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AC 283 – somewhere to the SW of Winterfell
Eddard Stark was mentally kicking himself for the choices he had made – or had been forced to make – over the past year and a half. Plus he had not just been a plaything of the Gods – he had been so stupid!
"Truly, Eddard Stark, you know nothing" – he thought angry thoughts at himself.
What had he been thinking, for instance, to bring Barbrey Dustin the magnificent stallion she had given to William as her wedding gift, but NOT his bones? He had ample time to prepare the bones, William's and that of his other fallen comrades, but had chosen to prepare only those of Arthur Dayne instead. Why? Was he at some level thinking of getting into Ashara Dayne's smallclothes and thus dishonouring her, his lady wife and himself? He mentally kicked himself again. He could not in good conscience fault the now Dowager Lady Dustin's disdain and disgust towards him and House Stark.
"Stupid! Stupid! Dishonourable!"
He vowed not to make a move against her legally questionable hold of Dustin lands as long as she lived, he owned her at least THAT.
Wherever he turned he saw the lives of others he had fucked up or worse – led to their deaths. Had he marched a seemingly inconsequential half a candle mark longer each day from the Ruby Ford to Kings Landing he would had prevented the Sack of Kingslanding by Tywin Lannister's army and the murder of Rheagar's wife and his children. In his mind's eye he saw the small, mutilated corpses of the Dornish princess and the two toddlers. He also saw the accusing eyes of the six good men fallen at the Tower of Joy, the freshly wedded and almost immediately widowed Barbrey Dustin, he saw Ashara Dayne who had taken her life – the news of her brother's death coming on top of the loss of her child breaking her will to live, he saw Lyanna ...
He SHOULD had brought a measter with him, he SHOULD had assumed the worse, that she had been mistreated by the crazy Dragon. But he had NOT thought to bring a "grey rat" – as the lady Dustin called them – leading to his sister's death in his arms.
He looked at the woman holding the infant riding alongside him and Howland – he would try to do right by them at least. And also was bringing Lyanna's bones north, at least one promise kept and not broken.
Two days earlier
Eddard looked at the infant with interest. The boy looked just as he remembered Benjen looking at several weeks of age. But then again, considering that his brother was far from being the only Stark with a roving eye - bah! his own father Rickard Stark had been known as the Randy Wolf in his youth – villages surrounding Winterfell must be full of his distant kin.
"What is his name?"
"Jon." – the peasant supplied. He was an old man and was about cheerful as Eddard himself. But no wonder. A long term widower who just had his youngest daughter Lorelle die soon after birthing this child while his goodson Rocky had not returned from the war, leaving him alone in the world - if one did not count the relatives he mentioned living somewhere near Torrhen's Square. With an infant on his hands and a farm he was too infirm to tend to anymore.
The baby squalled.
The greybeard sighed – "I will go get some milk, then."
"Milord?" – Wylla, the Dornish girl interjected. With Ashara's child's death she had no longer been needed in Starfall and – with her own child dead as well – she wanted to get away from that place and expressed the wish to accompany him and Howland Reed north. There some STRANGE goings on in the Dayne family seat, Ned thought idly ...
"Milord?" – she tried to gain his attention again. Eddard turned to her.
"Milord, I'm ... I'm still in milk" – she stuttered and blushed becomingly while lowering her eyes.
He nodded – a good thing that she could still feed a baby over a month after leaving Starfall, thanks be to the Gods for small mercies – he would not have expected her to "be in milk" but then again, he knew nothing about such things - he had not even seen his son yet! - and passed the boy to her. Eddard noticed then that if the girl Wylla's blush had put some pink on her cheeks then Howland's face was positively crimson. And ears red too! The Stark furrowed his brow in thought – was there some connection between Howland following the Dornish girl about the ship like a lovesick puppy and her being in milk?
He made up his mind there and then and turned to the peasant.
"Let me take the lad to Winterfell. There always is a need for stable boys and such. He will want for nothing, he'll have a roof over his head and a hearty meal in his belly."
The peasant thanked him profusely, teary eyed in gratitude and due to knowing that he was not likely to see his grandchild ever again.
Winterfell – Day 1
Eddard Stark and his companions arrived just before nightfall. The steward was at loss at what to do with the boy so Benjen – who had nodded solemnly with a stone-faced expression when his brother explained how he had come about the boy - suggested temporarily dumping him in the family nursery. The nursery was already prepared for little Robb whom the Lady Catelyn was bringing from the south, so placing the smallfolk orphan there was putting an otherwise empty room to good use. The men though this to be a jolly good idea and missed the smirks the serving women gave Lord Stark. As Eddard had arrived from the southwest, from the other side to the castle then the side spur of the Kingsroad, his group had missed the party escorting Lady Catelyn which - according to outriders – had pitched camp just outside Wintertown and was expected the next day a few candlemarks after sunrise.
Winterfell – Day 2
Eddard was on cloud nine! His son and his beautiful wife were here! He had hugged and smooched both and was leading them – with Rob in his arms – to the nursery. Frankly, he had forgotten that the little peasant had been left there and had given no orders for his removal. Hence he was a bit surprised to find him still there and was about to explain that he had taken in an orphaned peasant ...
"I WANT THAT BASTARD OUT OF HERE! HOW CAN YOU DISHONOUR ME SO? I WILL NOT BRING UP MY SON WITH YOUR BASTARDS AROUND! OUT WITH HIM! SEND HIM AWAY!"
His wife's screeching and both babies wailing at the noise broke something in him. He had fucked up AGAIN! Eddard put Robb into the other crib (Other? Yesterday there had been only one?) and turned at the woman. He had promised the peasant that he would take care of his grandson and he WILL. He will get at least ONE thing right!
"His name is Jon, he is of my blood and he is staying here, my lady" – Eddard spat out through clenched teeth.
Winterfell – 298
Seeing Jon ride north Ned thought back to the day when he had as much as claimed the boy as his own. He was well aware that the boy had grown up while being given icy treatment by his wife and a cold shoulder by part of the servants. But – Eddard mentally shrugged – the hovel-born had wanted for nothing. Had been clothed, fed, educated and trained in arms like a lord's son. He had done well by the boy.
Now Jon will pay back for his upbringing - well above his breeding - by becoming one of the genuinely Good Men at the Wall. Maybe become First Ranger or even Lord Commander some day? With his training AND being considered to be a Stark bastard he was half way there already. And Eddard was decided upon taking Jon's his parentage to the grave – why break the lad's heart? Better let him live with the delusion that he was the son of a lord and some unknown woman – maybe a lady herself? – than be aware that he was the offspring of a pair of nameless peasants. And maybe there WAS Stark blood in the boy? Hopefully telling the broody dark haired and grey eyed child - "You are of my blood, Jon" - had not been a lie ...
The newly appointed Hand of the King felt a pang of guilt and regret as to his treatment of his wife. He really, really should had explained things to Cat. Years ago. But initially he was furious at her for the undeserved tongue lashing she had given him before he could explain that the situation she had walked upon in the nursery on her arrival was not what it looked like. At that time he was terrified of not delivering on yet another commitment he had made, after failing so many people in so short a time. He was desperate to keep at least one promise, even if it had been to a peasant from his lands. Then, later, over time, he had grown accustomed to the lie. He also felt ashamed to admit to the mix of anger and confusion which had led to the whole mess with the boy. Eddard put aside his guilt - and vowed once again that someday he will confess everything to Cat - and reverted to feeling proud of himself for a promise fulfilled as his gaze followed the figure of Jon Snow growing smaller with the distance...