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28. Conflicts of Interests

The blade passes so close that he can feel the hiss of the parting air on his face. He ducks and parries but the blade is immediately bearing down on him again.

He is already sweating and feeling the first signs of fatigue slowing him down.

This has been going on long enough, damn you.

And damn the idiot I am.

With a quick move, Nathaniel disengages, raising his gloved hand. "Enough."

Ned, the damned bastard, is sneering. "You're getting sloppy, Howe."

"When you said you wanted to test the blade, I didn't mean to let you test it on my neck, Cousland."

"A bit grumpy, aren't we?"

"You can abandon your vain efforts, you won't taunt me into another round."

"About high time, if you ask me," Anders remarks from the corner where he is stationed 'in case of casualty'.

"Nobody askin' you," Ned and Nathaniel respond in unison.

Ned swirls the blade in a broad arc and puts it back into the unadorned sheath. "Unbelievable. I've always known Wade is a true master, but I never imagined… I've never had such a master blade crafted specifically for my hand. It feels like an extension of myself…"

Nathaniel has to agree, though somewhat sourly. Already familiar with Cousland's fighting style, he is fairly sure that he could bring him down, with a little luck… but not when he is wielding that light blade which moves as if of its own volition. His own sword, even though of the finest steel, feels clumsy by comparison. "You should try it on something you can actually cut into."

"I'm afraid there won't be many volunteers," Ned remarks dryly.

"Ah, never mind, we haven't had a darkspawn raid in, how many? Two days?"

Ned sighs, and seems to be considering the blond mage as his next target for a moment.

Nathaniel only grunts: the frequency of the darkspawn attacks has been increasing, and so has the number of disquieted land owners demanding that the Warden Commander "do something".

Occasionally, when the darkspawn are spotted in time, he does… at other times, the track is already as cold as the bodies. The attacks are concentrating around the centre of the arling, but finding the source has been easier said than done so far.

In sobered mood, they leave the training hall, and Nathaniel is looking for something to say to divert Ned from the gloomy thoughts. "You're damned fast with that new blade but the shield will eventually slow you down in battle. Why don't you switch to training with two blades, to utilize your speed? With your build, I really don't understand why you started with the shield at all."

The pause in reply tells him immediately that he picked the wrong topic, and when Ned finally answers, he feels like biting his ass: "Because when I started my training, Fergus was already proficient with sword and shield, and I had to have the same as him."

Seeing his embarrassment, Ned reaches to touch his shoulder. "Never mind. A good shield bash has saved my life a couple of times, and I doubt that I would ever become as good with two blades as you are."

As they exit into the courtyard, a more agreeable digression presents itself in the form of Astrid, dismounting and heading towards them with a bag of missives.

Or rather, agreeable for himself, as Astrid presents him with a letter signed in Delilah's prominent handwriting, whereas the Commander receives a stock of missives which undoubtedly contain reports of further darkspawn attacks, land disputes and demands for compensation.

"I bet you're faring better than me with your letter," Ned remarks, seeing Nathaniel eagerly unseal the vellum.

"You'd win," Nathaniel has to admit, feeling the corners of his mouth rise in a happy grin as a wave of warmth surges from within. "Delilah is back in Amaranthine, for good, as she writes. She sends her thanks and regards, by the way."

"Give her mine when you write her, or would you like to make a trip to the city to give her a brotherly welcome?"

Riding under the pikes decorated with the heads of Esmerelle and her cronies is something Nathaniel would like to avoid a little longer, and so he says: "I think she might use some time to get settled in her old home again. I'll write her, and see her the next time we have some business in Amaranthine." Just normal business, no more executions, I hope.

In the pause that ensues, he glances around for something to divert the conversation, and his eyes rest on Astrid's hips, swaying with her long strides as she heads for the stable. His thoughts, though, are abruptly interrupted as he feels a nudge in his ribs. "Don't stare like that, or Velanna will get a fit again."

Uncomprehending, Nathaniel glances in the direction Ned indicates, at Velanna standing at the battlement, overlooking the courtyard. "What do you mean?"

Ned – I hate you, Cousland, you know? – starts laughing so much that he nearly doubles over. "What, you've never noticed that you're fair game?" Wiping the tears of mirth, he shakes his head at Nathaniel's incredulity. "Really, you can blame only yourself. You were showing you were interested since the very beginning, so there's little surprise that she started reciprocating the favour – and then you went for another. No wonder she's throwing so much tantrum whenever she sees you with our lovely messenger."

Unsure how to respond, Nathaniel looks at the battlement again but the elf is nowhere to be seen now, and so he picks up the remnants of his dignity: "I'm sure you're absolutely wrong. I've only tried to be friendly with her."

"Ah, sure – all that miladying and lovely brushes and what not. You're a lousy liar, Nathaniel. You'd better sort it out, or she might fry your head along with the darkspawn."

With one last smirk, Ned leaves him standing there, feeling like the biggest fool of all.

Could I really be so blind?

And, what's worse, was I really so obvious?

Throughout the day, he manages to convince himself that Ned simply can't be right; yet, in the evening, as he is lying in his bed with Astrid, trying to catch his breath after a rather fast ride, she remarks: "Could you do me a favour? Next time you're around Miss Pointy-ears, tell her to stop shooting eye-darts at me, will you? I don't care if you screw her on the side when I'm off on errands, but if she keeps acting like she has some claim over you, she'll get her due, mage or not."

Befuddled, he fails to respond, and Astrid rises on her elbow to see his face better. "You thought I wouldn't figure out? I said that I don't mind, so –"

"No! No, Astrid, it's not like – I mean, I don't – I never –"

He sees her frown a little in the candlelight. "You mean you're not screwing her? So what's her beef with me? – Oh, I see. She's mad because you're not screwing her?" She falls on her back, laughing, and Nathaniel wonders if she is screwing someone on the side.

The thought is not amusing in the least.

Sobering, Astrid turns to him again. "That's good to know, though I didn't – Oh, never mind." And, since he remains silent, she adds: "Just so you knew, I stick to your bed, as well."

"That's… also good to know," he replies cautiously.

"Sure. And safer." She pinches him playfully but as he pulls her closer to him, she falls silent and says only after a while: "Look, I'm not stupid, Nathaniel. I know that I have no right over you, and never will. So, if you do want to screw her… just do it on the side, please, so that I don't have to watch her all over you like she was at the Yule feast."

Nathaniel stirs uneasily, remembering Velanna's half-open bodice at the feast, and the warmth of her body pressed to him under the furs, during their cold watch over the Stark farm. Feeling Astrid tense in his arms, he pushes the thought aside and slowly runs his hand along her back, cupping her buttock. "There's just one woman I want in my bed."

She looks at him for a moment, her expression indiscernible, and then her eyes narrow with mischief. "How about proving it here and now?"

"I thought I just have?"

Astrid cocks her head. "A poor excuse. Besides, I saw you oggling her tits. – She does have a pretty pair, for an elf, most of the elf wenches I've seen were flat like a board."

The truth of that can hardly be denied, and Nathaniel remembers all too well the sight of Velanna's rosy hardened nipples in the autumn wood, after they barely made it alive from the Architect's trap.

But it's definitely not a memory he should share, and so he replies casually: "I'm definitely not letting the quality of her bosom override my common sense as to the quality of her character."

Atrid snorts. "The quality of her character has nothing to do with the quality of her cunt, you know."

"I'm not particularly inclined to explore the depth of either," he retorts, but even as Astrid starts giggling, pressing her cheek helplessly to his chest, he finds himself wondering for a moment if he actually didn't tell a lie.

When Astrid recovers from the fit of laughter, she pokes him with her forefinger. "So what shall we do about your dear friend Velanna? I'm telling you, she's really annoying with that drama of hers."

"I'll try to reason with her when an opportunity presents itself," Nathaniel promises. "I can't guarantee any positive result, though, she's totally unpredictable."

"How very convenient," Astrid sneers, shifting to put her leg over him. "Aren't you actually turned on at the thought of the two of us having a catfight over you?"

Hardly. "I'd think you already know what turns me on."

"Hmm… I'm not sure," she says thoughtfully, her hand already wondering to the places well-explored and driving away any inappropriate thoughts of Velanna. "Should I try to come up with something?"

"By all means, do," he mutters, even as her hair caresses his flank and the warm lips slowly tease their way lower to meet the hand.

Much later, when the candle is a mere puddle of molten wax, Astrid whispers in the dark: "The men are talking in the barracks… is that true that the Commander is going to take you on another expedition soon?"

"Most probably. He can't let the raids go on like this much longer. We have to search the centre of the arling all and through, and hope we find that hole the darkspawn crawl from." Though it will take ages and if we don't know where to look, the chances of success are next to zero.

Astrid sighs and puts her arm over his chest, snuggling closer to him. "That will be a long time, I'll miss you…" she mutters, and then, suddenly, embraces him tight.

"I'll be back," he whispers hoarsely, feeling uneasy at the unspoken emotion. "Maker might be merciful for once and let us find some clue soon."

She neither replies nor releases her embrace: Maker rarely listens to such pleas.

Yet, two days later, it seems that He has, for this once: His mercy takes the form of Constable Aidan, arriving with a small retinue and bringing along two hunters, apparently uneasy in the presence of the Commander of the Grey and more than glad to leave once he is done with questions.

"Knotwood hills." Leaning over the map of the arling in concentration, Ned is the embodiment of contained energy to be released. "Here, exactly," his finger follows the course of a stream cutting into the highland and then diverts between two hills. "There's supposed to be some chasm, and in the chasm, remnants of stonework. It must be an access into the Deep Roads."

"As you say." Oghren accompanies his words by a usual belch. "Don't expect me to know my way around, though, I ain't got no idea what's down below from up here. Once we get there… well, we'll see."

"We'll see," Ned repeats, glancing over all of the gathered Wardens, with the look of a hunter on the right track. "It's high time we put an end to this. Pack your gear, we're setting out tomorrow."

Nathaniel doesn't sigh, though he much wants to: the winter has not released its hold yet and the weather, though not particularly frosty, is still far from comfortable. The rest of his companions do not seem to be bothered by the prospect: Anders is way more worried about Ser Pounce-a-lot's wellbeing during his absence, Oghren is apparently looking forward to the fight, Justice's face, as usually, shows nothing except slightly peeling skin, and Velanna… Velanna watches the map as if only that piece of thin parchment separated her from the reunion with her sister, however unlikely it is.

Nathaniel quickly averts his eyes. With her cheeks flushed in expectation and her eyes shining, Velanna is…


Pretty and stubborn, and

The memory of the clumsy kiss under the mistletoe keeps haunting him ever since the debate with Astrid. He hasn't make good on his promise to talk to Velanna yet, feeling terribly awkward about approaching her with this.

What if they are wrong, after all?

I'll talk to her after we leave the Keep. Outside, in the open, she is always much easier to talk to; much more at ease, much more… friendly


"I have only tried to be friendly to her."

Once he retreats into the privacy of his room, Nathaniel throws himself on the bed, with a groan.

Nathaniel Howe, you bloody liar. She does turn you on, and faults of character have nothing to do with it in the least.