Anders' private business

First Chapter::His Father's Son

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20 Rumours, Bargain and Lies

As they enter, they are welcomed by noise and the overpowering odour of ale, sweat and smoke: The Crown and Lion is crowded tonight. Anders wrinkles his nose but Nathaniel, in fact, feels that the air in the tavern is cleaner than at Esmerelle's mansion.

"Some good brandy or rum would do my innards fine," Oghren assesses, "all that wine is no good, it just makes one piss like a freaked nug."

The Commander laughs and heads for the table occupied by Kenneth's men, currently washing down their supper. "For once, I am inclined to agree with you. A drink will do."

So is Nathaniel: washing away the aftertaste that the visit at Esmerelle's has left in his mouth seems… desirable. Even the worst swill would taste fine now.

The soldiers squeeze closer to make them space at one end of the table, and Anders suggests: "I believe we do deserve some fine stuff after that ordeal. I'll arrange with our dear Sorsha to bring us some of their finest reserve. Shall I tell her to fetch something to eat, as well?"

The Warden appetite, not particularly satisfied with the overly civilized dinner, prompts an agreement from all three of them. The blonde mage grins and skilfully makes his way between the tables to hug the serving elven wench. Twisting his mouth, Nathaniel meets Cousland's eyes: the Commander only shakes his head. Apparently, the mage will never change: never fails to make an advance whenever there is a female around.

Soon enough, Anders is back, bringing an already uncorked bottle and four cups. "Hmmm…" he sniffs at the bottleneck, "I'm almost tempted to keep this one for myself."

As soon as Anders pours the cups, Oghren promptly empties his share and gurgles contentedly. "Now, that's what I call a good drink, and good measure. Get me some more, blondie!"

Anders complies, and then with a smirk pushes Nathaniel's and Commander's cups closer to them. "I suggest you drink yours fast, Oghren seems to have developed an appetite."

The dwarf roars with laughter. "So we'll get another bottle, what's the deal! This is a bloody tavern, there ain't just one bottle around!"

The whole table laughs with him, and Nathaniel takes his cup. The aroma itself already evokes the feeling of the heat descending to his stomach: quite welcome after the walk in the cold. He is about to take a small sip, since he is definitely not going to follow Oghren's example, when he feels Anders' eyes on him.

Intent, expectant eyes.

Something, a vague notion, a distant memory, rings a bell in his head.

Nathaniel Howe would not be where he is, if he ever ignored such bells.

And so he smoothly finishes the move, dipping his lips but not letting past them a single drop. Pretending to swallow, he smiles at Anders, holding the cup in a way that makes it impossible to see how much is left within. "Fine stuff, really."

An uncorked bottle. Why?

The urge to touch the bracelet is almost irresistible but the runes remain cold.

"Fine stuff? So why ye're licking it like maid's tits? See how it's done!" Oghren downs the content of his cup and nods at Anders to pour him another.

Meanwhile, Nathaniel empties his own cup on the floor, as inadvertently as he used to in the Marches when his fellow squires were trying to get one another drunk, and raises it to his lips afterwards, mimicking Oghren's gesture.

That 'old acquaintance' who came to see him in the inn but he wouldn't tell what it was about: a coincidence?

What's going on here? Is he trying to get us drunk? Or worse?

As he puts the cup down, he meets Cousland's eyes again; a slight wrinkle is formed between his brows.

"That's how it's done! And now you, Commander!" Oghren yells excitedly, drawing attention to himself and Cousland.

Don't, Nathaniel gestures.

The dark eyes slightly narrow and then Cousland laughs. "It's absolutely barbaric to down fine rum like that!"

"It's absolutely the only way!" Oghren protests, and the ensuing debate over the proper ways of imbibing alcohol is interrupted only when Sorsha arrives with a big portion of roasted beef.

Somehow in the commotion, the Commander's cup also gets emptied, and when Anders is about to pour another, he is refused. "I've had enough for today. Don't forget that we're leaving early tomorrow."

The mage shrugs, and immediately pours at least Nathaniel's cup before he has a chance to say no. "And down with it!"

Nathaniel mentally shrugs and performs the same farce as before.

Once the bottle is empty, Oghren rumbles a little over not being allowed another, and then starts yawning.

For a good measure, since he still feels Anders' inquisitive look every now and then, Nathaniel presents a stifled yawn.

"Get to your bed, Oghren, before you drop off at the table," Cousland says. "It has been a long day. You also look as if you could use some sleep, Nathaniel. Good night."

"I think I will also retire." Anders performs a complicated bow. "Morning is not far, and it will be a dawn of a brilliant new day."

As could be expected, Oghren falls asleep as soon as he drops on his bed in the room the three of them share.

Nathaniel takes his time to prepare for bed, feeling acutely that he is being watched while Anders pretends to be reading a book by a candle.

Will he be taken in?

Oghren's soft snoring makes the pretence of sleep easier.

The floor creaks. "Nathaniel?"

Concentrating on breathing regularly, he does his best to seem sound asleep. Keeping his body relaxed, knowing that Anders is leaning over him, is a true test of patience.

Finally, the floor creaks again.

Some more creaking, and a gush of cold air: the window is being open.

A few heartbeats later, Nathaniel opens his eyes by a slit: the outline of Anders' head and shoulders lingers in the window frame, and then disappears.

As soon as he hears the sound of impact in the street below, Nathaniel throws away the blanket and softly rushes to the window. Keeping out of sight, he peeps outside just in time to see the mage turn round the corner.

Still barefoot, he darts from the room and knocks on Cousland's door.

The Commander is fully awake – fully armed, and armoured.

"He's gone," Nathaniel reports. "Oghren is asleep."

A nod. "Go get your armour, I'll fetch Velanna. I don't like this in the least. He wouldn't need to leave in this way if he went just whoring."

Outside, the night is crisp and frosty. "Look out," the Commander whispers. "I'm sure the inn is being watched. If you spot a tail, Nathaniel, let me know." Kneeling, he takes Wolf's head in his hands. "Find Anders."

With a soft bark, the dog runs along the silent street. Only a few windows are still lit: the citizens of Amaranthine are comfortably slumbering in the warmth of their homes.

Except for those who are kept awake by their scheming.

Keeping alert, Nathaniel is almost sure they are not being followed; however, if Anders was, they might still run into trouble.

Not to mention what he is up to.

The thought of Anders' betrayal makes him uneasy: somehow, he doesn't think the mage has it in him. He is rather surprised, in fact, how much he actually resents the idea; even more so that the initial suspicion gives way to fear for the blonde mage.

Damn it. Rushing to save one chatterbox of a mage out of trouble. What a hilarious prospect.

As they hurry on, Velanna is apparently feeling uncomfortable, as well, though her sour expression might simply be attributed to the late night stroll. When they finally stop before a weather-worn door of an apparently derelict house, she folds her arms on her chest and taps her foot impatiently. "Well, what are we waiting for?" she hisses as Nathaniel returns from a survey to report that one of the back rooms is dimly lit. "Let's find what the fool is up to and get back to our beds!"

"All in its time," Cousland replies, getting his sword ready. "I want a quiet break-in before we find out what kind of trouble is inside. Nathaniel, would you?"

The door is not locked, yet Cousland was right again. Nathaniel is not particularly surprised to find Anders deep in trouble, engaged in a rather one-sided exchange with Templars – held by two, punched by a third, while the fourth, a woman with an officer's insignia, is watching with a look of satisfaction.

Too absorbed in their sport, the Templars notice their presence only when Cousland steps into the room, holding his sword rather leisurely with its tip down. "Look what we have here… I haven't seen you in a while, Knight – Lieutenant Rylock. Now that you have had your fun, be so kind and unhand my man at once."

A moment of stunned silence, except for Anders' pained gasps. The woman, Rylock, turns pale with wrath and looks at him defiantly. "We have arrested an accounted maleficar and murderer! The Chantry authority has precedence in these matters!"

"The man you have restricted and maltreated is a Warden. Once a Warden, everyone's crimes are erased, and the Wardens have the sole authority over their own."

The Templar's eyes narrow. "Wardens! Nothing else but a cover-up for a nest of apostates and maleficars! High time someone put an end to this!"

"Not this once, and not with this Warden, I'm afraid. Release him now."

Rylock seems oblivious to the concealed threat, but Nathaniel notices that the two Templars holding Anders exchange worried looks.

The Templar grips the hilt of her sword. "This maleficar is the prisoner of the Chantry. Step aside!"

Maintaining the deceivingly leisured posture, Ned Cousland tilts his head and snorts derisively. "You are actually commanding me? Now, aren't you a bit too bold for a woman whose head is only loosely attached to her shoulders?"

Her face sports two red spots on the cheeks. "I am the arm of the Chantry! Are you threatening me?"

"Threatening?" The amusement in Ned's voice is suddenly gone. "No, Rylock, I'm not threatening you: I'm charging you with treason."

The sudden twist leaves the woman gaping, speechless, while the Commander steps closer. "You are actively compromising the ranks of the Wardens at the time when the arling is endangered by darkspawn incursion. Hampering the defence of the land falls into the category of treason. That is a capital offence." The first time he has stepped into the room, he looks briefly at the other three Templars. "I do hope your commanding officer took care to brief you in this little detail before she engaged you in a criminal activity. The fact that you were under her command constitutes no excuse, you know."

"This is nonsense!" Rylock hisses angrily, though she does hesitate for an instant. "The Templars are answerable only to the Chantry, you have no authority over us!"

"That is true enough," the Commander admits, somewhat saddened. "However… tell me this, Rylock: if I should request your heads… who would deny me?" His voice suddenly snaps like a crack of the whip. "Who would deny me, Rylock? The Revered Mother of Amaranthine, whose Chantry may greatly benefit from her Arl's goodwill? The Knight Commander Rylien, who certainly cannot risk to find herself on the wrong side with the said Mother, not to mention the other Knight Commanders, like Greagoir or Tavish? Or the Grand Cleric herself, who was so often a guest at the royal table when I was the King's chief councillor? Who would dare to deny me, what say you?"

He makes another step forward. Rylock's eyes swerve; her underlings look alarmed. Limp in the grip of gauntleted hands, Anders slowly raises his head, his eyes glowing with hatred. Rylock's hand, tightly gripping the hilt, moves by half an inch.

Maker, this is going to get tough

"Oh, come off it, Rylock!" Ned's voice is dripping with contempt, and superiority. "Do you honestly think you would leave this room alive if you dared lay your hands on me? I have my men outside, waiting only for a signal to put an end to this farce." He tilts his head again. "Step down, Rylock. Leave my man, and I will… put aside… this misunderstanding. You have had your revenge, Anders has had his lesson, no-one needs to die here. Not even you."

The Templar who had been beating Anders shuffles and looks pleadingly at his commanding officer. Rylock does not respond, but the expression in her face slowly turns from one of pride and anger into fear. She is a tall woman, and broad-shouldered, after the years of practice in heavy gear; yet, she seems to be shrinking and actually smaller as she submits to Cousland's will. Bowing her head, she takes a step back. "I – I apologize… my Lord. I, uh, we…" almost even before she gestures, the Templars let go of Anders as if he were of red-hot iron. The mage staggers but manages to remain standing.

Cousland takes his time before he nods to them graciously. "You are pardoned. You may go now. And never try to cross me again."

As they pass by him to the door, Nathaniel half-expects some treachery, some foolish desperate attempt, but no – intimidated, the Templars leave with their tails between their legs. Yet, he partially relaxes and lets the acid flagon slip back into its pouch only when the heavy steps fade outside.

Not so the Commander, however: in contrast to the previous ease, he seems tensed as he looks at Anders, who is cautiously straightening, feeling his ribs.

A rather unkind look, Nathaniel notices, if not right away furious.

"Explain yourself," Ned says very softly. Menacingly.

The mage presents an apologetic grin. "I had some personal business to attend –"

With one sweeping move, the Commander crosses the floor and grabbing the mage by the coat on his chest, slams him against the wall. Ignoring the cry of pain, he nears his face next to Anders'.

"You tried to drug me and my men, you sneaked out alone even though I forbade that, you got me in a situation that might have ended in bloodshed and cause immense political problems, and you would feed me with stories of "personal business"?

This time, the answer comes in a rather small voice. "A friend told me the Circle phylacteries were transported here for safekeeping… so I wanted to retrieve mine."

Nathaniel has no clue what a phylactery is but Ned apparently does, and frowns. "Your phylactery? Here? Couldn't you see that this was apparently a lie, a trap? And why didn't you tell me in the first place? What would you be doing, had Nathaniel not started suspecting that you had messed with our drinks? Really, Anders, what have you been thinking?"

Despite the reprimand, the mage looks straight in his eye. "You have no idea what it is like to live enslaved your entire life."

After a moment, Ned slowly nods. He lets go of Anders' clothes. "I may not," he admits, "but as it seems, you have no idea what it could take being caught."

Touching his cut lip, Anders smirks. "Well, I've been caught six times, so I guess I do."

"You don't. Pray to the Maker you never will. Don't forget that they hold you for a murderer now. Do you think they would hesitate to – to put you under duress –" Turning his head away abruptly, he asks: "What was it you put in our drinks, by the way, and why didn't the runestones show?"

"'Cause it was a harmless substance, just for good sound sleep. I'd never harm you intentionally, I hope you know that!"

"Best make sure next time to prevent unintentional harm, as well. Would you care to give a thought how I would explain four dead Templars? – Because, I do hope that you are not such a moron to think that our departure from the inn went unnoticed, and right now there is at least one of Esmerelle's cronies outside wondering very much what we are doing here, if nothing worse."

Right. No secret dumping the bodies, since this is ammunition we really don't want the viper to have.

Ned takes a deep breath. "Alright. Let's get out of here before – " He pauses, half raising his hand to his face, then quickly lowers it again, as it visibly shakes. "No. Nathaniel, go check we won't walk into an ambush."

Anders looks puzzled for a moment before he catches up with reality. "Wait, you've said – you actually don't have Kenneth's men outside?"

"No, I don't," Ned snaps. "Or do you think I keep them ready at a second's notice to parade in the streets whenever my mage gets cranky in the head?"

Anders gulps as the odds of fighting four heavily armoured Templars in the close quarters dawn on him. "But, we would have won, wouldn't we?" he attempts with a shade of a confident grin.

"Most probably, yes, since I'm not so stupid as to play fair in such circumstances, but the risk would still be great. Now, would you finally shut up, Anders? I need to think. Velanna, tend to him so that he can move fast. – Nathaniel, what are you waiting for?"

Hurrying to the front room, Nathaniel allows himself to make a face. 'Think'? Rather, 'shut up before I throttle you'.

The street outside seems as quiet as before, and though Nathaniel watches for ages before he dares to peep out, he cannot account for anything suspicious. Reason tells him that the Templars never expected trouble and certainly weren't in the shape to try an ambush, while Esmerelle's spies didn't have the time to prepare one; yet, he feels as if at the point of an arrow.

As they issue back into the dark street, their small group sticks closely together; Ned's uncharacteristic nervousness affecting them all.

Unsurprisingly then, when Wolf suddenly growls and there is a movement behind a pile of crates in a side alley, the blades flash out and Velanna almost sends there a bolt, restraining herself only at the last moment.

A cat, a scrawny little tabby, filthy in a most un-cat-like manner as it has just crawled through Maker knows what, hisses in their direction, but as neither of them moves and the dog is restrained by the Commander's firm grip of his collar, it yawns and with spectacular disinterest, starts to lick its fur clean.

After an exchange of embarrassed glances, the Commander is the first to start laughing, with apparent relief. The cat raises its head warily for a moment and watches them with curiosity, before it decides they are no longer worth its attention. Wolf, probably offended by the lack of respect, turns his head away in a demonstration of haughty superiority.

Cousland looks from the dog to the cat, and then to Anders. "Didn't you say that you had a cat in the Tower?"

Anders gapes at him, then at the cat. "Er, you mean…?"

"Well, why not? It's not exactly what you came for, but it would be at least some gain in that misadventure of yours. Are you not interested?"

"But… it's filthy! And flea-ridden, I guess.."

"I'm sure you'll get on splendidly," Cousland smirks. "So? What are you waiting for?

Anders replies with a colourful invective but his eyes never leave the cat. Making a few cautious steps closer, he kneels and starts to lure the animal to him.

To Nathaniel's utter shock, it comes. His shock is matched only by that of the innkeeper when the guests who went safely upstairs in the evening suddenly appear at the door in the middle of the night, requesting soap and a bucket of warm water and a bowl of milk.

Up in their room, with Oghren still snoring, the mage shows quite some talent in the selection of spells useful to handle a cat washing, and not much later, their newest addition has overcome the exposition to the first bath in its cat's life, and purrs on Anders' lap, being scratched to the lulling rhythm of the mage's flow of speech: "…he was a wonderful cat, you know. No Templar could ever catch him, and no Templar's ham was ever safe from him. He grew and grew, and preyed on their supplies, until one day he became an abomination. He killed three Templars before they got him, brave little beast…"

The cat's purring changes its tone, and Anders hastily assures it: "But of course you would do even better! You would pounce at them with vengeance and get at least four, yes. Now, who's the pretty kitty here? You are, of course!"

The purring gains a slow, peaceful rhythm again, as the cat is apparently about to fall asleep. So is Nathaniel, curled under his blanket and with a pillow over his ear, since the combination of Oghren, Anders and the cat deters sleep even at this late hour. His last conscious thought is pondering whether this cat might turn out as vicious as one he used to know in the Marches and which invariably fouled someone's boots.

Being a Warden truly involves many unexpected aspects.