Retribution, followed by a revelation.
First Chapter::His Father's Son
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26. The Exercise of Vital Powers
The air of the vanishing day is chilly but mercifully still: despite the warmth of his fur cloak and protective runes, the cold of the two days and nights without fire has crept into Nathaniel's bones. Shifting in his lair of boughs and snow, he draws the furs closer to his body and aims his attention at the quiet estate in the valley again.
Too quiet, actually: no sounds of domestic animals, no servants scuttling over the yard, trying to perform their tasks as quickly as they can.
It would be definitely suspicious, had Nathaniel not seen himself the servants and cattle evicted to a couple of barns near the meadows about two miles off along the creek.
One doesn't risk witnesses when planning an assassination of their liege, who is the best friend to their monarch.
One doesn't leave anything to chance, either.
The main building of the estate, various barns and sheds… all hiding armed men, waiting for a signal when their victim arrives. Nathaniel knows exactly how many and in whose colours; he watched them gather, each and every one.
The Stark farm. What an inconspicuous, cosy place chosen for the drama that is to unveil.
"They will be cautious, after Temmerly," Nathaniel muses. "It might take months before Esmerelle attempts something again."
"I know." Lazily rocking his glass, Ned is leaning comfortably in his chair. "I'm going to give her an incentive. She has no children of her own and her heir is her cousin's son… my sources tell me she is rather fond of him. So I'm going to inform her that I would like to have the boy here, at the Keep, as my squire."
"Which she can hardly refuse to her Arl."
"And which she cannot allow to happen, either."
Sipping from his glass, Nathaniel smiles for himself. Developing on plans with Ned Cousland is incredibly easy: a thought follows thought, each smoothly following the set course. "That sets roughly the time; what about the place?"
Ned nods towards the heap of map scrolls on the table. "That's what I hoped you might help me come up with. I was thinking about our dear friend Lady Packton – so eager for lands and riches. It would make sense if I targeted her…"
I'm afraid this venture will cost Lady Packton more than just a well-doing estate, Nathaniel ponders. Her reaction to the accusation of shifting milestones and encroaching on her Arl's land was very predictable: may the Arl come himself and inspect her lands, she will be most happy to host him under her roof.
Only she would serve him cold steel instead of dinner.
The number of the soldiers brought to the farm makes Nathaniel check their plan, step by step: a single mistake would be paid dearly, and he cannot allow that.
The Commander relies on me. He entrusted me with his life.
What an irony again.
Yet, the trust put into him fills him with warmth, deep inside, and helps him pass the hours of the cold night…together with the warmth of Velanna's body, curled next to him, as they take shifts in watching and sleeping.
A mild breeze has risen, driving along clouds which obscure the moonlight every now and then: a good weather to carry out the plan.
Then, finally, the signal comes: an owl sounds somewhere down the hill, so skilful that Nathaniel is not sure whether it is a real bird or not. He listens intently, counting the heartbeats. Then the owl hooting sounds again, twice. Carefully crawling over Velanna, who shifts but does not wake, Nathaniel leaves the lair and responds. Moments pass, and then the owl sounds softly once more, close to his right.
"Here," Nathaniel whispers.
A white shape rises from the snow: the scout, Danella, in a broad white cloak. "The men are in position. Any change?" she speaks softly only after she has crawled to him.
"No. The guards are as they were. They don't expect a thing."
Danella looks at the estate: two windows are still lit, as those behind probably polish the last details of their scheme. "Good. Can we go on as planned?"
"Yes. Go get them, I'll fetch Velanna."
The scout crawls off: a quiet white shadow. Good that the Commander didn't let her rot in prison, such talent is better put to use – not to mention the undying loyalty he inspired in her.
The rest is incredibly easy.
Guards, bored and huddled in their cloaks, watch the gate and access road. A dozen quiet shadows, grey and white, glide along the fences, through the orchard, over the palisade. In the storerooms, the upper parts of the emptied shed and barns… everywhere no soldiers are positioned, unwelcome guests have found cover for the rest of the night.
Finding himself a comfortable spot in the straw above the pigsty, still reeking of its previous inhabitants, Nathaniel smirks: though considerably warmer than outside, the snow lair now actually seems preferable.
A rustle, as Velanna makes her way through the straw. "Keeping such foul animals is a stupid shemlen custom," she murmurs to his ear.
"No pigs, no ham," he whispers to her ear, driving away the irrational urge to nibble her pointed earlobe. The two days spent together watching the farm, often close to each other for the sake of warmth, have produced many an urge like that. Nathaniel is no fool, though, to act on such urges at a moment like this, and especially not with someone like Velanna.
To approach Velanna with something like that is the best way to get oneself roasted.
"Take a nap, I'll keep watch," he suggests, and to his surprise, the elf doesn't protest but curls next to him instead.
The time passes by. Velanna takes over the watch and Nathaniel manages some sleep, to wake to the grey light of the winter day, and to the commotion in the yard.
"They're coming!" he hears someone yell; there are running feet, and snapped orders. Nathaniel feels his pulse speed up: it's come.
Through the slit between the planks, he can see Lisa Packton greet the Commander; with a part of his retinue, he follows her inside the house while the rest remain to tend to the horses.
The stables, as Nathaniel knows, are packed full, and not just with horses. "Get ready," he whispers to Velanna.
He barely finishes the sentence when there is a shrill whistle, and the ambush is sprung: the hiding soldiers rush at the men from the Keep.
The front wall of the pigsty vanishes in an explosion. With a smooth movement, Velanna jumps out through the opening, death issuing from her fingers in cracks of lightning and streams of fire. Nathaniel follows, his two blades cutting at the flesh of the stunned men: ambushers are ambushed themselves.
At the opposite side of the yard, the roof of a barn is engulfed in fire, together with the crossbowmen hiding behind its top: Cera's apprentice, despite being a scrawny brat, is a veteran of the battle of Denerim, and knows his work well. Before the men on the opposite roof can aim him, he disappears through the hole in the thatched roof of the stable again, only to dispatch a new wave of fire at them from the hay door a moment later.
A group of soldiers, previously hidden in the smithy, charge at Velanna, probably determined to bring the mage down at any cost. As they run, a slender figure in a white cloak emerges from under the heap of caskets in the corner of the yard and throws something under their feet: a deafening explosion of Dworkin's special produce sends the men flying. With a shrill howl, Danella draws her daggers and disposes of the single soldier who has remained standing.
The fight is won even before it started proper.
Swirling around, Nathaniel checks for any living enemies: finding none of importance, he dashes to the door of the house.
Unnecessarily: the door opens; Oghren, splattered in gore, walks out leisurely swinging his axe. "What, no fun left for me? We're done inside."
Sweeping past the dwarf, Nathaniel enters. The main hall of the estate looks like a slaughterhouse: the floor is strewn with bodies. A quick glance reveals no casualties among the men from the Keep, except Varel, who is seated, leaning against a column while Anders is tending to his arrowed shoulder. Ned Cousland, from head to toes stained in blood, which is apparently not his, is standing in the middle, with his arms folded on his chest, watching a bunch of nobles being tied by Garavel's men.
Some familiar faces here.
Lisa Packton. Ser Timothy. An auburn-haired man Nathaniel vaguely recognizes as one Ser Anthony. And Lady Esmerelle, Bann of Amaranthine – her hair dishevelled, bleeding from a cut on her forehead, the blood dripping on a chainmail instead of her usual lavish robe. Her eyes shine wildly, and if looks could kill, Nathaniel has little doubt she would be more proficient with them than with daggers.
To Ned's raised brow, Nathaniel brusquely nods: "Dealt with," and receives a nod in reply.
"Traitor! Traitor of your father's blood!" Esmerelle yells at him, as she realizes what Nathaniel's involvement must have been.
"That's enough," Ned commands her coldly. "You have proved your dedication to the late Arl's cause sufficiently and you will die for that, no more histrionics needed."
Esmerelle doesn't heed him. "You are a spot on the Howes' name – both you and that whore of a sister of yours! To think I put such an effort into luring you back from the Marches to exact your revenge…"
Nathaniel feels his jaw drop but he has no time to dwell on that as Ned laughs dryly: "'Twould seem that your own scheming helped to dig your grave, milady." Turning to look at each of the captives, he addresses them all. "For breaking your oaths of fealty and attempting to murder your liege, your lives are forfeit."
The conspirators watch him with defiance and Esmerelle spits on the floor. "You are no true Arl, you have no authority over us!"
"I have every right I need," Ned retorts calmly, "and I'm going to exact those rights on you for all of Amaranthine to see. Those pikes above the gates have been empty far too long."
Timothy mutters some desperate curse and Liza starts trembling, but Esmerelle seemingly calms down, her green eyes narrowed. "Pity that Rendon didn't gut you along with Bryce," she hisses.
"Watch your tongue." The change is Ned's tone is tale-telling, but Esmerelle is already too carried off with her eagerness to deal the final blow.
"And what will you do, Cousland? Kill me twice? I'm not going to crawl like your mother did when Rendon made her kiss his boots before he –"
Nathaniel feels his breath catch in his throat.
No. Not this.
In the stunned silence, Ned moves like a striking snake, and his gauntleted fist connects with Esmerelle's face with an audible crack. Her head flies backwards and only due to the guards holding her she remains standing. Blood spills down her chin, followed by some more as she spits out the splinters of her teeth. Her eyes widen in shock, and the first time, they show fear – fear which turns into horror, as Ned's hand grabs her by the throat.
"You will shut up, viper." The voice sounds like none Nathaniel has ever heard from Ned – high-pitched but strangely hushed, and it sends chills down his spine. Then, as Ned turns his head towards the other captives, Nathaniel sees his face, and the chill is replaced by sweat-inducing heat.
Oh, Ned… Maker be merciful.
Ned's face, always so calm and controlled, is twisted in a mask of uncontained fury.
The three nobles, their jaws dropped in shock, crouch before him.
"You three will be now transported to Amaranthine where you will publically confess your crime and will be executed. The manner of your death is solely up to you. Make a nice, clear confession, and you will get the sword, and I'll also let your families inherit. Defy me, and you all will hang – slowly. After that, I will not stop until I have exterminated every single one of your progeny. I swear."
"Until I have exterminated every single one, like my family was," Nathaniel hears, and he is apparently not the only one.
Only then, in the complete silence, Ned seems to become aware of the choking sounds that Esmerelle is issuing, and he lets go of her. Without as much as a single look at her as she crumples in the guards' grip, without even looking at anyone in particular, he adds: "Not a word of this. Ever."
At his gesture, the guards take Lisa, Anthony and Timothy out. Nathaniel feels he should leave, as well, but his feet as if froze to the floor. He watches Ned's tense back, his balled fists, and ponders desperately what to say – now, or later, or ever after.
Doomed. Doomed whenever I start again from scrap.
Maker, let this be over…
But prayers are hardly ever heeded.
Finally catching her breath, Esmerelle looks up at Ned. She is pitiable now: her defiance and her dignity seem to have shattered with her teeth.
The wrath she has unleashed is not spent yet, though.
Ned stares back at her. "You," he says, still in that unnatural voice. "You and I are going to talk now. Profoundly. And you will tell me all that you know about – about that night at Highever. Or – " Checking himself, he takes a breath. "Everyone out now. You stay, Garavel – to assist. If needed."
The remaining two soldiers head for the door immediately, letting Esmerelle sink to her knees. On unsteady feet, Nathaniel is about to follow, but he hesitates as he sees Varel get up with Anders' help and turn towards Ned, not to the door. "Commander," the old seneschal says softly. "My Lord…"
"Out!" Ned repeats, without turning. His eyes never leave Esmerelle, and she shrieks in terror, her words muffled by her broken mouth: "No! I don't know anything else! I don't–" her eyes flicker around wildly. "Nathaniel, help me! Tell him nothing else happened!"
Ned turns his head sharply and his eyes narrow.
Nathaniel is unable to say a word, his tongue sticking to his palate. Involuntarily, he lowers his head.
Slowly, Ned turns to Esmerelle again and she crouches on the floor. "She did what Rendon commanded her because he told her he would make Bryce's passing worse, but then Bryce died, and – and – "
Very slowly, Ned bends to her, and despite her attempt to evade, takes her by the throat again, almost gently. "And?"
Esmerelle is almost sobbing. "He – he let the soldiers h–have her – but – but – they were careless and she managed to grab a dagger and killed – killed herself – and – that's all he told me, I swear! Please, I don't know any more!"
"You don't." Nathaniel didn't think Ned's voice could sound even worse than before, but now it does. "Would you perhaps remember if I called a couple of those soldiers back, to serve you likewise? Or perhaps –"
"My Lord Cousland… don't."
For a long moment, Ned freezes, looking at the bleeding, sobbing woman whose throat he is holding.
Then he releases his grasp, and Nathaniel finally lets go the breath he didn't know he was holding.
No one moves, until Ned straightens. "Finish her off and collect the head," he orders Garavel. He avoids Varel's eyes, and passing Nathaniel as if he wasn't there, he walks out.
Feeling Anders and Varel stare hard at him, Nathaniel drops his head even lower: he can't imagine how he will be able to look into their eyes after this again… into anyone's.
Turning abruptly, he makes for the door: he needs air, he needs to get away from this all, from the smell of blood and bowels and the words which cannot be unsaid.
The sound of a drawn sword and a sobbing gasp do not make him even pause.