The tension in the room was broken by the sound of scratching and whining at the door. Sansa rose to admit the direwolf which trotted over to Jon’s side. Jon leaned over to scratch Ghost behind his ears.
“You know”, said Jon softly, “of all the identities I have had to assume over the years…son, loyal brother of the Night’s Watch, oath breaker, Lord Commander, husband and father…the one constant in my life has been my bastard status”.
He stared sullenly at the letter and then looked up at Sansa.
“I was always acutely aware from a very early age that I was a stain on your father’s honour. I was a daily nightmare to your mother; a reminder that her husband dared to lay with another woman and then had the temerity to raise the child of that union alongside his trueborn children. I recall overhearing an argument when I was around seven. Your mother begged your father to send me away, to be fostered as far away from Winterfell as possible. Your father loudly refused but he did promise that he would never petition the Crown to grant me legitimacy. This allayed her fears, knowing that I couldn’t take it all away from her own children. But it cut me to the quick knowing that I would remain a lowly bastard for the rest of my life”.
“Jon…” began Sansa with a catch in her voice. He reached out and gently took her hand and raised it to his lips.
“It’s all right, my love”, he said softly, “she was right to worry”.
Jon uttered a short, bitter laugh before turning to Howland.
“As Sansa knows, it turns out I was offered legitimacy twice in my life…once from Stannis and the other when Robb’s letter came to light. And both times I turned it down and not because I ceased to crave Winterfell…I knew that thirst could never be slaked…but because I knew that it could never belong to me. Winterfell has always belonged to the Starks and I knew, deep down, that I could never be one”.
Jon paused to take a swig of wine. Then he set the goblet down and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand before continuing.
“A very clever man once told me to wear my bastard status like armour so that it could never be used against me”, he said. “So I gradually learned to accept who I was and it made me more determined to earn the respect of others through deeds, not blood”.
He rested his hand on Ghost’s head as the direwolf sat loyally beside him.
“When the secret came to light of my true parentage, it was like a shock wave that reverberated around my world and sent it crashing”, he said with a shake of his head. “Instantly I believed that all the gods had abandoned me”.
Then he turned back to Sansa and reached out to give her hand a squeeze.
“Sansa helped me put the pieces of my world back together…but this time it was better”, he said. Sansa beamed at him while he continued.
“What…what my parents did cause me only grief and shame. When they ran away together they touched off a firestorm, the repercussions of which are still being felt today. I blame my father mostly because my mother was barely more than a child. I don’t know if he bore any guilt regarding the wife and two children he abandoned when he left. I don’t know if Elia knew he intended to take a second wife to fulfill some preposterous prophecy to have his children become the three heads of the dragon. But it all became moot when Elia, Rhaenys and Aegon were brutally murdered as a result of his folly”.
He picked up the document and held it up.
“This revelation changes nothing”, he said as he crumpled up the paper and tossed it on the fire. Sansa gasped and lunged forward to retrieve it from the flames but she was too late. The paper twisted and turned black while the orange flames consumed it.
Howland chuckled and leaned back in his chair. He raised his goblet to Jon and then took a sip.
“Nice speech, lad”, he said with relish. “But you didn’t seriously believe that slip of paper was the original, did you?”
Jon’s face darkened.
“The original resides at the Citadel where it awaits verification”, continued Howland. “And once it has been proved to be authentic, it won’t be long before word gets out that you are Rhaegar’s trueborn son. So…think on…forewarned is forearmed. There are many powerful and wealthy people who are vested in restoring the Targaryen dynasty and they will come a-courting”.
“Why?” asked Jon urgently, gesturing to the flames. “Why bring this to me now?”
“Because it’s time to restore balance to this world which has been sadly off-kilter for too long now”, replied Howland. “And as Lyanna and Rhaegar’s trueborn son, the prince who was promised, all signs point to you as the one to lead us out of the darkness”.
“Azor Ahai”, whispered Sansa.
“What’s that you said, my dear?” asked Howland, wrinkling his aged brow.
Sansa turned to him.
“Melisandre claimed that Jon was the fulfillment of the prophecy, that of the reincarnation of an ancient hero who would defeat the Others and end the Long Night”, she explained.
Howland looked perplexed.
“Stannis’ red woman…what has she got to do with this?” he asked.
“She killed herself with Jon’s sword to bring the prophecy to fruition”, said Sansa. “And now his sword flashes red”.
“Well…that is an interesting development”, commented Howland. “May I see it?”
Jon stood up and drew Longclaw from its scabbard. The blade flashed red in the firelight. Howland regarded it thoughtfully.
“May I?” he asked reaching for the sword.
Jon passed it to him and as soon as he let go the sword ceased to glow. Howland grinned and passed the sword back to Jon.
“Have you summoned that dragon yet?” he asked as he shrugged into his furs. “With your sword and that boy’s dragon the three of you will make a formidable foe”.
Jon and Sansa looked at him with surprise. Howland smiled and placed a finger at the corner of one eye and tugged on it.
“Greensight”, he said with a mischievous smile.
“Unfortunately, when Melisandre died, the means to summon the dragon died with her,” replied Sansa. “But our maester thinks he may have pieced together the spell. He returns from her keep tomorrow”.
Howland nodded and turned towards the door.
“Thank you for your hospitality”, he said as he reached out to take both their hands. “And now it’s time to return to my men for the night. But I look forward to planning strategy with you tomorrow”.
They accompanied him as far as the gate and then bid him good night. As they crossed the yard, Sansa tucked her arm into Jon’s and whispered in his ear.
“Do you really believe that Sam has figured out how to summon Rhaegal?” she asked.
Jon turned and nodded.
“I think he’s got it. And, if so, then he is only missing one critical ingredient”, he replied. Sansa stiffened in alarm.
“What would that be?” she inquired.
“My blood”, said Jon cheerfully.
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