The Wardens set out to the Feravel Plains to deal with the Mother.
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And Rock Cried Out, 'No Hiding Place'
The smoke is ever-present, its stench permeating every breath, the bitter taste of burnt lingering on his tongue.
Nathaniel can barely remember the time when it may have been different. The bodies to be burnt, of the defenders and attackers alike, the extensive areas of the Keep to be cleansed of the tainted gore with fire – as if the whole world was to burn and choke on the smoke of its doom.
He feels as if choking on ashes even as he is saying: "You cannot deny me this time!"
Not me, not this time, and not you.
He is in defiance, of course, and dereliction of duty: his naming as the Second of the Grey still holds. Yet, he is stubbornly looking into the eyes of Ned Cousland, daring him to try and reject while Delilah's burning image is still hovering between them, with the faceless child in her arms.
Cousland's eyes are dark and red-rimmed, set in the deep shadows, and reflect nothing of what Nathaniel wanted to see in them, now or previously.
With his nerves on the edge, Nathaniel awaits the reply, ready to burst into threats and curses, dead set on leaving for good – the Keep, the land, even the Wardens – if his demand is not granted. For the two days since the darkspawn attack, he was numbing himself to feelings, working himself to exhaustion on cleaning the Keep. The moment he learned of the punitive expedition into the Feravel plains, though, all the suppressed pain and grief immediately flared into a single overwhelming urge: I won't be hindered this time.
A part of him is even looking forward to the inevitable confrontation, whatever its outcome… but Cousland only watches him with the eyes of a stranger in a taut face, and denies him the satisfaction. "Very well, then. You may go," he replies in a flat tone, returning to the parchment he was studying previously even before he finishes the sentence.
Nathaniel closes the door forcefully calmly.
The bitterness never leaves him as he packs his gear, and exacerbates when the party gathers to depart and he realizes that the contingent of soldiers accompanying them consists of a higher number than usually, and that most of these men will descend into the tainted depths along with the Wardens, regardless of the risk. Kenneth is leading them, as before, but practically none of the previous escort are there, and some faces are entirely unfamiliar: the toll on the defenders apparently required reinforcements.
The fact that three of the soldiers also bear the Warden badges sinks in with a revolting feeling, as he remembers Astrid's vain struggle, and the burning of the tainted drink in his own mouth. Nathaniel knows only one of the three: Kiefer, a grizzled veteran from the Keep; the other two must have come with Eddelbrek or with the Denerim contingent which made it to the Keep under the royal standard.
The feel of the taint is still weak and fresh in those three.
Nathaniel doesn't prod what it was that compelled them to take in the taint, whether an order, a death wish or utter foolery; in the long run, it is a single person's decision that matters.
You never waste your time, do you? he thinks bitterly, his eyes pricking into Cousland's back – judging by a small gesture before he masters himself, he is well aware of the glare but never turns round to face Nathaniel.
If he did, Nathaniel is unsure what he might have said; would he have asked, 'the three out of how many?' He doesn't really know; doesn't know if he wants to know.
They set out into a drizzle of the winter slowly loosening its hold, into a mocking promise of spring. In the wet and cold, the journey is even more miserable than in the winter chill.
Unlike the previous expeditions, when the evenings by the fire were an occasion for storytelling and banter, the camp now drowns in tense silence. Too many strangers, too many dark thoughts... even Oghren's crude humour would have seemed preferable but the dwarf's crushed ribs wouldn't heal in time to make him a valid contribution in a fight. Anders, instead of his usual "bigger-than-the-world" antics spends every free moment preparing potions; Justice looms on the watch at the edge of the camp; Sigrun occupies herself by studying and disassembling the weirdest set of objects that she has taken along; the new Wardens stick together; Ned… Cousland…
He never comes to sit by the fire; he only watches, from some place in the shadows, with Wolf by his side, dark eyes unfathomable, and never says a word, except issuing orders.
Nathaniel is fine with that, or so he keeps telling himself. What would he say, after all – what could even be said? The city of Amaranthine burnt to the ground, the pitiful few who might have survived both the darkspawn and the fire haunting Nathaniel's dreams together with all those who didn't, and the memory of Delilah, her gentle smile radiating joy –
Damn you, Cousland. Damn you. Damn you.
Each and every time their eyes meet, both abruptly break the contact.
On occasions, Nathaniel has an acute feeling that a single word might break through that silence; on others, breaking through a wall of stone would seem more plausible, and desirable.
On occasions, he has to repel the nagging thought what he would have done… whether the chance to destroy the whole darkspawn horde contained within the city walls would be enough of an advantage to justify the sacrifice.
One way or the other, Nathaniel has no words to find that he might say, even despite the uneasy realization that perhaps now might be the only chance.
Their company now entails more than two dozen – two dozen to enter a darkspawn lair and eradicate the source of the darkspawn incursion, and destroy the mysterious Mother who reportedly sent her hordes against both Amaranthine and the Keep.
The source of the report makes Nathaniel uneasy.
The Architect sent a messenger.
Despite the warning that did turn out in the Wardens' best interest, the memory of their capture in the silverite mine is still a source of nauseating anxiety for Nathaniel: the laboratory, the disposed bones, Keenan's crushed legs… and the tainted elf, watching her sister to fight for her very life without as much as a flinch.
What game is the bastard playing?
And, what means does he possess and is willing to employ? To what end?
The implications of the Architect's apparent ability to control the taint are sickening, and Nathaniel uneasily recalls what Anders mentioned about the unusually quickly spreading affliction in Amaranthine.
Is the Architect duplicitous, or does the Mother possess the same ability? And how does the Warden blood fit into this all? What experiments was he running there... on us?
The thought that even if they manage to deal with the Mother, whatever she might be, they will have to find a way to deal with the Architect, as well, fills him with uncertainty: intuitively, he has the feeling that the Architect is probably more dangerous of the two… more sinister.
His head brimming with gloomy thoughts about Cousland and the Architect, Nathaniel is thankful for any distraction – or so he thinks, until the main one presents itself in the form of Velanna.
In the aftermath of the attack, Nathaniel never found himself thinking about her; her constant presence now, the way she moves, the sound of her voice, are unavoidable. However, the distraction she provides is double-edged, because of the topic she persistently pursues.
He has noticed this before: each and every time they set out against darkspawn, Velanna as if lights up in hope to find Seranni. Unable to contain her emotions, she invariably picks Nathaniel to be the one who she wants to confide to.
He cannot really blame her: it was him, after all, who set this course, back then as they returned to the Wending Wood for the silverite ore, when he was trying to get to know the elf and Delilah was a plausible excuse for neutral conversation.
Back then, he enjoyed the talk.
Now, though, Velanna seems oblivious that every mention only twists the blade in the wound, and Nathaniel doesn't have it in him to make her realize that what they now have in common is a sister lost.
And so he watches Velanna's soft hair, flying with every animated nod of her head, the naïve hope in her eyes, and feels that some of the pain welling in his chest is reserved there for her, as well, when that hope finally crashes.
Deeply convinced that Seranni is long dead, her appearance leaves him dumbstruck.
Following the clearly visible darkspawn trail into the wilderness of the Feravel Plains, they descend into the ruins of some mysterious underground structure – surprisingly, not dwarven, the runes and remains of ornaments all but scream 'Tevinter', and Nathaniel briefly wonders what its original purpose might have been – and do not encounter any opposition until, behind a turn, they run into the last person possible: Seranni.
The elf's face is the same grotesque mixture of the previous beauty and the corruption as before; yet, seeing her, Velanna squeals in joy and, before anyone can act, rushes to embrace her sister lost and found.
Nathaniel hears a sharp intake of breath, and another hiss, of a blade leaving its sheath, but other than that, Cousland doesn't move, intent on the two elves with predatory focus.
No-one moves, not even Seranni, and only as Velanna realizes that her embrace will not be reciprocated, she takes a step back. "Seranni! What has he done to you?" she wails softly.
Her sister's paled eyes turn to her. "He's done nothing," she answers with the voice still preserving its lilt, "he hasn't harmed me. The Architect is kind and wishes harm to no-one."
To Nathaniel's left, Anders snorts and holds his staff tighter but the elf ignores him. "I am here of my choice, sister. This is far greater than you or me, the darkspawn need our help. They are like children, ignorant of what is right or wrong, and they need our guidance."
Mad. The woman is mad.
Whatever it is that has kept Seranni's body from further descent into a mindless ghoul during all those months, it apparently ensnared her mind even deeper in her delusion. When she speaks about convincing the darkspawn to overcome their bestial nature, Nathaniel shudders at the excitement pouring from her every word.
To his right, disapproval emanates from Justice in palpable waves, and the suite of soldiers regard both elves with equal animosity, yet the Commander's voice is devoid of resentment as he engages in the conversation: "Then perhaps, if the Architect is as benevolent as you claim, we should speak with him directly."
Seranni's face beams under the dark blotches, and Velanna practically hangs onto her lips as she says: "That is indeed what he has asked me to do – to bring you to him, so that you could understand. You will see as I have, he will explain everything!"
"Yes, yes, we will all speak to him!" Velanna nods excitedly, smiling back at the grimace of those purple-black lips.
"We will," Ned Cousland softly echoes, and with a single glance subdues any opposition among his followers before it can even be voiced.
His eyes are dark and deadly like the dragonbone blade in his hand, as he follows Seranni and Velanna further into the maze of the ruins.