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Mother's protrait, father's study, and Cousland in the middle of it all.
First Chapter::His Father's Son
Previous chapter:His Father's Son 14
Next chapter:His Father's Son 16
15 Lines of Communication
Smiling, his mother is looking past him with her dark eyes; youthful and full of life, with bright future ahead.
A false image, Nathaniel knows: the portrait does not show the furrows of constant frowning, nor the down-curved lips frozen in the sour expression of disappointment.
The portrait, like so many things in his life, is a lie. Like many things that he may even never know.
Did you know? Nathaniel asks his mother’s smiling face, thinking of the secret passage leading from his father’s chambers in Denerim right into the dungeon. Did you have a clue of his depravity?
Could this be why you hated him so?
The answer never comes. As a child, he never understood the bitterness between his parents; and since mother chose to distance herself from everyone, it was the father he looked up to and for whose attention he strived.
I blamed you, he says to the woman in the picture, I blamed you and was blind to his faults. I believed all he ever said, and put the blame solely on you.
Yet, the life-long bitterness that has taken hold in him is difficult to contend with. Adria was the motherly figure of his childhood, with a smile and a hug always ready. Mother’s death in one of Delilah’s last letters did not hit him hard, and the guilt and bitterness revolve within him, under the portrait’s indifferent look.
Indifference. Did you really hate your husband so much that you had to leave his children in the cold?
One of those things I’ll never know.
And of all places, you ended up here.
Nathaniel shakes his head, at the irony of it all.
He looks over his shoulder, at the massive door of dark wood, finely carved and inlaid with platelets of lighter shades.
Yet another well of secrets never to be revealed… unless he finds a clue himself.
He never ventured to the place since his return from the Marches. The Wardens caught him before he got very far on that first occasion, and on his second coming to the Keep, and becoming a Warden himself, he carefully avoided the reminders of his past, with the present itself poising a challenge he found difficult to face.
And now he has made a full circle.
Nathaniel crosses the corridor and runs his hand over the carved surface, dwelling on the Howe emblem of bear passant, feeling the echo of the awe he felt as a child whenever he was summoned to father’s study, or when he huddled in the alcove opposite the door, waiting patiently for the great father to come out.
More often than not, the door remained closed.
A familiar situation. Nathaniel’s lips twist as he tries the doorknob, just in case, as he did earlier that day. The massive lock is not of the kind that would poise a problem for him, yet he is loath to try – not in the corridor where everyone can see, and not under his mother’s eyes. Even during that short while since he has turned away from her, he feels those eyes drilling into his back.
The sound of footsteps on the stairs is a welcome distraction, whether Varel brings the requested key or not: caught between mother and father’s spirits, Nathaniel will gladly turn to any living being – almost.
Even before the newcomer turns round the corner, he realizes that the steps are too light for Varel, and the intuitive realization dawns on him just as the daylight from the narrow window falls on Ned Cousland’s face.
Nathaniel freezes. They have not met or spoken since the court hearing, and encountering the Commander in front of Rendon’s door makes the situation twice as awkward. Cursing his own stupidity for not foreseeing this, he bows, to buy himself time to come up with a satisfactory introduction and assess the Commander’s mood.
The man saves him the trouble. “Varel informed me that you enquired about the key to your father’s rooms.” The tone is somewhat guarded, but not hostile. “What’s your intention?”
To enter. “I believe there is yet another key to be found in…” father’s rooms “… there. A key, or a clue, to that door we cannot open.”
The thieving toolkit from Denerim which awaited him upon their arrival from Wending Wood failed his hopes miserably. No lockpick, no skill Nathaniel applied, could unlock the ancient door and the way to the equally ancient revenant hiding behind it.
Ned Cousland raises his brows. “And why should you expect the key here?”
Nathaniel hesitates for a split of the second, but he is duty-bound to answer, and since the Commander’s voice sounds as normally as before, he allows himself the slightest shade of a smile as he replies: “Because I already know what’s down there: the family tomb.”
Seeing the Commander next to dumbstruck is – or would be, if not for the recent events – quite satisfactory.
“I took care to scout the vaults thoroughly –“ as you definitely know “– and there are no signs of the tomb anywhere. And since I know that it is there, somewhere….” He shrugs. “At least that explains why the lock is so well-preserved.”
A slight frown. “Why didn’t you say so previously? Or are you implying that you didn’t know the whereabouts of your family tomb?”
The disbelief in the Commander’s voice almost makes Nathaniel grit his teeth. “No, I didn’t,” he forces himself to a calm reply. “The vaults were considered dangerous even back then, we were never allowed in when children. The tradition had it that the ruling Arl took his offspring to visit the ancestral tomb at the day of their coming of age, but when that day came when I was already in the Marches. I never had a chance to see it.”
The explanation receives a nod without further enquiry, and Ned Cousland bites his lip. “Very well, then.” He looks at the door to the study. “Not sure if you find anything, though.” Producing a large key with a bear crest, he slightly hesitates before unlocking the door with a familiar click.
The study looks uninviting, bleak in the greyish light of a cloudy day. Unwittingly holding his breath, Nathaniel steps over the threshold.
Entering the study comes as a shock – not because of the changes here and there, but because the room bears the marks of a thorough search. The chests, drawers, boxes… all emptied, are lined along the wall, their content piled in various spots, sorted according to an unknown system. Could have been expected, Nathaniel reprimands himself. Should have, in fact.
Yet, he cannot help but turn to Cousland for explanation, as the only person with the right – and reason – to have done this. “What were you looking for?” he asks, putting no small effort into not sounding irritated.
“Clues.” The reply comes somewhat muffled. “Proofs of… involvement.” The passionate undertone makes Nathaniel’s heart jump, vividly reminding him of the bloodlust in the voice of the elder Cousland.
With the topic already hovering in the air, anyway, Nathaniel braces himself and plunges into the deep waters. “Concerning the last time… I apologize. I did not intend to spy on you.”
The apology is waved off. “No need to. I figured out that you didn’t make it out in time. It’s…” Shaking his head, the Commander sighs and walks over to the window. “Did you manage to take a look at my brother?” he asks suddenly, observing something at the courtyard below.
“No. I didn’t dare to peek out.”
“Good that you didn’t, he would have spotted you – though if you had, you probably would have understood better.” He pauses again. “You must know, Nathaniel… You will recall that my brother was seriously injured at Ostagar, right?”
Nathaniel returns in his memory to the night talk in the amber haze of brandy. “You said that he was sent to some scouting mission and was overwhelmed when his men ran into the enemy.”
A nod. “Loghain had him take almost all his men and perform scouting-in-force. The direction they were sent, they ran into the bulk of the horde itself. They never had a chance. Fergus… was badly burned, with crushed bones. He was left for dead as the horde moved on. It was a miracle that some Chasind hunters, who were hiding from the horde, found him still alive two days later. Even greater, that they took him along, to their shamans for healing. – as much as their skill allowed.” He folds his arms on his chest, in a manner as if he were embracing himself, still not looking at Nathaniel. “Despite all their efforts, Fergus is crippled and scarred permanently. Both on the outside as well as the inside, I’m afraid.”
Unsure what to say, Nathaniel remains silent, downcasting his eyes: the connection between his father and Loghain making for an obvious conclusion. Capturing Highever was no use, as long as its heir remained alive and able to demand justice. He clenches his hands. There’s no helping it: father’s crimes will keep resurfacing to haunt him forever.
“I’m not telling you this to make you feel bad about it,” Cousland says softly, having turned back from the window. “I only need you to understand that… Fergus is not the man he used to be. He wouldn’t have resorted to such… malevolence… before.” A sigh. “I cannot let him do that, but… I cannot really blame him, either. Not when I know how easily I could have succumbed to such hatred myself.”
Nathaniel nods, bowing his head even lower, before he gets hold of himself again. “But even so… you needn’t have stood by me the way you did, not at such a cost.“ He locks his eyes into Cousland’s. “My offer stands.”
He receives a small smile, surprisingly sad and warm at the same time. “And so does my decision – though I do appreciate that.” The smile vanishes. “Brother or not, I will not be manipulated like that. I am not the man I used to be, either, for that matter – not the little brother dancing to his tune any longer. Fergus had better get used to it.” His lips twist again, in a bitter grimace.
Nathaniel eyes him with doubt: the raw pain he witnessed seemed too profound to be overcome so soon, and the slightest waver in the Commander’s voice does confirm the suspicion. He is then even more surprised to hear: “Sorry for snapping at you the way I did.”
Once again, the perfect move that leaves Nathaniel entirely defenceless, and he shuffles uneasily. “That’s alright. Given the circumstances, I was rather surprised you didn’t strike me down.”
“I did feel like striking down… someone.” A deep breath. “Preferably Fergus himself, I suppose. It would have been a nice payback for all the previous defeats. He always got me down with his weight.”
The attempt at the light tone feels forced, though, and he falls silent, his eyes gaining a distant look. Then, shaking his head, he gets back in control again, addressing Nathaniel with one of his typical many-layered grins. “It seems that we are stuck with each other. Isn’t it a lovely irony?”
Well, you’re the one in the position to change that. “Definitely. Maker seems to love such moments.”
Cousland actually chuckles. “The Chantry would mightily disapprove of such an interpretation of His actions.”
Nathaniel finds himself grinning in answer. The relief he feels over the twist of the situation is almost ridiculous: missing Cousland’s good mood, is that even possible? At a loss, he looks around, to switch the topic. The piled documents draw his attention. “Did you find what you were looking for?”
“No. Some clues into his business with Esmerelle and other cronies, but nothing condemning.” He gestures towards a small table. “There were also several keys – those I could not match to any lock are here, but I doubt very much any would fit to the crypt.”
A single glance tells Nathaniel that the assessment is correct – none of the simple keys would fit to the complex lock. “Are you sure you’ve searched everywhere?” he voices his doubt.
Ned Cousland shrugs. “I searched all that I could find – I’m no expert, though.”
Meaning, there could be a whole archive somewhere around. “Would you like me to make a search?”
“Well, isn’t this what you’ve come for?”
Partly. “I was after the key, not correspondence.”
“You’re welcome to try both. Though… you do realize that if you find something that would link your father’s vassals to the assault of Highever, I will have their heads for that?”
The tone would almost scare him, if he did not expect it. “Of course. I’d expect no less.” And I’d do no less myself. He ponders a little, and decides to venture forth. “Speaking of correspondence… have you per chance considered to check if Bann Esmerelle was in touch with Highever of late?”
He receives a quick look: one of those unnerving moments of practically reading each other’s mind, sending chills down his spine together with the reply: “Always know the viper by its venom, right? I’ve arranged to have her watched, but it is too soon to expect any clues yet.” A pause. “But once I gather enough proof… I’ll crush the viper the way she deserves.”
And I’ll gladly assist. “Let’s hope then that Maker will show me his grace and lead me to what you are looking for.”
The feral grin is like a seal of Bann Esmerelle’s fate.
Nathaniel starts inspecting the massive writing table of oakwood, when the Commander suddenly stops him. “I believe this can wait a little longer. If I’m not mistaken, the courier has just returned.”
Truly so: even if he didn’t remember the horse, Astrid’s fair braid is hard to overlook as she strides across the courtyard. “Later, then.”
Cousland smiles and hands him the bear key. “After you.”
The iron feels cold in his hand, and before he closes the dark door, Nathaniel takes one more look at the empty study. Empty. The man from the childhood memories is gone. His twisted caricature will, hopefully, be gone with the time, as well.
Resolutely, he turns the key in the lock.
Turning back, he meets his mother’s eyes, and pauses: yet another spirit he would gladly put to rest.
The Commander glances from him to the portrait and back. “Your mother?” he asks softly.
Mother. Nathaniel feels his bile rise, and to his shock, it spills over his lips: all the bitterness that his parents’ loveless marriage brought to everyone involved.
It is surprising how natural it feels, speaking his heart under Ned Cousland’s perceptive eyes: a situation he would not have though possible mere weeks ago. Maker does love irony, no matter what the Chantry might say to that.
Be it the play of light and shadow, the mother’s face seems somewhat stiff, now that its falsehood has been exposed under the scrutiny of the two pairs of eyes.
“What would you like to do with the picture, Nathaniel?”
The emptied room opposite makes for an easy decision. “Put it down. I won’t be haunted by it every time I pass by.”
As they descend the stairs, they encounter Varel, already bringing a handful of letters and glancing at the two men with only a hint of curiosity. “Your letters, Commander.” Seeing Nathaniel’s enquiring look, he says, keeping his face perfectly expressionless: “Astrid claimed that since she received the letter in person, she should hand in the answer in person, as well. You’ll find her in the dining hall.”
Cousland nods him off without any smart comment, and Nathaniel takes care not to rush down the stairs as long as he can be heard, suppressing the urge to run head over heels.
The dining hall is almost empty at this time of the day, and as he enters, Astrid waves at him from her seat, before she returns to consuming her portion with an appetite matching that of a Warden.
“There is nothing better than hot stew after a ride in the cold,” she remarks, biting into the freshly baked breath with her even teeth. “Anxious to get your letter, I see?” She glances him over with a spark of mischief, though Nathaniel is perfectly sure he is not out of breath in the least. “Here you go,” she indicates with a broad gesture that might encompass both the sealed vellum lying on the table and the space on the bench next to her, as well.
Nathaniel decides to accept both, and breaks the seal even before he sits down.
Astrid chuckles. “It’s really sweet how you care about your sister. She is a fine lady, by the way…”
don’t worry, I’m perfectly alright…
Somewhat perplexed, he raises his head to meet the sparkling blue eyes.
“She offered me refreshment while I was waiting for her to write the answer, and we had a nice little chat,” Astrid explains, looking definitely mischievous, and enjoying herself more than just a bit. “It seems you are a favourite brother.”
“Ah. I see.”
…your friend has been so kind as to wait until I compose the answer. She seems a very fine woman…
Maker’s breath, what the two of you were chatting about, Delilah?
The following lines bring him to a frown, thinking, until Astrid’s voice snaps him back into reality. “Not bad news, I hope?” The glee in her eyes is replaced by concern. “Your sister seemed well and at ease.”
“No, not really,” he replies, still pondering the meaning behind.
The sparkles are back. “I was wondering… since I’m off duty for the rest of the day, would you like to keep me company?”
“I should –“ he pauses, and quickly reconsiders. “I’ll be glad to.”
The smile he receives sets up warmth somewhere within, spreading to all parts of his body… all of them. The Commander will have to wait a little to receive his share of bad news:
…her visit came in handy, as I was about to write you, anyway, about something that disquieted me a great deal. As I was passing the marketplace with Maritta, we overheard some men hiding behind a stall. They were talking against your Commander and the Wardens, Nathaniel, claiming that it was a bad thing for the arling to get into their hands. I might have dismissed it as fools' talk, if it weren’t for a similar experience that Albert told me about after coming back from a tavern. You must inform the Commander that someone’s wishing him ill and spreading dissent in the streets of Amaranthine…