After Kal'Hirol, some talking about heart issues and references to the Origins events.
First Chapter::His Father's Son
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Confessions and Lamentations
The blade swishes through the air and gets stuck with a thud and quiet thrum.
Off the mark.
Nathaniel mutters a curse through his teeth and gets up to retrieve his throwing knives from the lichen-covered stump. When he resumes his previous position, he takes a few breaths to concentrate and tries again.
Screw it. Missed completely.
Abandoning the futile attempt at calming down, he gets up and begins pacing, to vent the whirling emotions and tension that have been nagging at him ever since the return from Kal'Hirol.
Once again, he wishes he had never heard about the place.
Whatever resolve kept the individual Wardens going and fighting through the hell of the infested thaig, it wore thin during the long, extremely uneventful way back which nonetheless still kept them on the edge. The weariness of mind and body after the extreme exertion affected them all, with the single exclusion of Justice, whose cold, unnatural calmness was hardly any comfort to anyone. The endless trudge through the dark corridors was straining for everyone but Velanna was the one hit worst: once the hope of finding Seranni, which kept her nearly oblivious to the dreads around her, turned out futile, all energy left her and for the bigger part of the journey, she had to be supported.
And of course, the idiot who had to do it was me.
The choice was obvious: Ned, deep in gloomy silence, led the way, Oghren and Justice were toiling with the stone list of the casteless, and Anders as the single usable mage had to remain ready and alert… and so Sigrun took up Nathaniel's usual position in the front and he walked with Velanna, supporting her, the whole time acutely aware of the way she clang to him.
She clang to him even after they finally exited the Deep Roads into the daylight, to the base camp where the soldiers under Maverlies' command welcomed them with all the comfort a winter camp could provide: fire to warm, food and drink aplenty, even warm water to wash the gore and slime before they changed into clean clothes.
Warmed and fed and tended to, they should be resting comfortably but they aren't. Even after a long, exhausted sleep, Anders and Oghren don't indulge in their usual banter, Velanna doesn't quip in with sarcastic remarks about the horrible shems, Ned and Wolf are nowhere to be seen… the full extent of what they've been through has fully settled in only now. Sigrun seems to be the only one recuperating fast: watching everything around her with her eyes wide open ever since she left "the Stone" the first time in her life, she enthusiastically examines every single object new to her – which constitutes about nearly everything.
Finally, to escape the gloomy mood (as well as Velanna's eyes, following him almost everywhere in the camp), Nathaniel retreated into the solitude of the wood, finding a sheltered spot behind the wall of low spruces on a small glade.
The practice with throwing knives, a handy resort for a distracted mind, has turned out rather disappointing. The memories of Kal'Hirol are still pressing… and whenever he manages to keep these at bay, his thoughts inevitably end up with Velanna.
Nathaniel knows all too well that he needs to talk to her soon, before they set out for the Keep again, to give her time to adjust to the situation, only he is absolutely clueless how to handle it.
Er, Velanna, I know that I've been ogling you at every opportunity but I'm actually not interested…
Yeah. Except that I want to screw you, I'm totally not interested.
So very convincing.
And I don't really want to quell this, do I.
The only thing that hold him back is consideration for Astrid who's been playing on the fair side in this.
Fairness for fairness. I owe her that much, even though I don't love her.
There's no escape: he has to swallow the bitter pill and finally talk to Velanna… only he is so loath to discuss this…
Nathaniel Howe, you damned coward. What are you waiting for, something miraculously solving this for you?
He doesn't hear her coming, only until she is very close – the elf weaves through the undergrowth as if on wings, even though she is striding, determinedly, towards him.
Forced into the confrontation, Nathaniel thinks briefly that this is probably for the best – to delve into the inevitable, head first, without much pondering.
As Velanna approaches, it strikes him once again how beautiful she is – her silken hair, freshly washed, shining around her shoulders, her cheeks rosy with cold, her delicate lips slightly open, without the usual display of stubbornness. Her strides are lithe, her hips swaying, and she stops only very close to him, looking up at him with those large, golden-green eyes…
He takes a breath to say something, or perhaps make a step back, not to be so close – so very close – but suddenly, Velanna's arms clasp around his neck and her lips, firm and demanding, seal his. The tip of her tongue lashes out, tasting him and bringing the taste of her along, her hand digging into his hair on his nape, her body pressing against him –
– those wonderful breasts, the rosy nipples hardened in the cold air –
– so close –
Groaning into her mouth, Nathaniel pulls her even closer, with the hands he never knew he placed on her hips. He slides under her jerkin, to the warmth of her body which arches under his touch, ever so tighter to his arousal.
A branch cracking and a huffed bark snap him out of the fervour, realizing whose presence it signifies.
Feeling him freeze, Velanna actually hisses, like a big cat whose prey has just eluded, and curiously, the sound momentarily revives the desire to tear off her clothes and have her right there, on the snow, no matter what.
The next moment, though, the elf snakes out of his arms and strides away, never looking back even as Ned, with Wolf prancing around, enters the opening.
The dog doesn't pay the vanishing elf any attention but Ned glances after Velanna and then raises his brows questioningly, his eyes sparkling with mirth. "I hope I didn't disrupt whatever the two of you were doing, even though, you know –"
In the shocked silence, Nathaniel can feel his heart racing while his head doesn't seem to be occupied by a single thought what to do after his outburst.
He expects a similarly violent reaction, or a cold reprimand, but to his surprise, Ned briefly lowers his head and says softly: "I'm sorry, Nathaniel. I didn't mean to offend you."
Even more frustrated, Nathaniel rakes his hands through his hair. "Oh, Maker, I…" His anger quickly evaporating, he realizes how stupid the whole situation is. "No, that's… I overreacted. I – I just don't seem to be able to get this right…"
No amusement this time, as Ned looks in the direction where Velanna disappeared. "You are… intrigued, right?"
"Not really sure how to call it," Nathaniel admits, feeling absolutely ridiculous for even voicing that. "I – I mean, she is very pretty, and brave, and sometimes she can be nice when she wants to, but other than that… I don't think I can even say that I like her, she's so weird… so unpredictable."
"She left her own people for a reason," Ned agrees. "She is a really difficult person to get along with. I don't think I've ever met someone like her… sometimes I wonder to what extent the decision to leave her clan was really her own, or if she was simply… forced out."
"Difficult doesn't even start to cover it," Nathaniel mutters darkly. "I feel like an idiot for, you know…"
"Being attracted by the challenge?"
Said like that, it doesn't sound particularly appealing but the assessment is true, at least partially. "Perhaps. Though it's just, er, physical."
"Just physical," Ned repeats, in a rather weird tone. "Even 'just physical' can easily turn into… something else. – Though I'm not really the one who should give advice on this," he says curtly, pressing his lips and looking away.
Nathaniel also averts his eyes, unsure what the sudden twist of the conversation meant.
Wolf's intervention saves them from awkward silence: pricking his ears, the dog barks sharply and starts for the opposite edge of the glade, most probably catching some scent in the wind. At Ned's whistle, he returns with a offended whine.
"No rambling around here," Ned chastises him, but the way he pats the scarred back is very different from the tone.
"You wanted to speak to me?" Nathaniel asks, trying a fresh start.
"Well, yes, though not necessarily right away, I merely chanced at you."
"Ah… now is as good a time as any," Nathaniel shrugs. "I was just trying to pass the time," he waves at the log, sporting holes from the throwing knives around the makeshift target.
Ned looks at it with a raised brow. "You seem to be awfully off the point…"
Tell me something I don't know myself. "I can't focus," he admits. "This place is gnawing at me… what are we waiting for? Why don't we make back for the Keep?"
"We will, tomorrow," Ned promises. "I thought that giving us one more day to rest would be a good idea but apparently, it wasn't. I guess it's gnawing at us all…"
Wolf pokes at his hand with his nose and Ned pets him again; then, as the dog sits on his haunches, he also picks a spot to sit down tiredly. "I didn't think it would be so tough down there, either," he confesses. He looks up at Nathaniel. "I nearly got us all killed."
Nathaniel brushes off the remains of snow from the log he has occupied previously. "But it had to be done," he points out. "If we left those breeding grounds intact, we'd be in a great deal of trouble in no time at all."
Ned is watching intently a broken branch protruding from the snow. "We still are. We didn't find the Architect, nor that mysterious 'Mother', we still have no idea why darkspawn started to talk or what keeps them from receding underground…"
"That's true," Nathaniel has to admit, "but it is still well possible that after what we did here, the attacks will stop, or at least reduce in number. If they have become intelligent, to retreat would be the clever thing to do."
"To retreat where we cannot reach them, so that they could strike again when we are not ready."
"Or we at them when they don't expect us."
A shade of a brief smile. "So, you would venture underground again?"
"Hardly with pleasure," Nathaniel snorts, "but it has to be done, there is no way around it."
Finally, Ned raises his eyes to him. "That is good to know," he says softly. "You know, down there, you had me worried for some time. You seemed…" he makes an indefinite gesture with his hand.
Scared. Revolted. "I know. But – I overcame it. I… I came to realize what really matters to me, and I stuck to it to get myself through."
Ned nods in understanding, and though he doesn't ask, Nathaniel offers an explanation. "I realized that being able to kill darkspawn is not enough – the important thing is why I do it, why I have to do it. Not for myself, to clean the family name or whatever, but for my sister, and for others like her, who must be protected, and not be abandoned to their fate like those poor folks down there. And to do that… I can't be repelled by filth… or fear." Feeling his throat tightening, he adds to lighten the mood: "Though, whenever I had to muck myself in some more slime, it was only the thought of a profound bath that kept me going."
Ned snickers at that, briefly, his thoughts apparently occupied by something else troubling his mind.
Feeling strangely close and distanced at the same time, Nathaniel leans forward to him. "What keeps you going? How do you manage to cope with what we were through down there?"
The silence lingers so long that he begins to worry if he hasn't crossed a line, but then Ned says very softly, not looking at him: "I… I can plunge into whatever's ahead because I know that it can't be more terrible than what has already happened to me."
Of course. Highever.
Whatever happens, whatever I do, it always comes back to that, Nathaniel thinks helplessly, staring into the ground, until Ned suddenly reaches to put a hand on his shoulder. "No, not this, Nathaniel. This is not about your father any more."
Puzzled, he looks up, and Ned smiles briefly, without the smile reaching his eyes. "You always wear the same expression when it comes to the topic," he explains. The hand on Nathaniel's shoulder gives a small press before it retracts and clasps the other in Ned's lap. "Has Oghren told you about our search in the Deep Roads, back then during the Blight?"
Not sure where this is heading, Nathaniel replies cautiously: "He did mention it a couple of times – not very consistently and not in great detail, except when he bragged about some fights."
A snort. "And undoubtedly, gossiped about me and Morrigan, right?"
"One hell of a prickly bitch if I've ever seen one, but her tits, yeah… the Commander was so taken with those tits that he even found the time to shag her in between killing darkspawn." Nathaniel clears his throat. "Sort of."
"Thought so. He's worse than an old crone in this." Staring at the dimly pink horizon, Ned absent-mindedly fidgets with his fingers – or rather, as if he was fidgeting with a ring through his glove, even though Nathaniel is not aware of him wearing one. "We spent weeks underground… or rather, an eternity, as there was no way to measure the time. We followed a weak, hopeless lead, but still, we moved on and reached the place we were supposed to… the Dead Trenches."
The name sounds ominous, and Nathaniel shifts uneasily, returning in his memory to the bleak devastation of Kal'Hirol.
Ned doesn't seem to take notice. "There, after all that caution, I made a terrible mistake. We briefly joined the Legion and assisted them in a grand battle with darkspawn, in hope that we would clear the area and move on more quickly. Some of us, however, were injured, and I decided to leave them under the protection of the Legion and scout ahead with the rest: Alistair, Sten and Oghren… and Morrigan." He briefly glances at Nathaniel. "Mind you… I was only a green Warden recruit, Alistair barely more, and neither of us knew about the existence of broodmothers. … it never occurred to us to ask something like that of those who might be knowledgeable, and it probably never occurred to them that Grey Wardens might be so ignorant. And so we went, expecting that we might fall back any time if we ran into trouble, and we had no idea what we would find there."
That is a part of the story Nathaniel is familiar with. "But Oghren's crazy wife trapped you in some kind of maze."
A nod. "Yes. And when we finally fought through, next to exhausted, she commanded golems against us… you've seen what they can do, so you can imagine it didn't go well. In the end, I ended up with a only few bruises and Oghren just a little worse, but Sten and Alistair were really bad off, and Morrigan… she had taken a hit in the head and couldn't be woken. I…" Lowering his eyes to his hands – definitely a ring there, under the glove – he abruptly clasps them, entwining his fingers. "There… arose an issue what to do with her. Those two couldn't be any help carrying her. I was able-bodied but my primary responsibility was with Alistair, I couldn't both support him and carry Morrigan. Oghren was no use as a support, and… he made clear that if I wanted to save my woman just after we killed his – whom we originally set out to save, you know – I was on my own, and I didn't dare to press the issue for fear he might simply abandon us there. He was in no way bound to me, Branka's death hit him hard… I didn't dare to. So, I had to carry "the dead weight", as he put it, on my own. He… " A long pause. "He only offered to slit her throat for me if I couldn't find it in me to do it myself."
Impulsively, Nathaniel also reaches to touch Ned's shoulder. "But you made it – all of you, right?"
Ned slowly nods. "We did. And I remember every single step of those corridors and stairs when I wondered whether I would have the strength to make another one. Whether I was slowing us and doomed us all. Whether Alistair would be able to walk the whole way on his own as he insisted…" He closes his eyes. "Whether I would have to…" his voice breaks. Slowly, he puts his hand over Nathaniel's. "So, that's why I'm not really afraid down there. Whatever happens, whatever we encounter, it can only kill me. It can't be worse than... that."
He lets his hand down and Nathaniel withdraws his, feeling suddenly awkward: the intimacy of the shared memory has caught him unprepared. Trying to deal with it, he asks: "But, what about resolve? How does this – this terrible experience give you resolve?"
Ned looks up at him. "It doesn't," he admits. "I think that goes simply to stubbornness… like when you said that you keep going to get your bath, I keep going to see the sun again. Just because I am ready to die there doesn't mean that I am willing, and as long as I can do a thing, I'd rather die elsewhere but there."
Only, it's exactly what us Wardens are supposed to do, or not?
The prospect, though still distant, sends chills down his spine, and Nathaniel shudders: the lone death in the dark and filth is not an end he would wish for himself.
Seeing his unease, Ned's lips briefly press in a firm line and hands clench. "I won't," he says, surprisingly fiercely. "Tradition or not, I won't do that. I can go into the Deep Roads with a mere sliver of hope to ever return, but I won't go there to just die. I have done my duty and given my life to the Wardens, but my death will be mine to decide." He issues a barking laughter. "After all, what can they do to me if I don't comply?"
That leaves Nathaniel speechless. In the lingering silence, his eyes are drawn by the sight of Ned fidgeting with the ring under his glove: when he realizes what he has been doing, as well as Nathaniel's interest, he freezes for a moment. He lowers his head to look at his hand; then, with a sigh, he peels off the glove.
The ring is rather tiny, of some kind of wood: a mere trinket; yet, Nathaniel is surprised why he never noticed it before, or why Ned wears it at all.
"Yes," Ned guesses his thought in one of those moments of practically reading each other's mind. "That is from Morrigan. The single thing I have left from her."
Looking at the ring, Nathaniel feels his head brimming with questions he doesn't dare to ask: whether for fear of being answered or not, he cannot tell.
Slowly, Ned covers the ring with the other hand and his lips move without a sound, forming a single word. Then, looking somewhere far off, he adds: "And it all started with me being intrigued."