A Little Help Toward Destiny
A/N: I have yet to see a finished 'gamer' story for Game of Thrones. I'll define the genre loosely, where one or more characters get quests or tasks to improve themselves and receive rewards for completing the tasks. This is my attempt at a 'gamer' story that actually fits within the Game of Thrones world, which has some types of magic but little advanced technology. It will be a one-shot so I don't risk leaving it unfinished.
A boy who'd seen seven name days trudged up the stairs in the Maester's Tower. He was about to be punished for something he didn't do.
"Robb," the boy hissed. The boy was no stranger to this unfairness, but that didn't mean it didn't sting.
Even Father hadn't bothered to ask if Jon had thrown the mud, or to ask why. No, that was Robb and Theon, who'd delighted in heaving the blame elsewhere.
Jon had been furious when this used to happen, but no one ever stopped it. No one fixed it. Jon wouldn't walk near to Lady Catelyn's sept. He certainly wouldn't throw mud on it.
Maester Luwin was in the library when Jon arrived. "I'll need these books moved and these shelves dusted, then washed with soap, then rinsed with fresh water."
It was one entire wall of the library. It was going to take ages.
Jon asked a few questions so he understood the details. Maester Luwin showed Jon where the bucket was, and the soap.
Jon hauled up water first. Then he took the books down from their shelves and settled them on the tables elsewhere in the library. Once he emptied an entire shelf from top to bottom, he got on a stool and used a damp cloth to scrub the wood.
There weren't enough tables in the library to hold all the books, even stacking them ten deep. Jon could put them on the floor, but that didn't seem respectful.
He was working on the third tall bookshelf when his hand grabbed onto one particular book.
Jon paused and felt an overwhelming urge to open that book.
So he looked around and realized Luwin wasn't even in the library.
Jon opened the book. His eyes couldn't make out any of the writing. He took the book to the nearest window. The writing was scuffed, like someone had attacked the parchment with a grinding stone.
Still, Jon flipped pages, looking for anything. At the front of the book, on the first page, the words were clear.
"Do you believe in magic, young Stark?"
The writing looked like Jon's own handwriting, untidy and uneven, as Maester Luwin often commented.
Jon thought about the question the book had asked. He thought about magic. "Old Nan told me about wargs. Starks used to be wargs, but I'm not a Stark."
The writing on the page dissolved. Moments later, untidy and uneven words began to fill the page anew.
Endurance. Current rating: 129.
Challenge. Move 1500 books from their shelves.
Reward. 4 rating points.
Cleverness. Current rating: 18.
Challenge. You took the blame for your brother's actions. Now ask Robb why he actually threw mud at the walls of the sept.
Reward. 2 rating points.
Survival. Current rating: 74.
Challenge. Learn from the cooks how to make a stew.
Reward. 5 rating points.
This book had asked about magic. It had changed it own words. It had to be magic itself. It knew about the mud and the sept and his punishment of moving books and cleaning shelves.
Jon tucked the book away and went back to his task. The words he had read were never far from his thoughts, even as he was washing shelves or returning books to the clean shelves.
After Jon had cleaned the shelves he was assigned, he picked up the strange volume again.
Some of the words were different now:
Endurance. Current rating: 133.
Challenge. Move 1500 books from their shelves. Complete.
Reward. Already earned.
Jon was still alone in the library. He thought about putting the book on the shelf, but that idea made him unhappy. This book had written to him, it knew about him.
Jon took the book and hid it in his room.
Jon was still thinking about that book when he saw Robb on his way to the Great Hall. The squid was nowhere Jon could see.
"Why'd you do that?" Jon asked.
Robb flushed. He knew what Jon meant.
"If you want to listen to Theon and throw mud, fine. But say you did it."
"Father said you did it."
"I just knew no one would believe me if I said it wasn't me. Why did you?"
"To see if I could."
"What do you know?"
Robb stomped off.
Jon hated his brother at that moment. He wasn't going to sit in the Great Hall. He was acting like bastards were supposed to do, lying and cheating and scheming.
Jon went to the kitchens and ate from a roast before it went up to the head table. Cooks privilege, supposedly.
Jon then watched two strong women make the stew for the guards' supper. He asked lots of questions and helped to chop up some of the vegetables.
When Jon returned to his room, the book knew what he'd done and had given him his 'rating points,' whatever that meant. Jon was just amazed he had a magical book and it seemed to know all about him.
When Jon rose the next morning, he went for the book first thing. The writing on the first page was different again.
Endurance. Current rating: 133.
Challenge. Train in the yard with a wooden training sword, then spar with Robb Stark for at least 10 minutes.
Reward. 4 rating points.
Cleverness. Current rating: 20.
Challenge. Read about the training methods used by any two famous warriors or knights.
Reward. 2 rating points.
Survival. Current rating: 79.
Challenge. Snare a rabbit, skin it, and help the cooks turn it into a stew.
Reward. 6 rating points.
New tasks overnight, still in Jon's handwriting. Jon knew better than to mention this to anyone. But he felt tougher from moving all those books. And he felt smarter, though angrier, for finding out that Robb had let Theon Greyjoy goad him into throwing mud on the sept.
Jon felt no better about taking the punishment, though it had introduced him to this magic book. Once Robb threw the mud, it was always Jon who was going to take the punishment. Lady Catelyn – Jon never thought of her Lady Stark, not a lick of true nobility in that 'lady' – would never have punished Robb, in any case.
Jon had no love for Robb right now, but he would do these tasks, too. He would gain endurance and cleverness and survival abilities.
There might come a time when Lady Stark or her septon would drive him from Winterfell. Jon had better learn how to survive in the world.
Jon saw his eighth name day. He was pulled out of bed early by Arya whooping and hollering and demanding his attention.
Jon got to eat at the head table that morning. 'Lady' Catelyn had previously announced she was ill and would eat in her room. That news was probably the best gift Jon received in a while.
Finally one of the children's nurses wrangled Arya, forced her to eat, then took her away to remove all the food from her face, neck, arms, and clothes.
Jon returned to his room and opened the book of tasks.
Jon glanced at the familiar categories and tasks:
Endurance. Current rating: 808.
Challenge. Train in the yard with a wooden training sword, then spar with Theon Greyjoy for at least 10 minutes.
Reward. 2 rating points. Bonus of 1 rating point, if victor in the spar.
Cleverness. Current rating: 429.
Challenge. Learn from Maester Luwin or a healer how to wash a wound and sew it closed.
Reward. 2 rating points.
Survival. Current rating: 579.
Challenge. Supply the Turner family in Wintertown with enough firewood to fill their wood rack.
Reward. 2 rating points.
Training in the yard, learning from the maester, and collecting firewood for a little coin: all things Jon had done before.
Jon flipped through the rest of the book, as he had every day since he'd found it. He noticed that a second page was now legible.
Battle Strength. Current rating: 43.
Challenge. Use the lunge training exercise favored by Aemon the Dragonknight for ten minutes.
Reward. 1 rating point.
Cleverness. Current rating: 429.
Challenge. Winterfell is huge and ancient. Discover three rooms you've never been inside before. Start a map to aid you.
Reward. 2 rating points.
Animal Knowledge. Current rating: 5.
Challenge. Assist the master of horse with the horses in the Winterfell stables for one hour.
Reward. 2 rating points.
Jon was nodding as he finished reading. He was very interested in battle strength, but he didn't remember the exercise mentioned. He had read about Aemon the Dragonknight. Jon would have to hunt down a few books first before he could practice this exercise.
Jon looked at the animal tasks. He knew little about horses even though Jon liked riding them. He wouldn't mind this task at all. He should know.
His favorite might be the exploring task. He'd never thought of making a map of Winterfell before, but now he would. Or perhaps the library had one. He'd have to ask. But it was unlikely to be complete.
Jon was on his way to the maester's tower for books that might mention Aemon the Dragonknight when Arya came running toward him. She must have escaped her nurse. Again.
Jon changed his plan. He wouldn't get a moment of quiet with her in the library. However, there was a task he had that she might enjoy.
"I'm going to see the horses," Jon explained. Trying to get the little girl to do anything else for an hour was going to bore her.
Jon had found the right word.
"Horses, horses," Arya sung. Or tried.
"What's this?" Robb demanded. He looked like he'd been sent to collect Arya. He had a mulish look about him.
"Going to horses," Arya said.
"Still a bit small for a horse," Robb said.
"I decided to learn more about them," Jon said. "I ride them often enough, but I know little about caring for them."
Robb just nodded and followed behind. He seemed content not to have to chase after Arya.
The master of horse didn't particularly like Jon, but he knew better than to refuse Robb or little Arya. To Jon's surprise, the horses held Arya's attention for the whole lesson. But not Robb's. He was gone as soon as it came time to learn to brush the coats.
Jon and Arya stayed well over an hour. Jon really enjoyed working with the horses and Arya was still babbling about them.
Arya wouldn't let Jon out of her sight after the mid-day meal. Jon had intended to train the yard, then get a spar off the squid. It would result in his thrashing. But he couldn't get Arya to let him do that.
So Jon decided to take her exploring. She wasn't completely stable when running, but she had unending energy. She ran forward, sometimes tripping, always grinning and yelling for 'Jon.' With her by his side, Jon could go basically anywhere in Winterfell.
"Slow down, little wolf. You see all the dirt? No one's been down here in a while," Jon said.
"No." That was Arya's favorite current word. That, or horses.
"No, no, no." She dashed forward, crashed into a wall, got up, then dashed forward again. Jon remembered Sansa breaking into tears over a hit that was far less startling. Jon's two sisters couldn't be any more different.
Jon ran after her and swept her up. "You'll be slower if you're in my arms, little wolf."
Arya giggled, but said, "No."
But she didn't fight Jon or try to get him to put her down.
Jon was sure he'd never been in this part of the castle. He opened one room and looked inside. Stores, or storeroom shelves were all he saw.
He closed the door, then picked another. It was a room with three beds in it. Perhaps when Winterfell had more servants?
A third room was filled with chairs, many broken, a few not. A fourth, since Jon was now curious and the rooms amused Arya for now, smelled of ale, though there was nothing in it. A former storeroom for casks that had leaked. Jon found books wrapped in oilskin in the eighth room.
"So do you know why there are books here?" Jon asked Arya.
She probably wasn't all that clear on what a book was yet.
"Let me see what one is about." He closed the door and set Arya down. She could, and did, run around but wasn't able to get back into the dirty hallway.
"No. No, no, no. Up, Jon. Horse?"
He did what he could to hold Arya and unwrap a few more books. They were old, but newer than many in the Winterfell library. Jon should know, he had moved one entire wall of them less than a year ago.
The window in the corner let in very little light, but Jon could work out a few words. Mostly Targaryen and Valyria and the like.
A second and third book were on the same topic. A fourth one was about magic, perhaps. That interested Jon very much given the book he kept in his room. He re-wrapped the Targaryen books, but kept out the one on magic. He'd be sure to mark this room on his map. He wanted to see what the other books were, then find out if he could bring them to Father's attention somehow. They deserved to be in the library, not hiding near the kitchens.
Arya wanted to walk again when they were in the hallway. Jon set her down. Then about a hundred feet later, she wanted up again. So he picked her up.
Finally he tucked the book into his room and headed back out with Arya. She wanted to see the horses again. Jon would take her there. Maybe then he could get in some training, or explore the Wolfswood for fallen branches or trees. He had other tasks he wanted to work on today.
Jon washed his face after his morning sparring in the training yard.
He'd earned several rating points from sparring with some of the younger guards. His muscles felt bruised. Perhaps he'd go into the hotsprings later and take a good soak.
He glanced at the book again, specifically at the confusing task.
Animal Knowledge. Current rating: 183.
Challenge. Locate a bird in the Wolfswood and track it from the ground for one hour.
Reward. 2 rating points.
"Why?" Jon asked. "I'm going to stand on the ground and look at a bird in a tree? What will I learn about it? Can I climb a tree and watch from the branches."
Jon noticed something shift on the page.
The task now read:
Animal Knowledge. Current rating: 183.
Challenge. Locate a bird in the Wolfswood and track it from the ground or from a sturdy tree branch for one hour.
Reward. 2 rating points.
The book could hear him speak. It could respond, if it chose. Jon shivered even though his room was plenty warm.
He'd known it was magic for more than a year now, but the book kept surprising him.
Jon woke up and didn't particularly care to leave his room today. He never liked it much when lords came to visit Father. The sneering and insults and no one standing up for Jon.
had seen his ninth name day two turns of the moon before Lord Bolton was to arrive at Winterfell to consult with Father. That morning, before breaking his fast, Jon flipped through the book and found a third legible page.
Not his ninth name day, but the day the Bolton lord and bannermen came.
He read the new tasks quickly.
Charisma. Current rating: 38.
Challenge. Converse with three younger members of the Bolton party.
Reward. 3 rating points.
Cleverness. Current rating: 582.
Challenge. Lord Stark believes the Boltons have come to Winterfell for an undisclosed, possibly unsavory, purpose. Why do the lower ranked Bolton bannermen believe they have come to Winterfell? Ask, sneak documents, listen at doors. Find the answer.
Reward. 5 rating points.
Speed. Current rating: 51.
Challenge. Arrange a spar of at least 5 minutes where you will be unarmed and merely attempting to avoid all hits.
Reward. 2 rating points.
Jon noticed that two of his three newest tasks were about the Boltons. Plenty of lords had visited Winterfell since Jon found the book. Jon, at most, had been asked to spar with one of their guards. This was something different.
Getting the Bolton party, any of them, to talk was incredibly tough. Lord Bolton looked as giving as a stone wall and his men he brought to Winterfell looked about the same. Jon found a few loosened up at the training yard, jeering or jesting as their fellow guards sparred.
But they were a dour bunch.
It took Jon three days, and using little Arya to set the skittish guards at ease, to find out about the Bolton bastard. They were apparently here to foster the boy with Lord Stark. Three days to find that out.
Jon had thought Lord Bolton was trying to get a betrothal or maybe a more favorable deal on some trade.
But it was about his bastard, Ramsay.
Jon paid more attention to the strange young man after learning who he was.
The book especially wanted Jon paying attention to the Bolton bastard. A third of the tasks Jon got, and completed, every day were about the Boltons or Ramsay Snow in particular.
He had stalked Ramsay and observed what he did in Wintertown. He had chatted to guards about Ramsay. He had broken into the room assigned to Ramsay and searched it. The boy had a disturbing number of knives with him.
Ramsay Snow was brutal with his words when he spoke to his father's guards. He eyed the Winterfell servants like he wanted to kill them. He picked three fights in Wintertown and lost each one. He was a boy and he kept fighting men. As predictable as the winds of a blizzard.
Jon thought he liked Lady Catelyn more than he liked Ramsay Snow – he didn't think such a feat would ever happen, Jon preferring Lady Catelyn to anyone.
Today the book didn't mention a thing about the Boltons. The oddest activity among the tasks even sounded fun.
Speed. Current rating: 63.
Challenge. Swim against the current of the White Knife for five minutes.
Reward. 2 rating points.
Jon had swum in the hotsprings, which were large, but never against a current. Or in cold water.
Jon mentioned his plans when he broke his fast that morning.
"You're going where?" Father asked.
"To swim in the White Knife at midday. It's summer, bright out, warm, not raining. I want to try," Jon said.
"Me, me," Arya said, not even knowing what swimming was. Perhaps not what a river was.
"The White Knife is flowing exceptionally fast right now," Father said.
"But if I wait, I'll try on a rainy day or a cloudy and cold one. Maybe a summer snow will come again. How many perfect days do we get?" Jon asked.
"Well, your father can tell you what to do, but none of my children are going anywhere near that river," Lady Catelyn said.
"Well, I want to swim in the river, too, Father," Robb said, mulishly.
He never had taken well to hearing 'no' in any form.
The fight kicked off then.
Jon hadn't expected any of this to happen. He just wanted to go swimming. It sounded fun and it was one of his tasks for the day.
Then the fight got worse when Lord Bolton announced he and his party would be going swimming at mid-day.
Lady Catelyn looked furious.
Bolton's decision was clearly a slight against her...and pressure on Father to side against his lady-wife.
It worked. "All of us will go swimming, but safely," Father said.
At least father recognized that Lord Bolton was more important than his awful wife.
Lady Catelyn threw down her linen and stormed from the Great Hall. She impressed no one. Lord Bolton actually smiled. Jon hadn't thought that was possible.
"People of the North have to know how to swim in northern rivers," Lord Bolton said. "A lady from the Riverlands hasn't yet bothered to understand our ways."
"Calm, Roose. I've decided. We will all go, any who wish it."
Robb and Arya looked pleased. Sansa asked to be excused, then left in the direction her mother had gone. Bran wasn't old enough to have much of an opinion yet.
"Southrons should be in the south, all I'm saying," Bolton said.
Father's lips pursed, but he didn't respond otherwise.
Several hours later, Jon was at the White Knife. He got naked and slipped into the water. The cold hit him like a fist, but he started swimming. The water was fast, Jon knew he was going backward in the water, but he kept swimming. The task was for five minutes, trying to help him build up his speed. His muscles were certainly straining.
He felt a lot warmer. When he thought he had done his five minutes, he clung to the bank and found some calmer spots. He could swim a lot more easily if he took care where he was in the river. He made his way back up the river, sometimes swimming in a calm spot, sometimes pulling himself forward with his hands on the bank. He could see Robb swimming with Theon. He could see Father in the water holding Arya who was both shouting and whooping. The Boltons had gone in a bit further down the river, but Jon could hear them.
The summer run-off in the North was bitterly cold, more than Jon ever knew. He was glad to have been in the river. He understood it better, about the calm spots and the fast spots. Father passed Jon little Arya. Her little lips and fingers turned purplish. So Jon got out and endured her complaints. They both warmed under the sun before Jon redressed his sister, then got dressed himself.
Father handled getting a shivering Robb out. Father even had a smile on his face and he didn't rush to get redressed.
"Did Ramsay come this way?" one of the Bolton men asked Jon.
Jon shook his head.
The guard continued upstream further.
Jon looked to where the rest of the Bolton party had been, they were also searching.
Jon got Arya back to Father then went to go and help.
He worked out the story quickly enough. Ramsay Snow had floated down-river further than others of his party. He couldn't be found at all, but some had thought to see if he'd gotten out and walked back upriver.
It took a full day before they had an answer. A farmer found a boy in the river, tangled up in tree roots, drowned and gone.
Stories said that fish had already eaten his eyes.
Jon felt relief. A little guilt, as he'd pushed to go swimming, but mostly relief. The other Snow boy was awful, even insane.
Lord Bolton never said a word in Winterfell about the death of his natural son. Which said plenty about him, even colder than the river water his son died in.
He and his party departed three days later.
During the first days of autumn, Jon received the following tasks on the first page of his book.
Endurance. Current rating: 1702.
Challenge. Spar with Theon Greyjoy for at least 10 minutes.
Reward. 1 rating point.
Cleverness. Current rating: 889.
Challenge. You are now approximately equal in endurance rating to Theon Greyjoy. Try to learn what endurance rating means during your spar with him.
Reward. 5 rating points.
Jon had asked several times for explanations of the different terms, like endurance and cleverness and rating points.
Now the book was about to force him to figure it out for himself.
He'd never had a known reference before. How, for at least today, he did. A builder needed a measuring stick to make sure his work matched the others who worked with him and that each wall they put up matched the others.
Now Jon could do some measuring of his own, learn some things, and make better choices about his training.
So Jon went to break his fast a bit late compared to usual, but while his brothers and sisters were there.
Jon got Arya and little Bran to help him arrange a match with Greyjoy. Arya often demanded Jon's attention at mealtimes. This time Bran was toddling after her, too.
"And what does the wolf do?"
Arya howled, then Bran joined her.
"What does the lion do?"
Arya made a meowing noise. Then Bran did.
Jon worked through several more animals, many of them representing famous houses of Westeros.
"What does the squid do?" Jon asked.
Arya looked puzzled. "What's a squid?"
"It's a kind of fish in the sea. But no tail. It has tentacles." Jon wiggled his fingers as if they were tentacles.
"I've never seen one. What noise does it make?" Arya asked.
"Squish, squish? Or flop, flop?"
"Squish!" Bran shouted.
"Flop, flop. Flop! Flop!"
Count on those two to pick exactly the timing and volume to attract Greyjoy's attention.
Robb filled him in on the topic at hand.
"I'm going to see you bleeding in the training yard," Greyjoy hissed.
"If you can manage it," Jon said. "Soon as I finish feeding Arya and Bran."
Greyjoy stormed out.
Robb wandered over to Jon, Arya, and Bran. "What did Theon do now?"
"Apparently he can't stand teasing from a girl of three name days," Jon said.
Robb shook his head. "And I'm sure you had nothing to do with it."
Jon didn't know why Robb liked Greyjoy at all, but Robb had made his choice. That was important to Jon, that Robb couldn't, or wouldn't, see Greyjoy's rudeness. Jon hesitated to think it, but his brother was rather gullible. Not a thinker.
Once, before Jon had found the book, Jon had been desperate for Robb's approval. Now, the Greyjoy issue, among other things, had Jon assessing his brother more harshly. Robb refused to pay attention to what he should be seeing.
Jon got Arya and Bran settled with their minders, then he went to wash, then to the training yard.
"Did you get lost, Snow?" Greyjoy taunted.
"I was helping to feed my siblings."
"No stretching. I want to fight now."
The squid didn't even want to let Jon limber up. That suited Jon's purpose today, an angry fighter wouldn't hold back.
"To first blood?" Greyjoy asked.
Jon shrugged. He didn't care about the fight or the winner. He wanted to understand the endurance rating the book gave him.
Jon drew his blade.
Greyjoy was on Jon almost before Jon was ready.
The squid attacked hard.
Jon stepped back and parried. The squid advanced and stalked and raged. He was sweating already and his face was a dark red.
Jon's defensive posture infuriated Greyjoy even more. The squid got sloppier with his form. His blade hacked through the air when his arm wasn't drooping from increasing exhaustion.
Once Jon was sure ten minutes had passed, and knew that Greyjoy was worn thin, he went aggressive. His sword tapped Greyjoy's arms and thighs to winces from the squid. Then Jon managed a hit against the squid's wrist. Greyjoy howled and dropped the sword. He'd be off practicing for a few days or a sennight.
It wasn't first blood, but it was a disabling hit against any more fighting.
"How did you do that?" Robb asked.
Jon had noticed his brother come out to the training yard, but he'd been a little busy before learning and provoking.
"He did it. Wore himself out," Jon said. "I couldn't have hit him like that if he was fresh. But he was angry."
Greyjoy had wasted his endurance early while Jon had kept his in reserve. Swinging even a training blade around was heavy work.
Jon went on to additional bits of training in the yard while he pondered what he'd observed.
The book said they had equal endurance ratings, but Jon was clearly still smaller and younger and less trained. Greyjoy had been learning swordplay at Winterfell longer than Jon had because of his greater age, plus whatever he'd learned in the Iron Islands.
The equal rating on one aspect of fighting didn't mean Jon was equal in the others. The squid hit harder than Jon could, for one.
Jon would have to keep up with his strength training and the speed tasks in his book. He didn't like being just Theon Greyjoy's equal in anything. He was going to be the superior of the two.
Jon checked the book the morning he turned ten-and-two. There were four pages available to him now.
Battle Deadliness. Current rating: 103.
Challenge. Observe 15 spars or fights. For each one, note the flaws in technique and decide what better choices you could make to end the fight faster.
Reward. 3 rating points.
Cleverness. Current rating: 582.
Challenge. Speak in Old Tongue with another person for one hour.
Reward. 2 rating points.
Agility. Current rating: 42.
Challenge. Spar for 10 minutes or longer while holding no weapon and only dodging the blows.
Reward. 2 rating points.
Jon wasn't able to complete all his tasks every day when he just had three pages. Now three more tasks, one involving watching fifteen fights, was going to make it even harder.
The tasks he didn't complete waited for him, normally. But he'd lost the incomplete ones from yesterday since he got a new page to read. That was the only time he'd seen that happen.
Jon remembered the two tasks he'd lost. He'd still finish them, since he was close. It was all for his betterment.
The handwriting in the book was better, but it still looked like Jon's own.
It wasn't enough just to follow the book. The book had taught him to observe and think, after all. What did Jon want now?
He didn't think he needed anything he could buy or make, like more clothing or more weapons. He'd like respect, but he didn't know how to get that...
He did have one idea of what he wanted. Jon realized he was tired of growing apart from Robb and Sansa. He was still close with Arya, of course, and Bran didn't yet seem to understand what a bastard was and why it was so horrible. Rickon wasn't old enough to do more than cry and drink milk.
Jon was going to see if he could teach Robb, at least, to think. He'd use some of the tasks from the book. One last try before Robb drifted completely into the squid's life and out of Jon's.
(Sansa was too insistent on copying her mother to even try. Lady Catelyn would sooner dance naked in the godswood while profaning her precious Seven than treat Jon with any kindness.)
But where to start?
In the training yard. To get Robb to think about how to defeat an enemy. Maybe that would lead him to looking at Greyjoy as an enemy. Maybe.
Father should have consigned his ward anywhere but the family wing. Father was making his own heir useless, more a squid-pretender than any kind of wolf.
So Jon would try to fulfill the tasks set by the book, but with an additional purpose, to see if Robb could be taught cleverness and endurance and the like. To see if Robb could begin to think.
Jon avoided Robb when he broke his fast. Then stood away when he went into the training yard. Eventually Robb chose to walk over and stand by Jon.
"What are you doing?" Robb asked.
"I'm watching the spar, trying to think if I could do those things."
"Course you could, you're great."
Well, that was an unexpected compliment. But the squid wasn't anywhere nearby to hear it which might be why Robb was willing to say it.
"I'm not tall, though. My muscles are still growing. So what could I do instead… See, there. I couldn't do that, but I wouldn't if I could. All that work and he still hit the dirt."
Robb shared an occasional comment over the next few minutes as they watched spars. Then he wandered off for a training blade and a spar with a young guard.
It was a start, Jon thought.
Not a promising one, but a start. Jon would give it twelve turns of the moon. By Jon's next name day, he'd know. Robb would either be a squid-on-land or a wolf.
The spar was going poorly for Jon, but this was the first time he'd been allowed blunted steel. Ser Rodrik, the master-at-arms, had a good foot in height on Jon and years of experience wielding heavy steel blades, but Jon was pressing every advantage he could.
It wouldn't be enough, not by far.
Jon's arm felt like it was going to fall off. He did every kind of strength exercise he could think of, but nothing quite imitated swordplay with actual heavy steel. Maybe swinging a hammer in the forge? Jon had never tried that.
Jon went into the dirt, face first. Again.
"Yield?" Ser Rodrik asked.
Jon nodded and stood up. He took a moment to catch his breath. "Thank you for the spar."
"You did well for your first time sparring with a heavy blade. Keep up your exercises."
Jon was still drinking in air. That was a workout like walking through miles of deep snow. It had only been a few minutes, but Ser Rodrik had driven him from one side of the ring to the other, then back again. He had been draining off Jon's endurance.
It was a very good lesson. Jon went for some water from the nearest well.
Robb came over. "Hey, Snow, you think he'll let me use blunted steel?"
Jon kept a frown off his face. Calling him Snow was what the squid did. Robb had started doing it not long ago. Jon tried not to show how much it enraged him.
"You see what he had me doing the last week?" Jon asked with a neutral voice.
Robb shook his head.
No surprise there. He'd been coming to the yard later than Jon for some time, when the squid preferred to come. The squid was here now, probably just to witness Jon eating dirt from a far more experienced fighter.
"Ask him. He started me doing exercises with the blunted steel. My arm feels as strong as a puling kitten right now. Ow."
"Hot springs cure all pain."
Jon wished, just then, that he was a bit dimmer. A bit less aware of the neglect Robb had for Jon and the admiration he had for the squid.
Robb longed to be a squid, like his older 'friend' who wasted all his coin at the brothel. If this Ironborn-admiring Robb was the one who became Lord Stark someday, he'd be slaughtered by his own bannermen.
Why didn't Father stop it, or even Lady Catelyn? Did they not notice?
Jon did more leg exercises in the yard, rather than further tax his arms. He'd thought he was reasonably strong, but his stomach ached and his arms were floppy. He'd need better exercises, better drills. But he probably couldn't have tackled them until just about now.
One step forward, one step to the side, one step forward. It didn't feel much like progress.
Jon hadn't expected a thing when he rose this morning. No lords were visiting. It wasn't a name day for anyone Jon knew. Father hadn't said anything unusual was coming.
In fact, it had been years since Jon had seen a new page become available in the book, so he expected the normal tasks and a normal day.
But when Jon opened the book, he knew today would be special for some reason. The fifth page of the book had become legible – and the tasks on the fifth page were staggeringly hard.
Then the unimportant day got stranger and stranger.
Jon attended an execution of a Night's Watch deserter, and kept an eye on Bran who was seeing his first one.
Then Jon got his own direwolf pup after they found a massive, just delivered direwolf that had been shot with 5 arrows. They also found the mauled corpse of the man who had shot her and his mauled horse and his broken bow and equipment. No one recognized him.
Jon loved his direwolf instantly. He had spent hours and hours working with the Winterfell hounds, and horses and other animals, so he knew how to help the albino runt he was already calling Ghost, for his white fur and silent ways.
Several of the tasks he'd received today had been a bit confusing, but now Jon understood them. There were a few others that still baffled him, though.
The first page:
Endurance. Current rating: 3109.
Challenge. Run around the outside walls of Winterfell and Wintertown five times.
Reward. 1 rating point.
Cleverness. Current rating: 2743.
Challenge. Learn from Maester Luwin or a healer how to tend a hound or wolf injured by an arrow.
Reward. 2 rating points.
Survival. Current rating: 1206.
Challenge. Prepare food to keep young hounds or wolves well fed.
Reward. 2 rating points.
He had often had running tasks and liked them. That cleverness task sounded similar to seeing Ghost's dead mother. If that happened to Ghost, Jon wanted to be able to fix his new friend. And he'd already fed Ghost twice, but he appreciated getting rating points for it.
The second page:
Battle Strength. Current rating: 43.
Challenge. Practice for one hour using a blunted greatsword while performing your training exercises.
Reward. 1 rating point.
Cleverness. Current rating: 2743.
Challenge. The North hasn't often seen direwolves south of the Wall. Propose three ways that wolves could pass the wall. The books in oilskins you found near the kitchens may be able to help.
Reward. 2 rating points.
Animal Knowledge. Current rating: 395.
Challenge. Collect information on direwolf health requirements from the maester and legends told in Winterfell and Wintertown.
Reward. 2 rating points.
Jon hadn't dug through those oilskin-wrapped books in some time. Perhaps there would be information he needed to know. Otherwise he'd have to get it from people. Jon hoped Maester Luwin had some ideas, but he already planned to ask Old Nan.
Jon was puzzled at why he was already jumping to working with a greatsword. And for an hour. His arms would fall off.
The third page:
Charisma. Current rating: 38.
Challenge. Talk to the builders of the sept about different structures they've built, listen especially to their complaints.
Reward. 3 rating points.
Cleverness. Current rating: 2743.
Challenge. Winterfell will soon be filled with many conversations, but listen to the topic of direwolves. Why have they come south of the wall and what does it mean how the biggest one was killed?
Reward. 1 rating point.
Speed. Current rating: 212.
Challenge. On each of six days, do a quick run around the top of each courtyard wall, being sure to keep good form and balance. What do you see differently from above than below?
Reward. 2 rating points.
Here is where Jon became confused. He had no interest at all in the sept, but now he was supposed to investigate it.
Then the running along the tops of the courtyard walls. Jon didn't particularly like heights.
The task on collecting gossip about the direwolves was one Jon was already doing. He'd heard plenty in the kitchens and the stables. He'd get more the next time he went into Wintertown.
The fourth page:
Battle Deadliness. Current rating: 407.
Challenge. Spar with someone just a little stronger and faster than you. Work on the techniques that will enable you to still win.
Reward. 1 rating point.
Cleverness. Current rating: 2743.
Challenge. Select another book in High Valyrian, read it, and discuss it with Maester Luwin.
Reward. 2 rating points.
Agility. Current rating: 241.
Challenge. Hold a small animal while you run the course you've created in the Wolfswood.
Reward. 2 rating points.
The sparring and language tasks were familiar. The course-running task now seemed modified to include Ghost in his life.
The fifth page:
Leadership. Current rating: 39.
Challenge. The Faith of the Seven does not belong in Winterfell. Sabotage the sept so that it will fall down, while not being caught at the work.
Reward. 19 rating points.
Cleverness. Current rating: 2743.
Challenge. Copy the construction plans for the sept and devise its flaws and weaknesses.
Reward. 2 rating points.
Mystical Strength. Current rating: 3.
Challenge. Dream of a direwolf running outside while sleeping.
Reward. 2 rating points.
These page five tasks were significantly more difficult than anything Jon had seen before.
The dreaming task. Jon had no idea how to even begin doing that.
The sept again, getting the plans for it then destroying it. Jon had no love for the Faith if they were all like Lady Catelyn, he might have entertained the idea a time or two. But actually destroying the building? Jon wasn't refusing, he found to his surprise. But he was trying to puzzle it out. Why now? Why ask Jon to do it?
He knew little about it. He'd certainly never been inside it. He had passed by the open door a few times and knew it was filled with statues and candles, more candles in there than usually lit the Great Hall of Winterfell.
Jon took a long walk to the kennels and walked slowly by the sept. It was built in a pale stone not native to the North. It stuck out at Winterfell, but Jon could see how some thought it lovely. The candles inside lit up the painted glass.
Now that seemed a waste. It wasn't dark outside. Nor did Jon think they were using the sept for anything just then. But Winterfell paid and paid and paid for candles.
Jon chatted with the master of hounds about the direwolves, his in particular. Ghost was staying in the kennels for now, but Jon wanted Ghost in his room. Particularly given the hints in the book that Ghost would be very important to Jon, his companion in dreaming.
Jon played with his tired direwolf for a few minutes before he walked up to the library.
Maester Luwin saw him and pointed to a table with books on it. "Four different people have already been in asking about direwolves. Those are what I've found so far. Mostly legends."
"My thanks, Maester Luwin. No one I've spoken to seems to know much about them."
"I think in the wild, the people who meet a direwolf really won't be able to say anything at all – after."
Jon nodded. "The dead don't speak."
"Exactly. Let me know if you find anything of interest. The people who asked me paged through a few books, but not for long."
"I'll let you know."
Jon thought there were a few hours until supper so he'd spend it on helping Ghost, if possible. He also needed to see about the plans for the sept.
"Do we know how big they'll get?" Jon asked.
Luwin shook his head.
"Will they outgrow the kennels?"
"Ah. Now that is likely."
"Is there a map of Winterfell?"
Luwin nodded and walked off. Jon followed.
Luwin left Jon in front of a cabinet of large parchment. A map of Winterfell was on top of other parchments. The kennels in the map were about a quarter of the size of the stables. If direwolves got to be the size of horses, then they would have to live with the Starks, or perhaps a new kennel would be required.
Jon also took in the sept as shown on the plans. He wanted to see it from all sides. Now he saw why he was supposed to do exercises along the top of all the courtyards. One of the courtyards would give him a view all around the sept.
So Jon would get his better view first thing in the morning.
Luwin put the map away when Jon returned to the books. He sat and made a good effort. There were a number of legends about direwolves, including some stories about the Starks befriending or partnering with them in the past.
Jon thanked the Maester and walked down the tower and over to the Great Hall.
There Jon caught up on the news he'd missed. There had been a raven-message that Father's own foster father, Lord Arryn, had died in King's Landing.
The King was coming to Winterfell. The gossip held that Father would soon take Jon Arryn's place in King's Landing.
This turned out to be a very important day for direwolves and Hands of the King.
But Jon wasn't letting Father go south, if he could help it. The book seemed to intend something, a plan Jon didn't yet understand. If it kept Father safe, Jon was going to make it happen.
Jon wasn't much of a drinker, but he knew plenty who were. He knew they liked more than the ale itself. The inns and pubs offered gossip and warm rooms and food, along with lots of ale. All of those things would loosen tongues, Jon also knew.
He walked down to Wintertown after supper and checked in with some families he kept supplied with firewood and other necessities. He'd found out which inns served which kinds of people. He worked out where the builders would be. He knew that Wintertown locals had been involved in constructing the sept from Riverland stone.
Then he visited one particular ale house. He was welcomed as gossip had already spread about the direwolves. Jon was in much demand.
Jon eventually located the people he expected to. Friends who worked together when they could. Sometimes on repairs around Winterfell or Wintertown, sometimes bringing wood in for fires, sometimes building new structures entirely.
The book had had Jon working on his conversational skills for years. Jon waited and eventually the conversation turned to stone.
It didn't take much for Jon to ask about the strange, pale stone that the sept was made from.
"That stuff? Not like the dark, heavy stuff Winterfell's built from. It's light color is all that mattered to that weasel man, the septon, who was here when it was built. Said it was beautiful enough for his gods," Gael said.
His friend Brodus just nodded.
"Did that weasel stay and serve in that sept? No, he did not. Back to some castle in the south. Some fat man came north to sing and talk and take gold. He knew less about building than that wooden chair over there. Content because it was pretty. I'm surprised a strong wind hasn't knocked it all to pieces. Seven sides, seven windows, seven statues inside, but no columns. Just some 'heavy' stones on top to keep it all in place. Never built a thing like it before, or since. I wouldn't go inside it, even if I did need seven gods to tell me what to do." Gael laughed. Then everyone did.
Jon kept probing. He got himself a lesson on the building that Gael was doubtful about, but he'd done it because it had paid at the time.
"You think it's unsound then? Worse than the Broken Tower?" Jon asked.
"The stone on the Broken Tower is sound. Just leaky windows or missing glazing, the rain and snow rotting out the wooden supports inside. The walls are sound, but the platform's threatening to take a sudden trip down. That sept, the stone's the problem. Maybe it works in the south, somehow. But they have rain down there. Must not have snow – or somethat. Someone called it limestone. We don't have that here. I heard Lord Stark – begging you pardon, Snow – paid out his nose to get it up here. But it had to be that stone, and those stonecarvers, and their particular statues. Bah."
Jon paid for quite a bit of ale. But he didn't mind. He had the beginning of a plan.
The first part of his plan involved understanding limestone.
Jon slept well that night, but he had strange dreams. Like he was in the kennel. He was short. He had four legs and white fur.
When he woke, Jon realized he had been inside his direwolf. He had seen from Ghost's eyes and tasted the food he ate.
The book had instructed him to try. Jon hadn't even meant to. He'd fallen asleep thinking of stone buildings.
Jon couldn't be bothered to get out of bed since he was more concerned with what all this meant.
"I have magic," Jon said to himself.
The book had been around for years and was magical. Jon had worked that out a long time ago. But he hadn't seen the implication. The book had known about his magic, it had known Ghost was going to come, and had been training Jon to be ready for Ghost and for magic.
He wasn't just supposed to be a fighter, he was supposed to work with direwolves and dream with them. And who knew what else.
Jon began to nod.
He could figure this out. He already loved Ghost. This would make things even better between them. He would work on whatever the book recommended for 'mystical strength.'
Jon dressed and went down to the kennels. He made sure that Ghost was healthy and safe after sharing a body during the night. He was, and happy to see Jon in the flesh especially since Jon took the meat that the master of hounds had procured for the direwolves and gave Ghost his portion.
Jon knew his priorities. The magic thing would happen when it did. But the book wanted another task done first, the sept.
Jon spent days in the Maester's Tower library. It contained very little about geology and rocks. He spent time looking through the books he'd found near the kitchens.
He even went back to the inns of Wintertown and paid for more ale. He got more stories, but not so much information on 'that inferior, pale stone.'
Jon discovered that the answer to sabotaging the sept was in the Winterfell kitchens.
He often checked there about whatever he was working on. First, they had all the gossip meander in the door at some point. They were also practical men and women, not educated like Maester Luwin was, but their duties meant they picked up all sorts of odd ideas.
Jarred, one of the cooks, made all the soaps and powders for the castle. He knew all about what limestone was when Jon was mentioning what he'd heard in Wintertown. The best way to get new gossip, after all, was to spread old gossip.
"You use tooth powder, don't ya?" Jarred asked.
"Then you've had limestone in your mouth. I make all of it for Winterfell. It's in tooth powder and face powder for the lady-folk."
Jon managed to sound interested, but not too interested.
"Tricky stuff, have to grind it fine, very fine, right before you use it. Have to keep it dry, too. One hooligan we had in here poured some of the honey vinegar into one of my powder bottles. Ruined it, foam everywhere."
"From vinegar?" Jon asked.
"We make it, better than buying it in from the south, if we can manage it."
Jon had never thought about vinegar before.
"Stores well for a hard winter if you let the sun take the water off, leaves a powder behind. If we keep it dry, then we can use it for years. Just add water."
"How do you use vinegar?" Jon asked.
"It's in every stew, isn't it? It's in the sausages we make." Jarred apparently loved vinegar. He could, and did, extol its virtues for minutes and minutes. He showed Jon what the liquid version looked like and made him taste it. He showed Jon the powdered version, too. It was much more sour.
"And Lady Stark likes honey vinegar on her vegetables."
Jon got free of the kitchens after he promised to go hunting for them tomorrow. They wanted to start putting up larger animals for when the king and all his fellows arrived hungry. Perhaps Jarred would make a dried or smoked sausage, heavy on the vinegar.
Jon wandered down the disused hallway off the kitchens. He had seen that vinegar powder before, or something quite like it, in the unused rooms off the kitchens. He'd no idea what it was, nor had he thought to taste it. Until now.
Jon found the room he'd explored once long ago. It still held four massive pots of fine white powder.
He tasted a tiny bit.
Yes, someone had put up vinegar powder some time ago and forgot it.
Jon had an idea that the powder in a large enough dose, plus some dew or rain, might do further damage to the limestone roof of the sept. It had already been in Winterfell for as long as Sansa had been alive. Robb had been born in the Riverlands and Jon didn't know where he was born.
Jon could run around the tops of the courtyards to get close to the roof of the sept. If he brought a big pile of this stuff every day for a week…
It might do something, especially if the builder from Wintertown was right about the sept's starting weakness.
When Jon emerged from the kitchens, he found that Vayon Poole, the steward, was looking for him.
"The cooks said you wanted to see me," Jon said to the steward.
"Your father wants all his children in his solar. He asked me to find you and young Robb."
Jon could think of only two topics: the direwolves or the king.
"I will go right now," Jon said. "Did you find Robb?"
"Ask the gate guards if he went down to Wintertown. I know Greyjoy was talking about it the last few days. Robb might have gone with."
Poole thanked Jon.
Jon was actually the first child to arrive. Father chatted about Jon's training in the yard. He seemed to approve of what Jon was doing.
Then Sansa and Arya came in, fighting, over something. Bran came next, escorted by the master of hounds. Rickon wasn't to be part of this meeting.
Robb showed up with a red face, out of breath. He'd likely been in or on his way to Wintertown.
Father wanted to talk about the king.
"I've had more ravens from friends of mine in the Vale and elsewhere. The rumor is he intends for me to step into Jon Arryn's shoes. I am going to say no. Robert is my friend, but he should have asked in a raven message and saved himself the trip."
"Why is the king coming by road?" Bran asked. "Why doesn't he travel by ship to White Harbor?"
"Man hates ships. Blames them, blames a lot of things, for killing his parents. He watched them drown, but was unable to do anything about it. The bay and the winds and the storm. No, Robert wouldn't get on a ship."
There were lots of questions, but Jon listened while the others spoke.
Would Father actually be able to refuse the king when the man came here and asked, or demanded?
Jon loved his father, but the man got taken advantage of in trades often enough. Could he move to King's Landing and be happy if he only negotiated and wrote out orders?
Jon thought Father would be miserable, and not very good at the work.
Perhaps the book already had Jon working on a solution. Or, perhaps, Father would need to actually say no and keep saying it.
"You were awfully quiet," Father said to Jon.
"He was your friend, still is. He's also your king. I don't know it will be easy to say no."
"You are right about that. Robert always was...a little selfish. And I take comfort in these walls – and none at all in the Red Keep. Too many died there for me to ever rest easy there."
"What does he like then?"
"Then refuse him and take him hunting. Refuse him again and take him hunting again. Keep saying no, but don't lose the friend."
"That's the best advice I've heard. Thank you, Jon."
Jon nodded and left.
He didn't think Father was going to be able to do it. Jon was all too aware of everyone's flaws, especially his own and his family's.
If Robb begged now to be Jon's friend, Jon would have the hardest kind of time telling to go spend time with the squid. Loneliness was a hard puzzle for Jon. He recognized it in Father's dilemma, loneliness for a friend versus memories of his murdered family.
Jon zipped through his morning exercises atop the courtyard walls. This was the third day he was doing them, so the strangeness of his actions had died down. He wasn't being watched as closely as the first or second day.
He already knew that the roof looked weak. The seams between the roof stones were huge, Jon could see inside the thing through its roof. The dew had to drip down inside. Any rain or snow must make for a flood.
Why hadn't they repaired it? Would that require admitting their design was poor, their materials were even poorer. Pride, perhaps? Fear it would be torn down and not replaced?
When Jon paused on the wall section closest to the sept, there was no one watching him at all. He emptied a flagon of vinegar powder onto the roof. The dew still on the roof began to dissolve the powder as Jon watched. He could see the foam. Then he tucked the flagon away and continued on his course.
He was going to do the same every day for the next week. He'd bring one or two flagons of the vinegar powder.
Jon was hopeful to to see that building gone. It and all the ridiculousness they believed.
Jon bathed in the hot springs before he went to break his fast. Arya ran for him and demanded to sit next to him.
Lady Catelyn seethed because Father was there and allowed Arya her wish.
Lady Catelyn would find a way to get back at Jon, even though it was Arya who'd asked. Petty woman, the least noble person Jon had ever met, and he'd met Roose Bolton.
"What is that?" Arya asked.
She was trying to rub her food-stained fingers on a small book Jon carried with him. It wasn't the book that wrote him tasks. That never left his room.
What Jon carried was a common place book that Maester Luwin had gifted Jon some time ago, so Jon could record useful lines from books he read. Jon also included some of the lessons from the tasks he did out of the book, especially the exercises it had assigned Jon for swordplay and endurance building.
"When I read books, sometimes I write wise things in this book," Jon said.
"He needs all the help he can get," Theon said.
Jon said nothing.
Arya, however, realized Theon had been mocking her favorite person. She threw a half-eaten sausage at the squid, and hit him. Then began laughing.
Theon stormed out of the Great Hall.
Sansa was tasked with wrangling her younger sister.
Lady Catelyn began fiercely, though quietly, arguing with Father. Jon assumed Lady Catelyn The Bitter was trying to blame all this on Jon.
Father apparently didn't agree.
Lady Catelyn stormed out, as if sh was the squid's greatest defender.
Jon later heard it said she'd taken up in the sept.
Jon made a point of playing with Ghost, and Arya, and Arya's yet-unnamed direwolf for an hour. As a reward for her and a break for himself. Lady Catelyn would never be seen near the kennels.
Jon woke one morning when Ghost began to whine a little. He'd had his direwolf pup for a whole turn of the moon now. Ghost was currently the only direwolf living in the keep and that wasn't going to change as long as Lady Catelyn had a mouth.
He got his pup some water and promised him some food shortly. Jon checked the book. He was expecting more tasks regarding the sept, but didn't find a mention.
No. Now it wanted Jon to climb the Broken Tower and survey it for himself.
Not that hard, since all work on the Broken Tower had halted once Father knew the king was coming. The workers were needed for other things, like repairing suites of rooms that rarely saw guests. Until the king and half the court arrived.
Jon also had tasks to: chat with the builders who had been repairing the Broken Tower, to locate the plans for the structure, and weaken the wooden top floor when it held the weight of multiple people.
Jon was unsure about that. The sept was new and awful. The Broken Tower had been here for ages, Jon didn't want to destroy it.
But he'd at least look at it.
He snuck inside the tower after he took Ghost to the kennels to eat with his brothers and sisters.
Jon looked around the Broken Tower. It seemed sturdy at the base.
Jon walked up the stairs and was less sure about the different wooden platforms he found on the way up. Water had gotten in and rotted a lot of the boards. The top-most platform was the worst. John stayed on the stone stair and didn't even step onto the wooden planks. The stone of the tower seemed intact to Jon's untrained eyes, but perhaps the mortar was weak or something.
The broken or missing windows were the problem, as Jon had heard before. They'd let in water and the water had done its worst to the platforms.
Jon went carefully back downstairs. Why would the book want him to make the problem worse? Maybe to call attention to it, demand Father not forget to restart the repairs.
Jon went back to the kennels. All the wolves came out to see him. Then some would start fighting, but Jon tried to pet any wolf that wanted attention. The most standoffish one was Sansa's. Like girl, like wolf.
Then Jon felt a tremor and heard a massive noise that seemed to come from all directors. Jon tucked the direwolves back into their spaces and ran outside. He could see where others were running to.
The courtyard was filled with stunned people.
There was fire, smoke, and screams.
Jon worked out that the sept no longer had a roof, but its walls were still standing. The roof had collapsed and somehow started a fire inside the building. From the candles always burning inside?
"There's people in there," one of the guardsmen shouted. "Door's blocked."
Jon joined the men trying to put out the flames and batter down the door. The door just wouldn't open. Perhaps a roof stone had fallen just there. Perhaps a statue had been knocked over just there.
They all continued working long after the screams from inside quieted.
Eventually they gave up on the door and broke down a wall. Father carried out Lady Catelyn's body himself. Others brought out the septon and the septa.
When Ned returned, he gave orders to begin demolishing the 'deviled' thing the next day, if it was cool enough. He ordered the stones dumped in the wolfswood, refusing to allow them to be reused in Winterfell or Wintertown. No one argued with the order.
Jon was quiet as he ate a huge meal at supper. Lady Catelyn's children were not in attendance. The entire head table was empty.
He had done this.
Jon had helped to murder a septon, a septa, and Lady Stark.
Helped. The poor stone and poor maintenance and harsh weather and a huge number of candles had done the rest of it.
The septon and Lady Catelyn were responsible for keeping the building in good repair, or just reporting that the stones were leaking. Or doing anything at all intelligent.
They hadn't. The smoke from the fires had killed them.
Jon, to his horror, found he wasn't that troubled.
Father likely was. Robb and Sansa would be. Perhaps Bran. Who knew what Arya thought. And Rickon would be too young to understand.
But Winterfell would be a happier place.
It was clear none of the servants missed her.
Catelyn Tully had lived in the North for two and ten years and made herself no friends at Winterfell who weren't originally southron.
Jon already felt a huge amount of relief. He felt freer, happier, relieved. The entirety of Winterfell smelled like smoke, but felt like light.
The solemn funeral for Lady Catelyn was also a very strange funeral.
It was small and held in the godswood.
The attendees were Lady Catelyn's children, her husband, Jon, and a few of the more senior servants at Winterfell. There was no one from Wintertown nor any of the lords of the North. Nor a septon or any other follower of the Seven.
It would not be followed by a burial, either, not immediately.
Lady Catelyn wasn't being interred at Winterfell. Her bones, along with the septon's and the septa's, were being sent back to Riverrun.
Jon hadn't heard any gossip as to why these decisions were made. But Robb didn't seem any more upset than a boy who had lost his mother. He hadn't been fighting with Father about the funeral.
Jon wondered if Lady Catelyn's death in her precious sept had finally allowed Father to put the North first, not the alliance that Rickard Stark had saddled him with.
Father had never said a bad word about Lady Catelyn, nor forced her to be kind to Northern people that Father needed to his side. He just refused to pick a side and so many people, including Jon, thought him weak.
It was a horrible thing to think poorly of your own father, but Eddard Stark couldn't decide what to do about many things and so did nothing.
This would change nothing about Father, Jon guessed.
He wouldn't make Robb behave, nor Theon. Nor deal with any of the rumors even Jon had heard about Lord Bolton or Lord Ryswell. Father was the most powerful man in the North, but he acted like the most timid.
The man just never thought, never decided. He let Lady Catelyn do as she would, which ruined his position among his bannermen and made Winterfell wretched.
Father let his brother Benjen go and join the Night's Watch when he was needed in Winterfell.
No, Father was not worthy of emulation.
He rarely saw a problem that he bothered to fix. The North was filled with problems, and nothing came from Winterfell. No answers, no help, no requests, no demands, no comments. Nothing.
Dead stump. Father was as good as one.
Jon could finally see it now that Lady Catelyn the Bitter was gone.
Good riddance. Soon even her bones would be gone. Now if only her foul notions would vanish with her bones, her words and ideas and cruelties.
Jon was far less sure of that happening.
Fast riders from Castle Cerwyn had informed Father yesterday that the King's party was a day out from Cerwyn.
The entirety of Winterfell was in upheaval, all except for a couple of abandoned buildings. Rooms cleaned, linens washed and irons, floors washed and polished. Walls scraped of soot and washed.
In this environment when everyone was busy, Jon took a heavy chisel with him when he left his room for his morning exercises.
He made sure no one observed him enter the Broken Tower. He climbed it quietly and set to work on the top platform.
He chiseled away rotten and healthy wood from the mostly rotten supports. He wasn't sure if that was enough. He took a few more passes with the chisel. It wasn't noticeable from a casual glance. He might have to come back and remove more, or work on some of the other supports.
The book tomorrow, if it gave him another task for the Broken Tower, would confirm he'd done enough to sabotage the flooring.
Jon returned the chisel to the storeroom where he'd taken it two days before. Then he spent three hours in the yard afterwards.
He saw Robb come out into the yard for the first time since his mother's death. He looked at Jon like he wanted to say something, but didn't. Another dead stump, water logged like an Ironborn.
Jon washed up then broke his fast at the midday meal.
Arya and Rickon and even Bran were as lively as ever. Sansa was gloomy, but she came to the Great Hall. Father did not appear while Jon was there.
Vayon Poole caught up with Jon and assigned him a few tasks for the day, in preparation for royalty. Had Catelyn Tully been alive, Vayon Poole wouldn't have dared to allow Jon any responsibilities at all.
But Jon worked with a few young guards and kennel workers to clear out some last areas of Winterfell and make them usable as barracks or rooms for the royal servants.
He made sure to point out all the rooms off the kitchens and to 'find' again the books wrapped in oil-skins.
Luwin seemed very glad for 'new' books. Jon and a few others were drafted into taking them to the Maester's Tower.
It was a busy day, but brighter than any day when Catelyn Tully had haunted the halls.
The King rode a massive horse because his girth would have flattened a lesser beast. He was dressed expensively, but impractically for the weather, with layer after layer of cloth and jewels and fur. He was covered in sweat and it wasn't a hot day, not at all.
Jon thought him a fraud at first, then disappointing. Father recognized him and laughed at the fat man's jokes.
Ser Barristan Selmy was more knightly. Even the Lannister knight, called the Kingslayer, looked more like a king than Robert Baratheon.
Father mostly kept to a stern look, letting nothing about his thoughts loose into the world even as he said only polite words.
The queen was a beauty, but Jon quickly understood she was even fouler than Catelyn Tully had been.
The Kingsguard, other than Selmy or Lannister, were disappointing. Jon watched them after the King, Queen, and their children had gone inside. They were in charge, for some reason, with getting the baggage sorted. They were guards, not servants.
This made no sense. There were royal servants.
Jon watched Lannister in the yard, training and limbering up. Then he watched Ser Barristan and the Lannister spar.
They were better than any fighters Jon had yet seen. Ser Barristan was decades older than the Lannister, but he wasn't yet slow. Just not as fast as the Lannister.
The Lannister had a more precise technique. Similar to Ser Barristan's, but finer or sharper. But Ser Barristan, even as old as he was, was in better shape. It was like the Lannister was just getting by with his speed.
The Lannister began to tire long before Ser Barristan. His higher speed and flashier moves came at a price. A lesser fighter wouldn't have been able to push the Lannister, however. So it would be few people who could tire the Lannister that much, Jon guessed. He had this flaw, and knew it, but didn't try to correct it.
Lannister could be, and should be, a better fighter than a man twenty or thirty years his senior.
Another disappointment to Jon.
Jon allowed himself to be drafted in the kitchens. He quickly caught up on the gossip.
One, rumors were flying that Jon Arryn had been murdered in King's Landing. Jon didn't know what to think of that.
Two, the King had offered Father the office of Hand of the King. Father had refused and had stuck to that decision. At least for the first day/
Three, the only reason the King couldn't budge Father was because of Catelyn Tully's death. Father was rumored to have said he now had to raise his children himself. Perhaps if his wife had still been alive…
But, now, it was impossible. A Stark must always be in Winterfell.
Father couldn't just take the younger children south and leave Robb to rule. They were all too young.
Had the book known that? Had the Tully died just to ensure Father wouldn't leave Winterfell with the King?
Jon ate in the kitchens. He wondered if Father would be able to keep saying no.
He ate as well as the feast attendees, but he knew to keep himself scarce from a big royal feast. He'd hear all the new gossip in the morning.
The book hadn't returned to the topic of the Broken Tower since Jon had taken a chisel inside. Jon was curious why that tower was important.
But Jon was out of his room early. He wanted to train at least a little before the yard filled with all the new knights and royal guards. In a few days it would get even busier as lords close to Winterfell were expected to visit and meet the king.
They had already open two additional courtyards for training when one normally sufficed.
Jon went to the yard that was furthest from where the southrons were staying. Jon had it almost to himself this time of morning.
He worked up a good sweat before someone interrupted him.
"You're Ned Stark's bastard."
Jon turned and saw it was the Lannister speaking to him.
No reason to get upset with an idiot with a vicious mouth.
"All those exercises. You any good with a sword?" the Lannister asked.
If it were Ser Barristan asking, Jon would be excited. But the Lannister was off. Bored, indifferent, yet still asking for a fight.
"I'd show you, with a training blade."
"Not allowed live steel?"
"Only with the master-at-arms present." And that was a recent change.
"I could demand it."
"I could walk away."
The Lannister took off his sword belt and set the sword and sheath on a bench close by. He lifted and swung several wooden practice blades before he kept one.
"To three hits?"
The Lannister was fast. But Jon had worked on how to counter speed when he wasn't fast enough himself. A bit of distance, a bit of feinting, exhaust the man. Jon was not yet at Ser Barristan's level in endurance. Maybe half that, but he was going to make Jaime Lannister sweat.
Lannister was more out of shape than he'd appeared yesterday. Or he had an unhealed wound or something. Jon managed to whap the man's wrist with the flat of his blade.
Lannister gritted his teeth, then became faster, but sloppier than his fight with Ser Barristan. He didn't like losing to someone younger than him, a bastard at that. Neither Jon nor Jaime said a word, but they both moved faster.
Jon was beginning to feel a bit tired. This was the hardest anyone had ever pushed him in the training yard. Though Jon was sure Ser Rodrik could push more than he did, or Father, or any number of Father's bannermen. They just hadn't, not for Jon.
Ser Jaime had no such hesitations.
The Kingsguard whapped Jon hard on his left hip. It was surprised him and stung. It might just hamper his movement for the next few minutes, too.
Jon went for the Lannister's knee. The Kingsguard began to favor that knee. It was a dirty trick, but how many people would use a dirty trick on Ser Jaime Lannister? He hadn't been prepared for it.
The final two points were made on Jon and they both hurt. His shoulder then his collar bone took the brunt of the Lannister's anger in two separate hits.
Jon stepped back, but didn't lower the training sword until he saw the Lannister do so.
"Good spar," Jon said, then he returned the training sword to its rack. He quickly returned to his room and rinsed his face and neck in his water basin, then made himself scarce by journeying out to the Wolfswood with Ghost. He had some traps to check and fallen trees to locate. He owed more lumber to some families in Wintertown.
He also didn't want to receive any stares or more challenges from southrons.
Father knocked on Jon's bedroom door after Jon returned from the Wolfswood late that night.
"I heard you were sparring today," Father said.
"With wooden swords."
"Against a knight of the Kingsguard."
"He asked. Almost insisted."
"And you got two points on him. Maester Luwin had to look at his knee."
Jon tried to keep from smiling. He didn't do a very good job.
"The queen is wroth. I'd stay out of her sight," Father said.
Jon just nodded.
"And you've attracted the king's notice. I will be very unhappy if I find you and Robert drunk together singing badly."
"I don't like ale much," Jon said. "I like singing less."
"Well, I'm told he likes both just fine, and worse vices than that. I wish this wouldn't have happened while Robert was here. But I'm glad to see you're skilled with a blade."
Jon was up the next morning even earlier, but this time he did his exercises outside of Winterfell in a clearing he knew in the Wolfswood. Ghost watched and dozed.
He managed to steer clear of the royal party that day and the next, but his luck failed on the third attempt.
Ser Barristan was waiting at the Hunter's Gate long before Jon got there. Jon could have turned around, but decided he actually wanted to talk to Ser Barristan.
"Morning," the aged knight said to Jon. Then nodded at Ghost.
"Good morning," Jon said. He kept walking.
Ser Barristan didn't move to stop Jon.
As Jon walked past Ser Barristan, Ser Barristan fell into step.
"Going somewhere?" Jon asked.
"There's this elusive beast, I hear it haunts the woods nearby."
"And what does it look like?" Jon asked.
"I'm told it's about your height. Your hair color. Quite ferocious with a wooden sword."
"I see. So you're to avenge your brother-of-the-Kingsguard's honor?"
"I just enjoy a new person to spar against."
Jon led Ser Barristan to a clearing in the Wolfswood, but not the one he had been training in. He still wanted to be able to get away from the royal party while it was in Winterfell.
"Have you found your elusive beast?" Jon asked.
"I have. Now I aim to fight it."
Jon nodded. "To three hits?"
"To seven," Ser Barristan said.
Ser Barristan had more endurance than any fighter Jon had ever seen in the Winterfell yards, so the rules were very much to Ser Barristan's favor. But he was a legendary fighter and had been for decades.
Jon got five hits in before Ser Barristan got his seventh on Jon. The man had even had to switch his sword to his secondary hand. The book had had Jon trying every kind of bizarre exercise, which Jon kept in rotation, and now he began to understand why.
Jon thought about that again. He got five hits in on Ser Barristan. That was amazing even though he lost.
It hadn't been easy. He had run through his endurance, but he hadn't wasted much of it.
He'd had a true challenge to his speed, since the Lannister had gotten sloppier when he got faster.
Ser Barristan had speed and focus during this spar. Jon still had a lot to do, but he had compensated for Ser Barristan's overwhelming speed and strength and endurance.
Jon now had new goals to aim for, harder goals.
"Thank you for the spar, Ser Barristan," Jon said.
"Best challenge I've had in some years. Unexpected. The North don't play in tourneys."
"No. Never even heard of a tourney held up here," Jon said. "We prepare for harsh winters and for conflict when it comes."
"Conflict, yes. I've heard mutters from someone I'm meant to guard."
Jon nodded. The queen.
"I'd be careful, young Snow. Her enemies in King's Landing sometimes just disappear."
"And no one will do anything because she's the queen."
"Well, the one man who could, he won't. Robert has no desire to tangle with the queen's family."
Ser Barristan must mean the queen's father, Jon thought. There were plenty of awful stories about that man.
Jon watched Ser Barristan leave, then he sat down and rested and played with Ghost. He eventually felt recovered and did a different set of exercises, less stressful ones, than what he'd planned.
Southrons were so gossipy. Why did Ser Jaime have to brag about beating Ned Stark's bastard? Jon really didn't like this attention.
The next morning, Jon was absolutely sure he didn't like the attention. Ser Barristan had been correct in his warning.
The book had three different tasks relating to an ambush of Jon by a paid, armed killer.
Jon had the task of ambushing an ambusher while armed with no more than the items he usually carried into the Wolfswood for training. He had to act like he was unaware.
Jon thought horrible things about the Lannister and his sister, the Queen.
Jon could hear the man fifty feet away, shifting from one foot to the other, crinkling fallen leaves and small branches. He obviously didn't practice his trade outside very often.
Jon gripped his training sword. He also had a knife on his belt, but his first attack would have to be with the wooden sword.
Jon had left Ghost behind in a clearing. He didn't want his small direwolf to be hurt in this chaos.
The man was awful. Jon could even see the assassin for a few seconds before he made his attempt. What an inept fool.
Still, Jon allowed the man to land a deep scratch on his forearm. It was important for his story to be believed.
Jon swung the training sword and hit exactly where he was aiming, the assassin's throat.
The man collapsed and made the most labored sounds. Jon didn't know if he'd survive or not. He'd never attempted to kill someone with a sword before.
Jon looked around to be sure there wasn't a second attacker, then he kneeled by the gasping man.
"Who sent you?"
The man made noises, but none of it sounded like a name.
Ghost came running into this clearing. He was almost frothing with anger. Jon pointed to the direwolf and Ghost sat, but his head never turned from the wheezing man on the ground.
Jon got the dagger away from the killer and searched the man's clothing. He found a pouch of gold and nothing else, beside the dagger.
But the dagger was another proof. It was the same material as Father's sword, Ice. Valyrian steel, all rippled and perfect sharpness.
"Was it one of the knights?" Jon asked.
The man nodded a bit.
Jon listed the knights in the king's party. Mandon Moore got a nod. That was no proof, not for Father. But Jon could think of a way to repay the 'knight.'
The would-be killer was coughing up blood. He was going to die. Jon knew it and the man knew it. Jon stayed with him until he died. The he searched the man again. Nothing. Then he searched around this clearing. Jon found a satchel with more gold in it. He had been paid well for Jon's life.
Jon hid the satchel and all the gold in another clearing he preferred. The Valyrian steel dagger came with him.
Jon clutched the dagger and the wooden sword as he returned through the Hunter's Gate. He made a big show of things on his way to the maester.
Maester Luwin was aghast at Jon's tale. But the wound and the Valyrian steel dagger were solid proofs. It was unlikely there was another such dagger anywhere in the North, particularly not with a lion motif.
Father stormed into the room as Luwin was stitching up Jon's arm. After picking out any stones and dirt in the wound, then washing it with strong spirits that caused a ridiculous amount of pain.
"What happened, Jon?" Father asked.
"I've been training in the Wolfswood since Ser Jaime challenged me inside Winterfell."
"Today, I got to the clearing I've been using. A man jumped at me with that dagger. He was aiming for my chest or my throat. He just got my arm."
"And what happened to him?"
"I had my wooden sword in my hand. I hit him in the throat with it. He's still in the clearing."
Jon just nodded.
"This dagger is Valyrian steel. It's yours because of the attack on you, but I'd like to hold onto it for a few days."
Jon nodded again.
Maester Luwin sent Jon to his room. Father had two guards in front of his door. Ghost sat near to the door, glaring at it.
Jon bet if anyone came through that door without Jon's permission, Ghost would take a bite of him.
Since Jon was confined to his room, enforced by guards, it took Jon some time to hear the gossip resulting from his performance, but he did eventually get some of it.
Father had yelled at King Robert that he'd brought the corruption of King's Landing to Winterfell, that he needed to end his visit immediately and depart, and so much else.
Eventually, the King agreed to leave in two days, but only if Father would participate in a great hunt in the Wolfswood.
King Robert said he couldn't travel so far without hunting something in the North.
Father eventually relented a bit and let Jon move around a bit. He did have duties, if few of those in Winterfell.
But he had obligations in Wintertown. Jon had to take guards with him when he visited Wintertown. Jon had to tell the story quite a few times, but everyone understood the disruptions created by royalty and attackers. He'd just have to haul addition wood after everything settled.
Jon had really pushed to go to Wintertown because of who helped to arrange the attack.
Jon brought back a nasty bit of water from a well that had been tainted by something, perhaps an animal died in it. Jon's visit to the kitchens before the night's feast – because royalty feasted every night, it seemed – saw that tainted water join in with some wine meant for the Kingsguard on duty, including 'Ser' Mandon Moore.
Jon was confined to Winterfell while Father and the King were hunting. Still, Jon didn't want to stay in his room. He and his guards ventured to the kitchens, then the kennels.
Little Bran was already inside playing with his still-unnamed direwolf.
"What are you doing today, Bran?" Jon asked.
The boy smiled. "Jon, are you okay? I heard you were stabbed. Arya raged up and down threatening to hurt anyone who hurt you."
"It was a cut, a bad one. Not a stab wound. And I'll find Arya later and make sure she knows I'm fine."
"Are you okay? They say you..."
"I defended myself, Bran. It's part of the reason I train so hard. I never expected to do so at Winterfell, but that's why I train. It's why you'll train, right?"
"But Ser Rodrik won't let me use a blunted steel..."
"I defended myself with a wooden sword."
"When it's less busy here, I'll ask Ser Rodrik to supervise a spar between us."
"Oh, yes, please."
Jon played with Bran, Bran's direwolf, Ghost, and any of the other direwolves that wanted attention. Which was all of them that were awake and not eating.
Then he convinced his guards it was safe to walk the walls of Winterfell. Up there, Jon watched Ser Barristan spar, then Ser Jaime with different knights. The Kingsguards were so good today, far better than their pairs.
How had Jon managed what he had done against them? It hadn't felt like climbing a mountain when he'd sparred with them. They'd treated him at least a little easily, given his age and lack of height.
Now, the Lannister was simply battering his opponent.
Jon watched a bit longer. Lannister looked the same. Same speed, same technique. He didn't get angry or sloppy this time.
No, Jon had handled the Lannister when he looked just like he did at present.
Magic allowed Jon to share dreams with Ghost. Magic allowed the book to exist.
There was magic in Jon's body that he could use to make himself stronger in a fight.
What else could the magic do? Jon would try to find out even before the book could suggest this or that exercise.
Jon ate in his room after Father finally left with with the King for a hunt in the Wolfswood. Awfully late start to things and the King looked terribly unstable in the saddle. Jon wondered how long it would take Vayon Poole to restock after the royal party left, months or years.
The King's servants were still packing to depart on the morrow given the attack on Jon and the King's refusal to do anything about it.
Jon was writing in his commonplace book, trying to remember some of the exercises he'd used for speed.
Jon looked up when he felt a huge shaking, then heard the huge noise that followed it. It reminded him a little of the day the sept fell down.
Jon had something of an idea of what had happened. Or, at least, where it had happened.
But if the Broken Tower had collapsed, it didn't make as much noise as Jon had feared.
Jon opened the door and poked his head out.
Raef, who'd been heading down the hall, stopped and took one look at Jon. "Stay. I'll see what's what. Bennon will be staying. So will you."
Jon just nodded. But he didn't go back inside and he didn't close his door. Ghost was right there with Jon.
Far later, Raef returned. He looked unhappy to see Jon standing at his open doorway.
"Something happened at the Broken Tower. There were people in it, three or four of them. They fell or the platform collapsed. You stay in your room."
"Who fell?" Jon asked.
"They're saying the queen. The queen and her brother. They're saying they were both naked."
Jon wasn't leaving his room until long after the king found out about all this.
But how had the book known? Not only about the tower, but that the queen and her brother would go there together… Did that mean the blond children weren't royal, but bastards instead?
It was maddening to wonder about how the book worked.
The gossip trickled in the rest of the day from Raef or Bennon or other guards who rotated through.
The king now knew.
He'd hacked off Jaime Lannister's head, even though he'd died in the fall.
The least faithful man in Westeros hacked off his wife's head after divorcing her and denouncing her adultery, even though she hadn't died. But had lost all feeling below her arms.
He'd hacked through two of the remaining Kingsguard and about every Lannister guard his wife had brought with them.
Only Ser Barristan remained and he'd been thrown from the Kingsguard. That all happened when the king was attempting to kill the three children. The king managed to murder Joffrey Waters, but Ser Barristan arrived in time to prevent the killing of Myrcella and Tommen.
The king had a broken arm (provided by Ser Barristan) and a broken leg (done by Father, the gossips said) when Father threw him from Winterfell for his crimes.
As many ravens as Winterfell had, that was the number that flew to every corner of Westeros.
"No one wants Tywin Lannister showing up at his gate with an army," Raef said.
And Father was finally so disgusted that he didn't mind pointing Lannister at his childhood friend. Ours is the Fury, indeed.
Winterfell was a wreck after the royal party's visit. They had the Lannister dead. They had a broken Broken Tower. They had the shock of all of Robert Baratheon's violence. They had the possible threat of violence from Tywin Lannister.
There were two young surviving bastards who most, or all, seemed to have forgotten about.
Ser Barristan had abandoned the children he formerly helped to protect. He disappeared into the night. Rumors since put him getting onto a ship in White Harbor and sailing to Braavos.
There were no Lannister loyalists left alive in Winterfell by Mad Robert Baratheon.
No one asked Jon to help Myrcella and Tommen.
In fact, the book hadn't given Jon a new task since the day the Broken Tower collapsed.
Jon made sure to spend time with all of his younger siblings, but also the newly bastardized Myrcella and Tommen. They were still terrified and unsettled. They'd seen Joffrey murdered in front of them by their supposed father.
So Jon talked with them and took them on walks around Winterfell. He showed them the direwolves who were large for pups, but not yet frightening in any way.
Jon feared he would have to explain things to them, but overhearing gossip had already done that. They knew how they'd gone from being royalty to being nameless bastards and orphans to boot.
Jon started helping them because he felt adrift now that the book wasn't guiding him any longer. He had to guide himself. He had to pick what he wanted and figure out how to get it.
Right now, Jon wanted more and better information.
He sat in the kitchens helping with the work and chatting with Old Nan. This had long been one of his better sources of gossip.
Jon didn't want the common news. He wanted to understand magic. He wanted a clue toward understanding the book, the tasks he had against the sept and the Broken Tower.
Old Nan was one of the rare people who would talk about magic. Jon just had to let her get to the topic herself.
"Most of us are sleeping better now that the greenseers are saying no war in the North. In the South, yes. But not here. Still, I'm glad that the builders have worked on a couple weak spots in the outer walls," Old Nan explained as she cut turnips with a very dull knife.
"I thought greenseers were stories, legends," Jon said.
"Rare, not legends. We have a few in the north, though I don't know their names. But Lord Stark gets news from some of them, advice. Unfortunately, he doesn't always take it."
"You told me some of the stories when I was younger, but I never asked about greensight, what it is?"
"I don't know. It'd just be guesses from me." Old Nan had been chatty before. Now she went cautious.
Jon had asked the wrong question, but he didn't know why it was wrong. Maybe you didn't talk about greensight when you had a sept in your castle and someone like Catelyn Tully making decisions? "Your guesses, then."
She looked at Jon a good long while. "The gods whisper things to people they trust. Maybe it's images or the ability to actually see into the past. I've heard of different versions. Maybe different greenseers have different ways to see."
"Then they do nothing with what they learn?"
"I suppose. Others give suggestions to people they trust. I just know that not many believe these days. Greensight still exists, but no one, or few, do anything with its hints."
Could someone with greensight have fashioned the book?
The book had started Jon on learning to work with Ghost. Perhaps there was more Jon could learn. He'd bee given an entire category: magical strength. It wouldn't be just warging.
Jon went to the Godswood after supper. He sat in the roots of the heart tree, closed his eyes, and thought about all of his concerns and confusions.
He asked questions in his head.
He wondered what he needed to do.
Should he go out into the world, should he stay here at Winterfell for his brothers and sisters? He had never seriously considered joining the Night's Watch. He had also never considered sailing to Essos and joining a mercenary company. But he didn't know what to do.
That night, in bed with Ghost next to him, Jon dreamed. But it wasn't a dream like he'd ever had before. Jon wasn't inside his direwolf's mind.
Jon was in one of the Winterfell courtyards, but he looked older. Scarred and bitter. He was talking to...Bran. Also older and stuffed into a wheeled chair. Could he not walk?
"The Three-Eyed Raven, who was beyond the Wall, trained me. I don't know why he wanted me. Anyone with magic can work the greensight. All us Starks are wargs. There were other wargs already North of the Wall. He had plenty of choices..."
"All of us are wargs? All of us could be greenseers," the older Jon said.
"I think so. Obviously I can't ask Robb or Rickon, given what the Lannisters did with the Freys and the Boltons. But the survivors, we should all be able to use magic in that way. We just need to try, perhaps some lessons."
"And you think I should?"
"The way we won against the Others, the cost. Father murdered, Mother and Robb. What Sansa endured. What evil they trained into Arya. My broken body. And poor Rickon, murdered as a child. Looking outside our family, the wars that roll through the South, then begin again. There have to be other ways," Older Bran said.
"You can't talk to anyone in the past. You can't touch them either. It's corrosive. Poor Walder, or Hodor, as he says continously. I traveled into his past and made him simple like that."
"How can you change anything if you can't talk to anyone? Just go back and kill people?"
"Perhaps," Old Bran said. "If they were the right people. If Ramsay Snow never lived. If I had never been pushed off of a tower. If all the Freys collapsed in their bridge into the Green Fork. If the Lannisters all died horribly."
Ramsay Snow had died. And Bran hadn't fallen, though others had.
"I need to be smarter earlier," Old Jon said.
"I think it would be best if you can this for yourself, yes. What would you have loved at six name days or seven?"
"Knowing I wasn't a bastard. Having proof I could believe. Otherwise, maybe a game I could play. A secret I could keep. Robb was already spending more time with Theon back then."
"I've long thought about doing to Theon what I accidentally did to Walder. I haven't," Old Bran said. "If he dies as a child, the Ironborn will use it as a pretext to attack the North. That said, I don't know why Robb favored him at all."
"Mother?" Old Bran asked.
"I think your mother preferred a hostage with a weird religion to anyone who worships the Old Gods, especially me. Robb picked up on that, did what his mother wanted."
Old Bran just nodded. "So a game of some type. But what single game could give you the skills you'll need?"
"I wish I could talk to myself."
Old Bran shook his head. "You might be able to write to yourself in the past. I've never tried it, but I can't see any reason not to."
"Like a diary?"
"No, more like a game. A task to do, something a little fun, a little hard. Break down the skills you'll need."
"Strength first," Old Jon said.
"Sturdiness first. Endurance," Old Bran said. "A lot of running around, some lifting. Stuff around Winterfell, get him to know what the castle is like. Because you want him cleverer, earlier. He'll need to talk to a lot of people, collect gossip."
"He'll need to be ready for Ghost."
"Give him other animal skills. More comfort around horses."
"More time in the books, too. Languages if he's going to have to travel. The Old Tongue if he's got to go north of the Wall. Some Valyrian if he'll travel to Essos."
"A bunch of Valyrian steel, or at least dragonglass, would have been a huge help with those fights."
Old Bran nodded. "Or dragons that were hatched and huge. Good, good. Keep working on it. Ask Arya how she trained with those death-worshipping madmen. Ask the new maester, if the citadel ever gets around to sending us one, how he was trained. Don't worry about getting it done quickly. You'll need a lot of skill in greensight before you're ready, which will chew up time. Keep it fun, though. You will be a kid again."
"And I'll have to get a kid to keep it a secret."
"Master greensight. You can peer into magic lessons in the past. Maybe in different parts of Valyria before the Doom?"
Old Jon just nodded.
"I'll start tonight in the Godswood."
"Good," Old Bran said.
Old Jon left and walked toward the Godswood.
"Jon, I hope you're still watching me now. I hope you understand. I'm going to write the book for myself, my younger self, for you. I'll put a spell on it to attract you to the book – and another so you keep it secret. I'm done using the book now to communicate with you. I've helped you develop your own curiosity and wit. I'm sure you have enough intelligence to begin studying magic on your own.
"Don't let Lord Stark go south. When you go south or east or both, remember that you can always return and may have to. The Others are waiting and I guess I will always have a role in ending them. So I hope you have the courage I did. But I came by intelligence too late. I went to the Wall, joined the Watch as Uncle Benjen had. I became the Lord Commander and was later betrayed to my death by my 'brothers.' A Red Witch brought me back, a spell which I now understand but refuse to ever use. I was always so behind where I needed to be. I'm sure you heard me mention that I'm not a bastard. I know you heard me. In fact, I said it for your benefit. Eventually you'll need to look for the truth of your birth. But don't let who your father and mother are make decisions for you. You can think and I hope you will."
Jon woke in his bed, sweating. He remembered every word. He lit a candle and found his commonplace book and wrote down whatever seemed most important to him.
Find mother and father in the past.
Father (Lord Stark) killed. In the south.
Robb killed, possibly by Lannisters or Freys or Boltons.
How did Ramsay Snow die?
How did I greensee?
How can I do magic, like magic from Old Valyria? Find teachers in the past.
Record some of the book's early lessons from before I wrote anything down.
In total Jon filled nearly five small pages of the commonplace book, all valuable things he would need to consider or remember to do later.
But it was the assertion that he wasn't a bastard that had him reeling. That Father, or Lord Stark, had lied and continued to lie for some reason.
Jon desperately hoped that was true.
But who? Lord Stark claimed Jon as his son, which that greendream suggested was a lie. Who would Lord Stark lie for, and why?
Jon felt strange as he broke his fast the next morning. The Great Hall was unsettled, of course, given what had happened during the royal visit.
But Jon was looking at his brothers and sisters, now sure they weren't brothers and sisters. Father wasn't Father.
But Jon couldn't admit a bit of it, not yet. He couldn't ask questions. He had to find his answers in the past, if he dared to go searching.
He had never been quite so torn by a secret, but he'd had years of practice working with lesser secrets. He could do this even if it made him feel unsettled. Like he had stepped on a plank set on top of water. Jon felt unsure of everything just now.
"Are you brooding again, Jon?" Arya asked.
"Could be. Or I could be thinking about nothing more than porridge."
"Not enough honey in it. Will you show me how to hold a sword today?"
Before all this Jon would have declined, or been forced to decline. But Catelyn Tully wasn't here to scowl.
"If you can get Father to agree, yes."
"I will. I mean, I'll ask."
No, Arya had it right the first time. She would badger...uh, Lord Stark until he consented. It wasn't like his wife would object.
Arya did, in fact, get the permission. Jon gave her a short lesson while Ser Rodrik looked on. Robb was also in that yard, sparring against the squid. Then there was shouting come from over there.
Jon got Arya stilled before he looked over to see what was happening.
Theon's hand was bleeding lightly, but his mouth was spewing out venomous things at a stronger flow.
"I'm sorry," Robb said.
Greyjoy stormed away. A moment later, Robb went slowly toward the Godswood.
"What was that about?" Arya asked.
Jon just shrugged. "Perhaps a reminder to take care in lessons and spars? You wouldn't like your hand to hurt."
"He's stupid to shout so much. If he gets into a fight and takes a little wound, is he going to yell and storm off?"
"Quite right, Lady Arya," Ser Rodrik said.
Arya scowled for a moment.
"Are you ready to continue?" Jon asked.
She was enthusiastic with a wooden blade, as least as much as Jon had been at that age. Skill would come later, with practice. Jon thought of a few exercises that the book had taught to him. Given the possibility than an older Arya had contributed to what Jon had read in the book, it felt only right to teach these things to a younger Arya.
Eventually Bran came to the yard and joined the lesson. Some day, perhaps, Rickon would be interested in the sword as well, but he was far too little right now to hold and swing a wooden blade.
That night, Jon was in his room prepared to induce another greendream, if he could make it happen again. He'd thought he'd want to search out his mother first so at least he'd know her name. But now that it came time to try, he couldn't.
He wanted to know, but he didn't think he could handle it. He didn't want to, not right now.
Jon thought of the White Knife, the day that Ramsay Snow died.
That was the truth Jon wanted right now. Or at least one that wouldn't wreck him.
Jon woke standing on a bright, warm day near the White Knife. He could see Ramsay in the river. There was no one else nearby. Had a young man just died? Had the Older Jon come here then to see Ramsay dead?
Ramsay swam to the shore and began climbing out. He was fully mobile. He wasn't dead. But Jon knew he had died.
There was no one here…
Jon stepped forward and touched Ramsay's shoulder. His face went slack and he fell backward into the river. The current took him to his resting place in some roots somewhere.
"It was hard," a voice said.
Jon turned. There was the Older Jon.
"You were here?" Jon asked.
Older Jon nodded.
"Why didn't you… Why leave it to me?"
"You needed to actually know why you can't touch anyone. Why I couldn't. Notice we're twenty feet apart. I won't come any closer. Now you won't ever forget, best to learn with a man as evil as any I know."
"What did he do? Why did I kill him?"
"Had he lived, had Eddard Stark gone south, a war would have broken out. Theon would have helped the Iron Islanders to take many castles in the North. Including Winterfell. The Boltons would have come to 'liberate' Winterfell. But really to take it over. Ramsay would have been the mad enforcer. Almost everyone in Wintertown and the servants in Winterfell would have perished."
"He can't kill anyone if he's dead. But Theon betrayed us, he betrayed his friend in Robb..."
"Theon is Theon. He will find some way to disgrace himself."
"It's not enough."
"No. But perhaps he'll earn a death that will infuriate the Ironborn stupid. Let them break their ships upon well manned, prepared castles. None of the North will be off at war this time."
"Then I'll leave it be." Jon didn't like it. "I couldn't bring myself to search for my mother."
"It was hard when I found out. No need to rush. Prepare yourself. You've always wanted to know."
"Did I do to Catelyn Tully what I did to Ramsay Snow?" Young Jon asked.
"I did that. I had to use magic to compel her to visit the sept and remain there. You're a long way off from learning the magics to do that. Greensight first, then magic lessons later."
"Thank you for the book. It's been...a comfort."
"I had hoped it would work. Quite a few people said I was smart, but naive. I 'knew nothing.' I'm glad you've rubbed away at least some of the naivete."
Jon woke up and remembered everything.
He had been swimming in the White Knife and he had killed Ramsay Snow.
His older self seemed to expect him to kill again. He was racking up quite a body count, between the Bolton bastard, the Tully bitch, and a rather large number of Lannisters.
Jon would deal with what that meant later. He would endure.
Theon came down to the Great Hall to break his fast. Jon had rarely seen the squid since his screaming end to a spar with Robb days earlier.
Was he done licking his wounds? He was certainly back to swaggering and smirking.
Within a few minutes, the squid had Robb laughing. They left after Greyjoy ate.
Jon didn't want to know why they made up so easily. Was it a defect in Robb or the best part of the squid?
Jon realized he was acting jealously, even selfishly, but he had long thought of Robb as a brother. Robb didn't actually think of Jon as a brother or a friend. They had opposite views of Greyjoy. How could two different people look at the same squid, one wanted to befriend him and the other didn't want to be in the same room with him.
What did Robb see?
Jon went to the training yard. He hadn't done as many exercises this morning as he wanted. He was also curious about this reconciliation.
Robb and Greyjoy arrived after Jon did. Who knows where they'd been before.
They both took training steel and settled into a spar.
Jon kept light attention on it while he worked on a speed and evasion exercise.
He noted that Robb was doing quite well. Greyjoy shouted once. Then the squid lunged at Robb. Robb used his blade to divert Greyjoy's, which was aimed at his center-chest. Jon was sure the squid had still run Robb through, but lower, in the gut.
Robb cried out, but he swung his blunted blade into Greyjoy's upper throat and jaw.
The blood flowing everywhere told Jon that Robb's attack had been true.
Jon dropped his equipment and ran over to where Robb was wobbling on his feet. He was trying to get the blade out.
Not good, it was deep enough inside Robb to remain there.
"Leave it. We'll get to Maester Luwin. He'll know what to do."
"Yeah. Yes. Thank you, Snow."
And whatever sympathy Jon had been feeling for Robb vanished.
Calling him Snow. That was the squid's favorite name for Jon. The traitor-squid. The dead-squid.
Robb had only started doing it after the squid arrived. Now he said it without thought, when he was likely in great pain.
That was how he thought of his supposed brother. Robb was his dead mother's son, parroting her bile even after she was dead, unable to think for himself. Ruined before he was fully a man.
Two guards out training helped. Jon held Robb under one arm, a guard under his other arm, and the last guard held Greyjoy's training blade to keep it in place.
Someone else had run ahead to the Maester's Tower.
Maester Luwin shuffled out into the courtyard.
"Ah, the report is true. You kept the sword in, good. I brought strong spirits and cloth. When I say so, I'll pull the sword out and pour some spirits in. Then we're going to lay Robb down so I can have a look. Better out here with the daylight."
Jon held Robb while the sword came out, then helped lower Robb to the ground with concern. He had been watching Maester Luwin during all of this and their expert healer hadn't liked what he'd seen.
Luwin went back into his tower, then came back with supplies and equipment. First he dosed Robb with milk of the poppy. Then he poured more liquid into the wound, then used a reed to suck it back out.
Finally Maester Luwin sewed the wound, but not completely.
"It may need to drain. I poured a fair amount of strong spirits in there. No one quite knows why that helps with an open wound, but we do know it helps. Jon, would you help Lord Robb to his room. He'd be most comfortable there."
Jon just nodded. Two new guards came to help Jon into the keep. It was only then that Father, or Lord Stark, came running up.
Jon explained what he'd seen of the fight, and Robb's response, and what Luwin did.
"Why did any of us trust him?" Father asked.
No one hazarded an answer. Probably because few did trust Theon Greyjoy, except for some of the Starks themselves.
"His father and the Ironborn will take to reaving again," Jon said.
"I'll need messages to every keep in the North. Then to King's Landing, little that I want to communicate with those monsters." Father looked bad, worse than when Catelyn Tully had been trapped in a burning sept.
"Maybe messages to the Riverlands, Westerlands, and the Reach?" Jon asked.
Lord Stark just nodded.
Jon and the guards got Robb settled into his room. He didn't even wake, as the milk of the poppy had him right now.
Jon left Lord Stark sitting next to his son and heir.
Jon went to find the rest of Robb's siblings. They'd better hear it straight before gossip mangled everything.
Why had anyone trusted that squid? Jon never had. What was wrong with everyone else?
It was days later. Lord Stark was basically living in Robb's room at present. Jon had taken up wrangling all of Lord Stark's children for meals and necessities, like sleep.
With some success.
Jon had Rickon on his lap and was trying to get the fierce boy to eat something. Rickon wanted to pretend he was his own direwolf, though. He wanted to bark at things.
Finally Jon had an idea. "A wolf likes meat, right?"
Jon held up a bit of meat off his plate. Rickon the Wolf snapped at it. Jon decided to hold it on his flat hand. Rickon vanished it inside his mouth.
It was a gross and slobbery way to feed the boy, but Rickon wouldn't starve now.
Sansa took care of herself. Arya had to be reminded to eat the food and not throw it. Bran had to be warned off all the bread and reminded there was stew and a roast as well. That boy would climb every wall and eat every bit of bread if he could.
Vayon Poole and Maester Luwin were trying to help, but they had other duties. One of Luwin's was to help keep Robb alive. That wound of his wasn't healing as quickly as Luwin had hoped.
This was the only family Jon had ever known. But it wasn't all of his family, not really. He had a mother and a father he had never known. Were they alive? Were they dead? Was Jon another hostage like Theon Greyjoy had been?
It took Jon hours to get them all situated after the meal. Most of them needed baths and wanted stories told to them.
Jon was going to have to ask around in Wintertown about help, perhaps. The septa used to wrangle Sansa and sometimes Arya. Maybe Rickon. Lady Catelyn must have handled the others, or ignored them. But getting them settled for the night when Lord Stark was so preoccupied wasn't simple.
Jon finally returned to his room late.
He did a few meditations and got into bed. This time he thought of finding his mother.
When he woke, inside his dream, he felt the heat. It was high, a hill or a small mountain, but hot and dry. Sand.
There was only one building visible. Jon went toward it. He saw knights, wearing white cloaks, just inside. He saw stairs leading up.
Jon looked at the knights. Or their swords. That pale one was a famous one. Dawn.
The knight must be Arthur Dayne or a predecessor Dayne if Jon had screwed up this greendream.
"We should take her to Dragonstone," the heavier of the three said.
"We have our orders," the oldest one said. "Rhaella might not welcome her at all."
Rhaella… Why was that name familiar to Jon?
"The lion murdered Aerys and Rhaegar's other children. Even before that, the mad stag murdered Rhaegar. We have no legitimate orders now."
"Rhaegar's orders stand," the oldest one said. "We see if we have a king or a princess. If we have a king, then we have our orders still. We protect him against all comers."
This talk of kings or princesses gave Jon a horrible feeling, but he walked up the stairs of this ragged tower.
There was a woman laying on a tiny bed. Her belly was swollen. Her face looked like Arya's, but older. This was Lyanna Stark, if any of the gossip around Winterfell was true.
Jon was looking at himself in that swollen belly. This was his mother. His father was already dead, if he understood the Kingsguard below correctly.
According to them, Jon was a king since he wasn't born a princess.
Jon looked around the room. There were some books, quite a few letters which he glanced at, and much misery and heat. Sand, too.
It was no place for a pregnant woman. It wasn't a surprise those fools downstairs had killed his mother. It was a surprise that Jon had survived at all.
So, Lyanna Stark.
That explained why Lord Stark brought Jon to Winterfell. Lord Stark was actually his Uncle Ned. Hi brothers and sisters were Cousin Robb, Cousin Sansa, Cousin Arya, Cousin Bran, and Cousin Rickon.
Jon became a bastard, a Snow, because he was a King and the Usurper-King liked only dead dragons in his realm.
More cowardice from Eddard Stark. Jon was grateful as he was alive and not dead, yes, but no one living would be thankful to be raised up as a bastard.
Well, Jon had no interest in an ugly throne made of melted swords. If he was to be a king, it would have to be a different kind of king.
For now, he had to help the North when everyone else ignored it. That was what a king did, even a king without a crown.
Jon had no time for brooding or anger. He'd had enough days to handle knowing that Lord Stark wasn't his father. He just wasn't prepared for this truth. He would settle to it.
Older Jon had told him plenty about other problems. The Others, for one. The need for Valyrian steel, the need for dragons, the need for weapons made from dragonglass.
Jon had that purpose to handle first. He would see this old enemy ended.
Then he would have a chance to think of a new purpose.
But one thing didn't sit well. If the Kingsguard were talking about a possible king, not a new royal bastard, then the crown prince and Lyanna Stark must have married. If Lyanna Stark went with Rhaegar Targaryen willingly, and married him, why did everyone think it was a kidnapping?
That was what Jon thought about before he turned up elsewhere.
He saw a little slip of a girl, quite ungainly, talking to someone who looked like a Stark. By the things he was saying, this was Brandon Stark, whose murder helped to kick off Robert's Rebellion.
The story the girl told was one of a rapacious prince stealing Brandon's sister.
Brandon rode off in a lather with a number of companions. Jon had heard of their various fates.
Jon followed the girl.
"I told him what you said, Petyr," the girl told a boy. A young man with a narrow face and dark eyes and an evil smile.
"Cut me from groin to throat. Should have finished it. But the Mad King will chop his head off, or worse, when he turns up making demands. Powerful but stupid he is."
"Did I do right?"
"Yes, Lysa, perfectly."
Of course it was caused by a Tully, this one was Catelyn Tully's sister. They were a plague wherever they turned up.
The boy, Petyr, ah. Jon had heard of a fosterling at Riverrun. A Petyr Baelish, currently on the Small Council in King's Landing.
All that House Tully was good for was fostering evil people, turning out rotten daughters and a useless son. Jon wished he knew enough magic to tumble Riverrun into a ruin. He didn't. But he would someday.
Jon thought of King's Landing in the present, of where Baelish would be.
Suddenly Jon was in a place that could only be a brothel.
And there was Baelish at a desk with a ledger and wine. Jon took time to look around the solar that had no windows, odd that. There were letters Jon read and bottles of poison in one cabinet.
Jon had this man's game almost at once.
A grasping man who thought himself extremely clever, who enjoyed the thrill of almost getting caught. He had evidence of at least seven crimes on display right now – rather than destroy every trace of them.
This was the father of Jon Arryn's heir.
He was the one who ordered the poison that killed Jon Arryn.
The crown was in debt by 6 million dragons. Baelish had squirreled away one million of them for his own purposes.
The king, and the late hand of the king, was so terrible at their jobs they didn't even notice a million golden dragons missing.
Jon stepped to him and touched one finger to the man. "For House Stark," Jon said.
Baelish slumped over and would never wake.
Jon burned some of the papers in the fire and memorized where some of Baelish's treasures were stored. The gold was less important, but he had gotten his hands on various Targaryen treasures, including dragon eggs. Jon needed those if he could manage it.
He thought about the moment when Lysa Tully got the news of Baelish's death. Suddenly Jon was in a drafty building, cold. A young woman who looked old was topless and nursing her son, who looked the same size as Bran Stark.
A disgusted servant brought the message in.
Lysa Tully screamed.
People ran inside the insane room with a hole in the floor. She dragged herself up and lifted her half-witted son. They came down the stairs together.
"Petyr, my Petyr," she mumbled to herself. "Your father, Sweetrobin. They killed him just now. He's dead."
She threw the boy through the hole in the floor, then jumped after him.
Was there a sane Tully out there? Catelyn, her father, her sister. Robb seemed to have gone that way. Would Sansa, Arya, and the boys be more Stark in mind or more Tully?
Then Jon woke.
He got a quill and his commonplace book and left himself a number of phrases, like "north Black Alley sewer grate" and "third Patmoss headstone," that would remind him where the more interesting of Baelish's treasures were.
Thieving bird of a man. Jon would get back what had belonged to his family.
The raven-message arrived four turns of the moon after Theon Greyjoy stabbed Robb and died in consequence: The Ironborn were attacking Torrhen's Square.
The raiders weren't faring well, but they were making the effort.
The warnings that Uncle Ned got out had allowed all the western keeps to prepare.
Jon expected other messages soon from Bear Island and other coastal keeps.
Jon returned to his room after the mid-day meal. He meditated and got into bed. He was going to look forward and see when the Ironborn next came to Winterfell.
Jon found himself just a few days in the future. The guard was much diminished, as perhaps Uncle Ned had ridden out with guards to where the Ironborn were known to be.
Torrhen's Square was meant to be a taunt, a lure.
Jon watched the Ironborn attackers. Some broke through poorly maintained guardroom doors. Some scaled the walls of Winterfell. Others came in through secret passages that Jon had learned about as a child.
Had Robb shared those secrets with the squid, had the squid gotten those secrets in a letter out to his family?
There was death everywhere. The guards suffered horribly as did many of the servants of Winterfell, but in the end several fighters managed to kill all the Ironborn. The squids had come so close to taking Winterfell, it was enraging.
When Jon woke, he resolved that not even one Winterfell resident was going to fall to a squid.
When Jon went into the main courtyard, he saw Uncle Ned loading gear onto a horse. Idiot.
"Where are you riding?" Jon asked.
"Torrhen's Square, then Deepwood Motte. Possibly Bear Island."
"The squids will be gone when you arrive. They're coming here," Jon said.
"We don't know that."
"Where was Theon sent? Where did he die? They are coming here. It's symbolic, not logic."
Uncle Ned actually paused.
"My bannermen have asked for support. I must go."
Uncle Ned didn't dispute a thing Jon had said. He was doing this to look strong. Having a massacre of Winterfell's soldiers and servants was going to make him look anything but strong.
"Delay a sennight. Or send the Umbers to relieve Deepwood Motte."
"Come with me to my solar, Jon."
That conversation lasted a long time, but Uncle Ned mostly listened. He decided to leave half the force at Winterfell that he'd planned to take on his ride-out. He was also asking the Umbers for help. He was also asking the Cerwyns to send men to Moat Cailin.
But Uncle Ned was still going.
Ser Rodrik Cassel would command the men left at Winterfell.
Uncle Ned, if he were smart, would regret this decision in a sennight or a fortnight. If he were smart.
He was riding off into a deception plotted by squid and he'd been given warning.
Jon could have strengthened his argument if he explained the source of his 'guess,' but Jon chose not to mention his greensight. Nor did he mention knowing who his mother and father were.
Jon found he didn't trust his uncle at all. The man just made stupid decisions, one after another. Was this the value of being fostered with another Great House, but a useless one?
Jon and Uncle Ned's children watched the force ride off. There were more than a thousand mounted fighters drawn from Winterfell's forces and Wintertown and the surrounding villages.
Something happened that Jon hadn't had any warning of a day later. He hadn't thought to look for this in the future.
A small party of Lannister men arrived with a large cart and wheelhouse. They explained that they had previously been in King's Landing, but fled on a ship north before Robert returned to kill them. They had bought the cart and wheelhouse in White Harbor and expected to use them when commanded by Lord Lannister to return to the West.
Poor Bran, the current Stark in Winterfell, was out of his depth. Robb was still taking milk of the poppy, so he was no use while he healed, if he healed. Maester Luwin and Ser Rodrik and Vayon Poole were completely out of their depths on this kind of negotiation. So the Lannister guards who'd fled King's Landing waited.
Jon had no official role in anything. He never had.
He worked around his lack of position. Jon made suggestions here and there. Many of them became fact.
The Lannister refugees were allocated two houses in Wintertown, rather than being housed in Winterfell very close to Tommen and Myrcella. They could wish to protect the children, as they said. They could have orders to kill the bastards because they were actually sympathetic to Robert Baratheon. Everything got tricky when trying to understand Lannisters and who worked for them and who hated them.
The one good fact was that Ser Rodrik took his duties seriously. He believed that the Ironborn were coming to Winterfell, so Jon could rest a bit easier.
Still, he was up in the dead of night four days after Uncle Ned left Winterfell.
Jon stood outside one of the secret passages he had seen in his greendream. He and Robb had played here as children.
He heard the axes falling long before they got inside. Jon was ready for them.
It was unfair the advantage Jon had, but these were Ironborn so no advantage against them was really unfair.
Jon swung his sword as the first one breached the passage. He got the man in the arm and the gut. His fellow pirates pushed him and tried to overwhelm Jon.
Jon was smaller than them, and unblooded, but he has better technicals than they did. He knew the room he was fighting in. He had mentally prepared for this battle.
He killed three and managed to wound and capture five more, the entire party devoted to this passage.
Jon left them, reported what had happened to Ser Rodrik, then helped defend some of the walls, which had had extra guards station on them since Uncle Ned left.
Perhaps the raiders were wounded. Perhaps they died when they fell. But none of the climbers got inside Winterfell.
Ser Rodrik had them busy the whole night, just in case. But the entire force of Ironborn was less than a hundred men and women.
Three Winterfell guards who were asleep in a barracks, rather than on duty, were killed. Those were the total losses for Winterfell.
It wasn't the near-sacking of Jon's greendream.
In the light of dawn, people looked at Jon differently. His comments about Ironborn attacking Winterfell, which didn't stop Uncle Ned from leaving Winterfell, had gotten around.
Along with his performance with a sword.
Perhaps his treatment would improve, but Jon had already outgrown this place. He knew a bit about his greater destiny and was preparing to begin that path.
When he slept that night, Jon felt less stressed about an impending attack and managed to return to his greendreams.
He was hunting down useful things and information.
He had compiled a list of all the Valyrian weapons that had been known in Westeros. Fairly few were still in known hands. They'd been lost in wars and civil skirmishes, like the Dance of the Dragons. Many more had been lost or misplaced or stolen in intrafamily intrigues.
After that first night Jon knew where eight of them were, plus five dragon eggs, plus two ready sources of dragonglass. Some of them were completely inaccessible to him, like the sewers of Oldtown, but most of them were places Jon could safely travel to.
He still had a long list of swords to look for.
Plus places Valyrians were known to have spent time. And Jon hadn't even begun looking toward Essos or Old Valyria.
He needed to leave and gather resources. Steel weapons were worth nothing for the coming battles. But Jon hated to leave Winterfell undefended.
There was another option. Jon needed to start Bran on his journey toward the greensight. After all, Old Bran had given Old Jon the first push, so Jon could give the same help to this Bran.
Uncle Ned rode back to Winterfell a turn of the moon after the Ironborn attempted to sack it.
He got a lot of flat looks for not being here when invaders came, particularly when he had warning of the Ironborn's likely plan.
Jon heard that Torrhen's Square had repelled the invaders with a handful of deaths long before Uncle Ned arrived. Deepwood Motte took care of their problem before the Umbers even arrived.
Jon stayed well clear of Uncle Ned.
The man changed little about how he did things. He never apologized for not being at Winterfell to defend it. He kept making blunder after blunder. Could the man not learn?
Uncle Ned met with the Lannisters who'd been settled into Wintertown. He allowed them into Winterfell stopped having their visits supervised with Tommen and Myrcella.
It was only luck that they never attempted to make away with the children.
Then an opportunity arose from a new raven-message.
Tywin Lannister had smashed some Ironborn who came visiting. Now he wanted his descendants, even bastards, back. He had set a meeting point at Seagard.
Tommen and Myrcella were to travel with the Lannisters who had fled King's Landing, plus whoever Winterfell wished to send as guards.
Uncle Ned permitted it.
Jon felt the pressure of time. In two days, Jon would leave with the guards for Myrcella and Tommen Waters.
Jon found Bran climbing and got him to come down.
"What happened?" Bran asked. "Robb looked fine when I saw him earlier."
"No changes there. I wanted to talk about you and your direwolf."
"I love him. But I still don't know what to call him."
"You will. But do you dream about your direwolf?"
Bran looked shocked. "How did you know? I haven't told anyone, Jon."
"I've dreamed of Ghost at night. I've run with him, been with him as he eats. It's a kind of greendream. A wolf dream."
"I can do that?"
Jon nodded. "That and more."
Jon began explaining what he did. He explained the rules as he'd been told them and what he'd worked out on his own. Jon didn't mention the killing he'd done in greendreams. Bran was a bit young for that bit of reality.
"And never be seen. Never touch another person in the past. And whatever you might know happens has to happen."
"I don't understand."
"You will. As you're able to go from seeing inside your direwolf to visiting the past or present, you'll see."
"Will you help me?"
"As much as I can. But I'm going on a trip."
"When are you coming back?" Bran asked.
Sharp boy. "Not for a while. But you can practice. Perhaps we can both become good enough to talk to each other, no matter where we are."
"Oh, yes, oh, I want to do that."
So Jon taught Bran how to calm his mind and slip into a wolf dream. Jon could see Bran's direwolf looking at him, with Bran inside. So Jon kept explaining.
"Don't force it. You can do it, but it should be restful, like going from one dream to another."
Bran woke seconds later. "I did it. I wanted to see my direwolf born. I did. I saw the man who shot the mother. She tore through him and everything. But I still don't know who he was."
"Not many strangers can stand to be in the North, not this far north. Tis strange."
"Aye," Bran said.
"Do you think you can be safe?"
Bran nodded. "Practice, then. I will try to reach out to you tonight. Let's see if we can speak in our dreams."
"Oh, yes, Jon."
That turned out to be a good idea as Uncle Ned now had many, many things for Jon to do before he left. But Jon had plenty of time for dreaming. Jon took Bran to different moments in history. They watched the Broken Tower being built, they watched the first day Catelyn Tully, Bran's mother, set foot in Winterfell. She was as haughty then as she would be later.
Whatever Bran thought of, Jon helped him to do. He was already a powerful greenseer. The practicing just confirmed that.
Jon had one other task. He had to get Ghost to understand some instructions.
Jon didn't want to leave Ghost here, unless that was what Ghost wanted.
So they had to be sneaky about things, having Ghost sneak out from Winterfell and follow the caravan for a day or two before reuniting with Jon.
Otherwise Jon was ready. He had silver he'd made from delivering wood to Wintertown, or other tasks, over the years. Jon had golden dragons from the man a queen hired to kill him. He had a list of places he wanted to visit, though he needed to think of a place to store all the things he was trying to locate.
He wouldn't be coming North again for some time.
Tywin Lannister had been called a golden lion. He no longer looked golden. Nor like much of a lion. He looked old and worn, as if his face and his family's public reputation both wore the same kind of tarnish.
He came himself on a ship to Seagard. He was stern, but gentle with the children who weren't sure whether to be glad to go with him.
Tywin Lannister had arranged rooms in an inn for the entire Stark party and insisted they use them. Ser Rodrik Cassel, who Uncle Ned had entrusted with this mission, kept them all together in three rooms for now in case this was a backhanded form of duplicity.
Different guards patrolled outside in the hall.
Lannister had taken his returned men and his two grandchildren to another inn. Jon was sure that Lannister and those he trusted, if there were any, were speaking to Myrcella and Tommen about what had happened during the royal visit and what had come after.
Eventually Jon was looking out the room's small window when he saw Tywin Lannister emerge with two guards and walk toward the inn where the Stark party was.
"Ser Rodrik, he's coming."
"How many with him?" Ser Rodrik asked.
"I see two. But who knows if there are more waiting in the pub below?"
Ser Rodrik gave a number of orders. A few minutes later, Rastus knocked on the door and said a Lannister guard had invited Ser Rodrik and Jon downstairs to speak, plus any guards they might wish to observe.
Ser Rodrik took five with him and allowed Jon to come. He knew better than to deny Tywin Lannister anything when the man had a ship at the docks and had who knows how many men still aboard.
Lannister had taken a table in the corner. He had ordered meats and ale and bid Ser Rodrik and Jon to sit.
Jon took a plate. It showed trust and he happened to be hungry. The meats were well cooked and tasted well enough.
Ser Rodrik did not partake. "What did you wish to speak about? Were there problems?"
"The whole royal visitation has been a problem. The king has been a problem. My children… Yet I do not believe House Stark has been a problem, other than hosting this misfortune. I did wish to confirm some information, however."
Ser Rodrik nodded.
Tywin Lannister went through everything he'd heard from letters or his grandchildren. He asked Ser Rodrik to expand on a few points and confirm other material.
Finally Tywin Lannister looked at Jon. "You are Jon Snow?"
"Yes, I am."
"Eddard Stark's natural son?"
Jon nodded. It was a lie, but a lie was safety right now.
"Myrcella and Tommen both tell me you were particularly kind to them."
"Things became very busy, but I tried to help."
"Yes, bad luck all around. For your family and mine. Has Lord Stark's heir healed?"
"Not completely," Ser Rodrik said. The situation was worse than that. It was unclear if Robb would heal at all, but that wasn't something to mention to a monster like this Lannister.
Lannister looked to Jon again. "And why did you add their burden to your own?"
"I have no idea what it's like to go from being royalty to not." As Jon was still the rightful king, even if he chose not to pursue his claim to a red castle in a stinking city and a wretched iron chair.
"But I know what's its like to be regarded as a bastard. Treated as one. I wouldn't wish that cruelty on anyone, particularly a child."
Tywin reached over to the empty-looking seat next to him. His hand brought up a large coin purse which he offered to Jon. Probably from the same pile of coins where Cersei Baratheon got the coin to hire as assassin for Jon. Jon considered the offer, which wasn't entirely for paying attention to Myrcella and Tommen, but probably also a payment for Cersei's actions toward him.
Jon took the coins and thanked the golden lion.
"We pay our debts. I extend you an invitation to visit Casterly Rock should you ever be in the west. Tommen and Myrcella both said they would like to see you again."
"If my travels ever take me west," and Jon didn't expect they would, not anytime soon, "I will visit with them."
"I'm told you knew that the Ironborn would come to Winterfell. May I ask how?" Lannister asked.
"Theon Greyjoy was at Winterfell more than seven years. When he was in a mood, he'd talk about how the Ironborn were supposed to think. Attack the enemy, at the hardest place, pay the iron price. He talked about how he thought his father might send people to retrieve him. He probably sent information back to the Iron Islands about Winterfell. In the end, Winterfell was the place where Theon went and where Theon died. Of course they were coming."
Tywin Lannister listened, then nodded.
"Myrcella, or her first son, will be my heir. I have no children remaining."
"I thought you had a second son," Ser Rodrik said.
"My youngest was very close to my Jaime. The news of Jaime's death sent Tyrion into many pubs and places of ill repute. I'm told he tumbled down some stairs when he was trying to carry three bottles of wine."
Jon didn't even know if that was true or not. Was this a true misfortune or did something else happen to his second son?
"Ser Rodrik, I have something I'd like you to carry back to Winterfell, in appreciation for returning the bones of my children and my grandchild, plus the soldiers that Baratheon murdered."
Lannister pointed out three large chests that had been loaded onto the cart that had brought the Lannister dead to Seagard. "For Lord Stark, to use as he sees fit. Though perhaps it might be used to repair the tower where so much misfortune started. I don't know why it was broken before, but I do know that Lannisters had a hand in breaking it further."
"I wasn't told to expect anything like this."
"I wasn't going to commit to anything until I spoke to my grandchildren and my guards. Just think of it as me paying my debts. I do not expect to ever visit Winterfell myself. Even the name brings up bad thoughts."
Lannister disappeared toward the docks with his guards. Ser Rodrik opened one of the chests, then snapped it closed. He sent two of the Stark men to purchase three sturdy locks.
"Gold, more than I can count," Ser Rodrik said to Jon.
"They've had it so long it probably doesn't mean a thing to them."
Ser Rodrik was looking unsettled now. "Grab your things, we're not staying here overnight."
"Ghost and I aren't returning to Winterfell with you," Jon said.
"Yes, you are."
"I have a letter for you to deliver. For Lord Stark." Jon pulled it out and held it for Ser Rodrik.
"I should have known you had a plan when the direwolf joined us on the journey. Your father will kill me."
Jon shook his head.
"You don't have to leave, boy," Ser Rodrik said.
"I'm out and want to see a bit of the world."
"Well, I'll open a chest and you take some gold. Your father would skin me, or have Bolton do it, if I left you starving."
Jon declined. "Take it all back. Lannister gave me some coin. I also made some coin supplying Wintertown with firewood over the last few years."
"You've been thinking about this a long time?"
"Well, this plan only came up with the raven-message from Casterly Rock. But about seeing the world, yes."
Jon had a detailed list of all the places he wanted to go. He planned to spend quite a while searching the Riverlands before he headed even further south. A lot of battles in the Riverlands.
He didn't want to spend much time in the Crownlands as he thought war would soon descend there. But he was hunting lost Valyrian steel.
He needed a place to store whatever he found. Jon thought it would be some time before he made it back into the North.
"You see that Ghost?"
The direwolf was taller than Jon's knee by now.
Jon spent at least part of every night in wolf dreams. Ghost was far smarter now than many men Jon had met.
Jon trained Ghost in different skills in the dreams. Ghost trained Jon in observation, skills like tracking.
"That is the God's Eye Lake. And the Isle of Faces. We're going there soon, but not yet. We have some ruins to explore first."
Half a day's walk later, they arrived at the hill with old castle ruins. This was the site of a horrific battle during the Andal invasion. Or slaughter.
The Westerosi of the day had carried copper or bronze weapons. The Andals had iron or steel weapons. A few had managed to gain Valyrian steel weapons.
One, according to Jon's greendreams, had been lost in the battle on this hill.
Jon and Ghost camped for three days.
They'd gone through the upper ruins, as that was where the blade fell in his greendream. But this battle happened centuries earlier, thousands of years earlier. Rain and wind and snow and mud slides had pushed the blade and buried it.
So Jon and Ghost got to explore the sub-levels of the ruin. The dungeons that had collapsed inward. The wells that were spoiled now. Natural caverns that had existed even before the castle had been built here.
Jon finally located his quarry under two feet of earth deep inside an old pit.
Once he cleaned the sword in a nearby stream, it looked as if it had been forged a week ago, not thousands of year ago.
The pommel had a pleasing design, like waves on a lake, but it wasn't a symbol of any of the houses that Jon knew about.
No one would be demanding this one back.
Jon had a scabbard with him. It wasn't quite the right length or size, but it would work for a week or two until Jon could get one more fit for the purpose.
He took an indirect path back to the Isle of Faces. He had now also three dragon eggs with him, dug up from a forest where they'd been laid and buried.
Jon hadn't quite believed the greendreams he'd had on that subject, but dragons didn't care about war. When they wanted to lay eggs, they did so, even if it was during the Dance of Dragons.
Jon thought to hire a boatman to take him across to the Isle of Faces. But his destination was odd and would cause gossip, not to mention Ghost's fur color and his general size.
Jon purchased a boat. He then had to learn how to row it as he never had rowed on a lake before. Ghost was calm at the other end, his tongue lolling, almost like he was laughing at Jon.
There were ravens in the air everywhere. Jon had heard stories of ravens chasing off those who wanted to visit the Isle of Faces. "Not me, not today," he said to Ghost.
Jon felt comfortable there as soon as he stepped onto the shore. Like being in the Godswood in Winterfell. Ghost got out, the Jon dragged the boat ashore.
Jon walked off the beach and went inland. It was tangled with roots and huge weirwoods. It looked oppressive, but felt so welcoming. Jon hadn't been sure whether to come, but he was glad he had.
In truth, he didn't expect to find anything here. But he hoped he could store things here.
When Jon slept, he slid into and out of greendreams even more easily than he had at Winterfell.
He'd struggled with greendreams since he left for Seagard, but had no trouble at all with wolf-dreams. Now he had an idea as to why.
The greendreams worked through the weirwoods. There was a huge one in Winterfell. These on the Isle of Faces were at least as large and far more numerous.
Jon paid a visit to Bran as he slept.
"Jon, you're here. You've been gone for so long. Father was angry when you didn't come back."
"I will be back, Bran. But I have some things to see out here."
"Well, what have you seen?" Bran asked.
Jon took Bran to Moat Cailin to look at it, strong but ruined. Then he took Bran to Seagard. That was safe enough, Jon wasn't returning anytime soon. He held off on showing Bran the Isle of Faces as this was a place he'd likely be returning to.
Bran took Jon to a spot he'd found in the Wolfswood.
"Very good, Bran. I didn't know what place you were taking us. Is this where you wanted us to be?"
"So Father is angry."
"Very. Should I tell him we talked?"
"Does he know about your greendreams?" Jon asked.
Bran shook his head.
"Best wait a while. How's everyone else? Arya?"
"Her wolf, Nymeria, is a menace. It's eaten three pairs of my boots. Oh, Robb is better. Maester Luwin reopened his wound and cleaned it again. It finally started to heal, but I don't know all the details. Old Nan said she broke a heart tree leaf over the wound and the sap healed him. I think it was the maester. Sansa is trying to get Father to betroth her to someone. And Rickon keeps howling like a wolf. His direwolf is almost bigger than he is. Shaggydog."
"There was gold sent back to Winterfell. Did Father receive it?"
"Oh, the chests. Yes, lots and lots of gold. Father didn't want to touch it at first, but he finally decided to. The Broken Tower is almost fixed. We'll have to call it Hunter's Tower or Lookout soon."
"What else will he do with it?"
"I don't know. He doesn't like to talk about it or that royal visit."
Jon doubted Uncle Ned would spend them without much pushing, as he probably considered them blood money, tainted. But at least those coins would be available for Winterfell when it had a new lord.
Jon got to speak to Bran for quite some time, but eventually even that time ran out. Jon promised to be in contact again, but didn't know when.
"I think I have to be close to a weirwood or a heart tree. It was easy to do this in Winterfell."
"Where are there weirwoods in the south?"
"I've seen a few. But I'm moving on from this one. I'll keep working on a way to greendream even I'm away from a weirwood."
"I will, too. I practice every night."
"And you're being careful?"
"Oh, yes. Be safe, Jon."
Jon had a hand drawn map for the next leg of his journey. He'd continue south and east in this part of the Riverlands for some time as it was a prime location for battles.
Jon believed there was a Valyrian steel shield and chain armor close by, plus other weapons.
He didn't dare venture to Dragonstone, but he knew of two undiscovered dragon egg clutches there.
The end goal of this specific journey was the Stormlands, specifically at Summerhall. There were the famous seven eggs that saw so many perish in flames, but there was also a clutch no one found on the grounds. Dragons were apparently better at hiding things than humans were at finding them.
Jon took Ghost back across the God's Eye Lake and sold the boat in a different village from where he bought it. He'd left his treasures on the Isle of Faces, all except for the first Valyrian steel sword he'd found.
He thought the reputation of the place and all those ravens would keep the curious away.
This journey Jon planned was long and winding. This ruin here, this battle site there, this tiny bit of forest that was overgrown: all of them held treasures.
Jon found bits of amusement, too.
A harvest fair in some village. An intended travel day that turned into hours by a stream playing in the water with Ghost. Small children who were delighted at seeing Ghost and wanted to play with him.
Jon's tour of the south was slow and exacting. By the time he arrived near Summerhall, he had recovered three more dragon eggs and nine more lost Valyrian swords, a few misplaced with the Andal invasion and the rest as the different southron kings warred against each other before the Targaryens turned up. Plus some Valyrian chain mail armor and two Valyrian steel shields.
His planned search of Summerhall would start by looking for Aegon the Unlikely's seven eggs that hadn't hatched and had set Summerhall ablaze.
Jon wanted to look for and recover the famous eggs even if they might be damaged in the collapse of the palace or for some other reason.
Getting the naturally laid clutch that was on the grounds would be easier, so he'd leave it for later.
Jon knew from watching the ceremony in a greendream where the eggs had been when the ritual started.
Where they'd gone during the explosion and the fire...that was what Jon had to find out. He'd brought ropes and climbing tools in case they could help.
He saw signs that others had explored the ruins. He hoped he wasn't too late.
He walked into the great hall and spotted where the eggs had been in his green dream.
He looked at the upheaval of the room, with the center of the room looking like the stone had exploded before it had burned. There could easily have been a hole to a deeper level opened there, then covered over by falling debris. There was no open path down this way.
Jon walked the rest of the structure. He looked for access to the cellars and couldn't find any. Jon knew there had to be levels below ground.
He stopped in one room. There were shelves along the back wall. It felt different in here to Jon's magic. He didn't much want to remain here. The harshness or foulness was really noticeable now.
Ghost started scratching at the wall of shelves.
"What do you see or smell?" Jon asked.
Ghost headbutted one particular shelf.
Jon searched that portion first. What Ghost was smelling was a gap between the wall and a hidden door. Jon found the unlatching mechanism high up.
Jon opened the door and revealed stairs leading down.
Jon had looked at enough events in his greendreams at the Red Keep to feel no surprise at Targaryens and their secret passages.
Ghost refused to follow Jon down those stairs, however. Ghost didn't try to stop Jon, but he wouldn't go. Jon was already unsettled by the foulness in the air, but he still fashioned a torch and walked down the stairs. The wrongness intensified. It felt more specific now, as if there were a mountain of ice down here.
The cellars were dry now, but Jon could see evidence they had taken on water in the past. The builder must have expected flooding and put in drains somewhere. Smart.
Jon kept moving through the different store rooms. He noted possible items of interest, even if they were quite ancient by now. He found the kitchens almost directly underneath what he thought was the great hall. Jon was physically cold in this room, but from magic and not from any other effect.
He found the seven eggs half buried in debris and grime.
Jon felt revulsion. Someone with magic had tampered with them at some point. Perhaps directly before Aegon the Unlikely's attempt at hatching them, perhaps earlier.
If they had been imbued with some sort of frozen magic, no wonder applying a magical fire had caused a disaster. Try throwing water, or snow, or ice into a pot of hot rendered lard. Stand well back to avoid the worst of the burns.
Jon searched a few of the storerooms, but the end of his torch and the disgusting feel of that magic drove him back up again.
Ghost whined softly when Jon reemerged. It was about the loudest noise Ghost ever made.
Jon and Ghost camped well away from Summerhall that night. He didn't even attempt to greendream, he doubted he would be successful.
Jon reclaimed the clutch of eggs near Summerhall. They felt perfectly intact and not polluted by that cold magic. The three eggs went into his pack. He debated traveling back up to the God's Eye as his packs were getting full, even if they weren't particularly heavy. But he was so close to his last destination in this direction.
Jon walked toward the village near Blackhaven and bought a new horse. He'd bought and sold several on his trek. And bought and sold several small boats near the God's Eye.
Then he and Ghost set out toward Dorne.
He wanted to see a mostly abandoned tower that possessed no joy at all for anymore alive or dead.
Jon hadn't come to the Tower of Joy for any artifacts. He had wanted to see where his father had secreted his mother, where he'd been born.
It looked worse now than it was in his greendreams.
The tower's lower level was packed with sand. The stairs were unusable as the boards had given way. Jon had seen samples of his father's writing before in his greendreams, but nothing remained now. Not in this heat and wind.
It had been a waste of time to come here, but Jon was still glad he had. Ghost hated the high desert, though.
Jon rode his horse to Starfall. He secured passage for him and Ghost on a river boat that would get him to the coast. Then a boat there would get him to Plankytown, then Jon would be in Myr.
Ghost discovered he really didn't like boats or ships, but it was too late by then.
Essos was trouble in a hundred different flavors.
Jon was far from the nearest weirwood trees and greendreams were nearly impossible. He could still wolf-dream and did most nights.
Essos was filled with slavers and bandits. Jon had been set upon five times since he arrived. He and Ghost were still healthy, but Jon's Valyrian steel had tasted quite a lot of blood recently.
The magic felt weird, but there was something far to the south that drew Jon. He was sure it was Valyria.
Jon was trying to leave Myr as quickly as he could manage it.
First, Jon paid attention on his voyage over to Myr and learned all he could about sailing. He had managed to buy a small boat he could single hand sail. He didn't want to involve anyone else when he made his way to Valyria.
He was still in Myr trying to greendream his way to safety. But it was exceedingly difficult to greendream. To get into Valyria, there were magic spells he needed to learn and possible safe harbors he needed to map before he left.
He and Ghost ventured out of Myr several times hoping at one forest or another might have a wild weirwood in it. They were supposed to have been everyone a long time ago.
It was a bust, even after camping in the forest for three days. No weirwoods, no greendreams.
Jon began to wonder how he could still perform the small amounts of magic he knew. He had to be tapping off something.
The eggs? The dragon eggs?
That night, back aboard his small boat, Jon tried to dream by using the magic of a dragon. A dragon-dream.
The magic felt different. It was lesser than an ancient weirwood's, but a dragon egg was so much smaller than a huge tree. Still it was enough. It had likely been enough since Jon found had found his first clutch, but Jon just hadn't noticed.
He was able to continue looking into Valyria, its past and its magic. He was finally getting ready for his journey there now that he could survive it.
That was for his nights.
For his remaining days in Myr, there were some Valyrian weapons and armor pieces he'd like to acquire – or steal – first.
One early evening, Jon walked into a particular inn.
He took a seat at a table and ordered a meal. His quarry arrived much later. Jon had not yet used this compulsion magic against someone, so this wasn't guaranteed to work.
Jon waited a few minutes and cast the spell as the mercenary was eating his stew.
The mercenary worked, for now, for one of the wealthiest families of the city.
He was now going to work for Jon without realizing it.
The family he worked for would likely put him to death, but Jon had looked carefully at his options. This was the least worst of them. The mercenary was not just a slaver when the contract called for it, he was a zealous slaver. Not just a killer, but someone who enjoyed the blood and pain he caused.
The mercenary paid for his food and left. Him leaving quickly might have been unusual, but not unheard of. Busy man, lots of gold to be made off someone or other.
Thirty minutes later, Jon paid and left.
In the alley behind the inn was a leather bag. Jon lifted it and could hear the clinking of metal. He walked back, slowly, to the small boat he had in the harbor.
Once there, he looked inside the bag. The family had had more Valyrian steel than Jon expected. Several knives, chain armor for the head, and two thin-bladed swords of a style not often seen in Westeros.
Jon spent the next day purchasing food, like dried fish and meats, from several vendors to see who Jon should trust when it came time to fully provision for his trip.
He also needed more casks to store water. He refused to trust that any of the water in Valyria would be safe. But he might be able to collect rain water if he had extra canvas that he stretched out over a frame and drained into a cask so the rain never touched the stones or soil there
Jon had a few more things to steal and a few more dragondreams to struggle through. Then he'd have a map he could trust somewhat and a set of spells that would protect him from the rumored dangers of Valyria.
Jon had confirmed as much as he could through dragondreams, but he wasn't satisfied yet. Which is why he planned for more information before he started loading the boat.
Ghost was very uneasy about Valyria, but Jon shared wolfdreams with him every night. Ghost understood why they were going, but the unease didn't let up.
Jon had been casting and renewing the breathing spells on himself and Ghost since he began to close with the Valyrian shore. Jon could feel the disgusting magic of that mist.
The magic he cast on himself and Ghost only seemed to hold up for fourteen or fifteen hours at a time. The mist or fog was actively trying to destroy the magic he used for protection.
Jon heard noises as he looked out for rocks. He had a Myrish eye he'd actually bought to see the shore. The fog was inconvenient, but Jon saw one possible harbor he had examined in his greendreams. If things hadn't changed too much…
Jon focused on something in the sky just above the harbor.
Jon did not have Valyria to himself.
There was a dragon, far larger than the boat Jon was sailing, above him. Jon watched as it landed on the beach where Jon had been planning to anchor.
Not a bit of his dragondreaming had shown him that dragons were still alive. He may not have come had he known.
Jon thought quickly. This dragon hadn't attacked Jon, it hadn't lit his wooden boat on fire. It seemed content for Jon to arrive.
Ghost was deeply unsettled.
Had it known Jon was coming? He could use dragon eggs to dragondream. A dragon could likely just use itself. That was a disturbing thought.
Within three hours, Jon was close enough to swim to the beach. Fool he was, he did just that. Ghost, as clever as he was, stayed on the boat. The dragon watched every bit of it.
It didn't move when Jon stepped onto the sand. It kept on watching Jon.
Jon walked toward the dragon because he hadn't exhausted his foolishness yet.
The beast rippled in grays and reds. Its eyes were pure silver.
Jon thought the dragon might be able to understand Valyrian. He said, in his best Valyrian, My name is Jon Snow. I am descended of the people who lived here.
The dragon pushed some images back at Jon's mind. Of volcanoes exploding. As if this dragon had been alive during the Doom four hundred years earlier. Of cities and towers flooded with ash and lava. Of a ritual held in an estate at the foot of one of the volcanoes, seven huge dragons slaughtered and hundreds of men – or slaves, most likely – killed. Then the Doom starting. But killing even those who started it. Then one final image, Jon's boat with three dragon eggs.
I do have three eggs from where I came from. Do you want them?
The dragon sent the same image again.
It seemed the price of admission was three dragon eggs.
So Jon swam back out and brought the eggs in a canvas sack with him this time.
He laid them on the sands. The dragon nodded Jon to stand further back. Jon took his canvas bag with him and retreated.
Then beautiful silver and red flames poured from the dragon onto the eggs. The sand became glass instantly. The flames poured and poured without end.
Then the flames ended.
Jon looked at the eggs, but they had shattered, too. There were only… three tiny dragons, miniscule compared to the gray and red beast that had hatched them.
There were now at least four dragons in Valyria now. Jon was looking at all of them.
The three tiny ones were chirping at and crawling to the huge one. Jon thought one of them was blue and another mostly white. The third one, Jon wasn't sure. All the sand in that area was blackened.
Jon sat on the sand and looked at the huge dragon caring for the tiny ones.
Then the sky darkened again and the sands filled with more dragons in a variety of sizes. The gray and red dragon here had summoned the other ones. They could communicate to each other over distances. Like how Jon could speak to Bran through greendreams…
Could Jon do that via a dragondream? He hadn't thought to try, but he would when it was safe.
Jon looked at the new arrivals. There were a bronze one with black smudges. There was one in browns and grays. Another in three tones of green.
Then there was an image in Jon's mind. It was a building Jon could see from the beach. He was sent the image a few times until he stood and began walking.
Jon arrived just before dusk. Opening the main door was complex. One of the locks required blood. Another required a basic magical spell. But Jon did get it open.
He needed to make a torch then, but there was plenty of wood that had washed up on the beach. Jon just had to touch the wood to the hatching spot and the wood burst into a glow.
Jon returned to the building and walked inside. There were shelves on every wall of every room. The shelves were crammed with dragon eggs.
It was an egg store. There were also carts inside. Jon loaded one and began pushing it back toward the beach.
The dragons, big and small, made loud and happy noises.
Several of them moved and left an area in the sand. Jon moved there and unloaded his cart.
As soon as he was away, three dragons flashed the dozen eggs with dragonfire.
Jon went for more eggs.
Ghost was quite needy when Jon swam back to the boat. He seemed to check Jon over for any wounds or injuries. Jon got them both fed off a fish he'd caught that morning.
Jon slept well from all the loading and unloading he'd done. Jon had moved eight dozens of eggs before it got too dark to move them safely.
From the images sent to him by various dragons, there were many more vaults like that one throughout Valyria. Dragons had tried and failed to open them, which was why they were interested in Jon arriving on shore.
At least Jon was a useful servant to them. They were also willing to pay, in Valyrian steel.
The dragons knew where it was and showed him where Valyrian steel weapons were stored near here and throughout the peninsula.
At least Jon would get some of the treasure he came for. He might be able to fill every cargo space on the ship if there were as many as the dragons suggesed.
He reached out to try a dragondream. It was like using the Isle of Faces to greendream, fully powered and simple. The dragons were far larger and more magical than just dragon eggs.
The magic was even warmer.
Jon found Bran again with little difficulty though they were now half a world apart.
"Jon, I was so worried. It's been so long," Bran said.
"I'm fine, but I was away from any weirwoods."
"Are you back in the north?" Bran asked with some excitement.
"No, even further away. For certain reasons I can use some...other things to dream as well. Don't ask, I won't tell you now. But I will when it's safe to explain."
Bran looked torn, but he gave in.
Jon didn't want to have to explain that he was in Valyria sleeping not far from at least sixty eight dragons. No, he didn't want to explain that at all.
The dragons seemed to be aware there were problems in the North of Westeros. If Jon could dream using a dragon, then the dragons could certainly do it for themselves.
"It's a long story, one I'll share when I'm back in Winterfell."
"You're coming back?"
Jon needed a real place to store vast quantities of weaponry. Just hiding them on the Isle of Faces wasn't going to work any longer.
"Within the next year I should be back for a visit."
Bran deflated. "But you're going to leave again?"
"I have these dreams, Bran. There's something I'm trying to do. All of this is getting us ready."
"You mean the Ice-Men. The Others?"
Jon nodded. It shouldn't be a surprise that Bran's greendreams would have shown him the Others.
"Can I tell Father we've spoken?" Bran asked.
Jon had refused while Jon was still in Westeros. "Does he know about your greendreams? Will he believe you?"
"He knows. He's confused about them, but he knows. One of his bannermen can do it, too. Lord Reed. His son is even better. But your lessons have made me better than either of them. I can dream what I want to dream of, but they can't choose what they dream."
"And what dreams have you had?" Jon asked.
Jon just wanted to hear another human voice for a while. He hadn't heard one other than his own since he left Myr.
Bran was glad to talk. He'd learned some interesting things from the Reeds, but he'd also interacted with someone calling himself the Three-Eyed Raven.
"Bran, hold. He's just a voice? He hasn't shown you his face? Or given you an actual name?"
Bran shook his head.
"And he keeps trying to convince you to journey north of the Wall. I'm young, but you're younger still. Ignore him. I will venture north of the Wall and speak to this man, if that's where he is."
"Oh, you will?"
"Just ignore him for now. Did he say how to find him?"
"There's a massive weirwood, the biggest north of the wall. He lives underneath it."
If it existed, something like that shouldn't be impossible to find. Better that Jon did it, then send little Bran.
"So, what news? Is Robb fully healed?" Jon asked.
"Aye, it wasn't Luwin's medicine, but that weirwood-leaf sap. Lord Reed finally finished the cure. Robb is well enough to train in the yard again."
"Is he nice to you and Arya and everyone else at Winterfell?" Jon asked.
He doubted it. The second coming of the squid probably hadn't forgotten the behavior he'd picked up and clung to.
Bran looked like he wanted to say something. But the hesitance was enough to show what Bran really thought. Robb was still an ass. Even after almost dying on Greyjoy's blade, he still had the squid's swill living in his head.
"What news elsewhere?"
"It's all war. Father won't say what he gets in raven-messages. He's still trying to figure out where you are. He's concerned you're still in the Riverlands. Battles there, I suppose."
Jon should dream later and have a look.
"Who is fighting, do you know?" Jon asked.
"Not many are. Disgusted lords everywhere, that I got from Ser Rodrik. There was an attack on Highgarden, I heard from Old Nan. Supposedly the Reach was trying to become friends with the Fat King and the Lannisters burned them down."
"Sounds like Lannister's style. I met Tywin at Seagard. He gave me gold coins for helping Myrcella and Tommen."
"I liked Tommen. He was actually glad that Joffrey died. That must be awful to think that about your own brother, even if he was terrible."
Robb was better than Joffrey, but Robb wasn't shaping up to be a joy.
"You can tell Father I left the Riverlands before there were any battles there."
Jon failed to mention he had almost gotten caught up in a mess in the Crownlands and was currently surrounded by tiny and huge dragons.
"But you'll be back soon?" Bran asked.
"In a year or maybe less."
Yes, it would feel like forever, particularly in a small wooden boat surrounded by dragons.
"How is Sansa and Arya and little Rickon?"
"Ah, Rickon is starting with a training sword. He's horrible to fight against. He bites if there's anything to bite."
Jon laughed. "Just like a wolf."
"His Shaggy is the meanest of the direwolves."
"I know Ghost misses all of them."
"So he did go with you. Ser Rodrik said so, but not everyone believed him."
"I couldn't leave Ghost behind. But he's not so happy on a boat."
"A boat? Where did you go, Jon?"
"I'll tell you when I get back. Maybe you'd even believe me then."
"You'd never lie to me," Bran said.
"Well, I might be mistaken and share a wrong opinion. But I'd try not to lie, you're right."
"See." Bran smiled. Figuring out the greensight had seemed to make Bran happier. Jon had been nervous about training his cousin, in the event things went wrong for him.
So far, so good.
The dragons had adapted mostly to a fish-and-whale sort of diet. The adults brought in a variety of fish to the beach and one indicated that Jon should eat some, too.
How could these dragons as large as hills sustain themselves just on fish?
Or did they?
Jon knew they were magical. Jon readings over the years had suggested that dragons had been made from smaller lizards and enhanced with magic.
Part animal, part magic. The animal part lived on fish, but the magic part...they fed off the volcanoes of Valyria, the Fourteen Flames.
Perhaps they could each eat a few fish so long as they were close to the Fourteen Flames. The magic of the volcanoes was the bulk of their sustenance. That was Jon's current guess.
One of the dragons kept showing Jon some particular mountain peak. Jon could see it in the distance to the south. Was he supposed to go there?
Another dragon, a smaller bronze, wanted Jon to learn a particular spell it remembered from before the Doom. How was it 400 years old and a third the size of the larger ones? Or did dragons share memories with each other?
It was stressful. He was only one man and he had a lot of dragons giving orders.
Before Jon made preparations to leave this one-time fishing village, he searched the remaining buildings in this village.
He eventually found the town armory and it was filled with Valyrian steel. It wasn't one that the dragons had showed him. This one was plenty impressive to Jon, but the images he'd seen were far more so.
Jon loaded up a cart with weapons and armor and shields and pushed it to the beach. The dragons watched him as he collected few pieces and waded out into the water. He struggled to get himself with those blades out there. He decided to bring the small boat forward until he was done loading it. Whatever piers had been here, the sea had destroyed over time. But he could get closer.
Then he'd take it out a bit deeper. He didn't want the winds to ground his boat.
Not one of the dragons objected to what Jon was doing. None even pushed an image to him or demanded an explanation.
Jon spent several hours loading Valyrian steel. His boat felt a good deal heavier in the water now, but Jon now had a full sets of armor and shields. He selected some out for himself that fit him well at his current height.
That night Jon puzzled over the spell the dragon wanted him to learn. Apparently it needed to be cast by a Valyrian on newly hatched dragons. What did it do?
Jon could now dragondream the memory and learn it as it was taught to the ancient students it was being taught to. Valyrian was different back then so Jon struggled to actually understand the purpose of the spell.
But he did.
It was proof that Valyrians had enhanced natural animals and given them magic, fire magic and divinatory and other kinds.
This spell was the most complicated bit of magic he'd yet learned. It was the last step of hatching the dragon eggs and putting dragons into service for Valyria.
Jon could now easily tell which dragons among the ones here had been born before the Doom and which after. The largest were all four hundred years old or older and would continue to grow and age with ease. The smaller ones would perish after a handful of decades and never gain their full size, never quite be sustained by the Fourteen Flames or other volcanoes.
Dragons had been designed so that they required a spell at birth. It was intended to keep feral, undiscovered dragons from growing so large as to threaten the ones the Valyrians had trained and controlled.
The dragons that knew of the spell wanted it used on every stunted dragon, plus all the new hatchlings.
The next morning Jon swam to shore and explained that he'd learned the spell. One of the older, but stunted, dragons roared. It was to be first in line to test that Jon actually had the spell correct.
Casting that spell on one large dragon took it out of Jon. He collapsed like he'd rowed from White Harbor to Myr.
The dragon looked satisfied. Jon would remember this one, a bronze and green, and see how it changed in the future.
He was useless the rest of the day, aside from swimming back to the boat. He ate a huge amount of his stored food and water. Ghost was concerned.
"I should have tried a small dragon, I know. But they didn't trust it. Until I did it. But a big dragon, that's a lot of magic you need to use for that spell."
The next day Jon worked on the tiny dragons. He managed three before he felt a little tired, not the deep discomfort of the first day.
He did another three the next day, then four. Then one more of the bigger dragons the day after that.
In total, Jon and Ghost were tethered to this fishing village for almost twenty more days.
Jon began to wonder how long his fresh water could hold out if he was making such a slow pace around Valyria. It hadn't rained once since he arrived. Though it was possible the noxious magic here would spoil even rain water.
The dragons felt like they couldn't abandon these eggs, nor could Jon.
They wanted the hatchlings hatched.
What then? The magic here had to be terrible even to dragons.
When Jon was gathering the last of the Valyrian steel he could find here, he suggested the dragons consider a move to them in his terrible Valyrian. He noted that there were volcanoes and hot springs north of the wall in Westeros.
It looked like the dragons were pushing ideas to each other. Then three of the larger dragons began walking away from the hatchlings. Then they lifted off and flew northwest.
A scouting party? How quickly could they travel?
Jon got back aboard his boat and lifted the anchor.
Ghost was up on deck, looking around. He had only swum to shore a few times. He disliked the magic out here on the boat, but it was far worse for him on land. He was quite pleased to be sailing again.
Jon went to raise the sails when another of the dragons had a different notion. He felt the shade of the dragon for a moment before he felt everything lifting into the air.
Ghost vanished inside the boat.
Jon had to sit down on the deck and hold onto something. The wind was fierce. He might have flown out if he had continued standing.
Several terrifying minutes later, the dragon set Jon's boat into the water. Jon looked around and saw the peak one dragon had pushed him was now to the north. He saw a good anchorage, then he saw one dragon, then four more arrive on the beach.
The dragon likely knew of more eggs nearby. They'd want to hatch them. Then the real time would go into the magic spell to strengthen them and connect them to the magic of the Fourteen Flames.
Jon was glad to help, but nervous of his limited and dwindling supplies.
Jon swam to the beach and got close to the largest dragon. I am running low on water I can drink, he said in his Valyrian.
Jon had to explain barrels. And what qualified as fresh. Perhaps dragons didn't need water? Or could drink salt water?
One of the dragons flashed an image on Jon aboard his boat, the boat in the claws of a dragon. They proposed to fly him somewhere he could get water.
Jon thanked them and said he would want that to happen in thirty days or so. He just hadn't been sure if he needed to sail out and get safe water. But flying would take far less time.
And Jon wanted to make sure the boat was actually sturdy enough to handle it.
Most of the next month was consumed with his new 'routine' tasks, like carting around dragon eggs to the hatching sands, looting Valyrian steel, and casting ancient, lost, utterly secret spells on the dragons.
The dragons continue to nudge and prod. They continued to share the memories they had passed from one to another. They showed Jon Valyria as it looked today, the spots they would not go as the ruins were unsafe or Stonemen had been abandoned in certain places. The fishing villages had seen their share, too, but the dragons had destroyed them. They guarded the intact egg repositories they knew about.
Then Jon's supply of water dwindled to an unsafe level. He reported it was time to collect fresh water.
One of the huge grays consented to help Jon. Ghost came along grudgingly, as he hated the land more than he'd hated flying in a boat.
The dragon flew with the boat for what seemed like forever and slipped gently into the water.
Jon could see the land ahead of him. He raised the sails and got his small boat to a small stone pier that looked unused for a long time. It was covered in sea life. Jon used the boom pulleys to raise all the empty water barrels from the hold. It was going to be far harder to get them aboard.
Then Ghost went ashore. He found a stream and began drinking and drinking. Yes, fresh water was a clean taste Jon could barely remember. Water from a cask took on a much different taste.
Jon managed to roll the casks onto land and fill them, then roll them back.
He thought he had water for another five months or better. He wished he had brought more casks, of course, but the cargo hold wasn't huge on such a small vessel. Much of the space was now taken over by swords wrapped in cloth, plus armor and shields and some Valyrian steel tools, like for forging metal.
Jon found himself bullied into crawling onto a dragon. So he bullied Ghost into joining him. The magic-repelling spells he was using still didn't last a full two days even though Jon had practiced his magic constantly and gotten far stronger.
He had flagons of water and another dragon would bring two full casks beside.
The dragons had a plan and they shared only bits with Jon. The next step, now that they had finished with the coastal villages that held egg repositories, was to head more inland to the somewhat-intact towns and cities. The biggest ones, the ones closest to the Fourteen Flames, had been destroyed, but Jon would like to look around at the bits that survived.
Whatever happened inland should go faster.
Jon was far stronger magically now. He could now use the strengthening spell on a dozen or fourteen hatchlings in a day. Or three of the smaller adults. He had also learned other, even harder magics from the dragon memories plus his own dragondreaming of the past.
The dragon Jon and Ghost were on leaped into the air and began flying. Jon held onto one scale, which was massive, and also Ghost. This feeling was less horrible than being in the boat while the dragon flew with it.
But not natural feeling.
Jon couldn't even see the sea when they landed. They were in hills, but there was a town present.
There were a lot of dragons already here.
Jon looked them over.
These, these were from the first hatchings he did upon arriving in Valyria. But the dragons were bigger than Jon was tall. It had only been six turns of the moon, or around that. Six turns and they were this huge? That spell must have had an enormous impact on them.
The gray that carried Jon here nudged him toward one particular building.
It was far bigger than any egg repository Jon had ever seen before. The locks on the door were bigger, but they responded just the same to his blood and his magic.
He put eggs on a cart and hauled them out. Jon looked around for a beach. The dragon pushed an image of Jon unloading the cart right there.
He did as ordered.
Each of the hatchlings came over and took two of the eggs and flew off. They weren't hatching them here.
Jon got all the eggs out in front of the building. The bigger dragons stood near them, perhaps protecting them.
Jon and Ghost began looking around other parts of the village. Here Jon found books in one building. He'd mostly been in fishing villages before or naval stations. This village had had a different purpose. He thought he saw forges. Perhaps the Valyrian metalworking techniques were recorded in here. Or more magic.
He found no libraries, but different dwellings or offices had books. Somehow they'd been preserved even from the foul magic of the Doom.
Reading what he found was a different struggle. His spoken Valyrian was better now that he used it constantly with the dragons, but it was a struggle with the written at first. Different dialects, different spellings, even spelling changes over centuries.
He would need a lot more time to evaluate these books. He took as much as could, then wrapped everything of interest wrapped in canvas he found and bundled in ropes that were still in good condition. All of that went into a crate he fashioned.
He did it with the fewer weapons he found here. Of course there would be more armories along the coast, as a defense against invaders. Wherever they were now was far from anyplace an invader would get to easily.
But Jon found some weapons. He found many more Valyrian steel tools. If worse came to worse, heavy hammers could be used as maces, or reforged into weapons if Jon could find anything on Valyrian forging technique. He already had quite a few dragons to help.
The dragons carried off his crates, then carried him and Ghost off to another village. He repeated all the same steps there. The dragons took the eggs away, then Jon and Ghost explored. Whatever items of interest he wrapped and secured.
That night the dragons, Jon, and Ghost were all back on the beach Jon had left his boat at.
There were a hundred new hatchlings.
Tomorrow was going to be busy with spell casting, Jon knew.
The dragon brought Jon and Ghost to the outskirts of what had been a huge city. But Jon could see where the lava had run and ruined huge tracts.
The foul magics were stronger here. The dragons didn't like it at all. Nor Ghost.
Jon looked around. He didn't see any building close by that looked like an egg repository. In fact, it looked like this was where ships had once been built. There was a river or canal that had once flowed to the sea, though the lava had destroyed that channel.
The red and white dragon that had brought him sent Jon a different image and impression. Jon was to look at the ships in the shipyard. Pick the best one, one safe to be on the water.
Jon walked around the ships. Many looked intact to Jon so Jon ignored the unfinished or ruined ones. Four hundred years and still intact.
The foul magics were keeping away normal rotting or something.
Jon marked off another two for hull damage he could see, looked like smoldering, probably from the Doom itself.
Jon walked around another 5 of them. All five looked fine. He tested a ladder he found he on the ground and found it sturdy enough. Jon climbed up the side of the largest of the five ships.
The deck seemed solid. He opened the hatches and let some light in, then crawled down. He could see the rudder and it looked connected to the main deck.
He crawled back up and checked. The rudder worked. He climbed the mast. It was sturdy still, though completely devoid of sails.
Jon climbed down, checked a second and third ship, but decided to take the first and largest one he'd inspected. He pointed out the ship to the dragon. Three dragons flew into the air, then grasped the boat and began flying with it.
Jon hadn't even known such a thing was possible. That three dragons could fly like that.
A dragon pushed Jon the image of a crate overflowing with cloth and rope. They were at a shipyard, best place to find it.
Jon boggled that dragons understood how ships worked. But he and Ghost rummaged through the ships and the shipyard buildings. He assembled four crates of canvas and cordage.
A month after locating a large ship in Valyria, Jon and Ghost were flying in it with about seven hundred dragon eggs nestled in between all the canvas Jon had been able to find, plus several thousand Valyrian steel weapons and tools. Not to neglect the crates of books written in Valyrian.
There were dragonglass chests and sets of jewels Jon had brought back as well, the dragons insisted. Anything of beauty or value, though much had been destroyed in the Doom.
Moving eggs represented a change, too, as the dragons had decided to stop hatching dragons in Valyria once their scouts returned and made the dragons all eager to move north of the Wall. Once they did, the dragons had decided his small boat was inadequate to the task of getting everything useful to their new home in the north of Westeros. Jon's boat had been beached in Valyria.
The dragons slipped the boat into the White Knife close to Winterfell.
Ghost jumped down first and moved around unsteadily.
Then Jon threw a number of things off the deck and scrambled down himself.
Then the boat was flying again. The image he saw from the dragons made Jon think of the old tales of Hardhome. They had found hot springs there.
One dragon, a black and gray, was going to wait for Jon in the Wolfswood. He had today and early tomorrow before he had to get back to his tasks.
Jon carried his bulky gifts until he saw a Winterfell guard. The man, Bernal, recognized Jon and Ghost and called out to his fellows. Then Jon had several extra hands to help carry things.
He had to answer any number of questions with short answers, because the next questions cut him off.
Where had he been? "Everywhere."
How long was he staying? "This time, just tonight."
What did he bring? "Gifts, perhaps you'll get to see them."
Was he in the southron wars? "I stayed clear."
How did none of the patrols see him coming? "Long story that."
Where was going next since he wasn't safe? "South again, but not for long."
Jon and his helpers made it into the Great Hall. There were a few people about, but it was early. Jon hadn't wanted dragons to land a ship in the river when it was light out. Thankfully, dragons seemed to have excellent night eyes.
But the Great Hall wasn't peaceful for long.
Arya was the first down, still in her nightshirt. She leaped toward Jon and clung around his neck like some kind of sea creature finding a ship's hull it liked.
"You came back. But why did you leave at all? You can't leave again, I won't let you. Or, if you do, you have to take me with you..."
"Arya, settle. I am leaving again. But I will be back. Eventually, when you're old enough, you can join me if you still wish."
"But, but… Jon!"
"Let him be," Uncle Ned said, just arriving. "He has a lot of stories to tell, no doubt. But he won't be able to if you choke him silly."
Arya let go and stood and burrowed into Jon's side, as if she were an anchor.
"I'm so glad you're back, Jon."
Jon accepted his uncle's stiff hug.
"You didn't believe Bran, did you? I've been in touch with him quite a few times."
"He said something. About dreaming of you."
"Go and find Old Nan. Listen to her stories. I know you were raised mostly in the Andal south. You have forgotten, or never heard of, greenseers. Bran is one. I am. I suspect all of us could be, if we tried."
"Well, that's for later. What, what's all this? How did you pack so much onto a horse?"
Jon smiled, but didn't explain his particular mode of transport.
"Bran, there you are," Jon said.
"Jon, you came."
"And I brought you a gift. Pick one and open it."
So Bran did. "A sword. Is it for me?"
"One of them can be," Jon said.
"Valyrian steel," Uncle Ned said.
"They all are."
Arya unwrapped three while Bran struggled with one covered in cloth. Jon unwrapped another two.
"I heard you were back, Snow," Robb said.
Jon just nodded to his cousin who still spoke like a disgusting squid.
"I'd give them to your best men, and Ser Rodrik. You may well need them," Jon said.
"More of the greendreams?" Uncle Ned asked.
Bran answered for them both. "The Ice-Men. The Others. They're awake again."
Jon and Ghost landed at Hardhome after a very hard day of travel. From Winterfell, to the Isle of Faces, gathering up the meager items he'd found in Westeros and stashed there. Now he was about to set foot at Hardhome.
He could see the Valyrian ship floating in the water. Jon would have to get over there and set an anchor. He supposed one dragon would go retrieve the ship whenever the tide tried to steal it.
They probably wanted their eggs unloaded.
The dragons had moved right in. In fact, there were dragons over this entire peninsula. They seem to love the hotsprings here. Jon was already far more fond of this place than Valyria, as well. No pernicious magic trying to eat into him, battering away at the shielding magic he had to reapply once or twice a day.
The dragons didn't push demands at him.
They seemed calmer now that they were away from Valyria. They should have abandoned it, but they refused to leave the eggs and risk them being unguarded.
So Jon unloaded Ghost, who had been endured yet more flight, plus the food and water and gear he'd brought with him. He didn't think he'd be living up here permanently, not in a tent, but he wanted to be around for the hatchings that were soon to occur.
Jon was able to set up his tent on an area with warmed, not hot, sands. It was an unexpected glory to be warm in an otherwise cold place.
In this place he could use either the greendreams or the dragondreams to walk through time. Jon found it easy to return to Winterfell and continue his conversation with Bran.
"How did your father deal with seeing me fly on a dragon?" Jon asked.
"He about fell down, like a faint."
"I told him. I gave him Valyrian steel. He just didn't believe me."
"How did you get it?"
"It's been around a long, long time. Since before the Doom of Valyria."
"No," Bran insisted.
"The volcanoes killed all the people, some immediately, some because of the vapors, the rest because of some foul magic. But the dragons could tolerate all that, plus they could fly above and still get safe food to eat. No one was able to get to Valyria until my greendreams showed me what was done there and how to work around it. A magic spell. The dragons were still there, just waiting for someone to come."
So Jon shared a little bit of his story. He made sure to mention the weapons they had and the other dragons. Bran was well aware of the Others.
"You sailed to Valyria?"
Bran was sort of stuck on that point.
"For a good reason."
"Now you're living with dragons."
"Well, for a time. I'll be back down soon enough."
"How long, Jon?"
With all the eggs the dragons had gotten Jon to stuff into the ship…
"Could be two turns of the moon."
"Okay. But you know that Arya is already demanding to learn to greendream. If she does, she'll plague you every night as you sleep."
"And I would welcome it."
The next morning Jon unloaded the dragon eggs from the Valyrian ship and watched the hatching of hundreds of new dragons.
After Jon helped them to strengthen and tie themselves into the hotsprings or distant volcanoes of the north, he had to go and recruit an army. The Night's Watch wasn't going to manage fighting the Others on their own.
Today Jon flew on a yellow and orange dragon to Castle Black. Ghost was thoroughly done with flying and had remained at Hardhome.
Jon wanted to speak to his Nuncle Benjen. Plus he needed to start making an agreement with the Watch.
He thought he would get a better reception if he arrived on a dragon. The showiest dragon Jon was aware of had been glad to help today. Most of them flew vast distances every day just for the joy of it.
The dragons were slowly getting a complete picture of the North and keeping it accurate. Several dragons every day spotted where the Others were, where the different wildling groups were. They'd long since worked out here the other hotsprings and volcanoes were. They particularly wanted those lands for their own.
Jon had the attention of the Castle Black before he even dismounted. A massive yellow and orange dragon tended to do that.
An ancient man stood in the courtyard. An older, burly man came out with a half dozen others. The burly man carried Valyrian steel at his side.
Jon had his sword, Swift Wave, at his side. He was wearing Valyrian steel chain mail under his furs. He had a dragonbone bow and a Valyrian steel shield and a handful of Valyrian steel spears, but he'd left the shield and spears on the dragon.
"What's the meaning of this?" the burly man asked. "You're Ned Stark's bastard, but you turn up here on a dragon."
"I am not Ned Stark's son. My father was Rhaegar Targaryen. His wife was Lyanna Stark. I'm Ned Stark's nephew. Also the nephew of Benjen Stark who I have traveled here to see."
"You were Rhaegar's son," the old man in the courtyard said. He might be blind, but his hearing lacked nothing.
"I still use the name Jon Snow, for I have no idea what my parents would have called me. Doesn't matter."
"Then I am your great-great grandnuncle Aemon. I am also a Maester and a sworn brother of the Night's Watch. May I come forward and meet you and your dragon?"
"He is not my dragon. I wouldn't dare to claim such a thing. They are smarter than most men, far more magical than almost anything I know. They are their own creatures. He just offered to help me today. They're curious, of course, and adventure seeking."
"So you have met more than one?" Nuncle Aemon said. The man wasn't waiting for an invitation. He had a hugely fat man leading him forward.
"Men died in the Doom in Valyria. Doubtless many dragons did, too. But not all. When I ventured there, I found many of them still there."
"And not feral?"
"They can communicate with each other. They were made with magic. They have skills few of us can even imagine."
Aemon asked permission to touch the dragon. After his hands lingered quite some time, he asked permission to run his hands over Jon's face.
"Benjen Stark is on a ranging," the burly man said. The Mormont. Jon vaguely remembered seeing him once, years ago, at Winterfell. "What did you want with him?"
"I wanted to tell him about me, now that I know."
"No idea when he'll be back. He could write to Winterfell, if that's where you still are."
"I'm staying at Hardhome, with a number of dragons."
"Dragons? North of the Wall. But why?"
"Valyria was poisoned magically during the Doom. The dragons didn't want to abandon the eggs that were locked away by the dead Valyrians, but they weren't keen on staying there. I helped them get the eggs they wanted, then they abandoned the Valyrian peninsula. So now you have new neighbors to the North. About three thousand of them."
The man looked like he had soiled himself.
"With three thousand dragons that will help you, you are the emperor of Westeros. And Essos, if it comes to it," Aemon said.
"I was born a king, but I have no interest in an iron chair," Jon said.
"I understand that well," Aemon said. He'd once been offered the throne, if Maester Luwin's lessons had been correct.
"What rumors have you heard of North of the Wall?" Jon asked.
"Are human. I'm talking myths coming back to life."
"Impossible," Mormont said.
"They said the dragons were gone." Jon waved his arm at his yellow and orange proof.
"There have been stories. Madness."
"Not stories. They were never defeated. Pushed back, forced to sleep. But they're awake now. They're coming south, for the Wall. That's why the 'wildlings' are so desperate to get past the Wall."
"There's no proof," Mormont said again to himself, like a madman humming the same tune.
Prideful idiot. Wasn't his son the slaver who had fled the North? Idiocy must run in the family.
"I didn't come to beg. I came to tell you what was happening. A waste of my time, as I feared. You are useless, content to freeze up here. Fine. I'll find actual humans. Don't worry about the battle. But when they're gone. I'll remember you, Jeor Mormont. And not kindly. Now I'm going to find my nuncle."
Jon didn't. Cowards, fat men, blusterers, wastes. These were not ones he was giving the Valyrian steel to. He still didn't know why Benjen had come here. A waste of a good life.
Jon pushed his request to the yellow and orange dragon. He wanted to find his nuncle. They were off, flying up above the Wall, then through the huge stretch of emptiness to the north.
It was late afternoon when the dragon swooped. There was a black form on the ground. There was a dead horse next to him.
He wasn't alone. There were a number of dead men fighting him.
Jon had learned to push an image to a dragon. It was very specific.
The dragon could be as specific with its flames as it wished. Each wight went up in flames.
Nuncle Benjen flailed a little and fell to the side as his battle ended. Jon and his dragon-of-the-day flew around a bit more.
There, on a hill, was the Other. It fashioned a spear of ice and launched it.
The dragon knew well what weapons were.
It dived in the air, but still puffed a flame at the ice spear. The spear became just another small cloud.
Then the Other found it couldn't dodge dragon flame, not at all.
Jon flew around the area for several more loops, trying to spot other dangers. Then Jon gave a mental nudge to the dragon and they landed.
Benjen weakly held up his sword, then relaxed it when he saw Jon.
"Nuncle, are you well?" Jon asked.
"That dragon saved me."
Jon nodded. "Why are you ranging alone? You're up here to find dangerous things and you came alone?"
"The few brothers I do trust were on a different mission, left a month before the Lord Commander asked me to find this information."
"The man is an idiot. Sending anyone off alone. Well, you won't have to worry about him for long."
"What do you mean, Jon?"
"I went to Castle Black and asked for his help. The Others are real, as you've seen. He claims there's no proof and didn't care to help, or that was what he was going to say, the coward. I expect the Watch will butcher him in the night."
"For cowardice, yes, there are some that would. Especially when you had a dragon. Alliser Thorne would do just about anything a dragon asked. Now, how do you have a dragon?"
Jon thought his nuncle asked that seriously. "What do you know about my birth?"
"I don't know who your mother is."
"So Nuncle Ned didn't even tell you?"
"My father was the crown prince, Rhaegar Targaryen. My mother was your sister, Lyanna Targaryen. They married and I was born legitimate."
"Married… But, the story… The kidnapping..."
"I know who started that story. But it was just a story. My mother hated her husband-to-be, though I don't know why."
"Baratheon fondled everything that would let him. Fathered children while still a child himself, refused to acknowledge any of them. Scum."
"I'm not hiding who I am."
"No, no need now. Not with a friend like this one. Or… Where did you get that sword – and that armor?"
"Long story. Care to ride a dragon back to my temporary home?"
Benjen looked his slaughtered horse. "Better than walking."
Jon had thousands of weapons that could kill the wights and the Others. He didn't have anyone to use them. Apart from Nuncle Benjen, who now had his own tent here at Hardhome.
Jon stood in one of the repaired buildings on shore where he'd stored the Valyrian steel weapons and armor, just in case the Valyrian ship that was still at anchor got pulled free or damaged somehow. Nothing much would harm Valyrian steel, but being at the bottom of a mostly frozen sea could make them pretty inaccessible.
Jon left the storage building and went looking for his nuncle. Benjen loved being around the dragons who seemed not to mind him.
Ghost got up from his nap and followed behind. Jon sat down on the warm sands next to his nuncle. Within moments, Jon had a few hatchlings surrounding him, demanding attention. A few were even chirping at Ghost. He consented to groom them with his tongue.
Dragons were a lot less tense now that they were away from the foul magic of Valyria.
Jon rubbed the dragons where they preferred, on the head, or near the wings, or on the belly.
"So you have all these dragons…," Benjen began.
"They have themselves. They tolerate me." It was more than that, since Jon possessed spells that dragons either needed or wanted. But Jon didn't particularly want to explain everything about magic, about greensight, about dragondreaming.
"But with the dragons, why do you need fighters at all?"
"The dragons found a line further north where they feel uncomfortable flying near. Or they feel pain. There's something magical up there that repels them. So the dragons can and do destroy any wights or Others they find out. But the Others' stronghold, we can't attack it with dragons until we end whatever that magic is."
"I could investigate."
"Not by yourself, not again. I am no Jeor Mormont, Lord Idiot of the Black Fur Crowd."
"So we need an army just to investigate?"
"I'd be happy with fifty men to start. Hardly an army."
"Go to Winterfell. You'd get fifty volunteers, especially if they knew they'd get to keep a Valyrian steel sword out of it."
Jon nodded. What Benjen proposed is what Jon had been thinking for some time. "Maybe travel all of the North? Should I invite the southrons to help?"
"They're all consumed with their little wars."
"They live in Westeros, too," Jon said.
"They're also the descendants of the men who cut down the weirwoods. They'll dismiss whatever you say as legend."
Jon nodded, agreeing. They would.
But Jon had to ask. Letters first, then visits on dragonback.
The ones who helped may profit.
The ones who didn't would get another visit on dragonback in the future, a much less polite one.
The dragons were roaring and hissing. Then Jon had a couple of them push him images. There was a small party of men the other side of this peninsula, intent on something. Setting up tents.
"Want to meet some wildlings?" Jon asked.
"Some just arrived near all this. I guess to talk?"
"Well, if they're at all polite, there's your army," Benjen said.
"A lot of them?"
"The rumors say aye."
Jon and Benjen and Ghost walked through the hot sands and every other spot the dragons had taken over. Jon had a dozen small dragons walking or fly-walking behind him. He knew he had any number of adults watching, plus he could see at least six overhead flying.
Jon was wearing his Valyrian steel chainmail and Benjen wore Valyrian steel plate pieces under his furs.
The dragons were the most dangerous thing here. Then Ghost. Then these two Starks equipped as they were. Then the entire army of wildlings.
"That's Mance Rayder. He used to be a Black Brother. I think the other one is called Tormund. I only ever heard him described. Red and huge and hairy."
Jon stopped a good way from their tents, let the wildlings come to them. They'd be wary of the dragons and should be wary of a huge direwolf, as well. A mostly fish diet, plus some game, had been good for Ghost.
"You're responsible for them?" Rayder asked, pointing toward the hot springs and the dragons.
"You think a person is responsible for a dragon that's four hundred years old? No, they're responsible for themselves."
"But you can live among them?"
"Aye. They tolerate me and Ghost. And my nuncle."
"Some of ours were under attack. Three dragons descended and put all the wights to the flame. Even killed an Other."
"Are you going to kill them all?"
If he could. Best to explain why he hadn't done so already. "There's funny magic up north. The dragons can fly a long way up, not not all the way. It will have to be men, or women, who take this fight to them. Know any brave ones?" Jon asked with a smile.
The red headed man began laughing and talking himself up. As if he could wrestle snow bears.
Jon shook his head. "If you camp here, keep your curious and your children away from the dragons and my direwolf. They'll react to people they don't like with snapping or flame."
Some of the young guards at Winterfell learned a lesson when Jon left Winterfell and made it to the Wolfswood where that day's escort awaited. Gawking and pointing had not been appreciated.
"But you mean to put together an army?" Rayder asked.
"I will give the southrons an opportunity to help. My kin, at Winterfell. The North. But, yes, men will have to work out this magic if we want to have dragons help us with this horrible task."
"We will have to meet with our clans and discuss it. Until now, we've been fleeing south."
"I will say this and keep saying it. Whoever does not help, whoever refuses the challenge of these Others, will see me and the dragons again when this is all over."
"Is that so?" Rayder asked.
"The dragons have already committed to it. These lands up here will be the Dragon Lands after, their home. They will not want enemies to the south for very long. But the enemies up north are more powerful at present. They come first."
"I will convey that."
"Those who fight and survive will gain either a weapon of this make, or armor like I wear. If you try and die, we take the weapons and armor back to outfit another."
"That is like the Lord Commander's Longclaw, Valyrian steel."
"I found thousands of these in Valyria."
Rayder looked like he wanted to scoff, no one could survive Valyria. But Jon standing in view of all these dragons made a pretty compelling proof.
"I do plan to return and explore more of the place, plenty of things I never had time to look into. But there are weapons here, now, for the fighters. If we can work out why dragon magic works poorly further north, if we can fix whatever the problem is, we will also have dragons fighting with us. It will take time to gather a force, but I'm committed to doing it. We will win, though if we're small in number or poorly trained, many more will die than necessary. So pick your volunteers carefully, some from each clan, people who will earn themselves strong weapons even after this is all over. Strong, but not cruel, people you'd want to be leaders in the future."
Jon was almost proposing that they would be lords. He just didn't use that title. But if they believed in battle prowess, an excellent weapon would help ensure victories in battle.
Rayder asked more questions, but Tormund was quiet. Then they walked away.
"Think we'll have theft attempts?" Benjen asked. "From the storehouse?"
"You doubt they'll succeed."
"The dragons know how important the weapons are against the Others. They're watching them, too."
"And the newly laid eggs?"
Jon laughed. "Dragons care a lot more for eggs than for swords. Anyone making the attempt will be eaten, no doubt."
A dragon reported an interesting location to Jon. He'd been preparing to start his recruiting in the 'south,' specifically Winterfell and the Northern castles.
But he'd delay to take a look at this oddity.
Jon had been thinking about a huge weirwood north of the wall, with a man tangled in its roots, ever since his cousin Bran reported greendreams about the 'Three-Eyes Raven.' How anyone could suggest little Bran journey north of the wall… Ridiculous.
Now the dragons had found the huge tree.
Jon hadn't mentioned it as a thing to look for until lately, so that was on him. Why else would a dragon think a tree interesting?
The bronze and blue dragon carrying Jon hesitated to land. There was something wrong with the field in front of the tree.
Jon pushed the idea of flaming the snow.
There. There were wights under the snow, just waiting.
The dragon burned them. It continued to circle for some minutes after before it would land.
Jon dismounted and the dragon flew into the sky.
Jon could feel it, too. There was something magical close by, but it didn't feel comforting like a weirwood. It felt cold, as Jon had felt at Summerhall, with those dragon eggs that felt polluted and wrong.
Jon had his hand on his hilt, ready to draw Swift Wave.
He made his way into the underneath of the tree. There were two small creatures that looked both surprised and unsurprised to see him.
"I was told this is where the Three-Eyed Raven was," Jon said.
One of the tall cats, or short people, pointed to one side. Jon noted that the hand did not have five fingers. Jon thought three, but it could have been four.
In the next space, there were masses of tree roots. Somehow there was an ancient man living within them.
The cold, foul magic was centered here. Jon looked around with disgust.
"I was expecting Bran Stark, not Aegon Targaryen."
That couldn't be a real name, Jon decided. "Not even a woman dying of childbed fever would name a child after that child's slain elder half-brother. What magical items do you have in here?" Jon demanded.
"I brought a dragon egg with me to the Wall, then carried it with me North. Though I understand you have a lot more than eggs, Jon Targaryen."
Jon had some trouble, but he found this egg. He took some broken roots and used them to roll the egg out away from the wall where it had been hidden.
"How are you not sick from this? It's polluted. Foul, not like a dragon should be. Cold."
"That feels cold to you?"
"And the eggs under Summerhall."
"Under? The wildfire didn't destroy them?"
"No. But they aren't hatchable. Someone did something to them, also yours."
"So it could never have hatched?"
"I don't know when the foul magic happened. But it's not possible now."
"And I didn't even notice. I wonder how you did?"
Jon said nothing. He wondered how the greenseer couldn't sense that. It was horrible.
"Can you destroy the egg?" the man-tree asked.
"I don't know. But I can try."
Jon pulled his sword and hacked at the egg. Jon expected to feel a harsh thud echo up his arms. Instead, the sword broke into the egg. The blue and red thing seemed to lose the blue glow it possessed. The oppressive magic vanished.
Jon had the sense that it had tried that with a non-fouled egg, even Valyrian steel wouldn't have worked. But the sword attacked the magic first. With the cold, foul magic gone, and the extensive damage done, the dragon egg was barely stronger than wood.
"I don't feel any difference, but a real dragon egg that was not."
"It was, but the magic hollowed it out," Jon said. He still didn't know of any kind of magic that could do it. The Valyrians were unlikely have invented anything that would weaken their strongest form of magic.
"It felt like our magic," one of the little creatures said. A Child of the Forest. "But not quite ours. We made them, you know, the Others. We got men and changed them so we would have a strong army. But their twisted magic was different from our own."
"That explains the cold feeling. Somehow the Others, or an agent of theirs, got hold of that egg," Jon said.
"It's been with me constantly," the man-tree said.
"Before you got it. Old as you are, you were still born after most of the Targaryen dragons were dead. Then everyone began hoarding the eggs, repurposing them. There were no more for the future, that they knew of."
Jon had no intention to work out the magic used by the Others. He didn't want to witness their spells or rituals. He wasn't even sure if he could see them. His magical strength cratered when he was outside the influence of a weirwood or a dragon egg or a dragon.
"I came here to warn you away from my cousin, Bran Stark."
"I have trained him. I will continue to, or he will learn lessons on his own. Your magic is different from the Stark magic. You couldn't feel that awful magic in that hollowed-out egg. I suspect it's the Stark side of my birth that allowed me to. Bran will learn what he needs."
"I thought someone needed to help fight the Others."
Jon nodded, agreeing. "I will put together an army of men to clear the way North so we and the dragons can end the Others. My little cousin needs time to grow up."
The man-tree gave one angry, awkward nod.
Not used to losing, but he had never been able to handle this battle at all. The wrong blood, tainted perhaps.
Trying to gain strength from a weirwood, but it wasn't quite for him. The dragon egg might have been poisoning his magic, tainting him, too.
Jon would trust nothing about this man's thoughts or actions, not after carrying that foul egg for decades. Who knew who he truly acted for, if his thoughts were his own or an Other's.
"If I have to come back because you reach for Bran again, I won't bring just one dragon. I'd hate to burn this weirwood down, but you've been here as a pollution for a very long time. Spend your last days or turns of the moon peacefully."
The old creature looked resigned.
Jon, Benjen, and Ghost flew with a dozen dragons to Winterfell. They landed all around the castle and the Wintertown. They weren't subtle, not in the slightest.
No one tried to stop them as they made for the castle.
Nuncle Ned came to the gate as Jon and Benjen arrived.
"I had a raven, that my last brother was long overdue and suspected lost," Ned said.
"Betrayed by the Idiot in Charge," Jon said.
"You haven't left them?" Ned demanded of his brother.
"I'm normally North of the Wall, doing the Watch's business," Benjen said. "I'm recruiting now, still Watch business."
"Jeor Mormont will die for the orders he gave Nuncle Benjen. Sending a man off alone to find out answers among dangers poorly understood. I will kill him myself for his idiocy," Jon said.
"I was a few minutes from being killed when Jon found me. It was a dumb order, but it wasn't a rare thing. We were so poorly staffed, I did a lot of things by myself when I should have taken four or five men. But I won't serve under him again."
"Which is why I'll kill him and anyone who tries to defend him. Proud idiot."
"I can't condone that," Ned said.
"You should be glad I don't want your head, too, Nuncle Ned. Allowing Benjen to exile himself. Allowing me to be treated like a bastard when I'm really your nephew. Properly, I'm the rightful king of all Westeros and you tried to hide me rather than support me."
"As Bran has tried to convince you, I'm a greenseer. Few moments can hide from me if I really want to understand them. Now, we have other work and I've no interest in an iron chair."
Jon reached out and grabbed Ned's arm. Then he pulled both of them into the recent past, the day Jon had searched for and found Benjen.
Ned just stood there open mouthed, watching it all. No more skeptical words.
He saw Benjen fighting wights. He saw the dragon arrive. Jon pointed out where the Other was, but it was a distance away.
Then Jon brought them back to the present. "Convinced now?"
Ned swallowed and looked like he'd been in a fight. Though he had just watched one.
"We can't just use the dragons to track and kill all the Others. There's something magical up there blocking them. We'll need men. I have more Valyrian steel, lots of it. I'll equip the men with it, let them keep it as a payment after, if they survive. But I need men."
"You shall have them," Nuncle Ned said.
"I also need help writing enough messages. I'll be delivering them myself, as a dragon makes a good statement. But I'm going to give all the North a chance to help, then I'll venture to the south. I expect nothing from them."
"Where am I sending people?"
"We'll have to arrange ships from White Harbor going north. I have a ship of my own at Hardhome, but no one to crew it."
"How did you get it there?"
"The dragons lifted it in Valyria and flew it to Hardhome."
"They cared very much about getting every dragon from Valyria. They grew impatient of hatching them all there and letting them get big enough to fly long distances. So many of the still surviving dragons came North as eggs. They're now all hatched."
Ned shook his head. "So we could send our forces south to White Harbor, or perhaps north and east to Eastwatch-by-the-Sea?"
"Perhaps you should discuss things with the Manderlys, they actually know ships? Then prepare your letters?"
"That sounds like a plan. Now, can we beg to break our fast here?"
"Oh, of course. Come in, come in, Jon and Benjen. Come in."
It turned into a two day reunion.
Arya demanded to go with, but Nuncle Ned had to refuse her. Robb was strangely absent, perhaps guilt over his actions had finally wormed its way into his head?
And Jon got in a few more lessons with Bran.
Jon was exhausted when he landed at the Gates of the Moon leading into the Vale of Arryn. This was his first stop south of the Neck.
Finally someone rode out. Jon thought the sigil looked familiar. The Blackfish?
Lysa Tully's uncle. She was dead, what was he still doing here? Who was actually in charge of the Vale these days?
"I bring a letter," Jon said.
The Blackfish took it, but his eyes were firmly on the dragons. "Who are you?"
"I am called Jon Snow."
"Of Winterfell? I've heard of you. But Starks never had dragons. Who are you really?"
"Someone you should listen to."
The old knight nodded. The dragons ensured he was listening with care.
"Everyone thinks the Others were a legend. They were real, made by magic users as an army. They got away from their makers and were defeated, but not destroyed. They're awake again and moving. We need men beyond the Wall to finally defeat them."
"The letter is from Eddard Stark who I convinced. Believe it or not. Believe these dragons or not. If you do not send fighters North, as the letter requests, I will remember. You don't want me to come back."
The Blackfish had cracked the seal and was reading the letter. "You are paying in Valyrian steel? How can you claim that? There's almost none left."
"In Westeros, true, there are few Valyrian steel blades. But these dragons didn't come from Westeros. They came to it. I helped them to do it and I brought Valyrian steel from Valyria."
Jon drew his sword and showed it. He didn't mention that he'd found this not all that far away, here in Westeros. But he now had Valyrian steel that wasn't the Stark ancestral sword.
"That's the order. Follow it or not. Then I'll decide what to do."
Jon doubted those disorganized fools would even manage to debate an answer in time. Jon flew to Dragonstone, but the dragons refused to land.
The foulness was strong even in the air. It was the same kind Jon remembered from the lower part of Summerhall, and from the Three-Eyed Raven's dragon egg. Something awful had happened at Dragonstone. Perhaps this is where the eggs had been contaminated in the first place.
Jon picked another island and flew there instead. He wasn't completely sure where he was or who was the lord here.
But Jon had plenty of people to notice him.
He asked about Dragonstone.
"No one holds it at present. Stannis is king now. Robert's been dead almost two turns of the moon. Assassin, probably paid with a lion's gold."
"Then I'll trust you with this letter."
This lord must have been close with the Targaryens before. He had been crying to see the dragons Jon flew with.
Jon received a lot of respect, probably because of the dragons.
It was impossible to know if any of these lords would send men.
Jon saved King's Landing for last. He did not arrive by dragons, but snuck inside instead. He had greendreamed the place several times and knew the various secret passages.
Jon got himself in front of the Iron Throne in the middle of the night.
It was a ghastly creation. Cruel and stupid, which described far too many of Jon's ancestors. A brag over how many died, then of idiocy because the rulers kept their bloody past on display as a sign of might.
True Valyrians would have scoffed at it. They thought poorly of plain iron, or even steel. Many of their opponents were equipped that way – and perished. So the Valyrian mages had come up with a magical weapon to spare Valyrians from having to fight. It destroyed non-magical iron. It could be cast over a large area even.
Jon had learned the spell during one of his dragondreams.
Jon walked up to the chair and touched it. It felt cold and dead, magically. He didn't want to destroy all the iron in this room, just the iron in this chair.
He performed the more limited version of this spell by cycling magic through the iron, then pulling it back. Over and again. Jon could see the ugly thing go from blackened (from dragonflame) to orange (from rust) to flaking away.
Jon could pulse his magic through Swift Wave and make it more powerful by far. Lighter, sharper, faster. But doing the same thing to this ordinary steel rotted it gone.
Jon left some of its rusty carcass behind as a mystery.
Let me them speculate on how this had been done. A curse on the Baratheons or whatever story they created.
No one would ever fight for this chair again. It had killed Jon's father and had forced his mother into hiding in the high desert, which certainly hadn't helped her to give birth safely.
Jon left King's Landing and had no immediate plans to return. No, it was back to Winterfell, then Hardhome. The south was fully consumed with its wars.
Hardhome had finally gathered enough fighters from the North and the wildlings (or Free Folk) to send three exploratory groups. Jon still hoped at least some other fighters would arrive, but he could use them for other tasks later.
The briefing of the team leaders and their deputies was in one of the storerooms. People are seated on stacks of Valyrian steel shields or crates containing Valyrian steel tools.
"You have maps. You'll have dragons accompanying you from the sky. When the dragons refuse to continue forward, that's what you mark on your maps. Search the areas the dragons avoid, if it's safe. We need to work out this magic," Jon said.
Benjen was leading one party. A Black Brother who'd shown up, called Qhorin, led another. Tormund led the third.
"I'll be traveling by dragon between all three groups as I can. But dragons say there are some ships five or seven days out. Could be merchants, could be people coming to help. I'll have to be back here often. We'll bring fresh food. Melt snow for water, of course."
Jon got a lot of nods.
He had representatives from most of the north. Most. But three houses hadn't responded at all. There was still time, but things didn't look good for House Bolton and its allies.
Jon did get reinforcements, slowly. A number of Crownlands houses arrived, more to see the dragons than to help. But Jon put them to work.
Jon had three houses from the Riverlands and one from the Stormlands. None from the West or the Vale or the Reach or Iron Islands or Dorne. None.
Jon and the dragons ferried out food and collected information most every day. But it took three turns of the moon for the people walking in heavy snow to arrive at the odd magical border.
Tormund's group was searching closest to the eastern shore. They found something once the dragons began to avoid following Tormund's group.
Jon landed well away from their tents.
The dragons really didn't like whatever the group was investigating. Jon wasn't fond of the sensation either. It was the same foul, nasty feeling he got from the eggs in Summerhall and the entirety of Dragonstone.
"It was buried," Tormund said. "Had to dig. Know how hard this ground is to dig?"
"It looks...like a tree stump. Someone spelled and buried a tree stump?" Jon asked.
"Weirwood stump. But a strange color."
Jon tapped it with a stick. It didn't make the noise that wood did. Though the temperature might have something to do with that.
Jon touched it with his gloved hand. The foul magic was definitely there.
Jon walked around the odd thing. He saw markings cut into the wood. Some Valyrians had done magic with symbols. But these weren't Valyrian in make.
Jon hacked at it with his Valyrian steel sword. It didn't make a dent. The same sword had cut right into a corrupted dragon egg. It didn't even scratch this old stump. Or whatever magic had made it into.
Jon went to talk to the largest of the dragons in the area. He was trying to figure out if they could get a dragon close enough to blow flames on the oddity.
The answer was no.
So Jon ordered wood to be gathered near the foul magical stump. Then Jon had a dragon ignite a torch. Jon used a dragon's fire to light the firewood. Whoosh.
Once the fire was well started, and felt nearly as magical as pure dragon flame, Jon had the stump pushed into the fire.
The foulness diminished little by little. It took plenty of time, but the feeling vanished.
Then Jon could hear cracking and shattering. The stump broke apart then and was engulfed in flames.
The dragons couldn't approach to set the thing on fire, but the fire could approach the magical anchor. It was strange how magic worked poorly one way, but well in another.
The men and dragons advanced forward on the ground and in the skies and helped to map out where the new unapproachable borders were.
Jon needed to get this information to the other groups and their dragons.
It took two more turns of the moon to find and destroy another twenty eight hardened, corrupted weirwood stumps. The dragons had much more territory they could explore. The frigid weather seemed to be moderating, too.
The dragons continued to cycle in and out, but once in the dangerous area, they didn't roam far from their groups, because the Others and bands of wights were becoming more frequent. They had started to fight once they realized the war was coming to them.
As long as there were dragons in the air, daytime was safe. It was night that was the trouble, or during heavy snows, or periods of thick fog.
Jon had sent the rest of the arrivals at Hardhome north. In total, Jon now had two thousand men. They'd had fewer than fifty deaths so far, very few from wights or Others. But there were still ferocious animals and the temperature and hidden dangers like thin ice. Even this far north, there were occasional hotsprings to keep water from fully freezing.
They had noticed that the Others they were facing were more human-like and less icy. Also less powerful.
The parties of wights were smaller when Jon's army found them. The Others perished from even a touch with a Valyrian steel sword. They were far less hardy now.
Destroying those corrupted weirwood stumps was having an effect. Those corrupted stumps must have been how they were gathering, or projecting, their magic power.
This wasn't like a battle Jon had ever heard of, it was slower and colder and focused on magic.
Robb Stark was here, just arrived to one of the forward teams, but still an arse. The Manderlys were here in force as were non-stupid Mormonts like the one at the Wall, Glovers, Reeds, Flints, and many others. Not a single Bolton, Ryswell, or Dustin man.
"What are these things?" Robb Stark asked later that day, when Jon was conferring with Nuncle Benjen.
"We can't read the language," Benjen said.
"But a Child of the Forest I met said his, or her, people created the Others. They needed to get magic from somewhere. The Children were attuned to weirwoods, so the Others started there. That's my guess."
"You met a Child?" Robb asked. His words dripped with doubt.
"You don't believe in magic, either. Bran does."
"Bran's a boy."
Bran was turning into a Stark. Robb was mostly a Tully and useless as a result. Jon didn't say it out loud, though.
Robb turned around and walked toward the Other's artifact. He pulled off his gloves and reached out his hands.
"Robb, back away. Don't touch it…," Jon said.
But Robb knew best. Others who were wary of the stumps had worn thick gloves at the least.
Robb touched the corrupted thing.
The effect was instantaneous. Robb's pale skin began to lose even more of its color. He was becoming clear, glass-like. Ice-like.
Qhorin Halfhand, one of the few Night's Watch here, leaped forward and took Robb's hand off at the wrist. But he didn't regain his color. He was growing icier still.
Qhorin then shoved his Valyrian steel blade through the boy's, or monster's, chest.
Robb Stark shattered like ice.
The whole process of going from human to Other had taken moments.
"What a stupid, stupid boy," Benjen said.
"Nuncle Ned never corrected him. His mother let him do whatever madness he liked. His best friend was an Ironborn. I don't know who to blame," Jon said.
Though Jon blamed the Tully blood and the Tully teachings that Robb seemed to hold to.
Jon searched Robb's pack and found his Valyrian steel. It would go to people who wanted to fight this war, people smart enough to keep their gloves on.
"Don't muck about with magical items. Don't try cutting your finger with a Valryian steel sword. Don't touch the Other's Stumps. Just don't. Magic is merciless if you use it wrongly," Jon called out to the onlookers.
Jon had to wonder if Robb really did all that. Or if Jon would greendream in the future and use some kind of compulsion on Robb.
That was stupidity Jon still couldn't comprehend.
If that was really Robb Stark, good riddance. If not, Jon could mourn the decent child who became a wretched adult and had to be removed.
Three hundred twelve stumps. That's what had stood between Jon's army and the Other's fortress. They hadn't been attacked in two turns of the moon, not by a wight, not by an Other. The dragons could fly up and down wherever they wished Beyond the Wall.
If there were other stumps, they didn't effect the dragons like they had before.
The fortress Jon was looking at was old, older than Winterfell looked now. There were Others inside, but sick or already dead.
They were magical in nature, but not a natural magic, or not modified to work easily with something that already existed.
The Children co-existed with the weirwoods. The dragons had been made so they could pull magic from the volcanoes or hotsprings of the world.
Destroying the stumps had weakened or destroyed the Others. Their magic was wholly dependent upon them.
Inside the fortress, Jon found rooms with weirwood stumps that didn't feel sickening or cold. The ice men had been ready to pervert and bury more of them, perhaps as they gained and kept territory while pushing south.
The leader of the Others Jon found deep inside the fortress. He wasn't dead, but sluggish and slow. It spoke to Jon, but the language wasn't anything Jon could make out.
"I know how you were made. I am sorry. But I cannot spare you," Jon said.
Then he beheaded the creature.
The frost that inhabited every stone of the fortress began to flake off. Jon looked outside a window and a thaw began that moment. It was still far enough North, it would snow here, as similar places in Essos had snow. But Jon doubted it would be perpetual winter here now.
Which meant the Wall would melt, perhaps in a few years or maybe longer.
All this magic spent to change the weather and power such vile creatures.
Jon promised himself to learn different magics, not like the Others, not so much like the Valyrians, but more like the almost faded Children.
"You did it," Benjen said, walking into the room.
"We did. The Night's Watch is ended because the Others are ended."
"Oh, if this all unfreezes. The Wall. People have to be warned."
He looked at the fortress walls and the writing embedded in some of the stones. Jon hadn't seen it before. "Do you recognize any of this?"
"I speak a little Old Tongue, but this would have to be far older. Or we forgot how to say these letters."
"Maybe it's Children's Tongue?" Jon asked, more than a little curious as he traced the symbols.
"I imagine you'll be trying to find out."
Benjen knew his nephew well. "So much magic has been lost over the years. I don't mind losing the Other's style of it. But what the Children could do… That I would like to know."
The next winter lasted only four months, even in the North.
The Wall melted, but it was still there. Seven hundred feet of ice don't disappear in an instant.
The Night's Watch disbanded on Jon's order.
Jon appointed some of the Free Folk to hold the former Watch castles. Those stranded in the North all holed up in Eastwatch-by-the-Sea. They had committed crimes in the south that would see them beheaded if they returned.
Nuncle Ned was glad that the Others were ended. But why was the Wall melting? Why was the Watch gone?
Jon wasn't having any more of Ned's weakness. He hadn't handled his rebel lords. He hadn't handled his wife or his former heir. He wasn't doing anything useful with his authority.
Jon took his nuncles with him when he marched with two hundred men to the Dreadfort.
When they arrived, a hundred dragons landed nearby, all visible from inside the Dreadfort.
Jon made no demands. He set up for no siege. He asked Benjen to protect him for a few moments, then Jon began a magical ritual and stabbed his sword into the earth.
The earth below everyone's feet began to heave and roll and shudder. After a few seconds, loose stones from the fort began to rain down inside its courtyards. After a minute, the Dreadfort's highest tower collapsed and broke on one of the fort's walls. Then the outermost walls went. Then even the stoutest keeps. Then some sub-levels collapsed and the whole pile sunk into the ground.
Only then did Jon remove his sword from the earth. The heaving ceased.
"It's a lesser version of how the Children shattered the Arm of Dorne or what they did to make the swamps of the Neck," Jon said.
"You didn't give them a chance to…," Ned said.
"And I won't. Bolton had an invitation to supply men for the army. He was no lord. The other false lords can hide in their castles when I knock them down. Whoever holds Casterly Rock, Highgarden, Riverrun, the Red Keep. The deserts of Dorne I'll treat a different way. None of them helped. None of them deserve a thing. Eventually I will replace them with decent people."
"I was born a king, Nuncle. Now I've conquered our greatest enemy, one from legend. Westeros is mine. I will rule from Dragon's Height, where the Others formerly dwelled. It's the most magical place in Westeros. The weirwoods have already begun regrowing and getting huge."
Ned blinked and considered all the words. He finally seemed to realize why he'd been asked to come to the Dreadfort. It wasn't for a siege, it was to witness this feat of magic.
Nuncle Ned kneeled and swore to Jon, then.
"You can handle the Ryswells and the Dustins – or I will. If I do it, you won't have castles to create new lords for," Jon said.
"I will do it."
"Monford Velaryon will be the next lord of the Greatlands, including what you know as the Crownlands, the Stormlands, and a section of the Reach. Though Dragonstone will be torn down if it's still as foul as it was when I attempted to visit before. Either the Blackwoods or House Darry will take control of the Rivers, I'd like to meet both of them before I decide. The Vale, West, the Reach, and the Rivers – I do not know. Nor Dorne, though perhaps I could have House Selmy take control. You are now in control of the Iron Islands. I would empty them, allow only some mining colonies and temporary villages and naval stations there. Can't grow enough food to support a people there."
The planning continued right there at the ruins of the former Dreadfort.
Jon wondered what his older self would think of what he'd done, how he'd fought this fight.
Jon hadn't sought his older self out since their two earlier meetings.
He had completed the destiny that the older Jon had alluded to. He just hoped he had made the right choices, though they were more harsh than fair.