A New Beginning
He walked the Halls of Winterfell like a ghost on his twelfth name day. No servants turned to pat him on the cheek or rub his hair. Even had they known of his name day, fear of his good mother would have stopped that. Arya and Robb remembered but no one else. At breakfast, Robb gave him a small banner emblazoned with the sigil of a dire wolf, the teeth ready to pounce. Arya had woken him up with a full mug of icy water, dumped on his head. She then embraced him and asked if they could practice archery. He would have loved nothing more than to spend the day with his trueborn sister and brother, but they all had duties. Robb sat with Lord Stark to hear news delivered by merchants from White Harbor. Arya had lessons with Septa Mordane on needlework and embroidery, although she often hid instead. Jon was tasked with inspecting the towers to ensure that the watch turrets on the inner walls were clean of crows and two towers near the great main gate were well maintained but there were a dozen smaller ones, still useful in war, and he laboriously checked the granite and stonework of the inner walls.
The sun was nearly overhead when Jory Cassell took him to Lord Stark's solar. Jon had not eaten since breakfast and he bolted down two cod cakes, made from the wagon of fish sent by the Manderlys preserved in sheets of ice. Jon wiped his mouth quickly, knowing it would not do to meet his Lord Father or Lady Stark hungry or dirty.
Jon entered the solar and knew immediately there was trouble. Bastards learned more quickly than high borns about danger. Catelyn Stark taught him about disdain and slights and Jon wondered if her hand drove this. Lord Eddard Stark's face was stern as ever and Maester Luwin almost had a smile on his small grey face. Robb's blue eyes though stared down on the ground and his chin trembled. Jon looked straight at his father, the blank expression on his face easy to mistake for sullenness.
"Jon, today is your 12th name day. In four years, you will be a man grown. I have spoken to Ser Rodrik and Maester Luwin. We have decided that you should learn a trade." Ned Stark said.
"Lord Stark, I hoped to serve at Robb's side - as his bannerman or even Captain of the Guards to House Stark, after Jory." Jon said.
"Father, Jon would be a great Captain. He is my match with the sword and my better at riding. I would be proud to have him serve House Stark." Robb pleaded. Robb honed his skills daily, and he was too honest to lie, although Jon thought his half brother better at the lance.
Lord Stark looked pained, and for a brief moment, Jon thought his father might change his mind. That hope faded when Lord Stark remained grim and unmoving. "Maester Luwin has written to the Citadel. You will go to Oldtown and study there until you can take your vows. When you finish your chain, I will petition the Conclave to return you to the North." Ned said.
"You are a bright lad. Perhaps not good at memorizing kings but you have a grasp of building and smithing. Those are links you can forge at the Citadel. You could bring that back to the North - roads, farms, watermills." Maester Luwin added eagerly.
Jon knew why he could not list the three hundred year reign of Targaryean kings on the Iron Throne. He was more interested in the knights - Aemon the Dragonknight and Ser Ryam Redwyne. He had admired King Daeron for his reckless courage, but only Robb aspired to the Young Dragon in their pretend play. "So I am to be banished from Winterfell and the North?" Jon asked.
"You will begin afresh down South. There is much to see and do in Oldtown." Ned said.
"At the Citadel, no one will care about your past. They will judge you on learning - and your mind, Jon, is as sharp as steel. I can teach you history, healing, herblore, and ravenry but the maesters at Oldtown can teach a thousand things more. You can learn how to build castles, and navigate by the stars. You can delve into the secrets of steel and study warcraft." Luwin said.
Jon preferred to study by tilts in the training yard than dusty books in the library. I am Robb's equal - I could lead men in war just as well. Those thoughts were of no use. He was a bastard and no bannerman would follow him in battle. If he was older, Jon could cross the Narrow Sea to enlist in a Free Company or go to the Wall for the Night's Watch but he was too young. Jon had no dreams of being a wandering sellsword in Essos but only a Stark in Winterfell, standing with his brothers and sisters. And like a Stark, he would do his duty, regardless of cost. "Yes, Father. I will study at the Citadel."
The caravan would need seven days to travel to White Harbour - two days hard riding by horse to the White Knife River, one day to load, and then four more to the port city. The merchants would leave the next day to avoid autumn storms on the Narrow Sea and then take a ship south to Gulltown and Duskendale before reaching Tyrosh. In that city of merchants, there would be no trouble finding ships travelling West to Oldtown, avoiding Sunspear and Dorne. Northmen were not welcome in Dorne after Robert's Rebellion.
Jon had only a day before the caravan left. Lord Stark dismissed him from his duties, but he finished surveying the crenelated bulwarks of the First Keep. Jory took the final parchment marked with rows for each tower with a look of sympathy. Jon hurried away past the curious gaze of servants and guards. He had no need for pity and no desire to encounter Catelyn Stark and witness her happiness at banishing the bastard. Jon sorted through the things he owned besides the clothes on his back. Quite little although he folded Robb's gift into his sea chest.
"Why do you have to leave?" Arya had snuck into his room, her dark gray eyes trying hard not to give in to tears. She threw her skinny arms around his neck.
"Father believes I need a trade." Jon said, rubbing her head.
"Trade - why can't you just fight? You are better than Robb in the yard!" Arya said, disentangling herself to look him in the face.
Jon smiled. "Robb was first to ten marks in our duel yesterday."
"But you beat him the three days before that." Arya said. "It is my mother's fault. She is driving you away."
"Hush. The blame does not belong to Lady Stark. I am a bastard." Despite the favor shown by many in the castle to Sansa for her behavior, Jon knew Arya to be perceptive, beyond her seven years. It was Arya, even more than Robb, who protested Jon's treatment. "Besides, perhaps I will make a name of myself as a maester. I will come back and deliver your babes." He joked.
Arya gave him a hard whap on the arm and a dirty look. "Ewwww. That will never happen. I am not like Sansa, cooing over Rickon." The youngest Stark child had been born this summer, to the great joy of all his siblings, Arya included.
"I have something for you." Jon told her, as he took out a package wrapped in rags from under his bed.
"A present?" Arya said.
"Yes, dear sister." Jon pulled off the rags and held it out to her. When he was eight, Mikken had made him a blunted blade so that he could practice outside the yard. He spent many evenings practicing thrusts and cuts when the Lord and Lady of Winterfell dined alone with their trueborn children. Jon sharpened the blade with a whetstone and used a knife, needle and thread to craft a small grey scabbard, layering the inside of the leather with fur. He had long outgrown the blade, but it had been his first sword and held fond memories.
Arya's eyes gleamed as she drew the well oiled blade out and balanced it in his hands. "It is so light and skinny."
Jon rolled his eyes. "I was eight then, and you are only seven now. You can practice in your room, as long as Father and Mother do not know. Be careful though. The edges are sharp." He mussed up her hair again. "One day, I promise to forge you a true sword."
Arya put down the present and hugged her favorite brother. This time she allowed her tears to flow freely. "You will come back one day? To Winterfell?"
"Oldtown is far away. My return will depend on the maesters and father. But I will remember the North. I will return to you one day. I swear it by the old Gods and the new."
That night, Jon ate at the low table while Lord Stark gave the place of honor to the merchants who told tales of the Manderlys and lavish banquets at the Merman's Court. Jon did not need capons, eels, and lampreys baked into pies. He was happy with a simple dish of roast chicken, the meat juices soaked up with hard bread. He ignored the smirk that Theon threw his way as the Iron Islander regaled Robb and the younger Starks with the tale of Balon Greyjoy chopping off both hands of the maester of Pyke. Jon left dinner early - he preferred the cool air than sitting in silence while others either mocked or pitied him.
Robb found him in the yard near the Broken Tower bashing a straw dummy with a training sword, sweat pouring from his face. "You should take out your anger on Theon in a match, and not a strawman."
"The dummy fights as well as Greyjoy." Jon retorted, bringing smiles to both lads. Rob handed Jon a half full skin. "Summer wine? Won't Father notice?" Jon said, despite taking a large swig.
"I spoke to Father. In 8 years, you can forge a chain. Luwin will retire and then you can be Maester at Winterfell." Robb said.
"Your Lady mother would never allow that. She worries that I am Daemon Blackfyre reborn. Although I doubt Blackfyre was ever banished to the library." Jon said regretfully.
"I would be twenty years of age. Married, and Father would listen to my words." Robb replied with a bit of heat. There were southron heirs who were 40 years of age and still treated like children by their lord fathers but in the North, boys grew to men quickly.
"I may have to deliver your babes, then." Jon said, smiling at the look of disgust on Robb's face. "Arya had the same reaction but she hit me."
The two boys chuckled at the antics of their wild little sister. "Will you be able to find new sparring partners at the Citadel? Many great knights have come from the Reach." Robb said.
Jon shook his head no. "Maesters cannot use weapons. Luwin says the Citadel trains knights of the mind. Some rush their studies to learn only ravenry, medicine, and the history of kings. But I will study smithing and warcraft - how to conduct siege warfare and the secrets of metals. I want to build roads and ships. If you go to battle, I will stand by your side, no matter where the Conclave sends me."
"You will always have a side by me, Snow. I would swear that under the weirwood tree. We are brothers, no matter what our names." Robb said. "Do you want one last tilt?"
"No, let's just pretend to be heroes from the past - like we did in old days." Jon said.
"I will be Cregan Stark. Will you be Aemon the Dragon Knight?" Robb asked.
"I will never be knight - but you will be Lord Stark. I want to be Brandon the Builder." Jon tapped the loose stones of the watchtower. "The Broken Tower was a hundred feet tall, and the outside walls are 80 feet high. No one can build castles like this today - like Dragonstone, or Storm's End. The keeps and walls of King's Landing are nothing compared to this."
"Bran the Builder created those castles with the help of giants, magic and Children of the Forest in the Age of Heroes." Robb said.
"Maybe we will live in a new Age, and you will be Cregan Stark reborn and the Hand of a Targaryen king." Jon said. The two boys laughed, and shared the wineskin, and for that night, played without care. The future could wait. Winter had not come yet for House Stark.
Jon Snow walked out the Seneschal's Court on his way to the Quill and Tankard in Oldtown. He had presented his discoveries on how to reduce the carbon content that made steel brittle to the gathering of archmaesters. Archmaester Nymos and Gallard argued for raising the temperature of the forge to purify steel. Jon disagreed vehemently. Perhaps in rich cities like King's Landing, knights could afford such an expensive approach for arms and armor but to use steel in the north and for buildings, a better way was needed. Jon demonstrated the use of blowing air, scrap and limestone to be integrated into a large kiln.
"How do you not have a steel link yet?" Owen Fossoway asked. "Archmaester Norren looked at like you like you were the Smith Reborn!"
Jon chuckled at the praise of the rosy cheeked acolyte. Like many in the Reach, Owen enjoyed exaggeration and was enthusiastic about using better steel to make the farms of Cider Hall and New Barrel more productive. "I plan to forge my links when I turn 16." Jon said.
"Aye, when he is a man grown, Maester Snow will exceed all of us and quite rapidly." Alleras said gaily, to the ready agreement of many of the acolytes. They walked the river road past stone bridges and cobbled streets to an island in the Honeywine. It had been a sweltering summer but at night, the city came alive with travelers from many countries and the strong smell from lush foliage as well as the many brothels that serviced the guild halls on the river banks.
The last three years had passed rapidly. Jon enjoyed Oldtown, built around the Hightower, the Starry Sept and the Citadel. He had walked the labyrinth of alleys and crooked streets, marvelling at the Thieves' Market and Ragpicker's Wynd, where anything could be bought even from far away Yi Ti. Travellers from all locales came to the richest city in Westeros to trade and study, and Jon relished meeting them all. Summer Islanders with feather cloaks, perfumed courtesans from Lys, Tyroshi sellswords, ragtag pirates fencing loot too rich for the Stepping Stones. Jon spent most hours of days and nights in the libraries of the Citadel, studying machines and metals. There were students from all parts of Westeros but the most common area of origin was the Reach. Many second and third sons came to forge a few links before returning to their families. Jon did not partake much of the carnal pleasures of the undercity but he had made many friends, Owen Fossoway, Alleras, Alayn Hightower, Gareth Goode. They were all a few years older, but respected his thirst to learn.
Maester Luwin had been right - no one cared that he was a Stark or a Snow. Jon threw himself into learning as he once had into swordplay. He attended every lecture, devoured books and worked long into the night. He combined theory and practical application, and in fields as varied as healing to metallurgy, distinguished himself through practical experiments. It was in a study of animal husbandry where he had met Owen and Gareth. He demonstrated to the entire class that planting clover next to oats and rye would attract bees, feed farm animals, and enrich the soil. When Owen successfully implemented the idea at Cider Hall, many stewards in the Reach had come to the Citadel to ask him for advice, and to the great surprise of acolytes and maesters, Jon had been happy to share without remuneration.
In contrast, Jon kept the advanced work on metallurgy and warfare private. That was his promise to Robb, and that had been the basis for the experiments on steel. He had presented some findings but there was more work to be done. He needed to test different ores from the Reach and the North. He needed to change the ratio of limestone to scrap. He had tried to use that steel in cocking stirrup of a crossbow and it could not withstand enough pressure. Perhaps, he needed to use charcoal. That might absorb the impurities better. Or perhaps some inpurity was needed. Steel that was too pure might turn brittle.
"Jon, we have lost you." His friend opened the door to the tavern and several acolytes inside cheered as Jon entered, stories of his presentation that afternoon already having spread. "What are you thinking about? The best way to melt and cut steel?" Alleras said with a soft Dornish drawl.
"Well, yes. I could use the metal in a moldboard plow, and it would distribute weight evenly." Jon lied. No one at the Citadel knew of his family at Winterfall or research into weapons.
Alleras ordered amber wine from the Summer Isles before fixing big soft black eyes on the Northerner. "The Fossoways have enough grain and apples. Why don't you celebrate with a whore? Don't say you are too poor. Owen owes you many gold dragons for that last harvest."
Perwyn Merryweather intervened, handing the blushing Jon a large mug of smoky cider. "Oh lighten up, Sphinx. When the lad wishes, all the maids will rush to claim his virtue. He is a pretty one - our Maester Snow. And we all know, Fossoways always want more apples. He brags the cider at his Hall is the best in the Reach."
"And it is!" Owen roared happily. "Jon, you are always welcome at Cider Hall. Unlike these ignorant fools who can't tell cider from pisswater."
Several of the students from the Reach took to chasing the maids and other working girls of the Quill. Alleras shrugged and brought out an ivory cyvasse set. Jon nodded and they began to set up the alabaster and onyx pieces on the board. Alleras swore on the Seven that he was not a nobleman's son. Jon was certain that no child of a simple trader could afford such a valuable luxury. He knew too that cyvasse was more popular in Dorne than the Summer Isles.
They played five games that night, and Jon won the first four. Alleras had the same strategic flaw as most - moving the dragon into play too early to strike against the heavy pieces. Jon exposed his elephants early in the game, and the enemy dragon flew around the board, allowing Jon time to develop his cavalry and artillery. Twice, he had slain Alleras's dragon with a trebuchet and once with the catapult supported by heavy horse. Jon enjoyed cyvasse - developing his pieces with tempo by counter attacking. His style was defensive, searching for weaknesses, until Alleras would overextend and lose the dragon. In the final game, the Sphinx flung all the pieces forward into a suicidal attack, penetrating Jon's defenses.
"That would not work in a real battle." Jon said, ruefully.
"Your king is still dead." Alleras replied, drinking the last drop of sweet wine and ignoring the glances of the admiring serving wenches.
Jon and Alleras walked back to the Citadel, the Sphinx leaning heavily on him. Jon could smell sandelwood and goldenheart on the youth's green studded brigandine jacket as Alleras rested long light brown fingers on his shoulder.
"I know the Riddle of the Sphinx." Jon said.
"And how does a Northerner know that?" Alleras said.
"You claim not to be a nobleman's son." Jon said softly. "That is very true. You are a nobleman's daughter."
Alleras turned rapidly, her fingers now resting on a knife in the pouch of her doeskin breeches. She had a soft smile but her eyes had turned cold. "How did you know?"
"Maester Qyburn's lecture on anatomy. The lump on your larynx is quite small - almost not visible. You are quite slim but you are never seen without a jacket. Your fingers are soft and uncalloused - you never worked as a trader or trained with the sword. Your father took you to Dorne when you were young, and in Dorne, men and women are considered equals." Jon said.
"The Citadel does not allow women to study." Alleras spat. "What will you do now?" She relaxed her right hand, although the fingers were hidden in the pouch.
"Nothing. You are my friend, and I see no reason a woman cannot study as well or better than a man." Jon sat down next to a fountain. "My younger sister would rather be a warrior than be a lady. You have earned your links, more than many lordlings here."
"I intend to finish 7 links, and surpass my father. And then I will return back to Sunspear to my sisters. They would like you." The black eyes gazed deeply into his. "Why not come with me? Run away to Dorne. Who wants to be a maester in a freezing castle in the North?" she asked.
"I swore to return to my family - my trueborn sisters and brothers." Jon said softly.
"A pity you are not older." Alleras said.
Jon cocked his eyebrows. "What does my age have to do with anything?"
Alleras laughed, the giggle clearly feminine. "You know nothing, Jon Snow." She took his hand in hers and they walked back to the Citadel.
As his sixteenth name day approached, Jon immersed himself into his studies. He was more than capable in ravenry, history, math and astronomy. He truly excelled in warcraft, engineering, steel and construction. Even without displaying the full extent of his knowledge, the acolytes at the Citadel considered him a true prodigy. Owen Fossoway was not the only man of the Reach who had written to his family, imploring them to find a position for the Northerner. But another field had consumed Jon in the past few months - Valyrian Magic.
In his last day at Winterfell, Jon asked Luwin about the fields of study at the Citadel. The Maester had been happy to show his chain and links - silver for medicine, copper for history, bronze for astronomy, black iron for ravenry. Yet Luwin spoke little about the link of Valyrian steel or the higher mysteries. It struck Jon as exceedingly odd - the Citadel considered Maester Luwin an expert on magic and yet the old man did not believe in its existence. Luwin claimed that trusting in magic was like dueling with a glass sword, but Jon knew different. Glass could cut in ways that even steel did not.
The books on ancient Valyria spoke of dragonglass candles and Jon knew these were the three black candles in the Vault of Scribes. For an acolyte to become a Maester, they had to stand vigil in the dark vault with only the three unlit candles. In the memory of the Citadel, no one had ever succeeded in lighting a candle, showing that even with great knowledge, some things remained impossible. But that was not the right interpretation, Jon thought. Not having done something does not prove it cannot be done.
The lords of Valyria could set the dragonglass candles burning with their will alone. With a candle, they could see across vast distances, look into a man's mind, and speak with one another though they were half the world apart, The wizards had used fire and magic - not a forge or a quarry, to forge roads and walls of dragonstone and built tall topless towers where dragons would nest. The Citadel claimed blood magic was long lost, and that the few glass candles remaining did not burn. Valyria had been struck down for the use of blood magic and dark arts, and their dragons were no more.
Jon dreamed often of the Doom of Valyria, of the sky filled with ash, smoke and fire burning so hot that the heat could kill even a dragon. The Fourteen Flames erupted, spewing molten rock that melted lakes while red clouds rained down dragonglass. In the cataclysm, so much was lost - the Valyrian freehold with mighty dragonlords and millions of brutalized slaves but also much more. The secrets of Valyrian steel, the magic to bind dragons, even the ancient records of the past - all was lost in the Doom. The proudest city in the world was gone in minutes and the greatest empire extinguished in a day as the Free Cities and the remnants of the Old Empire of Ghis rose up to kill the dragon lords in their weakness. So much knowledge was gone in a matter of days - buried under fire and ash. Jon woke up sometimes, panicky with fear, wondering why he lived through the destruction so many nights.
"And this is why the book, Signs and Portents, is the most important treasure lost since the Targaryen Conquest." Archmaester Marwyn concluded. "Class dismissed."
Jon nodded. In that book, Daenys Targaryen, known better as Daenys the Dreamer, wrote down her visions of the Doom a dozen years before it struck. Aenar the Exile had listened to his maiden daughter, and the Targaryen Conquest followed a hundred years later. He waited to leave the classroom until Alleras finished sketching the green obsidian candle that the Archmaester included in the lecture.
"What a bunch of twaddle." A handsome cruel mouthed student wearing the Highgarden colors of green and gold proclaimed.
"No one asked you, Leo Tyrell." Alleras said, as she placed the sketch in her doeskin sack.
"The Targaryens lost the Iron throne, Blackfyre and their dragons but their most valuable possession was a book. I hope Marwyn becomes a maester to my enemies." Tyrell japed.
"The Dreamer was reputed to be strong in magic. She had prophetic dreams and her writings might contain secrets of how to make dragonglass or birthing dragons - or even a hint on the forging of Valyrian steel or the dragonstone that can be used in castles and roads. That would be worth far more than a sword or an uncomfortable throne." Jon said.
"What do you know, bastard?" Leo snapped. "And who needs a candle to speak to other castles? We have ravens today, and good steel in the reach."
"A raven can take many days to travel. To speak from one castle to another immediately would change the world. And if you do not know how important forging Valyrian steel would be in battle, there is little need to discuss this further." Jon said, walking off with Alleras.
"That fool shames the Citadel with every word out of his mouth." Alleras said.
"Not all acolytes are as small minded and Owen tells me that not all Tyrells are like that." Jon said. "Shall we go to the Library?"
Before he could do so, another acolyte rushed into the hall. Alayn Hightower wore the flaming tower of his house sigil but the fourth son was friendly and modest. "Jon, an urgent raven." He handed him parchment sealed with the Stark dire wolf.
Jon's eyes narrowed. The stream of letters from Arya, Robb and his Lord Father had never been sealed with the dire wolf sigil. Only the most important correspondence would be, and only the Stark in Winterfell had the authority to use that seal. Jon opened the letter, and read it quickly - his face darkening.
"What is it, Jon?" Alleras asked.
"It is my younger brother, Bran. He has been hurt badly in a fall." Jon said. The letter was from Robb, and although terse, Jon could easily detect the Heir of Winterfell's worry. Bran had fallen from a tower but Robb was unsure how it had happened - and Lord Stark was not at Winterfell. Something was clearly wrong - for if Robb did not know, neither did his parents and family. "My friends, I must say goodbye for now. I will remember my years here fondly."
"Where are you going?" Alleras said.
"Winterfell." Jon said.