* * *
His uncle glanced over his shoulder at the raised table at the far end of the hall. “My brother does not seem very festive tonight.”
Jon had noticed that too. A bastard had to learn to notice things, to read the truth that people hid behind their eyes. His father was observing all the courtesies, but there was tightness in him that Jon had seldom seen before. He said little, looking out over the hall with hooded eyes, seeing nothing. Two seats away, the king had been drinking heavily all night. His broad face was flushed behind his great black beard. He made many a toast, laughed loudly at every jest, and attacked each dish like a starving man, but beside him the queen seemed as cold as an ice sculpture.
“The queen is angry too,” Jon told his uncle in a low, quiet voice. “Father took the king down to the crypts this afternoon. The queen didn’t want him to go.”
Benjen gave Jon a careful, measuring look. “You don’t miss much, do you, Jon? We could use a man like you on the Wall.” Jon swelled with pride. “Robb is a stronger lance than I am, but I’m the better sword, and Hullen says I sit a horse as well as anyone in the castle.”
“Take me with you when you go back to the Wall,” Jon said in a sudden rush. “Father will give me leave to go if you ask him, I know he will.”
Uncle Benjen studied his face carefully. “The Wall is a hard place for a boy, Jon.”
“I am almost a man grown,” Jon protested. “I will turn fifteen on my next name day, and Maester Luwin says bastards grow up faster than other children.”
“That’s true enough,” Benjen said with a downward twist of his mouth. He took Jon’s cup from the table, filled it fresh from a nearby pitcher, and drank down a long swallow.
“Daeren Targaryen was only fourteen when he conquered Dorne,” Jon said. The Young Dragon was one of his heroes.
“A conquest that lasted a summer,” his uncle pointed out. “Your Boy King lost ten thousand men taking the place, and another fifty trying to hold it. Someone should have told him that war isn’t a game.” He took another sip of wine. “Also,” he said, wiping his mouth, “Daeren Targaryen was only eighteen when he died. Or have you forgotten that part?”
“I forget nothing,” Jon boasted. The wine was making him bold. He tried to sit very straight, to make himself seem taller. “I want to serve in the Night’s Watch, Uncle.” He had thought on it long and hard, lying abed at night while his brothers slept around him. Robb would someday inherit Winterfell, would command great armies as the Warden of the North. Bran and Rickon would be Robb’s bannermen and rule holdfasts in his name. His sisters Arya and Sansa would marry the heirs of other great houses and go south as mistress of castles of their own. But what place could a bastard hope to earn?
“You don’t know what you’re asking, Jon. The Night’s Watch is a sworn brotherhood. We have no families. None of us will ever father sons. Our wife is duty. Our mistress is honor.”
“A bastard can have honor too,” Jon said. “I am ready to swear your oath.”
“You are a boy of fourteen,” Benjen said. “Not a man, not yet. Until you have known a woman, you cannot understand what you would be giving up.”
“I don’t care about that!” Jon said hotly.
“You might, if you knew what it meant,” Benjen said. “If you knew what the oath would cost you, you might be less eager to pay the price, son.”
Jon felt anger rise inside him. “I’m not your son!”
Benjen Stark stood up. “More’s the pity.” He put a hand on Jon’s shoulder. “Come back to me after you’ve fathered a few bastards of your own, and we’ll see how you feel.” Jon trembled. “I will never father a bastard,” he said carefully. “Never!” He spat it out like venom. Suddenly he realized that the table had fallen silent, and they were all looking at him. He felt the tears begin to well behind his eyes. He pushed himself to his feet.
“I must be excused,” he said with the last of his dignity. He whirled and bolted before they could see him cry. He must have drunk more wine than he had realized. His feet got tangled under him as he tried to leave, and he lurched sideways into a serving girl and sent a flagon of spiced wine crashing to the floor. Laughter boomed all around him, and Jon felt hot tears on his cheeks. Someone tried to steady him. He wrenched free of their grip and ran, half-blind, for the door. Ghost followed close at his heels, out into the night.
The yard was quiet and empty. A lone sentry stood high on the battlements of the inner wall, his cloak pulled tight around him against the cold. He looked bored and miserable as he huddled there alone, but Jon would have traded places with him in an instant. Otherwise the castle was dark and deserted. Jon had seen an abandoned holdfast once, a drear place where nothing moved but the wind and the stones kept silent about whatever people had lived there. Winterfell reminded him of that tonight.
The sounds of music and song spilled through the open windows behind him. They were the last things Jon wanted to hear. He wiped away his tears on the sleeve of his shirt, furious that he had let them fall, and turned to go.
“Boy,” a voice called out to him. Jon turned.
Tyrion Lannister was sitting on the ledge above the door to the Great Hall, looking for all the world like a gargoyle. The dwarf grinned down at him. “Is that animal a wolf?”
“A direwolf,” Jon said. “His name is Ghost.” He stared up at the little man, his disappointment suddenly forgotten. “What are you doing up there? Why aren’t you at the feast?”
“Too hot, too noisy, and I’d drunk too much wine,” the dwarf told him. “I learned long ago that it is considered rude to vomit on your brother. Might I have a closer look at your wolf?”
Jon hesitated, then nodded slowly. “Can you climb down, or shall I bring a ladder?”
“Oh, bleed that,” the little man said. He pushed himself off the ledge into empty air. Jon gasped, then watched with awe as Tyrion Lannister spun around in a tight ball, landed lightly on his hands, then vaulted backward onto his legs.
Ghost backed away from him uncertainly. The dwarf dusted himself off and laughed. “I believe I’ve frightened your wolf. My apologies.”
“He’s not scared,” Jon said. He knelt and called out. “Ghost, come here. Come on. That’s it.” The wolf pup padded closer and nuzzled at Jon’s face, but he kept a wary eye on Tyrion Lannister, and when the dwarf reached out to pet him, he drew back and bared his fangs in a silent snarl.
“Shy, isn’t he?” Lannister observed.
“Sit, Ghost,” Jon commanded. “That’s it. Keep still.” He looked up at the dwarf. “You can touch him now. He won’t move until I tell him to. I’ve been training him.”
“I see,” Lannister said. He ruffled the snow-white fur between Ghost’s ears and said, “Nice wolf.”
“If I wasn’t here, he’d tear out your throat,” Jon said. It wasn’t actually true yet, but it would be. “In that case, you had best stay close,” the dwarf said. He cocked his oversized head to one side and looked Jon over with his mismatched eyes. “I am Tyrion Lannister.”
“I know,” Jon said. He rose. Standing, he was taller than the dwarf. It made him feel strange.
“You’re Ned Stark’s bastard, aren’t you?”
Jon felt a coldness pass right through him. He pressed his lips together and said nothing.
“Did I offend you?” Lannister said. “Sorry. Dwarfs don’t have to be tactful. Generations of capering fools in motley have won me the right to dress badly and say any damn thing that comes into my head.”
He grinned. “You are the bastard, though.”
“Lord Eddard Stark is my father,” Jon admitted stiffly. Lannister studied his face. “Yes,” he said. “I can see it. You have more of the north in you than your brothers.”
“Half brothers,” Jon corrected. He was pleased by the dwarf’s comment, but he tried not to let it show.
“Let me give you some counsel, bastard,” Lannister said. “Never forget what you are, for surely the world will not. Make it your strength. Then it can never be your weakness. Armor yourself in it, and it will never be used to hurt you.”
Jon was in no mood for anyone’s counsel. “What do you know about being a bastard?”
“All dwarfs are bastards in their father’s eyes.”
“You are your mother’s trueborn son of Lannister.”
“Am I?” the dwarf replied, sardonic. “Do tell my lord father. My mother died birthing me, and he’s never been sure.”
“I don’t even know who my mother was,” Jon said.
“Some woman, no doubt. Most of them are.” He favored Jon with a rueful grin. “Remember this, boy. All dwarfs may be bastards, yet not all bastards need be dwarfs.”
And with that he turned and sauntered back into the feast, whistling a tune. When he opened the door, the light from within threw his shadow clear across the yard, and for just a moment Tyrion Lannister stood tall as a king.
(G.R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones)
More about Tyrion to follow.