Heading onto the final part: the darkspawn attack Amaranthine
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A Very Long Night of Nathaniel Howe
Pinehill. Stoneford. Derhall estate.
The list goes on and on, and Nathaniel feels like howling in frustration. The days of winter travel, there and back, the mentally and physically exhausting fight in the ruins of Kal'Hirol, the horror and despair of its fall and of its current inhabitants, and all for nothing. Nothing.
'We didn't find the Architect, we didn't find the Mother, we didn't discover how this all started...'
We have achieved nothing. All that strain and struggle, for nothing.
The list of the darkspawn attacks which happened in their absence is daunting - and instead of making the darkspawn retreat, the attack on the Kal'Hirol breeding grounds as if provoked a surge in their activity.
Ned listens to the account with a stony expression but Nathaniel is sure that the Commander's thoughts only reflect his own. Yet, seeing Ned bury his face in his hands when Varel finishes the report comes as a mild shock. He exchanges an alarmed look with the seneschal over Ned's lowered head but neither of them dares to comment.
"We have achieved nothing... again." Ned's voice sounds not only muffled but dull. "We nearly got ourselves killed for no good reason, and now I have to go and face Eddelbrek and the other lords and explain why I took a fancy trip right in the middle of a growing crisis."
The silence he receives in answer provokes a dim smile as he raises his head. "What, no encouragement? Not a single piece of good news? Varel?"
The seneschal clears his throat. "I believe the dinner will be served soon, my Lord."
Ned groans and rolls his eyes. "I said, 'good news'. This means only that Eddelbrek will spoil not just my mood but my dinner, as well."
The seneschal sighs pronouncedly but otherwise refrains from commenting, keeping his face controlled, as does Nathaniel. Ned glances from one to the other and slowly straightens. "We need a miracle," he states matter-of-factly. "We need something to happen soon, to solve this stalemate. Only, I have no idea how to arrange it."
Silence. There is nothing to be added to that, as long as the arling bleeds and no solution seems available.
The dinner is an awkward occasion: the extent of destruction wrought to the arling far exceeds that currently occurring in West Hills or any other part of Ferelden directly affected by the Blight, and Nathaniel can tell that the nobles from Eddelbrek's retinue do not bear the situation lightly. He is more than glad that they are seated at the places of honour at the upper table, which leaves him somewhat outside the centre of attention.
Thanked be the Maker for little mercies, he thinks sarcastically, seeing Ned deflect Lord Eddelbrek's prickly tongue for the umpteenth time.
Only, his position means that he is seated practically opposite Velanna, who has started to attend the meals recently. Nathaniel can feel her eyes on him almost constantly, with feline contentment over a prey that cannot possibly escape - a notion that should probably irritate, or at least disquiet him, but it doesn't.
Maker be blessed for little mercies, as Astrid has left for Amaranthine and will not be back for a couple more hours… or even on the morrow.
The thought of the fair-haired messenger disquiets him more than Velanna's possessive advances: the profound feeling of guilt has never left him since Kal'Hirol, and her silence when he had to admit that the 'situation' still remained unresolved cut deeper than any sharp words which he had expected. She didn't even turn him a cold shoulder, but the distraught silence as she was lying in his arms afterwards spoke volumes.
Nathaniel sighs inwardly. Astrid's returns from Amaranthine used to be something he looked forward to – both due to the letters from Delilah and to the simple pleasure of Astrid smiling at him and kissing him in a way of greeting. He casts a sidelong glance at Velanna, at the delicate curve of her cheeks and finely shaped lips which he kissed, as well –
Idiot. Neither the time nor place to think about that.
Idiot. And coward.
With a startle, Nathaniel realizes that he has lost track of the conversation: as it seems, Ned argues with Lord Eddelbrek about the best course of action to improve the protection of the farmland.
We need something to happen soon, Nathaniel thinks helplessly, and I need something to happen soon, as well.
Without much appetite, he toys with his portion of stew. Stalemate. Or rather, indecisiveness.
A sound of rushing steps and the door flings open as a guard, breathless, bursts into the room. "My Lord Commander… dire news."
A woman follows behind him, limping badly; a crude, blood-soaked bandage just above her knee, her fair hair dishevelled and clotted with dark stains, her blue eyes feverish in dark-smeared face…
Making two more uneasy steps, she lands on her knees. "Lord Commander…" her voice is hoarse and shaky, and she is gasping. "Darkspawn… are attacking Amaranthine…"
That brings to their feet even the last of those still remaining seated; Nathaniel, on the contrary, has to secure himself against the table, almost physically sick.
Oh, Maker, Delilah…
"They… issued from the tunnels and sewers below the city… they are within the walls and around… darkspawn and some weird creatures, like giant bugs…" Astrid's words fall into dead silence, no-one and nothing moves.
Ned is the first to break out of the stupor; leaving his place, he bends over Astrid. "What about the City Council? Aidan? The templars? Were they able to put up any resistance?"
Astrid shakes her head feebly. "Some – some city guards were fighting in the main street just behind the gate… I couldn't go past… Sergeant Clover yelled at me to get the message to you…" Her breath hitches. "Then the darkspawn were suddenly everywhere…." Her eyes swerve over Ned's shoulder at Nathaniel. "They were all around… they clawed at me and Windy as I went…"
Nathaniel feels cold horror clutch at his heart even before she finishes, sobbing: "The big one grabbed me by the hair but I struck him down, but – b-but – his b-blood splashed all-all over me and – and it burns – it – b-burns…"
At that moment, Nathaniel is already kneeling by her, side by side with Anders. Holding Astrid tight as she throws herself in his arms, he sees the mage nod to the Commander lightly.
"Astrid. Do not be afraid. It will be alright." The soothing power of Ned's voice is so strong that her sobs somewhat subside. "Anders, take her for treatment and then inform Cera. Tell her to start with preparations immediately." Gently, he releases Astrid from Nathaniel's arms. "Go with Anders, Astrid. He will take care of you. – You stay a while, Nathaniel."
Straightening, Ned looks around, at the faces pale with shock. "These are dire news indeed but we must not despair, we must act quickly. We will not let Amaranthine fall. My Lords," he addresses Eddelbrek and his vassals, "rally your men and speed for Amaranthine." Not waiting for their response, he turns to Garavel. "Captain. Gather an attack force for saddles. Take the most seasoned men, and preferably volunteers. We leave as soon as possible. See to it that they are equipped with the best the Keep can provide."
Garavel is on his way even before he finishes the salute; as Eddelbrek is about to follow, he is stopped by Ned's gesture. "Just a moment, my Lord. The situation is grave. The force we can dispatch for Amaranthine so quickly is small, and there is no telling what we may encounter there." He takes a deep breath. "Therefore, I hereby name Nathaniel Howe my second-in-command, and the acting Warden Commander and Arl of Amaranthine in case I do not return. I will prepare the necessary documents that will confirm him as such, to be sent to the King and to Weisshaupt, so that his authority is not questioned until the First Warden confirms his naming or determines a replacement. I will have you sign these documents as witnesses before you leave, Lord Eddelbrek, and they will be given to Seneschal Varel for safekeeping."
Ignoring the stunned silence, Ned turns and addresses Nathaniel directly. "I know you will not fail me."
Don't. Don't do this to me.
But there is nothing he can do, and so Nathaniel takes a knee again. "As you command." He has to be careful when getting up because his head is spinning and he desperately needs air, but he has to wait until Ned beckons him to follow.
"Why? Why me?" he spurts as soon as the door closes behind them and they almost run through the corridors to Ned's chambers. "Why don't you let me come with you? This is my chance to redeem my name and to save my sister!"
"Because there is no-one else who could take the role! Who should represent the Wardens if I fall? A drunk dwarf, a rotting corpse, an apostate? Do Velanna or Sigrun seem as plausible candidates?" Ned passes a hand over his face: it trembles. "You think I do not know what I'm asking of you?"
Dropping his eyes, Nathaniel shakes his head.
"I'm sorry," Ned says rather desperately, "I'm really sorry, Nathaniel, but I need you here."
"Never mind," Nathaniel overcomes the lump in his throat, "never mind, I see. Just, if you can – if there is – if –"
"I'll find Delilah if I can. I swear."
Nathaniel swallows hard. "I know you will, you needn't swear. And do come back, I do not feel like explaining time and again that you were not insane to choose me."
"I'll try to spare you the inconvenience." A faint smile, which disappears immediately. "Will you help me prepare my gear? I have some writing to do."
The following minutes pass like in a dream: he checks and prepares the battle gear, potions and flasks, while Ned is writing frantically; Eddelbrek, already armed and armoured for the journey, hurriedly signs the documents practically without reading, interrupting the task to shout some orders at his men from the window. Servants and soldiers rush in and out, taking orders, and Nathaniel does his best to keep his hands from trembling as he is helping Ned don the armour.
Then, briefly, they are alone, and he clasps the sword to Ned's side.
Ned holds his hands by the forearms before he can withdraw them. "Farewell. Take care."
"You too." He wants to say more, he does, but his throat tightens, and then Ned is gone and the riders are leaving the Keep.
The sudden silence after the bustle is confusing. Taking a few deep breaths, he tries to calm down and focus – the list of tasks to be done is quite extensive, yet when he seeks Varel, he is relieved to find out that the older man has the things already running smoothly. Even so, their discussion is a prolonged one, till it's interrupted by Cera, peeking into the room: "Ready."
The moment Nathaniel realizes what for, his stomach performs a somersault.
Varel puts a hand on his shoulder. "Go bring her, Nathaniel," he says softly. "We're practically done here."
That is easier said than done, though: Astrid is not in her room in the barracks, nor in his, nor in the infirmary, and no-one seems to have an idea where she may have gone.
Then, it finally dawns on Nathaniel.
The stable is dark and empty, and not a sound. Disappointed, he turns to leave, before he realizes that at least one horse should be present, and with his heart pounding, he makes for Windy's box.
There he finds them both: sitting on the ground by the dead horse, her hand slowly pets the fair mane. Realizing Nathaniel's presence she raises her head. "He was in pain," she says quite calmly, "so I helped him the only way I could. Will you do the same for me?"
"Astrid…" Kneeling by her, he attempts to take her in his arms: she does not respond. "You don't have to die," he tries again.
"I am already as good as dead."
"No. There is another way, listen…"
"I know. Anders has told me."
Nathaniel finds the quiet resignation worse than the previous hysteria. "It's not so bad, being a Warden…"
She looks into his eyes and says nothing.
"You could still have your horses, the Commander will let you…" With growing despair, he grabs her by the shoulders and gives her a shake. "Won't you at least try? For me, if for nothing else?"
She watches him long without an answer, until she finally nods. At his urging, she gets up and follows him to meet Cera and Varel, in a secluded room. Impassively, she listens to the words of the Joining, not looking at either of them but at Nathaniel. When Varel offers her the cup, though, she hesitates, as if transfixed by its dark content. When she doesn't move, Nathaniel takes the cup from Varel and presses it into her hands. "It's nasty but it doesn't last long, and when you wake up, I will be with you," he promises softly.
She never takes her eyes from him as she drinks, and even after she gasps and the whites of her eyes turn bloodshot, he believes that everything will be alright, that a strong woman like her will master the Taint.
He holds her until she stops writhing, still unable to grasp what has transpired, until Varel gently closes her bleeding eyes and makes him release his arms. "I'll take care of her, boy. Go get some sleep, it's late."
Nathaniel does not move, a single thought resonating in his head: she took her death from my hands. Maker, help me, I wanted something to happen… and she took her death from my hands.
He doesn't recall how he got into his room but it is only the sight of the bed where they used to lie, and the memory of the dream of fair horses with manes flying in the wind, that undoes him to tears. He lies sleepless, staring into the dark, and when Varel wakes him, it seems that he has barely closed his eyes. Confused, he thinks for a moment that he has been through this already: a woman, her face pale with horror, her hair dishevelled, bringing dire news…
But the woman's hair is only shoulder-length, and honey, not fair, and she is unhurt: Danella the scout, her hair dishevelled by wind and trembling with exhaustion as she drove mercilessly both the horse and herself, to bring the warning in time.
An army of darkspawn is approaching the Keep.