Crazy options are sometimes both the only and the best: Nathaniel joins the Wardens.
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2. Point Of No Return
The ale is stale and tasteless – the sort to be expected in a cheap and shabby dock tavern.
Cheap, but still expensive for Nathaniel's quickly diminishing means.
In his dark corner, hidden from sight, he runs his hand over the finely worked leather of his armour. Selling his property would earn him enough to buy a safe passage back to the Marches, to start a commoner's life. Selling his sword to someone's service would buy him even more: skilled mercenaries are always highly sought.
He should do either, and begone. It would by the only logical sloution of his situation. He has no future in Ferelden, that's crystal clear.
Yet, there are also other things crystal clear.
If he leaves, he will hardly ever have a chance to find out Thomas and Delilah's fate. Most possibly, he will never have a chance to come back again. He will spend the rest of his life in the lands where the name Howe means nothing – in the good as well as in the bad.
For either reason, he is loath to go.
Nathaniel leaves his pint unfinished and goes out, to ramble aimlessly through the streets of Amaranthine, as he has ever since he returned from the disastrous mission to his former home.
The thought of the destruction and the aftermath of the attack, even the little he saw of it during his hasty departure, makes him shiver. He has seen enough refugees, heard their stories of the Blight – but seeing with his very eyes far exceeds his imagination.
And this is yet another thing why he prolongs his stay: there is another option. An option for him, for the Howes; a slim chance, almost hopeless.
A dangerous one even to try.
The salty wind tugs at his cloak and Nathaniel pulls his hood lower. As he makes his way through the crowd, half-lost in thoughts, his attention is drawn by a loud excited whisper: "That's the Warden Commander!"
Nathaniel's head snaps in the direction of the speaker before he has a chance to control his reaction. Luckily, no one notices: he is not the only one staring at the passers-by. In the last moment, Nathaniel hides from sight behind a stall; he cannot help but keep looking.
Ned Cousland, wearing the same armour with the griffin emblazoned on the breastplate, strides casually through the main street of the dock, accompanied by a blonde man bearing a mage's staff, a ferocious-looking dwarf and a chestnut mabari. Nathaniel is not sure why or how, but the man seems more impressive now. It may be the way he moves, the self-confident stride that makes very clear who is the master here – or it may be the respect that he has earned, completely regardless of Nathaniel's will or intention?
The Warden Commander. The Hero of Ferelden.
Nathaniel takes a deep breath. If this is supposed to be a sign, a response to his thoughts, it speaks clearly.
As Cousland and his suite turn round the corner, Nathaniel warily follows. They make their way through the docks, from the busy street full of the merchants and dock workers into an almost abandoned maze of shabby warehouses. Nathaniel wonders what business Ned Cousland might possibly have here, until he notices that he is not the only one to follow.
Those other shadows are not as skilled as himself, and their appearance leaves no doubt about their intentions. Inconspicuously, Nathaniel lets a knife slide into his palm: thugs do not favour witnesses.
The attack comes soon after, in an alley between two warehouses. A group of men blocks each entrance; crossbowmen rise from behind the top of the roof.
Almost two dozen of them.
Their leader, a bulky red-hair in well-worn leathers, puts his thumbs behind his belt. "Look what we have here. Isn't that the mighty Warden Commander? You have meddled in something that is too big even for yourself."
"Have I?" Nathaniel is already familiar with the provocative tone, and is not fooled by Cousland's leisured stance. "I certainly tend to dislike bastards who pray on the hapless."
The leader opens his mouth: the last thing he ever does. Cousland's sword flashes out of nowhere, slitting the man's throat. The splash of blood barely lands when Cousland swirls and kills another man, before the rest of the thugs even manage to react.
Nathaniel lets his breath out. Sending two dozen seems like a gross underestimation.
The ambushers on the left roof are felled in a blast of blue energy; those on the right manage to fire their load before they freeze, covered with a layer of hoarfrost. On the ground, the man, the dwarf and the mabari spread havoc. Some of the men on the roofs have survived the magic attack; two of them are still foolish enough to think they stand a chance as the mage's attention is aimed at the meelee.
Nathaniel's bow is drawn even before he realizes he has grabbed it. The two thugs never know what hit them; both are dead even before they roll over the edge of the roof.
And then it's over.
Cousland bends to clean his blade on a thug's clothes; as he straightens, he notices the two arrowed bodies.
Nathaniel's palms grow wet. Placing the bow back over his shoulder, he steps out of his hiding, holding his bare hands for everyone to see.
The mage grits a curse through his teeth; his face is unfamiliar but he is evidently aware of Nathaniel's identity. So is the dwarf, who glares at him from under the blood-soaked hair. "Curse me if it ain't the sodding Howe bastard! You have quite some stones to turn up over here."
Ned Cousland says nothing but his tense posture speaks volumes.
"I mean no harm," Nathaniel says, expecting a fire blast every second. "Let me… I've come to speak with you."
The hostility pertains. "I thought I made it clear that your presence was unwelcome when I let you go."
"A mistake to be easily rectified," the mage mutters.
Ned Cousland silences him with a mere gesture, his eyes never leaving Nathaniel's face. "Speak then. What is it you want so urgently that you risk your hide for it?"
"I want to become a Grey Warden."
The mage laughs sharply and the dwarf issues a deep gurgle. "Bloody must clear me ears, I'm 'earing things."
Nathaniel feels his cheeks flushing; it does sound completely ridiculous. Cousland, however, is not amused. "Why should you?"
"I am the last of my name. If I don't do anything to clean it, no-one will. Becoming a Warden, serving Ferelden, seems a good way."
"And you wish to pledge your service to me?"
Even more ridiculous, isn't it. Nathaniel does not flinch from the piercing stare. "You spared me though you didn't have to. I… I have had the time to learn things about you, and to think. I cannot forgive what you did but I can… live with it. I can… respect you."
Waiting for the answer seems harder than back then in the prison. Ned Cousland keeps looking at him very long; the mage and the dwarf are now silent, their menacing miens revealing their opinions of the request.
"Walk with me," Ned Cousland finally says, indicating the farther end of the alley and silencing his companions' objections with a gesture again. Nathaniel uneasily obeys; unbidden and unhindered, the mabari follows.
When they are out of earshot, Ned Cousland turns to him. "Nathaniel," for the first time and surprisingly, he addresses him in this way, "becoming a Grey Warden is an irreversible choice." A pause. "It also poises more risks than you are aware of. It would be wiser to seek another way to redeem your name."
Nathaniel cannot help but quirk bitterly. "Oh, I'm sure King Alistair would offer plenty of chances to a Howe."
The answer renders him breathless. "He will, if I ask him to."
"Why should you do that?" he finally stutters.
Ned Cousland briefly looks away. "I shouldn't have struck you," he says, looking back, straight in Nathaniel's eye, "it was base of me. I never expected your presence; I was exhausted and did not handle it well. I certainly owe you for that. And as your intentions seem sincere, I must not let my grudge cloud my judgement again."
"But you would dissuade me from an honourable way."
"Nathaniel. Even if you manage to redeem your name in the Grey Wardens' ranks, there will probably be no one to pass that name on. It is even more likely that you will die without accomplishing anything, and much sooner than you expect. I am not allowed to tell you now the full truth what it takes to be a Grey Warden, and when you have learned, it will be too late to back out."
It already is. "I will take the risk. I have nothing to lose."
Ned Cousland sighs. "Very well, then. I am certainly not thrilled by the prospect of your presence but as the Wardens would benefit from your skills, my personal preferences do not matter. We're leaving for the Keep tomorrow morning, so if you want to stay in your word, be at the gate by daylight. You can change your mind any time on the way but once you enter the Keep, I will hold you to your choice."
Nathaniel nods. "That's fair with me."
After an uneasy pause, the two men slightly bow to each other. As Ned Cousland turns to leave, his mabari briefly pokes with his nose at Nathaniel's hand. Nathaniel decides to consider it a welcome – probably the only one he is ever to receive.