relatives to turn their attention to him. "The First Keep is only accessible via a tunnel that is said to be connected to a wing of Winterfell that fell into disuse and has been lost for centuries."
The explanation made Jon wonder what could have caused Bran to fall if the entrance to the tower had been lost to time. "Bran was not hurt because he was exploring the crypts of Winterfell to find the entrance to the First Keep. He was hurt because he fell while climbing the Keep. Maybe, to find the answers to the reason behind his fall, we will have to climb as well."
At Jon's words, Rob crossed his arms and looked at Arya. "If we have to climb, you will need to go back to the castle, little one."
"But Robb!" Arya protested by drawing out the single vowel from Robb's name. "I want to find out what happened to Bran just as much as you do! It's not fair that you would tell me not to climb the tower if you are going to climb, yourself!"
Robb moved in front of his younger sister and took a knee so that they were eye before responding. "I know that it is not fair but can you imagine how cross our lady mother would be with me and Jon if anything happened to you, especially if you got hurt while climbing in an area that we had been expressly forbidden from exploring by father?"
From the look on her face, it was clear that Arya planned to argue against her brother's words further so Jon decided to step in to support the elder Stark child. "We all want to do what we can to figure out what happened to Bran. If we are worried about what could happen to you it could cause us to miss an important detail that could help us figure out what happened."
Robb nodded solemnly, "We will tell you as soon as we find out what happened but, at least for right now, the best thing that you can do is go back to the castle and make sure that no one realizes that we are gone. Can I trust you to help keep this mission a secret from the others?"
Given a new purpose and a new importance, the protests that were forming behind Arya's lips were quelled and she nodded resolutely. "I'll make sure that no one notices that you're gone!" Arya promised before she scrambled off, in the direction of the castle.
As the girl disappeared from view, the eyes of the remaining Stark and Snow met. Though neither could forget the reason that brought them to the tower in the first place, the prospect of a challenge brought out their competitive natures.
Robb was the first to break the silence that had set upon them since Arya had left with a small jest. "Try to keep up. I would hate to think that the one who has been running circles around the newer Winterfell recruits in the training yard could be defeated by a tower."
Jon nodded in understanding before responding, "If I recall, it wasn't just the recruits that I have 'been running circles around' in the training yard, Stark. If memory serves, the last time that we contested over a tower I was the one who emerged victorious."
"Yeah, yeah," Robb waved Jon's words away with a smirk that communicated that the challenge was not over. "Less talking more climbing."
With that, the two set out finding handholds and footholds and beginning the climb. While the tower had not fallen into such a state of disrepair that there were gaping holes to allow for easy purchase, the uneven stones used in its construction ensured that there was always a way to proceed upward, even if following that way required a bit of a stretch.
After minutes of climbing, the two had managed to reach a window that allowed them to access one of the lower floors that existed within the First Keep. Robb entered first, followed by Jon which caused the eldest of the Stark siblings to smirk though he apparently chose to take the high road as he didn't mention the fact that he had scored the first point in their contest.
Jon quickly took stock of the room and noticed that there were staircases spiraling up and down along the walls from the landing upon which they found themselves after the climb. Turning to Robb, Jon gestured to the staircases that would take them in opposite directions, "It looks like we may be able to look into the entrance to the First Keep, after all, but I think we need to keep going up to figure out what happened to Bran."
Robb nodded and proceeded to the staircase that would lead him further up the First Keep. Jon followed his lead and the pair made their way to the top of the tower. Though there were several landings similar to the one they had found when they entered the castle, none of the windows lined up with the indentation at the foot of the tower that Jon expected had absorbed a portion of the curse when Bran hit the ground.
Eventually, the two found themselves at the top of the tower and a quick glance out the window proved this to be the room where Jon expected to find a clue to what had happened to Bran. Moving away from his brother, Jon realized that he did not know what to look for. Though it would have been nice, he severely doubted that any potential clues would start glowing at him or have an indicator to direct his attention.
The lack of progress caused him to growl slightly as he wished that they had come to the tower earlier in the day since the diminished light made it even more difficult to see if anything was amiss. Snapping his fingers, Jon realized that he potentially had a solution to this particular dilemma that would allow him to kill two birds with one stone, or in this case a ball of light.
"Robb, you remember when I told you that I suspected that there would be more people with the ability to use magic in the future?"
Robb turned to look at him with a slight look of confusion. "I don't see what that has to do with…" His words stopped abruptly when he noticed that there was a ball of light floating above Jon's palm illuminating the previously dim room with the strength of the midday sun. "But how?"
"I think you know the answer to that question, Robb." Jon answered as the ball floated up from his hand to float, unsuspended in the middle of the room near the ceiling. "I ask that you keep what I am about to tell you a secret for now. Even though I told you about magic earlier, I needed you to know firsthand that magic was real and that people could use it. I don't know who else will have the ability but you need to know that it could come from anyone at any time if you hope to protect yourself from it in the future."
Robb nodded agreement to the request to keep the information a secret but the degree of confusion increased significantly as Robb asked, "Are you saying that I will need to protect myself from you?"
Again, Jon's palm met his face causing a slightly muffled reply. "No Robb, I will do everything I can to protect the Starks from any threat whether it is magical or not. What I'm trying to say is that you would not have expected me to have access to this power. I would use it to defend you but there could be others out there with powers that would not be hesitant to attack you or your family."
Robb nodded resolutely. "Can you teach me?"
This question was tricky. "I could try but there are many different types of magic and I don't know what, if any, would be a fit for you."
The response prompted another nod but brought the puzzled expression back to Robb's face. "Does that mean that you can do other magic?"
Jon nodded and quickly summoned a ball of fire that was replaced by a snowflake that looked like its edges were sharp enough to cut through the stone walls of the First Keep only to be switched with a ball of lighting that seemed to coil in a writhing mass as if it was alive. Jon caught Robb's eyes as he cut the flow of magic and caused the ball of lightning to dissipate. "As far as I can tell Destruction magic ultimately comes down to fire, ice or lightning."
"When you mentioned Yohan, you made it seem like most people would only be able to use one type of magic." Robb started causing Jon to nod. "How is it that you can use all three?"
This question caused Jon to grimace. It was one thing to show Robb magic that he would likely be forced to face in the future, if the words of the Three-Eyed Raven could have been believed, but the implications that he had obtained the power from a relic that seemed to link him as much to the infamous Targaryen family as it did the House of Stark was something that he was not yet ready to attempt.
"I learned much in the time that I was away from Winterfell." Jon explained as he resumed his search for something that would help him determine what had caused Bran to fall. "I think that wave of magic that you noticed affected me and Ghost differently since no one else was transported to a different location."
Cursing, Robb's perceptiveness, Jon noticed that the other young man did not seem to have completely bought the explanation that he was provided. "If you say so… Well then, how do you do magic?"
The question caused Jon to stop his search as he considered how to describe how he accessed his magic. "It's hard to describe. I was able to access my magic most easily when I was under attack. Since you are not under attack, it could be different for you. Maybe try to think about the destructive elements and figure out which element calls to you?"
The explanation was clearly less than helpful if the momentary slump in Robb's shoulders could be taken to indicate his feelings on the matter. "Alright then. So how would I know if an element is calling to me?"
While he continued his search, Jon pondered the question. "The destructive elements are fire, ice and lightning. I think that if an element was calling to you, thinking about it would cause you to feel the element to an extent. I'm just throwing ideas out there but I think that if fire called to you then you would feel the heat of fire, if ice called to you then you would feel the chill of winter and if lightning called to you then you would feel a buzzing or maybe a shock like when you touch metal after rubbing your feet against a fur."
If his posture was to be believed, this seemed to be much more helpful to Robb than his previous advice. The eldest of the Stark siblings closed his eyes and stopped moving as if he had decided then and there that he would figure out his elemental affinity.
Leaving the Robb to his own devices, Jon continued his search and realized that his Light had revealed a significant layer of dust upon the floor which seemed to have been disturbed recently in a way that was inconsistent with his and Robb's footprints. Towards the center of the room, there was a significant section of the floor that had been swept clear of the dust that could be found throughout the rest of the room. Squatting down to give himself a better vantage of the disturbed area, Jon noticed a long golden thread had been caught on one of the loose floor board pointing towards the window.
Jon dislodged the thread from the floorboard and he realized that it was not a thread but a hair. "Robb, look what I've found!"
Robb's eyes snapped open as he was broken from his introspection to move to examine the golden hair held in Jon's hand. "Oh shit."
In Bran's room, tears fell down Sansa's cheeks. Why did she have to react so strongly when Jon had claimed that he would be proud to have Wildlings as friends? Perhaps more than any of the other Stark children, she had heard tales of what Wildlings had done when given the opportunity by their neighbors to the south.
In the stories that the Septa had told over the years, there was never a case where the Wildlings were the good guys. Each tale involving Wildings told of those Wildlings coming south of the wall and attacking the innocents either to kill them, enslave them or do far worse things to the women before returning to their lairs beyond the Wall to repeat their nefarious actions in the near future.
Why would Jon be proud to call these types of people friends? Sansa had to wonder. He showed that he is not cruel like other bastard born children are said to be when he saved Lady and he has never done anything to me that would be expected of one that would befriend Wildlings.
Bran shifted upon the bed, breaking Sansa from her reverie. The young boy's brow furrowed as if she had spoken her thoughts aloud. "I know he's not like that, Bran." Sansa spoke smoothly and softly, somewhat sure that even if her brother could hear her, despite his sleeping state, he would likely agree with her assessment. "I just can't figure out why he would want to become friends with those people."
The door to Bran's chamber opened slowly to reveal the matriarch of the Stark family. The woman clearly expected the room to be empty, save her unconscious son. "Sansa, it's good to see you watching over your brother. I didn't expect anyone to be here at this time."
Sansa shifted uncomfortably, "I guess I lost track of time. I came to check on Bran when I heard that Jon had returned and was taken by father to visit him. Since he left, I've been thinking."
Her mother took a seat on the side of the bed opposite of Sansa's chair and took hold of Bran's other hand. The mention of Jon caused the older woman to bristle. "Since he first arrived at Winterfell, he has been a stain upon the Stark family name. When he left, I thought that he had finally realized what damage he was doing to the family and chose to do the honorable thing for a person like him."
Sansa's eyes were wide and, were it not for the level of decorum demanded by her mother and the Septa, her mouth would have been agape. "Mother, what do you mean when you say 'a person like him'? Jon has never done anything to bring dishonor to our family. Despite the unkind words and looks he received from others, he has always done his best and was never unkind to anyone."
Catelyn Stark's eyes softened before hardening. "Sweet Sansa, I hope that you never have to find out what the presence of a child with a natural surname means to the dignity of your house. No matter how he comports himself, his very existence implies that I was not enough for you father, that this family was not enough for your father. His presence at our table shows that your father would elevate a person of lesser peerage to the same level of you and your brothers."
"That's not…" Sansa started only to be cut off by her mother.
"Is it so hard to fathom that, during one of those dinners, he would acquire a taste for more than just the cooking? Is it so outlandish to think that he could start to desire his father's seat for his own? History shows many examples of bastards that coveted the lives of their true-born siblings to such an extent that they would willingly spill their shared blood to take that which was never meant for them in the first place."
Throughout her life, Sansa had looked up to her mother as the best example of what it meant to be a Lady out of all the ladies from many houses that she had met throughout the years as they visited Winterfell for various reasons. Hearing these words from the lips of the woman that she had so admired was like a white wedding gown being smeared with mud.
"Is that truly what you are worried about?" Sansa asked breathlessly. "You fear that a boy, who has done his best to be a brother to your children and who would do anything to protect us, would turn his back on everything he has shown to care about for a title or to be able to sit where father sits?"
Apparently, her mother mistook her tone for understanding as she continued. "Of course, I wouldn't expect you to see his actions for what they are. You are too pure to be able to consider the motives behind those actions. You must learn to identify these hidden motives if you are to succeed in making alliances and, perhaps, finding a husband during your time at court."
Sansa was positively gob smacked. If this is what mother thinks about Jon, it makes perfect sense why she treats him the way she does and why she would want me and the others to stay away from him. There is a measure logic to her reasoning but she must know that Jon does not mean harm to the Stark family in the way that she imagines.
"Mother, you must realize that Jon is not like the bastards that you fear. Whether or not, him being here is a stain upon our house's honor, he would never do anything to harm any of us!"
"Sweet girl, do not let your worry for the bastard mar your beautiful face. It would not do to send you to court with the wrinkles of an old maid. Perhaps you will find yourself blessed with offers of marriage from southern lords that will allow you to leave the cold of the north."
"Please reconsider your treatment of Jon, mother. He can't help who his parents are but he has done everything he can to grow into the best person that he could be despite the treatment he receives. Are you not worried about potentially creating the very thing you fear by making it so that he would feel unwelcome in his own home? You keep mentioning your expectations for me at court. How many suitors do you think that I could draw if I treated them in the way that you have treated Jon?"
"Sansa," her mother's voice rose several octaves and her face clearly portrayed incredulity that her dear Sansa would not be of a mind with her on this matter alongside embarrassment at the notion that she had been giving her beloved daughter conflicting messages on how to compose herself in the world and frustration caused by the impertinence of the question posed to her by her sweet girl. "Why, I'd never!"
"I distanced myself from my brother because I could tell that doing so made you happy. It pains me to believe that the reason that you encouraged that distance because is because of a fear that you would know is completely unfounded if you ever had a conversation with Jon for true!"
Sansa's usually pale skin tone had flushed considerably as words that she never thought to say passed through her lips while her mother's skin tone looked as if all the blood had been drained from her face. The Lady of House Stark shifted her attention to Bran and cleared her throat before she would reply in a hoarse voice, "I would do anything to protect my children from those that would want to hurt them or take from them. Even if, by doing so, I invoke their anger, I know that eventually they will be able to look back on my actions and see that everything that I did was for them."
Sansa could not think of a way to respond to this declaration in a way that would befit a lady of her stature so, instead, she chose to excuse herself from her mother's company. As she reached the door, she spared one final glance at her mother and found the woman hugging her son and whispering words too softly for Sansa to discern. Though the esteem that she felt toward her mother had been shaken, her manners had not; she closed the door to Bran's chambers softly in the hopes that her brother would find a peaceful rest in the presence of their mother.
After closing the door and turning to walk toward her chambers, Sansa was surprised to find another person waiting for her with a grin on her face that answered the unspoken question of whether or not she had been listening.
"It's about time you realized that Jon is one of the good guys," Arya stated with a smile that threatened to take over her face. "He and Robb will figure out what happened to Bran."