First Chapter:His Father's Son
Previous chapter:His Father's Son 38
Thrumming, the blade buries into the bull's eye.
Balancing on the balls of his feet, Ned is standing relaxed but focused, his arm performing a smooth movement crowned with a flick of his wrist, sending another dagger right into the centre of a much-abused target.
Nathaniel might toss in a remark to break his concentration but he doesn't; he can almost feel the weight of the tenth dagger in his own hand that instant before it is thrown in a low arc, driven home.
"Ten." Ned smiles, briefly, and stretches; the sleeveless tunic, sweated in the previous sparring, clings to his back. Nathaniel has long removed his shirt but Ned hates to expose his scars as long as it can be avoided and always wears an undertunic for the training, despite the summer's heat of the training grounds.
"Seems that chance is having a bad day today, settling on you," Nathaniel remarks.
He receives a glare. "You will get smitten one of these days, Howe."
"You wouldn't dare to. You'll need all your strength to survive Woolsey."
Ned moans exaggeratedly. "You had to remind me, right?"
Passing by to fetch the knives, he tries a nasty trick to hook Nathaniel's ankle and send him flying to the floor, but Nathaniel knows his Cousland and dances away, wiggling his fingers at him mockingly. "You're getting sloppy, Cousland."
"I was merely testing your reflexes. They seemed somewhat lacking today."
Now it's Nathaniel's time to grunt at the hint of his ignominious defeat at sparring. "You had to remind me, right?"
"Of course." The devilish grin turns the scarred face into a bizarre mask; most people are highly uncomfortable with that. It is a tactic that Ned loves to use with Mistress Woolsey every time she finds the expenses for rebuilding Amaranthine excessive.
Today is not an exception: refreshed by a bath, they spar the Mistress of the Keep's finances with every weapon they can get. A tough opponent, she is, and when they are done for the day and Ned offers some cool wine in his rooms, Nathaniel accepts more than gladly.
The evening doesn't go on as smoothly as he expected, though.
"I wonder… would you be willing to contend that she-dragon on your own for a while?" Ned asks casually while they are still smirking over Nathaniel's last remark.
"What, has she worn you down so much that you need a break?" Nathaniel laughs before he catches some weird undertone in Ned's question. Like a dog catching a scent on the wind, he snap to attention.
"I think I will need to see to some unfinished business," comes the reply, calm and smooth, yet Nathaniel can sense the sudden tension behind the perfectly controlled face. "I am not sure when yet… but I do not want to leave at a short notice and dump everything on you."
"Well, you are my second, you know."
Nathaniel clears his throat.
Pressing his lips briefly, Ned looks aside. "I'll talk to Fergus before I go," he says sharply. "Maker knows that this has been going on long enough."
Too long, Nathaniel thinks of all those missives returned unopened, and more acutely than ever, becomes aware of the lines in Ned's face that didn't use to be there. The dark months after the burning of Amaranthine robbed the Commander's face of the boyish charm and the injury from the Deep Roads added gauntness that never really filled in; with the closely cropped hair that Ned wears now, the angles of cheekbones and jaw stand out sharp.
Gaunt or full, the face is a mask, and for all they have been through, not an easy one to glimpse under.
But that's the way things are, with Cousland.
"Where are you planning to go?" Nathaniel asks to hide his musings.
"I'm not sure myself. I need to find a track that has gone cold meanwhile."
"For how long?"
Ned shies from his eyes briefly. "That… will depend largely on what I will learn." This time, there can be no mistake: his voice hasn't sounded so tense since the last autumn.
Nathaniel slowly exhales. There was a time when he would have held back; there was a time when he would have received no answer. It is neither now. "What is going on, Ned?" he asks softly.
He sees Ned's hands shiver. Slowly, his friend drops his eyes and touches that small ring of rosewood which he never takes off, before eventually replying: "I need to find her."
The relief that Nathaniel feels is tangible. "I see. Of course –"
"No, you don't!"
Taken aback be the outburst, Nathaniel feels his jaw drop.
Springing from his chair, Ned makes a few steps away. With his back to Nathaniel, he rakes his hands through his hair in frustration: a gesture from the time when it was longer. "You don't understand," he repeats, with a clear tone of despair. Walking away even further, into a dark corner of the room, he remains standing there, facing a wall.
As the silence lingers, Nathaniel can feel his stomach tie in a knot. He has no idea what it is that he has stumbled over; it only makes him think, uncomfortably, about that other evening in darkness and despair.
Dammit, Cousland. Speak to me…
Nathaniel empties his cup, pours himself another and sits back comfortably, firmly putting his unease aside. His estimate is not wrong.
Eventually, Ned turns back but his eyes keep avoiding Nathaniel's, and though his features are obscured in the dark, Nathaniel would still swear that he is flustered. "I…" When he raises his hand to his face, it shakes profoundly.
"I wish we were competing now, I'd sure win," Nathaniel ventures at a chance to dissipate the tension. "Won't you sit down at least?"
With an impatient snort, Ned turns away again and starts pacing. "I've never told anyone," he says hoarsely, pausing in between two steps.
Surprise, surprise. But it seems that we're finally getting somewhere. Over the time, Nathaniel has come to learn that the façade of silence is actually easy to break through; all it takes is the right approach, and the right person, or so he likes to think. He schools his features into attentive listening, knowing well that once Ned loses the fight with his nerves, he will start talking without being prompted.
It doesn't take much longer, though it worries him that Ned keeps averting his eyes.
Several deep breaths, as if Ned didn't know how to start. "You might recall that I said once that I should have died at Fort Drakon, right?" he says eventually. Not waiting for confirmation, he barks a laughter. "That was not self-deprecatory: I truly should have died there. I never told you, no-one did, because it's not common knowledge… Killing an Archdemon takes the life of the Grey Warden who strikes the blow. It should have taken mine. I still live because…"
A profound pause while Ned folds his arms across his chest, as if bracing himself. "Morrigan… came with a scheme how to prevent this. A – a kind of magic. Blood magic, I suppose. I – we – we prevented the Archdemon's soul from merging with mine. That's what happens, you know, and both souls are destroyed in the process. We… we directed the soul elsewhere."
"Elsewhere?" Nathaniel says softly, as neutrally as he can: he feels not only walking an edge of an abyss, but an edge of one filled with lava. He does not dare to think what and how was done.
Ne still won't look at him, his eyes transfixed in the dark. "It… it possibly still walks this world," he says in an unsteady whisper, as if forcing the voice out. "Free of the taint… so it… shouldn't…" He lowers his head as his voice trails off. "I must know what I have unleashed," he stutters finally. "I cannot – I shouldn't have – I must find her and learn if she told the truth!"
"That you do," Nathaniel says slowly. He feels chill running down his spine, despite the warm evening "But what will you do if you find her?"
Ned finally looks at him, and for a moment, Nathaniel feels as if almost a year was erased. "That will depend on what I learn," he repeats. "If she lied…" His voice breaks.
If she lied, it will break him, Nathaniel knows for sure. "Why don't you come back and sit?" he suggests. "What's done is done. No use standing over there in the dark."
Reluctantly, Ned returns to his chair; he has to secure himself against the table as he is sitting down. His hands tremble so much that he cannot take his cup.
"Ned…." Nathaniel hates to ask, but he is a Warden, it is his duty to find out what it is that has been kept from him. Yet, he hesitates, realizing that being a friend means more to him than being a Warden. "Ned, do I need to know how exactly you …?"
After a moment of silence, Ned ventually raises his eyes. "I hope not. I will deal with what I have done… and set it right if need be."
Slowly, Nathaniel reaches his hand to him across the table. "Then just tell me what you need me to do meanwhile… you impossible Cousland."
Seeing the look of cautious relief, he nearly grits his teeth in frustration. Really, Ned, how many times do we have to go through this?
But then Ned's cold hand meets his, and all of a sudden, Nathaniel realizes, acutely, that there will be a time when he might miss this all. He grips Ned's hand harder than he intended, and doesn't let go through all that Ned can bear to tell.
In the dim light, Nathaniel can see his breath slightly steaming: the year is setting towards autumn and the mornings are cold already.
This time two years ago, he was a bitter outcast with nothing but revenge in his heart; he crawled in under the cover of darkness and ended up in chains, waiting in his cell for a grim fate.
Now, mere minutes separate him from becoming the Lord of the Vigil's Keep in all but name.
Two years ago, the prospect would have made him dizzy like strong wine.
The sound of hooves as a horse is led out of the stables; on soft paws, huffing, Wolf struts over to pry his cold snout into Nathaniel's hand. Nathaniel kneels down to scratch the scarred head and shies away from a friendly lick.
"So you have crawled from your warm bed to see me off?"
In a plain armour without ornaments or sigil, Ned looks unfamiliar: as a stranger on the roads, he could be anyone. The armour is still dragonbone, and of Wade's superb make, but that would be recognized only at a closer look. The hilt of Vendetta, wrapped in plain leather, gives nothing away, either.
The Warden-Commander Ned Cousland who said his goodbyes the previous evening has ceased to exist.
The man with gaunt scarred face approaches in a light and lively gait which Nathaniel hasn't seen in almost two years: one who has shed a burden.
"I wouldn't miss it for anything," he replies in earnest, rising to grasp Ned's outstretched hand.
The grasp turns into an embrace, short but tight. "I'll miss you, friend," Ned mutters, still holding Nathaniel's hand.
Nathaniel feels his throat tighten. "You're not coming back, are you?" he finally voices what has been on his mind ever since that evening.
Ned averts his eyes only briefly. "Most probably not," he admits. "I'm sorry, Nathaniel."
"Don't be. I understand. You've done enough." Suffered enough, sacrificed enough.
A look of surprise and relief flashes across Ned's face. "Thank you."
"No need to. I–" somewhat awkwardly, he reaches for the packet under his coat. "Here. Take these. They're made for your hand. No fancy decorations but they are superbly balanced. I've tested them myself."
Slowly, Ned reaches for the pair of throwing daggers: plain, unadorned steel in plain sheaths, to be fastened to the forearm or bandolier. Looking at Nathaniel, his face beams a smile that Nathaniel hasn't seen in almost two years… or perhaps never. "Thank you. I'll bear them gladly."
Together, they walk to the gate. Ned mounts; against the sky, Nathaniel can see him raise his hand in a final goodbye. He raises his, and watches the man and the dog as long as he can make out their silhouettes in the light of the dawn.