The streets of Amaranthine after the dark, and what followed.

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21. Passing Through Amaranthine

The night outside is bright and chilly, the stars already twinkle in the black firmament. The visit has taken longer than Nathaniel expected but he considers every minute well spent. The warmth of Delilah's smile keeps him warm even now, on the way back to the Crown and Lion.

Her smiles and her shining eyes, as she places her palm over her protruding belly every now and then.

Nathaniel is happy for her, and for her and her only, he put aside his resentment and shook hands with Albert, even though his bile still rises every time he recalls what the man dared.

Take care of her well, Albert Derwan, or I'll rip your heart out with my bare hands.

Delilah's obvious affection for the man, and his for her, though, makes such thoughts rather pointless.

Smiling for himself, Nathaniel barely pays attention to the almost empty streets: the frost has driven the good folks of Amaranthine into the warmth of their homes.

"Hey! Slow down! Everyone ain't got those long leggies of yers!"

Realizing that he has taken up fast stride, Nathaniel slows his pace and waits for Oghren to catch up.

"Ye've been smiling for hours, ye know that, Howe?" the dwarf comments, himself grinning with that uncharacteristic sentimental trait he has been displaying the whole day… practically, ever since noticing Delilah's pregnancy.

I'd never thought he had that in him, such… tenderness.

And much less of a social disaster than I expected. It was a good day. A perfect day.

In this light, the consequences of Anders' misadventure of the previous night brought at least some good: Cousland postponed their departure in order to discuss the matter with Knight Commander Rylien.

'I promised Rylock to let her keep her head, not complete absolution, and I certainly don't want anyone to think that they can scheme against me and mine without repercussions. I want her gone, preferably out of Ferelden, and I'm going to make sure that Knight Commander Rylien keeps her staff under stricter supervision.'

And so Cousland left for the Templars' quarters right after the breakfast, taking a strong escort and emphasizing that no-one was to leave the inn on their own. With the rest of Kenneth's men assigned to guarding the horses and supplies and the mages being ordered to sit on their asses at the inn, the only remaining companion of choice was…Oghren.

Unlike Velanna, still annoyed over the chastising she received at the gate, Anders took his confinement on the bright side:

'Ser Pounce-a-lot doesn't like the cold, and if I left him here, he would feel lonely, wouldn't you, kitty?'

Really, how did the cat cope before?

Ser Pounce-a-lot. Anders must have spent the rest of the night making this up. If there ever was a more ridiculous name for a cat, Nathaniel hasn't discovered it yet.

As they turn round the corner, two half-drunk men leave the comfort of a tavern: supporting each other by their shoulders, cheering and singing rather off tune. Each still holds a bottle in his hand, and both merrily wave the bottles as they spot Oghren and Nathaniel coming up.

"Lucky buggers," Oghren mutters. "Let's move on, so that we can have our own share of booze, this wind will freeze me off me bits!"

His attention does not go unnoticed, and the two men hospitably offer their bottles. "Here you go, bro', there's still enough to keep warm a regimen!"

Oghren laughs with delight, approaching the two men, while Nathaniel irritatedly shakes his head. Great Maker. Will he ever miss a chance to get a drink? Nonetheless, he has to stop and wait for Oghren.

The men and the dwarf exchange a couple of ribald remarks, and then the dwarf raises the bottle to his lips. As he does so, a faint glow envelops his wrist, and Nathaniel's heart skips a beat as he realizes what that means. "Don't d –"

He never finishes: as he reaches for the sword hilt, stepping forward at the same time, there comes a strong blow to his back, followed by searing pain.

With a muffled cry, Nathaniel falls to his knee but his reflexes take over: his blade flashes out in a broad protective arc, towards the sensed opponent emerging from the shadows.

The runed steel meets an obstacle almost without slowing; a wail follows, and a clank of metal, as a dagger swooping down suddenly drops to the ground. Nathaniel himself, though, keels over: with the twist of his torso, the pain in his back flares. To secure himself, he has to lean on his left hand –

– where there is a burning sensation around his wrist, and the glow of the runestones is visible even through the thick fabric of his sleeve –

The dagger lies mere inches from Nathaniel's hand: a thin stiletto, its blade dulled in the starlight not only with Nathaniel's blood, but with some dark, sticky substance –

oh, dammit

– Oghren, also on his knees, is coughing and heaving, and those two –

Pushing himself from the ground, Nathaniel springs to his feet, twirling with his blade; and although he staggers dangerously, the two thugs, miraculously sobered, step back for a moment. Their knives are plain and glistening, and with his own left-hand dagger and the shortsword, Nathaniel has an advantage of better weapons – an advantage he is unable to utilise, he realizes with chilling certainty.

With every step, and with the warm wetness spreading down to his waist, his movements are becoming ever slower and clumsier. Gasping, he has no other option but to retreat, until he finds himself with his back against the wall. His heart is beating frantically, his arms feel heavy like lead: there is no way he can hold long.

Even shorter, as it seems: he blocks an attack with his forearm instead of the dagger, and the blade slashes deep at his flesh. The hilt slips from his fingers.

With sheer despair, instead of evading, he starts against the attacker with his injured hand, grabbing him by the sleeve and pushing him against the other.

The crucial second of distraction is enough to provide a space for Nathaniel's blade.

The remaining attacker hesitates and steps back again, but for Nathaniel it is only his swan song. His legs tremble and he is short of breath; his fingertips are growing numb. Oghren, on his knees and elbows, leaning with his forehead against the ground, can hardly be any help… and only now, even though his vision is blurring, Nathaniel notices three more men, waiting in the shadows.

The chill of the stones behind him pierces him to the bone, the shirt wet with sweat and blood clinging to his body.

I'm going to die here, he realizes.

But he is Nathaniel Howe, and he won't go down easily.

Two of the new thugs approach him, bidden by a sharp gesture from the third: a tall, broad-shouldered man hiding under a hood. They wield swords, not mere daggers, and tread with the certainty of those knowing that their victim is barely able to stand.

With the strength born of despair, Nathaniel plunges himself against the last of his previous opponents, thrusting his blade in the man's belly. The thug goes down with a scream, and Nathaniel's sword goes, too, released from his uncertain grip. The fast movement has brought the street to a swirl before his eyes; desperately groping for the support of the wall, he falls against it and slowly slides down as his legs give way. The dark of the night drowns in even deeper blackness; his heart, pounding in his chest, fills his ears with throbbing which subdues the surrounding sounds.

"Finish the traitor off and get going quickly!" someone commands from a distance.

A hand grabs him by the hair, pulling his head backwards; then comes an even more distant roar and something falls over Nathaniel, pressing him finally to the ground, which, surprisingly, does not feel chilly at all. The weight over him disappears, and all he feels is the warmth of his blood, pouring all over him like a warm blanket.

"Nathaniel! Don't die on me now, ye sodding blighter…"

The voice finally drowns in the darkness, and then there is nothing.

A/N: /cautiously checks if it's safe to peep out/ So, that's the tricky part - my thanks to Thanwen, as usually, for an instructive lecture on stabbing wounds. Nathaniel also sends her his regards, since her intervention spared him a pneumothorax, which would have resulted in a much less epic fight. I'd just like to point out that my admiration for GRRM does not bind me to emulate the Jon Snow cliffhanger, and it would be a very short chapter, anyway, so I made it a considerable bit longer, since we haven't had a Talk in quite a while. Besides, Pounce is such a cute kitty, and I couldn't resist.

His mouth feels parched, with a queer, bitter taste on his palate. The attempt to raise his head from the pillow is weirdly straining.

The pillow?

Opening his eyes, Nathaniel's assumption is confirmed: he is lying on his belly, in a bed which looks quite like that in which he has spent a couple of nights at the Crown and Lion.

My bed. The Crown and the Lion.

Did I get drunk?

The drink

No, he wasn't drunk, though, remembering the events of that cold night, he very much wishes it was just a drunken nightmare. He feels weak, and there is a bandage around his ribcage: no dream at all.

Yet, he feels much more alive than he is entitled to; by all accounts, he should have been dead at least twice. A cautious attempt to move is rewarded by a somewhat unpleasant feeling at the spot where he was stabbed, and it also provokes a motion just next to his head.

As he raises his head, startled, he meets the green stare of a rather sleepy cat, curled on the pillow next to him.

Sir Pounce-a-lot, woken abruptly from his slumber, yawns profoundly.

Groaning in disgust, Nathaniel jerks his head away: whatever the cat has eaten, its breath is overwhelming.

There is a clap, as if a book was closed shut, and the familiar jovial voice states: "So, you've finally awoken? Some people were betting you would remain sleeping till the yuletide."

"It seems I woke up only to be finished off by your cat's foul breath," Nathaniel mutters.

Both Anders and the cat give him an offended look. "Well, in your case it might count as an improvement." Anders scoops the cat in his arms, petting the tabby fur. "Come here, kitty." Glaring alongside at Nathaniel, he adds: "In fact, he may have helped to revive you, you know. He was lying next to you for the better part of those three days – cats are really helpful at healing, you know. No, if it weren't – "

"Three days?" Nathaniel gingerly touches his face but the stubble seems to confirm the claim. Little wonder he feels the way he does. "How come I am alive at all?" he returns to the previously pondered question.

"Well, there were a couple of factors involved. First of all, thank Cera – no, first thank yourself that you moved and the blade hit a rib, or you would have been dead on the spot. Next, thank Cera that those pretty little stones of hers really worked against the poison. Third, thank Oghren for cutting down those guys you didn't manage to cut down yourself, and fourth, the Commander for being such a dutiful nanny and sending an escort when you were late – now that I think of it, you might want to kill Oghren first for being such a thickhead and thank him afterwards, but I'm not sure if this would work..."

Oh, wonderful. First the cat's breath, then Anders' talking – and here I thought that being stabbed and poisoned was the worst that could have happened to me. "Could I have something to drink?"

" – and I don't think that – Ah. Oh. Sorry. Of course." Holding Ser Pounce-a-lot in his left hand, Anders sits on the bed and helps Nathaniel to rise.

As he does so, a quiet but prominent sound issues, followed by the unmistakable odour of the cat fart. The mage's ever-present smile stiffens and he quickly puts the cat on the floor. "Ah, Pounce… be a good kitty and go play with that fur ball I gave you, right?"

Ser Pounce-a-lot's meowing sounds rather offended. Instead of playing, he jumps on Anders' bed where he curls again, watching the two men with clear disdain in his green eyes.

The lukewarm tea is too sweet, and yet with some lingering bitterness underneath, but Anders insists on drinking it all. "Don't protest, you were bleeding like a slaughtered pig and you need every cure you can get."

Checking the wound, he allows Nathaniel to lie on his back – a welcome change, since his body feels stiff, but the turning leaves him more exhausted than he would have believed. Even before he finishes a second cup that Anders forces on him, his lids start feeling heavy.

His last thought, before he drifts off, is that Anders has left himself out of the list of people to be thanked.

When he wakes again, considerably refreshed, the room is drowning in the dusk of a quickly waning winter day. The mage is nowhere to be seen, but even now, Nathaniel's sleep was not unguarded.

Ned Cousland rises from the chair by the window and walks over to the bed. "Anders is asleep," he says softly. "He was straining himself to heal you as thoroughly as he could. How are you feeling?"

"Much better."

As Nathaniel attempts to sit up, the Commander quickly prevents him by putting his hand on his shoulder. "Don't. He said you would, and that I shouldn't let you. You nearly died, after all." Withdrawing his hand, he adds: "I'm sorry."

Nathaniel blinks several times, uncomprehending. "What for?"

"I underestimated the risk for you. I should have realized that one companion might not suffice. You both could have been killed."

This rings a familiar bell, and brings home an idea already forming for some time. Nathaniel curses under his breath. "There's no need to blame yourself. Both me and Oghren were unbelievably careless, and I – Maker, she all but told me I was on the list, as well, but I didn't realize the implication then." Seeing Cousland frown, he explains: "Esmerelle. She seemed somewhat intent on the fact that I took care to warn you during that the incident at the gate, and I wanted her to shut up, so I told her that my loyalty does lie with you. She said then something to the sense that we both need Maker's protection."

Cousland's frown deepens. "How did I miss this?"

"You were talking to Temmerly, I think –"

The chill of the night, and of the stone behind him. The broad figure in the dim starlight. 'Finish off the traitor!'

Nathaniel shudders and swallows hard. "By any chance –" he pauses, as his voice sounds shaky, "you do not have any clue about Ser Temmerly's whereabouts on that night, do you?"

A long stare. "Lady Esmerelle, "Ned says slowly, "was holding a little banquet at that time. Ser Timothy, Temmerly and a couple of others were present throughout the whole evening – or so she claimed when she rushed to enquire about your well-being."

To make sure I wasn't going to talk. "I do not know if it was Temmerly, anyway. A tall broad man with a hood; I can't tell if it was his voice or not. I don't even know if it was he who spoke."

"Oghren doesn't know even that much – he was too busy cutting down those who were about to slit your throat. He did hear what was said, though." His dark eyes unfathomable in the poor light, he leans closer. "Nathaniel… do you have any clue why those thugs, whoever they were, referred to you as 'traitor'?"

Meeting the dark stare, Nathaniel does not flinch, though he feels as if the bed under him shook for a second. "No. When I pledged you my service, I held nothing from you. I was on my own, and allied myself with no-one."

He receives a nod, as if what he said was simply accepted as true, and his throat tightens: it is not relief what he feels but a sudden, unexpected rush of emotion at being trusted without as much as a second thought.

The realization what it means to him is overwhelming. On an impulse, he reaches his hand. "I am sworn to you, no mater what."

Ned's hand meets his in a firm grasp.

After a while, Ned says softly: "There is but one possible explanation I can think of. By being loyal to me, you are a traitor to your father's cause. I do not doubt that those who thrived under his arlship would perceive you as such."

The thought of such a twisted loyalty to a no less twisted man is sickening.

"If it is truly so, the hatred of the likes of these is something I can live with," Nathaniel grunts. "As long as my sister – "

Maker, Delilah

The thought pierces him like a blade and Nathaniel almost jumps from the bed.

Ned quickly puts a hand on his shoulder again. "Don't disquiet yourself. Delilah is as alright as she can be."

"But if those bastards –"

"They won't get to her. I packed her off for Denerim together with her husband the first thing in the morning after your 'incident', and I sent along Kenneth with ten men."

Nathaniel stares at him, dumbfounded. "But – but that leaves you here with only a handful for your own protection…"

The grin which fleets over Cousland's features is almost vicious. "They are welcome to try their luck. Aidan's best men are secretly stationed around night and day, while you are supposedly still on the brink of death. I don't think they'll risk another attempt so shortly after the previous failure, though." His expression warms and softens. "Delilah knows the truth, of course, I guess I wouldn't be able to send her off if your life was still in danger. She was loath to go, anyway, until I explained her that they might try to use her to get to you. I've made arrangements to make sure she will be safeguarded in Denerim, you needn't worry."

Once again, Nathaniel feels almost overcome with emotions: obviously, the injury has weakened his self-control, although, the thought of Delilah becoming a tool for blackmailing would probably unnerve him at any time. "Thank you," he manages in a hoarse voice. "You didn't have to do that."

He receives a slightly annoyed look. "Of course I did, I nearly cost her a brother. – No, don't try to exonerate me, I've done a poor job in reward for Delilah's loyalty – or do you think I forgot she was among the first to alert me to the danger?"

Among? "Who was the first, then, if I may ask? You knew there was a plot against you right after the oaths of fealty ceremony, didn't you?"

Cousland drops his voice low. "Ser Tamra."

"Tamra?" Remembering the woman's tightly pursed lips, Nathaniel can hardly believe that.

"Tamra. Apparently not out any concern for my well-being; she simply thinks she stands better chances on my side." He shrugs. "I will not hesitate to express my gratitude as soon as she provides me with a proof of Esmerelle's involvement but she had better be cautious. She took quite a risk by letting me know that something was up on that night."

"So… you went out for me on her word? What if that was a trap for you?"

A snort. "As it turned out, it wasn't."

The room is almost completely dark now except for the glow of the brazier.

"So… Nathaniel ventures at last, "how much longer are we stuck here?"

"Kenneth should be back tomorrow but Anders says you need at least two more days before you are able to ride."

"Two more days… So I've cost us almost a week? Have you at least been to utilize the time somehow? That wench – Sorsha, was it? – did she really hold something back?"

Ned laughs softly. "Yes, she did – she withheld the most vital truth of Kristoff's kerchief which she kept as a remembrance." He spreads his arms, twisting his lips sardonically. "Otherwise, nothing. Not a single new piece of information at all, which makes our trip here completely useless. You got stabbed for nothing."

Pondering the course and outcome of that night, Nathaniel slowly shakes his head. "I have spent a wonderful time with my sister, and she is safely gone from this vipers' nest. For me, it was well worth it."

In the dim light, Ned Cousland, the man who has gained and given his full trust, smiles in understanding, and Nathaniel smiles back.