THE BASTARD REBORN
Introduction: This is the sequel to "Blood of the Direwolf", which depicted Arya Stark's return to Westeros, and her crusade to reclaim lordship of the North, and wreak a bloody vengeance on the false lords Roose Bolton and Bowen Marsh. The novella (which can be read here: s/7519156/1/Blood_of_the_Direwolf) concluded with Arya pledging fealty to King Stannis Baratheon. "The Bastard Reborn" continues that story, but this time, we follow Jon Snow, who is currently prowling the Wolfswood in the form of his direwolf Ghost (having been slain months prior, during the Night's Watch mutiny). He has reunited with Nymeria, and the two beasts are struggling to survive in the harsh Northern winter.
Jon in the Wolfswood
The white wolf knelt over the twitching thing. He could smell its warm blood, a red pool drawing out across the snow. The deer kicked and shuddered. Yet as the two great beasts loomed over it, all of its fear melted away, and there was only sorrow.
"He's afraid to die," the white wolf whispered to his sister.
"It is meat, brother. If we do not eat it, we will die. This is the way of things." Nymeria padded forward, and with a bark, sunk her teeth in the deer's broken neck. Jon watched as the creatures eyes faded clear, and then buried his own snout into its belly. The soft flesh opened up, and his mouth was filled with hot, meaty juices. Jon felt dizzy as twisted tendons tore from bone, and a warm red tide dissolved the snow beneath their paws. It felt so good it hurt, but too soon the meat grew cold and foul, and Jon knew that there was no life left in it… and he felt ashamed.
"You are a wolf," Nymeria growled. "You must forget the ways of men, or we will both starve and freeze, and be eaten by greater beasts."
"What beasts!" Jon snapped back. "There is nothing left in these frozen woods… no warmth, no food, no light, no smells… only the wind's scream and the cloud's teeth. The world is dead!"
Nymeria threw back her head and howled in frustration, but as always, there was no reply. "I'm not dead," she whispered, sadness on her breath. "And you're not dead… The pack survives." She grabbed the carcass with her teeth, and began to drag it with her teeth, leaving a trail of thick black snow in her wake. She propped the deer up against a large oak tree, and dug herself into its roots.
"The pack survives…" Jon repeated, climbing on top of her. "The Old Gods will protect us." He licked the dried blood from his sister's mouth, and held still as she did the same to him. Soon the wind faded, and their thoughts fell into shadow. Sleep was their one refuge. They could sleep for hours, and never fear another predator, for there was no beast greater than a direwolf, and they were two. Jon dreamed of daggers in the dark, and of a girl touched by fire.
The white wolf woke stiff and starving, his matted coat caked in morning frost. He tore himself free of the tree roots, and barked at his sister to get up. Nothing had changed since the night before. The dark spider trees still swayed to the winds evil song, with not a hint of life or love to give them hope. Every part of Jon ached, and when he looked up, he saw a bruised sky which promised a thousand shards of frozen teeth. "Snow," it seemed to taunt. "Snow… Snow… Snow…" I hate you, he thought, growling at the sky, and I will always hate you.
"Where should we go now?" Nymeria yawned, stretching out here claws. "We tracked that deer for many moons, and now there is nothing left but crushed bone." She padded up to Jon, and licked his ear, but he snapped her away. He was not in the mood. "When I was in the land of hills and rivers," she continued. "There were lots of deer… and bulls, and rabbits, and squirrels, and even fish. Have you ever had fish, brother? I haven't seen a lake that wasn't frozen in these parts."
"Which way is it?" Jon asked wearily, but Nymeria gave no answer. The world around them seemed so strange now. Winter had consumed the earth, and spewed back something dead and rotting. "We can't leave the forest. The trees are our only shield. Let's try and find that cave again."
The two wolves wandered for a while in silence. After a time, the moon returned, and they slept, and woke, and walked some more. The mornings were always the worst. In the night air, their blood froze beneath the skin, and every day they went without food, more of their fur would fall out. Jon's coat was thinning, but Nymera had loft big clumps of hair from her belly, and her skin had grown pale and loose. I have to find her some food, Jon thought. I cannot let her starve. But any tracks they might pursue were washed away by the snow and icy rain, and the scents of the world had faded into nothing. Even the trees were turning into skeletons. They walked along a path they could not see, to a place they did not want to reach, yet to stop was to give up, and wolves were stronger than that.
Jon thought of the day they had been reunited. They had hugged and howled as one; a howl so great that even the winds were silenced… but no more. He remembered hearing his sister's voice that day; not his wolf sister, but his real sister; the wild one they called "Ar-Yah". She had told him to meet her at the Wall, but he was a wolf now, and the caves and halls of men were not his place. It was too painful. His brothers had bitten him with their long claws of steel and hate, and his life-blood had poured out of him in one long, endless stream. After that he was only a wolf, bounding across the snow, to a place where no one could hurt him anymore.
Sometimes the ghosts of his first life would haunt him—visions of roaring fires and cold marches; of singing faces and clashing steel; of music and monsters—but above all, he saw a pale girl with fire in her hair, whose laughter tasted so sweet it hurt. Ygritte, he wanted to howl, so long and loud that the world would break in two… but he couldn't. Not anymore. He had fought it for a long time, but finally the wolf devoured the man, and the voice of Jon Snow was silenced by Ghost.
One day, as the pale sun billowed beneath the cracked treetops, an odd smell returned to the world. The two wolves had been walking all day, when suddenly the faintest whiff of meat drifted into their mouths.
"Flesh!" Nymeria yelped, limping as quickly as she could into the clearing ahead.
"Man flesh," Jon agreed, his mouth watering. As they waded through the hills of snow, a huge spider tree rose up to meet them. Hanging from its twisted, black branches were the bodies of many men, pale and broken. Nymeria broke into a trot, barking with glee.
"The Old Gods," she said. "It must be." As they got closer, Jon saw that thick, coils of vine had been tied around the men's throats, suspending them above the ground. Their faces were twisted in expressions of fear and anger and sorrow, and their eyes were sunken deep into their skulls. Their skin was bone white, and shredded rags of wool hung from their bruised bodies like cobwebs. And yet they were mostly untouched by the wild.
"Why haven't the birds eaten them?" Jon called anxiously.
"What birds?" Nymeria cried back. "The cold has kept them for us." The cold is our enemy. Jon felt nervous. Nymeria managed to scramble her way part way up the tree trunk, and grab hold of one of their legs. She ripped her head back and forth, and the man broke in two at his belly. His legs fell to the snow amidst a flow of black, half-frozen muck.
"You can't eat that," Jon said. "These are men. Wolves can't eat men. That's the way of things."
"These are dead men, brother," she replied biting into the frozen flesh. "And meat besides. They were meant for us to have. 'The Old Gods', you said. See…" Jon looked into the trunk of the tree, and saw a strange face staring back at him. It was carved into the wood, and tears of blood seemed to have stained the wrinkled bark beneath its deep eyes. The Old Gods… They are watching us… Protecting us from the cold… Jon stared up at the bodies again. There were so many of them to choose from, and the cold had kept them from rotting.
But these were men. He couldn't eat them. His stomach growled in disagreement. His eyes moved back and forth across the branches. The smell of blood and flesh and meat became stronger. Nymeria tore and slurped at her carcass. "Join me, brother," she said through black lips. "It's not great, but it's food." No, Jon thought, I can't. You are a wolf, another voice said. This is the way of things.
Jon noticed that one of the bodies was not a man, but a woman. She was not old, and yet her skin looked ancient. Her dark mangy hair draped down torn bloodied robes. Her face was bruised and twisted into look of pure hatred, and her throat was marred with deep purple gashes.
As Jon peered into her sad, sunken eyes, a vision came to him from his old life. A vision of that same woman staring at him from above; that same loathing pointed at him. "Mother," he had called her once, long ago, and she had slapped him for it. "Bastard," she had spit back. "You do not belong here."
You can't, Jon Snow, this is wrong, a voice in his head whispered. You must, roared another, for you are a wolf, Ghost, and you do belong here. Angry blood ran through his veins, and without thinking, his claws scrambled up the tree trunk, and wrapped around the dead woman. The branch that held her snapped, and they both fell to the ground with a wet thump. He opened his jaws wide, and closed them hard around the women's throat. His teeth pushed through frozen skin, and touched the cold blood and meat beneath. He ripped his head back, and swallowed bitterly. The meat slid down his throat, and it tasted so awful that he almost wretched it back up.
"Good, huh?" Nymeria called, and she threw back he head and let out a great soaring howl. Jon's stomach growled for more, and he tore off another strip of flesh, and then another, and another, and another, each mouthful slightly better and warmer than the one before it. No, whispered the man. This is wrong. You must, roared the wolf. This is right… and she deserves it.
Jon took another bite, and felt something small and slimy squirming against his gums. He looked down at the woman, and watched with horror as a thousand tiny green worms poured out of her half eaten neck. The dead body gave a sickened crack, as head broke from body, and a throbbing wave of maggots wriggled across the snow.
"No," he whimpered, feeling more ashamed than he could bear. Now he saw the woman as she had been. Jon remembered the day he had fallen from his horse, as a young boy. He had not wanted her to see him cry, but rather than scold him, the woman had cleaned the blood from his knee, and hoisted him back onto his horse. "Be careful, Jon," she had said. "That's a boy, both hands on the harness. I'll have Maester Luwin take a look when we return."
"I'm sorry," he wept. "I didn't… I'm so sorry…" He licked the bloody stump of her neck, but it was no use. She was already dead. She had been dead for years. He dragged the body over to the base of the Weirwood, and began to dig a hole with his paws. When it was deep enough, he pushed the women into the grave, and covered it with mud and ice once more. "Rest now, Lady Catelyn," he whimpered. "And be at peace…"
They slept beneath the tree of corpses that night, under the watchful gaze of the Old Gods. Jon refused to take another bite, but Nymeria fed from the flesh of three different men. She fell asleep beside him, warm and well-fed. But Jon was troubled, and once again the northern winds howled with an eerie menace. "Snow…" they called. "Snow… Snow… Snow…"
As Jon slept, frightening images enter his mind. He dreamt of icy claws were scratching at his arms and chest. She saw a white landscape, bathed in shadow. Fierce storm clouds were rolling across a grey sky. There were figures all around him, tearing at his skin. They were dead men, with yellow, rotting skin, and black holes where their eyes should be. In the distance, Jon could see a host of white wraiths, galloping across a sea of red snow. They were demons, carved of ice, and their armour shone like glass. They rode dead horses, and their swords were cold and sharp. Jon heard a war-horn screech above the winds, and its song made his flesh burn. He tried to scream, but he had no voice. The demons were at his throat now, and he could see the ground around him growing red. In the distance he heard howling, and then—
Jon woke with a gasp. He scrambled to his feet, panting heavily, and shook the frost from his coat. His eyes darted back and forth along the horizon, but there was nothing there. Nymeria was growling gently in her sleep.
"What were those things?" he whispered to the darkness, but he knew exactly what they were. White wraiths on dead horses… The Others have awoken in the north… His panting slowed down, as the still, silence of the Wolfswood took hold. The night sky still glimmered above him, and bodies of dead men swung eerily in the breeze. Jon was about to return to his slumber, when he heard the voice, faint and placid on the breeze.
"Snow…" it murmured. "Jon Snow…"
The wolf's fur bristled. "Show yourself!" he roared, anger and fear and frustration rushing through him. "Come out and face me demon!"
Nymeria was woken by the noise. "What is it?" she hissed, scrambling to her feet. "Hunters?" Jon was pacing back and forth now. His sister quickly padded up beside him, baring her teeth.
"Snow…" the trees rustled. "Snow… Snow… Return to us, Snow…" Jon snarled, and snapped at the wind.
"Who are you?" he cried, slamming his claws against the Weirwood, and tearing a chunk of bark from it. "What do you want?" And then he saw it. The face of the Weirwood was looking at him, and its mouth was calling in a soft, strange tone. He backed away, suddenly very frightened. Nymeria was growling in a low tone, but she dared not come closer.
"Jon Snow…" the tree called in a whispering tune. "I see you. You are not a wolf… but a man… a man of the Night's Watch… Come back to us…" The wind was blowing strong now, and it seemed to come from every direction. The hanging corpses swung to and fro like chimes in a storm. Nymeria became very silent, and fell behind her brother.
Jon crept towards the talking tree, and looking long and deep into its weeping eyes. Inside he saw a man more bone than flesh, who stared back at Jon with a single red eye. The man sat upon a Weirwood throne, his withered limbs bound with vines and branches, and his ragged clothes eaten away by moss and worms. Upon his head sat a crown of mushroom. The wolves and the wind fell silent all at once, and the wooden man whispered to Jon as though were both within a cave, far beneath the earth.
"Child of dragons and wolves, I have one here who wishes to speak with you." Beside the tree-man sat a small boy. He saw a deep sadness buried in the lad's eyes, but as they met with Jon's, a warm smile spread across his tiny face.
"Bran…" Jon whispered, wanting to cry. "I… I knew you were alive… You saved me at Queenscrown… You and Summer." The boy reached out his hand, and patted the panting grey direwolf at his side. Nymeria crept up to the Weirwood, and touched the trunk with her paw. Jon stepped closer as well.
"I have been looking for you Jon. I thought I had lost you forever." There were tears in Bran's eyes, but his smile would not fade.
"They said…" Jon sputtered in his wolf tongue. "Everyone said you were dead. Where are you?"
Bran opened his mouth to speak, but the tree-man interrupted. "He is quite safe, and surrounded by friends and protectors. It is you who is in the greatest danger, Jon Snow. Winter has come, and the dead come with it."
"I am with the Children of the Forest," Bran cried. "Just like Old Nan's stories. Remember?"
"Aye," the tree-man continued. "Bran is learning to sing the songs of the earth. But you must walk a different path Jon Snow, for you are the 'prince who was promised', and yours is the song of ice and fire." Jon padded closer, and pressed his snout against the eyes of the Weirwood. The tree-man placed his withered hand on Bran's shoulder, and leaned forward. "The enemy is moving, Jon Snow, and their coming into your realm will herald the blackest winter in over a thousand years. You must return to the halls of men and stop them."
"How?" Jon breathed, his nostrils filling with a hundred aromas of leaf and sap and spice.
"Seek out the sword of the evening… forged of the flesh of burning stars it is, and tempered by the doom of a frozen city." The tree-man rose from his seat, tearing the vines from his brittle, grey bones, and cried out in a scraped voice, "North, Jon Snow! You must go north, into the lands of the Others… for the instrument of their doom awaits your coming." The tree-man seemed to collapse then, but strange, childlike creatures caught him as he fell, and quickly placed him back on this tangled throne.
"In Hardhome," Bran said firmly. "'Lightbringer' awaits you in the city beyond the Wall." The vision was fading now, and the bark of the tree seemed to close in and around his little brother. The smells began to fade too, and Nymeria whimpered as Bran's voice was drowned out by the howling wind. "Goodbye, brother," Bran called out. "I'll be watching… I love you…" The image disappeared at last, and the tree was just a tree once more. Jon turned to Nymeria. Her gaze was still locked on the eyes of the Weirwood.
"Hardhome," he whispered, his hot breath painting the air in front of him.
Suddenly, a searing pain entered the white wolf's belly. There were footsteps and whispers all around them. Men! Jon realised with horror. Nymeria was growling, and snapping at the shadows. Jon turned to face them as well, and felt the arrow-head grind against his bones. His sister burst off into the trees, but let out an awful yelp as one of the men caught her in the hide with a long steel claw. Another arrow whistled through the air, and wrenched Jon up against the Weirwood with a thump. Moaning, he rolled onto his back, and found himself staring up at the night sky. Bran, he thought dizzily. Where are you?
The men were closing in around them now; dark figures approaching from every direction. It was over, Jon realised. Winter had beaten them, but at least he knew someone he loved was still alive; his pack… his family.
"Gods, look at the size of them," a voice said. "That white one belonged to the bastard, Snow."
"I can't believe they were here," another man added. "Just as Lady Melisandre foretold… Right where we hanged the Brotherhood on our march to Moat Cailin."
"Aye, it's a winter miracle. Now bind their limbs and jaws with chains, and throw them in the cart."
"The grey one as well? She almost tore Garred's throat out."
"Aye, her grace has need of both of them… back at Winterfell." The sound of the wind faded, until only his frantic heartbeats remained. A cloak of darkness folded over the white wolf, as his blood crept out before his eyes in a red tide. Everything went black.