Another court hearing and what followed

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25. By Any Means Necessary

The sun shining through the panes of the high windows lights a completely different main hall than mere days ago: the Yule decorations have been removed to the last fir needle, and the mood could not be any graver; grave even for a court hearing.

The hall is crowded again: a noble accused of a capital offence is a rare event, and each and every person of standing has arrived to attend with their retinue. Furthermore, the walls are lined with guards in a display of power; Anders and Velanna, unrobed but holding their distinct staffs, are stationed just next to the dais from which Ned Cousland, grim in black and grey, presides over the hearing.

Ser Temmerly the Ox, a bannerman to Lady Esmerelle of Amaranthine, stands accused of the murder of Ser Tamra.

From his position in the gallery, hidden behind a supporting column, Nathaniel has a perfect view of the gathered crowd: invisible dividing lines run between the individual factions. Even for such an occasion, the audience seems excessive; there can be little doubt that it is not the execution of justice but the political play in the background which draws the attention.

Everyone has their little plays and personal interests... even Nathaniel himself.

Esmerelle and Eddelbrek, the two sworn rivals, are seated on the opposite sides of the hall, both prominent among the other nobles: Esmerelle in her lavish gold and green, Eddelbrek with his head of snow-white hair. Nathaniel respects the old man's principles but his sharp tongue and stubbornness make him somewhat difficult to like.

If there ever was one who would like to see the Commander have the upper hand in this, it is him.

The question is, though, how the outcome will affect the Wardens. The Commander.

His face showing no motion of the mind, Ned Cousland listens to Constable Aidan's account of the circumstances of Tamra's murder in her own house and the arrest of Ser Temmerly as the main suspect.

Despite the gravity of the accusation and the heavy fetters, Temmerly seems rather unperturbed by the atmosphere. With his massive bulk, he towers over the guards, even over Aidan, and the condescension in his features borders on an open insult.

Not a very clever thing to do when dealing with Cousland. He doesn't take such slights well.

As soon as Aidan finished his account, Temmerly lets his temper get the better of him and bellows: "This is ridiculous. You keep me detained on the basis of this, despite my status? I am noble. My word carries greater weight than defamation of a low-born constable."

He makes the word sound like an insult and Aidan's pale complexion slightly flushes but otherwise he ignores the provocation. Ned Cousland does not respond, either, as he asks in a neutral tone: "If I understand you correctly, you deny the accusation?"

"Absolutely! The accusation is false and I have been detained illegally!"

Almost no change of the tone. "Do you deny the authority of your Arl, as well, then?"

Temmerly blinks several times before he responds in a more contained voice: "But of course not, my Lord. I am only angered by the insolence."

"Good. I happen to find the basis of your accusation sound and Constable Aidan's word trustworthy. You were arrested red-handed just in front of Ser Tamra's house even before her body went cold. Can you deny that?"

Of course you cannot. Apparently, you never thought that the puny woman would put up a fight and took no precautions.

If I could be sure that it was you whom I saw with those backstabbing thugs, I'd say I can see a pattern.

If only it was all so simple, though. What Aidan has presented is sufficient for accusation but not for conviction, as the bastard knows all too well. If only I could be sure…

"That was a coincidence. A few moments before I was passing her house, I had to defend myself against some thugs in an alley; hence the blood. I had no quarrel with Tamra, and I had no part in her death."

The murmur that rises at his words is quiet but approving; feeling the support, Temmerly looks at the Commander with defiance again.

Too bad, as could have been expected. Nobles don't like one of their own being tried on a commoner's word… the Commander is treading a thin line here.

The outcome is easily anticipated. All Temmerly has to do is stick with his simple story, shrug off questions and defy other testimonies… and so he does. The court hearing is leading nowhere; the audience is starting to shuffle and whisper even before the last witness finishes.

Knowing his Cousland, Nathaniel is sure that he is seething with anger within; on the outside, though, the calm mask does not sport a single crack – an admirable feat, for one who has to bear Esmerelle, speaking emotionally on Temmerly's behalf of his moral qualities and loyalty.

Esmerelle finishes and all eyes turn to Ned again. Nathaniel tilts his head. Cursed if you do, cursed if you don't. Which way, then?

Slowly, Ned rises from his chair. "The matter is serious," he proclaims in a grave voice. "A murder cannot go unpunished, but I cannot have an innocent man hanged on the basis of insufficient evidence, either."

Nathaniel sees smiles slowly spreading in the crowd, until they turn sour with the next sentence.

"Therefore, this court is unable to rule a decree. Ser Temmerly will be detained here, at the Keep, until a further thorough investigation brings new proof of his guilt, or confirms his innocence without a doubt. Constable Aidan, I charge you with leading the investigation –"

"You can't do that!" Temmerly's face has turned an ugly red. "You can't –"

"But of course I can," Ned Cousland does not really raise his voice but yet it pierces the upraising murmur. "It is in your very interest, Ser Temmerly, that the investigation is carried out by the most capable person available. Should a less apt person be assigned, it might take on indefinitely."

While Temmerly only gapes at the unexpected twist, Nathaniel cannot help but smirk: the chances that Aidan might follow Tamra's fate have just dropped considerably.

The question is if Aidan ever finds a thing.

Esmerelle is on her feet, protesting excitedly; in answer to her request, Ned resolutely shakes his head. Temmerly, looking frantically from one to the other, bursts out again: "This is a farce and everyone here knows it! You're just looking for an excuse to finish me off!" In distress, his voice sounds coarser – and, curiously, also higher pitched.

"Finish me off!"

Nathaniel holds his breath. "Finish off the traitor!"

the cold sweat, the warm blood

Gotcha, you murderous bastard.

Not paying attention to what is being said next, Nathaniel makes for the stairs, to move into a new position.

I have to see, see with my very eyes. Look into his eyes, see his face.

Behind, Esmerelle is still disputing something in a raised voice, which gets cut off by Ned Cousland's order, sharp and cold.

Nathaniel leaves the hall just in time to avoid the commotion as Temmerly, cursing and yelling, is being escorted to his cell.

On the way to the dungeon, they have to pass Nathaniel, standing in the middle of the corridor with his arms folded on his chest.

Seeing Temmerly fall abruptly silent and his eyes swerve when meeting Nathaniel's, makes the anger within coil like a snake ready to strike, and so he says: "The cells are quite cosy here… way better than befits a murderer. Have a nice stay, ser." Son of a bitch. Then he steps aside to let them pass.

Temmerly mutters an obscenity in response but doesn't sound quite as self-confident as before.

I know, and you know I do. And you will pay, eventually.

Nathaniel manages to let go the grip of the throwing knife in his sleeve only after Temmerly's back vanishes behind a corner.

He retreats to avoid the attendants of the hearing, and once they leave for their respective homes, it is time to report with the Commander.

Even as he is ascending the stairs, he hears a raised voice – to his surprise, Ned's, and sounding uncharacteristically emotional. Unsure whether to intrude or leave, Nathaniel hesitates, but then the door opens and Varel is about to walk out. Seeing Nathaniel, he motions at him to come in, announcing: "He is here."

Stepping into the room, Nathaniel can feel the tension, though he has no idea what might be its source. Both Ned and Garavel are standing, their eyes intent on him in a silent question.

"It was him," Nathaniel says more rasply than he intended, "I can be sure of that now."

To his puzzlement, Ned does not respond with satisfaction; instead, he turns abruptly and strides over to the window, which he pushes open. On the other hand, Garavel's face sets in an almost predatory expression.

"I believe that this settles our dispute, Commander. You have a witness of an attempted murder, which was a part of a bigger plot against yourself. You can squeeze him just fine."

"I said no!" Ned's voice sounds hushed, and when he turns back from the window, he is ghastly pale. "I am very well aware that I cannot let this conspiracy brew any longer, let them get way with murders and attempts on those loyal to me… but no way we're doing this… as long as there is another way."

The captain snorts. "Another way? You can't honestly think that Temmerly will pour out his heart just because you ask nicely!"

A pause. "'Nice' was not what I had on my mind," Ned says softly. "I'd rather use some… persuasive arguments. A demonstration, maybe." Seeing Garavel frown, he slowly says: "The vaults… or the Deep Roads themselves… are quite impressive, wouldn't you say? Especially when one might run into their inhabitants."

Varel shuffles his feet but says nothing, and the captain produces an alarmed look. "But… that dwarven gate is safely closed, isn't it?"

"Yes, it is." Still the same soft, impassive voice. "But Temmerly doesn't know that."

Garavel raises his hand to his collar, as if it felt uncomfortably tight. "Are you sure, my Lord? Such… extreme measures–"

Ned laughs, humourlessly and sharply. "Extreme? You would put a man to the rack without hesitation, yet you have qualms about scaring him with darkspawn? You should try your methods on yourself for once, I bet you would take darkspawn any time!"

After a moment of stunned silence, Garavel clears his throat. "I meant less… obvious methods. Maybe slower but not so, er, obtrusive, and equally reliable to get a man screaming a little."

Another burst of that un-laughter. "Screaming is not the point here, captain. If you ever find yourself under such predicament, swallow your pride and scream at the top of your lungs, because as long as you scream, you do not talk."

Fascinated, Nathaniel watches Ned's hands, which, in contrast to the impassive voice, tremble like those of an old man. Glancing at Varel, Nathaniel sees the seneschal slightly frown in concern.

Garavel, apparently too absorbed in his vexation at being rebuffed, sees nothing. "As you say, my Lord. Is that all?" Receiving a nod, he turns on his heel and storms out of the room.

As soon as the captain is gone, Ned turns back to the window, gasping. Then, as if all of a sudden he was reminded of their presence, he mutters over his shoulder: "You can go, too, both of you. No talking about this, with anyone."

The dismissal doesn't sit well with Nathaniel, since more than just a couple of questions press on his tongue, but he thinks better and follows Varel outside. Only then, having made sure that no-one is around, he asks in a low voice: "If this plan of his doesn't work… he intends to have Temmerly… questioned? Is that wise?"

Glancing around, the seneschal replies barely audibly. "As you have heard, no talking. It could be disastrous if word of this got out. Technically, the Arl has the right to put a conspirator under duress, but it would be politically… inconvenient. – Though it would serve the bastard right."

Nathaniel has to clench his teeth, to prevent them from being bared in a feral smile. The next remark, though, unsettles him much more: "You're really one big deal of a trouble."

Oh, thanks so much. Nathaniel is well aware that it was his word that pushed the scales in Ned's decision, but he fails to see how getting stabbed is somehow his fault, and the reproach has touched a sensitive spot. "What do you mean?" he asks coldly.

Varel looks back over his shoulder. "For him."

Another well-placed prick. "I never meant to –"

"No, you didn't." The seneschal sighs. "Don't get me wrong, I have nothing personal against you… but I still think it would have been the best for everyone if you had stayed in the Marches."

And here it goes again, for being who I am. "I offered to leave. He can send me away any time."

A snort. "You know he wouldn't do that."

Even more irritated, Nathaniel retorts: "So what am I supposed to do, slit my throat?

Varel sighs again and then shrugs. "Too late, I'm afraid," he remarks with a wolfish grin. Then his face softens. "He's putting a lot of faith in you. Don't fail him, he needs good men around."

Why, weren't you just sending me back to the Marches? That makes the compliment sort of back-handed. And so he counterpoints: "You seem weirdly protective."

Seeing the older man at a loss is satisfactory, but then Varel spreads his arms in an innocent gesture: "Well, he is easy to like, isn't he? Aren't you willing to go into quite some length for him yourself?"

It seems that a prolonged stay in Cousland's presence has a detrimental effect on one's own personality. People start emulating those clever twists of his. "I'm not going to propose to him, but I guess I get your meaning."

He receives a surprisingly warm smile. "Always good to know where we stand." With that, Varel leaves; Nathaniel looks back at Ned's door one last time, pondering that under other circumstances, he might go back and knock.

Two days pass without a stir or a word of Temmerly, to Nathaniel's growing impatience. Yet, when he is unexpectedly summoned to the Commander at a late hour, the anticipation he feels is rather an unpleasant one.

As he enters, he finds Ned sitting by the table, tending to his sword; his glass on the table is half-empty, and by the looks of him, it's not the first.

"Take a seat," Ned doesn't look at him, concentrating on the movement of his hands, polishing the blade with an oiled cloth. He does not look up even as he says softly: "Temmerly's dead."

Speechless with shock, Nathaniel only stares at him, and Ned continues in a seemingly calm tone: "He hanged himself in his cell. Whether he was so dedicated to the cause… or my demonstration too persuasive… I never thought he had it in him, to slip out like that... never thought of this option."

Finding his voice again, Nathaniel asks: "Did he really do it himself?"

A nod. "Anders is sure." Then, suddenly, Ned raises his dark eyes to him. "I made a mistake. Yet another. I'm empty-handed again, and the viper may freely laugh and scheme behind my back."

Unsure how to respond, Nathaniel says nothing, and Ned resumes tending to the blade again, the runes in the steel faintly shimmering under his touch. "It's her dance, and I keep screwing the steps. Time we started to dance to a tune I know best." Slowly, he slides his hand along the length of the blade. "Time to do what I excel at."

Nathaniel feels his heartbeat speed up. "You have a plan."

"I have a plan." Putting away the cloth, Ned takes his glass and empties its content with a single swig. "But for this plan to work, I need a bait." The firelight glistens on the blade as it slightly shivers in his hand. "A bait."