Some Big Talk about the past and the present.
First Chapter::His Father's Son
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27. Meditation on the Abyss
The Chantry is chilly and bright, the sunlight passing through the coloured glass in the high windows sending multicoloured speckles all around.
Ned Cousland is standing where the light does not reach, before the altar with the statue of Andraste. While her arms are spread wide to embrace the Maker, his are folded on his chest, as if embracing himself.
Painfully aware of his loud steps, Nathaniel makes for the altar. He lights a candle at Andraste's feet and kneels down for a short prayer; then bracing himself, he gets up and turns to face Ned.
After a moment, Ned's eyes leave Andraste's face and bore into Nathaniel's: a cold, blank stare. His lids seem swollen, but otherwise, his face might be that of a statue, as well.
Under the weight of his stare, Nathaniel drops his eyes.
"You knew." A flat, colourless tone, yet concealing an accusation.
Nathaniel forces himself to meet the stare. "I did," he admits. Words stick in his throat. "Once when he was drunk… he boasted of it before Delilah. That part… about your father dying on his knees." He has to swallow before continuing. " And that he made your mother kiss his boots." He hesitates again but unwilling to risk another backlash of withheld truth, he finishes: "He had all the bodies burnt on a heap of refuse."
He sees muscles ripple on Ned's jaw but no other response comes.
"I never meant to… cover up his crimes. He didn't tell any details, and I and Delilah thought… we thought that if we told you this…" Nathaniel feels his palms are beginning to sweat. Suppressing the urge to clench his fists, he takes a deep breath. "I thought it would be better for you not to know." Please, believe me.
"I… we only meant to… spare you the pain."
Spare what you are going through now. What my fault has brought on you.
Ashamed, Nathaniel lowers his head again. "Forgive me," he mutters hoarsely.
Still silence, until Ned's eyes move again to Andraste's exalted face. "I… appreciate your intention… misplaced as it was." A heavy pause. "Is there anything else I ought to know?"
"No. Nothing I would know of."
A quick, burning look. "Are you sure? Is there no more to it? Nothing else that yet another viper might unleash on me when I expect it the least?"
Trembling inside, Nathaniel drops to a knee. "I swear before the Maker –"
An impatient gesture. "Oh, come off it! I –" Ned's voice wavers. His eyes wonder over Nathaniel's head, to Andraste again. "A single clean death was apparently too much to ask." His lips tremble and then press tight, before they bare the teeth in an angry grimace. "After all, what did I expect?" Jerking his head, he spits on the polished tiles before the altar and then turns on his heels to stride out – or rather, flee.
Stunned by the outburst, Nathaniel does not move, until, finally, he bends and wipes the spittle with his sleeve. Guiltily, he looks back over his shoulder.
Andraste, of course, does not respond.
Remaining on his knees a little longer, Nathaniel contends a mixture of chaotic feelings, the strongest of which is that of an acute loss: he has lost something precious, and he wants it back.
Being sent to the Keep with the group that accompanied injured Varel, while Ned and his retinue left for Amaranthine to carry out their grim task was understandable, even the fact that no-one ever mentioned his name: Ned simply handpicked those he wished along and ordered the rest to return. That Garavel was set in charge was logical: the mission was the business of the arling, not the Wardens as such. Being the target of sideway looks and gossip behind his back was harder to bear, but he had been through that before.
Being the source of Ned's torment for his own deeds, not father's, was a knife twisting in his soul, and the reason why he sought Ned immediately, even though Varel had advised to wait.
He gets up quickly as he hears the door creak: Mother Dorine, who took the post of the ancient Ellinor of his childhood, is a stranger to him, and he doesn't want her to see him kneeling with his back to the altar.
"May the Maker grant his Lordship peace," she mutters as she passes him, her eyes shining with curiosity which Nathaniel is not going to sate.
Apparently, tongues have been wagging all over the Keep.
"Truly so," he replies, barely keeping himself from snarling at the woman.
On the surface, the life in the Keep goes its usual way, with the Commander addressing the daily issues as the need arises… addressing even Nathaniel, and if he is somewhat taciturn, well, he has had such phases before and no-one seems to think anything of that.
Only, Nathaniel constantly feels the detachment; like a house with shutters closed, keeping everyone out and not letting see what lies behind – even more so that Ned addresses him solely in the company of others, never alone, never with anything else but the matters of daily business.
Seeking for an opportunity to talk privately, to sort this out, to set things right, only confirms Nathaniel's suspicion: Ned is intentionally avoiding him.
Yet, every now and then, he can feel Ned's eyes on him: over the hall, in the courtyard, during the councils… only to move away whenever Nathaniel looks at him.
In the following days, he grows tense and restless: no-one and nothing in the Keep seems to be able to set him at ease. Astrid's embrace provides only physical relief and the issues of the mind fall on a deaf side: this will pass, why bother. Velanna, so supportive on the way back to the Keep, exhibits one of those inexplicable flings of moods and turns him away with cruel jabs. Varel keeps to the same old advice, Anders is too full of his latest advance to listen for earnest, Oghren offers the only console he knows, and seeking out Justice at his secluded post under the Keep brings Nathaniel only a lecture on failures and atonements.
Atone. He would gladly atone, if only Ned told him what he wants him to do.
Whatever. Even if I should be sent away. Just… stop this.
You trusted me, not so long ago, remember?
Finally, he resorts to the one thing that always helped. Not bothering with asking Varel for a key, he raids the armoury for about a dozen of throwing knives and retreats to the training room in the basement, in the sunny weather entirely empty. There, he puts up a target and tests the weight and balance of the knives, trying to select the best. The activity demands focusing and keeps his thoughts off Cousland, but as soon as he finishes, the lump in his stomach is back again.
Cursing, he strides to the armoury for another batch to test.
His bad mood keeps him distracted, and so he realizes someone's presence only after rushing into the room and closing the door behind him.
Of all people, Ned Cousland.
Standing in front of the rack with practice swords, and apparently startled by Nathaniel's arrival.
And the startling immediately disappears behind the closed shutters.
This time, however, Ned has nowhere to escape, but tries nonetheless, turning to leave. "Ah. Sorry. I didn't realize you were training here. Do not be disturbed."
Nathaniel feels very much like gritting his teeth. No. No way you're leaving without sorting this out. And, since the opportunity virtually presents itself, he offers: "Never mind. If you want to practice with a sword, I can easily adjust. 'Been neglecting my sparring, anyway."
For a moment, it seems that his offer will be accepted, but then Ned's eyes swerve and he shakes his head as he says, somewhat tensely: "Thank you, but perhaps later. I wouldn't be a good partner today."
The excuse does it, and the long-built tension breaks out in a dark, violent wave. "Dammit, Cousland! How long do you intend to go on like this? I can understand if you hate my gut now but why keep me around if you can't bear the sight of me any more, huh? Does spiting your brother really mean so bloody much to you?"
Seeing Ned's jaw dropped in shock feels perversely satisfying – for that instant before he suddenly slumps on the bench by the wall and buries his face in his trembling hands.
Nathaniel uncertainly looks at the door he was about to slam open, then at the man again. With a sigh, he turns back, puts the knives on the floor and walks over to sit on the bench next to Ned, leaning with his elbows on his knees.
After a moment, Ned raises his head and looks at him, as if puzzled. Nathaniel is ready, reciprocating the look without flinching, and then says softly but firmly: "Either send me away, or stop avoiding me."
Ned's eyes swerve for a moment. "Do you wish to be sent away?" he asks, and the question is tinged with tension.
What's this supposed to be about? "No." Frowning under Ned's enquiring gaze, he blurts, further irritated: "I thought I made it clear that I wish to serve Ferelden, and I would like to stay close to my sister, but if I'm constantly inconveniencing you –"
"You're not inconveniencing me," Ned interrupts him, somewhat hastily…somewhat nervously?
"Then what the – "Nathaniel takes a breath to calm down. "I made a mistake and hurt you unintentionally but I was under the impression that you accepted my apology. Was I wrong, are you still angry with me? Or is this about what father did? I can only repeat that – "
"No." Ned also takes a breath, but rather as if preparing for something. He straightens. "I should have asked more clearly. Do you still want to serve Ferelden under my command?"
Nathaniel blinks several times, dumbfounded, before he straightens, as well. "Why shouldn't I?"
Weirdly, Ned's eyes swerve again. He leans against the wall, staring before him. "When you approached me to allow you to join the Wardens, you said you could respect me. Well, can you still – respect me? After what I've done?"
Finally, things are starting to make sense. "You mean, this wasn't about me but you?" Nathaniel asks in disbelief. "Does it really matter so much to you what I think of you?"
Ned glances at him. "It does," he says simply. "Out of those people who were there, only your – and Varel's – opinion really matters." Another breath. "The respect of those I respect."
Pondering the unexpected twist, Nathaniel feels a surge of warmth, spreading from within, but then Ned says softly: "You haven't answered my question."
No evading. "I would respect you less if you did go through with your threats… but you didn't. You stopped in time."
"Varel stopped me."
"No. You stopped. He just snapped you out of the frenzy."
"Frenzy," Ned repeats softly. "That's what it's called? That urge to tear people to tiny twitching pieces and wade in their blood?" He swallows hard. "I – I did stop, but – but – Maker help me, I wanted." A pause. "Still might, if I allowed myself to dwell on it too much."
A wave of chill runs down Nathaniel's spine. "But you didn't. That's what matters."
"I wanted," Ned repeats with a clear tone of horror, and disgust, in his voice. Suddenly, he turns to Nathaniel. "Have you ever felt such an urge?"
Nathaniel has to shake his head. "No. Not even when I wanted to avenge father. But if – if someone harmed Delilah like that… I do not know what I would be capable of."
A grim, snapping laughter. "Well, I already know what I am capable of, or so I thought. I lied, I broke my word, allied myself with a known kinslayer and killed without mercy… but I didn't know I had it in me to knock out the teeth of a restrained woman… or nearly have her tortured and violated."
"You couldn't let her get away with it," Nathaniel points out softly. "No matter what you ordered, men did talk, and they would think less of you if you didn't retaliate in some way. As it is, the common opinion goes that the viper got what she deserved."
Ned grits his teeth. "I know," he grunts. "One would even think they might actually cheer me for what I did. What would I have to do to fall out of their good graces, rape their virgin daughters? Somehow, I have a feeling they might find an excuse even for that. Really, does one have to become a complete monster so that their eyes finally opened? For some, Loghain was still a hero even after he was exposed for what he was. I wonder if he ever – " He stops abruptly. Glancing at Nathaniel again, he slowly folds his arms on his chest, transfixing his eyes to a point somewhere off beyond the walls. "Before this all started… before the Blight… I wouldn't think myself capable of any of those things… and now that I've done them, I've noticed that every single one makes the following somewhat… easier."
Nathaniel shifts uneasily. "Well, I suppose that during the Blight, you did what you had to. 'Anything to stop the Blight', that's what us Wardens are expected to do, right?"
"A convenient excuse, isn't it?" Ned speaks softly, without emotions, but the tension he keeps under control emanates from every fibre of his being. "And yet, there were times when I didn't have even that… I did things because I wanted, not because I had to."
Unsure how to respond, Nathaniel remains silent.
After a moment, Ned adds even more softly: "I dread to think where this might end… what I might become. And… what father would have said."
Feeling a lump in his throat, Nathaniel has to avert his eyes, and as he does so, he suddenly feels he can breathe more easily. Copying Ned's poise, he leans against the wall and stretches his legs, but overcomes the urge to embrace himself against the world. "Well, my father would be thoroughly disappointed with you because of your misgivings."
He feels Ned tense in shock and then become more relaxed, as he realizes the implication. They sit silently side by side, until Ned remarks after a while: "It never ceases to amaze me how he might have sired a man like you."
"I suppose he also must have wondered what went wrong." To his surprise, the light conversational tone comes naturally… almost. "Thomas was more to his liking, I guess… but from what Delilah told me about his drinking, he probably wasn't up to the requirements, either." Nathaniel pauses, recalling the face obscured with time. "I cannot be sure, though, we were never close as brothers should be."
Listening attentively, Ned voices Nathaniel's own thought: "You think he meant for Thomas to replace you as his heir?"
"It kept haunting me. I was assuring myself that the day when the succession would matter was still far away and that I would be found worthy meanwhile, but still." The idea seems unbelievably ironic, and he snorts. "Be found worthy, by him. Would you believe that I really thought the fault was with me, somehow? When I was a child, I wasn't aware of it much, or maybe he was different then, but as I was growing up… It seemed that nothing I did could ever please him. I was too soft and meek and a shame to the Howes, and I could never figure out what exactly it was that I did wrong, or what I should do the next time. When he decided to send me off to the Marches to get some schooling, I actually felt relief that I would finally learn to be what he wanted me to be."
"How old were you?"
"Fourteen, and I desperately wanted to be my father's son."
"Haughty, cold and ruthless." In contrast to the words, Ned's voice is full of sympathy.
Nathaniel nods. "Though, at that time, I was rather thinking in the terms of 'proud, stern and decisive', since I never realised that the fault was with him, and couldn't see him for what he was."
"But it didn't go as he had planned."
"No, it didn't. He sent me as a squire to the household of one Sebastian Sartori… Comte Sebastian Sartori, if you happen to be familiar with the name."
Ned thinks for a while, then shakes his head. "I was never much into the Marches' nobility."
"You didn't miss a thing. – Well, Sartori. He was some business acquaintance of father's, and little wonder they took liking to each other, since he was cold like a dead fish, but shrewd. I came to hate him within a fortnight, and there is but one good thing I can say of him: his master of arms was an excellent teacher."
Glancing at Ned, he notices that he has shifted, to lean against the wall with his left shoulder and face Nathaniel, and so he moves likewise. "Well?" Ned urges him to continue.
"The next two months, I was rather unhappy, since I couldn't understand why father sent me there. Then, however, something really unpredictable happened. Sebastian got wet in a storm and ended up with a profound cold, which developed into pneumonia, and he succumbed to it a few days later."
Seeing the look of understanding in Ned's eyes, he nods again. "Exactly. His heir, his cousin Claude Sartori, was a very different man." This time, Nathaniel smiles at the memory: the stay with the comte, the real comte, marked the beginning of the good times in the Marches. "I hadn't met him before, since, as you can imagine, the two of them didn't keep in touch, and he was rather surprised to find me there. Unpleasantly surprised, I can tell in retrospect – he wasn't familiar with my name but apparently didn't think much of his cousin's acquaintances. Still, though, he took over Sebastian's obligations and, the first time in my life, I was asked what I wanted. The naive sob I was, I blurted that I wanted to become a true nobleman, so that father could be proud of me."
Ned chuckles softly, anticipating the next course of the story, and Nathaniel laughs, as well. "He gave me a very weird look, I can tell you, but replied that he would do his best to help me achieve that goal."
"In other words, he affirmed those very qualities your father sought to eradicate." Ned's eyes sparkle with amusement. "Life's so full of irony, isn't it?"
Ironic, where the twists of fate bring us, Nathaniel thinks, smiling at the man he meant to kill, so long ago, in another life.
"Did you stay with Sartori the whole time?" Ned asks.
"No, only shortly, in fact. I suppose he must have anticipated father's reaction to Sebastian's death, and he arranged for me to stay with the Montessoris of Starkhaven, and a couple of other prominent families, to 'establish connections'… but no matter which family member he referred me to, they were all men worthy of my respect… like himself." Nathaniel feels his lips curve in a smile. "I made quite a tour of the Marches… that was a good time."
"Quite a long time," Ned observes. "Did you never visit home?"
"Once." The memory is bitter even now. "I needn't tell you how it went, do I? Father packed me off as soon as he could, claiming that I was put to better use in the Marches than over here. Thomas mocked me for that and I broke his nose. Father was livid, and I sulked, since he made it clear that I was unwelcome at home until I 'learned manners'." Nathaniel pauses, feeling the past dragging him back, to the dark currents. "That was the last time I saw him alive," he says hoarsely. "We barely wrote to each other, and that out of obligation, mostly. When I learned he was dead… I guess I acted mostly out of remorse."
A sudden intent look in Ned's eyes. "How did you learn what happened?"
"To think I put such an effort into luring you back from the Marches to exact your revenge…" Nathaniel recalls, feeling suddenly the stone wall behind him too chilly. "I was staying with the Montessoris again at that time. The marquis showed me a letter from a friend of his, from Kirkwall… I never suspected Esmerelle was somehow involved. Basically, it said that there was a coup in Ferelden, using the Landsmeet as a pretence of legality, and that my father, as Loghain's most prominent supporter, was murdered prior the Landsmeet to cow the opposition. I did ask among the Fereldan refugees for more details, but nothing I heard really contradicted that."
"I see," Ned says softly. "What did Sartori say to that? Did you consult with him before you left with wrath in heart?"
"He had died. He was killed in a pirate raid to his property, two years ago, while I was with the Vaels." And, in a way, it hit me more than father's death. It was guilt that drove me to revenge… guilt for not being a good son, for my hurt pride that kept me from trying to overcome the distance between us, for enjoying the life I had had in the Marches.
Guilt, and empty pride of the name so stained already.
I'd never have admitted this to myself, then.
Nathaniel falls silent. Ned, his eyes lowered, doesn't speak, either: he seems transfixed, watching his hands, but when they clench, he shudders and looks up with a startled expression.
The memory of Esmerelle, suffocating in the grip of those very hands, brings up another matter that has been plaguing Nathaniel. "So, Esmerelle made sure she incited me against you without her name being involved, and then plotted on to murder you, to avenge my father?"
"She claimed as much when she sprung the trap."
"But why? What did he do to inspire such loyalty in her? Could she really, you know… love him?"
"Who's to tell?" Ned's voice is unnaturally flat again. "Maybe he promised her to make her his Arlessa after your mother died. That would be a good reason for a grudge against me. Though, from the gossip Varel supplied me with, it does look that he was an old flame of hers."
"Well possible," Nathaniel has to admit. "You know, I learned of them even before I was sent to the Marches, when I overheard some servants chatting. Of course, I saw the fault with mother, for being cold to him, and with Esmerelle, for being a scheming whore. That tryst went on for years, Delilah made quite a couple of hints at it whenever she wrote to me, since she hated Esmerelle with a passion." As did I. How many times did I think of planting a fist in her teeth myself, whenever I saw that smug smile of hers?
Yet, when I did see it happen…
Each lost in his own thoughts, they sit again in silence, side by side but miles away, each locked in his own past.
Finally, the silence becomes unbearable, or maybe it is just the cold wall behind his back.
Things are as they are. Time to move on.
Shifting, Nathaniel turns to Ned again. "So, what now? For my part, I'm done with brooding for today. How about my initial offer? I could use some sparring."
"A little sparring, bleeding each other's nose and ending up the best buddies over a bottle of ale?" Ned says softly, almost longingly. "Not today, I'm afraid… my dear Howe. I guess I do need some more time brooding… to come to terms that I've become a womanbeater, and that having an upper hand over my brother does matter to me more than it should." He looks at Nathaniel with a tinge of a smile. "In a couple of days, though, Wade will have finished my new sword, from that ancient dragon's bone, and I will need to test it. So, if you think you'll still be willing…?"
"To risk my hide against you? Sure. Any time."
Ned smiles again, for real this time. "I'll take care not to hurt you… much."
"Don't be so damned cocksure, Cousland. You'll be the one getting the beating."
A raised brow. "That sounds like a challenge."
Snatching the knives on his way out, Nathaniel almost flies up the stairs, unable to suppress an idiotic happy grin.