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Peaks & Shadows

Chapter Text

Constable of the Grey Nathaniel Howe
Vigil’s Keep
Amanranthine

 

Dear Nathaniel,

I write to you with a matter of some urgency. Warden Commander Clarel has fallen to Venatori forces at Adamant. On behalf of Inquisitor Trevelyan, I invite you to meet with us at Skyhold at your earliest convenience. Please consider this request discreetly, though as the roads are dangerous we do not expect you to travel alone.

Leliana

Chapter Text

“Constable Howe,” Commander Cullen greeted, holding out a hand to shake.

Nathaniel grimaced, but returned the gesture. “I prefer Nathaniel, if you don’t mind, Commander. It makes things easier for everyone.”

“Of course, I apologize. I’d forgotten.” Cullen looked mildly embarrassed and his hand twitched as if he wanted to do something with it to relieve the tension written all over his face, but decorum stayed the gesture.

Nathaniel decided he didn’t feel sorry for the man and his obvious stress; his own brief time in Kirkwall and Templar behavior in the aftermath had not endeared him to their cause. He merely replied, “yes,” face impassive. For once, Nathaniel was glad he was going gray at the temples, since he certainly didn’t have a size advantage over the Inquisition’s Commander.

Cullen cleared his throat and shifted his weight once before gesturing to an entryway to what was clearly their locus of command. In the room, two women and another man stood around a large table covered in maps and other papers. The woman in the hood Nathaniel recognized as the spy commonly known as Sister Nightingale, whom he had met once before when she visited the Warden-Commander at Vigil’s Keep. He nodded to her briefly and she offer a small smile in return. The other two he didn’t know, though he suspected the man--a ruggedly built mage--was the newly appointed Inquisitor. He had the presence of someone accustomed to power. The woman in the gold shirt next to him was likely the ambassador since that was the only remaining title. She was smiling openly at the story he was illustrating with his hands.

“Oh, our guest is here. Welcome!” The woman in the gold shirt greeted, turning her full attention toward him. “You’ve already met our Commander. Allow me to present Inquisitor Trevelyan and Sister Leliana, the Left Hand of the Divine. I am Josephine Montilyet, Ambassador.” She gestured to each person in turn, confirming Nathaniel’s assumptions.

“Warden-Constable Howe, yes?” The Inquisitor moved away from the table and held out a hand. Cullen did not try to correct him and Nathaniel groaned inwardly. “I trust the journey from Amaranthine was uneventful?”

Save for the demons, unhinged templars, and desperate mages it was quite uneventful. “Yes, your worship.” Nathaniel chose diplomacy, though the honorific still stalled on his tongue.

“Good. We’ve been working to stabilize the region, though our resources are stretched tight at the moment. The current Warden situation is not helping matters.”

“If I may ask, what is the problem? The letter I received said very little of consequence other than the Orlesian leadership had fallen and a request for urgent assistance. Yet I see there are already plenty of Wardens here.” Nathaniel and his companions heard rumors of the battle at Adamant on the road, but it had been impossible to say how much truth there was to any of them yet across such a great distance.

Cullen answered. “I apologize for the vague request, but we could not risk opposing forces finding out our plans, or what happened at Adamant. We allowed the Orlesian Wardens to join the Inquisition, but it’s proven difficult to integrate them into our ranks without proper leadership. We contacted you in the hope that you would be willing to temporarily advise us, since you are the only one with significant rank left alive in the southern regions, as far as we are aware.”

The Inquisitor jumped in before Nathaniel had a chance to fully process that information. “Adamant was a disaster before we arrived. Corypheus’ agent had tricked the Orlesian Wardens into binding demons, thinking they were building an army to hunt down the remaining Archdemons before they awakened.”

“I’m not sure I see the logic in that,” Nathaniel admitted. “But we have sometimes taken extreme measures to defeat Blights in the past.”

“That may be true, but that made them far too easy for Corypheus to manipulate to his own ends.”

The Inquisitor and Cullen continued to fill him in on the major points of their situation, though Nathaniel noticed they glossed over the finer details of the events leading up to Clarel’s demise. He gathered that Stroud protested her decisions before he and Hawke asked the Inquisition for help uncovering the truth, but he hadn’t survived. By the time they were finished, Nathaniel had at least a rudimentary understanding of how Orlesian Wardens had come under the Inquisition’s command.

“And you will be compensated handsomely for your time, of course,” Lady Montilyet added.

“Right. There’s just one thing I would like to know first. Why have you not reached out to Weisshaupt about this?”

Leliana, after having remained silent for most of the meeting, finally spoke up. “We have. The Champion of Kirkwall set out to bring them them news immediately after the battle, but we have heard nothing since then. Our resources are better used elsewhere.”

“I see.” Nathaniel looked down at the table for somewhere to rest his gaze while he considered his options, pinned down under the scrutiny and expectations of the Inquisitor. He didn’t feel at all responsible for the Wardens set adrift by their Commander’s poor judgement. Leadership didn’t especially appeal to him. And yet, he felt compelled to agree to their request, if for no other reason than curiosity and a chance to secure some of the Inquisition’s considerable wealth and good standing for the Ferelden Wardens.

“Alright, I’ll do this, at least until you receive official word from Weisshaupt,” Nathaniel agreed, hoping he wasn’t making a bad choice.

Trevelyan clasped his hand with an enthusiastic “welcome to the Inquisition!” and left the room, claiming to have a daily task list as long as the Minanter River. Cullen remained brooding over the maps while Nathaniel followed the two women out into the hallway.

“There’s something you should see,” Leliana said softly, close to his ear, as soon as Josephine had passed the next doorway.

Nathaniel frowned down at her delicate hand on his arm, and then up at the significant look she was boring into him. “Now?” he asked carefully, completely at a loss to interpret what was on her mind.

She replied thoughtfully, removing her hand, “Perhaps after dinner. I’ll meet you in the training yard.”

Nathaniel nodded in agreement, watching her walk away with a tiny seed of doubt about his decision suddenly taking root. Lady Montilyet accosted him as he crossed through her office, writing notes on a paper with a graceful hand; the candle on her clipboard barely even flickered when she moved. “We have a room set aside for you overlooking the garden--”

“I’ll be staying at the tavern with my Wardens. But thank you,” Nathaniel cut her off, rudely, but the headache he was developing left little room for etiquette.

“If...if you insist.” Her negative reaction was restrained enough to register only in the tiniest twitch of an eyebrow.

Maker, but his tolerance for labyrinthine bureaucracy was hanging by a thread lately.

“I look forward to seeing you at dinner, my lady,” he offered as a half-assed apology for refusing her hospitality. Out of the Inquisition’s core members, her role seemed to carry the least baggage, and that was at least worthy of his civility, now that they would be working together.

Once outside, Nathaniel did not return to his companions right away, taking extra time to walk around the courtyards and mull over the meeting. The discussion had moved too quickly to ask questions, and he thought that might have been the intention. The Wardens scattered around Skyhold kept their distance, which seemed strange, but he didn’t try to approach any of them yet. Eventually, he returned to the tavern.

“I don’t like this,” Velanna stated bluntly the very second she saw him step into the room. She was pacing, worrying at a loose string on her sleeve. “There are too many different agendas in close quarters.”

“So you’ve said,” Nathaniel grunted and started unbuckling his armor, tossing pieces haphazardly onto the table where Oghren had been nodding off against his hand. He felt drained from trying to navigate his own disjointed thoughts. He dropped onto one of the lumpy beds and pulled a pillow over his head.

Velanna stopped pacing suddenly, falling quiet. Her voice was less harsh when she spoke again. “What are you going to do about it?”

Even muffled by the pillow, Nathaniel was pretty sure Velanna would hear him anyway when he stubbornly replied. “You volunteered for this, you don’t have to stay.”

“Eh?” Oghren asked, sounding groggy. “Are you saying I climbed all the way into the blighted sky for nothin’?”

Nathaniel restrained himself from throwing the pillow at him, but moved it enough to glare.

“We’re not leaving,” Velanna flatly stated. “What happened in the meeting?”

“Very little of obvious consequence. The Inquisition seems to be planning to inflate their numbers with the Orlesian Wardens. I’ve been asked to advise on how to handle them since all their officers were killed in the battle at Adamant.”

“All of them?” Velanna sounded shocked.

Oghren was suddenly paying attention to the conversation. “Don’t you think that’s a little too convenient?” he added.

Nathaniel didn’t answer immediately. He wanted to believe that the Inquisition was the organization it appeared to be on the surface, but nothing he had seen or heard since receiving the letter was quite adding up. “It could still be a strange coincidence.”

“That’s bronto shit and you know it.” Oghren emphasized his opinion by slapping a hand down hard on the table. The noise throbbed in Nathaniel’s head.

“Where’s Sigrun?”

“Asleep in the other room, I think,” Velanna replied. She was back to pacing, and Nathaniel was glad he had an excuse to get away from the little sphere of tension she was maintaining.

Sigrun was indeed asleep, snoring gently with the curtains drawn. It was otherwise blissfully quiet in the darkened room. Nathaniel tapped on her leg and she was almost instantly awake.

“How did it go?” Sigrun asked, rolling onto her back. “Did you meet the Inquisitor? Is he really a mage?”

“I’m not sure, yes, and yes,” he answered her rapid fire questions, then continued before she had time to prod him for more information. “Have you been here since we arrived?”

“Of course not, I went and got drunk on fancy Antivan wine and danced on the table with six Chantry sisters and a nug while everyone cheered for us to take our clothes off. They really know how to have a good time here,” she answered, wiggling her eyebrows at him.

She was teasing, but Nathaniel was not in the mood to take the bait. While he was tempted to drag her out of bed and around the battlements by her toes, he settled for making a displeased face instead. “Really.”

She rolled her eyes and tossed back the covers. “Nooo, you told us to stay put so I’ve been sleeping, Constable Grumpy Pants.”

“Good, find an Inquisition scout uniform and try to blend in.”

Sigrun raised her eyebrows. “Why? I thought we were here on official business.”

Nathaniel sighed. “We are, but I think they’re toeing some line about Adamant and I don’t like it. That should be Warden business.”

“Alright, spy on the Inquisition, got it.” Sigrun cracked her back and hopped out of bed. Within moments she had dressed in plain clothing and gone out the door whistling, leaving Nathaniel mercifully alone.

Chapter Text

Dinner was about what Nathaniel expected. The long tables set out around Skyhold’s main hall were loaded with unfussy but appetizing dishes of all kinds, residents and visitors mingling around the room as they talked and ate. Oghren and Velanna both looked like they had stumbled upon an unguarded dragon hoard, though the latter was rather poorly trying to feign disinterest as she heaped exotic vegetables and cheeses onto her plate. Nathaniel guessed Sigrun was around as well, but he pointedly avoided looking for her.

In truth, the meal looked more like something offered to royalty than an institution of war, but it was less surprising considering the Inquisitor was in the highest graces of Empress Celene of Orlais. Ambient conversation suggested that this was almost a daily occurrence at Skyhold now. Nathaniel allowed himself to be separated from his companions, hoping to meet some of the unfamiliar faces around the room, a distasteful task that he wouldn’t force on either of them.

A rather striking middle-aged woman was approaching him purposefully, her height and facial scarring parting the crowd as well as any weapon she might wield. She wore light armor emblazoned with the heraldry of the Inquisition, as if she had just come up from the training yard. There was no question that she carried a considerable amount of authority.

She stopped in front of him and offered an awkward gesture of greeting while making direct eye contact. Nathaniel liked her instantly. “Cassandra Pentaghast. I am sorry for not being able to attend the meeting earlier, but I had other obligations.”

Somewhere in the back of his mind Nathaniel remembered the Pentaghasts were a significant noble line entwined with the Nevarran throne. “Pleased to meet you, my lady. No apology necessary.”

While it could have been a trick of the light, Cassandra’s face appeared to have flushed ever so slightly. “The pleasure is mine. You were under the command of the Hero of Ferelden before her disappearance, were you not?”

“Yes, she was a brilliant leader.” Nathaniel could see the eagerness in her eyes and he added, “And a good friend.”

“I would be very interested to hear more sometime. Perhaps over a drink.” Cassandra looked like she wanted to say more, but they were interrupted by a newcomer.

“Seeker, are you making friends without me--oh.” The voice was distinctive and vaguely familiar, overlaid with surprise. Nathaniel didn’t have to look to put a name to that voice--Varric Tethras. “Well, I should have recognized that beak from across the room. It’s a shame we only seem to meet when there’s red lyrium involved, but it’s good to see you again anyway.”

Varric didn’t sound all that pleased to see him, and Nathaniel could easily imagine why. The one and only time they had met before was in the Deep Roads and Nathaniel had admitted to having dealings with his unhinged brother, which was apparently a sore spot for both Varric and Hawke. He didn’t hear the full story until the second night, and then only third-hand from Anders.

Cassandra looked mildly put out by the nature of the interruption, but Nathaniel just smiled. Despite Varric’s uncertainty about his motives, he still found the dwarf inexplicably charming. “I’m glad someone here has noticed my most distinguished feature.”

That earned him a chuckle, at least. “You’re funnier than Blondie led me to believe.”

“Thanks, I think.” Nathaniel took the following awkward silence as an opportunity to actually eat something off his plate.

Cassandra was the first to break it. “The Inquisitor is waiting to meet with me. I will see you both tomorrow. Goodnight.”

Varric waved her off as Nathaniel said goodnight in return, with a promise to meet up for drinks and stories. He turned to Varric, who had seated himself casually at the table near the fire.

Varric held up both hands and shook his head. “I know what you’re going to ask, and the answer is I don’t know. I don’t really want to know either.”

Nathaniel’s brow furrowed. “I wasn’t going to ask, but since you offered.”

“The best I can do is tell you that Hawke was here a few weeks ago, but she was alone.” That seemed to be the end of it, though whether or not Varric was telling the truth was impossible to say.

“I already knew that.”

Varric shrugged. “Fine. Whatever it is you’re doing here, I’m staying out of it.”

Nathaniel knew he was being dismissed, and he left without bothering to try to explain his presence. He tried to make his way across the room, thinking to speak to a bearded man wearing Warden insignia, when Velanna appeared at his shoulder.

“Are you enjoying yourself?”

“Are you?” Velanna shot back. She was clutching her plate tightly with both hands while looking with open suspicion at a masked Orlesian man as if she expected him to try and grab it away from her.

“Not really. The food is good, though.” Out of the corner of his eye, Nathaniel saw Leliana near the entrance, and she was obviously trying to get his attention, from her stance and location.

“True. I believe Oghren has filled his breastplate with turkey legs to save for later.” Velanna sounded fondly exasperated.

“Good man.” By the time Nathaniel was able to turn to look Leliana’s way, she was already gone. “I’m going out to have a look around. Will you two survive the rest of the evening without me?”

“I suppose we will.” Velanna waved him off with her fork.

Outside, Leliana was speaking to a young elven woman in an Inquisition uniform who disappeared into the night the moment they both noticed Nathaniel coming down the stairs.

“It is a nice evening, the moon is especially pretty,” Leliana said by way of greeting. She appeared relaxed and unhurried.

“Yes,” Nathaniel hesitated. “Is this going to take long?”

“Mm, that depends,” she answered, her whole demeanor still infuriatingly cryptic.

“On what?”

Instead of answering, she turned and started walking slowly toward a nondescript door, arms hanging loosely at her sides. Nathaniel allowed himself a moment of extreme frustration before following. The door lead to a steep staircase down, with torchlight flickering below.

Leliana finally spoke again, her tone conversational. “We do not know much about Skyhold’s history, but it does appear to have all the features one would expect. This leads to the prison, though it’s not completely intact. I know, it’s not a terribly interesting place to start a tour, but I’ll have someone show you around the rest of the keep tomorrow.” She gave him a small, apologetic smile.

“That’s...fine.” Nathaniel could only think of two plausible reasons that she would be taking him down to the dungeons. Either all this secrecy was about a prisoner, or she was about to lock him up. The latter seemed unlikely, under the circumstances. “I’m surprised you have so few prisoners, given the stories I’ve been hearing.”

“The Inquisitor does not like to waste resources. Or leave loose ends.” Leliana lead him through the first block of cells and to a second door at the back of the room where a single guard stood watch. After a few terse words with the other woman, Leliana opened the door and stepped through.

Nathaniel felt his stomach drop when looked into the room and not six feet from where he stood in the doorway the floor fell away into a dizzying hole in the side of the fortress. For a moment, he pointedly looked up at the ceiling until the vertigo passed. The room, if it could be categorized as such anymore, was cold and a prodigious amount of noise howled through gap. Someone had started to build scaffolding and around the gap to access the more remote cells, but it looked as if they had given up three-quarters of the way along each side. What rebuilding had taken place looked sturdy enough, though actually stepping onto it was a harder mental struggle than entering the Deep Roads for the first time.

An older man was pressing his face curiously against the bars of one of the cells near the end of the broken walkway, squinting toward the door in the dim light as if trying to see who was there. Leliana ignored his greeting, so Nathaniel did as well. There was also someone in the cell immediately to their left, either asleep or wishing privacy since their back was turned and a blanket pulled up to their chin. How anyone could sleep through the noise roaring up from the hole in the floor, Nathaniel couldn’t begin to fathom, so he assumed it was the latter. A bit of matted blond hair stuck out from under the blanket, and he suddenly had a horrible, largely unfounded premonition of what Leliana was about to reveal. At least one of these prisoners was a Warden, and he didn’t like the implication that the Inquisition exercised any sort of real power over the order.

“Very few people come down this far into the prison,” Leliana mused, her voice light as her eyes roved over the abandoned repairs. “I sometimes come here to speak to my agents when I need privacy.”

“I see,” Nathaniel answered noncommittally, gaze casting back to the hidden figure in the cell. He chided himself silently for jumping to conclusions without evidence and waited for her to continue.

“There is a sensitive issue I wish to bring to your attention. It may fall under Warden jurisdiction. I would have contacted the Warden-Commander directly, but….”

“She’s still missing, yes,” Nathaniel confirmed. Leliana gave him an unreadable look and he had the uncomfortable feeling she knew something he did not. He regretted speaking impatiently.

The unknown prisoner coughed and shifted around to face them; the movement caught Nathaniel’s attention again and he looked over, only to have the distinct sensation that the floor had been dropped out from under his feet when Anders’ dark eyes looked back at him.

There was a long silence, Leliana clearly waiting for him to decide what to say rather than offering an explanation as to her intentions. Nathaniel, however, did not know what to say, nor if she had been telling the truth before, nor if she were testing him to some unknown end. He forced himself to turn away from the cell, facing Leliana. They were standing far enough away that any quiet conversation would be muffled by the wind.

“Does anyone else know?” As much as he tried to keep his posture neutral, he could feel a sharp prick of fear in his spine and he shifted between feet. Fear of what this meant, and of the outcome.

Leliana shook her head slightly, “No. At least, no one that recognizes him. I’ve been careful to keep it that way, for now.”

Though unspoken, it was clear that anonymity was unlikely to last much longer, the more the Inquisition’s influence spread and the more people they collected. Nathaniel nodded stiffly. Other questions tangled together in his head, so he asked nothing.

When he turned back, Anders was standing at the door of the cell, disbelief and a hint of hope written all over his face. “Nate? What are you doing here?” he asked as Nathaniel walked over to him.

“Getting paid, I hope.” Nathaniel let a half smile tug at his mouth. “Doing a bit of work for the Inquisition.”

“You look good,” Anders said, taking in the polished armor, rank insignia, and neat hair. The crow’s feet softening the sharp corners of his eyes were the only indication of a returning smile. Anders started to reach his hand out, but changed his mind and rested his fingers in the narrow spaces between the bars instead.

Nathaniel snorted a weak laugh and clasped his hands behind his back to maintain some emotional distance in front of Leliana, who he was quite sure was behind him, pretending to not be watching them like a hawk. “Better than covered in darkspawn gore.” Which is what he had been wearing the last time they had seen each other, in the Deep Roads near Kirkwall. Anders had hugged him anyway, when they had a moment alone.

“Anything is better than that,” Anders agreed, then seemed to lose momentum and fell silent. Nathaniel watched his shoulders curl inward slightly and his gaze drop down to the floor.

“Are they treating you well?” Nathaniel’s eyes flicked over the thin hand wrapped around bar to the hollowed eyes and gaunt cheeks. But Anders had clean clothes and the cell was well-kept, if small. The bedroll in the corner looked almost new and substantial enough to combat the mountain air.

“Well enough,” Anders answered reluctantly, but wouldn’t or couldn’t say more than that. Nathaniel could fill in the blanks easily enough. The noise, the chill, the partial isolation…just one of these would be unconscionable for someone without Anders’ history. It was also doubtful the prisoners could hear each other speak without shouting. “At least I get regular meals in here.”

Leliana cleared her throat delicately, and Nathaniel took that to mean she wished him to leave. By the sudden, fleeting spasm of panic in Anders’ eyes, he had come to the same conclusion. Nathaniel wasn’t surprised at her desire to maintain tight control, but it bothered him all the same.

“We have much to discuss, I think,” Leliana suggested, her slightly raised voice drifted back as she moved toward the door.

“I’ll come see you again in the morning,” Nathaniel promised, and this time he did touch Anders’ hand, briefly cupping his chapped knuckles when he was sure Leliana couldn’t see.

“Looking forward to it, I’ve missed your daily morning glares,” Anders replied, trying and failing to keep his tone light and unconcerned.

Nathaniel bid him goodnight and turned to follow Leliana, a dull ache taking root under his ribs.

Chapter Text

Nathaniel did not attempt to sleep after he laid down that night, staring at the ceiling and listening to Oghren’ snores across the room for hours.

There wasn’t much to the story. Leliana’s people found Anders by chance and brought him in because he seemed to have unusually good information about Corypheus as well as the mage rebellion when pressed. Leliana had guessed his identity and intervened directly when he was brought to Skyhold.

When asked why she had kept this secret, rather than shipping him back to Kirkwall and washing her hands of the whole mess, Leliana seemed surprised. She said, “I have more respect for the Warden-Commander than you seem to understand. I trust her judgment.”

The Commander had kept her personal life close to the chest, yet Leliana seemed to know her mind. Nathaniel was sorely tempted to ask Oghren what she meant, but then he would be forced to explain the context as well. Something stopped him, perhaps a growing sense of unease at how precarious Anders’ position was here. He understood now that what Leliana had done was as much for Anders’ protection as it was to protect the Inquisition’s reputation, were this to be made public. He could at least agree with the logic, if not the methods.

While it had been tempting to demand an immediate release for Anders, citing internal affairs, it was clear Leliana was unwilling without a great deal of convincing. Nathaniel did not have a clue how to go about doing that, especially without drawing unwanted attention from the wrong sort of people. With few exceptions, he knew little about the wide range of people gathered here, many united only by the Inquisition’s banner; Velanna’s observation had been particularly astute. Likely, there were many who would be eager to string up Anders and anyone suspected of associating with him, gray and blue be damned.

Eventually, Nathaniel gave up on rest and rose just before dawn, dressing quietly and leaving Oghren to sleep in. The kitchen proved to be difficult to find in Skyhold’s confusing layout, but that seemed to be the only way for guests to acquire food at such an early hour, and he wanted to learn how to get around on his own. The kitchen staff mostly ignored him as he wrapped up enough breakfast for four people in a couple of clean towels. They were probably used to it by now with all the Wardens around, and he was relieved when they didn’t bother to ask questions.

The guard at the second prison door had not been changed yet, so Nathaniel was allowed through unquestioned. Leliana must trust him enough to have arranged access without her presence, though he didn’t see much wisdom in that when he had only just entertained and discarded the idea of picking the lock and letting Anders make a run for it, however briefly.

Anders was already awake--or more likely hadn’t slept--and was leaning against the bars to look out at the mountains through the gap. He shook off the daze of sleeplessness and brightened considerably when he saw Nathaniel approach. “You brought me breakfast? Howe touching.”

“Weak,” Nathaniel deadpanned.

“Ugh, I know. I’m out of practice.”

Nathaniel started passing food through the bars, which was slow going, but well worth the effort for the blatant expression of relief on Anders’ face. Anders immediately stuffed a slice of buttered bread into his mouth, and said nothing else until he had eaten it, followed by a second and most of a third. “Thank you for this, and for coming back. I had almost convinced myself yesterday was a hallucination just before you came in.”

“Were you awake all night?”

“Only because I was thinking about you in that new uniform,” Anders joked. A little color had started returning to his cheeks with the food.

“I guess I should be flattered.” Nathaniel sat down so he could eat more comfortably, leaning against the bars, and Anders mirrored him after a moment of shifting the food around in his hands. He could almost feel Anders’ warmth despite the cold metal bars digging into their backs. It wasn’t enough.

“I’m surprised you’re not still travelling with Hawke,” Nathaniel said after he had eaten enough to take the edge off. Leliana had not seemed to know what had happened to Hawke prior to her arrival at Skyhold, and, even if Varric had more information, Nathaniel was unlikely to get anything else out of him after their less than amiable encounter the previous night. He didn’t like to think that Hawke had abandoned Anders to his fate, but neither could he discard the possibility until he was told otherwise.

“We agreed it would be safer for everyone to go our separate ways. I could never forgive myself if something happened to her because of me. But I haven’t heard anything in so long and I’m worried.”

Nathaniel silently thanked the Maker he was wrong about Hawke. “I heard she was here at Skyhold, a couple of months ago. Old news, but it's something.”

“Oh, that's a relief.” Anders let out a deep breath, a little bit of tension bleeding out of his shoulders.

“And is Justice still with you?” Nathaniel almost didn’t want to know the answer, didn’t want to have to grieve again if that answer was no, as he had upon discovering Kristoff’s vacant corpse in the forest many years ago. Learning that his two friends had been in Kirkwall together had been a source of comfort to him over the past several years. Justice’s inexhaustible vigilance had kept all of them safe more times than he could count.

“Yes, but…” Anders interrupted himself with an involuntary cough and pointed up to the ceiling instead while taking a drink of lukewarm tea. Several arcane symbols decorated the stone above the cell, too high to reach. Their purpose was obvious, even if the individual meanings were lost on Nathaniel. “They’re not taking any chances.”

Such measures were not unexpected, but it added another layer of concern that Anders had not even the spirit for company. What damage the wards might be doing to Justice as well was unthinkable.

Anders seemed to sense his apprehension and said gently, “Don’t worry, it works sort of like a sleep spell, but for spirits. No harm done.”

“Are you sure?” Nathaniel asked uncertainly. He didn’t feel terribly hungry anymore and started wrapping up the rest of his breakfast.

“Weeell, I can’t promise he won’t be raging mad enough to rip off a few heads if we get out of here,” Anders added thoughtfully.

“Sometimes the things that come of your mouth concern me,” Nathaniel said.

“I try,” Anders said with a faint grin and half a shrug. He nudged Nathaniel through the bars with a sharp elbow. “Stop worrying, we’ll be alright.”

‘Alright’ was unattainable, but there wasn’t much else either of them could do to enact immediate improvement on the situation. Nathaniel passed Anders the extra food and ensured that it was carefully hidden under his bedroll before saying goodbye. Again, he promised to visit the next morning. Anders put on a brave face as he left, claiming to want a long nap now that his stomach was full and he had nowhere else to be for the day. Nathaniel gave an obliging chuckle despite the leaden feeling in his gut.

Cullen was out in the training yard when he headed back to the tavern, examining his troops as they moved through morning drills with a preoccupied expression. Nathaniel walked over to stand next to him, noticing him him fidget unconsciously with his belt and gloves until he ultimately leaned on a fence post. “Commander,” he greeted.

“Good morning,” Cullen answered. Up close he looked worn out and older than his years, and Nathaniel could only guess what a man in his position must contend with on a daily basis. The force at Vigil’s Keep was comparatively tiny and well-liked.

“Do you have a moment? I was hoping to find out more about your expectations for the Orlesian Wardens.”

“Hmm? Oh, yes.” Cullen finally looked at him, as if suddenly aware he was in a conversation. He pulled at his gloves again. “We don’t have exact numbers, but we think over half of the survivors are mages. Ideally, they should be able to provide support for non-mage troops with the rebels that the Inquisitor previously recruited. As for the others, we need to know their skills before they can be placed. We are also looking at certain operations that would be best handled by the Wardens as a group, but for that they need field captains that I can oversee personally. The first priority should be to assess them and recommend those fit for leadership roles.”

“I see.” Nathaniel was starting to realize the expanse of what he was being asked to accomplish, and he considered that he may be in over his head. He did not share these misgivings with Cullen.

“I trust that is enough to go on for now? I must return to my duties,” Cullen’s focus was already shifting, though to what remained obscure.

“Yes. I should have a report for you in a few days.”

Cullen nodded his approval. “Oh, I almost forgot. Leliana was looking for you a few minutes ago. You should be able to catch her.”

Nathaniel left to find Leliana, presumably to receive the tour of the castle he had been promised, though he was tempted to skip out on such a pointless formality. Going back to bed was already sounding like a much better option, all things considered, but he dutifully started toward the rookery instead.

__

Nathaniel visited Anders again early the next morning; they didn’t talk about Kirkwall, at least not in any significant way. Anders skirted the subject with an obvious lack of finesse and Nathaniel didn’t see any need to push him. Instead, he spent their time together updating Anders on his family and the venerable life of Ser Pounce-a-Lot, grown fat and loud in his retirement at Delilah’s house. Anders finally smiled, bright and open, and Nathaniel felt a bit of the worry ease in his chest, enough to work the rest of the day without too much distraction.

Velanna and Oghren were in the middle of breakfast at the bar when he returned, Oghren in gruff conversation with the dwarven bartender. Velanna jotted notes in her journal while she ate, ignoring the two men next to her. The room was otherwise empty, save for a woman passed out under a table in the corner.

Nathaniel sat next to Velanna. She deliberately closed her little book and tucked it carefully away in her belt before acknowledging his presence. “This gruel they serve is awful, but it’s more friendly here than the hall,” Velanna confided. The bartender didn’t seem to have heard her criticism of his culinary efforts.

“I’ve been stealing from the kitchen. I’ll show you where it is later,” Nathaniel offered.

“You couldn’t have mentioned that yesterday?” Velanna frowned and sniffed delicately, shoving her half-eaten bowl away. The contents looked vaguely like oatmeal with dried fruit, if it had been left out in the sun for a full day.

Oghren laughed loudly at something and slammed his spoon down on the table. “You’re alright, barkeep. What’re you called?”

“Cabot, not that anyone here ever remembers that.”

“Well, I’m Oghren. This gal is Velanna, and that’s Nathaniel. We’re all enjoying your fine establishment.”

“Some of us more than others,” Velanna muttered under her breath.

Nathaniel leaned forward onto the table. “We appreciate your hospitality.”

Cabot nodded, apparently satisfied with the praise.

“Listen, we got a lot of Wardens to organize and only us three to do it. Do you think you could help get the word out?” Oghren asked, and punctuated it with a small, satisfied belch. He had finished all of his food.

After an approving glance down at Oghren’s bowl, Cabot answered, “Aye, I guess I could do that. I see a fair number of them in here.”

“Thank you for the help,” Nathaniel said. As the Wardens rose to leave, Nathaniel tossed a few extra coins onto the counter for Cabot.

Outside, Inquisition soldiers were starting to run drills with their captains in the yard. There were a few other Wardens scattered around, watching or eating or, in one case, napping. Nathaniel had no doubt that they were all perfectly competent, but next to the diligent soldiers, they didn’t look like much.

Oghren was feeling defensive of his brethren as well, since he had planted his feet, stubbornly forcing a group of passing soldiers to break formation around him. “This lot look like they shit rainbows before sunrise,” he said.

Velanna said nothing, merely gripped her staff tighter as she stepped out of the way. Sigrun winked at her as she trotted by with some of the scouts, though she didn’t acknowledge her otherwise. Sigrun, at least, looked to be enjoying herself, unlike the rest of them.

“Well, I guess we should get on with this,” Nathaniel started uncertainly. “Let’s at least try to get a decent count today. Find as many as you can and tell them to gather after breakfast tomorrow.”

Oghren grumbled in return, “This is going to go great.”

Chapter Text

Sixteen Wardens, most quite young, were gathered in training yard, which wasn’t all the ones residing in Skyhold by any stretch of the imagination. “Well, it’s only been a day….” Velanna said with a frown when she saw the group.

Nathaniel rolled his eyes. “There’s nothing for them to do here but drink and gossip. I don’t think that’s the reason.”

“You forgot ‘and screw like nugs in heat,’” Oghren chuckled. He wiggled his eyebrows at an eavesdropping Chantry sister and she walked away quickly.

Nathaniel ignored him and turned to the group. “Alright, Wardens, you already know why you’re here. The Inquisition is going to give you work, but to do that we need to know your skills and what sort of field experience you have. If you’re a mage, talk to Velanna, the rest of you talk to me or Oghren.”

“Ladies only for old Oghren,” Oghren added. A few scattered laughs bounced around the group.

The tasteless joke at least had the desired effect of breaking the tension enough for the Wardens begin to sorting themselves, though they were a generally quiet bunch. Velanna received the largest portion of the group, which wasn’t a surprise considering Cullen’s summary of the mage population.

A gray-haired woman holding a worn but sturdy bow approached Nathaniel, expression thoughtful and apprehensive as if she were considering how to say something that may not be well-received.

“You’re an archer?” Nathaniel smiled at her reassuringly.

“Yes, ser. I was an officer in the Imperial army before the Wardens,” she answered with a hint of pride. My name is Marine.”

“That’s good. You’ll probably be offered a leadership position, if you want it.” Nathaniel made a note on a scrap of paper. At least he had found one person to recommend to Cullen.

“I would, ser. Thank you,” she answered. Marine almost turned to go and then stopped, shifting her weight between feet. “Ser…”

Nathaniel looked up and waited for her to continue.

“May I ask...do you know if we will be allowed to leave? I must check on my daughter, she is alone with two babies.”

“Allowed to leave,” Nathaniel repeated in confusion. “I don’t understand, have you been denied leave?”

Marine looked momentarily confused as well, and then her expression shuttered. “Ser, we are here at the Inquisitor’s mercy.”

Though Nathaniel tried to persuade Marine to elaborate, she looked so rattled that he didn’t have the heart to pull rank and demand an explanation. The others remained tight-lipped as well, and he received several shrugs and similarly noncommittal replies before he gave up. Afterword, when Nathaniel had recounted the strange conversation to his companions, Oghren advised staying out of the Inquisitor’s business and Velanna reminded him, “They’re grieving their commander and friends, just as we were, once.”

And they were both right. Without more information there was nothing to be done about Marine’s problem. The trauma of losing so many so quickly when they weren’t even in a Blight was written in their faces and actions. The utter futility of their actions would have broken anyone. Trevelyan and his advisers had skirted around this low morale and other mysterious difficulties plaguing the survivors in their discussion. If it weren’t for Anders, the money might not have been enough to keep him there, floundering in the Inquisition’s mess.

All of them could agree it was still a minor success that any Wardens turned up at all, but seeing so few interested in their immediate future was nonetheless disheartening. Nathaniel headed for the main hall while Velanna and Oghren went their separate ways for the day. He wasn’t sure what he was hoping to accomplish--anything other than spending days trying to track down individual Wardens who did not necessarily want to be found. At the very least he could ask for assistance posting notices around the keep.

Josephine was standing near the stairs up to the main hall, the bearded man with Warden insignia he had seen from a distance at dinner the first night stood conversing with her. Nathaniel had been trying to catch him before since he seemed to hold some importance within the Inquisition, and he stopped to greet them.

“Good morning, Nathaniel. Is it a lovely day, is it not?” Josephine’s pleasant voice sounded slightly strained, which seemed especially jarring considering the intention of her words.

Nathaniel quickly glanced at the man and then back to Josephine, wondering if he should be offering her a verbal escape route. “It is indeed, Lady Montilyet,” he answered.

“May I introduce Blackwall, one of the Inquisitor’s inner circle? We have just been discussing...well, you, actually. This was a happy chance we ran into each other.” She looked ill at ease, however, though Nathaniel had to put it out of his mind for the moment.

“Blackwall?” Nathaniel said in surprise. “Warden-Constable Blackwall? I was told all the Orlesian officers were killed at Adamant.”

“They were,” Blackwall replied, looking distinctly uncomfortable. “I guess you haven’t heard.”

“Heard what?”

“I’m not him. I don’t see any point in denying it to you,” the man who was not Blackwall explained firmly, and then pursed his lips tightly together and said nothing else.

Nathaniel did not know what to say. Josephine gave the tiniest of sighs and pretended to look through the papers on her clipboard. She visibly disapproved of his admission and did not appear to be willing to help.

“Who are you, then?” he finally asked, bewildered. Now that his identity was in question, Nathaniel realized something was off with the man, a subtle absence where he should be feeling the taint in his blood. This man was not a Warden at all, but with so many others around it had escaped his notice at first.

The man closed his eyes briefly to collect himself. “Thom Rainier. A recruit. I did know the real Blackwall, that much is true, but he was killed soon after we set out for Val Chevin. I’ve been living as him since then.”

“And the Inquisitor allows you to go on impersonating a war hero? To what end?” Nathaniel was angry, and he didn’t bother to hide it. He thought of his friends, and how this man could not understand the sacrifices they made. He especially thought of the Commander, bearing too many burdens on her stout shoulders as she stumbled from hard choice to hard choice.

“I believe the Inquisitor thinks the name inspires others,” Josephine said softly, placating, but her neutral explanation did nothing to assuage Nathaniel’s anger.

He laughed mirthlessly and took a step toward Rainier, voice low and threatening. “You are a coward and a fool. Stay out of my sight.”

Nathaniel pushed past them, ignoring any attempts at further explanation from Josephine. No matter how much she could try to spin their public lie as a useful one, it would not change his mind. Mood stormy, he crossed the yard to the meager archery range since Oghren and Velanna were nowhere in sight to spar with.

Varric was there, fiddling with the sighting on his crossbow. Nathaniel moved as far away from him as the space would allow and picked up a battered practice bow, but it was unsatisfying, too old and weak for the distance. He snapped the flimsy thing over his knee instead and the wood made a decent crack before he chucked it into the bushes.

“Bad day?” Varric was suddenly next to him, having snuck up while Nathaniel was busy abusing the equipment.

“Thom Rainier,” Nathaniel ground out, refusing to call the man Blackwall. He suspected the answer would not be totally nonsensical to Varric, who had his fingers in other people’s business only slightly less than Leliana.

“....Ah.” Varric was silent at first, and took a few shots at the target next to Nathaniel’s. “That’s a clusterfuck I’d stay far, far away from.”

“I’ve half a mind to conscript the bastard.”

“Why don’t you? He seems to want to be a Warden more than most.” Varric set his crossbow down on a rickety table next to some arrows discarded halfway through the fletching process. He pulled out some small tools and started tinkering casually.

Nathaniel leaned on the table and watched him work, trying to sort out his thoughts. “I won’t be vindictive.”

Varric hummed thoughtfully as he rubbed some wood oil onto the crossbow. “He might follow through, eventually. Blackwall’s not such a bad guy, all things considered.”

“What things?” Nathaniel decided to indulge his curiosity, blind anger starting to cool into something more manageable.

“Rainier was due to hang for his involvement in the massacre of an Orlesian noble family until the Inquisitor had him pardoned. The way I understand it, he was going to join the Wardens to try to become a better man. ”

“That’s an old story. Many of us were criminals before. Or desperate.”

“Some of you are still criminals now,” Varric returned, a hint of venom leeching out from a crack in the friendly facade.

There was something strange in Varric’s eyes, pain and confusion that suggested he was still conflicted by past experience. Nathaniel decided to press him without much sympathy. “Isn’t it a bit hypocritical to claim one crime can be overlooked while another cannot? The Joining doesn’t come with a sainthood.”

Varric sighed, but the sharp edge hadn’t left his voice. “Maybe you’re right. Associating with Grey Wardens has gotten me nothing but trouble. I should have learned my lesson a long time ago.”

Nathaniel said nothing and stalked away.

__

One of the mage Wardens jumped off the top of a watchtower sometime in the night. Inquisition soldiers were still cleaning up when Nathaniel went out to visit Anders, and he stopped to help them. He recognized the young man from the previous day, a rather plain face with unremarkable features near the back of group. He couldn’t have been more than seventeen. The whining of the mage’s little dog haunted him, raising a quiet, lurking horror in the back of his mind that he was missing something vital.

Though Nathaniel was later than usual, Anders was miraculously still asleep when he arrived, so he did not try to wake him. Waiting quietly encouraged dark thoughts to invade his head, memories of things Anders had once told him about the Circle on bad nights--drunken, terrified confessions hidden under the covers on Nathaniel’s bed when sleep eluded them. They were just stories, Anders always claimed when sober, but he was a terrible liar. For a few hopeless minutes Nathaniel despaired of ever feeling Anders’ arms around him again, and he moved away from the cell lest he give in to the urge to wake him. Anders needed the rest.

Nathaniel walked along the wooden scaffolding to the other occupied cell in an effort to distract himself. The man inside was awake, sitting hunched over with the blankets over his shoulders and reading a book. He looked up when Nathaniel paused at the door.

“You’re down here an awful lot, Warden.” The man had an accent that Nathaniel couldn’t place. “My neighbor must be more interesting than he led me to believe, though it is difficult to hold a conversation in these conditions.”

“Must be,” Nathaniel answered, noncommittal. Now that the man had set down his book, he could see that it had something to do with magical theory. “You’re a mage?”

“Yes. I was a member of the Imperial Magisterium, in truth. Gereon Alexius,” the man said with reluctance. “I am a bit surprised Lady Nightingale did not warn you away from me. She has a...ah...particular charisma that inspires obedience.”

“I’ve dealt with worse, in the Deep Roads,” Nathaniel said dryly. The introduction indirectly suggested Venatori, perhaps kept alive for information, but Nathaniel couldn’t see much of a threat under the circumstances.

“Of course,” Alexius replied. “I was merely making conversation. There is very little to keep a mind occupied in this place.”

“How long have you been alone down here?”

“Hard to say, I stopped counting.” Alexius waved a hand at one corner where he had been scratching marks and equations into the stone wall. The tic marks added up to approximately three and a half months, but there was no telling how long ago Alexius had given up on his task. “I felt there was little point in continuing.”

“It is a grim hobby, yes.” Curiosity sated, Nathaniel started to move away to avoid getting trapped in lengthy small talk. “I have duties to attend.”

At first Alexius nodded, but he looked suddenly conflicted and called out, “Wait, please. I have heard things about Wardens...and I must know…” He sounded on the verge of begging. “My son had the corruption. Would the Joining have saved him?”

Nathaniel felt compelled to turn back, though this was not a question he was sure he should answer, especially to a Venatori prisoner. The despair and self-loathing underlying his words garnered pity from Nathaniel, and he settled for a vague truth. “It’s unlikely he would have survived. I am sorry.”

“Yes...thank you.” Alexius sat back on his bed, expression blank, and didn’t speak again. As he walked back to the other cell, Nathaniel tried to shake off the uncomfortable feeling that he shouldn’t have answered at all, not out of any particular concern for Warden secrets, but because the distress it caused was pointlessly cruel.

Anders, barely awake, was making a valiant but ultimately futile attempt at flattening his unkempt hair when Nathaniel appeared at his cell door again. He stood and moved over to the bars, coughing into his sleeve. “I thought that might be you,” he greeted with a little smile.

“Good morning.” Nathaniel didn’t smile back, suddenly realizing all thoughts of hunger had flown right out of his head while assisting the soldiers. “I’m sorry, I...didn’t bring breakfast today.”

“It’s alright, I still have some from yesterday.” Anders was searching his face and disliked what he found. “You’re upset, what happened?”

Nathaniel hesitated, however much the young mage’s suicide was weighing on his mind. “Things here are...not what I was expecting. It’s nothing you need to worry about.”

“Alright….” Anders didn’t looked like he believed a word of it, but he didn’t ask again. He had obviously had another sleepless night. Moving carefully, he sat back down on the edge of his bedroll and pulled the blanket around himself. The exhaustion was dragging down his features, and that alone chased away any lingering selfish ideas Nathaniel had about unburdening his thoughts.

When Anders asked, “Can you stay for a little while? You haven't told me much about our friends yet,” it was out of need, a distraction for both of them.

Nathaniel knew he should be working, and yet every task seemed trivial. “Of course I'll stay.”

Chapter Text

For the first time since their arrival, Nathaniel had breakfast in the hall, hoping to catch Sigrun’s eye and slip her a note to meet that morning. His uneasiness over the Orlesian Wardens had not lessened, and his thoughts were plagued by piecemeal information that didn’t add up to anything specific no matter how he tried to fit it together in his head. With any luck, Sigrun would be able to fill in some of the holes.

Across the room, she was seated at a table with a couple of other tattooed dwarves. She wasn’t facing Nathaniel, but before he could figure out a way to get her attention, the Inquisitor strode by, stopped, and turned back.

“Ah, there you are, Constable. You’re surprisingly hard to keep track of,” Trevelyan said with an easy smile. “Although without Josephine I probably couldn’t keep track of my own socks in this place.”

“Surely an exaggeration, your worship.” Nathaniel silently cursed his bad luck at running into the one person he was not ready to deal with.

“You don’t know me well enough yet,” Trevelyan chuckled. “I’m glad I caught you, I wanted to ask you about this request I received from Marquise Effiloche in Val Gamord. She claims darkspawn are attacking the villagers. Do you think it’s worth looking into?”

“I’m not familiar with the area,” Nathaniel replied, guarded. “The Orlesian Wardens may be able to offer council.”

Trevelyan made a noncommittal hum. “Perhaps.”

“They would welcome the opportunity to assist with operations, I’m sure,” Nathaniel tried again. “You could send a small team to investigate, once they’re organized. I can recommend a field officer.”

“I’ll consider it. Follow up with Cullen or Leliana, I’ve got to go,” Trevelyan said, and didn’t look particularly convinced by anything Nathaniel had suggested. “Enjoy the meal.”

Nathaniel watched him head for the tower at a brisk pace, feeling as though the brief conversation had been an exercise in futility. Fortunately, Sigrun had spotted him and was now pretending to admire a statue. Subtly was not her best skill, but her easygoing personality and unique perspective regarding life on the surface made her the best choice for such tasks, as these qualities attracted talkative people.

After slipping the crumpled note into her hand as he passed, Nathaniel kept going out the door to wait for her to join him on the battlements. There was little to do up there besides admire the mountain view, which was a truly impressive landscape. He could easily see the aesthetic appeal of building a fortress here, aside from the defensible location. That it probably wasn’t sitting on top of a darkspawn-infested tunnel was a rather nice bonus.

Sigrun arrived not long after Nathaniel, strolling along from a different direction. “I said I was on watch this morning. Nobody bothers to check the rosters around here. Perfect cover,” she said with a grin.

“You sound like you’re actually enjoying this,” Nathaniel answered and returned her smile.

“It’s a little bit fun. There are so many interesting people. I met a Qunari yesterday that was about as big as an ogre. All I could think about was how does he get through doors?” Sigrun looked mildly perturbed. “I was too nervous to ask him.”

“Sideways?” Nathaniel mused. “I can’t picture it either.”

“This is going to bother me until I find out,” Sigrun sighed. “Anyway, I don’t have long, so we’d better go over what I found out.”

“Yes, I was hoping you might be able to make sense of it. I had the strangest conversation with one of the Orlesian Wardens yesterday. She seemed to think she wasn’t allowed to leave the keep.”

Sigrun looked uncomfortable and she tugged on her hair absently. “That’s true, they’re not. I got drunk with a soldier that was at the siege. He said the Inquisitor all but forced the survivors into service.”

“For what crime? The Inquisition has no authority over the Wardens.” Nathaniel knew this, but there was still an illogical doubt; the Inquisition had indeed become powerful enough that many of their actions went unchallenged, if not unquestioned, by both Fereldan and Orlesian governing bodies.

Sigrun looked as troubled by this information as Nathaniel felt. “I know, it shouldn’t be possible, but apparently it was that or face execution for allying themselves with Corypheus, even if it was accidental. The mass blood magic sacrifices didn’t help their case much.”

“And the Inquisition was acting without guidance from Weisshaupt? We must be missing something, that can’t be all there is to it.”

“I’m positive we are, but it’s going to take time to get close to anyone that might know more,” Sigrun sighed. “You’re not going to want to hear this, but I think we should try to help them. This is a bad situation and there are few enough Wardens in the world as it is.”

Nathaniel made a displeased face and looked away. “You’re probably right, but I’m not going to be the one to try to convince Velanna.”

“Ancestors guide us,” Sigrun groaned.

_

For days, Nathaniel had been trying to catch Leliana while she was alone with no luck, and he was starting to actually believe she was avoiding him by inventing meetings, or simply being missing from her usual post. His frustrations at Leliana and the Inquisition Wardens were finding release on Skyhold’s underused set of archery targets or, if that was not enough, some unlucky Ensign caught loitering in the training yard.

When he did finally corner her in the garden early one morning, Nathaniel found he didn’t know exactly what to do with the information Sigrun had brought him. What could he possibly gain by forcing Leliana to directly admit they had been selective in their narrative surrounding Adamant? Admission wouldn’t necessarily bring action or clarity. He forced down the anger that had built up across days of stewing in his own circular thoughts.

Leliana was reading a small, worn book entitled Selections from the Chant of Light with her feet up on the bench, looking lighter and calmer than she had since the Commander had first introduced them all those years ago. It didn’t last, her face hardening into a calculating mask as she closed the book and stood.

Leliana crossed her arms, the book still clutched in one hand. “Have you considered Val Gamord?”

“I already suggested consulting the Orlesian Wardens, if that’s what you mean,” Nathaniel answered. “They would be an asset to your operations, you should try to persuade him of their value in the field.”

Leliana paused before responding and rested her gaze on a pot of herbs. “The Inquisitor doesn’t trust them. He will only allow it if you lead them on the mission.”

“I did not sign up for that,” Nathaniel snapped, turning to leave. “Tell your Inquisitor to stuff it up his arse.”

“Wait.” Leliana pressed her lips together and breathed slowly, as if stalling to gather her thoughts, or maybe trying not to lash out in return. “These darkspawn reports are troubling, we need your team’s experience more than the Inquisitor understands.”

Nathaniel stopped and watched her carefully, suspicious that he was being played for a fool, but he couldn’t put his finger on precisely why. He took a chance. “You already have your bargaining chip. It’s foolish to undertake a mission like that without an experienced healer.”

Leliana ran her fingers along the spine of her book. Some of the gold foil lettering was flaking off, suggesting this was a gesture she repeated often. “I will consider it,” she answered after a long pause.

“As will I.”

Leliana inclined her head and turned to go. Nathaniel watched her leave, unsure of whether to give in to the hope that they could come to an amicable agreement, or dreading getting himself and his friends further embroiled in the Inquisition’s affairs. He settled on a little of both.

A sudden and uncomfortable feeling of being watched crawled up the back of his neck, and Nathaniel cast his gaze around the garden, dreading the possibility that someone had been listening in on their conversation. There was no one. Surely, it was just paranoia.

Nathaniel frowned, about to leave, and then movement flickered in the corner of his vision. Sitting on the edge of the low wall was a person in a very large hat, who Nathaniel was absolutely positive had not been there before he blinked. Leliana had already gone, and there was no one else nearby to ask for a second opinion. The person was humming tunelessly, both knees drawn up to lean on.

Nathaniel rested a hand on the hilt of one of his daggers warily, but the person spoke before he could demand an explanation. “Cold stone everywhere, like before. At least there’s light this time.” A young man, from the sound of the voice, though this appearance was still a bit of a mystery under the hat. He continued, a bit of wonderment in his tone now, “But there’s two…how did I not notice?”

“What do you want?” Nathaniel asked, growing suspicious of the cryptic words and odd sense of calm surrounding him.

“I’m Cole,” the stranger said. He had large, unblinking eyes when he finally raised his head enough for his face to be visible. “You don’t have to be afraid of me. Leliana told me I can’t talk to anyone else about this but you.”

That was not at all reassuring. Nathaniel kept his hand on his dagger, though Cole could obviously see what he was doing. “Talk to me about what?”

“Helping,” Cole said simply. “Others could help, but some could hurt. Can’t always tell which is which.”

Nathaniel was starting to catch on; impossibly, this boy had started mimicking his thoughts with unsettling accuracy. Was he a spirit?

“I don’t know what I am,” Cole answered the unspoken question.

“Don’t...don’t do that.” Nathaniel could feel himself pale under the realization that this Cole also must know about Anders and that was why Leliana had warned him off talking to others.

“Can I help? No one will see if I don’t want them to.” There was absolutely nothing about him that looked like Delilah’s son, and yet Nathaniel was oddly reminded of his nephew. Cole looked so earnest with his pale eyes and melancholy mouth that Nathaniel almost said yes, despite his better judgment. Nathaniel could feel himself relax, and he was relatively sure Cole wasn’t about to cause problems. Leliana apparently trusted him to not talk to the wrong people, but that shouldn’t be enough of a reason to feel reassured.

“I want to help,” Cole repeated.

But this was dangerous territory, involving others, as Cole had already parroted back to him. Nathaniel shook off the odd, unfounded sentimentality that whispered in the back of his mind. His answer came out more harshly than intended. “No, leave it be.”

“Okay.” Cole seemed briefly disappointed and he was gone again before Nathaniel’s mind could catch up with what his eyes were seeing.

Away from Cole’s presence, nothing about the encounter seemed safe. Nathaniel had the distinct feeling that Cole was genuine in his desire to help, but now he could not precisely understand why the offer had been so appealing. It seemed likely that Cole had been manipulating him, but how and to what end? Questions about Cole’s nature plagued his thoughts as he made his way down to the kitchens.

Anders was restless when Nathaniel arrived with a late breakfast, and he put the food away without tasting any of it except the tea. On the second sip, Anders starting coughing, too deep and rattling to hide in his sleeve anymore. He let Nathaniel take the tea back from him before it spilled.

“That cough is getting worse.”

“I’ll be alright, it’s just the dry air,” Anders replied dismissively when he could speak normally again. That was an obvious lie, but Nathaniel let it go.

Anders accepted the tea again, holding it close to his chest instead of drinking it. He was silent for a long time. “Not that I don’t appreciate it, but why do you keep coming down here?” he finally asked. “You must know this is probably going to end badly. I don’t...I don’t want to put you through that.”

“I’m not naive, Anders. All of us are coming to a bad end. There’s no way around that.” Nathaniel considered for a moment how to continue without accidentally implying pity. That was certainly not his intention. “You’re my friend and I missed you, that’s all.”

Anders was silent for a long time, staring unfocused at Nathaniel’s shoulder. He did not meet his eyes when he spoke again. “You know, I did consider returning to the Vigil, after I left Kirkwall. But I didn’t think anyone would want me back.”

“You should have come. None of us knew what had happened to you, if you were even alive.” Nathaniel couldn’t deny to himself that it hurt to realize Anders seemed to have no confidence in him anymore when they had once been close. What he said next was a low blow, but it came out before he could stop himself. “You used to trust me.”

“I did! I...do.” Anders seemed momentarily confused and started moving restlessly around the cell, tension and fear rolling off him in waves. He paced silently, arms held tightly against his chest. ”You don’t understand,” Anders mumbled, withdrawing into himself. He leaned into the corner where the door hinged and turned his back to Nathaniel.

“You’re right, I don’t. But Maker’s breath, it bothers me that things got so bad and you didn’t think you could ask for help.”

“Sometimes I…” Anders paused with a hitch in his breath, likely a suppressed cough, but he was still facing the back wall and Nathaniel couldn’t tell what was going through his mind. He started again, slowly, then finished in a rush. “Sometimes I wish I had taken another path. Or that I had gone back with you after we met again in the Deep Roads. I didn’t expect to survive much longer in Kirkwall, and maybe I didn’t want to. I don’t regret any of it, but it’s not been much of a life. Not for a long time.”

Nathaniel watched the snow flurries swirling in the gap and tried to pick apart the jumbled emotions in Anders’ confession. Some aspects of their last encounter made more sense--things he hadn’t wanted to acknowledge, like the heightened deflections and the excuses for never writing and how it had almost sounded like Anders was saying goodbye for good. He had pushed these things out of his mind in favor of problems that seemed more immediate. A heavy sense of guilt settled in his stomach.

Nathaniel walked slowly to the edge of the gap, arms crossed and eyes watching his feet. He needed to speak with Leliana again, convince her that the bargain he had offered was worth whatever risks she perceived.

When he turned back, Anders was looking at him. “I’m sorry, I’m sure this is the last thing you want to hear right now.” His tone was neutral, but his expression was deeply distressed.

“Anders, it’s fine,” Nathaniel tried to reassure him. He put a hand through the bars and Anders clutched it with both his own after a brief hesitation. It was clear how much the exhaustion and the solitude were wearing him down, etched in the deepening hollows around his eyes and the new tremor in his fingers. “Don’t ever think I don’t want to be around you,” Nathaniel continued softly.

Anders replied, barely audible, “I missed you too.”

Chapter Text

The weather had taken a bad turn in the earliest hours of the morning, gentle snow giving way to gales and drifts only the Frostbacks could produce in such quantities. Nathaniel could think of nothing but the gaping holes in the prison stonework when he rose well before dawn, skipping breakfast to make his way down to Anders’ cell. No guard stood at the door to the second room, which had never happened before. Nathaniel tried the door and found it unlocked as well.

The wind gusted through the gap, icy and unrelenting. Alexius shouted desperately for the absent guard to bring him another blanket the moment the door opened. Nathaniel drew his cloak around himself and strode quickly over to the cells. The room was dark, but there was enough reflection from the snow to determine that the door to Anders’ cell was ajar. Nathaniel stared at the empty bed, uncomprehending. Fear gripped him by throat, tightening until he had to move to breathe again. He grabbed the blankets off the bed and silently handed them off to Alexius, who was pacing back and forth in the small floorspace and rubbing his arms vigorously.

He thanked Nathaniel profusely. “You are a kind man. Though I fear this is merely prolonging the inevitable.” He paused, then added, “I think your...friend was taken to the infirmary several hours ago, though I’m not sure why.”

Nathaniel held in expletives threatening to pass his lips. “Thank you,” he replied, grateful. The blankets seemed a poor trade for vital information, but the guard had still not returned. He resolved to find Leliana and try to persuade her move Alexius somewhere warmer.

The infirmary had not made much of an impression during his initial tour of the keep, though he thought it was near the front gate. Outside, the wind tore at his cloak and the muddy puddles pitting the training yard were starting to crystalize at the edges with thin patches of ice.

From the top of the stairs, he could see a large fire flickering near the makeshift infirmary; the weather and the early morning cast an especially dismal pall over the tents. Even without a closer look he could tell the figure lying on the ground outside the fire light was dead, dragged to one side for disposal. There was little activity, save for a scout tending the fire. The man disappeared as soon as Nathaniel approached, which suggested that he was probably in Leliana’s employ and had gone to fetch her.

A woman stepped out of one of the tents, wiping her hands on a dirty rag. “Yes? Do you have an ailment or are you just taking advantage of my fire?” She had a direct and confident manner, and Nathaniel guessed she was a healer.

“Neither. Do you know anything about a prisoner that was brought here sometime in the night?”

The woman nodded and pointed to the largest tent in the center. “Over there. Not much I can do for that one. We’re low on herbs what with the stores on reserve for the soldiers and all. Why do you want to know?”

“That’s none of your concern,” Nathaniel answered firmly. When he could see she was about to protest, he added, “Ask Leliana if you must.”

Though her curiosity was barely held in check, the healer shrugged and lead Nathaniel over to the tent, untying the flap and pulling it aside to let him in before turning back to warm herself.

The light and warmth of the fire didn’t reach into the tent much further than the entrance. There were two cots, one of them empty, and a small table between with the remains of a cup of tea and dried elfroot stalks. Anders appeared to be in the second cot, though it was difficult to tell in the dark when not a single inch of him was uncovered.

“Anders?” Nathaniel reached out to touch a foot, and his chest flooded with relief when the touch elicited movement. Anders shifted his legs and gave a single weak cough, mumbling something that sounded like a curse. Even under the blankets, Nathaniel could feel that he was unnaturally warm.

Anders flinched when Nathaniel laid a hand on his shoulder. “It’s just me,” he said quietly, moving the blanket away from Anders’ eyes. Recognition flickered across his face and he relaxed, falling back into a light sleep almost instantly.

There was a shuffle of boots coming from the nearby staircase, and Leliana soon appeared under the tent flap, flanked by the guard from earlier. Nathaniel turned to face her as she approached; he crossed his arms and waited impassively for her to speak. She looked down at Anders and pursed her lips in thought. “The deal?” she asked.

“Still on the table. What do you intend?” Nathaniel asked in return.

Leliana motioned for the guard to leave and turned to him. “I don’t like any of the options, but it seems there is nothing else to be done under these circumstances. You understand that if I release him this is entirely out of my hands, whatever the consequences?”

“Fine,” he said quickly, and then, before she could have any chance to reconsider, “I’ll lead your mission.”

Leliana looked grimly pleased that he was following through with their agreement. “Good. I’ll inform the Inquisitor.”

Nathaniel reached forward to grab Leliana’s arm as she walked out of the tent, forcing her to turn back. “That mage in the other cell, Alexius...surely he doesn’t deserve a worse fate.”

Leliana looked as if she would shake him off and keep walking, but then a flicker of understanding passed across her features. “No, you are right.”

Once Leliana was gone, Nathaniel slipped his hands under Anders’ shoulders, hauling him upright with a renewed sense of urgency at her warnings. At first, Anders struggled to get his feet under him, disoriented from sleep and fever.

“Try to wait until we’re indoors to faint,” Nathaniel said evenly, tightening his hold on Anders’ waist to steady him. The words seemed to calm him somewhat and he managed to stay standing, but he also started shivering violently in the wind.

Anders leaned heavily against Nathaniel, fever radiating off of him. There was little mystery to how it had gotten so bad so fast, with Anders so thin and tired and the cell offering poor shelter against the elements. The real question was why had he allowed this to get so bad while he played at politics with people he owed nothing? Guilt gnawed at the edges of his mind, eating up the parts that weren’t immediately occupied by the need to move carefully.

They made it as far as the fire before Anders’ breaths started heaving uselessly in his chest. Nathaniel lowered him to the ground as gently as possible before kneeling down to clasp his heavy cloak around Anders’ shoulders.

“What should I do?” he asked.

Anders shook his head, face so ashen that for a moment it seemed like he might fall unconscious. Eventually, his breathing slowed enough to answer, though his voice sounded like he had been drinking sand. “Nothing. Need medicine.”

“I should have just broken the lock days ago,” Nathaniel told him quietly. He slid his hand down Anders’ arm to encircle his wrist, rubbing his thumb over the tender skin covering veins and tendons. “I’m sorry.”

Anders was watching his fingers with glassy, reddened eyes. If he had heard or understood the apology was unclear. His eyelids drooped more with each slow blink until Nathaniel tapped his knee. “Don’t fall asleep yet, we still have to get up the stairs.”

“Okay,” Anders said with a ghost of a smile, though he didn’t look to be trying very hard. That unfocused expression reminded Nathaniel uncomfortably of the time Anders had almost bled out after being run through by a Shriek.

“Hey, come on.” Nathaniel lightly shook Anders alert and pulled the hood of the cloak over his head. Anders coughed deeply and wrapped his arm around Nathaniel’s shoulders to steady himself as they stood, but his legs started to give out again before taking a single step. Nathaniel crouched down and hooked his arms around Anders’ knees, hoisting him onto his back. The extra weight pulled on Nathaniel’s bad shoulder, but it would be easier and faster to get them out of the cold than trying to let Anders keep his dignity. The tavern wasn’t far, though dawn was quickly approaching and getting inside before anyone woke was essential.

Anders pressed his cheek against Nathaniel’s head, breathing in his ear until it drown out the quiet. For several blessed seconds, Nathaniel allowed himself to believe everything would be alright. “Remember that week we spent snowed in at the Crown and Lion with nothing to do but play cards?”

Anders arms tightened around his shoulders; it felt like a hug but he may have merely been adjusting his balance. “You kept letting me win.”

“And the Commander was so mad we hadn’t gone out to help the city when she dug us out--”

“--She said ‘what’s the point of being a mage if you can’t blast your way out of a little snow,’” finished a second, softer voice. Cole slid out of the shadows at the top of the stairs, twisting his pale hands together as he approached. Nathaniel had forgotten about him, which seemed odd now. Anders startled when he noticed Cole, digging his fingers into Nathaniel’s shirt.

“Not a good time, Cole,” Nathaniel tried to warn him away, uncertain of his motives.

“I can make it so no one will see,” Cole offered, a note of hesitation in his voice. “Though, I’ve never tried it with three before.”

Shifting his feet, Nathaniel weighed the options. Cole seemed as sincere as he had before, which he thought shouldn’t worry him as much as it did. “Can you get us into the tavern unseen?” he asked, skeptical.

Cole nodded, his enormous hat flapping in what would be a comical manner in any other situation. “I think so.”

“What do I have to do?”

“Nothing,” Cole said cheerfully. “Meet me at the front door.” He didn’t so much as melt into the darkness as blink out of existence.

“That’s not…” Anders whispered uncertainly, close to his ear. Whatever else he was going to say was overtaken by breathlessness as the wind knifed through the courtyard.

“I know, it’s unnatural. But I’m willing to take a chance right now,” Nathaniel replied, projecting as much false confidence as he could muster.

Cole was waiting next to the door, and he opened it, stepping through ahead of Nathaniel and Anders. Inside, noises and light were coming from the kitchen, but the few patrons scattered around the room were dead to the world, sleeping off drink from the night before. When Nathaniel hesitated, Cole waved him in, guiding him by the elbow with a light touch. It didn’t feel like anything but an ordinary touch, and he almost pulled away to find another route. At that moment a blond elf woman, a stranger, stepped out from the kitchen with an armload of contraband.

“Huh.” All three of them froze halfway to the staircase, watching the elf narrow her eyes at the suspiciously open door where a cold draught was bursting through. Nathaniel held his breath. The woman took off up the stairs with a grin on her face. She didn’t see them.

“Sera,” Cole whispered sagely. “Don’t worry about her.”

Only once they were outside of their own rooms did Nathaniel feel like he could breathe again. Cole released his grip and knocked to save him the trouble of trying to shift Anders enough to free a hand. After a moment, the door yanked open and Velanna stood in her nightshirt and woolen socks, framed by the dim glow of the leftover embers in the fireplace. “What--” she started and then lost whatever else she was going to say.

Myriad expressions flickered across Velanna’s face and she looked like there were several questions on the tip of her tongue, but she bit them back, lips set in a thin line. Cole greeted her cheerfully, but Velanna ignored him after casting him a suspicious glance.

“There,” she said shortly, pointing at the spare bed that would be Sigrun’s before going to rummage through her bags. “And you, whatever you are, get out.” The last part was directed at Cole, who did no such thing, but instead went to inspect a dark corner of the room. He suddenly looked insubstantial, if not entirely translucent, a bleeding of reality around the edges that made him difficult to look at directly. Velanna seemed to forget he was there, preoccupied with her task.

Anders dropped heavily onto the bed, leaning forward to rest his arms and head on his knees and coughing from the strain of cold on his lungs. Nathaniel rested a hand lightly on his back, knowing he was in the way but selfishly unwilling to let go of the physical comfort of feeling him breathe just yet.

When Velanna shoved a small kettle of water at him, and Nathaniel finally stepped away to give them space. He stirred the embers and built up the fire with the extra wood Cabot had given Oghren for helping out around the bar one especially busy night. Having placed the kettle, he sat on the hearth and let the heat seep into his bones while he waited for the water to boil, keeping half his attention on Cole.

Velanna removed the cloak from Anders’ shoulders and sat down next to him on the bed to perform a cursory examination. She started talking to him quietly, soft reassurances that she always used so sparingly it was almost shocking to hear her utter them now. Nathaniel tried not to eavesdrop, certain the words were not meant for his ears.

When the kettle whistled, Velanna dumped a hearty amount of dried embrium flowers with a handful of other herbs into a mug to make a tea. Her practicality and confidence in her craft were infinitely reassuring. “Fresh would be better, but this will do,” she said with a small frown of distaste. “That dismal excuse for an herb garden only had elfroot and common blightcaps. What a waste.”

“The Inquisitor doesn’t seem the type to be interested in herbalism,” Nathaniel said with a stifled yawn. He brought the hot kettle over to her and took a seat at the table while she finished her task. He hadn’t realized how tired he was under the panic that had shot through him when he first saw the empty cell. Now, with the warmth of the room bleeding the tension out of his body and the inexpressible relief of seeing his friends reunited, he could let his thoughts drift toward rest.

With the medicine easing his cough, Anders burrowed under the blankets with Nathaniel’s cloak spread out on top to sleep. Velanna stood over the bed, watching carefully for few minutes more before she seemed satisfied with the effect of her treatment. The room had become silent, save for the comforting crackle of the fire.

Velanna crossed the room, pushing the hair out of her eyes as she leaned an arm on the table. She stared at Nathaniel with a tired, grim gaze for a long time, waiting, a single finger tapping against the wood. “Well, are you going to explain or do I have to guess?”

Chapter Text

Nathaniel startled awake to the sound of a hoarse feminine scream and a soft thud that sounded an awful lot like wood hitting flesh. He was on his feet instantly, fingers scrabbling for a weapon on the table where he had fallen asleep with his cheek in a pile of dried herbs.

Velanna leapt out of bed, her staff held in both hands like a club. She used it to knock Cole to the floor and was about to hit him again when Nathaniel lunged forward to grab her arm before she could bring it down on the boy’s unprotected head. “Wait!”

Why?” Velanna yanked her arm out of his grip, but didn’t try to attack again. “He broke in and was watching me sleep.”

“That’s Cole, he came in with us last night. He must have been here all night.” Nathaniel realized he couldn’t remember agreeing to that and a cold shiver eddied over his skin. “Don’t you remember?”

“I…” Velanna looked baffled, but lowered her staff. “I don’t know.”

“‘And you, whatever you are, get out,’” Cole mimicked, passably, from his defensive position on the floor. “But I was helping.”

Velanna threw up her hands and looked to the ceiling. “Creators, I’m starting to think this job is cursed.”

Nathaniel’s heart was hammering in his chest--the rude awakening had rattled his already fraying nerves. He forced his fingers to uncurl, releasing the small knife back onto the table before leaning on the back of the chair to take a couple of slow breaths. “Cole, thanks for the help, but you should go now.”

Cole gathered his hat from a hook on the wall and placed it on his head with an odd sort of dignity. Velanna didn’t put her staff down until he had waved goodbye and gone out the door.

When Velanna started to dress in the corner, Nathaniel turned away to offer what little privacy one could manage in a room shared among soldiers, but not before he noticed the irritation and stress standing out in the hard lines of her sculpted shoulders.

He rubbed at his eyes, dried out from the smoke of the fire they had left burning all night. And more than a few sleepless nights, if he was being honest with himself. Anders was, unsurprisingly, also awake, watching drowsily from the other bed. “He’s a spirit,” Anders supplied.

“Who?” Nathaniel asked absently, mentally grasping at a faded image of a pale figure wearing a very big hat.

“Cole,” Anders answered patiently. “That’s why you’re having trouble remembering, he’s not human.”

“Is he dangerous?”

Anders didn’t answer immediately, mulling over the question. “I don’t think so. At least, not to us.”

At that moment Oghren chose to burst through the door, axe in hand, wearing only a half-buckled breastplate over his sagging undergarments. “I heard screamin’.”

“Peace, Oghren. Velanna…we…were just startled,” Nathaniel rushed to close and lock the door before any curious strangers decided to investigate too.

Velanna hastily threw a shirt over her bare chest before turning to cast a dirty look at Oghren. “I’m fine, no thanks to you. What an utterly useless rescue.”

“By the Stone!” Oghren’s axe hit the floor and the blade stuck deep into the wood. “You’ve got more lives than a cat, boy. Good to see you still kicking!”

“And you,” Anders answered weakly. “Thought you would have drunk yourself to death by now, old man.”

“I quit drinkin’,” Oghren said proudly, yanking on his axe to free it from the floor. “Three years now.”

Nathaniel caught Anders glancing toward him, and could guess he was questioning whether or not Oghren was making a joke. “It’s true,” he offered evenly. He would have to fill Anders in privately on the unhappy day three years past when Felsi stormed into the keep with her crying child and laid down an ultimatum, accusing himself and Sigrun of enabling Oghren’s destructive behavior where they lounged by the fire drinking wine at midday. Oghren had been passed out drunk at their feet. It was not good period in their lives.

“As long as I keep not drinkin’, I can see my little grub any time I want,” Oghren continued, leaning on his axe, when it was clear no one else would take initiative to lift the awkward silence.

“Well, you’re still butt ugly,” Anders replied faintly after a moment of processing.

“Likewise,” Oghren shot back with a gruff laugh.
__

Sigrun was, understandably, furious with him. She was silent and evasive for a full day, stubbornly refusing to hear Nathaniel’s explanation for keeping such a secret, when he could even get close enough to her to to say something. When she did finally respond, it was to say that she didn’t understand, and that what he had done was cruel when none of them were sure how much time they had left together. She was right, of course. The guilt hit him like a sack of bricks; Sigrun had been bringing up the Calling more often lately, and he couldn’t help but wonder if that meant it was almost her time.

“For what it’s worth, I am sorry I wasn’t able to tell you sooner,” Nathaniel told her sincerely, taking a step forward, thinking to place a comforting hand on her shoulder.

She held up a hand to stop him, the lines on her face deep and severe as she closed her eyes and collected herself. “You’re a dick, Howe,” she told him, savage in her pointed use of his unwelcome family name, “and I don’t forgive you, but I can get past it. I have to get back to my post, I’ll come later.”

Nathaniel might have felt better if she had punched him.

At dusk, the window latch popped open and the shutters swung out to reveal Sigrun’s face, half covered with a scarf, which she pulled down as she dropped into the room with a thump of boots. If she hadn’t alerted everyone else in the inn to her presence clomping over the roof it might qualify as a miracle. Velanna greeted her briefly as she carefully organized and put away the herbs from her pack.

Oghren waved the old turkey bone he was sucking on from the table. “A bit late to the party, ain’t ya?”

“She couldn’t leave her post,” Nathaniel answered at the same time Sigrun scoffed and muttered “blame our fearless leader.” The guilt pulled him back under.

“I’d offer you a welcoming drink, but…all I have is this swill,” Anders rasped, holding up the mug full of Velanna’s herb concoction. He was propped up on the pillows from both beds to help ease the cough, but his lips still had a faint blue cast.

“So, it’s really true,” Sigrun breathed out. She was hugging Anders tightly around the neck, which he tolerated in good humor until he couldn’t hold in the coughing anymore.

“Sorry, it’s just…fuck, I missed you,” Sigrun backed off, patting him on the back helpfully a with enough force to slosh a few scalding drops over the side of the mug, “I’ve spent the last decade trading stale jokes with these party poopers.”

Anders laughed silently, but his hand twitched and shook where the liquid made contact with his skin until he brought the second one up to steady the mug. “Me too, Justice is not much fun to share a body with.”

“Wow, inappropriate,” Sigrun teased. She wiped a hand across her face, but Nathaniel couldn’t tell if she was actually crying from that angle.

Velanna scoffed and elbowed in to jab her finger at the cup in Anders’ hands. “Touching. You, drink the rest of that. It doesn’t work as well cold.”

Anders made a displeased face. “This is truly disgusting. How about a chaser?”

“If you die of asphyxiation then it will be your own damn fault.”

“You’re so good at this.” He drank it anyway, quickly.

While Velanna’s back was turned, Sigrun slipped a dented flask out of her pocket and tucked it under the blanket next to Anders. Nathaniel moved to say something, but she sensed his protest, turning to raise a finger to her lips. Making him complicit in this contraband exchange silenced him immediately—under the circumstances he could not resist her charming, if misguided, effort to help out a friend.

Sigrun settled at the foot of Anders’ bed after removing most of her gear and chatted about nothing in particular, and everything all at once, from every tall tale of their adventures she could think of that he had missed down to the mundane. Oghren returned shortly after with a feast of fresh leftovers from downstairs, his budding camaraderie with the barkeep starting to pay off. Nathaniel sat at the table quietly and watched his companions—more like family than anything now—and feeling nearly whole again for the first time in many years.

Anders and Sigrun fell asleep top to toe that evening, her arms wrapped tightly around his blanketed legs, hair down and mussed across her face. It reminded Nathaniel of getting stuck in the snowier parts of the Frostbacks in their early days figuring out how to be a team, shame and personal space ultimately set aside in favor of warmth and survival. He knew he should wake Sigrun to return to her Inquisition post before her absence was noted, but he stayed put, holding his cooling, untouched tea and fervently wishing the outside world would disappear. Velanna was also still wide awake, sitting propped against the wall next to him, though Oghren had fallen asleep on the floor by the fire some time ago. This moment, this quiet pre-dawn silence after a shocking reunion was more a gift than he could have imagined.

“I never expected to see…” Velanna trailed off quietly, sweeping her hand across the room to indicate their sleeping companions, comfortable if not in good health and spirits.

Nathaniel took a deep breath and exhaled very slowly to release some some of the clinging tension in his body. “The Maker smiles on us,” he answered.

Velanna said, “I have too many questions to trust in providence. Your Maker may not be as kind as you want to believe.”