A talk with Delilah, which didn't go as Nathaniel had thought
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12. And Now For A Word
The house is not very big but well kept; the pots with herbs on the windowsills are covered for the winter. A quiet, cosy place, in an alley of similar houses: a neighbourhood of people who are well off but not truly rich.
As Nathaniel approaches the dark door, his steps unwittingly slow down.
Your sister abides in the house of one Albert Derwan, a merchant of Amaranthine. By all accounts, they are married.
He is about to knock when he hears footsteps at the alley entrance.
A woman, wrapped in a thick cloak against the cold, carrying a basket covered with cloth. She does not notice him at first, as she struggles with the wind tugging at her cloak and at the cloth at the same time, until it finally blows down her hood and sends raven-black locks in her face. With an exasperated gesture, she puts down the basket and starts adjusting the cloak.
For the briefest instant, she looks at him without recognition, then with a girly squeal rushes into his arms in a swirl of flying skirts and loosened hair. “Nathaniel!”
He has to blink several times to clear his eyesight, to actually se that face which almost hasn’t changed.
Delilah also cries, and laughs at the same time. She is wearing a plain dress, her hair is unadorned, but she seems beautiful; beautiful, and radiating joy.
“Let’s not stand in the wind,” she says at last, and recovering her basket, she leads him into the house.
The kitchen fireplace emanates warmth, and the whole place is as it seemed from the outside: well kept and cosy, but a commoner’s house still. Delilah moves about with an air of confidence, belonging here... as if she were not of noble birth, used to much, much better.
Nathaniel is seated at a large table, worn but clean, and served with refreshment he does not really want, feeling his stomach tightening with anxiety, until Delilah sits next to him, her excitement somewhat subdued with an expectant look.
An awkward pause, as neither knows what to start with, and then Delilah takes a deep breath. “You knew where to find me, so you already know, I presume.”
Nathaniel nods, and the lump in his throat grows. Nothing he is wearing reveals his current status; the badge with the Grey Warden crest is safely tucked in his cloak as he put it off. He also takes a deep breath.
His sister smiles at him warmly, with a tinge of mischief. “To save you the trouble, I know, as well: all of Amaranthine is buzzing with the gossip that you became a Grey Warden.”
Nathaniel can well imagine what the gossip must be: Rendon Howe’s son has become a lapdog to the very man who killed his father.
Yet, his sister is sitting here, smiling at him with affection, and her eyes sparkle with amusement. “Just the other day, two men at the market took great care that I could overhear them debating it. Fools. There was no better news I could get than you being on good terms with Ned Cousland. I was so worried about you before that… I’m glad that you were able to see reason, unlike poor Thomas…” She takes his hand in hers, her expression saddened.
“It is true,” he says in a hoarse voice. “I became a Warden and pledged my service to Cousland. He… is not like what I thought he would be. I – I couldn’t figure out what else to do. I thought you were all dead…”
Delilah presses his hand to her heart. “I am sorry… I sent a letter to the Marches to inform you what happened and that I was safe with a relation of Adria’s near here but you never responded and there were no news of you until now. I wanted to send you a letter as soon as I learned, but Albert has been off on business and I didn’t know whom to trust with my message.”
“Never mind, but… er, how did you…?”
“Meet Albert?” Delilah cocks an eyebrow.
She blushes a little. “Very simply. When I was evicted, Adria – the poor darling! – arranged for me to stay on her cousin’s farm near here, and he offered to take me there. – He was supplying the Keep on a regular basis, you know, and happened to be there when the edict was proclaimed. – Ah, well, and after that, he kept dropping by at every opportunity, to ask about my well-being. We talked a lot, and I came to like him very much, so when he proposed, I gladly accepted. As simple as that,” she ends quickly.
He dared? The blush tells that there is some more to the story, but Nathaniel is not inclined to enquire. He swallows hard and clasps both her hands in his. “Sister… you needn’t stay here any longer. The Commander – he allowed that you may return to the Keep – invited you, in fact. Come back with me. This is no place for you.”
As she looks at him with a flash of surprise, her eyes gain a hard look for an instant; a resolution reminding him of father’s. She shakes her head. “No, Nathaniel. This is where I belong now. This is my house. My and my husband’s.” She watches him with defiance, self-confident and strong. Where is that soft-spoken, shy little sister of mine?
Seeing his confusion, she smiles again and sits closer to him, releasing her hands and clasping his in return. “Nathaniel, my dear. Believe it or not, I am happy here. More happy than I have ever been before. I have a good husband who adores me, and I adore him. This is more than I could ever hope for. This, and…” she blushes once more, and Nathaniel feels again the joy radiating from her, illuminating her features. “I’m with a child.”
Unwittingly, he glances at her belly, and she laughs. “Not before the spring.” She presses his hands. “I am more than happy, Nathaniel.”
“But you’re Howe,” he blurts. Though he feels he should be glad to find his sister so content in her current state, so much unlike his dark forebodings, he still cannot grasp the reason behind her joy.
Her face darkens, like sun shrouded with clouds. “Not any more,” she replies firmly. “I’m not Howe any more, and it’s the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Nathaniel only stares at her, as if she had just slapped him. Delilah raises her hand to his face and stops short of touching him. “Brother, there are things you probably never realized. What would have expected me as a Howe? An arranged marriage, based on the best bid.”
The bitterness that creeps in her voice… I never knew.
Why did I never know?
Delilah sighs. “Really, Nathaniel, what would you rather have for me? A marriage like that of our parents, with all those quarrels and hatred glowing underneath? Or marrying a man whom I chose and who deeply cares for me? In those four months I’ve been married, Nathaniel, I’ve come to know more bliss that our parents in years. I may not be overly rich but I am well cared for, I lack in nothing, and I don’t miss the old life in the least.”
She is looking straight at him as she is telling him these, these things; the woman with his sister’s face, and Nathaniel realizes that this is Delilah, the real Delilah – one that he never had a chance to know. “Why did you never tell me how you felt? Why did you never tell father –“
“Tell father? Nathaniel! I’d never have dared to hint anything he would have disapproved! Don’t you remember – “ She shakes her head. “No, you probably don’t. You worshipped father… you never knew him for what he really was. I – “ she pauses, running her hand over her forehead, then abruptly gets up and walks over to a small window. When she turns back, her face shows only the previous determination again. “I did not welcome the end that met him, but I did not grieve him much. I do not hate Ned Cousland for what he did, and I am most glad that you do not, either. Our father simply got what he deserved.”
Nathaniel is not aware when he got up but he realizes that he is standing. “How can you say such a thing?” He is barely able to speak, and Delilah looks at him with confusion. “But you are with him… I thought….”
Nathaniel laughs sharply. “I am with him now because I saw no other way out… no other chance for the Howes, sister. Originally, I came to kill him!”
“No need to worry,” he smirks, “I do not intend to any longer. I’ve decided to draw a line between the present and what happened during the war, and start over. War makes people do terrible things… – What?” he asks, as Delilah puts her hand over her mouth and her eyes widen.
“I presumed you knew when you chose to become a Warden…” she whispers. “Oh, Nathaniel… not everything happened during the war.”
“What do you mean?” Even as he asks, he feels his stomach tighten again.
“The Couslands, Nathaniel… it was before the war. Before. It wasn’t war… it was betrayal. Murder.” She is very pale as she says that, but her eyes do not flinch.
“But they were proclaimed traitors – “
“Only afterwards. After our father forged evidence.”
The room swirls; Nathaniel has to secure himself against the table. “This cannot be,” he mutters hoarsely. “Who told you that? It cannot be – “
“I heard from his very mouth.”
It feels like a final blow, and Delilah looks at him with pity. “Sit down, brother. I suppose I’d better tell you all there is to it. ”
He obeys, or rather his legs do, and Delilah resumes her seat, as well.
“As you may recall, father always wanted to marry me into the Couslands,” she starts matter-of-factly. “I was never thrilled by the prospect, as Fergus was many years my senior and Ned, well, I didn’t think much about him then. At any rate, we were still only children.” She pauses, her eyes looking past, into the days long gone.
“Then, shortly after you were sent to the Marches, Fergus Cousland married that Antivan girl. Father was livid. It did not matter that I was not fit to marry yet and Fergus a grown man; it did not matter that the Couslands never offered the match; he took it as a personal insult. For hours, he would go about how the Couslands slighted us by the union.
After some time, he somewhat calmed down. ‘There is still Ned,” he used to say, ‘and who knows? You may yet be the Teyrna one day.’”
Nathaniel is beginning to feel nauseous, and Delilah presses his hand hard.
“Meanwhile, the bids for my hand were already coming. From Dragon’s Peak, from the Western Hills… Every single time, father acted initially as if delighted, only to dismiss it later, because ‘there was still Ned’. However, as it seemed, Ned was not interested.
Father started pressing the matter, more or less subtly… and every time he was rebuffed, it was the same story: the Couslands keep slighting us… keep standing in our way, blocking us from what should be ours.”
Delilah’s voice drops lower, her eyes narrow. “And then came Ostagar. Father was summoned to gather his forces and join Teyrn Bryce’s army. I guess I could claim in retrospect that I knew something was amiss, but if I did notice a thing, I ascribed it to the fear of darkspawn. – So, father marched off, and with Thomas in Denerim, he left me in charge of the Keep, and I wasn’t particularly worried until, much sooner than expected, some of our men returned. It came out that father had taken a part of his forces and rode ahead to Highever; the remainder were to set camp and await orders. When the word did come, though, they were to return to Amaranthine. I did not understand but I thought that the King’s army may have already vanquished the darkspawn and that only patrolling forces were required.”
More and more distracted, Delilah takes a shaky breath. “And then, the news reached us that the Highever castle burned to the ground and the Couslands were all dead. And still not a word from father, no explanation – and by that time I knew that he was somehow involved.”
Her words buzz around Nathaniel’s ears but the underlying logic is merciless: he, too, is beginning to see the pattern. And though he’d much rather run away, he has to hear it all. “Go on,” he bids her tensely.
Delilah nods and continues: “Later, word came of Ostagar and of the King’s death, and Loghain proclaimed himself Regent. Shortly after that, father returned unexpectedly. I had spent a few days in Amaranthine, and when I returned, the Keep was still in chaos over his arrival. I went to greet him immediately, afraid that he might be displeased by my absence. He was in his study, drinking, and it quickly turned out that he was preoccupied with other thoughts. In fact, he was in a hilarious mood.
‘How is my girl?’ he welcomed me as I entered. ‘Here, child – toast to your father, the new Arl of Denerim and the Teyrn of Highever.’
I thought he was drunk but I did as I was told. He pulled me to him and made me sit on his knees like he did when I was a little girl. ‘So, my Delilah, you are of the Teyrn’s family now, and without either of those stuck up Couslands involved. None of them stands in our way now. This is the dawn of a new era for the Howes. Isn’t that wonderful? Congratulate your father, girl, how he niftily arranged it all.’
‘Arranged?’ I asked.
He started to laugh, and emptied his cup. ‘I did,’ he said and his eyes glinted. ‘I ran Bryce through even before he knew what was going on. He died on his knees and the last thing he ever saw was his wife kissing my boots. Fergus’ corpse rots in Ostagar and his brat was burnt on a scrap heap, along with his Antivan whore of a wife, and Ned… if he doesn’t rot yet, he will soon enough.’ He chuckled. ‘The pup did escape, at first, only to become a Grey Warden and thus be proclaimed a double traitor.’
‘Traitor?’ I couldn’t help but echo him, but he seemed not to mind.
‘I presented the most convincing proofs that the Couslands were collaborating with Orlais, and Loghain arranged that the Wardens seemed responsible for the King’s death.’ He chuckled again. ‘Throwing my lot with the Hero of River Dane is most advantageous, as you can see – he rewards his allies well, and who knows? We may become even closer in the future. He is not so old yet, after all, what say you, my Delilah?’
‘As it pleases my father,’ I replied, and he seemed most satisfied. He bragged then about the glorious future ahead of us, and I kept nodding at whatever he said, without really listening. All I could think of was that father was a fiend, and I prayed to the Maker that he would not drag us all down when the reckoning came.”
Delilah’s voice trails off and she runs her hands over her face several times, her breath ragged. “He made some arrangement, took a great deal of the family treasure with him and left for Denerim again. That was the last I ever saw of him.” Then she sets her eyes on him. “I’m sorry, Nathaniel…”
It takes him long to finally find his voice, and it is only the look of worry in Delilah’s face that compels him to speak. “No need to, little sister. You’ve done nothing wrong. Come one, calm down. Don’t disquiet my nephew, or niece, or both.”
Delilah laughs with relief, and throws herself in his arms again. Her unrestrained joy, so different from her conduct as he knew her, is irresistible, and Nathaniel soon finds himself enquiring about the little details of her life and basking in the warmth of her smile, though his world has just shattered a second time.
And all the time as he half-listens to her chatting, there is but one thought resonating in his head.
I was wrong. Oh Maker, I was so terribly wrong.