First Chapter:His Father's Son
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Deconstruction of a Falling Star
"So you would be Nathaniel Howe."
The tone, slightly ironic, doesn't sit well with him but Nathaniel puts his hand over his heart and bows low: such is the way with the monarchs of the world.
His Majesty Alistair Theirin has a royal profile and grins too much for Nathaniel's liking, but if this is the face of the one true friend, then so be it. Judging by the haste with which he responded to the message by turning up in his own royal person, there might perhaps be more to him than meets the eye, or at least Nathaniel hopes so.
Or, at least, he hopes that he won't make the situation any worse than it already is.
The king nods to him, with yet another grating display of royal jocularity. "Now be so kind and show me the way, Master Howe. I'd probably end up in a cheese cellar if I tried on my own." Yet, the curt gesture with which he makes clear that no-one else is to follow defies the light tone, and as they stride in the corridor alone, he asks with only the barest trace of the previous humour, as if it was an inseparable trait of his personality, unsubdued no matter how grim the prospects: "Now, will you tell me how we got into this mess?"
Nathaniel hesitates: in his message to Denerim, he briefly stated what had happened, but when he starts elaborating, he is waved off: "Not that. The whole thing."
Nathaniel doesn't sigh, even though he much wants to, but he still receives a sharp glance. "Yes, he burnt Amaranthine, I am aware of that, and he didn't bear it lightly." The king's lips briefly press in a thin line. "I've also been hearing things ever since, but never from him, not once. Give me the full story, Master Howe, if you please."
Please or not, the wishes of kings are not to be ignored.
Early spring has always been a difficult time. The sun is but a promise of warmth and growth and the food scarce; in the afflicted arling, doubly so. While the rest of Ferelden has had over half a year to somehow recover from the worst of the Blight, the wounds of Amaranthine are still raw, and the burnt smell of their cauterisation still hovers in the air and memory. Too many hands are missing to work the fields; with the destruction of the city and its port, trade is stifled. The commoners grumble more than their empty stomachs; the nobles are getting nervous and difficult to deal with; even with the darkspawn gone, the roads are far from safe and the Taint is still taking its toll, on people and land alike.
Who would wonder at that time that the Commander is apparently overworked, that he speaks little and smiles even less, and that he exhibits fits of anger which he didn't use to? Nobody is particularly worried, not even Nathaniel, who certainly should know better, but as that disastrous evening resulted in nothing more but Ned turning up late the next day, with bloodshot eyes, and offering a quiet, civil apology, he lets himself be lulled, too absorbed in his joy over Delilah's survival.
Curiously, it is Delilah herself who opens his eyes, as spring is setting in for good and her time comes. Nathaniel rushes to Adria's cousin's farm as soon as he receives the news, and his heart skips a beat at the sight of his sister abed with a tiny dark-haired bundle in her arms.
"Oh, come on, he won't shatter," she chuckles at his reverent touch and places the baby in his arms, "just support his head."
The boy wiggles slightly against Nathaniel's leathers but doesn't wake. "What's his name?" he asks softly, watching the gentle curve of cheek and tiny lips.
The answer renders him speechless: "Bryce."
"But – Delilah – is… is this… wise?" he stutters finally. "I'm not sure, the Couslands – the Commander –"
She watches him, slightly amused. "He knows," she assures him, "I wasn't certain myself, thinking about naming the baby in honour of the Couslands, so I sought the Commander's permission and he turned up in person soon enough. He was very kind to me and he even brought some gold." She slightly blushes. "I wouldn't have taken it, but for the child –"
The baby starts wiggling some more and so Delilah takes him back and cradles him against her breasts. "It's been barely a fortnight," she continues, "I am surprised that he never told you – I was actually surprised that you didn't come along but I didn't want to be inquisitive. Did anything happen, Nathaniel?"
Fool, fool, fool.
Nathaniel recalls all too well Ned's absence about a fortnight ago: recalls that Ned wasn't seen almost till noon the next day, and recalls, with sudden unease, that this has been a pattern in the last weeks.
Oh, dear Maker.
Delilah watches him with concern. "I do not know him so well but he seemed… worn. Strained. What has happened, brother?"
Amaranthine. Looking at his sister, twice considered lost, twice miraculously found again, his throat tightens so much that he cannot speak.
She understands: freeing one hand, she reaches it to Nathaniel and they embrace, tight but for the baby between them. "Delilah," Nathaniel says hoarsely, feeling tears burning under his lids, "little sister…"
"Hush," she says, "hush, I'm alive. I'm here."
They remain so until Bryce wiggles again and starts wailing, and Nathaniel gets up and turns away as Delilah puts the baby to her breast.
"Ned is a good man," she says softly, watching her son struggle with the nipple, "but people are saying –"
"I know what they are saying." Indeed he does: the ashes and cinders of Amaranthine had barely gone cold when the tongues started their work. He could feel it himself, from the eyes of those who saw his Warden badge on his way from the Keep.
His sister raises her head, her tone resolute. "Then tell him... tell him that he is always welcome in this house, and always will, and he will be welcome in the house which we will build for the money he gave me, as well."
"I will," he promises, and makes good on his promise as soon as he comes back to the Keep. Only then does he realise the full extent of what he has been ignoring since the return from the Feravel plains. It dwells in Ned's words, calm and civil, in his expression, revealing nothing that is going on underneath, in his eyes which remain the same no matter what Nathaniel says – an impenetrable shell of a man, as if what had been inside burnt with Amaranthine.
It is no surprise to Nathaniel that Ned's door remains closed long the next morning.
"Dammit," His Royal Majesty mutters and repeats, for a good measure, "dammit. Damn them stubborn Couslands!" He rakes his fingers through his hair, leaving it unroyally tousled. "He pulled quite an act at the wedding…"
I can imagine. For a perfunctory observer, nothing much changed, only instead of the easy charm, the Commander started to rely on the respect earned by his prowess and supposed ruthlessness, and on occasions, he was even able to conjure his old self when needed. When late Kristoff's wife caused no little commotion by her unexpected arrival once the mountain passes allowed for travel, the change was almost painful to watch, leaving Nathaniel with an acute sense of loss. He tried to talk to Ned about it, the next day after his door opened only late into the morning, to no avail: the fleeting image of the man who he had been was gone for good, and nothing Nathaniel said could make it through the wall of silence that Ned had hidden behind.
Each and every time Ned put up an act of himself, his door remained closed the next morning.
Each and every time, Nathaniel rued the loss of Varel even more: if there ever had been a person who might have broken the shell, it would have been him... and it pains Nathaniel to think that there was a time when he might have considered himself another such person. With little hope, he addressed Maverlies, once, only to learn that her fling with the Commander had ended even before the attack of Amaranthine; no help could be expected from that direction.
Yet, it was only after the royal wedding in May that a new aspect emerged.
"Are you out of your mind?"
Nathaniel stares intently into his cup as Anders summarizes his feelings but even so, he can see with a corner of his eye that the muscles on Ned's jaw twitch. "I do not recall requiring your opinion concerning my sanity," comes the answer in a soft, cold tone, yet brimming with unspoken anger: the new Ned doesn't tolerate opposition or slighting his authority. "And if you have become soft and scared, just say so." He rises from his chair and pins his finger into the map. "There is a fortune in lyrium in Kal'Hirol and I want it utilized, and since we're practically sitting over an access route, I want it explored. Which part of it is not clear, Anders?"
The blonde mage squirms under the relentless gaze but is not fully cowed. "Perhaps better to do the transport on the surface, rather than the Deep Roads?"
Ned's eyes flare, his anger almost palpable. "We will explore Kal'Hirol and its access routes," he repeats. "We have new recruits who need practice." Briefly, he looks at the said recruits: both Danella and Everett, the mageling apprentice who proved himself at the Stark farm and during the siege of the Keep, reciprocate unflinchingly, their eyes radiating the same awed respect that Ned seems to possess with the vast majority of those who withstood the darkspawn attack.
Nathaniel sighs inwardly: no help out of there. No help in pointing out that every single person who has survived the fight for the Keep has had practice aplenty, either, or that the two new recruits are two out of four who underwent the Joining and might use some time before they see serious action again. With a pang of futility, he remembers Gareth, who survived the hell of the Mother's lair and whose inner conviction drove him to serve the Warden's cause even more devotedly, only to perish unnecessarily in the Joining. Not the first time, Nathaniel is glad that at least Alec's volunteering was turned down. 'You have a family', Ned had said then, his tone discouraging any discussion just like he does now.
Yet even so, Nathaniel has to try. "The risk is unnecessary, we could -"
"That is no concern of yours. You are staying to run the Keep in my absence."
Nathaniel grits his teeth at the rebuke and glances in the direction of the single person who might still support him, but as always, Velanna doesn't fail to disappoint. For all her bitterness towards the Commander, blaming him for the final loss of Seranni and clashing with him at every opportunity, the prospect of entering the Deep Roads apparently fills her with unrealistic expectations. Again.
He tries to dissuade her later, twice - prior they engage in bed, and afterwards, with as little success as he had with deterring Ned. The only result is that Velanna storms out huffed, and only half-dressed, leaving him to ponder the insurmountable distance between them, with shoulders scratched raw by her fingernails.
Time and again, Nathaniel rues starting the tryst: except the relief in bed, neither seems able to provide what the other needs, and the emptiness he feels every time is gnawing at him.
Anders is fast asleep on the makeshift bed in the corner and Cera welcomes them with an elegant bow. To Nathaniel's surprise, Wolf raises on the bed for a moment to welcome the king by pressing his snout into the royal palm, and the king seems moved. Yet, watching Ned, his face shows nothing, and Nathaniel can only guess what he must be feeling, seeing the deep-sunk eyes and the gaunt cheeks, even paler for the dark stubble.
At an unspoken behest, he continues, as soon as the door closes behind Cera. "They went into the Deep Roads several times. Even though the main access route to Kal'Hirol is just under the Keep, it doesn't run straight. Parts of it have collapsed, there are also side tunnels and some darkspawn burrowing... Finding the way was not easy even with Oghren. Every time, they ran into darkspawn, and some fights must have been tough. Anders... he and Ned had a mighty argument as Anders insisted that it was stupid risk, and Ned... the Commander ordered him to stay at the Keep."
"He went into the Deep Roads without a mage?!"
"No, Your Majesty. He took Everett… and Velanna."
Despite the amount of alcohol, Oghren seems uncharacteristically sober, or perhaps he has drunk himself into soberness. He keeps licking his lips too often, as if words were leaving a foul taste in his mouth. "We knew that we had them 'spawn coming, from more than one direction, and that there was an awful lot of them nugshitters. So, we went in formation and we knew that we would kick their arses. The dance started all fine, and then..." He licks his lips again and then spits on the floor, raising his eyes to Nathaniel. "I know you were fond of her but the bitch went batshit crazy. Ye might not have noticed when you two were fucking, but she had lost it."
Nathaniel gulps hard, knowing all too well what Oghren means: he couldn't have missed how Velanna's quirkiness gradually turned into an obsession about her sister, and he couldn't deny that bedding Velanna was the single thing that kept drawing him to her of late. "Just spit it out. What did she do?" he asks tiredly, predicting the answer all too well.
"...but in the middle of the fight, Velanna suddenly yelled, 'Seranni!' and turned on her heel and ran for some side passage, and no-one saw her since. Without her support, the fight was tough... There were several alphas, with warhammers - that kind with a sharp point at one end." Nathaniel briefly closes his eyes. He will never forget the sight of the exhausted, bloodied group which basically collapsed as soon as they reached the gate under the Keep. He and Anders, hastily summoned, were appalled at the sight; theI told you so freezing on their lips. "It was a miracle that everyone made it out alive."
Standing with his back to him, the king is looking at the griffon armour on its stack: someone - Nathaniel suspects that it was Garavel - had the bright idea to have it cleaned and put in its place. Slowly, the king places his hand over the puncture in the plating. "How did he survive this?" he asks softly.
"They were well equipped with potions, and the kid, Everett, utterly spent himself to keep him alive till they made it back. Anders," Nathaniel indicates the mage, sleeping so fast that their conversation doesn't disturb him in the least, "has worked himself to exhaustion to repair the damage to his inner organs."
The king glances at the blonde head. "I remember him," he mutters, "curious how -" he looks back at Ned, lying motionless, his chest barely rising, his midriff dressed in bandages. Wolf, curled on the bed by his side, softly whines. "Has he come to?"
"No. Anders and Cera are intentionally keeping him asleep... he still hangs by a thread."
A slow nod, and then, His Majesty Alistair Theirin cautiously sits on the bed, taking Ned's limp hand in his. "Have you... notified Highever?" he asks softly.
Nathaniel feels a lump in his throat. "I have. - Not in my own name, I asked Garavel," he hastily assures. He takes a breath. "But perhaps it would be better if Your Majesty -"
He receives a shade of a smile. "I already have - but I can't say if it will be any good. Them Couslands are a terribly stubborn lot."
The Cousland stubbornness is well known to Nathaniel and he is sure that being too stubborn to die played no small role when Anders finally announced that Ned would "definitely live until he gets himself killed". He only wishes that its manifestations were always so commendable, and not a reason to grit his teeth and curse when not a single word arrives from Highever.
"He wants you."The inseparable grin, not quite reaching the red-rimmed eyes, "and I want my royal breakfast, so I'll leave you to your own devices." As the king steps aside to let Nathaniel pass, he adds softly: "Be easy on him."
The room seems darker for the king's absence and in the shadows of the curtains, drawn so that Ned could rest undisturbed by daylight, his face looks like a skull; the cheekbones sharply protruding, the scar the only touch of colour.
Nathaniel pauses uncertainly until Wolf slides off the bed and pads to welcome him - the surest sign of recovery, as the dog never left Ned's side while he was on the verge of death. Yet, the deep-sunk eyes might still belong to one dead, and there is but a small sparkle of life in them as they open. "Nathaniel..." A mere whisper of a voice, and a strain of one trying to overthrow a mountain. "I... am glad to see you."
Nathaniel walks over and sits on the bed. "Good to see you, too. You had me worried - you had us all worried."
Ned is breathing fast. "I... know. I... Nathaniel... I..."
Seeing him struggle so, Nathaniel feels something break within. He leans closer. "Hush. Don't disquiet yourself. There's no need to."
"No... I... have to..."
Stubborn, stubborn Cousland.
Nathaniel can see the sheen of perspiration and the lips trembling in an effort to produce the words long overdue. He growls in frustration and shakes his head furiously. "No, you don't. What you have to do is get well again and stop trying to get yourself killed, and that's all I need to hear from you. Ever."
Ned's eyes are open wide, clinging to him, and Nathaniel suddenly feels as if there was a dark abyss opening, waiting for the slightest misstep. On an impulse, he kneels beside the bed and takes Ned by the hand. "I don't need to hear it, Ned. I'm here - I'm here for you and always will, regardless of what you might say, now or later. You can let go. You have to."
The hand trembles in his, and he covers it with his other hand. The fingers clutch him with a deathgrip.
"It's alright," Nathaniel mutters hoarsely, "it's alright. I'm here." His throat tightens: he wants to say more but cannot even if he knew what to say.
A welcome distraction comes in the form of Wolf, who starts whimpering while staring into Ned's face. "See?" Nathaniel says. "He agrees with me. You should stop disquieting yourself. "
Finally, the hand releases the grip, and after a moment, Ned says softly, with much less effort: "I... never thanked you for saving him."
"No need to. I know what the ugly mutt means to you."
Wolf's offended whine evokes a tiny shade of a smile. "I... have to thank you for bringing Alistair, as well."
Nathaniel clears his throat, unsure how to respond: somehow, he doesn't think it below His Royal Majesty to eavesdrop. The smile becomes more pronounced: knowing each other's thought... like we used to.
For a while, they sit in silence, hand in hand.
"Will you... tell me... some news about the Keep?"
That can easily be granted, though Nathaniel tries to keep it brief, so as not to strain Ned unnecessarily. As he is done with the account and is about to leave, though, Ned stops him with another request: "Nathaniel...
"Yes?" he asks, not showing that the return of underlying tension unnerves him.
"Fergus... is not coming, is he?"
Nathaniel hesitates but doesn't want to give false hope. "I do not know. We sent word but there has been no reply... I'm sorry, Ned."
The dark eyes close for a moment. "Thanks... for telling me," he mutters. "I... I think I will need to rest now. Do... do come back after I wake up... please."
"Of course. No need to plead."
The last thing he sees as he carefully closes the door is an arm holding tight the mabari's thick neck, both covered in scars.