An aftermath of learning more than a couple of unpleasant things about his father.
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13. Hunter, Prey
He wakes in the morning with a dull throbbing pain in his temples. His mouth is dry, and the mere thought of yesterday’s brandy provokes an ugly taste on his tongue, persisting no matter how much water he mouths down.
The taste of shame.
Washing his face thoroughly relieves the headache only a little; the inner ache still clutches his stomach hard.
Or maybe it is the brandy. Looking at Oghren, still comfortably snoring in his bed, Nathaniel shakes his head. How the dwarf is able to drink such extensive amounts and never develop a hangover is totally beyond him.
The tavern is empty except for the Commander and Velanna, insipidly toying with their porridge. The former greets him with a curt nod, while the latter does not bother with even that.
Nathaniel is grateful for the silence; the yesterday’s portion of speaking will last a lifetime.
His own bowl of porridge arrives in no time, and so he can sink his eyes into it, safely avoiding as much as a single look at Cousland.
Despite the generous part of bacon, the oatmeal tastes dull and sticks in his throat, and the Warden hunger remains dormant for once.
Oblivious to the tension for a vexation of her own, Velanna finally flings her spoon into the porridge. “How long must I stay in this shemlen city? You have promised me hunting the darkspawn, not appeasing to some fat-arsed shems!”
Apparently, yesterday’s visit to the merchant’s guild at which the elf had to participate, left her rather displeased. Little wonder, what with her being the very reason of the guild’s troubles of late.
Cousland raises his head from his portion and gives Velanna an unfathomable look. “As long as necessary.”
“Which will be how long?” she hisses back defiantly, though the way she embraces herself reveals that she is well aware of the concealed warning.
“Until our business is finished here. Don’t worry, you are going to enjoy yourself today. Killing shems is your favourite leisure of late, after all.”
Velanna eyes him doubtfully, unsure of the meaning of it all and probably also finally sensing that something is not quite the way it used to. “Well, what are we waiting for then?” she huffs.
“Nothing much.” Cousland pushes his bowl aside, almost untouched. Nathaniel shrugs and does the same; with resentment, he notices that unlike himself, Cousland is at least cleanly shaven.
Image above all, hangover or not – but the man certainly does not feel compelled to cut his own throat whenever the blade comes near.
Abandoning their breakfasts to Wolf’s eager maw, they retreat to their rooms to make preparations for the nasty business which cleansing the smugglers’ den is bound to be. Having no other option, Nathaniel dons his old leather cuirass he has brought from the Keep: with the armour from the Wardens’ supplies destroyed by the dragon, taking this one seemed like a logical option.
Had I known…
The familiar weight of Father’s gift lies heavy on his shoulders.
He helps Oghren put on his heavy armour, carefully avoiding the dwarf’s breath: the combination of uncleaned mouth and “liquid breakfast”, as the dwarf calls it, is overwhelming. Luckily, he finds nothing strange with Nathaniel’s silence – he was fast asleep when Nathaniel finally retired to his bed.
The sky is dark with heavy clouds, prophesying a bleak and dreary day with snowfall, and certainly not contributing to Nathaniel’s mood, though the chilly air clears his head. He strides in Velanna’s wake, having to pause every now and then as Wolf, apparently not bothered by aught, prances around them, until Cousland runs out of patience and leads him by the collar.
Nathaniel sighs inwardly: the dog’s pranks were a welcome distraction from his thoughts.
As they pass the guildhall on their way to the marketplace, though, he finds that a badly started day may still go even worse.
“My Lord… what a pleasant surprise!”
Dressed in rich furs against the cold, she looks much more like an arlessa, contrasting with the plain cloak of thick wool, covering the Commander’s armour. She drops a curtsey. “May I hope that you will honour me by dining at my humble estate tonight?”
Cousland’s hand tightens the grip on the collar as the dog stands tensed, but his reply shows nothing but perfect civility. “I’m afraid I must forego the pleasure today, milady, as my stay in Amaranthine is purely of business nature and we’ll be leaving shortly afterwards. Perhaps another time.”
Esmerelle raises her brows. “Business? I’ll be glad to assist with anything I can.”
“That is most kind of you, Lady Esmerelle, but unfortunately, it seems that the matter will be prone to issuing a great deal of unpleasant proceedings, unbefitting of a gentle lady like yourself. A good day to you, milady.” Cousland bows and turns to leave, but Esmerelle is not going to let her prey from her claws so soon.
“Nathaniel,” she narrows her green eyes in a smile. “It is good to see you, my boy. How nice of the Commander to have taken you with him.” She puts her gloved hand on his arm. “Perhaps at least you might find some time to pay a visit to an old friend to talk when you are done here?”
Nathaniel presses his fist to his heart, though he’d much rather plant it in Esmerelle’s smile, and bows. “You will have to excuse me, milady, we are in a hurry today. Fare you well.” Taking Cousland, who has already made a few steps ahead and turned back to signal impatience, as an excuse, he bows again and falls in step after Velanna and Oghren, both ostentatiously indifferent to the exchange.
Talking he did yesterday, with the one who knew firsthand, and nothing Esmerelle might add can change a thing.
“I have to speak with you'.” What a trivial sentence, and what it brought about.
Watching Cousland’s stride, Nathaniel realizes the barely contained tension, so uncharacteristic for the usually controlled man. Little wonder, though. Knowing what he does now, he would probably never have approached him.
“And you would hear that from me?” The disbelief in Cousland’s voice is almost palpable. “Do you not trust your sister’s word?”
“I do. I do trust her, but she does not know all. Those who do are either dead, or such as won’t tell me the truth.”
“And you would trust that I will tell you the truth, plain and whole? I, of all the people?”
I, your enemy?
The last sentence, though it never crosses Cousland’s lips, hovers in the air.
“I trust that you are a man of honour.” Enemy mine.
Are you even still one?
He receives a hard look, and Cousland’s voice gains an edge. “You seem to be under a misconception that I only tell the truth.”
But Nathaniel has gone too far to be deterred now from the decision at which he arrived during those hours he spent roaming aimlessly the streets after he had left Delilah’s house. Ever since the moment he knocked on Ned Cousland’s door and said that sentence, he cannot back out. “I am under the conception that you have told nothing but the truth to me so far. Is it not so?”
Cousland slowly lets his breath out. “It is,” he admits softly. “I had no reason to lie to you whatsoever.”
“Then do tell me even now what I need to know,” Nathaniel insists.
“You need to… Why are you so intent on hearing things that had better be laid at rest? You know what your father did; the details of it will serve to no good.”
Because I cannot back out. I cannot live not knowing, and torture myself with the ideas what else Father may have done.
But these are things he cannot make his mouth to tell, and so he only repeats: “I need to know it all. Please.”
Were it the previous enquiry at the pub, or their current prodding at the market, the presence of their closely sticking group provokes the expected response.
“We’re being followed,” Nathaniel whispers, pretending to be adjusting his cloak, as they are nearing their suspect.
The Commander does not respond in any way, but as they pass hidden behind a baker’s stall, he releases his sword in its sheath.
When they approach the man matching the description of the smugglers’ contact, his eyes dart from left to right before he takes flight – much more slowly than one would expect from a single lithe man among the sparse buyers.
He speeds up only as he reaches the entrance of an alley, to reach its end and hide behind a group of armed men waiting by a wooden fence.
Nathaniel doesn’t have to turn to know that yet another group has sealed the alley entrance: an ambush pattern as old as humankind itself.
This time, though, the prey bites back, and retaliates without mercy.
Checking that none of the attackers still lives, the Commander finally relaxes his posture. Glancing over his companions, he raises his brows, seeing blood on Nathaniel’s upper arm.
“Just a scratch,” Nathaniel replies with an equal share of irritation and embarrassment. It was a blow he would have easily avoided, but he feels that his reflexes are not at their best. Had he not been drinking…
“As you wish then. You demand to hear the truth, so hear you will. All of it. Make yourself seated, I’ll fetch something to drink.”
“You think I won’t be able to face the truth without getting drunk?”
Cousland pauses just short of passing him in the doorway, in the closest proximity. “You think I will?” he asks softly and walks out of the room, leaving Nathaniel speechless.
He startles as Velanna approaches him and places her hand over the injury. “Scratches don’t drip blood on the ground, fool,” she frowns.
The warm tingle of magic that washes over him sends an unexpected wave of warmth into his groin, as well. He takes a sharp breath.
Velanna looks at him, puzzled, then shrugs and indifferently walks away.
Meanwhile, the Commander approaches the smuggler, lying pinned down with Wolf’s solid weight on his back, the mabari’s teeth just short of sinking into his nape. “You will lead me to your masters.” A statement, not a question.
The man looks at him sidelong, not daring to move his head by an inch. His voice is a blend of anger and despair: “I can’t! They’ll kill me if I do!”
“And I’ll have the dog tear your throat if you don’t. You’d better think twice – if you are no use to me, I have no reason to spare your worthless life. Whereas, if you do as I command, you stand a good chance that there will be no-one left to chase you.”
It is this moment that Wolf chooses to issue a deep growl, and the man screams in fright: the choice he is presented thusly simplified.
The smugglers’ hideaway is one of the decaying barns among old shabby warehouses: a place where one would expect it, but never be able to find on his own, in the area of other similar building. Its inhabitants are what one would expect smugglers to be, as well: bold and insolent, and blind to reason when offered a chance to back out.
When the slaughter is over, they do not pause to check the bodies; they follow Cousland down the trapdoor, into the secret passage and storeroom.
The ensuing fight is the toughest, yet its ferocity feels welcome; releasing the frustration in stabs and slashes, offering a false chance to wash away what cannot be erased. Nathaniel glimpses Cousland, also fighting with lesser reservation than usually: trying to drown in blood his own demons.
Looking at the last man he felled, the red opening in his throat still seeping blood, Nathaniel shivers: for an instant, he sees not a smuggler, a burly man in his forties, but the six-year-old Cousland boy with his throat slit. He gulps as his stomach revolts, and hastily turns away to clean his blades.
“Too deep in yer cups yesterday, huh?” Oghren grins, passing him on his way to the pile of casks, crates and chest. His smile even broadens as he opens the first. “Look what have we here?”
Brandy, of course. He must have smelled it like a dog.
“We have no time for this, Oghren!”
Aback at the reproach, Oghren casts an offended look over his shoulder. “Why so waspish today? Too much ale, too, huh? Don’t tell me you two were boozing together.”
Bloody near the black. Nathaniel hastily looks aside, avoiding Cousland’s glance.
“How can you bear the sight of me?” Nathaniel blurts, the brandy he has drunk already loosening his control.
“It’s not the sight of you, it’s the memory of him, sneering in my face. The memory of them, lying in their own blood, as I saw them last… mother and father, as I was forced to leave them behind. I do not know if there ever may come the day when I look at you and see none of those, just yourself.” He falls silent, and with one swift motion he mouths down the content of his cup. “Never, ever, can I forget…”
When they surface from the hideout again, they’re welcomed by the snow whirling in the wind. None of them inclined to stay, they retrieve their belongings and horses from the Crown and Lion, and hurry to the gate through the almost empty streets, in the rising wind.
The pikes above the gate are empty – no serious crime has plagued the city of Amaranthine of late.
Or rather, no serious exposed crime. A little smuggling, racketeering – no serious business like murders…
Nathaniel swallows hard. Father was lucky that his head did not end up here.
“Tell me – tell me one more thing… did he suffer?”
Intently, Cousland watches the diminishing content of the bottle, not responding.
“For Maker’s sake, he was my father! Whatever he’s done, he was my father still!”
Only when Cousland looks at him with a startle, Nathaniel realizes that his question was not ignored but overheard. He forces himself to calm down. “Did he suffer?” he repeats softly.
Looking back at the remnants of the amber liquid, Ned Cousland shakes his head. “I ran him through and punctured a vessel. He bled out quickly.” After a moment of silence, he refills his cup with a somewhat unstable hand, and slowly brings it to his mouth.
As he does so, the loose sleeve slides down, revealing the scars on his forearm: long, even marks of blades that slid through defence, such as Nathaniel bears himself. Watching yet another stripe of smoother skin, running round the wrist, he voices his thought: “You’ve skipped the torture part.”
The hand holding the cup freezes in mid-air, until Cousland replies in the same emotionless tone as before: “I skipped nothing. It happened afterwards.”
“You mean, father was not involved in this?”
A long pause, which shatters his hope for relief even before words do: “Only indirectly, since I was arrested under the charge of his murder. When we issued from that dungeon, Loghain’s elite guards were already waiting for us... One fight too many.” Ned Cousland twists his lips in a sardonic smile. “I guess you may feel revenged at least a little.”
Revenge. Watching the back of the man he originally meant to kill, Nathaniel takes a shaky breath. Maker, how wrong I was…
How can one suspect that his own father is a monster unworthy of keeping his memory?
Yet, the memories do persist: of father who watched him with pride as Nathaniel was trying his first sword, who told stories on long winter evening, with little Delilah seated on his knees… who rushed to raise Nathaniel when he had fallen badly, knocking out his breath.
He is short of breath even now, his vision blurred. He suppresses the impulse to wipe his eyes, only blinks a couple of times and watches the road ahead. Only when he has mastered himself, he takes one more look at the gate, the pikes: this is how it is. There is no escape.
It is but a merest glimpse: as he turns his head, there is a movement on the battlement, as if someone was hiding from sight. Only years of practice allow Nathaniel to restrain himself and not look there again, analysing instead what it is he has seen: a man watching out, in this terrible weather…
Nathaniel sharply inhales, feeling the skin on his back prickle. He waits until the city vanishes from sight, certain that there cannot be any attempt here in the open, among the farms encircling Amaranthine, and only then he leisurely nudges his horse forward. As he passes Velanna, she regards him sourly: she is not particularly sure in the saddle and holds her stoic gelding with inexpert hand. Too bad in a fight…
Finally, he catches up with Cousland. The neutral glance he receives suddenly builds a lump in his throat. “I believe our departure from Amaranthine was watched,” he blurts.
A half-audible curse. “We’d better look out, then. Tell the others to keep their eyes open.”
The instruction will be difficult to follow, though: it is not even noon but it’s growing dark, with the snow falling thickly. Rather than relying on eyesight, Nathaniel rakes his memory for the terrain along the road and the ways it can be utilized. If there was a watchman above the gate and sent some signal, the trap will be set near here. But where?
The copses of bare trees are scattered and do not provide sufficient shelter; thicker forestation appears only towards the hills… where the road crosses a deep ravine. “If we’re to be ambushed, then I know where. We should make a plan.”
Long before they approach the ravine, the weather forces them to slow down.
Nathaniel smirks grimly. Not the best time of year for an ambush – the falling snow obscures the target, the strings lose elasticity, and frozen fingers precision. Good.
Then, the bridge is ahead.
There is nothing to be seen among the trees, the ground covered with snow offers no clue, but the wind does – Wolf barks sharply and stops short of entering the bridge, growling.
The bridge entrance disappears in fiery blaze.
A heartbeat later, Nathaniel slides from the horseback, feeling an arrow pass his hair as it swishes harmlessly through; some more deflect from Oghren and Cousland’s armour while yet others are aimed at their horses. Over the wild neighing, he hears Velanna shout an incantation, and grins inwardly: he is familiar with the spell from the Wending Wood. Screaming of men caught by animated branches soon adds to the cacophony; no more arrows come and the attackers are forced to leave the shelter of the trees – those of them who still can. In the whirling snow, it is difficult to assess their numbers; Nathaniel can only estimate that they’re still outnumbered at least three to one.
Three to one and well trained, he corrects his estimate as he ducks from a blow and nearly gets gutted by a left-hand blade the attacker has produced. The man is lithe and strikes like a viper, till he slips on the snow-covered grass and Nathaniel runs his shortsword through his chest.
Sensing danger from behind, Nathaniel quickly falls to the ground – not fast enough, though, to avoid being hit hard on the head. Stunned, he blindly slashes with his dagger against the enemy’s legs. A howl, as the blade hits home, a flash of light, stomping feet… silence.
Gasping, Nathaniel slowly raises his head. A charred corpse lies just next to him, with yet others close around; Oghren is straightening, releasing his axe from the back of the man he killed.
No more enemies around – as it seems, yet another ambush has failed.
Footsteps. As he looks up, startled, Ned Cousland leans and offers him his hand to stand up. With a little hesitation, Nathaniel takes it and allows himself to be dragged to his feet.
“Good job,” the Commander says softly. “Had we entered the bridge, none of us would have lived to tell the tale.” Still holding his hand, he smiles, with a tinge of sadness. “Thank you.”
Nathaniel takes a breath, then hesitates again.
The bottle now stands empty and Cousland toys with the cork, without looking at Nathaniel. Both are silent, each with the thoughts of his own. Finally, Cousland raises his cup to his mouth once more, letting the last drops slide into his throat. As he places the cup on the table, he raises his eyes to Nathaniel, saying softly though somewhat slurredly: “You do realize, I hope, that I respect you.” A pause. “That under other circumstances, I would be honoured to be your friend – but your friendship is yet another thing he robbed me of… yet another reason to begrudge of him.”
He lets the breath out, then reciprocates the shake and withdraws the hand.
Things are as they are. “I was glad to be of service, Commander.”
One should not wish for what cannot be.
As it seems, Father, I am also robbed.