The return from the Blackmarsh, just in time for the Yule festivities.
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24. Secrets of the Souls
When the towers of the Vigil's Keep appear on the horizon, the company is invigorated: the straightened shoulders, the brightened glances – the signals of looking forward to homecoming.
Shifting in the saddle, Nathaniel cannot resist the overall surge of good mood; the familiar sight brings a small smile to his lips, without any pang of anxiety or pain.
Home… rest. For a while.
Homecoming is good, when one feels welcome.
And welcome they are: the courtyard is already full of people, cheering, waving, beaming with smiles. To his puzzlement, some smiles seem rather sour – only when he overhears the remarks and sees coin passing from hand to hand, he realizes that the time of their return was subject to bets.
And we did make it back before the Yule celebration starts… tonight.
The main entrance to the Keep is decorated with fir branches, ribbons and mistletoe, and just as Nathaniel is dismounting, he sees one of the kitchen maids being kissed in the doorframe. Reflexively, he looks around but the fair braid is nowhere to be seen in the crowd – so far so good, since public displays are not very high on his list of priorities.
The commotion in the courtyard is somewhat overwhelming and Nathaniel feels sudden resentment as the events of the past weeks seem to be getting over his head. Really, would it be too much to ask for a les spectacular arrival?
Apparently, it would: Wade has discovered their cargo, and squeals in excitement like a little girl. Impatiently, he struggles with the straps, until he finally releases one of the dragon bones and examines its glistening black surface with reverent fervour. Nathaniel quickly looks aside: as long as he lives, never, ever, will he forget how those things moved on their own to assemble.
To his disgust, Oghren already starts relaying his account of the "fucking toughest fight" to the circle of eager listeners. Nathaniel grits his teeth. He quickly hands the reins to a stable boy and attempts to retreat before his own role in the fight can be discussed.
Too late, though: his path is blocked by a sturdy obstacle in the form of a dwarf with a beard of an uneven length and burn scars in his face. "So?" he enquires, with his eyes glistening. "How did my babies fare? Did you have a chance to use them?"
"A good day to you too, Dworkin," Nathaniel replies. "Your arrows came very handy." When there was something they could actually hit, and when the blasted thing didn't tend to reassemble.
Maker, living dragons are nasty enough, don't make me face a skeletal one again.
"– and the arrow just flew between the ribs, whoosh! and then, boom! Exploded on the hillside!" Oghren's prominent voice happily provides details.
Dworkin's face stiffens. "Do you have the slightest idea what niggling work explosive arrows are? I thought you were supposed to be good with a bow – no, don't even tell me what bad skill looks like! You've wasted them all, haven't you?"
Nathaniel opens his mouth, to say –
– you think it's easy to hit a target that's mere bones, enveloped in a cloud of energy –
– you think it's easy to even draw the bow when all of your body still shudders from the cramps of the previous lightning blast, and then you are hit by another –
– you think it's easy to aim when your vision is blurred from shock and pain as you've never experienced before –
Nathaniel takes a shaky breath. "I've got two left," he says.
The craftsman snorts. "I guess I should be grateful for that, huh?" He mutters something in the dwarven tongue and shrugs. "Alright, tell me the stats. Centred explosion? On time? Shall I tweak it somehow? Empower? Speed up? Delay? – Hey! Are you even listening?"
– the quiver has fallen from his hands, the arrows lie scattered on the ground, and he gropes for them blindly with numb fingers, knowing the seconds till the next blast are mercilessly running out, and he cannot take any more, Maker, no, have mercy –
He looks into the dwarf's annoyed face. "I believe your arrows performed splendidly. One solid hit was enough." When I could deliver it.
Dworkin snorts again, as if reading his mind, but then his burnt brows knit as he looks somewhere past Nathaniel. "Who's that? The guy seems somehow familiar."
Unsurprisingly. Only the last time you saw him, he was still breathing. "That's Justice. He helped us out at Blackmarsh. He's here to join the Wardens." Or rejoin, as it is.
The dwarf assesses the newest Warden asset with a quick glance and shrugs again. "Little use for me, looks like a sword type… and kinda weird, if you ask me."
A kind of an understatement, if you ask me, but as long as no-one says 'dead', so far so good.
Justice attracts many a curious look, and rightly so. A shaved head, with Velanna's colourful shawl around the forehead and the ends hanging loose on the right side; a patch over the left eye while the other sports an unhealthy milky colour; black pigment, carefully dabbed on the cheeks in an imitation of a tattoo to mask the most prominent marks of decay…
"If you don't want people to think about something, give them something else to keep their minds occupied," Cousland said when they were planning Justice's entrée. "We cannot make him inconspicuous, so let's go the other way round about it."
And so they did, using every means they could come up with to obliterate Kristoff's likeness. The fact that the man had stayed at the Keep only shortly is an advantage; most of those who used to know him best are dead. Varel does look as if suffocating for the briefest instant; the rest of the audience, already attuned by Oghren's colourful account of the fight with the undead dragon, seem willing to forgive an oddity or two and embrace the new Warden hero.
Just don't do the embracing literally. We did stuff him with odorant herbs wherever we could, but the smell is still there.
Nathaniel sighs inwardly. Be it the skill of the deceased Warden, somehow still pertaining within his earthly shell, or the powers of the Spirit of Justice, trapped within the said body due to a side effect of the demon's interrupted spell, Justice is a formidable warrior. The fight with the skeletal dragon might have turned out very nasty if it hadn't been for him – the dead body felt no pain, and Justice kept the beast engaged while the rest of the party was recovering from the excruciating energy blasts.
Gratitude or not, though, Nathaniel would rather not take Justice along, but the decision wasn't his.
And if I could, I would have dumped the dragon bones into the marsh, useful or not.
Luckily, the skull was too shattered to put the pieces together, or I bet it would end up in the main hall for display and I would have to watch it till the end of days.
Blessed be the little mercies, right?
Taking advantage of Dworkin's distraction, he starts his way across the courtyard. He is not the only one to try and avoid attention: both mages make for the Keep entrance as soon as they can. While Velanna's reservation is nothing unusual, Anders' haste to get away form the admiring crowd is rather untypical.
Though understandable, given the circumstances. If anyone has a talent for meddling with the supernatural while ignoring the warnings, it must be him. First the revenant, then the undead dragon – what will come next?
Surely, we can't have known why the baroness kept dragon bones scattered around her garden, but…. Really, Anders, what were you thinking when you started to kick those bones closer to each other, even as Velanna was saying that the creature didn't seem entirely dead?
The chance that Anders has learned his lesson, though, is rather slim.
Even as the mage approaches the entrance, lined with giggling maids, he treads self-confidently, with a cocky smile. Grabbing the first squealing girl, he swirls with her before taking the advantage of the custom and kissing her profoundly under the mistletoe.
The other girls don't wait for their turn and basically throw themselves on the mage – much to both Nathaniel and Velanna's vexation, since the doorway is now completely blocked.
Besides, there is nothing he desires more than a bath and a little time for himself, and being publically fondled by excited serving maids is even more unappealing than it would normally.
He sighs in relief when Anders with the flock of his fans leave but he is not free to follow Velanna inside, since from behind the door, Astrid emerges, with a provocative smile and blue eyes sparkling with mischief, and she presses her lips against his before he can protest.
For an instant, he stands frozen, until his lips part of their own volition and he reciprocates the kiss with unexpected hunger.
"Mmm… seems you missed me," Astrid mutters against his mouth as she briefly presses against him. "Don't eat the sausages, Norbert overstuffed them with garlic."
With a glint in her eyes, she departs, leaving Nathaniel feeling slightly dizzy, and in a much better mood than he would have thought possible.
Shaking his head, he moves to finally enter, but pauses in midstep, encountering Velanna's eyes, radiating cold fury. The next moment, the elf turns abruptly on her heel and leaves, and Nathaniel can only wonder what it was that upset her this time.
Later at the dinner, however, when the Wardens are seated with the Commander at the high end of the table, the elf presents yet another swing of mood: dressed up in an open blouse over a low-cut bodice, her blonde hair, undone for once and glossy in the candlelight, flying around her head as she vividly debates with Anders about her willingness to find out more about the shemlen customs.
She is not the only one to become relaxed: the main hall, entirely bereft of its usual forlornness by the Yule decorations, is buzzing with talk and booming with laughter. Nathaniel does not remember such merriment from the similar occasions during his childhood: under Rendon's cold eyes, the Keep staff never really dared to relax.
Inevitably, the Blackmarsh adventure is discussed for umpteenth time, much to Nathaniel's chagrin. A profound bath and a couple of hours' rest helped considerably, but he would still much rather leave the whole matter behind. Something about the way Ned keeps glancing aside, the small wrinkles around the corners of his eyes tightening every now and then, tells him that he is not the only one unhappy with the topic – either that, or it must be yet something else that makes Cousland as if lost in his own thoughts each time the conversation swings from him.
Unfortunately, Garavel seems most intrigued by the dragon fight, undoubtedly picturing himself in a heroic role, and even Mistress Woolsey has forgotten some of her stiffness.
Such is the effect of the tales of dragons.
"Unbelievable," the treasure mistress clasps her skinny hands under her chin. "We can only praise the Maker that such a thing did not happen during the Blight, it must have been bad enough even as it was."
"Oh, the Blight was actually a good time," Ned retorts smoothly. "So… uncomplicated. We were the good guys, they were the bad guys, and the darkspawn didn't talk back."
Woolsey looks as if she has choked on a fishbone: according to the Keep gossip, she has no sense of humour and hates when Serious Matters are being ridiculed. Nathaniel has barely ever spoken to the woman but he is sure that Cousland must know this.
Pretending not to see the amused looks Varel and Garavel exchange, the treasure mistress presses the issue no further. As the rumour has it, her relationship with the Commander is civil at best and Nathaniel knows well enough how edgy Cousland can be while being perfectly civil.
The conversation at their end of the table stills but then, suddenly, there is a commotion at the door, the source of which turns out to be a man in the tabard with the royal coat of arms: a courier from Denerim. Nathaniel stifles a smirk, seeing Ned grab the letter with the royal seal like a child getting a favourite toy. He thinks no more of that, until his attention is drawn again by a burst of laughter, of unrestrained joy. Puzzled, he follows the sound to its source: Ned, his face as if lit from within, is reading something with an expression of pleased disbelief.
"Good news, Commander?" Varel asks with a smile that conceals a sort of almost fatherly affection.
Within a blink of an eye, Ned's face undergoes an ungraspable transformation: he is still smiling, looking pleased… but as if a window was covered with shutters, the light is gone. "Indeed", he replies. Getting up from his seat and raising his cup in a toast, he addresses the hall: "Listen, everyone! Good news from Denerim! Our king, Alistair Theirin, is going to be betrothed in the spring, to Lady Alanna Wullf, the niece to the Arl of West Hills! All toast to the king and our future queen!"
When the cheering and clapping somewhat subsides, Ned refills his cup and remarks with a wry smile: "I'd never thought that the old grumpy might turn out such a shrewd matchmaker."
Varel raises his brows. "That was supposed to mean Arl Wulff?"
A nod. "He was broken over his sons' deaths in the Blight. I never expected him to participate in the Denerim politics again, but one day he simply turned up, with this pretty sweet niece in tow." He raises his cup again. "Sweet and pretty and clever, I must say. She never pushed for anything but held back while Alistair was constantly on the run from the other young ladies keen on getting the crown, especially Bryland's Habren. As a result, he came to her – Alanna, not Habren, I mean." Laughter, and Ned sips his wine. "He did seem a bit smitten with her when I was leaving Denerim but I didn't imagine he would act so quickly, given how shy he is with ladies. That's a good sign, though, the realm could use a bunch of little Theirins real soon."
Bashing royalty is apparently not favourable with Woolsey, either, but Ned meets her disapproving look with an innocent smile and raises his cup to toast to her.
The conversation then shifts to Denerim gossip and the royal wedding and Nathaniel can tell for sure now that there is something else occupying the Commander's mind. And since Denerim doesn't seem to be the source, the answer is self-evident.
Amaranthine. No good has ever come from there.
Drawing Ned's eye, he asks casually: "Any other… news?"
Hesitation, and a fleeting twisted smile. "Plenty, and less pleasant." Ned briefly presses his lips. "– But enough of that, today is meant for merrymaking." He grabs a flagon and sends Nathaniel a full cup. "Here, take a drink. Enjoy yourself. Relax. That's an order. We don't want our Yule celebration spoiled by your brooding."
Bastard. "Only if you do the same."
Laughing, Ned toasts to him, and Nathaniel cannot but follow. He drinks the wine, and then some more, throughout the evening, which gradually falls into a set of disconnected images, as the whole company is getting more and more drunk. The seating order is abandoned; mistletoe branches and kisses fly from one end of the hall to the other, and toasts take no end. Anders conjures a set of colourful lights under the ceiling while Oghren and Garavel's men roar bawdy songs. Mistress Woolsey, flushed in the face, intently listens to something Varel is whispering in her ear. When the music starts playing to dance, sergeant Maverlies leads the line of dancers circling between the tables and around the hall. A very drunk Velanna trips and lands on Nathaniel's lap, trying to kiss him under a shakily held mistletoe, claiming something about different brushes to paint the shemlen with. Seeing that, Astrid's eyes foretell murder, but since he in the end does wake in the bed with her, the danger must have been repelled, even though he has no idea how it happened.
Of course, he wakes with a mother of headaches, as well.