First Chapter:His Father's Son
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The inner courtyard resonates with Oghren's booming laughter; the child's voice, shrill with excitement, provides a high-pitched counterpoint. Oghren's wife, watching them with her hands planted in her sides, further contributes to the cacophony with her own prominent voice .
Nathaniel smirks for himself. Felsi's first arrival with a baby on her hip "to beat some sense into that nughumper of a husband" was a source of profound entertainment for the whole Keep, and even though Oghren eventually did find some common sense in his cups to take up his fatherly role, the following visits have been no less amusing. The majority of the Keep's denizens enjoy a close view; Nathaniel prefers a safer - and quieter - distance.
Lazying against sun-warmed stones high above the courtyard, he realizes that he is not the only quiet observer.
Half-hidden in the shadow of the watchtower, Ned almost insensibly nods at him. Nathaniel nods back but then reconsiders and slowly makes his way along the battlement. He receives a small smile in a way of welcome, and as always, feels a little pang inside before he reminds himself once more: a man must walk first before he can run again. It is not a smile as he would have received a year ago – well, not he, as a year ago, they weren't exactly on speaking terms – but a smile it is still, and an ease that wasn't there in those dark months after Amaranthine.
And so Nathaniel responds with his own small smile and joins Ned to watch the show below until Felsi deems it enough and hushes her husband and offspring into the warmth of the Keep's halls.
Nathaniel is beginning to feel the chill himself; his previous watching spot made a better use of the autumn sun. "Some spiced wine wouldn't hurt," he assesses.
He receives a small smile and another nod; a witty remark that would have followed a year ago is never voiced, even though Nathaniel can see the creases in the corners of Ned's eyes.
Next time, perhaps.
Together, they enter the dining room, currently in a state of commotion over Oghren junior dividing his attention between getting smeared with plum sauce and tugging at Oghren's plaited beard.
Ned and Nathaniel exchange but a glance before they help themselves to a flagon of hot wine with cinnamon and clover as well as a handsome supply of fresh bread and cheese, to quickly retreat into the quiet of Ned's chamber: there is only so much dwarf entertainment that one can take in a single day.
"I'd never have thought that Oghren might be, you know, so fatherly," Ned remarks after a while of comfortable silence.
Nathaniel grins in an answer but then recalls the one time that Oghren accompanied him to see Delilah. "You should have seen him melting when my sister was with a child. Otherwise, I'd never have thought that he had it in him, either."
Immediately, he can sense a change in the mood but Ned doesn't speak his thought and Nathaniel braces himself for waiting, again. He mentally pats his shoulder for being a patient, patient man.
It takes the rest of the afternoon, and most of the evening, as well, until Ned joins him for a session with throwing knives. After a tenth thorough miss, each accompanied by Nathaniel's pointed look, Ned finally gives in and asks the anticipated question: "By the way… are you planning to see Delilah any time soon?"
"I guess I should, while the weather holds," Nathaniel replies, and knows the response even before it is voiced.
"Would you… mind if I come along?"
High time you did. "Of course not. Delilah will be glad that you have finally accepted her invitation." Despite his innocent tone, he receives a mild glare, to which he responds with a gesture indicating the knives again. "Back to your practice, Cousland… you really ought to learn to focus some day."
"I guess I should holy smite you some day," Ned grits through his teeth as he goes to fetch the knives.
"The fine art of strength and balance requires way more concentration than a lame attempt to pass dozing off as Templar meditation."
"Some day, I'll have to remind you of some very poor concentration on your part."
With a flick of the wrist, Nathaniel sends his knife into the bull's eye. "When you do ten out of ten, you're welcome."
Two days later, they set out, accompanied by four soldiers and Everett. The grass is lined with hoarfrost in the early morning but the day is still warm and they make to the crossroads two miles from Amaranthine in good time. Prior, they would have been able to see the city towers and smoke from cooking fires rising to the clear sky; now they hastily turn away from the ruins and take the road to Elric's farmstead.
Adria's cousin built his home in a low vale among pastures and fields, and Delilah's new house, adjacent to the main building, looks into a large apple orchard, shedding leaves in red and gold.
A good place to live and bring up a child, Nathaniel thinks, seeing his sister's smile full of genuine joy as all of Elric's household gather to welcome in the yard; judging by some sidelong glances, though, not everyone is thrilled by seeing the fearsome and feared Commander of the Grey.
The Commander of the Grey, the Arsonist of Amaranthine.
To Nathaniel's relief, Ned produces some of the old charm; whatever rumours may have reached the place, any doubts are dispelled for now. Elric bids them a hearty welcome and Delilah blushes as Ned bows low and kisses her hand. Her husband is nowhere to be seen, apparently making use of the favourable weather to pursue the trade.
The dinner that follows is disrupted only by Bryce's occasional angry wail as he is teething, and Nathaniel is sure that no-one but himself has noticed the distant look in Ned's eyes, crawling in each and every time in those rare moments when he is not in the centre of attention.
Hazed from sleep, it takes Nathaniel some time to become fully aware of his whereabouts in the tiny bedroom upstairs. As further anguished sounds issue, mingling with Wolf's whining, he rises from bed. "Ned? Ned!" he calls but to no avail, and so he gropes to light the lamp. Ned still keeps tossing in the clutches of nightmare, though, and so Nathaniel gently shakes his shoulder, cold with sweat and clammy under his fingers.
In response, comes a hushed scream and a muffled plea as Ned springs up and raises his arms in self-defence.
"Ned. That's me. It was just a dream."
Gasping, Ned finally lets his arms fall. "Nat-Nathaniel?" His voice is shaky and hoarse and he is beginning to shudder.
"Yes. You had a bad dream and couldn't be woken."
With a trembling sigh, Ned buries his face in his hands. "I need air," he states after a moment, and leaves wearing only breeches and boots, shrugging into the shirt on his way out while Wolf follows on his heels.
Nathaniel sighs, and again and again. He gets dressed, slowly and methodically, in wool and furs, and grabs hold of Ned's cloak, as well.
As he starts down the staircase, the opposite door opens: a little flame protected by her hand frames Delilah's black hair and white nightgown. "Nathaniel? Is anything wrong?" she whispers.
"Just bad dreams," he replies softly. "Go back to your bed, little sister. We might take a while."
The night is bright and icy and Ned is not far; only a few steps behind the house, staring into the orchard.
"Does it help, shuddering in the dark?" Nathaniel asks pointedly, wrapping the cloak round Ned's shoulders.
A quick glance at Nathaniel's thorough clothing. "You wouldn't know." The quip is somewhat spoilt by Ned's chattering teeth, though, and he pulls the cloak closer all too eagerly. He raises his face to the moonlight. "But it does help. And it's not really dark. That helps, as well."
Yet, he doesn't say what it helps with and Nathaniel doesn't ask, even though his tongue itches.
After a moment, Ned glances at him again and sighs, looking up, down, up. "Just the good old Fort Drakon. With some extra fiery bits for Amaranthine. Nothing special. Sorry to have dragged you out. I hope I haven't woken the whole household."
Nathaniel glowers at him, undeterred by the light tone. The glowering brings him the bitter satisfaction of seeing Ned drop his head for good.
"It was the worst nightmare I've had since-" A deep inhalation. "I don't think I will be able to fall asleep again – or to return into the room. Thanks for the cloak but there's no point in you staying up because of that."
"Don't be stupid, Cousland." I've left you alone once and I do not intend to repeat the mistake.
"You're annoyingly persistent, Howe."
"Someone has to be reasonable here."
Ned snorts at that but after a moment of sulking, acknowledges defeat. As they return inside, they run into Delilah, carrying a tray laden with food
"I hear that the Warden hunger can keep you up at night," she forces them the tray and waves off Ned's apology before she retires to her bedroom.
Warm and stuffed to bursting, Nathaniel finds it impossible to resist sleep any longer. When his jaw nearly falls off in another yawn, Ned finally loses it. "Maker's balls, Nathaniel! Go back to bed, or you're going to fall off your horse in the morning! I promise I'll try to sleep!"
Wolf huffs approvingly at that and Ned rolls his eyes. "You two have conspired against me."
"At least you're finally grasping the reality." Nathaniel chuckles at the exasperated sigh but sleep carries him away before he can make sure that the surrender wasn't feigned.
Come the morning, Ned is somewhat pale and reticent but there is an air of calmness about him and true warmth in his smile as he bids farewell to Delilah and Bryce. Yet, leaving the farm, Nathaniel can see the stiffness of his shoulders, and anticipates the next move long before they reach the main road and make for the ruins of Amaranthine.
Following close by, Nathaniel feels his stomach tighten. Amaranthine used to be a jewel of the Fereldan coast; he cannot imagine what they might find within the blackened shell of its walls. Even now, more than half a year later, the faint smell of burnt still hovers in the air and the vegetation hasn't fully covered the large areas cleansed with fire.
The gate stands open, its charred remnants tossed aside. At Ned's gesture, their entourage stays behind. Nathaniel follows, unbidden, ducking subconsciously as he passes under the pikes above the gate. He never saw Esmerelle's head there but seeing these survivors of the destruction seems ominous to him.
The barracks of the city guard behind the gate lie in rubble; the part next to the city wall which sustained the least damage have been roofed again and repaired provisionally. The road is barred, and guarded against scavengers, but a single look at Ned's griffon armour, and the guards let them pass.
The hooves of their horses sound unnaturally loud as they pick their way across the rubble. Only a part of the main road behind the gate has been cleared; most of the streets were erased by the collapsed buildings.
Slower and slower, Ned leads the way, looking around; Wolf tails him, a quiet chestnut shadow, softly whimpering. Nathaniel stalks behind, wary of every movement in the ruins, of the hostile eyes of those few who survived and were too stubborn to make a living elsewhere. No-one attacks or addresses them, but he can feel the skin between his shoulder blades prickle and he has to suppress an urge to touch the spot where he was stabbed.
When they reach what used to be the main square, Ned brings his mount to a halt. Slowly, he turns around, overlooking the desolation. The charred remains of the Chantry loom above them from their elevated place; the Templar barracks behind have burnt to the ground. The townhall and guildhalls with their finely chiselled fronts lie in blackened rubble; the once busy square full of life bustling among the stalls is littered with debris.
Nathaniel wonders how many bodies might still be there, buried underneath.
Ned's horse, nudged, moves forward, towards the risky climb on the Chantry hillock. Led by a steady hand, though, it picks its way among the broken masonry.
Cursing under his breath, Nathaniel follows, and joins Ned at the viewpoint towards the harbour. The destruction is thorough there: the maze of wooden shacks and warehouses turned to ashes. Massive blackened beams mark the dock where a ship was moored; the piers, once thickly set with all kinds of vessels run empty into the sea like greedy fingers.
No ships cross the Narrow Sea to Amaranthine any more - Denerim and Highever prosper for that but the arling suffers.
The sight and the silence press on heavily, and under their weight, Ned's shoulders slump and head hangs low. Nathaniel feels a lump in his throat, the memories mingling with the images of the city perishing in fire.
"She must be rebuilt."
Nathaniel startles at the tense voice suddenly sounding by his side and meets Ned's eyes, tormented but unflinching in a finally found resolve. "Indeed," he agrees. "It will be no small task, though. No small coin, either."
"True enough." Slowly, Ned gazes around once more, absorbing the whole sight. "But it can be done. It must be. And I must make it happen... even if I cannot undo what I have done."
There is but one answer to this. "I am yours to command. When do we start?"
Ned looks at him, and Nathaniel can see the inner fire rekindling and giving birth to a streak of unfeigned and unrestrained joy. "We just have. Now we have to go back to the Keep to tell Woolsey how much I intend to leech from the Warden chest!"
Turning their horses, they make down the hillock, and only the rubble prevents Nathaniel from spurring his horse to into gallop, as if on wings.