A Day at Court, with slight changes. Also, the prettiest woman of the whole Keep makes an appearance, as well as Fergus Cousland.
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14. Voices of Authority
As I promised, I’m writing to tell you that I have safely returned from the Wending Wood, and I hope that my letter finds you in good health…
Nathaniel hastily checks the lines and seals the vellum. A quick look from the window reveals that a light horse, apparently the courier’s, is already waiting outside the stables, somewhat aside to avoid the commotion of newcomers flowing in to attend the court hearing.
“Why the hurry, are we under attack?” Anders stands in the doorway of the dining room, chewing bread and trying to flirt with sergeant Maverlies.
“I’m sending a letter to my sister, and the courier to Amaranthine is due to leave.”
“Ah. That one. Well, good luck, but be extremely careful.” His chuckle finds Nathaniel already striding past the corner, not wasting his time wondering what the mage may have been implying.
The day is bright and chilly, and the horse’s breath is steaming as it snorts at Nathaniel’s approach, rising the fine head and tossing the fair braided mane. The courier’s fair braid also waves as she turns to him from where she has been tapping her foot impatiently on the frozen snow.
Nathaniel swallows. He has glimpsed the young woman several times before, as she was walking across the courtyard, slender and graceful even in the furs and thick wool. The first close encounter only confirms his expectation: the Commander’s courier is very beautiful, though currently somewhat annoyed.
“So, you would be Nathaniel – Nathaniel Howe? High time you turned up, the Commander told me to deliver a letter for you, not to wait around.”
Nathaniel slightly bows. “My apologies, milady. I wasn’t aware you were already due to leave.” In fact, he barely had the time to write the letter at all, it seemed that the courtesy to use the Commander’s courier came as an afterthought.
The effect of the title is the same as usually – the courier’s cheeks, already blushed by the cold, flush even more. “You needn’t ‘milady’ me,” she says curtly but in a more friendly tone, and her blue eyes sparkle. “Who’s the letter to?”
Knitting her brows, she listens to his instructions, and repeats them to make sure that she remembers them correctly. “Shall I wait for an answer?”
Nathaniel hesitates, unsure if he is not stretching the limits of the Commander’s goodwill. “Would it be possible?”
The courier shrugs. “As long as it doesn’t take ages… These,” she indicates the bag with missives over her shoulder, “are no urgent ones, so a little more time does not make a difference. – So, that was supposed to mean ‘yes’?”
“Yes. It would be very kind of you, er…?”
“Astrid. My name is Astrid.” For some reason, the reply comes rather gruff, and she narrows her eyes as if expecting yet something else but “pleased to meet you, Astrid.” When Nathaniel makes no other comment, she nods approvingly. “So, it’s not a habit among all the Wardens to play a smartass? Good.”
As she turns to mount her horse, things suddenly start to make sense. “You have already met Anders, I presume?”
He receives a sharp look from the height of her saddle, but then Astrid leans forward and says sweetly: “He asked if I like to be astride and offered me a ride. – To save you the time asking what I answered, I do – on a good stallion.” A quick, appraising look from head to toe. “I hope that unlike your mage friend, you do realize that substandard stallions are gelded.”
Bursting into laughter is probably considered as the right response, since she rewards Nathaniel with a grin before she nudges her horse towards the gate.
Oh, Anders. Apparently, your advances bring you into unexpected situations. Nathaniel shakes his head and puts his frozen hands into the armpits; and as he watches Astrid leave, he realizes that he wouldn’t mind finding what her standards are in the least.
When he enters the warmth of the dining hall, Anders is already gone, so the latest ammunition for the never-ending banter remains for another time, but just as he finishes his meal, there is another disruption.
Ever since her arrival at the Keep, Velanna stubbornly refuses to eat in the company of shems, and the expedition to the Wending Wood did not change that in the least. As she grabs her portion of stew and bread to retreat to her room, Nathaniel quickly rises to join her. “Shall I take some mulled wine for you?”
“It’s a thing we do when it’s cold.”
No response, but she doesn’t try to overcome him as they walk side by side in the corridor, and so he tries again: “Would you like to attend the court hearing?”
Nathaniel inadvertently grits his teeth. With the journey for the silverite and sylvan wood running as smoothly as Cousland foretold, he aimed his efforts at maintaining good relationships in his troop, namely with Velanna. There were days when he felt he had made a breakthrough, like when he managed to engage her in a conversation about Seranni’s pranks… and there were days when she seemed hopeless.
Today is apparently one of those days.
“Have a nice day, Velanna,” he wishes without expecting an answer, and does not get any. With a sigh, he makes for the main hall.
The hall is crowded and the hearing is already well under the way, and Nathaniel arrives in the middle of a heated argument over a bridge ownership between Liza Packton and a young knight whose name he cannot recall. Finding a spot next to one of the supporting pillars, he leans comfortably and watches the show.
The Commander, sitting in his chair, politely listens and intervenes only when the arguments start bordering on insults. “Loath as I may be to uphold my predecessor’s decisions, he was well within his rights to reward his vassals as he deemed fit. I would serve ill the King’s law if I chose to upturn such decisions randomly. The bridge in dispute is yours, Lady Liza.”
Lady Packton does not beam overly; the way Ned Cousland proclaimed his decree sounded as if she was actually the one to lose. The knight’s face reflects a storm of emotions, but before he can outburst, he is addressed in a totally different tone: “However, I shall not have anyone suffer for acts of valour during a time when death was the penalty for resistance. Ser Darren, will you be willing to accept a compensation for the sacrifice which you have taken for the sake of stability of the land?”
Unsurprisingly, Ser Darren will, and judging by his shining eyes and straightened shoulders, the Warden Commander has just gained an ardent supporter.
Nathaniel smirks for himself: he is more than sure that Lady Liza will also be somehow compensated for her gain. Knowing her – and knowing his father now – Ser Darren was probably right that she was rewarded for some dirty work.
The noblemen and their suite leave but the hall is still full of people; commoners as well as, surprisingly, the soldiers of the Keep.
The following case is quite simple, and Garavel looks somewhat bored as he reports the crime of a shepherd who stole grain, and didn’t know any better than to steal from the portion dedicated to the Crown. A capital offence, as Garavel does not fail to highlight, but Nathaniel does not share his conviction. By this time, he already knows his Cousland better than the Captain, and he is not disappointed.
“Stealing from the Crown is a capital offence and Alec’s life is duly forfeit,” Ned Cousland agrees, “but our King Alistair knew the pains of an empty stomach all too well in his time, and he would not have me waste a good man’s life only because he fended for his starving family.” Smiling, he leans forward. “I will put your forfeit life to a better use, Alec: stand in the service of Ferelden and defend her against the darkspawn. As a soldier of the Keep, you will support your family from your wages. – You may even bring your family with you: the Keep is still understaffed and working hands shall never starve here.”
Appraising the sheepherder’s figure, Nathaniel has to agree: the man has known better times, and will make a good stuff for a soldier. Two birds with one stone. Want not, waste not. The poor bugger probably thinks that the Maker has just smiled on him.
The cheerful commoners leave the hall, and only the soldiers remain, waiting in tense anticipation as the guards bring in a shackled woman, wearing the Keep uniform.
Hearing the accusation, the Commander’s face is like chiselled from stone, and his eyes bore into the kneeling woman. “I do not tolerate desertion in my ranks. What can you say to your defence, scout Danella?”
Desertion. This does not bode well.
The scout, though pale, does have a spine; she does not waver from his stare as she says in a slightly desperate voice: “The darkspawn are closing in on my family’s fields. I applied with Captain Garavel several times to allow me to go and bring them to safety but he would hear none of it. I saw no other way but to go on my own, but I would have returned! I swear I am no deserter, my Lord, I would have returned!”
The air grows heavy as the Commander keeps watching her in silence; no one dares to move or utter a word. Nathaniel feels his throat tighten: he has seen that cold, intent gaze… in the Wending Wood, when they chanced on the merchant who was trading with the darkspawn, on their way back. Armaas was his name, he recalls, a Qunari denying allegiance to the Qun. Also a fearless man, though knowing he was in the wrong.
“Whatever your reasons were, scout Danella, you disobeyed a direct order at the time of threat to the land.” The brisk, cutting voice, the same as when Armaas could not, or would not, disclose aught of importance about his darkspawn associates.
“By all rights, you should hang for that.” The blade, drawn from its sheath with a hiss, the magical runes glowing alongside… the blood splattering the dry leaves on the ground as the blade effortlessly cuts through the neck, flesh and sinews and bone, almost without slowing in its arch.
Danella’s shoulders slump; the silence cuts in the ears. Without a change of tone, the Commander continues: “However, for this, and only for this once, I will make an exception, as the fault is also partly mine. I should have foreseen this, and instructed Captain Garavel accordingly.” He rises from his chair. “Hear my decree: from now on, those wishing to arrange for the safety of their families will apply with Captain Garavel, and he will organize their departure in such a manner that the defence of the Keep is not compromised, and inform me of his action. The final authority over granting or denying the leave will be with me, and I will not tolerate further insubordination. Any deserter will hang, no matter his or her reasons. Mark my words.”
In the dead silence, he walks over to the kneeling woman. “Rise, scout Danella, you are fully pardoned. Go with my leave to your family and return as soon as possible. Your family may enjoy the protection of the Keep, in exchange for their work and contribution to the Order and arling.”
Nathaniel lets out the breath he didn’t know he was holding, as do many around him. Relief washes over her comrades as Danella stutters her thanks; Varel’s proclaiming the end of the hearing is drowned in the loud cheers.
Captain Garavel is the only one not to share the mood: being publically rebuked for not handling the situation is never exciting. As the hall is slowly emptying, he takes his chance to disappear, while the seneschal stays to discuss something with the Commander.
Nathaniel is about to leave, as well, but as he glimpses the Commander nod at him over Varel’s shoulder, he reconsiders.
Varel bows and leaves, and Ned Cousland turns to Nathaniel with a grin. “Come to watch the show?”
Somewhat shyly, Nathaniel returns the smile. Since his return from the Wending Wood, their relationship resembles normality, yet he still feels a little insecure. “It was… interesting.”
“Varel thinks I was too soft with the offenders, but…” he shrugs. “I’m not used to killing off commoners.”
“I doubt very much the said commoners felt encouraged to misbehave. Varel has always been all about order, as far as I remember.”
A chuckle. “I was rather surprised he didn’t tell the darkspawn off for trespassing. – Now, there is something I would like to speak about – “
He never finishes, as Varel dashes in, breathing rapidly, yet taking care to close the door behind him before he gasps: “Commander… Teyrn Cousland has just arrived and requests to see you. Garavel is leading him here…” He catches his breath. “And if I may say so, he seems rather ill-tempered.”
Fergus Cousland. The son, the husband, the father. Nathaniel’s stomach twists.
“Oh, Maker…” The Commander frowns and turns to Nathaniel. “You must get out. That way, quickly!” Not waiting for a reply, he walks towards the main entrance, to bring the side door out of the line of sight of newcomers.
No sooner has Nathaniel reached the alcove that the main door opens again, and he quickly presses against the doorpost. There is no way he can escape unnoticed now, with the door wing opening into the hall. Cursing his bad luck, he presses even deeper into the corner, barely daring to breathe.
“Fergus!” The cheerful tone shows nothing of the previous shock. “That’s a pleasant surprise! I wasn’t expecting you… did you wish to attend the court? I’m afraid it’s just ended.”
“No. I’ve come to speak with you in a family matter, and I would speak with you alone.” A deep voice, resonating with barely contained emotion.
“Of course. Come along, I’ll send for some wine – “
“Drop the pleasantries; I’m in no mood for that.”
“As you wish, then.” Still, not a trace of responding to the obvious harshness. At an unspoken command, there are footsteps, as Varel and Garavel leave the hall.
The door barely closes behind them when Fergus Cousland lets the reins of his anger loose: “Stop playing games, Ned! You know damn well why I am here!”
The reply comes soft but firm: “No, I don’t. I cannot imagine why you should come vexed, and start the talk by shouting at me.”
“You don’t?” A sharp, hoarse laughter. “Of course, how could you? How could you even guess what family matter might bring me here when you’ve been busy cuddling that bastard’s whelp!”
A moment of stunned silence. “What are you talking about?”
“What am I talking about? About you dishonouring our name by petting the scum in public!”
“Fergus – “
“Or are you even bedding him? Maker knows you have shown poor taste in these matters before!”
“Now, Fergus, listen – “
“What, you would tell me that you haven’t developed a taste for the same sex? Even worse, then – while I could understand some depraved lust that would drive you to sate your need on a Howe, I’ll never tolerate poising yourself as a friend to him!”
Ned Cousland’s voice is barely controlled. “I don’t know what you may have heard but I’m not making public displays of anything you might find dishonourable. I may be seen in his presence, yes, but I don’t understand what’s so surprising about it, given that we agreed –“
“We agreed on nothing! You informed me of your action, and I tolerated that, as long as it seemed that you were going to keep an eye on him rather than let him scheme on the loose! I never thought you would spit on our parents’ memory by every breath you take in the company of the son to the very bastard who murdered them – who also murdered my son and wife, if you don’t remember! Did you really forget all that blood that lies on him and his progeny? Tell me, Ned, did you really forget what Howe did?”
The reply is barely audible. “In case you forgot, I was there that night, brother.”
“Then stop behaving as if mother and father never mattered to you!”
Nathaniel’s clenched hands hurt, and he feels as if suffocating: he shouldn’t be here. He should be somewhere else – not in this room, not in the Keep, somewhere entirely else. Another part of Thedas, or in the Fade… or dead.
He squeezes his eyes tight shut but he cannot close his ears to the shaky, broken voice: “How can you say that to me, Fergus? How can you say they never mattered to me, or that I could forget – “
A pause, filled with ragged breath. Then, in a stronger voice, as Ned Cousland partly regains control. “I’ll never forget what Howe did, but his son had no part in it. He is a Warden now, one of the four I have at my disposal where I’d need dozens. I’m not exactly in a situation where I’d have much choice, don’t you understand?”
“No, I don’t.” Cold, snapped words. “I don’t believe there could ever be a need that would justify compromising your honour by keeping a Howe close. Are you daft, Ned, not to see that you’re adding insult to the injury?”
“Haven’t you just heard me? I don’t have men to spare against the darkspawn, and few are as capable as Nathaniel. What were you imagining, that I made him a Warden just to have him locked up somewhere where he’d be no use?”
Nathaniel’s blood, already running cold, freezes in his veins at the answer: “Why keep him anywhere at all if you have Deep Roads just under your feet? Surely, it has been long enough not to raise suspicion.”
The silence that follows makes the hair on Nathaniel’s nape rise.
“I don’t believe that you have even said that.” Ned’s voice, though tense, finally resembles that he normally uses. “You would have me kill a man just for being his father’s son? Be like Howe? Surely our father taught us better than this, Fergus!”
A shuffle, and Fergus clears his throat. “Send him away. You can have my men at your disposal, as many as you require. Just send him away.”
Leaning his head against the wall, Nathaniel slowly inhales. This is it, then. This is how it ends. Then, his breath almost hitches, as Ned says: “He pledged his service to the Wardens as a way of serving Ferelden, to redeem his name. On these very terms I accepted him into the Wardens. I cannot send him away with clean consciousness – so that you could hunt him down in some dark corner, Fergus.”
It is now Fergus’ turn to remain silent, until he finally finds it in himself to respond with sheer disbelief: “You would side with him against me?”
“You’ve failed to deny the accusation.” Ned, softly.
“Fergus. I won’t assist you in killing an innocent man – I won’t let you twist your soul like that.”
Still silence, and rapid breath.
“Brother…” Ned’s voice drops low, desperate with concern. “I have seen a man corrupt his life and the lives of those he held dear for the sake of vengeance, and I don’t want this to happen to you. Don’t pursue this course, let Nathaniel be. Such hatred is below you. Please, come with me, we need to talk more about this –“
A grunt, and a sound of a faint blow. “Get your hands off me! As long as you harbour that scum’s beget, you’re not a brother to me!”
A gasp – such as Nathaniel heard once in the Marches, when the man next to him was shot through. Yet, Fergus Cousland mercilessly continues: “You apparently forgot what it means to be a Cousland the very moment you walked away on our parents to save your hide. Did you also forget that you owe fealty to me? You’d better think twice before you ignore the command of your Teyrn, and I’m telling you one last time that I want him gone!”
“Wrong and wrong again.” A flat, colourless tone. “Maker knows I have tormented myself enough over being the one who survived, and you won’t nail that one on me. As for the other thing, I owe you nothing. You ceded the arling to the Wardens, but it was the Crown that granted it. The Arl of Amaranthine now answers solely to the King himself, and the Warden Commander answers to no-one. You have no authority here.”
Fergus Cousland nearly suffocates as he hisses: “You traitor…”
The silence that follows is worse than the previous accusations.
Then comes a rustle of clothes, and heavy steps, somewhat shuffling.
The plea brings about a slight pause, and then the door slams into the wall, and closes with another wall-shattering blow.
Nothing moves, and there is but one thing to be done.
On unsure legs, Nathaniel walks out of the alcove. “Go after him. I will leave at once.”
Ned Cousland whirls around, with murder in his eyes, but when he speaks, it is in the same flat tone as before. “You will do no such thing. This is no longer about you or me. The Teyrn of Highever has no authority over the Wardens, and I cannot allow a precedent. You stay.”
“I cannot stay at such a cost. I’ll leave for Orlais, or Antiva –“
“I said no!” The Commander half-raises his hand to his face, then drops it again. “Go now –“ the flat tone finally wavers – “and do not approach me until I send for you.”
“Don’t make me sorry I didn’t hang you when I had the chance! Go!”
And so Nathaniel obeys, and retreats into his room, where he sits on his bed, staring at the wall for hours.
Once again, life tastes like ash.
A/N: I picked the name for Astrid first and made the pun only afterwards, not the other way round. – It’s not really important, since Anders would crack a sexual joke even if she was called Susan, Claire or Mnemosyne.