The assault of the Keep.
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The Hour of the Wolf
The dim light in the eastern sky heralds the slowly coming winter dawn; the land is still dark, masking the darkness spreading across it like incoming tide – the tide that will soon engulf and drown them all.
The wind, wailing on the battlement, cuts to the bone.
Straining his eyes, burning from the lack of sleep, Nathaniel tries to discern the first figures moving towards the Keep. He wishes for the light to come, though it can bring no hope along, and he knows all too well that it may well be the last dawn that he will ever see.
To his surprise, while acutely aware of the cold, he feels no fear, as if the lack of hope burnt any other feeling that he might still retain.
There is no hope, and nothing to be done.
Making use of the time bought by Danella's warning, Nathaniel has prepared the Keep's defences and manned its walls best he could, using every single able-bodied man from the castle estates while their families withdrew into its dubious safety. He sent out the word about the attack, as well – to Eddelbrek, and Ned, even to Denerim – but with the crisis at Amaranthine tying their forces, no reinforcements can be expected any time soon. Even with the men that Ned took with him, the Keep would have been undermanned; as it is now, Nathaniel cannot even hope to hold the outer walls. Abandoning the walls, repaired and heightened with such effort, is a bitter pill, but walls cannot hold out on their own without the men to defend them. The plan is to deal maximum damage to the darkspawn and then retreat to the second line of defence around the main courtyard and hold out there as long as they can. The last line then would be the Keep itself and the access to the vaults, sheltering the young and the old and those too frail to be of any use.
He doesn't turn or move, hearing footsteps, until Varel leans against the battlement next to him. They exchange glances; no words are needed. The seneschal has donned his armour; despite his age, he moves in it with the ease of a long-time warrior. Below them, the thin lines of defenders stand on the outer walls, illuminated in regular intervals by burning iron casks heating oil and water in large cauldrons. The ballistae are manned; what little archers remained to Nathaniel's disposal are stationed on the towers and platforms under Maverlies' command. The best of them received what remained of Dworkin and Cera's special produce arrows – against the numbers they are facing, an insubstantial few.
Yet other explosives of the crazy dwarf's experimental workshop await to wreak havoc when the darkspawn amass below the walls; once the fighting spills over the walls and into the courtyards, the explosions would be too dangerous to the defenders themselves.
Once the darkspawn break in, it will be a man-to-man fight for which the Keep's armory yielded its best – every single runed sword, every piece of dragonbone left there after Ned's departure – and yet even that will not be enough.
The skill and the will, the equipment and spells, cannot replace numbers.
"'Told you that you should have stayed in the Marches," Varel remarks. "This place is about to get bad for your health soon enough."
"I don't think I'll have the time to develop some plague," Nathaniel retorts. Besides, I'm already carrying one in my veins.
Briefly, he thinks of Astrid whose body now rests in the serene peace of the Chantry: they will join soon again. His mind strays to Delilah, as well, the darling little sister, lost and found again, who may still live and pass on the blood of the Howes, and to Ned, fighting a desperate fight, not knowing that what he has striven to build will vanish shortly.
Shortly, but not without a fight, Nathaniel thinks. I, Nathaniel Howe, will not let you down. I'll do my duty best I can.
He turns to Varel. "Time we took our places." At the gate, the fight will be the worst: he placed there the best men, along with Oghren and Sigrun – the only Wardens left at his disposal, as the dwarves could never hope to keep up with Ned's riders. "Oh, never mind, I'm dead anyway," the former scout of the Legion remarked merrily when she learned about their prospects; Oghren's only reaction was a swig from his inseparable bottle which he generously offered to the others. The bottle passed from hand to hand in grave silence, till the only remaining of Cera's apprentices, a healer looking barely past fifteen, coughed on the strong ale.
"We'll get stuck in the darkspawn's throat like that, as well," Nathaniel said then, "we will make them remember the Keep with fear."
Time to stay true to the words.
Routinely, he checks the positions of his blades and takes the great Howe bow which he has put on the battlement but then Varel stops him, touching his shoulder. "It is an honour to fight along with you, Nathaniel Howe."
"Likewise," he replies, slightly bowing to repay the seneschal's courtesy.
The older man then produces a wolfish grin, apparently to crack another witty line, but then he frowns and looks beyond Nathaniel: "What's that?"
A tiny sparkle of light: several of them, in fact, approaching fast: riders. The sound of the warhorn sounding the familiar signal catches them already on the stairs as they both rush to the battlement of the main gate.
They are not the only ones rushing: the darkspawn also speed up, to prevent the reinforcements to reach the Keep: Nathaniel can already feel the Taint surging and in the first echo of light, he can see the darkness swarming with shapes pressing on.
The riders make it, though: on foaming horses, they reach the gate, the griffon armour in the front.
Nathaniel cannot speak, his heart throbbing in his throat, and so it is Varel who take over the initiative: "Lord Commander… this is entirely unexpected, though I cannot say unwelcome. But what happened? How did you learn in time? And what about Amaranthine? Did she fall before you arrived? What about the darkspawn there, are they marching at the Keep, as well?"
Garavel is already ordering the men to take posts on the battlement; they move in grim silence. Ned glances there briefly and then turns to Varel, his eyes passing Nathaniel with only the slightest faltering. "I learned," he says: a tense, harsh tone that makes Nathaniel's heart stop for a while, "I learned and had to deal with the darkspawn there quickly to get back in time."
Varel knits his brows, and Ned's eyes swerve to Nathaniel again, an emotion fleeting across his face but not making it into the voice: "Now we have to deal with those here to make it worth a city burnt to the ground."
Nathaniel cannot breathe, cannot speak, and Ned still won't look at him.
He moves, and the movement catches Ned's eye: something wild, and dark, is in those eyes, and then the moment is gone with the alert sounded on the battlement, and Ned springs to the stairs, Varel behind him.
Another familiar figure passes, and Nathaniel's hand catches his sleeve. In that bleak pre-dawn light, Anders' eyes seem also dark, with a look he hasn't seen before.
"What happened?" the voice is rasp, not like Nathaniel's own. "What –"
What is with my sister? Maker help me, what is with Delilah?
The mage yanks his arm free and his eyes also swerve, and Nathaniel feels the urge to grab him and shake the life out of him. "Anders –" he says instead and his voice breaks.
The mage casts a quick look at the battlement, at Ned giving out orders, and rakes both his hands through his hair. "I'm sorry, Nathaniel… the city was overrun, and those beasts brought with them some new form of the taint, they spread the Blight disease around much faster than normally… when we arrived, Aidan and what remained of his men and some Templars were trying to keep both the darkspawn and the afflicted within the city walls. Then…" he rakes his hands through his hair again. "A messenger from the Architect arrived, claiming that this is all that Mother's doing and that the attack on Amaranthine was just a trap and that another army is marching to assault the Keep. Garavel then suggested burning the city…"
His words blend in nonsensical droning, drowning in the blood throbbing in Nathaniel's ears.
Burnt. Afflicted. Tainted. Burnt.
"Anders! Get over here!"
The sharp order pierces through the haze of Nathaniel's disorganized thoughts and he looks up at the battlement, at Ned's dark outline against the sky. But you said, he thinks helplessly, you swore…
"I'm sorry," Anders mutters, and rushes past him up the staircase, a corona of energy enveloping his staff even before he reaches the battlement, while Nathaniel just stands there, lost, without a single thought in his head. He is woken from the stupor only when someone slaps his flank:
"Here we go, blighter. Time to kill ourselves some 'spawn."
Time to kill. Good. Following Oghren on the battlement, he prepares his bow. Kill. Kill them all.
The great bow of Padraig Howe starts singing its song.
Later on, Nathaniel remember only little of that all: the strain of his right arm, pulling the bow, the string twanging against his left bracer, again and again, amid the heavy whooshing of the trebuchets pouring their fiery loads at the darkspawn; the blue-white flashes of Dworkin's explosives, the fire and lightning conjured by the mages. Somewhere to his right, a clear elven voice yells incantation; below him, darkspawn's guttural sounds turn into screeches in a pour of heated oil. At spots, the whirls of fire and magic resonate from the darkspawn hordes, and in the flashes of light Nathaniel can clearly see the emissaries; he can also distinguish some of the darkspawn moving with purpose, driving and commanding others.
At those, he tries to aim his arrows, sending each with a prayer of vengeance, willing them dead, dead, dead.
Some time in between, the day dawns, allowing him to aim with greater precision, and then, his quiver is empty. The battlement under his feet resonates with dull thuds: the darkspawn, unskilled in sieging techniques, have failed to climb the walls time and again, and so their main force now concentrates on the gate. Despite the joined effort of archers and mages, ogres wearing protective plating have reached the gate: a breach is only a matter of a brief time.
As if in response to his thoughts, a warhorn is blown: retreat.
Not a moment too soon: the defenders haven't even reached the inner fortifications when the gate crashes open, its splinters flying wide. The first ogre to come through falls to the ground almost immediately but behind it, an unstoppable wave of attackers pours in: hurlocks and genlocks, and Children, borne on tall legs, their mandibles under the parodies of faces twitching and sputtering green slime.
A small force of fighters, positioned behind the gate, is the only thing that stands between the horrors and the retreating men: Oghren and Justice at the peak, and the man in the griffon armour, the dark blade of his new sword glistening with fiery runes which Wade wrought into it.
Reaching the inner gate, Nathaniel grabs a full quiver from a supplier's hand and under Garavel's command, takes the position with the other archers to cover the retreat of the rearguard. The fight is violent: the man – the Commander – is fighting with the fervour of one not caring whether he lives or dies, focusing only on bringing down as many enemies as possible: the intent that Nathaniel shares himself.
Shouted warnings from the walls behind them alert to a new danger: unopposed, the darkspawn are now pouring over the battlement at several spots, threatening to overwhelm the rearguard.
To the left and right of the defenders, fire pours as if from nowhere: the magic attack brings the darkspawn to a falter while the remains of the defenders have withdrawn, the rearguard following step by step, forming a shield wall.
With his face contorted in hatred, Nathaniel sends an arrow after another into the thickest of the darkspawn as fast as he can: he cannot possibly miss.
Then, just as Garavel sends a group of men into counterattack to relieve the pressure on the Commander's group, already within the reach of the gate, another ogre appears. Brutally stomping on the darkspawn which are not quick enough to evade, it makes its way towards the rearguard, the arrows and missiles bouncing off the heavy plates covering its head and chest.
With a deafening roar, it charges, ignoring the flashes of electricity dancing along its body.
The defence line breaks: the men are being tossed aside like dolls. The organized retreat suddenly becomes chaos as the darkspawn immediately move into the broken lines. To make the matters worse, the beast is not dead yet – temporarily staggering, it straightens and roars again, looking around for victims, and finding one right ahead, pressed by several hurlocks and Children so hard that he cannot possibly turn in time –
Nathaniel may have shouted the name along with others; his arrow buried deep in the beast's throat, in between the armour plates, but that is still not enough. The men around are fighting for their own lives: no help from there. A few others charge to get closer but those cannot make it in time, either.
Yet, someone is still close enough to act.
The beast howls, its crushing fists deterred, and heavily slumps to a knee as a blade cuts through its tendons, but immediately waves the armoured fist in another arc. It connects with the breastplate, tossing the man aside in a crumpled heap, and Nathaniel feels yet another pang of despair piercing him through: Varel!
A roar from multiple throats follows as the charging men swarm on the ogre. A blade is thrust into its open maw and the man barely stops to release it before unleashing his wrath on the darkspawn around.
Under the fierceness of the attack, the darkspawn falter again and the defenders finally reach the inner gate, the Commander and the man who slew the ogre as the last, and only then does Nathaniel recognize Alec, the former shepherd, sentenced for stealing the royal grain.
One man who has nothing to lose, and the other fighting for everything: Alec's wife is tending to the wounded in the main hall, his little children are hiding with the others in the vaults.
For them. For them the fight must be fought, and lives not thrown away without purpose.
With that thought, Nathaniel's mind finally clears. Briefly following Varel's bloodied face as he is being carried away to the healers, his hands are steady and calm on his bow again. He does not keep count of the emptied quivers or of the men falling: there is a duty to do. When the inner gate is broken through, as well, he casts aside the bow and joins in the fray in the courtyard where men form the last defence line, with the main building of the Keep behind their backs.
Some time in the fight, Nathaniel finds himself fighting alongside Ned and Oghren; at another, Sigrun covers his back while Justice clears the area around with mighty swings of his broadswoard, indefatigable as the death itself, against the tapestry of burning fires illuminating the darkness.
Slowly, step by step, they are being pushed back, to charge and regain ground again, in the endless rhythm of tide, though worn down more and more.
And then, just as Nathaniel feels that every strike of his blade may be the last that he will be deliver to bear, the onslaught stops. When pushed back, the darkspawn do not press ahead but keep retreating, faster and faster, until the retreat turns into flight.
Nathaniel makes a few staggering steps ahead and then stops, his exhausted brain taking long to realize what has just happened: we… won?
Under Garavel's orders, men hastily barricade the broken gate, unsure if the break in fighting is temporary or not. The courtyard is strewn with bodies, darkspawn and defenders like, but darkspawn prevail, in ugly, taint-leaking heaps.
As if drawn by the lights in the windows of the great hall, Nathaniel slowly drags on the weary legs there, only now becoming aware of the wounds he has sustained. With numb hands, he gropes for the emergency potion but the pouch is empty: he must have imbibed it without even realizing.
The hall is in hustle as more and more injured are being brought in; it takes him a while to find what he is looking for.
Lying on a pallet, Varel's face is ashen, his breath laborious but his eyes open; kneeling by him, Ned is covered in dark blood from head to toe.
The dying man cannot speak; he only moves his hand in effort, and Ned grasps it with both his. "Don't die, Varel," he says hoarsely. "You took an arrow for me, you can cope with this, as well. Don't…"
The seneschal smiles at him, blood trickling from his mouth, and then his eyes wander over Ned's shoulder, to Nathaniel, before they lose focus and he exhales with a last rasping breath.
As if only now aware of his presence, Ned half-turns, his face frozen in an expression of pain, and anger.
For a moment, their eyes lock, and then it all suddenly becomes much to bear. Turning on his heel, Nathaniel brusquely strides away, to a free spot at the opposite side of the hall, where he simply slides down along the wall and falls into an exhausted sleep almost before he touches the floor.