“My lord, I confess that we did not expect you so soon,” exclaimed Sansa as she held out her hands in greeting. “I sent the Blackfish to get a message to you”.
He smiled beatifically at her as he took her hands in his.
“I know, my dear. We have been on the march for nigh on six weeks, slowed down occasionally by the winter snows, in anticipation of your call”, he explained. “I knew the time had come to crawl out of the swamp and get back on to solid ground”.
He shivered slightly despite his heavy furs.
“I’m sorry, my lord. The shock of seeing you so soon has made me ungracious. Please sit by the fire. May I offer you food and drink?”
The little man shrugged off his heavy vestments and pulled up a chair.
“A little mulled wine would be most welcome on such a cold night”, he replied as he smacked his lips, his hands hovering near the flames for warmth.
Sansa sent word to the kitchen and then sat down next to the mysterious man who hadn’t been seen outside the Neck since the end of Robert’s Rebellion.
She knew that Howland Reed had saved her father’s life in the Tower of Joy. Other than that she knew very little about him as her father had always been very closed-mouthed about the circumstances surrounding his sister’s death.
When the door opened she thought it was one of the serving girls returning with the wine. Instead, it was Jon standing in the doorway with a tray of steaming goblets. The crannogman jumped up and uttered an oath upon seeing him.
“Sorry, lad”, he apologized, “it’s like gazing upon Ned’s ghost seeing you standing there”.
Jon kicked the door closed and laid the tray on a table.
“I’m Jon Snow”, he said as he stuck out his hand to the older man.
The little man shook it effusively.
“I knew who you were the minute I clapped eyes on you. Your mother…your mother holds a very special place in my heart”, he said sincerely. He stood back and examined Jon’s face more closely.
“She was a very clever and compassionate woman, your mother…wild and beautiful. You’ve got her look”, he murmured. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath.
“I can also smell the sulphur in your blood, son”, he said as he opened his eyes. “I’ve heard tales of you riding a dragon?”
Jon smiled and nodded.
“All true”, he replied.
“I was there in Harrenhal on the day your parents met”, recalled Howland. “After Rhaegar won the tourney, we were all aghast when he proclaimed Lya, a mere slip of a girl, the queen of love and beauty over his own wife”.
“Do you…do you think they loved each other?” asked Jon cautiously.
Howland gazed at the fire for a few seconds before shaking his head.
“Who knows”, he replied sadly. “Your father was chasing a dream and your mother was hungering for adventure. I like to think that a kind of love grew between them…enough to produce you”.
Jon was silent for a minute before he spoke again.
“Can you tell me what happened in the Tower of Joy?” he asked bluntly.
Sansa turned to face him.
“Jon…please, Lord Reed must be so tired”, she admonished him. “Surely this can wait until the morning”.
Howland laughed and waved aside her concerns.
“It’s Howland, my dear”, he said, “and I really don’t mind taking the time to answer Jon’s questions now. However, it has been a good many years and the details are a little hazy but…here it is in a nutshell”.
Howland eyes flitted to Sansa before he began his story.
“Your father believed that Rhaegar had kidnapped Lya and was holding her in the tower. When we approached the tower along with five others, we discovered it being guarded by three members of the Kingsguard, led by Gerold Hightower. Our losses were heavy but so were theirs. Your father dispatched Hightower while I engaged Oswell Whent. Then he turned to Arthur Dayne, the Sword of the Morning, possibly the best swordsman of his time. He and your father fought hard but he had your father cornered. But once I dispatched Whent, I flew to your father’s aid. Dayne went down heavily once I ran him through the back”.
Jon visibly winced at the thought of the great swordsman’s ignominious death.
Howland shifted his gaze to Jon before continuing his tale.
“We found your mother dying upstairs. You were crying in your cot and the room stank of blood, feces and dying blue roses. Your wet nurse, Wylla, was weeping and trying to clean up your mother as best she could. But she and your mother knew that the childbed fever would soon overtake her. Your mother made your uncle promise to keep you safe from harm. She knew that if the truth of your existence were to ever come to light then word would reach Robert and you would be dead. It was then that your uncle made the decision to take you north and claim you as his own. Your mother…the gods her soul preserve…took her final breath once your uncle made this vow. I stayed to arrange to have the tower torn down by some local villagers and used the stones to create cairns under which the bodies were buried. During this time, your uncle insisted on journeying with you and Wylla to Starfall to deliver Dayne’s sword, Dawn, to his sister, Ashara. Wylla was at once sworn to secrecy and for a time served as your surrogate mother for she loved you so”.
He paused to take a sip of wine.
“I wanted him to leave you at Starfall under Ashara’s care. I gently reminded him that Dornish bastards are treated no differently than trueborn children. Ashara had recently lost her own child that had been fathered by your uncle, Brandon. She was devastated by the double loss and I like to believe that if you had been turned over to her care then she might still be alive today. But he intended to honour his promise to your mother. After he returned from Starfall, he collected your mother’s bones and we returned to Westeros. He returned to the north with a child, his dead sister and a false tale upon his lips while I retreated to my swampy home. And we never spoke of what happened again”.
The three of them sat in silence, staring into their cups, until Howland spoke again.
“So, who is the young maester that discovered the truth?” he asked curiously.
“That would be Samwell Tarly”, replied Sansa. “I had given him my father’s papers to sort and organize to be archived. He started to pick up on the little clues that he discovered in papers documenting Jon’s care. And then he was off like a hound dog which has caught the scent of fresh game”.
“When we opened up my mother’s tomb and discovered the artifacts, we knew he had stumbled on to something true”, added Jon.
“Artifacts?” said Howland, his ears perking up.
“My father’s silver-stringed harp and documentation pertaining to my birth”, replied Jon with a deep sigh. “My uncle obviously intended to tell me the truth one day”.
Howland reached out and patted Jon’s arm.
“It must have been hard learning the truth, lad”, he said with sympathy.
“It was”, replied Jon. “I almost left Westeros because of it. That is…until Sansa convinced me to stay”.
She smiled as his hand crept around hers.
Howland beamed at the pair of them like an indulgent father.
“I can’t say that your mother would be pleased with your choice, Sansa”, he said, “but she might have come round upon learning that you had chosen a Targaryen prince”.
“Not a Targaryen, Lord…Howland”, corrected Jon, stumbling over addressing the older man by his first name. “I’m still a northern bastard with the surname, Snow, no matter who sired me”.
Howland shook his head and reached into the pocket of his vest.
“That’s where you’re wrong, Jon”, he said as he produced a folded sheet of paper. “You are a Targaryen prince”.
He carefully unfolded the letter and handed it to Jon. Jon quickly scanned its contents while Sansa peered anxiously over his shoulder.
“What is it?” she asked.
Jon let the letter drop into his lap and sat there in stunned silence. Sansa snatched it up.
“Jon”, she said excitedly, “it’s a marriage contract signed by the High Septon himself. It attests to the union of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark”.
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