Aww... awkward. Nathaniel's first day as a Warden

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3. Interludes and Examinations

The sun shines on the bed at a familiar angle – his bed, in his room.

As if nothing ever changed.

Nathaniel runs his hands over his face. He doesn't feel any different, either.

Strange. He sought to serve the man he hated, and had to drink darkspawn blood to achieve that, and yet he feels no different at all. Pushing aside the sheets, he gets up and walks over to the small table of dark wood. The back corner is chipped – the memory of the beating he and Thomas received for knocking the table and upturning the washbasin as they fought is still vivid.

Nathaniel shakes his head. After all that has transpired, he is lodged in his old room, which looks quite like it did before.

Well, much better lodging that the previous one.

He washes and shaves, then leans closer to the tarnished looking glass to inspect his features: certainly some proof of the change must be visible?

But the reflection offers only the familiar hard set of his face, one he got used to over the years.

He certainly did not take after the mother's delicate beauty the way Thomas and Delilah did; he doesn't have much of Rendon, either, though the long face and nose do bring some resemblance. His eyes are the colour of his father's but not the shape; his hair is his mother's jet black, and that's it.

The lack of family features in his face used to worry him, at one point.

Nathaniel smirks. How peculiar that the former disadvantage has turned out advantageous – bearing his father's name and his face would do him little good these days.

His armour and weapons are where he vaguely recalls putting them before he collapsed on his bed, exhausted by the strain of the Joining: it seems that Cousland's orders of no restrictions to him are valid.

Time to test the limits, then.

Varel's eyes are drawn invariably to the blade at Nathaniel's side but he keeps his expression perfectly polite as he answers his questions. No, the Commander specified no duties for Nathaniel so far, recruits are usually given some time to recover after the Joining. However, he did mention – and here Nathaniel can tell that the order does not sit well with Varel – that he is to be granted free access to the armory where he can take any equipment he deems fit.

Nathaniel feels his brows rise and Varel clears his throat. "Actually, the Commander said that you are to take any equipment that is better than your current." Seeing Nathaniel's incredulity, he adds: "The Wardens think that only the best is good enough for them, and what we have here are pieces that you do not see on the regular basis. – You can take a look for yourself, after all."

As he turns the key in the lock, he suddenly turns to Nathaniel with a wink: "And if you still have that smug face when you're done here, I'll eat my shoes."

Nathaniel briefly wonders what he will have to eat, since drinking is already done.

His doubts, as well as the slowly waking stomach, are immediately forgotten as he sets his eyes on the bow.

Oh, there are certainly some more pieces worth his attention – it seems that practically everything is better that the attire that had cost his father quite some money in its time – but Maker, the bow

He realizes that Varel is watching him with a broad smile, which vanishes as the man remarks: "Now you look exactly the way I remember when you got that new bow for your birthday."

And had it taken away on the very same day because I displeased father somehow. Happy birthday, Nathaniel. He shrugs. "You were right, I've never seen a bow like this before. Your shoes are safe for today. Is there anything else to be eaten?"

His mood lightened by the bow and the breakfast, Nathaniel decides not to postpone the inevitable and report with … the Commander. As instructed, he walks past the sparring circle, heading to the more secluded area of a side courtyard where he used to practice with bow.

He strides as casually as he can, aware of the looks he earns from nearly everyone he passes by. No-one stops him or questions his presence, though, and so he reaches his destination unhindered.

Ned Cousland's idea of training seems rather unorthodox: without a partner, not to mention the shield and armour, he swirls around in a swift dance, the flashing blade blurred by the speed. Every now and then, he slows down and performs the movement slowly, as if testing the weight and balance of a weapon he is unused to. Nathaniel holds his breath. He is familiar with the style: it can be seen in the Marches, now and then, brought by the mercenaries from far-off lands; but here, in Ferelden?

He keeps watching, intrigued, while a calculating part of his mind observes for potential weak spots.

Cousland finishes his training with a lunge against the invisible opponent's chest, then he straightens and lowers his sword.

And as he turns, he glimpses Nathaniel, and shifts back into the battle stance within a blink of an eye.

Nathaniel freezes, unsure how to respond, but almost immediately, Ned Cousland relaxes again and sheathes his sword. "Sorry. Better not to approach me like this before I get used to your presence," he states matter-of-factly. "You come in handy, I would have a word with you." He glances over Nathaniel and nods approvingly. "I see you have visited the armory. Good."

"It seems that your opinion is rather solitary," Nathaniel remarks, remembering all those eyes practically drilling holes into his back.

Ned Cousland half-shrugs. "Insisting that you walk around unarmed would be pointless. Should you be so stupid as to try anything, you are a dead man."

Remaining quiet after such arrogance is past Nathaniel's self-control. "So you believe I wouldn't stand a chance against you?"

He receives a hard look and the moment of silence lies heavy, but in the end Cousland speaks rather civilly: "What I had on mind was that you wouldn't rejoice over your revenge for long. Even if you made it out of the Keep alive, there is no way you could ever escape Alistair."

Nathaniel feels like gritting his teeth – whether at his own idiocy or at the casual reminder of Cousland's standing with the mighty of this world, he cannot really tell. However, he won't be embarrassed any further. "I apologize then for jumping at a wrong conclusion."

He sounds much stiffer than he would have liked but Ned Cousland graciously overlooks that. "No offence taken. Conversations are bound to be difficult – and inevitable. The contact can be minimized but not avoided."

Unable to make up a reasonable response, Nathaniel only nods.

After an awkward pause, Cousland continues. "As the only senior Warden here, it is my duty to instruct you on the Wardens' ways, as well as inform you in fullness about the effects of the Joining. It may be a rather prolonged talk, so take your time and seek me during the day whenever you feel ready."

The idea of talking to Cousland twice during the day is unappealing. "Now is as good a time as any."

Cousland obviously shares the attitude. "Very well, then. Follow me, the topic requires privacy."

Unsurprisingly, the new Commander did not take over Rendon's rooms; instead, he occupies the much smaller chambers in the southern tower which used to be Delilah's. To Nathaniel's relief, the room has been refurnished; the new surroundings make him feel Cousland's intrusion less acutely.

"Take a seat," Cousland bids him, himself seated behind the desk.

Nathaniel's first impulse is to refuse and remain standing; however, he quickly reconsiders. He is here of his own volition, and a defiant pose is of little use. Besides, he doesn't want to lose his face again by being the one unable to hold his temper.

Concentrated, he listens to Cousland's account of what it takes to be a Grey Warden; rather than looking at him, observing a dark spot on the polished wood.

So. If the darkspawn don't kill him, the taint eventually will; he will never sire an heir, and this all by his own choice.

The biggest joke ever: the last Howe has condemned himself.

Cousland must have laughed his socks off in private.

Though, the man did take the trouble to warn him beforehand.

As Nathaniel finally finds it in himself to raise his head and meet Cousland's eyes, there is no trace of laughter or malicious satisfaction as he awaits Nathaniel's reaction.

And so Nathaniel says, "I see," and looks for something else to say. "This is what you were hinting at when you warned me, is it?" Only then it strikes him. "Why did you warn me at all if it's supposed to be a secret?"

Cousland tilts his head. "What would you have thought if I had let you take the Joining without any clue?"

That you acted out of malevolence. Nathaniel turns his head away and Cousland nods, quirking. "You'd be furious, which would only further complicate the matter. I was." He suddenly presses his lips, as if the bitter tone somehow escaped against his will, and finishes blankly: "The courtesy is normally not given."

Neither man speaks for some time, occupied by his own thoughts.

"Is that all I need to know?" Nathaniel finally blurts.

"There are a couple more things about the taint and the darkspawn, such as the way they procreate, but I believe the knowledge is redundant at the moment. As for the Deep Roads and what you may encounter there, talk to Oghren, he is the most experienced by far."

And you are as fed up with me as I am with you. "Is this not redundant knowledge?" He almost bites his lip: the urge at pointed statements is getting irresistible.

Cousland actually smirks this time. "This is knowledge to be used tomorrow. Right after our return, I had the clearing works in the vaults renewed and I expect it to be finished tomorrow. Once the ceilings are secured from another cave-in, we will have to go down there and explore. There must be an entrance to the Deep Roads somewhere. You do not happen to be familiar with it, by the way?"

"Never heard of any." The business-like tone makes the conversation somewhat less awkward.

"Pity. Neither does any of the servants – well, what can be done." Cousland rises. "Do talk to Oghren, and I needn't tell you to practice with your new bow, do I. Any questions?"

"No… Commander." Nathaniel can tell a dismissal when he sees one. The multitude of questions pressing on his tongue can be discussed with Varel, or just about anyone else, for that matter.

Anyone else but Cousland himself.