Chapter 1: From This Day Forth
Vigil's Keep, 9:31 Dragon
The stone floor was cold and hard, unforgiving as the heavy iron bars that held him captive. Grey Warden guards paced about, armored boots clanking against the floor, metal plates scraping together, as the men and women occasionally paused to glare at him judgmentally. They talked about him as if he were not there, calling him a wide array of offensive names. What a lucky bastard he was for being safe and sound in his prison cell while better men than he fell to darkspawn blades and bows outside! He should be thankful for his imprisonment, and for the fact that he was not strung up the moment he was caught. How wonderful his captors were for allowing him to freeze his arse off in his own family’s dungeons for “stealing” things that were his by right! It was so ironic it was painful.
The son of the late Arl Howe, and squire under a trained chevalier in Starkhaven, Nathaniel was not accustomed to being treated as common rabble and especially not a criminal. When word of his father’s death at the hands of the Grey Wardens had reached him in the Free Marches, it had not occurred to him that he would return home to find his father’s murderers rewarded by Queen Anora herself. He had spent an entire month in hiding, plotting the assassination of the Warden-Commander, who he held entirely responsible for his current misery.
Nathaniel tugged at the collar of his shirt, reaching in to pull out a small golden ring that he wore on a chain around his neck. It had been a gift from his sister when they were children, and even then the band had been too tiny for his fingers. It was the only thing he had left of his family, and the only reason he had failed to follow through with his plan. When he arrived in Amaranthine to lay his trap, he remembered Delilah and how she would never approve of such violent and brash behavior. He resigned himself to retrieving a few of his family’s things: heirlooms, letters, small sentimental things that the Wardens would have no use for at all. Unfortunately, he was caught and slammed in the dungeon where he sat as Vigil’s Keep was ambushed by darkspawn.
There was a small commotion as the sound of a door opening at the top of the stairs echoed through the dungeon. Nathaniel’s guards clambered to stand at attention, backs straight and arms at their sides. This was obviously not a routine change of guards or visit from their captain. No, Nathaniel assumed that it was time for his sentencing. At last, he would get to meet the person who murdered his father and destroyed his family face to face.
The woman who appeared in the doorway before him and to whom the guards saluted was not what he had pictured. For as grand a title as “Warden-Commander” and “Hero of Ferelden,” she was small, unimposing, and incredibly young. She could not have been more than nineteen or twenty, with piercing blue eyes that appeared much kinder than the dark brows furrowed above them suggested.
“Good thing you’re here, Commander,” one of the guards said before explaining the situation, repeating the same things he had been saying every time a new one of the Warden officers came to gawk at and interrogate him. Nathaniel had refused to give his name or any other information to anyone other than the Warden-Commander. With his family’s reputation as it was, the notion that he may be subjected to further scrutiny was unappealing. He thought it better to wait until closer to his execution to tell anyone who he was.
“Leave me to speak with him, please,” she commanded, her voice gentle yet decisive. The guards saluted again and exited the dungeon, leaving Nathaniel alone with her.
“I can’t say you are what I expected in the great ‘Hero of Ferelden’” he remarked snidely, not caring to feign respect.
“I am not what anyone expected, but I am what they got,” she answered matter-of-factly “I see my reputation precedes me.”
“It does.” He paused briefly. “Though I care little for your titles. I know you as the one who murdered my father.”
“Your father?” Her brows pressed together more deeply as a concerned expression crossed her face.
“Of course you wouldn’t remember my father. It was a war after all, and he was just another casualty.” Nathaniel’s fists balled at his sides as he felt the anger tighten like a vice in his chest. “But why should my whole family have to suffer?”
“I - Um..,” the Warden-Commander shifted uncomfortably where she stood, bringing her arms up to her chest and crossing them, “Who are you?”
“I am Nathaniel Howe, and these are my family’s lands - or at least they were until you showed up.”
“You are Rendon Howe’s son, then.” She seemed to think for a moment before opening her mouth to speak again. “Your father was a traitor.”
“My father,” he spat, ”Served the Hero of River Dane and fought against the Orlesian occupation. He was a hero, and now because of a horde of darkspawn, a petty civil war, and you my family has nothing.”
Nathaniel quieted, looking down at the stone floor that had been his constant companion for the past three days. He knew that his father was an ill-tempered, difficult man for whom many in the arling and even the landsmeet held no love. He knew his father was capable of rashness and poor choices. He may have been a traitor, but Nathaniel was certain that he did so because he believed it was the right thing to do. He always did what he thought was best, even if it was painful.
Nathaniel looked up to meet the Warden-Commander’s gaze again. “I came here to - I thought I was going to kill you, but then I realized all I wanted was to reclaim some of my family’s things. It is all I have left.” The words left a bitter taste in his mouth
“I’m sorry,” the Warden-Commander said softly, “You do not belong in this cell.”
“I- What? ” Her words caught him off guard. He was prepared for a public hanging, not an apology. “I just told you that I want you dead.”
“I heard you.” She moved to unlock the door to his cell. “I think I would want someone to blame, too. I’m not that person, but I understand why you would think so.”
“You’re just letting me go?” Nathaniel remained in the cell despite the door being open.
“Not quite. I understand you were difficult to apprehend.”
“I am not without skills,” Nathaniel answered, uncertain where this conversation could possibly lead, “My time spent abroad was not chasing skirts and drinking wine.”
“Then it is lucky for you that the Wardens are not currently in need of a skirt-chaser.”
“I am conscripting you.” It was another matter-of-fact answer from the woman, as if her reasoning was clear as day, despite the fact that it made no sense.
“No. I refuse,” Nathaniel protested, indignant, “I would rather die.”
“You might die, anyway. The Joining often claims the lives of our recruits,” she explained, “But I am not foolish enough to believe that every Howe is the same, and I do not wish you hanged for no reason. Don’t you want a chance to start over? To bring some honor back to your family?”
“I.. don’t know.” For a brief moment he allowed the anger and bitterness to fizzle away, truly considering the offer before he spoke “I might try to kill you again. Do you like having Wardens who want you dead?”
The Warden-Commander smirked, dropping her hands to her sides. “We have been alone in this dungeon for a while now. I am unarmed and I just let you out of your cell.” She motioned to the door with her hand. “If you really wanted to kill me, and if you are as skilled as my men tell me you are, you would have done so already.”
“A bold assumption,” Nathaniel remarked dryly, though he knew that she was right. It was easy to fantasize about getting revenge on the big bad Grey Warden who killed his father and invaded his home. It was much harder to stand across from a young woman who offered him mercy and feel the same. She was a person just as he was and just as his father was. It was possible that she, too, could have done no more than what she believed was necessary. The Warden-Commander offered him the benefit of the doubt, and he felt obliged to give her the same courtesy, as much as he resented it.
“I’ll do it,” he asserted, with a nod of the head, even as his stomach churned.
“Good, I’ll get Seneschal Varel, and we can start the ritual as soon as he is able.”
It was not long before the Warden-Commander returned and escorted Nathaniel to the throne room, where the Seneschal stood by the fire pit holding a large silver chalice. Several other wardens who he had not seen yet lined the hall as well, eyeing him with what appeared to be a mixture of suspicion and concern. It was more than a little unnerving.
Nathaniel walked forward to stand by one other recruit, his features sharpened by the light of the fire. The Seneschal began by explaining the purpose of the Joining. The ritual was held to induct new members into the ranks of the Warden Order, and it required that recruits drink of darkspawn and archdemon blood enchanted with lyrium. It was the source of the Wardens’ power and immunity to the Taint, but it was also their demise if they were not strong enough to withstand the corruption. In the end, it would kill him anyway.
The Wardens in the hall began to speak in unison. “Join us brothers and sisters. Join us in the shadows where we stand vigilant. Join us as we carry our duty that cannot be forsworn. And should you perish, know that your sacrifice will not be forgotten, and that one day we will join you.”
“Ser Brendon, please step forward,” the Seneschal said and a young Templar approached, taking the chalice into his hands, “From this day forth, you are a Grey Warden.”
The Templar drank from the chalice and returned it to the Seneschal. For a moment, the hall stood in silence, watching and waiting to see if the man would survive. Suddenly, he fell forward clutching at his throat and gasping for air. The Wardens in the hall watched on, some of them bowing their heads sorrowfully as Ser Brendon stilled, lifeless on the floor. The Warden-Commander offered her apologies to the now-dead Templar and turned her gaze to Nathaniel.
“Nathaniel Howe, please step forward,” The Seneschal announced, his voice hoarse at the loss of the other recruit. Nathaniel inhaled sharply, attempting to calm his nerves, and took hold of the chalice. It was the moment of truth - would he die as the other recruit, his punishment for theft finalized? Or would he live, and have the chance to be a Howe that history may be proud of once again? He did not realize how badly he wished for the latter until he drew the chalice to his lips, taking a small drink of the thick, dark liquid.
The last thing Nathaniel heard before his consciousness faded, were the Seneschal’s words, sounding if they were shouted across a great distance.
“From this day forth, Nathaniel, you are a Grey Warden.”
Chapter 2: Monsters Under the Bed
Young Nathaniel and his father make an uncomfortable trip to Highever.
Fereldan Countryside, 9:15 Dragon
The day’s journey from Amaranthine to Highever was more like an eternity to Nathaniel as he sat in the back of the carriage attempting to remain completely still and make as little noise as possible. His father sat across from him, looking out the window intently. He could hardly imagine what was so interesting about the grey Fereldan landscape. It was just hills and rain, and more hills and more rain. At least it wasn’t cold — well, except for his father’s icy silence. It was a silence with which Nathaniel was familiar, one that meant he was very, very angry.
Over the past several years, the elder Howe had been cross with Nathaniel more days than not, but Nathaniel didn’t really understand why. He was the oldest of his siblings, and always tried to behave as such, remaining quiet, not breaking anything, and looking after Delilah and Thomas while father was busy. He never cried, not even when he learned his mother was sick. His younger siblings cried, but not Nathaniel. He had to be strong for them, and for mother, no matter how sad and and scared he felt. A strong Howe man, he tried his best to make his father proud, though it seemed his efforts were in vain.
There was little Nathaniel could do that didn’t anger the man, let alone please him. He wanted nothing more than to be treated with the same fatherly warmth Delilah and Thomas received. Sure, they got in trouble too, but Nathaniel faced the brunt of it all. The more he attempted to earn affection, the more cold and distant his father became. Still, he persisted. He refused to give up.
Nathaniel’s most recent attempt to impress had gotten him into major trouble. Hoping to become a skilled archer like his grandfather, he began practicing with a bow and arrows everyday. Sometimes the soldiers even helped him set up the hay targets and cheered him on when he made a good shot. He took pride in how close he was able to get to the center of the target and sought to show off his progress; however, his father had been unimpressed with his marksmanship and furious that Nathaniel had found and used the disgraced Padric Howe’s bow to practice. He ripped the bow from Nathaniel’s hands, and made it clear that a man who abandoned his family to indulge a glorified fantasy by joining the Grey Wardens was not someone to idolize. Grey Wardens were the worst kind of cowards, or so he said.
This was the closest he had to a reason why he was in a carriage on the way to Highever now. His father explained nothing to him, simply demanding that he pack his things and get to the stables. At first, the prospect of a father-son trip excited him, but after hours spent in heavy silence, he wished he was back at home.
They arrived at dusk, streaks of sunset fading quickly behind the grey stone walls of the castle. Soldiers stood like statues at the gates, armor and shields decorated with the green laurel branches of the Cousland family. Nathaniel had visited Highever on occasion for feasts and festivals that the two families had begun a tradition of sharing with one another. His father and Teyrn Cousland fought in the rebellion together, and had become close allies in the years since. Nathaniel always marveled at the kind, even-tempered teyrn, who he wished his father was more like, though he’d never say as much.
The teyrn was there at the door to greet them when they arrived, eyes squinting with the wide grin he offered them. He spoke the first words Nathaniel had heard since he left Amaranthine.
“Rendon! It has been… some time. Eleanor sends her regards. She is putting our daughter to bed—-or at least attempting to. That girl is never tired.” he explained cheerfully with a pat to the shoulder before turning toward Nathaniel. “And you! You were only this tall last time I saw you.” He motioned with his hand. “You’re almost a proper man now.”
Nathaniel’s chest swelled with pride, but before he could answer the teyrn, his father cleared his throat and huffed his disagreement. “Hardly.”
“Well, we’ll just have to work on that, won’t we?” Teyrn Cousland winked, keeping his gaze locked with Nathaniel’s for a moment longer, and smiling in a way that made Nathaniel’s chest tighten for reasons he didn’t understand. He tousled Nathaniel’s hair, before turning to address the other man.
“I believe your boy may be a good influence on him. Perhaps Nathaniel will see how a boy his age should behave.”
“Fergus is a good lad, but...” the teyrn interrupted himself with a chuckle. “Thirteen, and just this afternoon he let his sister convince him to cover for her as she skipped her lessons...again.” He shook his head.
Nathaniel vaguely remembered Fergus, having only seen him on occasion and never really speaking. The Cousland boy was three years older than him, soft spoken, and cheerful like the teyrn. He was tall, but stocky with sandy brown hair and dark eyes. He couldn’t remember Fergus having a sister, but he’d also never really paid attention, preferring to find a solitary corner amongst the crowds that filled their festivities, away from the noise and from other children who could get him into trouble. He always got in trouble when he played.
The two men continued to talk to one another, father explaining the situation to Teyrn Cousland, as if Nathaniel were not there. It was the first explanation he had heard about what was to happen. Apparently, his behavior had become a “burden on the family,” and it was hoped that a summer away would “do him some good.” The words stung, of course, but it was nothing he had never heard before. His father was not one to keep criticism to himself. The idea of a summer away from home without all of the fighting and finger-pointing didn’t sound too bad, when he thought about it. Sure, he would miss Delilah and Thomas, and he would worry about mother, but considering alternative punishments, he couldn’t help but be relieved.
Several minutes passed, as Nathaniel stood silently in his father’s shadow listening as the pleasantries wrapped up and one of the teyrn’s servants arrived, looking eagerly at Nathaniel.
“Shall I show you to your room, my lord,” the woman said with a respectful bow.
Nathaniel looked at his father, then to the teyrn, and then back to his father, who, much to Nathaniel’s surprise, raised his eyebrows and smiled slightly.
“Well, go on,” he urged more gently than typical, only a slight edge of annoyance in his voice, “I will see you at the end of summer.”
Nathaniel smiled and nodded, fighting the tears that burned in his eyes. He hadn’t expected any parting words at all from his father, especially not words that sounded so much like the man he remembered from years ago.
“I’m ready,” he said as he looked back to the servant who perked up with his answer.
“Right this way then, my lord.” She motioned for him to follow her. He picked up his things and walked behind her, stopping just at the arched doorway to turn back. He opened his mouth to say something to his father, a more formal and affectionate farewell, but thought better of it. To ask for more fondness from the man would have been greedy. Shaking his head, Nathaniel continued on after the servant.
He followed her down a long narrow hallway and up a flight of dark, stone steps to the wing of the castle that housed rooms of the Cousland family as well as several guest bedrooms, one of which had been readied for Nathaniel. The servant opened the door for him. He hesitated as he entered the sizable room, feeling like he was somewhere he wasn’t supposed to be.
The servant bowed again, and exited the room, leaving him alone for the first time since he left Amaranthine. Alone to think about why father would have wanted to hand him off to another family for months. Alone to worry about mother. Alone to realize he wouldn’t see Delilah or Thomas for longer than he had ever gone without seeing them. The emptiness made his whole body ache.
Just as he was about to give in to the urge to cry, he remembered a gift Delilah handed him when she told him goodbye. He took the small velveteen pouch from his pocket and tugged on the string, pulling it open. Inside glittered a small golden ring engraved with his sister’s name. It wouldn’t fit on even his smallest finger, but his sister had also stuffed a bit twine into the pouch.
Threading the twine through the ring, he tied it around his neck, and tucked it into his shirt. There was a tiny slip of parchment sticking out of the pouch, drawing Nathaniel’s attention. Pulling the parchment from the bag, he saw on it a hastily scribbled heart shape in red ink. He smiled and returned it to the pouch. Delilah was only eight, two years younger than him, and she was already wiser than she knew. He wished he could thank her for the reminder that he was loved. It was easy to forget.
Now aware of how tired his body was, worn from the long carriage ride and emotional labor. Nathaniel flopped down across his bed with a huff, eyes drooping from sleep as his breathing slowed. Just as he was about to drift off, he heard a rustling noise from somewhere in the room. He sat up sharply and listened more closely. It sounded as if it were under his bed. His heart pounded against his chest, but he wasn’t afraid, no. There were no such things as monsters under the bed. Nothing was going to hurt him.
Hopping up from the bed he crouched down on the floor and tilted his head to look into the dark space between the floor and bed. He gasped when he saw pair of big, dark eyes looking back at him, surrounded by a mane of curly hair. It was a girl, or at least something that looked incredibly like a girl.
“Hi,” her tiny voice whispered, as she crawled forward. Nathaniel blinked in shock, not quite sure the proper way to greet a girl from under the bed. “I’m Elissa.”
“Elissa.” He hesitated, still examining her to make sure she was really just a girl and not some secret monstrous beast that absolutely did not exist and he had no reason to be scared about.
“You can call me Liss though,” she said with a bright smile still short a few grown-up teeth. “I like it better, anyway.”
“Okay,” Nathaniel muttered, not sure what to think of this Liss person, “I’m Nathaniel.”
“Nathaniel! Wow, that’s such a pretty name,” Liss squeaked, “Are you the Howe boy?”
He offered a slow nod in response.
“Papa told me you’d be staying with us… and that I shouldn’t bother you.” She laughed nervously. “I didn’t know this was your room. Oops.”
He began to ask her why she was under his bed, but footsteps echoed down the hallway, causing Liss to gasp and press her pointer finger against Nathaniel’s mouth with a “Shh!” She slid back under the bed, leaving Nathaniel sitting on the floor in stunned silence. He stood abruptly at the sound of a knock at the door.
“Sorry to bother you, Nathaniel,” a man’s voice said as the door creaked open. It was the teyrn, “I am looking for my girl. Her mother is going to be very cross with her if she doesn’t come to bed.”
Nathaniel panicked. He had no desire to get Liss in trouble. He didn’t know what that would mean for her. At home, if he or his siblings had broken the rules, it was never pleasant. Still, he did not wish to lie to the man who had been kind enough to open his home to Nathaniel, especially not so soon after getting there. He braced himself to reveal her hiding spot, but as he did so, giggles erupted from beneath the bed.
A good-natured smile crossed the teyrn’s face as he gave Nathaniel another wink. “It looks like we’re going to have to get you a new bed. I don’t think they’re supposed to laugh. What do you think?”
The teyrn’s lack of anger over the situation eased Nathaniel’s concern for Liss, and he braved a response. “I’ve never seen a laughing bed before, ser. I think it would be hard to sleep on.”
“Hmm.” The teyrn stroked his chin, “That’s a good point. That won’t do at all.” He knelt down by the bed, reaching underneath, provoking more laughter. “I think it might be ticklish, Nathaniel.”
He reached further to grab hold of Liss, and pull her from her hiding place, scooping her up into his arms as he did so. She struggled against him, squirming and laughing, but she was too small against her father’s embrace.
“Looks like you just had a little monster under there after all,” he said to Nathaniel before turning his attention to Liss, “Elissa Odette, what am I going to do with you? You’re giving your poor mother fits.”
Liss laughed briefly, but quieted herself, her face becoming more serious, “Sorry Papa. I’m just not sleepy.” She yawned as she spoke.
“You sure about that, pup?”
“Okay maybe just a little.” Another yawn and she rubbed her eyes.
“Say goodnight to Nathaniel,” the teyrn instructed, “Maybe you two can play together tomorrow.”
“Goodnight Nate,” Liss said, waving at him from her father’s arms. A smile curled at Nathaniel’s lips. His mother called him Nate too, and so did Delilah. He liked it.
“Goodnight Liss,” he replied as the teyrn carried the girl out of the room and gently shut the door behind them.
Chapter 3: Forgiveness and Fresh Air
After a meeting with Queen Anora, Elissa remains in Denerim as Fergus returns to Highever to begin his service as the Teyrn.
Warning: This chapter has some mention of trauma symptoms, including flashbacks and nightmares. Please take care of yourselves!
Denerim, 9:31 Dragon
A year ago, if someone had told Liss that she would be one of only two surviving members of the Cousland family she would have laughed at them. Couslands were strong and unbreakable, well-loved by the Ferelden people. Nobody should have wanted them dead, especially not a long-time ally like Rendon Howe.
Liss had awoken in the middle of the night to a knock at her door. One of her guards injured, eyes wide with panic had frantically warned her that the castle was under attack, just before he was run through by a man wearing armor adorned with the brown bear crest of the Howe family. The next clear memory of that night came with the image of her nephew’s tiny little body lifeless on the floor next to his mother’s.
It was an image that haunted her nightmares and caused her to wake up gasping for air, her heart beating so violently that it shook her entire body. She had been given charge of the castle for one single night, and she had not even been able to protect her brother’s wife and son, nevermind the rest of the castle’s occupants or her parents.
Liss’ parents were the reason she made it out of that castle alive, both injured and choosing to stay behind to hold off Howe’s men and give her time to escape. At first she had refused, wishing to die alongside them instead, but they asked her to live on for them as she couldn’t refuse. She narrowly escaped, clad in only her nightgown with an ugly iron broadsword in her hands. It wasn’t even her own sword, but one she had looted from one of the fallen castle guards.
She was not certain how she survived after that, other than by sheer force of will, and determination to see that bastard Rendon Howe punished for his crimes. She had never liked him anyway. His own family was too good for him, or so she thought. She hoped and prayed to the Maker and Andraste and any other deities that would listen that this was Rendon’s doing alone.
Liss had sought refuge at a small farm on the outskirts of Highever, with a kind elderly couple who had taken her in. She put on her best Marcher accent and told them she was the wife of a traveling merchant from Kirkwall, whose caravan had been ambushed on the way home. She said she was the only survivor. It was only partially a lie.
The couple provided her with a hot bath, a change of clothes, and a bed for the following few weeks as she healed from her wounds. In all of the chaos, she had not realized she had taken several significant blows to her body, with particularly serious injuries to her left forearm and shoulder blade. They were both long, deep gashes that bled a lot, and would have become infected had it not been for her hosts’ diligent care. Even still, she knew they were going to leave scars.
News of a massacre at Ostagar had caused a secondary wave of grief to course through her. Teyrn Loghain betrayed the King and Howe, the snake, was at his side and granted the Arling of Denerim. Perhaps he’d murdered the Kendalls family as well. It was as if it were bloody Antiva. She had thought Fergus dead, too. As soon as she was able, and against the kind couple’s pleas for her to stay, Liss had set out to Denerim. Someone in the capital would hear her, even if it meant her death. She would make them listen.
“Sis?” A voice beside her pulled her attention from painful memories, and into the present. To Denerim, where she and her brother stood in the throne room of the Royal Palace, awaiting an audience with Queen Anora. “You all right?”
Liss followed Fergus’ gaze down to her hands, clenched into fists, white knuckles at her side. Inhaling deeply she relaxed the muscles and offered him a weak smile. “I’m fine.”
“Fergus,” she mimicked his intonation, pretending she had no sense of the insistence behind his voice. He eyed her knowingly and scowled. “See, you don’t like it either.”
Fergus opened his mouth as if to argue, but was interrupted by the thumping steps of palace guards, who marched in and lined the hall, preceding the Queen’s entrance. Instead, he sighed, shook his head, and straightened his posture. Liss followed suit.
Anora approached them without hesitation, hands behind her back and chin high. There was a sadness in her eyes that did not match the poise and confidence with which she walked. It was a sadness that Liss didn’t remember. Anora had visited Highever on several occasions throughout the years. Obligatory meetings between teyrns brought Liss and Fergus to meet the future Queen’s acquaintance. Anora was one of the smartest people she knew, and she was grateful that she had not been complicit to her father’s actions, nor to Howe’s. In the days since the Grey Wardens has defeated the archdemon, Anora had worked tirelessly with the nobility to restore order.
It had been a shock to all at first when the scions of the Cousland family attended the landsmeet to denounce Loghain for allowing the atrocities that Howe committed. They were late, too, as the Hero of Ferelden had already killed Howe and won the Landsmeet with Anora’s support.
Still, their voices were welcomed, and the queen had asked for a private audience with them to discuss reparations. Nothing could bring back her family, but Liss was grateful it wasn’t being labeled a wartime casualty and swept under a rug with everything else.
“Thank you for agreeing to meet with me,” Anora said as she approached them.
“It is an honor, Your Majesty,” Fergus answered, bowing formally. Liss fought the urge to roll her eyes, but knew that her brother was only following social protocol. She offered a polite bow herself.
“I was not able to appropriately express my sorrow for your loss before. I have known your family as long as I can remember, and I cannot think of anyone less deserving of such tragedy.” Anora’s voice wavered as she spoke, finally hitching in her throat. “I wish that there had been more I could have done to stop it, that I could have seen through my father and Howe before it was too late.”
“It isn’t your fault,” Liss blurted before thinking, internally cursing herself for the informality. Thankfully, Anora didn’t seem to mind.
“Not directly, no.” She offered a bitter smile. “However, with Howe dead and my father imprisoned, the guilt is now mine to carry. I am your queen just as I was Cailan’s, and I failed to protect you just as I failed him.”
They stood in poignant silence for several moments before anyone ventured to speak.
Fergus stepped forward slightly. “We have all suffered losses, Your Majesty. We are sorry for yours as well.”
“There was no way anyone could have known this would happen,” Liss added, fists clenched at her sides again. The queen had no reason to blame herself. “Teyrn Loghain was a hero. We owe our freedom in part to him. Howe fought alongside my father in the rebellion, allies, friends even. This treachery belongs to them, and as far as I am concerned, it ends with them.”
“Thank you both.” She nodded, inhaled deeply, and straightened her posture. It must have been difficult for her to remain so poised and dignified amidst such grief. “Even so, your family is owed a debt. I know nothing can change what happened, but I would see to it that I do what I can.”
The queen paused and smiled, moving her gaze from Elissa to Fergus. “First, I am restoring ownership of Highever to the Cousland family. It has been under the care of crown since Howe died, however, the Teyrnir is rightfully yours, Fergus, if you will have it.”
“Of course, Your Majesty,” Fergus muttered, his voice hoarse. For all his confidence and all the preparation he had done for this very moment, Fergus looked scared. Elissa figured it wasn’t leadership that scared her brother, rather it was returning home to an empty bed. The last time he had been in Highever he had a wife and a son. He had not truly had to face their deaths until now.
“Additionally, in the process of rebuilding Denerim and repairing the fragile ties among the nobility in Ferelden, I have developed a small, private council to guide my decisions in the days to come. It is composed of members who represent parties who were most affected by the civil war and the Blight. I have no intention of repeating mistakes of the past. I think it is important for your family’s voice to be among those in my council.” Anora’s eyes found Liss’, an unspoken offer.
“Me?” Liss did not consider herself important enough to have the queen’s ear, especially not after everything that happened. “Your Majesty, I am flattered, but I don’t know that I am the right person.”
“Yes, you,” Anora answered, laughter in her voice, “You forget that we have been acquainted since we were children. I know you to be one of the finest diplomatic and military minds in this country. If you are willing, I would like for you to remain in Denerim. Your expertise and experiences will be an asset in restoring and improving our home.”
“It would be an honor.” Liss shifted her weight and looked toward Fergus who winked, one of the many things he did that reminded her of their father.
“Very well, then. It is decided.” Anora exclaimed, clasping her hands in front of her. There was a brief moment of silence before she continued. “If there are no further matters to discuss, then I will take my leave. I am certain that you two have things to discuss before you part ways.”
Liss and Fergus bowed as Anora turned to exit the room, her contingent of guards following behind her. Liss watched in admiration as the queen walked away, still stunned by the entire exchange. She had gone from losing everything to being a member of Anora’s council in the matter of a year. It was dizzying. The prospect of separating from Fergus after having only been together for a few weeks upset her, but she knew that he needed to go home, and that she needed to stay. It was the right thing to do. Even so, she worried about him returning to Highever alone.
She placed a hand on his shoulder and turned to face him directly. “Are you going to be alright?”
He sighed, looking at the floor beneath them. “It will be difficult, but I’ll manage.”
“Are you sure?”
“I have to be sure.” His words were decisive as he returned his gaze to hers, filled with sad determination. “It’s what Mother and Father would have wanted, what Oriana would have wanted. Maybe it will bring me some closure.”
“Fergus, I’m -.”
“Don’t,” Fergus interrupted, “No more apologies. Okay?”
“Okay.” Liss fought with the tears that brimmed in her eyes, steeling herself so that her brother couldn’t see how close she was to falling apart again.
“That’s my girl,” he said just as father would have done, “I am so proud of you, sis. I know that Mother and Father would be, too.”
Fergus wrapped his arms around her and squeezed her tightly into an embrace, which she returned eagerly.
“Promise me you’ll write,” Liss insisted, as she pulled back, still holding on to his arms.
“You have my word.”
It was not long after Fergus left that a servant arrived to show Liss to her room. It was spacious, larger than she needed, with bed that could have fit at least five people - not that she would want five people in her bed. There was a personal bath, a desk and several bookshelves, and dressers that were already filled with clothing in her size. It seemed Anora had done her best to make Liss feel at home, and with some success. It had been a long time since she had been comfortable enough to truly feel the exhaustion in her bones. She lay down atop the coverlet, not even taking time to change into night clothes.
Sleep came quickly, and ended just as quickly, with flashes of images from the night her family was murdered. Oren’s tiny little body, the screaming, pools of blood, the strong scent of iron in the air. She awoke to her own screams, heart racing, suffocating under the weight of her memories. Luckily for her, it was not a new occurrence, and she was able to slow her breathing and ease the anxiety before it crippled her.
However, she knew that going back to sleep was not an option. She had woken up from these nightmares enough to know that it took time for her body and mind to ease enough to sleep again. Hoping to get some fresh air and clear her head of the painful thoughts, she grabbed a cloak from the dresser and left her room, making her way to the courtyard. It would be quiet at night, and she would be free to feel her own emotions.
The air was slightly too cold for her liking, teeth chattering as the wind nipped at her cheeks and nose. Despite her discomfort, she found the courtyard ideal, ferns and flowers illuminated only by moonlight. She wondered how the plants survived the frost that coated them each night, the hardy little things. Closing her eyes, she inhaled deeply and allowed her muscles to lose their tension.
The calm lasted only briefly, as she heard a rustle in the grass behind her and footsteps approaching. She turned on her heels abruptly, balling her hand into a fist, and jabbing forcefully in the direction of the noise. A man’s voice yelped in pain, and there was a thud as the figure, now in focus, fell to the ground. Liss moved to restrain the potential attacker, sitting atop him with her fist at the ready.
“No no no! Please don’t hit me again, I bruise easily,” the man, whose features Liss could now see more clearly, pleaded.
He was a young man with sandy hair, brown skin, and dark hazel eyes wide with shock and perhaps pain at the punch she had landed against his torso. He did not appear to be armed, or dangerous for that matter. Then again, she knew better than to let her guard down.
“Who are you,” she demanded, fist still at the ready, “And why were you sneaking around in the courtyard?”
“My name is Alistair,” he answered nervously, “I had come outside for some air, as one does, and I noticed that someone else was out here. I, uh…well I was hoping not to alarm you. I guess we see how well that worked out.”
“Alistair?” The name sounded familiar, and she stood up and stepped back as she realized who the young man was, “The Alistair? King Maric’s son? The Grey Warden who helped stop the Blight? That Alistair?”
He stood up and dusted the dirt from his pants. “The one and only.” He grimaced as he attempted to straighten up his posture, massaging the place on his abdomen where Liss’ fist had fallen. “Maker, that hurt. Who are you, anyway? Do you always go around attacking people?”
“I’m Elissa Cousland, and I’m so, so sorry,” she laughed nervously, bringing her hands to her face to hide the embarrassment. “I just couldn’t sleep, so I came outside for a walk. I heard footsteps, and I thought - well… I don’t know what I thought. It’s been a long year, and I’m a little on edge.”
“I’ll say,” he said pointedly, before flashing a grin, “I think it’s safe to say we’re all a little on edge, what with the war and the Blight. Better to punch first, ask questions later, huh?”
“I suppose,” Liss answered, still laughing at herself, “Though it’s probably not the best way to make friends.”
“I don’t know. Depends on how forgiving the person you punched is.” Alistair raised his brows and shrugged.
“Are you a forgiving person?”
“Too forgiving, if I’m honest,” he answered with a laugh.
“Good to know.” Liss nodded, darting her eyes around the courtyard uncomfortably. “Well, I should probably… get back to my quarters.” She turned to walk away, but paused mid-step as she heard Alistair speak again.
“Um, Lady Cousland. You said you couldn’t sleep, right?”
“I can’t either. It happens a lot these days.” His previously cheerful eyes darkened, and his thoughts seemed to drift somewhere else entirely. “But, I have learned the best place to go when I can’t seem to turn my mind off. Want me to show you?”
Liss thought for a moment, genuinely stunned by the offer from this man she just met, and who probably had a bruised rib because of her. “Um, okay. Sure.”
“Great. This way.” He motioned for her to follow him through the courtyard and to a small flight of stairs that led up into the battlements.
“Alistair,” she called after him, causing him to turn and look back at her, “You can call me Liss, by the way.”
“Liss,” he repeated, a warm grin spreading across his face, “I like it.”
Chapter 4: A Tiny Prayer for Mama
Liss is determined to make that grumpy Howe boy her friend, but she isn't prepared for what that entails.
Highever, 9:15 Dragon
Liss had made a new friend, or at least she was bound and determined to make that quiet, grumpy Howe boy her friend. Nathaniel — or Nate, as she had decided to call him — seemed much less interested in the notion, however. In fact, he didn’t seem interested in much at all, especially not normal things that kids should be interested in. He had been staying in Highever for over a month now, and she had never seen him play, not a single time. He just attended lessons, read books, and followed Fergus around like he was a sad, little puppy. Liss didn’t understand why anyone would want to follow Fergus around. He smelled like sweat and old cheese.
Papa told her she wasn’t to bother him, but she didn’t think that encouraging him to act like a normal kid was the same as “bothering.” Nate did not seem to mind it much whenever she left her lessons early and sought him out. While he was never really excited when she dragged him outside to the gardens and enlisted him in her search for the perfect flowers to braid into a crown, to play games, or even just to hide from Aldous behind some of the bushes, he didn’t complain. The only time Nate got annoyed with her was when she tried to make him wear the flower crown she had so artfully crafted. As soon as the white petals touched his pretty black hair, he blushed and took it off, handing it back to her forcefully. She tried to remember not to do that again.
Liss had once again persuaded her way out of Aldous’ lecture, this time by reciting the entire tale of Flemeth and Bann Conobar from memory when he asked if she’d even paid attention. Little did he know she had read several different versions of the tale -- multiple times. She did not need to attend to his instruction, especially when he couldn’t even pronounce the names properly. She was only eight and she knew that it was Oh-sen, not Ah-sen. Obviously defeated, the man had grumbled about “Bryce’s know-it-all children,” thrown his hands up in frustration, and told her she was free to go. Thrilled she did not have to sneak away this time, she skipped out of the room and into the open air.
She didn’t make it far as she had hoped before she felt a tug at her arm drawing her abruptly to a halt. She spun to face the person holding her arm only to see Fergus towering over her with his eyebrows raised.
“Skipping again?” He spoke in a gentle kind of way that he always did when he wasn’t really serious. “You’re going to get in trouble.”
“Aldous let me go, I promise.”
“That’s what you said last time.”
“Please don’t tell Papa, Fergus.’ She clasped her hands together and pouted, earning her an eye roll and a hair tousle.
“Your secret’s safe with me, sis,” Fergus answered with a smile, making Liss feel a twinge of guilt for thinking he was smelly. Just a twinge.
Liss nodded and turned to continue her traipse toward the courtyard, but Fergus called after her. “If you’re looking for Nathaniel, he’s out at the archery range.”
“Okay,” she chirped and took off running toward the castle gates. The targets were lined up just inside the walls, where guards sometimes practiced. There were no guards around at the moment, leaving the area empty and quiet.
Nate stood at the far end, several feet away from a target that was nestled in a corner. She didn’t understand his affinity for small, secluded spaces, but she didn’t plan on pointing it out to him. Several arrows already protruded from the target, close to the center, but not quite a bullseye.
Liss watched as he took another dull, training arrow from the quiver, line it up on the bow across his finger, and aim carefully as he drew back the string. His eyebrows pressed together as he released the string, sending the arrow flying toward the target and landing directly in the middle. The corner of Nate’s lips quirked up at the hit, quickly turning into a grin that spread across his face. It even lit up his eyes.
“Wow,” Liss exclaimed, causing Nate to jump and dart his head in her direction. His smile fell briefly and then returned when he realized it was her.
“Did you see that?” He motioned toward the target with his thumb as he walked toward her. “I’ve never done that before.”
“That was amazing ,” Liss said excitedly, “Mama tried to teach Fergus to shoot like that, but he’s better with a sword. How did you learn to do that?”
Nate shrugged. “I just practiced.”
“Can you show me?”
“You want to learn how to use a bow?” He blinked in disbelief. “Are you allowed? Father never lets Delilah use weapons. Says it’s not something girls should do.”
“That’s silly.” Liss was indignant, puffing out her chest and turning her nose up. “Papa says girls can do anything that boys can.”
“Right...sorry. I’ll show you.” He motioned for her to follow him, moving to stand in front of one of the targets. She ran after him giddily, eager for the chance to learn something new. Nate placed the bow in her hands and walked forward to retrieve the arrows from the target. It was heavier than she expected, coarse wood rough in her palms. He returned with the arrows in hand and extended one out to her. “I never got why Delilah wasn’t allowed. She’d be good at it.”
Liss took the arrow and stared awkwardly between it and the bow, unsure how to hold either, before looking up at Nate helplessly. He laughed, taking her shoulders and squaring her up with the target. “Which hand do you write with?”
She raised her right hand and wiggled her fingers.
“You want to hold the bow in your left hand, then,” he explained, “And line your left shoulder up with the target when you aim.”
“Mhm,” Nate said with a nod, “Make sure your feet are far enough apart that you can balance. Do you know what to do with the arrow now?”
Liss nodded in response, hooking the end of the arrow on the string and lining it up with her finger, just as she had seen her mother and Nate do.
“Right! Now you just shoot it.”
The bowstring was more difficult to pull back than she intended, and her arms shook as she attempted to aim. Her posture failed her, and when she released the arrow, it soared directly into the ground. Her cheeks grew hot with embarrassment, and she expected to find Nate laughing at her when she turned to face him, but he wasn’t. He only smiled gently and handed her another arrow. Fergus would have laughed at her.
“It’s harder than it looks,” he said, moving to stand behind her, lining her shoulders up again and holding her in place as she drew back the string and released the arrow. It wasn’t a great shot, a bit too high, but it struck and sunk into the very top edge of the target.
“Oh,” Liss said, bewildered as she turned to face her friend, “I did it! Thank you!” She threw her arms around him in an excited embrace. He stiffened, but didn't push her away.
“It’s-,” Nate began to reply, but he paused, blinking in the direction of the door to the castle’s main hall. Liss turned to figure out what had caused him to stop, only to see her father standing a few feet away, smiling as he always did. For a moment she worried that he would be cross that she was not in her lessons again, but he did not seem to realize she wasn’t where she was supposed to be.
“Good work, kids,” he remarked cheerfully as he moved closer to them, tousling Liss’ hair as Fergus had done and giving Nate a pat on the shoulder. Despite his typically happy appearance, something was wrong. He had a heaviness in his eyes she wasn’t used to seeing, and his hand lingered on Nate’s shoulder as he addressed her. “Pup, I need to speak to Nathaniel for a bit. Why don’t you go find Fergus and the two of you get washed up for dinner?”
“But Papa, I-.” She wanted to stay with Nate, and practice shooting more. She didn’t know why she couldn’t hear what Papa had to say, too.
“Elissa.” His tone was serious, and she knew she needed to do as he said without protest this time. She offered an apologetic smile to Nate, whose eyes had widened with worry, as she ran off to find her brother.
It took awhile to find Fergus, who had been down in the kennels with the Mabari trainers and breeders. His latest fixation was to have one of the puppies bond with him; however, he had no luck so far. Papa warned him that the more he tried to force a bond, the less likely it was to happen. Fergus didn’t listen, though, and stubbornly went down to the basement each day to pester the dogs. She hoped it would happen for him soon, for his sake and for the dogs’.
“I shot a bow,” she told him proudly as they walked up the stairs to their rooms.
“Get a bullseye?”
“No, but I hit the target once.” She beamed, as she spoke. “Nate helped me.”
“Good on him,” Fergus said, a chuckle at the end of his words, “Maybe he can help me, too. Get mum to stop lecturing me about it.”
After washing up and changing into a different dress, one that was not covered in dirty paw prints from being in the kennels, Liss joined her family in the dining room for the evening meal. Her parents and Fergus were already seated, awaiting her arrival. Looking across the table, she frowned when she didn’t see Nate, his usual seat empty and unset. She turned her gaze to her father, who just shook his head, somberly.
“Where’s Nate?” She pulled out her chair and sat down at the table that was nearly too tall for her. “Is he okay?”
Her parents exchanged glances and nodded at one another before looking back toward Liss and Fergus.
“Sweetheart,” her mother began, voice quivering as she spoke, “Nathaniel received some really sad news from home. He didn’t feel like coming to dinner today.”
“Sad news,” Fergus repeated, “What kind of sad news?”
“Apparently Nathaniel’s mother has been very sick for some time now,” her father said, “I don’t know if he told either of you. I know that it is not something Rendon has ever mentioned.”
Liss and Fergus both shook their heads. She remembered him talking about his father, sister, and brother, but not once since he had been in Highever could she remember him saying anything about his mother. Especially not anything about her being sick.
“Is she okay,” Liss asked, scooting her chair out and standing up again, hands on the table.
“She died, pup.” Her father frowned as he spoke, “Last week, actually. The letter just arrived today. The poor lad wasn’t even able to go to her funeral, to say goodbye.”
“Bryce,” her mother said pointedly, laying a soothing arm on his shoulder. Liss didn’t understand the exchange, but it upset her to see her father so clearly bothered. He almost seemed angry.
“Is...Nate okay?” Liss was still standing, fists now clenched at her side.
“No, but he will be,” her father told her softly, “He asked if he could stay in his room instead of come to dinner. I think he wants to be alone.”
Liss didn’t even ask to be excused before she took off running out of the dining hall, up the stairs in the corridor, and toward Nate’s room. She ignored her parents calls for her to come back, thinking about how she might feel if her mother were to die. It made her so sad she could hardly stand it and she couldn’t even imagine what Nate was feeling. She knew her father was right and that he probably wanted to be by himself, but she was his friend, and she couldn’t just leave him all alone. If he told her to go away, she would, but she at least had to try.
When she reached the door to his bedroom, she pressed her ear against the elaborately carved wood, but wasn’t able to hear anything. She knocked, and when there was no answer, she let herself in, turning the knob and pushing the door open gently. She scanned the room, which was illuminated by a lone sconce on the wall, only to find Nate sitting on the floor in a far corner of the room, his back against the wall. He traced the edges of a small, golden ring with his fingertips, staring at the ground. When he heard the door creak open, despite Liss’ attempts to be quiet, he looked up at her with swollen, tear-reddened eyes.
“Liss?” His voice was hoarse, and barely more than a whisper.
“Mama and Papa told me what happened,” she explained as she moved closer, sitting down next to him, “I’m really sorry.”
He said nothing in response, instead just closing his eyes and letting his head droop. Large tears rolled down his cheeks and dripped from his chin, and she didn’t know what to do. She’d never seen a boy cry before, and she was at a loss for how to make him feel better.
“I can go if you want me to,” she said softly, “Papa said you might want to be al-.”
“No,” Nate choked out, urgently, “Stay. Please stay.”
Unsure what else to do, she leaned over and put an arm around his shoulder. In a swift, unexpected movement, he turned to wrap his arms around her in a desperate hug, his face buried into her shoulder so that she could feel the warm tears as they fell. He wept and trembled against her and she put her other arm around him, reaching up to pat his head with her hand. It was just as Mama did when she was upset. She wondered if Nate’s mama had held him like this, too, but that made her sad, and sympathetic tears burned in her eyes before dropping to her cheeks.
“I’m so so sorry, Nate,” she said, squeezing him more tightly, “I’m sorry.”
She held him for a long while, until his breathing slowed and became more even, his grip on her relaxing, his shaky body finally resting, as he fell asleep against her. She guessed he had worn himself out, and she was glad to see him at peace. She was only slightly bothered that she was now stuck, unable to move him and not wanting to wake him up.
She was relieved when the door creaked open, and she looked up to see her parents standing there, framed by the light from the hallway. Her father frowned, eyebrows furrowed as her mother brought a hand to her mouth. Nate didn’t hear them, and they both entered quietly. Her father hurried over to pick up Nate, carrying him to his bed and tucking him in under the heavy covers. Her mother, noticing Liss’ own tears, rushed to her side and held her, much as she had held her friend just moments before.
“It’s so sad, Mama,” she mumbled into the the woman’s gown.
“I know, sweetheart,” she soothed, pressing a kiss against Liss’ hair, “I know.”
“My girl, you did a good thing tonight,” her father said as he knelt to join them. “But you must be exhausted. How about we get you to bed?”
Liss nodded, still sniffling. Tonight, she welcomed bedtime, comforted as she was carried to bed by her mother, who was still alive. She said a tiny prayer before she fell asleep that the Maker would take care of Nate’s mother, and that he wouldn’t take her own, not for a very, very long time.
Chapter 5: Alive
Now a Grey Warden, Nathaniel soon learns that it is impossible for him to dislike everything much less than he wants to.
Warning: If you’re triggered by animal death, read this chapter carefully, and take care.
Vigil's Keep, 9:31 Dragon
Nathaniel did not loathe being a Grey Warden entirely as much as he had expected, although, that wasn’t saying much considering that he’d initially asked for death instead. When he’d awoken after his Joining, nauseous, head pounding, but otherwise alive and unscathed, he was disappointed. After all, what reason did he have to live when his family was dead and he, disgraced?
Now, he was indebted to the Grey Wardens and their commander, Lucia. He wasn’t sure whether he should thank her, or resent her. However, the bitter taste in his mouth suggested the latter. It reminded him of the darkspawn blood he drank, and he shuddered as he recalled the cold, sickening feeling that had overwhelmed him. He wondered if that ever went away.
It felt more like hours than days, as time had flown in the process of clearing out the darkspawn from the Vigil. It unsettled Nathaniel to walk the halls of his own home as a stranger, to see barracks and armories where bedrooms used to be. Occasionally, flashes of faces of those he once knew crossed his mind, and he wondered at their fate. Standing in the dank basement dungeon, surrounded by dead darkspawn and charred remains, it wasn’t hard to guess.
“Andraste’s arse, that stench,” exclaimed Anders, one of the other Wardens, a mage whose flippancy did him a disservice. He covered his mouth and nose with the crook of his arm.
“What? You never smell a pile o’ dead bodies before,” Oghren, prodded with a low gravelly voice. The dwarf had about as many manners as a boar’s backside, but he generally meant well. He sniffed the air deeply, and laughed. “What do you think, Commander? Squeamish?”
“It only smells a little worse than you,” she stated, expression flat as she continued to look about the room intently, “I’m used to it.”
Oghren laughed again, unbothered by the less than flattering remark. He turned to look at Nathaniel. “Holding up alright over there, Howe?”
The question caught Nathaniel off guard, as he had not expected the dwarf to check on him, or anyone for that matter. The bodies were just bodies to them, but to Nathaniel they could be people he knew. Friends, family members, even. He still didn’t know what became of Delilah and Thomas. Were they among the dead here? Had they fled during the Blight? The thought of his little brother and sister being slaughtered in their own home sickened him more than the odor that filled the basement.
Nathaniel opened his mouth to answer when the sound of a dog, whimpering in pain, filled the room. In the far corner, Lucia knelt by the limp form of a young Mabari. He walked over to them and knelt down beside her. The hound had several deep wounds from darkspawn teeth and claws, infected and festering. It appeared to be corrupted and close to death.
Lucia turned to him, her piercing eyes brimming with tears, though she fought to hide them. “We can’t save her, can we?”
Nathaniel shook his head, somberly, “I am no healer, but those wounds -.”
“Anders,” she shouted desperately.
Anders, who was a healer, approached and examined the dog, before shaking his head as well. “I’m sorry, Luce,” he said with a degree of informality that baffled Nathaniel, “Even if I could heal the wounds… she’s been exposed to darkspawn blood, and that is beyond my expertise.”
“Better to put her out of her misery,” Oghren added, “Give ‘er a quick death.”
“Damn it,” she hissed, closing her eyes, brows pressing together as she inhaled a shaky breath. She pulled a dagger from her belt, and held it in her hand, the blade trembling despite her effort to keep it steady. She let the blade hover over the hound for a few moments before dropping it to her side, “I can’t do it. I can’t.”
Her grief was puzzling. It was impossible to believe that this woman, unable to bring herself to kill a hound out of mercy, could be the same ruthless, power-hungry tyrant Nathaniel expected her to be. How could someone who seemed so gentle and practical murder his father in cold blood? It was one of a few things he had learned in the days since his Joining that did not quite add up.
He shook his head and picked up her dagger that lay beside him. “I’ll take care of it.”
Lucia looked at him, stunned at his offer. He couldn’t blame her, as he had done little in the past few days that did not suggest he hated her. Still, she nodded and stood, walking over to Anders, who placed a hand on her shoulder.
Nathaniel held the dagger tightly, his own shaky hand betraying him. As a trained assassin, it should have been a simple matter. He knew the exact place to stab, to assure an instant, painless death. Yet his confidence wavered. Mabari were highly intelligent, and this one was barely more than a pup. It felt uncomfortably close to what he imagined it would be like to kill a child. He understood his commander’s struggle.
The dog whimpered again, and he reached out to pet her head with his free hand, careful not to touch any of the wounds. “Shh,” he soothed her “You’ve been such a brave girl fighting off these darkspawn.”
The Mabari calmed, her little tail wagging weakly behind her, and a pang of guilt surged through Nathaniel’s chest. He continued to pet and comfort her, until he sank the blade into her with one clean motion. When she fell limp immediately, he exhaled his relief and wiped the blood from the dagger. It was then that he noticed a small scroll of paper attached to the dog’s collar. He tugged it free and stood with the scroll and dagger in hand. He could hardly believe his eyes as he opened the note and read the hastily scrawled words.
“Adria,” he muttered under his breath, and his heart leaped with excitement. Someone he knew might be alive after all. He returned Lucia’s dagger to her and showed her the note.
Offering him a slight smile of thanks, she nodded and put the dagger back into her belt, before turning her attention to the note. “Do you know this person, Nathaniel?” Her voice was weak, emotions clearly still raw.
“Yes,” Nathaniel answered quickly, eager to find the woman who wrote the note, “Adria was… like a mother to me, once my own mother passed. We have to help her.”
“If there’s a her left to help,” Anders stated dryly.
“ Anders ,” Lucia scolded, darting her eyes toward the mage, before turning back to address Nathaniel, “We’ll do what we can.”
Nathaniel could hear the doubt in her voice as she headed toward the steps that led to the lower levels of the Keep, but he appreciated her thoughtful response, and followed after her.
The lower floors opened up into a cavern Nathaniel could not ever remember seeing, not that he had been allowed the run of the entire Keep when he lived there. At the far edge of the room, near a stone blockade stood a cluster of hurlocks, and in the middle of them, a woman.
“Adria,” Nathaniel called out and she turned around slowly, her posture slouched. Her face was that of the woman he once knew, now marked and deformed by patches of corruption, her eyes milky white and hollow. “Adria… no.” He turned to the commander and the others. “There must be something we can do, some way to-.”
Adria interrupted him with a ghoulish scream, and rushed forward, followed closely by the darkspawn. Nathaniel cursed, readied his bow, and nocked an arrow.
“I hate to say I told you so, but...”
“ Anders ,” Lucia scolded again, this time more harshly. “Nathaniel, I’m sorry, but there’s nothing we can do.” She took out one of the hurlocks with her broadsword, and cast a wave of ice toward another. Oghren then promptly shattered it with his axe.
“I understand,” Nathaniel answered, drawing his bowstring back. He took aim at the monster with Adria’s face, yet he couldn’t bring himself to release the arrow. He stood frozen for several moments before relenting, turning to shoot the last hurlock. His arrow hit the creature right between the eyes. He nocked another arrow and made a second attempt at Adria, but his hands shook, and the arrow missed the mark.
Adria lunged at Lucia, clawing at her with black, corrupted fingernails. The commander offered Nathaniel and apologetic glance before running her sword through the ghoulish woman.
“Sorry,” he said, looking down at the dirty floor beneath his feet, “I froze.”
“I noticed,” she replied as she attempted to catch her breath, “I wish we had gotten to her sooner. Are you going to be okay?”
“I will be,” he sighed. He should have known better than to expect Adria to be alive, after all. “I think I need some air.”
“Go ahead, we can finish things up down here.”
“Thank you, Commander.”
When Nathaniel finally exited the basement, reaching the crisp air of the open courtyard, he headed directly for the makeshift archery ranges set up in a grassy corner of the area. Filled with nervous and angry energy, he knew he needed a distraction, something to focus on intently and forget the horrible state of his life at present. As long as he could remember, shooting had been his release, his escape, and even now after several hours of battling darkspawn, he wished nothing more than to practice his bowmanship.
Time passed quickly while he stood alone firing off arrow after arrow, each one hitting the target, mostly clustered toward the center, with a few straying further away. His younger self would be proud. Retrieving the arrows from the target, Nathaniel noticed that the light had begun to fade against the horizon, the chill in the air becoming colder with each passing minute. It was nearly time to turn in for the evening.
“There you are,” a voice rang out behind him, causing him to flinch. He turned to see the Lucia standing before him, her nose reddened by the cold. She appeared to be holding something behind her back. “When I couldn’t find you inside, I thought you might be here.”
“Am I that obvious.” He crossed his arms, both annoyed at her observation, and amused.
“Not particularly,” she said with a shrug, “I just pay attention. It’s good to learn those you work with, the sooner the better.”
“Smart.” He laughed, despite himself. He couldn’t pretend to despise her anymore. Not after everything that happened. “Is there something you needed?”
“”Yes, actually.” She pulled a large, ornately carved wooden bow from behind her back, and extended it out toward Nathaniel. “I found this while we were cleaning up in the basement. I thought it might be of interest to you.”
“Is this what I think it is?” He took the bow in his hands, tracing the carvings with his fingertips. “It is. This is the Howe family crest, right here.” He pointed to the image of the bear carved into the wood. “It belonged to my grandfather, or at least he was the last one to use it. It was crafted for an ancestor long before that.”
“It’s beautiful,” she remarked, a small smile at the corners of her mouth, “It’s such a shame that it sat in storage for so long, collecting dust.”
“I found it once, when I was just a boy, and used it to practice. Father was furious, and took it from me. Hid it away, I suppose. This is the first time I have seen it since.” Nathaniel’s chest swelled with a mixture of emotion the bow’s memory brought. He was glad it had not been destroyed after all. “I don’t know what to say. This is… thank you.” He brought his gaze up to meet the Lucia’s.
“I’m glad I was able to return it to you,” she said politely before looking down, and kicking at the grass with the toe of her boot. When she looked up at him again, a pensive expression had crossed her face. “I actually wanted to thank you, as well, for what you did earlier, helping that Mabari. I couldn’t bring myself to kill her, even though I knew it was the kindest thing to do. You must think me weak.”
“Not at all,” Nathaniel assured, surprised by her willingness to speak so candidly, “Compassion is not a weakness, Commander.”
“That is… good to hear.” She breathed in deeply and sighed, as if relieved. “And Adria, are you-.”
“I’m alright. I should never have gotten my hopes up,” he admitted, “ I’ve lost so much, I was just hoping that one person may have survived. Just one. I suppose that is too much to ask.”
Lucia opened her mouth to respond, but she was interrupted by a man’s voice, calling out as he waved and moved in closer to them. It was an elderly elven man, dressed in worn breeches and a dirty, linen shirt.
“Nathaniel Howe? Nate? Is that you,” the man shouted, excitedly. As he came closer into view, Nathaniel could see his features, kind and familiar. “By the Maker, it is! I’d recognize that face anywhere.”
“Groundskeeper Samuel?” Nathaniel rushed to meet him. “You survived!”
“I’m tougher than I look, son,” the man snapped, playfully.
“Tell me Sam, do you know how my brother died? My sister? I have heard nothing of them since I returned from the Free Marches.”
“Thomas died in the Battle at Ostagar, fighting in the King’s Army, the poor lad.” Sam shook his head, and Nathaniel’s stomach churned. It was one thing to think his brother to be dead, but another thing entirely to have it confirmed. It comforted him to know that Thomas had at least died honorably, fighting in the name of Ferelden’s leadership.
“Your sister, well,” Sam continued, “Lady Delilah’s not dead, Nate, at least as far as I know. Last I heard she was living in Amaranthine, married to a merchant in town.”
“Are you serious?” Nathaniel was so overcome with relief he nearly cried. “Delilah’s alive?”
“Thank you, Sam. It is good to see you.”
“Don’t mention it. It is good to see you, too, son.” The elf smiled, and gave Nathaniel a rough pat on the shoulder. “Don’t be a stranger.”
Nathaniel’s mind buzzed, torn between so many emotions. It was difficult for him to truly mourn Adria and Thomas, when he was so overwhelmed with joy and relief that his sister was alive, and married no less. Sweet Delilah, who had always endured his needless teasing, and who understood more than anyone else his conflicted feelings toward their father. He clutched at her ring that he wore around his neck before turning to face Lucia, whose eyebrows were raised with curiosity.
“My sister is… alive,” he finally spoke, stunned laughter lacing his words, “ I was beginning to wonder if it was possible for good things to happen to me anymore.”
“That’s wonderful news, Nathaniel.”
“I know that we are busy, but do you think we will have time for me to pay a visit to my sister?” His own groveling annoyed him, and he wasn’t even sure if it was necessary. It wasn’t as if Lucia were the heartless Warden-Commander of his imagination. No, she had surprised him in plenty of ways in such a short period of time. He was not afraid to ask for a favor.
She seemed to sense his apprehension, offering him a warm smile and a nod. “Sure. We will make time if we have to.”
Nathaniel breathed out a sigh of relief and thanked her, again.
Chapter 6: "N"
Just a year after his mother's death, Nathaniel is not enjoying his summer very much. Liss enlists the help of her older brother to cheer him up.
Highever, 9:16 Dragon
It had been just over a year since Nathaniel’s mother had passed. It was the worst year of his life, and he hated everything. Everything. It was only fair, since everything hated him, too. Without Mother’s calming influence, Father had become even more critical and dismissive, but that was only when he was present. Much of the time, he left children in the care of servants and tutors claiming to have no patience for their misbehavior. Honestly, Nathaniel preferred it that way. At least with Adria and the others, he was free to act like a child. He was free to play and cry and he didn’t have to worry of father would be disappointed because he never saw it happen.
He’d also been relieved to learn he would be spending the summer in Highever again. The Cousland family was kind and —more importantly — whole. They talked to him with soft voices, and made their home feel like his own, only better. He wasn’t sure that he deserved them, or anything for that matter. He was a poor example of a Fereldan boy, sensitive, moody and unable to control it most of the time. He must have seemed like the most ungrateful guest in the world, but he just wanted to be alone. The more they tried to include him, to reach out, the more angry he became that his own family couldn’t be the same way. It felt so broken all the time.
He just wished Liss would leave him alone. It wasn’t that he didn’t like her. In fact, he liked her a lot. Warm, caring, and incessantly friendly, the girl had become a friend to him, one of the only he could ever remember having. He’d actually become closer to her than he had to Fergus, despite what father intended, and he was glad to know her. But she wouldn’t let him be miserable in peace.
It was difficult to tell what time it was without any windows in his room. It could have been early morning or the middle of the night and he would not have been able to tell the difference; however, from the bustle of footsteps and echoes of conversation in the hallway, he figured it was mid-morning. He knew he should be up. He should be out practicing archery, or attending lessons, but he just felt like lying there, coverlet pulled up over his head.
A light succession of knocks against his door meant that lying there for the entire day wasn’t an option. He slid out of bed, bare feet touching the cold stone floor, and stomped clumsily to the door, pulling it open abruptly, as he rubbed the sleep from his eyes.
“Liss, I told you I don’t feel like-,” he began, but as his eyes adjusted to the new light, he looked up to see Fergus towering above him, rather than Liss. He wore an amused grin and Nathaniel’s face burned hot. “Sorry, it’s usually Liss knocking.”
“Not today,” Fergus said with a shrug, “She’s in big trouble.”
“What’d she do this time?” Nathaniel had learned not to be alarmed by “big trouble” in the Cousland household, as it meant something entirely different than “big trouble” at home. Liss was probably somewhere cleaning up a mess she made, or completing an extra hour of lessons. Fair consequences for misbehavior, which the girl seemed to do a lot of.
“Let one of the Mabari into the larder. The way Nan looked at her… she got such a scolding.” Fergus laughed jovially at his sister’s misfortune. “You’re lucky it was me and not her, the way you answered that door. She’s small, but she hits like some twice her size. Look.” He rolled up his sleeve to reveal a circular bruise on his arm.
“Liss did that?”
“Why?” Nathaniel tore his eyes from the dark patch of skin and turned them back to the the other boy’s face.
Fergus chuckled and tugged his sleeve back down. “Well, when she got in trouble, she made me promise to come check on you for her. So I told her I’d make sure her boyfriend was all right. Don’t think she liked that very much.”
Heat rushed to his face again, despite how he tried to remain unfazed. It wasn’t true of course, but to deny it aggressively in that moment would only imply that it was—and it wasn’t. “Your nine-year-old sister hit you hard enough to bruise?”
“Two things you need to know about my sister, Nate,” Fergus said, holding up two fingers, “One, she can kick your arse. Two, she will. So don’t mess with her if you’re not prepared.” He walked into Nathaniel’s room and sat down in the chair by the desk, long legs outstretched as if it were his own room.
“Why would I want to mess with her?”
“It’s fun,” he remarked cheerfully, “Don’t you ever tease Delilah?”
“No, and it’s not fun. It’s mean.” Nathaniel recalled the time when he took Delilah’s favorite doll, ripped the arms off, and hid them around their home so she couldn’t find them. In his mind, she had earned it. After all, she put beetles in his bed. Still, the girl had cried for hours and hours. It was not exactly his definition of fun.
“You don’t know what you’re missing.” Fergus leaned back so that the chair was on its hind two legs, precariously close to tipping over. Father would have scolded Nathaniel for doing something like that.
“Guess not,” Nathaniel replied with a huff, watching as the other boy nearly fell backward in the chair. He waved his arms desperately before grabbing the desk in front of him to stabilize himself. “Anyway, you’ve checked on me. You can tell Liss I’m okay.”
Fergus shook his head vigorously. “You can’t just stay up here all summer.”
“You’re not the boss of me.”
“Maybe not, but I’m twice as big as you, and will carry you outside to get some air if I have to.” He raised his eyebrows. Even sitting down. He was intimidating with his large hands and voice that was starting to deepen.
Nathaniel sighed and relented. “Fine.”
“Thought you’d come around,” Fergus said, standing up and tousling his hair before ushering him out of the room with a firm grip on his shoulder. Nathaniel was suddenly grateful to be the oldest of his siblings. To say this kind of thing was annoying would have been an understatement.
The two boys walked through the hallway, down a flight of stairs, and outside to the courtyard. It was a sunny day, and warm, even for the middle of summer. Nathaniel hated to admit it, but he already felt lighter. He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply, the scent of blooming flowers and wet grass filling his nose.
A shriek rang out from behind him, and he tensed, opened his eyes, and glanced over his shoulder just in time to see a mass of curly blond hair in a dress hurtling toward him at full speed. Liss crashed into him, throwing her arms around his neck. Try as he might to remain standing, the shock of the impact knocked him off balance, sending them both hurtling to the ground. Nathaniel could hear Fergus’ delighted laughter in the background.
“Liss, I thought you were in trouble,” he grunted as he rose up on his elbows. She lay on his back, arms still tightly clasped around him.
“I was,” she mumbled into his back, “But I snuck away when I saw you walking with Fergus.”
“Won’t you just get in more trouble later?”
“Nan’ll have to find me first,” she said with a giggle, and then nuzzled her face into his back again, “I’m so happy to see you outside, Nate.”
Nathaniel felt his face get hot yet again, as he recalled Fergus’ presence. He’d never live this one down. Not only had he been tackled by the small, impish little girl, but she was also being affectionate in a way that would warrant later teasing.
“Um,” he said, trying his very best not to be mean to his friend, “Could you get off of me, please?”
“Oh, right. Sorry,” she answered, sounding a bit embarrassed herself as she hopped to her feet. Nathaniel pushed himself up and stood to face her and her brother. She had several bits of grass in her hair and the brightest smile on her face.
“Thank you,” he said, his eyes darting to Fergus, whose grin revealed the dimples in his cheeks. Nathaniel wanted to punch him.
“Well, sis, now that I got him outside for you, I’ll leave you two lovebirds alone.” Fergus tousled her hair and she scowled at him, jutting an elbow up into his side causing him to yelp. “Ow! You’re mean, you know that? See if I ever help you again.” He threw up his hands and walked away.
Nathaniel kicked at the grass under his feet, ruminating on the ground as Fergus walked away. It was dumb to be so embarrassed by the other boy’s antics, and yet he still was.
“Fergus thinks he’s so big because he’s got a deep voice now,” Liss fussed crossing her arms, “He doesn’t scare me.”
“No, you’re definitely the scary one.” Nathaniel laughed nervously.
Liss flashed another mischievous grin. “Papa thinks so too. Says I get it after Mama.”
“Your mother’s scary?”
“She used to be a pirate!”
Liss closed the distance between them and reached up grab his face in her hands, squishing his cheeks together so that his mouth puckered. “I’m happy you came outside, grumpy.”
“You said that already,” Nathaniel mumbled, struggling to speak through the pressure against his jaws, “And I’m not grumpy.”
“Are so,” Liss said removing her hands from his face and sticking out her tongue. “Unless this,” she furrowed her brows, scrunched her nose, and pouted, “Means you’re happy.”
“I’m sorry, I just don’t feel like playing.”
A warm pressure surrounded his hand, and he looked down to see her tiny fingers wrapped around his. He looked back up to meet her gaze, and she offered him a soft smile.
“It’s not that,” she assured him, “It just makes me sad when you’re sad, Nate. That’s all.”
He squeezed her hand in return, an acknowledgment of the sentiment that he couldn’t figure out how to respond to in words, and the stood there in silence for several moments before Liss tugged at his hand. “C’mon, I want to show you something.”
Nathaniel followed her, hand-in-hand to the edge of the courtyard where he sometimes practiced with a bow.
“Close your eyes,” she instructed, and he did so. She released his hand and there was a shuffling and clacking sound, followed by footsteps as she returned. “Okay, open them.”
He blinked a few times, looking first at her face and then down to her hands. In one hand, she held a dark wooden bow carved with the Couslands’ laurel branches. In the other, was a matching quiver of arrows with an “N” carved onto the front.
“Papa and Mama wanted you to have your own to use here,” Liss explained, “I did, too. We thought it might make you feel better, at least just a little.”
Nathaniel found himself fighting to hold back tears as he took the bow and quiver from her and examined them carefully. It was the nicest gift he could ever remember receiving, and it was for no reason at all, no special occasion that involved gift giving. The Couslands had just done this for him because they cared, and he was overwhelmed with so many feelings he couldn’t even process them all.
“I… thank you,” he stammered, “This is, just, thank you so much.”
“So you like them?” Liss asked, hands behind her back, eyes glittering with excitement.
“I love them,” he replied with a nod.
She opened her mouth to speak, but was interrupted as the shrill voice of an elderly woman called out from the opposite side of the courtyard near the door to the main hall.
“Elissa Odette!” Nan stood at the top of the steps, hands cupped around her mouth so that her voice carried. It wasn’t really necessary, though, her voice was loud enough as it was.
Liss’ eyes widened and she grabbed Nathaniel’s wrist. “We have to go,” she whispered as she pulled him along behind her and into a cluster of bushes that lined that courtyard wall. Twigs and leaves scratched at his face as he fell through them, his hip colliding roughly with the ground. He looked over at Liss, who giggled silently, her hand over her mouth.
“Lissy, I know you’re out here,” the woman scolded, sounding as if she had gotten closer, “Fergus just told me you were out here talking to that Howe boy. Maker help me, when I find you, you’ll be scrubbing pots for days. Your father has already agreed to it.”
There was a rustle in the bushes, and a ray of sunlight peeked through, shining directly onto the two of them. Nathaniel looked up to see Nan hovering over them, scowl etched into the lines on her face. She glanced between him and Liss before taking them both by the arm and pulling them up out of the brush. She was stronger than he would have expected.
“What am I going to do with you,” she spat as she fussed over Liss’ hair, “First you let that bloody mongrel into my larder and then you run away before you finished cleaning up the mess. This is no way for a young lady to behave.”
“And Nathaniel, dear,” she said more softly as she turned to face him. He tensed and prepared for a tongue-lashing of his own. “This girl is a bad influence. She is a naughty, ill-behaved child, and will do nothing but get you into trouble.” He nodded but darted his eyes to Liss who could barely contain her laughter.
“I’m sorry Nan,” she said sweetly, “Nate hasn’t been feeling well and I just wanted to make sure he was okay. I’ll wash as many pots as you want me to.” Liss batted her eyelashes at the woman, who scoffed in return.
“You bet you will,” she retorted as she took Liss by the arm, just above the elbow, and turned to escort her back to the castle.
“See you later, Nate,” she shouted as they walked away, turning over her shoulder to wave at him. “Feel better!”
He chuckled softly and waved back to her, before returning to the bow and arrows that dropped to the ground in the rush to hide. He picked them up to examine them more closely, tracing the engravings with the tip of his index finger. His chest swelled and the tears he held back before fell freely now. He really did love them - the gifts and the family who gave them to him.
Fixing his stance, he nocked an arrow, took aim, pulled back the string and released.
It was a bullseye.
Chapter 7: The Beginning
Liss and Alistair make a routine trip to the market that is anything but routine.
Denerim, 9:31 Dragon
It had only been a month since Liss arrived at the capital, yet it felt more and more like home each passing day. Perhaps it was simply that she had little time to think about how she wasn’t in Highever. After all, Ferelden was recovering from a Blight, and the beginnings of a civil war which still brewed beneath the surface. Tensions were high in the Landsmeet, and higher still outside of it. The Queen was a stable and calming influence, but she could only do so much to quell bad blood among the nobility. Betrayal upon betrayal made it difficult to trust. She imagined how hard it would be to repair an alliance between the Couslands and Howes after what had happened.
A smile crossed her lips as she fanned through a stack of death records on the desk before her. She’d thought about it a lot actually, the dissonance between her past and present was an uncomfortable friction that threatened to drive her mad. She couldn’t bring herself to believe that anyone in the family but Rendon would be capable of such atrocities, even if she knew it was very well a possibility. Blood did run thick in Ferelden.
She scanned the top page of impossibly small script, searching for the names of those she knew. Of course the nobility were listed, her parents names, Oriana, Oren. She thanked the Maker the scribe who’d written the documents took care to alphabetize them. As is the case with most wars, the list of casualties among the wealthy and powerful was small. It was the common folk who suffered, soldiers, innocents. Turning the page, she continued down the list, stopping cold with a short gasp as her eyes locked on a name she’d hoped not to see, “Howe, Thomas” written neatly below his father’s. It appeared that the young man served in the King’s Army at Ostagar, and was presumed dead. At least he’d died on the right side, Liss assured herself despite the ache in her chest. At least it wasn’t Nathaniel.
She did not have time to become too consumed with her thoughts, as there was a knock at her door, an impulsive and erratic succession of taps that did not stop until she answered.
“You can come in Ali,” she said cheerfully, blotting at the corners of her eyes with her sleeves hoping to hide the tears. The knocking stopped and the door jiggled in its frame.
“Um, no I can’t,” he shouted, voice muffled by the wood, “Unless, of course you’d like me to bash it down, but I don’t think Queen Anora would like that. Neither would my shoulder, for that matter.”
“Oh.” She shot up, and rushed to the door she hadn’t remembered locking. Unfastening the locks she pulled it open gingerly. Alistair leaned casually against the wall near the door, turning his head to look at her. “Sorry about that. Come in.” She motioned him in with her hand.
“You’ve been busy, I see,” he remarked, squinting to examine the papers on her desk, “Death records?”
“Just some… light reading”, she said with a laugh.
Alistair picked up the documents and thumbed through them, shaking his head. He set them back down without saying a word, but his haunted expression and the crease in his brow spoke volumes. He’d been at Ostagar, too, she remembered, lost his comrades. She should not have been so inconsiderate as to only mourn for herself.
“So,” Liss said, breaking the heavy silence, “What’d you need? I’m sure you didn’t come here so that we could be sad sacks together. Or maybe you did! In that case, feel free to carry on.”
A smile stretched across his lips, a beautiful, crooked smile that one expected to see on roguish characters from all the tales — thieves, assassins, and bards, but never a former almost-Templar. It was too mischievous, too blatantly unrefined. Then again, that’s what she liked most about her new friend. He was a real person, and he wasn’t shy about it. The fact that his smile was genuine was the most attractive thing about him.
“I, uh,” he said, chuckling as if her statement had caught him off guard, “No. Actually. I came here to see if you wanted to come to the market with me. I’m going to take my weapon to the blacksmith. There’s a nasty crack in the blade.”
“You want company to go to the blacksmith?”
“What can I say,” he laughed, “You have such an uplifting presence, my lady.”
“Uh-huh,” she replied skeptically, “And the real reason?”
“I don’t like the new blacksmith,” he answered sheepishly, kicking at the floor with the toe of his boot. “Don’t get me wrong, Wade was… eccentric, but I knew what to expect. This new one… she’s…” He shuddered.
“You’re afraid of the new smith!” She grinned at him, which made him fidget even more. “You want me to rough her up for you?”
“Maker’s Breath, no. She’s twice your size and all muscle,” he explained.
“Sounds like my kind of woman,” Liss said with a wink. “Maybe she’ll rough me up a little.”
“This was a bad idea,” he sighed, bringing his hand to his face. “I’d just rather not be alone while she’s leering at me like I’m her next meal.”
Liss opened her mouth to speak, but Alistair interjected. “If you say that you wouldn’t mind being her next meal, I’m going to throw myself into the forge when we get there.”
“That‘s dramatic.” She offered him her best scowl, despite the grin twitching at the corners of her mouth.
“It’s warranted,” he replied with a shrug, “Anyway, do you want to come, or not?”
“Yes, I think I could use a break.” Liss stepped forward and looped her arm through his, causing Alistair to stiffen, muscles tightening at her touch. She pulled away, immediately embarrassed by her accidental disregard for boundaries. “I’m so sorry. That was thoughtless of me.”
“No need to apologize,” he assured her with a laugh that didn’t quite mask his discomfort, “I’m just jumpy, that’s all.”
“Are you sure?”
“Of course,” he said with a nod, offering his arm to her again, “Shall we?”
Smiling, she accepted, and they walked side by side, arm in arm out of the castle and to the Market District.
The center square of the market, in its typical fashion, bustled with the activities of merchants and shoppers. It was late-afternoon and vendors stood at kiosks announcing their wares to anyone who’d listen. Women with Orlesian accents attempted to pull Liss aside to sell her floral-scented perfumes and hair products. When she declined, they spoke to each other in their native tongue, commenting on her appearance.
“Si vous étiez plus gentilles, peut-être auriez-vous plus de clients,” Liss remarked pointedly. It caused a satisfying look of stunned horror from the women.
“I didn’t know you spoke Orlesian.”Alistair raised his eyebrows, obviously amused. “I only know a few words in Antivan, but I don’t think I should say them I polite company. What was that about?”
“They called me fat and unrefined,” she answered nonchalantly, loud enough for the women to hear, “For people who claim to be so cultured, they certainly have poor manners.”
Alistair stalled and turned abruptly to face her, taking her shoulders in his hands. “That’s what they said to you?” His brow was furrowed deeply, a frown forming on his lips.
“They’re wrong,” he said with a measure of decisiveness in his voice. “You know that right?”
“Don’t worry. It takes a lot more than a couple of insults to get to me.” She smiled, and reached up to tousle his hair, causing him to scowl and pull away from her to smooth it back down.
“Hey, easy with the hair,” he grumbled, “You’re lucky I like you.”
His scowl softened into a smile as their eyes met, lingering on one another for longer than typical, long enough that her heart fluttered and heat crawled to her cheeks. Alistair must have felt the same, as he darted his eyes away quickly, straightened his posture, and cleared his throat. Liss looked toward the ground to hide her smile. His embarrassment was endearing, but she didn’t want to make him self-conscious about it.
“So,” she said, interrupting the silence, “Blacksmith?”
“Maker, yes,” Alistair answered, “I mean, not that this was... I mean. Damn, words.”
“Blacksmith,” Liss said again, a statement rather than a question. She grabbed his hand and pulled him behind her.
Much had changed about the smithy since Master Wade and Herren departed. The shop was tidy and organized, each of the materials having their own place, each weapon and piece of armor sorted. It even smelled better, or perhaps she was just imagining that it smelled better.
As Alistair had mentioned, a woman stood at the forge, dark skin glistening with sweat in the firelight. She was beautiful, with brown eyes and muscular arms. She was intimidating, sure, but not in the way she’d figured. She had no harsh features, nor even an expression that elicited fear. She was simply quiet and good at what she did.
“Ah, Warden Alistair, back again” the smith said looking up at them. She had a bright smile and the unmistakable Antivan accent.“You are hard on your equipment. It is almost if you are damaging your things on purpose.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Alistair protested, crossing his arms, “Why would I do that?”
“To have a reason to see me, of course.” She flashed another grin and Alistair spluttered. The smith laughed and turned her attention to Liss. “Your friend is easy to fluster, Lady Cousland. I wonder, are all Ferledan people so finicky?”
“Just the men,” Liss answered playfully, gently elbowing Alistair before crossing her arms, “How did you know my name?”
“I know many things,” the smith answered as if it were as simple as that.
“Right, well, I feel at an incredible disadvantage. You know my name, but I know nothing about you, except that you are a blacksmith.”
“My name is Bria, my lady.” The woman seemed genuinely touched that Liss cared to ask her name. “It is an honor to finally meet you.”
“Alistair here has spoken a great deal about you.”
Liss felt the heat in her face again as she looked between Bria and Alistair helplessly. Alistair, in an atypical manner for himself, did not seem bothered by the comment. Instead he smiled that crooked smile. What did he know that she didn’t?
“It seems it is not just the men after all.” Bria chuckled and sat her hammer down moving to reach for something behind the counter. When she straightened up, she held a broadsword in her hands. The handle was white gold with delicate laurel branch filigree. She extended it toward Liss.
“Is this,” Liss began, the words catching in her throat as tears bubbled in her eyes. She took the sword in her hands, tracing the laurel branch patterns with her thumb before pulling it from its sheath to examine the blade. It sparkled in the warm light of the smithy. The entire blade was new and in better shape than she remembered, but it was unmistakable nonetheless.
Liss returned the sword to its sheath and held it across her palms as if it were sacred. It was sacred. The sword was one her father had commissioned as a gift for her eighteenth birthday. She assumed it to to be lost or destroyed after Rendon Howe’s forces seized the castle. She told herself it was gone along with her family, yet there she stood holding her treasured sword in her hands once again. She struggled to form coherent thoughts, let alone words.
“This is mine.” She finally managed to force words past the lump in her throat. “Where? How?”
Alistair smiled in a way that made his eyes squint slightly. “Howe, actually. The sword was among the Arl’s personal belongings left in his estate here in Denerim. Queen Anora said she thought it belonged to your family, but it was in poor shape. I didn’t want to return a broken sword to you, so I brought it to Bria. I hope you don’t mind.”
Unable to contain them further, tears dropped from Liss’ eyes and rolled down her cheeks as her grip tightened around the sword.
“You’re upset,” Alistair said apologetically, reaching out to touch her shoulder. “I should have just-.”
“I’m not upset,” Liss interrupted abruptly, shaking her head and looking up to meet his gaze, then over toward Bria. “I’m just… speechless. Thank you both.”
“It is a beautiful sword,” Bria replied, “It was my pleasure.”
Alistair just nodded.
It turned out that his reason for the trip to the smithy was not entirely false. He actually did have a crack in his sword, and Bria really did terrify him despite their friendly rapport. She was kind enough, but there was something unsettling about her. It was as if she did not belong in a smithy. She was too smart, too charismatic, and overall too well-adjusted. Then again, perhaps she was just Antivan. They always seemed to have their lives together even when they didn’t. Living in a country run by a guild of assassins would require that a person be adaptable, she figured.
It was a quiet return trip to the castle, all the words that could have been spoken between Alistair and herself felt too personal to speak in the open air of the Denerim streets. She wasn’t certain how to take his affectionate gestures. He was very charming, enough to catch her attention, yet when she returned the sentiment he froze up. It was almost as if he didn’t realize he was flirting at all. What an interesting man he was, and she knew so very little about his life prior to his time since the Blight. He did not talk about the Hero of Ferelden or the war, none of it. Not ever.
As they reached the gates, Alistair, true to his typical evening ritual stopped to speak with the guard at the door.
“Any messages for me today,” he asked as he always did.
“No,” said the guard, annoyed at the unnecessary question.
For the first time Liss saw his expression change at the news, from hopeful to despairing. He tried to hide it behind his smile, but his eyes were sad. He quieted and looked as if he might cry at any moment. It surprised her that she never noticed before. Then again, she’d never thought to pay attention before.
As they entered the gates and through the courtyard toward one of the doors that led to the guest rooms, Liss gathered the courage to prod at Alistair a little, to ask him to open up just a bit.
“Who are you waiting on a message from?” She turned her head slightly to glance at him from the corner of her eye. The lines in his forehead and brow deepened at the question, before he laughed and painted on a smile.
“Nobody, I’m just being responsible,” he answered. It was amazing to watch him hide every ounce of grief she had seen in his face only moments before. He was quite adept. “You know, you should check your messages more. You never know who might try to get in touch with you.”
“First of all,” she said, holding up her index finger in emphasis, “They deliver our messages directly to our rooms. We don’t have to check.”
Alistair opened his mouth as if he intended to defend himself, but Liss held up another finger and continued to speak. “Second of all, I know what it’s like to wait for letters that don’t come, and if you would rather talk about it than hold it all in until you explode, I’m here for you.”
“You have enough to worry about without me whining over things that aren’t important.”
“Alistair,” she reached forward to lay a hand on his arm. “Anything that causes you this much pain isn’t unimportant. We’re friends. Let me be a friend.”
He inhaled a long shaky breath and stared off into the distance. “Alright… but I’m going to need a drink. You probably will, too for that matter, to put up with the grown man crying on your shoulder.”
“I doubt that,” Liss smiled her reassurance. “But I have an entire bottle of rum under my bed.”
“Do I even want to ask why you hoard alcohol under your bed? Are you a dragon?”
“It helps with the nightmares… well, it helps me go back to sleep after the nightmares.”
“Oh, right.” Alistair fidgeted uncomfortably.
Liss and Alistair walked to her room, where she crawled under her bed to retrieve the large glass bottle. It was much harder to even squeeze an arm under there than it was as a child when she hid from Papa before bed every night. Taking hold of the bottle, she stood up, popped open the cork, and took a swig before passing it to Alistair who looked stunned by the whole affair.
“Don’t be shy,” she laughed and moved to sit at the table in the corner, motioning for him to sit across from her. He took a drink and followed, flopping down in the chair, buckling from the weight of his own feelings.
“Where do I even start?” He pinched the bridge of his nose.
“The beginning, if you’re up for it.” She placed her hand on his forearm.
He sighed, leaned forward and took another drink. “Fine. Just remember that you asked.”
Chapter 8: Vultures
Young Liss is not fond of the way the world works.
Highever, 9:17 Dragon
“Lady Elissa, are you sure this is all right?” The girl’s large, green eyes were wide with worry as she scanned the room around them. “Mamae says I’ll get in trouble if I leave the servants’ quarters.”
“Don’t be silly, Rila,” Liss said with a giggle, taking the other girl by the hand, “I won’t let you get in trouble.”
“If you say so, milady,” Rila answered, bowing her head but smiling. Her skin was dark and her ears pointed like knives, but Liss wasn’t supposed to say so, even if she meant it as a compliment. Papa said that a lot of humans in Ferelden, Orlais, and other places thought they were better than the elves and used mean slurs to put them down. He told her that he expected his children to be better than that. She couldn’t imagine ever wanting to say something mean to Rila, or why anyone else would.
Liss led her friend outside and to one of her favorite hiding spots in the gardens, beneath willow trees where few people thought to look for her. It was sunny and warm, especially for Ferelden, so the shade of the trees served as a comfort as well as concealment. Rila, despite reassurances, continued to look around them as if she expected someone to show up at any moment to punish her for daring to enter the gardens. The elven girl moved from Denerim only a few months earlier, and Liss assumed she had simply not had time to learn that Highever was a much better place to be.
“What shall we play,” Liss asked, her voice not quite a whisper.
“Whatever you wish, milady,” Rila answered, eyes darting away as she spoke.
“You don’t have to call me that, you know? ‘Milady.’” Liss smiled and squeezed the girl’s hand. “You can call me Liss, just like everyone else.”
“I… I don’t think that’s a good idea, milady.” Her voice trembled as if she were frightened, but Liss had not done anything scary. Or had she?
“‘Course it is,” Liss exclaimed, “We’re friends, and you should call me by my name.”
Rila opened her mouth and prepared to speak, grin tugging at the corners of her mouth, but was interrupted by a rustling of the tree branches as they were pulled aside. It was Liss’ mother, lips pursed tightly, brows drawn together as they always were when she was about to scold someone.
“Elissa, darling, you’re going to miss the tournament,” she said, her eyes darting back and forth between Liss and Rila.
“I don’t want to go, Mama,” Liss whined, “It’s not even a real tournament. It’s just Fergus showing off against a bunch of boys smaller than him.”
“Elissa Odette, your brother has worked hard to hone his dueling skills. You should be proud of him.”
“I am, but I want to play with my friend,” Liss turned and offered a comforting smile to Rila, who looked even more terrified than before.
“Your friend,” she answered hesitantly, “Needs to be back in the servants quarters. I am certain that her mother is worried about her.”
“But, Mama, we just--.”
“Come, let’s take Rila back to her mother,” she stated definitively, taking Liss by the hand and offering her other hand to Rila, “You will apologize for worrying her, and then you will attend Fergus’ tournament, do you understand?”
“Yes, Mama.” Liss pouted and hung her head.
Rila’s mother was very grateful for her daughters return, accepting Liss’ apology before she even explained what happened. She even seemed to suggest that it had been Rila’s fault. Liss attempted to protest, but her mother pulled her away gently. Rila waved at her somberly before she turned to leave with her mother.
“Mama,” Liss said as she followed along happily with her mother, “Why do Rila and her Mama act so afraid of us?”
“Because they are afraid of us,” she said, more bluntly than Liss was used to.
“That’s,” she began, appearing to struggle to find words to explain, “Just how the world works.”
“The world is dumb,” Liss muttered under her breath, causing a serious look from her mother.
The sparring ring was not too far from the gardens, a small, circular patch of dirt enclosed by a fence and surrounded by rows of wooden seats. They were used often for training, and sometimes for tournaments such as this one. It allowed for young swordsmen to show off their prowess as they began to come of age. Liss knew she should be excited to watch her brother fight, and she was proud of him in her own way, but she also wished that she could be out there in the ring herself.
As she and her mother drew closer, Liss’ eyes were immediately pulled to the far side of the ring, a glimmer of dark hair catching her eyes. Nobody told her that Nathaniel had arrived for the summer, and her heart swelled with excitement. He had grown in the time since she had last seen him, looking taller, and lankier. Next to him was the frightening man Liss had come to learn was his father, Rendon. He sat stiffly, pale blue eyes scanning his surroundings. Flecks of grey spattered his hair and brows. He looked like a black vulture, menacing despite his elegant posture and poise. Liss wondered how her cheerful papa had ever become friends with him.
Still, a smile stretched across her mouth and she looked up at her mother for permission to go talk with Nate. She nodded her approval and Liss took off running around the side of the ring and toward her friend.
“Nate,” she shouted, throwing her arms around him as soon as she reached him. It had become somewhat of a routine for them. She would shower him with friendly affection, and he’d return it with a grumble she knew wasn’t real. He always hugged her back.
Except this time. This time, he tensed up in her arms, frozen, an unmoving statue. She released him and pulled away tilting her head and offering him a questioning look. His blue eyes looked sad beneath stern brows and he frowned at her.
“What’re you doing,” he asked harshly, pulling himself from beneath her grasp.
“I’m saying hi,” she answered.
“Then just say it,” he said, sounding annoyed with her, “You don’t have to touch me.”
“But… it’s what I always do.” Liss backed away from him, tears filling her eyes. She held them back, not wanting to look like a baby in front of Arl Howe and everyone else present.
“And I always hate it.” Nate darted his eyes to his father and then back to her before turning away.
“Oh.” She didn’t know what to say to him. Had he just been pretending to be her friend this whole time? “Sorry.”
Arl Howe chuckled and leaned forward to look at Liss, as he placed a long-fingered hand on Nate’s shoulder. “You’ll have to forgive Nathaniel, lovely girl,” he said softly as Nate sighed, fists clenched in his lap, “The boy has no sense for manners.”
“Nate has always been polite to me, my lord,” she said with a smile, “He’s probably just having a bad day.”
“Yes, well, how very gracious of you, my lady. You are everything your father has spoken of and more, aren’t you?” Rendon raised an eyebrow and smiled, seeming to be amused by her statement though she didn’t know why. “Perhaps I should introduce you to my Thomas someday.”
“Thomas, Nate’s younger brother?” Liss was familiar with his siblings but did not know for certain that was who the elder Howe meant.
“Yes. He’s a very charismatic child, much like yourself.”
“I’d love to meet him, my lord,” she answered cheerfully, “Delilah, too! Nate has told me all about them both.”
“I’m sure Nate has.” His words were cold and biting as a winter night, and Liss didn’t understand. She certainly didn’t intend to ask. Vultures weren’t very nice birds.
One of Fergus training instructors bellowed the start of the spar, and Liss rushed back toward her mother and father, sitting down between them on a row right next to the fence. She watched, enthralled, battle after battle, boy after boy. Fergus was easily the largest and most skilled. She wondered how it was even abt fun for him without a challenge.
“Papa,” she asked, eyes still locked toward the ring, “Why are there no girls sparring today?”
“Combat is not standard instruction for ladies, pup.” He tousled her hair and pinched her cheek.
“I want to learn sword-fighting,” she said determinedly, still watching the two boys swinging wooden weapons at one another in the ring.
“Are you sure? Wouldn’t you rather wear pretty gowns and raise children.”
Liss wasn’t sure if he was joking so she offered a defensive answer. “Mama does both.” Her mother chuckled beside her.
“That she does, my girl.” He laughed and shook his head. “That she does.”
“So will you let me learn to fight?” She drew her eyes away from the ring to look at her papa and bat her eyelashes. “Maybe I can be a, a knight or a Grey Warden when I get older. Like the Warriors from the stories!”
“I’ll tell you what, pup,” he said gently, “We’ll start with sword-fighting, and when you’re old enough you can decide what you want to do with your skills.”
Liss grinned excitedly, but her celebration was interrupted by a cheering of those on the benches as Fergus had bested his final opponent, and the small audience was rather more pleased than he was. She knew her brother, knew that he wouldn’t feel he accomplished anything without a real challenge, so what he did next should not have been surprising.
Taking the sparring sword from one of his defeated opponents, he approached the fence toward the far side of the ring, pointing at Nate and saying something she could not quite make out. Nate appeared to smile, accepted the sword and joined Fergus in the ring.
“Oh, Bryce,” Liss’ mother hissed softly, “Tell him to stop this nonsense. Nathaniel is half his size. He’s just going to humiliate the poor boy, and in front of Rendon at that.”
“I don’t know,” he replied, a mischievous smile at his cheeks, “Have you seen how hard that boy practices? He might be the only boy here who might prove a challenge to our Fergus.”
“He practices with a bow.”
“And he agreed to the challenge. He could have said no, Eleanor.”
Her mother protested further, but Liss didn’t hear, her attention captured by the beginning of the fight in the center of the ring. Like her mother, she had never seen Nate train with anything but a bow, but that didn’t mean much. Who knew what sort of lessons he got at home for the better part of the year. She crossed her fingers and prayed to Andraste that he would beat Fergus. Maybe that would make Rendon proud of him.
Nate held the sword comfortably in his hand, and Liss heard her parents remark that they hadn’t realized “the boy” was left-handed, but she had known that for a while now. He could shoot a bow with both hands, though, because he practiced. She figured he just wasn’t skilled enough with a sword to do that.
At the sound of a horn, Fergus made a swift swing at Nate, who ducked swiftly and backed away. Fergus swung again, and Nate dodged again. Liss had no idea he could move that fast. The fight carried on as such for several more minutes a constant stream of swings and dodges. Nate had not even used his sword once.
“Love, he fights like you,” her father laughed and looked at her mother who returned a grin.
Liss stood and moved to the fence, grabbing the wooden planks in suspense. Fergus was quite a bit taller than Nate, and had much more weight to him. He also had three years more experience with sparring. It should have been an easy fight, but this was the first time she had seen Fergus struggle. At one point Nate tripped Fergus and someone in the audience shouted something about the boy fighting without honor. She didn’t think it mattered to much of someone fought with honor, so long as they fought well.
Eventually, Fergus got the better of her friend, catching him one too many times and knocking him off balance. Nate was good as long as he avoided contact, but as soon as he had to block, Fergus gained the advantage and sent him hurtling toward the ground. Both boys laughed and Fergus offered him a good-natured hand up. In the distance, Liss caught a glimpse of Rendon shaking his head and wearing a disgusted expression before getting up and wandering away. He wouldn’t even say goodbye to his son before he left.
After the match, Liss was free to play as she wished before supper, with the exception that she was not to “bother the little servant girl.” She had huffed, but ultimately decided against getting either of them into trouble, returning to her hiding spot alone to braid flowers together into delicate crowns that would die before anyone wore them. It was sad that flowers didn’t stay beautiful once they were plucked.
Normally, she would have sought out Nate, to see if he wanted to play, but she figured he didn’t. She tried to forget the mean words he said to her before, but she couldn’t quite shake them. She told his father that he was probably just having a bad day, but she’d never actually seen him so upset by her affection. She’d never actually felt like he wanted nothing to do with her until today. What if he never wanted to talk to her again?
Liss wiped away her tears with her finger tips, but they kept falling. She wasn’t allowed to play with one of her friends, and her other friend hated her. It was too much for her to keep in. She hugged her knees to her chest, hung her head and cried.
A rustling of the branches drew her attention and she turned her head abruptly in the direction of the sound, expecting to see one or both of her parents coming to find her to wash up, but instead she found a familiar pair of bright blue eyes looking back at her.
“Thought you might be here,” Nathaniel said, ducking under the branches and sitting across from her. “Your parents are looking for you. It’s time for supper.”
She turned her face away from him so he wouldn’t see the tears. “I’m not” she sniffled despite herself “hungry.”
“Liss,” he said softly, reaching out to touch her shoulder, “Are you crying?”
“No.” She sniffled again.
“Yes you are.” He peered around so that he could see her face. “What’s wrong?”
“What do you care?” More sniffles. “You don’t like me anyway.”
“Don’t be silly.” He grabbed her shoulder more tightly, shaking her playfully. “Of course I like you.”
“Then why’d you act so mean earlier, huh?” She was shouting, but she didn’t care.
“It’s,” he signed, “It’s my father. I’m not sure why, but he doesn’t like that we’re friends. I just… didn’t want to make him angry, is all. I’m afraid he won’t let me come back.”
“Yeah.” He took a deep breath. “I’m sorry. I should never have said those things to you. I definitely didn’t mean them.”
“I forgive you,” she reassured him, content to know he was still her friend.
“On one condition.” She held up a finger playfully. “You have to wear this to supper.” She picked up one of the flower wreaths and sat it atop his head. He grumbled, but seemed to resign himself to wearing it.
“Just this once, Liss.” He sounded grumpy but she saw the hint of a smile on his lips.
“You. Look. Beautiful,” she chirped, kissing him on the cheek before placing another crown on her head. “And we match.”
It was difficult to see in the shade of the tree branches, but she was almost sure she saw a tint of pink across his face.
“I didn’t know you could fight with swords,” Liss said cheerfully, grabbing his hand as they walked together toward the dining hall.
“I can’t” Nate laughed, squeezing her hand in return.
Chapter 9: Delilah
[Sings] Hey there Delilah, what's it like in Amaranthine...
Amaranthine, 9:31 Dragon
Amaranthine was a jewel, if jewels smelled of piss and were overrun with petty criminals. How very little it had changed since Nathaniel last walked the streets as a child. He had once been so proud that his family owned such an esteemed city. Now, as with most things, he realized Amaranthine was much more pleasant in his memories.
Just over a week had passed since he learned that his sister was alive and well, married to a merchant in the city. Lucia had assured him that they would visit as soon as time allowed, but Warden business had taken them to the Wending Wood where they were captured by an unnerving talking Darkspawn and locked, half-naked in a cell in the Silverite Mines there, so they were delayed by a few days. Nathaniel had seen more of Oghren than he’d ever be able to forget. Still, it wasn’t completely horrible, as it had earned them a new companion, a young elven woman named Velanna. He hadn’t thought it possible for someone to have a bigger chip on their shoulder than he did, but she seemed to have him beat. Quite the accomplishment, really.
“Lighten up, gorgeous,” Anders chirped dumbly, and Nathaniel wasn’t certain if he was completely incapable of reading his audience or if he just didn’t care to.
Velanna didn’t respond, instead remaining silent and shooting him a look that might as well have been a fireball.
“Yeesh, and here I thought the commander was the master of silent, murderous glaring.” When she still said nothing Anders threw up his hands. “Fine. Be grumpy. You’ll fit right in with this lot.”
“Anders, focus” Lucia said calmly without turning her head, continuing to scan the crowds in front of them. “We’re looking for your contact, remember?”
“Right, sorry.” He walked more swiftly to keep up pace with her.
Nathaniel stayed behind with their new companion, studying her features as she bit her lip and looked around nervously. She reminded him of a woman he met in the Free Marches, one who’d nearly killed him when he stumbled onto the archery range at the Grand Tourney. She had large eyes and the same pretty markings on her face, only without the visible distress Velanna had,“I take it this is your first time in the city? It can be jarring.”
For a moment he thought she would ignore him too, but then she sighed and turned to look at him. "I've never seen so many humans in one place,” she complained, gesturing with her hands, “Look at them...crawling, all over, like rats.”
“That is… one way to describe it,”
“You are one of them, too, you know.” Her speech was hesitant, guarded. “And of noble birth, are you not?”
“I am,” he answered, earning him a deadly look, “Your glare suggests that my presence troubles you.”
“No more than anything else in this wretched place.” She shook her head. “I am simply wondering how your kind can call yourselves ‘nobles’ at all.”
“We like irony,” he answered with a shrug he knew he would regret later, “‘Nobles’ rolls off the tongue better than ‘oppressors.’”
“Ah, so you are a funny human.” She scowled, but he swore he saw a glimmer of amusement in her eyes.
“No, not I,” he replied irreverently, “Anders is the only fun one here, you heard him. I wouldn’t dare try to lighten your mood, my lady.”
Velanna rolled her eyes and shoved past him with a disgusted grunt of disapproval. He smirked and followed along after her and the rest of the party.
The search for Anders’ contact led them through the center of the markets, stalls set up in every direction, each selling some different type of ware. Immediately in front of them was a weaponsmith whose freshly forged swords hung on racks, and a grocer selling cheeses and dried meats that looked more appetizing than they smelled. Then again, it was impossible to determine whether it was the cheese he smelled or the city, not that it mattered.
“Nathaniel?” A familiar voice rang out through the crowd, drawing his attention from the grocer to a tall woman with dark hair and pale blue eyes, to his sister.
“Delilah,” he said, a smile twitching on his lips as he rushed to meet her. He’d expected to have to search for his sister, not bump into her in the crowded marketplace.
“Nate, it really is you.” There were tears in her eyes as she wrapped her arms around him. “I’m so glad you’re alright. I worried you might return to Ferelden and attempt to avenge our family or something else daringly stupid, to get yourself killed.”
“I intended to,” he explained, “I was captured by the Wardens before I had the chance.”
“Oh,” Delilah pulled away and examined his armor, then looked behind him toward Lucia and the others. “And you joined them, I see.”
“It was a mercy,” he explained, “I would have been executed otherwise.”
“Nathaniel Howe,” she said with a soft laugh, “A Grey Warden. You really are just like Grandfather.”
“Father would have hated it.” He shook his head.
“It doesn’t matter what Father would have thought.” She placed a hand on his arm. “You’re alive and at least reasonably safe, and that’s all that matters. Come, we need to catch up.”
Nathaniel turned to Lucia to ask if they had time to spare, but the clever woman was already two steps ahead of him.
“Visit with your sister,” she said, as if it were an order, but then smiled gently “Surely we can find Anders’ phylactery without you.”
“Thank you, Commander.”
Nathaniel nodded his gratitude to Lucia and followed Delilah into the small home behind them. It was quaint and tidy with green plants decorating surfaces throughout, exactly what he would expect from a house that belonged to his sister… and her husband. He stiffened at the prospect of his little sister -- sweet, clever Delilah -- being a married woman now.
“Groundskeeper Samuel told me you are married,” he said, looking around the room, more to avoid eye contact than to examine the decor.
“I am,” she answered, “His name is Albert. You’ll have to meet him sometime.”
“Does he make you happy?”
“I adore him,” she said with a smile in her voice. “I never thought I’d get to marry for love. I always assumed Father would wed me off to Fergus Cousland.”
Nathaniel couldn’t contain an amused snort. ”I can think of worse men to be wed off to.”
“So can I.” There was a somberness to her words he couldn’t quite place. She shook her head, as if chasing a thought away and turned her gaze toward him. “Still, it’s so much better to have a choice.”
A long silence stretched between them filled with the weight of so much shared loss Nathaniel didn’t quite know how to address. Thomas. Father. The family reputation. Delilah was the only person in Thedas who could understand, and yet it was so good to see her, and he was so relieved that she was happy. He did not want to bring up the dead bodies in the room.
“Delilah, what happened while I was away,” he finally spoke, his chest tightening as he watched his sister’s joy wash from her face.
“Father happened,” she answered tersely, crossing her arms. “He destroyed our family.”
“Father got caught up in politics. Don’t you think you’re… overstating it a bit?”
“You weren’t here.” Delilah’s eyes pierced him like knives. “You didn’t see what he became. He was a monster.”
“No.” He shook his head, still unable to believe it. Father had always been strict, harsh, and unfair, but he wasn’t evil. He couldn’t have been. “I’m sure there was a—.”
“Sit down,” she instructed with a heavy sigh.
“Please. Just...sit. I need to tell you something,” she said, gesturing to one of the two chairs pushed up to a small wooden table. There was an edge to her words and Nathaniel did as he was told. Delilah sat down across from him, lips pressed into a worried line. “I had hoped you already knew, but you wouldn’t be defending Father if you did .”
“If I knew what?” He tried to imagine the worst thing his father could possibly do, but nothing that came to mind was horrible enough to warrant his sister’s grave expression as she reached across the table and placed her hand on his.
“A few days after Thomas left for Ostagar, Father led the Howe forces to Highever, and left me in charge of the Vigil. He said that he and Teyrn Cousland were going to march south together just as they had done during the rebellion. It had been quite sometime since I’d seen him so excited about anything.” She shook her head and laughed humorlessly, delicate fingers squeezing more tightly around his hand. “The next morning, a handful of our soldiers — five, maybe six— returned to the keep, frantic and covered in blood. They had deserted.”
“Desertion? But that’s a death sentence. Why would they come back here of all places?” It didn’t make sense, and he searched his sister for answers, but her gaze was fixed on the table, a hollow expression on her face.
“That’s what I asked them,” she answered with another laugh, bringing her eyes up to meet his, “They said they had been asked to do something far less honorable than desertion and figured it was worth the risk to tell me. Apparently, their commanding officers had purposely delayed their arrival to Highever on Father’s orders. Teyrn Cousland sent Fergus ahead to Ostagar with the bulk of the Cousland forces, leaving only a small contingent of guards behind. When the Howe men reached the castle in the middle of the night…” She paused, face contorting with what looked like grief.
“What, Delilah,” he urged leaning forward, “What happened?”
“They slaughtered the entire family in their sleep,” she said, tears dripping from her eyes and down her cheeks. “
Nathaniel released her hand and sat back in his chair, in shock. “No,” he protested, “That doesn’t make any sense. The Couslands are our closest allies.”
“Nathaniel,” she said gently.
He shook his head. “No, I don’t believe it. Father would never—.”
“Nate.” Her voice was more insistent this time, and he felt the weight of the news fall on his shoulders and settle in his chest.
“Everyone?” He knew it was a foolish question, but he had to ask.”Even —.” Liss. The name caught in his throat and he couldn’t bring himself to say it out loud.
Delilah nodded somberly. “As far as I know, the only person who was not at the castle was Fergus, and… well, if he survived Ostagar, I wouldn’t know.”
Nathaniel stared straight ahead, focusing on a blank section of the wall behind Delilah’s head, so many feeling rushing through him that he couldn’t decide how to react. When he’d learned Father had been murdered, leaving his family in ruin, he left for Ferelden as soon as he could, filled with rage and a desire to make those who destroyed his family suffer. The Couslands were his family, too, and his father had them murdered for nothing short of callous ambition. He was conflicted, torn between holding onto the last shred of respect he had for the father he knew and blinding, white hot fury at the monster he had become.
“I never wanted anything from Father,” Nathaniel said quietly, holding back the storm that stirred inside for Delilah’s sake. Maker knew she didn’t need her only living relative to fall apart in front of her. “Other than for him to be proud of me. I followed every rule he had and never questioned his orders. I did everything he ever asked of me, no matter how much I disliked it. Do you know how much bloody restraint it took to not tell Elissa that I loved her?”
“You mean father is the reason you never…” She trailed off and smiled slightly. “I always assumed you didn’t have the nerve. I should have known better.”
“I wish I hadn’t tried so hard,” he continued with a heavy sigh. “It made me miserable, and it’s not as if I ever earned his favor. I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if I had rebelled a little, used my spine. Maybe I would have never had to leave. I could have been here, stopped Father… something. ”
Delilah leaned forward and took his hand again. “I know you’re sad, but please don’t blame yourself.”
“I’m not sad, Delilah,” Nathaniel snapped at his sister in a way she didn’t deserve, ripping his hand away from her and pushing his chair out from the table so forcefully that the table shook and nearly turned over, rattling the items that lay atop it, “I’m furious.”
“You can be both, Nate,” she replied quietly, calmly, and with a sympathetic expression. He was immediately embarrassed by his behavior.
“Sorry,” he said as he repositioned the table and chair, and straightened up the items on the table. “You’re right, of course.” He sat back down, and leaned forward, resting his elbows knees and face in his hands.
It was quiet for a moment with the exception of Delilah shifting in her seat. “Do you remember when Mother fell ill?”
“How could I forget?”
“Tom and I were inconsolable, and it was really upsetting to her. Father didn’t know how to handle the emotions we were feeling. Knowing what I know now, I’m not sure he had the capacity to.”
“You did, though. You were always so kind and strong, cheering us up so Mother didn’t have to worry, and never showing how upset you really were. I don’t know what we would have done without you.”
Nathaniel sat up straight and looked at his sister curiously, unsure why she had brought up the past. “What’s this about?”
“I wasn’t able to be there for you before when we were all hurting. My own sorrow drowned it all out.” Her eyebrows pressed together and more tears fell from her eyelashes, “But I can be now, and I will be damned if I let you bottle this all away and carry it alone.”
“I… thank you.”
Delilah stood and moved around the table to place a hand on his shoulder. “I really am sorry. I know how much they meant to you.”
He smiled weakly and nodded, looking up at her, then doing a double take as his eyes passed her stomach. He was not certain whether it was the angle or if he’d been too distracted to notice before, but there was a definite roundness to her abdomen that caused him to recoil.
Delilah chuckled and brought a hand to rest on her belly. “Stop scowling. It’s rude,” she said, shoving him playfully with her other hand, “I was wondering when you’d notice.”
Nathaniel blinked a few times, standing slowly and placing his hands on her shoulders. “You’re pregnant.” It wasn’t quite a question, but it wasn’t a statement either.
“Really? I had no idea,” she offered him a mischievous smile and rolled her eyes.
“Sorry. I...I wasn’t paying attention,” he laughed, dropping his hands from her shoulders, embarrassed, “When are you due?”
“In the spring,” she hummed, “I have about three months to go, give or take.”
“That’s soon.” He tensed and examined his sister’s face for any signs of concern or worry, but there were none, so he relaxed.
“Mhmm.” Delilah nodded “Al and I are so happy.”
“I’m happy, too, for both of you.”
Delilah threw her arms around him in a sudden embrace and mumbled against his chest. “I’ve missed you, Nate.”
He returned the hug, and placed a kiss on top of her head. “I missed you, too.”
Just then there was a knock at the door, soft, tentative and Delilah broke the embrace, rushing to answer it. “Warden-Commander,” she said cheerfully, “I take it you are here to retrieve my brother?”
“Yes, my lady,” Lucia answered just as Nathaniel arrived at the door. She had a cut on her cheek, and blood was splattered across her armor. Behind her, Anders and Velanna stood, both looking worse for wear than when they had departed. Delilah stepped out from in front of the door to let him pass.
“Looks like I missed out on all the fun.”
“It was not fun,” Velanna spat.
“I thought you liked setting Templars on fire,” Anders teased.
Lucia just shook her head and ignored the bickering that then ensued. “Are you ready to go?”
Nathaniel looked back to Delilah, who simply nodded and made him promise to return to visit her as soon as the mess with the darkspawn was over. He gave his word, said goodbye, and left with Lucia and the others.
Chapter 10: Undue Influence
Young Nathaniel begins to realize some things about Liss, but it wouldn't be a party if good old dad didn't mess everything up.
Highever, 9:18 Dragon
The sun beat down upon Highever from a cloudless sky, uncharacteristically hot and unrelenting for the typically mild Fereldan summer. Men and women, children, and animals accustomed to cooler weather walked about sluggishly, hoping for any sort of reprieve. Nathaniel wiped away the beads of sweat that formed on forehead as he sat on a grassy hill that overlooked a small pond where the other children played. He didn’t actually mind the heat.
The heat wasn’t the only thing unusual about this particular summer, as everyone at Castle Cousland busied themselves with preparation for the arrival of King Maric and Teyrn Loghain. From what Nathaniel could gather it was to be an important meeting of powerful people that would also include several feasts, music, and other festivities. Prince Cailan and Lady Anora were to accompany them.
For days, Liss prattled on and on and on about getting to see the Prince and his betrothed in an almost breathless way, eyes glittering with excitement. Nathaniel wasn’t certain she actually knew what it meant to be betrothed outside the pages of her stories. She’d read countless tales of young maidens and their arranged marriages to handsome knights with polished silverite armor and crooked smiles. He had, after all, listened to her recount the stories at great length. He knew her favorite characters and why they were her favorites. She’d even shown him drawings she’d made of a tall, muscular-looking woman who wielded a broadsword. According to Fergus, she’d even begun to write her own story, filling pages upon pages of a journal but never willing to talk about what she was writing. He annoyed her about it nearly every day, and nearly every day she awarded him with a scowl and a firm punch in the arm. It was clearly very private, and Nathaniel pretended to not even know it existed.
As he sat upon the hill, watching her splash around with Delilah and Thomas, who Father had permitted to join him in Highever this year, as well as the servant girl Liss’ parents did not like her to play with, he would have done just about anything to have her tell him the same story for the fifteenth time. It was lonely on the hill, but he definitely could not join them in the water. Delilah or Thomas might tell Father, or worse, Father might see. He still did not understand why he wasn’t supposed to spend time with Liss. He didn’t expect he ever would. Father rarely explained his rules, but Nathaniel trusted that he knew what was best.
“How did I know I’d find you sitting here by yourself,” a voice rang out from behind him, followed by a chuckle. It was Fergus who joined him. He was basically a man now, taller than ever with a deep voice and the beginnings of a beard.
“It’s kind of my thing,” Nathaniel answered with a sigh. He didn’t want it to be his “thing.”
“I’ve seen you have a good time, Nate,” Fergus stated bluntly as he sat down on the grass beside him, “Just never when your old man is here. What’s up with that?”
“Nothing,” Nathaniel snapped, darting his head toward the other boy who only smiled in return.
“My sister says your father doesn’t like that you two are friends.” Fergus plucked at some blades of grass at his side, tearing them between his fingers. “Is that true, or is she just making things up, again?”
“It’s true.” Nathaniel returned his gaze to the pond, his chest tightening as he watched Liss wrap her arms around Thomas in an attempt to pull him under the water, as she held Delilah’s hands, and as she kissed Rila’s cheek. “ I don’t know why.”
“I think I do.”
Fergus nodded grimly. “I overheard your father talking to mine. Something about wanting to arrange for my sister to marry your brother.”
“Like a betrothal,” Nathaniel huffed, “Liss will love that.”
“Father wouldn’t have it, said that Couslands do not treat their children like property, and that he would not decide Liss’ future for her.” He shook his head and laughed. “There was some angry shouting, and then your father stormed out of the room.”
“My father does a lot of angry shouting and storming out of rooms,” Nathaniel took a deep breath, and stared at the ground, unable to look back out at the pond or up to Fergus. “I still don’t understand what this has to do with me being close to Liss.”
Fergus tried and failed to contain a laugh, so he ended up half-snorting as he slapped Nathaniel roughly on the back. “Well, if Liss fell in love with you, that’d get in the way of her marrying little Tom one of these days, now wouldn’t it?”
“Me? And Liss?” Nathaniel’s voice cracked as he spoke, causing him to squeak. It’d been doing that a lot lately, and it was not helping him to sound serious or like anything other than some kind of awkward bird. He narrowed his eyes. “That’s the stupidest thing you’ve ever said, and you say a lot of stupid things.”
Fergus fell backward, cackling and holding his sides. Had Liss not been otherwise occupied she would have punched him to make him stop, but Nathaniel preferred to wait him out. Especially since any time he opened his mouth there was a potential to incite more obnoxious laughter. “Sorry Nate,” he said between laughs, “I know you can’t help your voice but…” he trailed off, “Hey, at least by next summer, you’ll sound completely different.”
“You can impress my sister with your deep, manly voice.” He elbowed Nathaniel in the arm. “Hmm?”
“It’s not like that, Fergus,” Nathaniel protested. “We’re just friends. We’ll always just be friends.”
“Right, right, whatever you say,” Fergus threw his hands up, “But you sure put up with a lot of my sister’s nonsense to just be a friend.”
“I don’t put up with anything.” Nathaniel let his annoyance show in his voice, “I like Liss’ ‘nonsense.’ It’s-.” He paused, realizing the initial end of that sentence proved Fergus’ point.
A devious grin stretched across the older boy’s face, one so similar to Liss’ that Nathaniel couldn’t hate it. “What were you going to say? Were you going to say that you think it’s cute?”
“You were,” Fergus shouted, “Hah! I knew it!”
Nathaniel rolled his eyes and ignored Fergus’ teasing. Did he like Liss in a different way than just friends? Was that why watching her spend time with the others when he couldn’t join made his chest hurt. He wasn’t used to feeling so angry or resentful toward his sister and brother, but ever since they arrived, he wanted nothing more than for them to go home. Now, with what Fergus overheard about Thomas, he wished it even more.
He watched as Liss climbed out of the pond, dripping from head to toe, quickly averting his eyes to the ground when he realized the linens in which she swam had become translucent in the water. He’d gone swimming with her before. This was nothing new to see, but it seemed impolite now. His heart climbed into his throat as he saw her walking in his direction from the corner of his eye. Fergus was still talking about her, and Nathaniel panicked.
“She’s coming, shut up,” he said slapping Fergus on the arm. Fergus looked at his sister and then back at Nathaniel, eyes sparkling with amusement. He took a breath, and opened his mouth to speak again, but Nathaniel covered it with his hand. “Shut. Up.”
Fergus raised his hands in a truce, eyes still smiling, and Nathaniel uncovered his mouth, but continued to glare at him with the most threatening expression he could muster. Not that it would stop the much larger boy from embarrassing him. There was no force in Thedas that would do that.
“You two are missing out on the fun,” Liss said cheerfully, plopping down on the ground beside Nathaniel. Cool water droplets bounced from her hair with the movement, sprinkling onto his skin.
“Don’t be silly, Sis.” Fergus’ voice was full of irony. “Nathaniel doesn’t know how to have fun.”
“Be nice.” Liss leaned over and around Nathaniel to smack her brother on the head. “You okay, Nate?” Her hand fell on Nathaniel’s shoulder and he looked up at her even though he knew he shouldn’t. His heart immediately skipped a beat and he wanted to bury his head in the dirt. He’d never thought about her like that before. Why now? Clearly this was Fergus’ doing for mentioning it.
He just nodded and Liss gave him a disbelieving look. She’d known him long enough to know better.
“I,” she announced, poking his cheek and letting her finger rest there, “Don’t believe you.”
His face burned hot, and he wasn’t sure if it was the actual heat or the insufferable shame he felt just being so near her now. He turned his eyes to look at Fergus who looked as if he were about to burst, then lightly swatted Liss’ hand away. It was absent minded, an attempt to alleviate the embarrassment boiling up in him, but he knew what it meant to her.
Nathaniel forced himself to meet her gaze, and to see the hurt expression on her face as she pulled away from him. “Liss, I - ,”
“I’m glad you’re okay,” she stated tersely, standing up and stomping away, back down to the pond where the others greeted her fondly. He brought his hands to his face and shook his head, falling back into the grass.
“That went well,” Fergus teased.“Tell me again how you don’t like my sister. I’m waiting.”
“Piss off,” Nathaniel muttered, voice muffled by his hands.
Nathaniel had the remainder of the afternoon and evening to ruminate. Despite Fergus forcing him to distraction by dragging him to the kennels, he couldn’t seem to get Liss off his mind. He still was not quite sure what to make of anything that happened. He had only known her for a few years, but it was impossible to remember a time when she hadn’t been a major part of his life. He honestly didn’t care to. There had been so few people who took such a vested interest in him, who truly cared. For all that he preferred solitude, he enjoyed her company more. Even when he said he wanted to be alone, it did not apply to her. He loved her, and he wasn’t afraid to admit that.
However, the new set of feelings that had smacked him this summer made him uncomfortable. He was afraid to admit to those because that meant that things between he and Liss could never be the same again. He would never be able to look at her without feeling like he was suffocating, without his chest aching. And, if what Fergus said had any truth to it, and he figured it did knowing Father, he would always feel that way. He would never be allowed to act on it. Ever.
With a mournful sigh, he flung himself down on his bed. It was still early for sleep, but if he lay there long enough, it wouldn’t be. He could drift off and not think about Liss and how pretty she was, or how she smelled nice, or how she smiled when she talked about her favorite books. He also wouldn’t have to think about the hurt in her eyes when he brushed her off earlier. He would have dreamless sleep and think absolutely nothing about Elissa Cousland or how she made him want to die. Maybe it was just a fever and he’d wake up with the tangled ball of emotions inside him gone. He rolled his eyes at himself. Unlikely.
A rapid succession of knocks at his door jolted him from his bed and he rushed to answer it. Unfastening the lock he reached for the handle but the door burst open before he even touched it, and he took a step backward to keep it from hitting him in the nose. Liss barged into the room and shut the door behind her, leaning against it. Her eyes were red and swollen from tears that continued to fall, and she was sniffling, trying to catch her breath.
“Liss, what’s -.” She fell forward into his arms, catching him off guard. All the shame and embarrassment from earlier fizzled away, replaced by overwhelming concern. He hugged her to him tightly, unsure what else he could do.
“I’m sorry to...to bother you,” she said through sobs and sniffles,”You probably don’t want me here.”
“No, it’s fine,” he reassured her, “What’s wrong?”
“After we finished swimming, Rila and I wanted to show Delilah and Thomas our spot in the garden. You know the one?” She looked up at Nathaniel desperately, and he shook his head. He knew the one. “While we were there, your father came to look for your brother and sister, I don’t know why - something about introducing them to some important people at dinner... “ She trailed off, tears still streaking down her face.
Nathaniel’s heart dropped like lead into his stomach. He had an idea where this story was going, and it made him sick. He placed his hands on her shoulders and pushed her out and away from him so he could look at her directly. “What did my father do, Liss?”
A look of anguish crossed her delicate features and she shook with sobs again. He’d never seen her like this before. “He saw Rila, and he got really angry. She didn’t even do anything, but he was just so angry. He called her a ‘knife-ear’ and told me and the others we had no business playing with ‘filth.’
“Rila ran off, and I went to find her once your Father left, but she wouldn’t listen. She told me she hated me and never wanted to talk to me again. This is all my fault.”
“It’s not your fault,” Nathaniel grasped her shoulders more firmly, “She is your friend and you couldn’t have known this would happen.”
She pulled back. “But I did! Mama and Papa have told me tons of times, but I just didn’t listen. I’m stupid. I’m a stupid, dumb person who never listens.” She tapped her forehead repeatedly with the heel of her hand. “Rila is never going to be my friend again.”
“I’m so sorry,” he said, almost in a whisper, and she wrapped her arms around him again. Her hair was still damp and smelled like the outside air. He wished he knew what to say, that he was good at consoling people, but that was not a strength of his. He wondered why she sought him out instead of her parents, instead of Fergus.
“I get it now.” Liss’ expression hardened as she pulled away again, and she offered him a definitive nod. “I know why you are different when he’s here. I didn’t before, not really, but I do now.”
“Father is…” He sighed. “Difficult.”
“I hate him,” Liss snapped, unapologetically.
“Sometimes... I think I might, too.” He laughed bitterly and walked to sit on the edge of his bed. “But he’s my father, and I have to respect his wishes.”
It was staggering to think that he might hate his own father, let alone admit it out loud. Liss walked over and sat beside him, leaning her head against his shoulder. She didn’t say a word, but she didn’t have to. He understood the gesture well enough. He offered her his hand and she laced her fingers through his, squeezing tightly.
They sat there for several moments in heavy silence until footsteps and the voices of men were heard down the hallway.
“Rendon, I assure you Nathaniel is not having an undue influence on Elissa,” Bryce’s voice urged, “And I certainly doubt she’s in his room right now.” He had spoken so loudly on purpose. It was a warning.
Liss and Nathaniel both startled, and they looked at each other with widened eyes, conveying their plan without any words. She drew a finger to her lips and slid down to the floor, crawling under the bed. He hurried to busy himself, taking a book from the shelf, rushing to his desk an pretending to be intently focused on the dusty tome that was almost certainly about Mabari.
There was a gentle knock at the door.
“It’s open,” Nathaniel shouted, his heart pounding in his chest.
Bryce entered first, followed by Father, who looked around the room suspiciously. “See,” he said in the same cheerful tone Liss always used. “She’s not here.” He winked at Nathaniel discreetly.
“Yes, well.” His father approached the desk, boots clicking against the stone floor. He placed a hand on Nathaniel’s shoulder with enough pressure that it was uncomfortable. “One can never be certain with this one. He is always up to something.”
“Nathaniel has always been on his best behavior with us,” Bryce’s voice was happy, but his eyes looked sad.
“I am sure he is.” He released Nathaniel’s arm and walked out of the room. Bryce lingered behind for a moment, offering an apologetic expression before exiting the room and closing the door behind him.
Liss crawled out from under the bed and stood, more shyly than he had ever seen her, in the center of the room. She had the same expression her father had worn.
“I should probably go.” She motioned toward the door with her thumb. “I don’t want to get you in trouble, too.”
Nathaniel wanted to ask her to stay, to say that he didn’t care what Father thought, that it was worth the risk because she was the only friend he had ever really had. But he didn’t. He just hung his head and watched as she left his room, closing the door gently behind her.
Chapter 11: Theft of Parsnip
Did someone say "Epistolary Chapter?" Oh wait, no, that was me... EPISTOLARY CHAPTER.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Denerim, 9:31 Dragon
Apologies for taking so long to write to you. I know you must be just beside yourself with worry. Never fear! Big brother is alive, just drowning in responsibilities. Assuming the role of Teyrn has a lot more to it than just sitting in the big chair and sending soldiers to do things. Who knew there would be so much bloody paperwork? Father certainly never mentioned it. He made it all look so very seamless and easy. Were he here now, I think he’d be wishing his brilliant daughter had been the heir instead. You should have been the heir from the start, precedent be damned.
I never expected to inherit Highever like this. Father led me to believe he would pass it on well before the end of his days and serve as my advisor. I’m honestly lost. There are so many things in disrepair. Queen Anora did a marvelous job at restoring the castle, but the city, our lands… they’ve suffered from the Blight, and from Howe’s piss poor management of them. I hope and pray everyday that I am making good choices for our home and for our family.
I know that you are eager to know how I am faring more personally, and to be honest Liss, it is all I can do to make it through the day without breaking down. It was one thing to be told that my wife and son were murdered, it is a completely different experience to walk into the room we once shared and for it to be empty. To see Oriana’s dresses and jewelry, that wooden sword you gave to Oren. Just being here is a constant reminder of everything I’ve lost. If I could bring Rendon Howe back to life just to murder him myself, I would without hesitation.
Did you know Queen Anora stripped the Howe family of their lands and granted it to the Grey Wardens? I just received a very official letter from the new Arlessa of Amaranthine, Warden -Commander Lucia Amell, Hero of Ferelden (What a mouthful!) I don’t think she wrote it. I feel like she might be too busy dealing with whatever is happening in Amaranthine right now with the Darkspawn. Either way, I thought you’d be interested to know. I’m not sure that I think Howe’s family deserves to pay for what he did. Maker… I wonder if word has even reached Nathaniel in the Marches. Wonder how he’ll take it.
Anyway, I am sure that you do not want to read pages of my rambling. I do miss you, sis. I wish that you could be here to kick the arses of all these families trying to arrange marriages with their daughters. I’m not ready yet... I don’t know that I ever will be.
I hope that Denerim is being kind to you. Does the queen keep you busy? Knowing Anora, I assume so.
Talk to you soon.
P.S. I’ve sent a package along with this letter. I found something that I thought you might want to see.
Liss sighed heavily, as if she could exhale the weight off her chest, and sat Fergus’ letter down on the desk before her. It was not easy for her to hear that her big brother, the man she looked up to above anyone else alive, was so defeated. Not that she blamed him of course. She had only to mourn the loss of her parents while he had lost his wife and son as well. He didn’t blame her for that, but she still did. She probably always would.
Blotting the tears from her eyes with the sleeve of her dress, she moved to open the package that had come with the letter, doing her best to avoid thinking about Howe or his family or Amaranthine or any of it. It sat atop a stack of correspondence which she had only gotten the chance to sort through today. Fergus was correct in assuming she had been busy. Restoring order to a country required long hours in a small chamber and many heated discussions.
She smiled at the package’s clumsy wrapping. There was no question that it was truly from her brother. Nobody else in Thedas could wrap something so poorly, and with such honest effort. She pulled at the twine that held the burlap in place, uncovering a thick, leather-bound journal. Even worn by time and water damage, it was unmistakable. It was hers, and she had forgotten it even existed.
Unable to contain her excitement she leaned back in her chair and began to thumb through the pages. The first several were relegated to poems and pieces of prose she had started but never finished, poorly drawn women with swords, and some pressed flowers. After that, she had apparently begun using the journal as a diary.
15 Justinian, 9:18 Dragon: Today was bad.
That was all Liss’ eleven-year-old self had written. Vague, but the expressive scribbles below depicted a man that looked like Rendon Howe with the word “knife-ear” written in a bubble beside his head. Her blood boiled remembering that day. Poor Rila. Liss had fond memories with the Elven girl, but she recalled all the times she got her into trouble, simply because she was too oblivious to realize that Rila did not have the same privileges she did. If she had, it would have spared them both some grief.
Liss flipped through several pages of brief entries from that summer, most of them complaining about the fact that Nathaniel was not allowed to talk to her. That had always pestered her, and she had not really understood the reason why his father frowned upon their friendship, at least not at the time. Obviously, he had been worried that it would develop into more and that she would want to marry Nate instead of Thomas, but Rendon did not know his own son. Nate had not been interested in her like that. If so, he would have taken one of the ample opportunities she had given him throughout their formative years to say so.
She laughed bitterly, shaking her head. Howe was dead, her family was dead, Thomas was dead, and she had not spoken to Nate in over seven years, so he might as well have been dead, too. None of it mattered anyway.
She slammed the journal shut and placed it in one of her desk drawers, unable to bring herself to go through the rest of it at the moment. She knew how the story went, after all. It had been some time since she had really let herself think about Nathaniel. Well, she always thought about him. There just happened to be a particular way she didn’t let herself think about him. He was a part of her, and he took that part with her when he left, that’s all that really mattered. Damn him for never writing. Damn him in general.
Opening another drawer, she pulled out a piece of parchment and reached for the quill and inkpot that sat at the far corner of the desk. She wanted to write to her brother while she had time. It would not do for her to become lost in thoughts of a past that wasn’t important anymore and forget to respond to Fergus for weeks while she drowned her sorrows in work.
You don’t have to apologize for needing time to get yourself sorted. I kind of expected that. I am just happy to hear from you at all. I wish that there were some words I could say to make everything better, but you and I both know that the only thing that will help us heal is time. I was going to try to avoid saying sorry again because you told me not to, but I am. I’m sorry. I seem to get sorrier every day.
I have heard about Amaranthine. More than I would like to, quite frankly. Amaranthine this, Amaranthine that. Amaranthine is all I hear about these days. One of the members of Anora’s council is a Grey Warden, and each time we meet, we spend more than half of the time listening to a bunch of angry banns complaining about the fact that an apolitical entity like the Grey Warden Order is now somehow nose deep in politics. Alistair — the Grey Warden — doesn’t even have contact with the Warden-Commander, so he can’t answer to any of it. I worry, Fergus. There are talks of an assassination, a plan to remove the Hero of Ferelden from her seat. It’s almost as if they’ve forgotten the woman saved their sorry arses from the Archdemon.
I understand the queen’s reasoning, but this has caused needless strife. If she had granted Amaranthine to Delilah, who almost assuredly had nothing to do with her father’s evil, we would actually be able to get some work done instead of rehashing the same arguments a thousand times. Andraste’s blood, I’m not cut out for this.
But that is beside the point, and I’m certain you don’t want to read me rant on and on about politics, of all things. Sounds like you have enough on your hands as is, juggling all of those marriage proposals. I will gladly march right up to Highever to put those power-hungry airheads in their place. All you have to do is ask. You need time to actually mourn, and taking a wife who will be more interested in your status than your well-being would not be a good decision.
Listen to me, Fergus, I do not care how lonely or hot and bothered you get, don’t you dare marry one of those glorified leeches. Get a friend. Go to a brothel. Get a friend who you feel comfortable doing brothel things with. Do what you have to, but I’ll not see my brother married to someone who does anything but love him for who he is. Do you understand me?
Remember that you do have a sister here who cares about you, too. Denerim is just a couple days’ journey from Highever, and as soon as things slow down here, I’ll be making a trip to visit. The thought of it terrifies me. The last memories of home I have are covered in blood and sound like screams. Still, I’ll have to eventually. What better motivation than to see my big brother who I miss dearly.
Thank you for the journal, by the way. It’s a difficult read, but I’m grateful to have it back. I had forgotten it even existed. Apparently, 11-year-old me was chock full of feelings about Rendon Howe, too. I’m sure you remember that.
I love you, Brother, and I will see you soon.
Liss folded the parchment and stuffed it into an envelope that she then sealed and addressed to be sent out tomorrow. She wondered whether she had been too stern with her brother, but someone had to remind him to think with the head on his shoulders and not the one in his breeches! He was a grown man who had basically been coddled his entire life, which meant he needed someone to look out for him until he learned to do that for himself. Sheltered young men always made the worst decisions. Perhaps it was hypocritical, coming from someone who was younger than him and also sheltered, but she didn’t care.
Setting the prepared postage aside, Liss focused on the stack of correspondence filling her desk, going through each envelope and scroll one by one. Many of the letters were junk: advertisements from local shops, political mailings, bounties, missing persons reports, and other things that Liss tossed into the waste bin at her side.
There were several messages from Bria, asking Liss to come visit, and she made a mental note to do so. Bria was intelligent, funny, and good at what she did. Liss enjoyed her company, and had spent many hours talking with the woman, learning a lot about Antiva and a little about the Forge. It was a friendship she had not expected, but one for which she was grateful nonetheless.
Speaking of unexpected friendships, there was also a handful of notes from Alistair -- tiny scrolls that, when unraveled, revealed brief messages with messy sketches beneath them. One in particular depicted a stick figure labeled as “Alistair” sitting atop a pile of little triangles.
There is too much cheese in this castle. What is it with you noble people and smelly cheese? Is it some kind of contest? I don’t even like cheese. It’s just old milk. Blech!
Another note featured some poorly drawn shape that looked oddly vulgar until she read the note that accompanied it.
Liss. Did you know that the first ever crime reported in Denerim was “Theft of Parsnip?” Look it up.
P.S. I don’t actually know what parsnips look like.
One note was written on the back of a book page, and Liss had to take some deep breaths to calm her feelings about the damaged literature.
Sorry about the damaged literature. I just ran out of parchment. I don’t actually remember what I wanted to say. I’m sure it will come to me later.
Another note written on a torn book page:
I remembered. It was that I wanted to say that I feel like I haven’t talked to you in ages. We’ve both been so busy, I guess. It’s weird to miss someone who lives just down the hall.
A flush climbed to Liss’ face and a smile twitched at the corners of her mouth as she read his words. Had she not known better, she would have sworn he was interested in her in a way that was more than friendly. She hadn’t known Alistair very long -- around three months -- but in the time that she had known him, she observed that he was kind to everyone, but not in the same way he was kind to her. It was slight, and hidden under a lot of other emotions he had, but it was there.
Yet, she knew better. The last time they’d really had time to speak outside of small exchanges in the hall had been the night they drank too much rum in her room and he talked about his past. Most of the conversation was centered around the Warden-Commander, who he affectionately referred to as “Luce.” Liss figured only he was allowed to call the Hero of Ferelden by that name. She doubted Alistair even remembered much of that discussion, and he never said it outright, but Liss could tell that he loved her. Even inebriated, his words sang praise of this woman whose absence so clearly wounded him. She figured it was best to not remind him of their conversation. The poor man would probably be embarrassed.
Rolling up each of his notes, she placed them in the same drawer with her journal, and turned her attention to the final letter on her desk. It was a large envelope with an official-looking seal. Upon closer examination, Liss realized that the seal was stamped with the shape of griffon, and she turned the envelope over to see to whom it was addressed. Alistair. It had been delivered to the wrong person. She hopped up immediately and ran out of her room, down the hall and toward the corridor where his room was, letter in hand. She knocked on the door erratically and relentlessly, not stopping until the door swung open to reveal her sleepy-eyed friend.
“Liss,” he mumbled groggily, although he did not seem particularly annoyed. In fact, he had the beginnings of a smile on his face. “What are you -?”
“Can I come in,” she blurted excitedly walking past him before he had time to answer. He closed the door behind them and turned to face her.
“To what do I owe the pleasure of this late night visit?” He rubbed at his eyes and motioned for her to sit down in the chair at his desk.
She shook her head politely, indicating that she wanted to stand, so Alistair slumped into the chair in her place, raking fingers through his disheveled hair. “I was going through my mail, and at the very bottom of the stack, there was this letter.” She extended the envelope out to him. “It has your name on it, and a griffon seal. It must have been delivered to the wrong -.”
Alistair stood abruptly and took the letter out of her hands, shaking nervously as he broke the seal and pulled out a piece of thick parchment. Liss watched as his eyes flicked across the page. The crease between his eyebrows deepened as he read on, and when he finished reading, he shook his head, crumpled up the letter, and tossed it to the floor.
“It’s not her handwriting,” he stated tersely, the laugh that followed more bitter than Liss had ever heard from him, “She can’t even write to me herself to tell me that she’s alive. Is it really so difficult? ‘Dear Alistair, I’m not dead.” No, I don’t think it is.” He threw his hands up. “Maker’s breath.”
“I’m, um,” Liss began, unsure what to say, and feeling incredibly guilty that she woke him up in the middle of the night just to cause him pain, “I’m sorry, I thought… Well. You know.”
“Don’t be sorry,” he assured her, expression and voice softening instantly as he reached out to touch her shoulder, “I thought the same. Thank you for bringing it to me.” His eyes lingered on her for longer than he intended, or at least it seemed that way when he darted them away quickly and took his hand from her shoulder, bringing it up to scratch the back of his neck.
“I should… go.” She motioned to the door with her head, and began to walk out of the room.
“Wait,” Alistair said, urgently, reaching out and taking her wrist in his hand. Liss turned back to look at him, his features pleading with her. “I mean.” He let go of her arm. “If you’re not… You know what, nevermind.”
Liss moved forward, taking his hand in hers and smiling as she met his gaze. “Alistair, we’re friends, remember? If you need company, all you have to do is say so.”
Alistair nodded slowly, eyes sparkling with tears Liss knew were about to fall. She moved closer to him, wrapping her arms around him in a hesitant embrace. She’d never hugged him before, and he had always tensed and flinched at her touch, so she was prepared for that. She was not prepared for the giant man to return the embrace so forcefully that it nearly knocked them both over. He buried his face into her shoulder, a few warm tears falling, wet against her skin.
They stood that way for several long moments, until Alistair released her and offered an embarrassed smile.
“Want to go to our spot in the Gardens?” Liss chirped, hoping to cut the awkwardness out of the moment.
“That would be good,” Alistair said with a nod. “Thank you, Liss.”
Fun fact: The whole parsnip line came about because I attended a Josh Groban concert in Cincinnati, Ohio on Wednesday. When he walked out on the stage he said: "Did you know: The first crime ever reported here in Cincinnati was 'Theft of a Cucumber,' and that's why I'm wearing a green suit."
While I was writing Alistair's notes, it just seemed fitting. ;D