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Chapter 15 Ned
The ceiling looks familiar, the place where he has woken is not the one he remembers last.
His room at Eamon's estate.
Not the dungeon.
Ned closes his eyes tight but when he opens them again, nothing has changed. He cautiously sits up but the pain never comes; only the familiar stiffness following a major magic healing.
Slowly, Ned pulls off the blanket, examining the areas of fresh pink skin, smoother and somewhat sensitive to the touch; then he presses his hands against the temples. He knows, he remembers how these wounds were inflicted; yet the memory is distant and colourless, as if it happened to someone else, so long ago that it hardly matters.
Unreal, that's how it feels, like when the demon trapped them in the Fade; yet, his surroundings lack the dream-like quality of shifting shapes. The bed on which he sits is solid, and creaks much the same way as he remembers since his first night here. It is his very presence in this room that seems out of place; the odd sense of strange-familiar like after returning home from a long journey – a journey through the land of nightmares.
But the dungeon was no nightmare, the scars are a proof.
What Ned finds even more disturbing is his inability to account for all the events since his capture – up to a point, the sequence is clear, but approximately since the disastrous exchange with Loghain, the memories lose consistence and become a set of disconnected images. The reason says that he must have been unconscious more than once but the blanks in the memory still seem too extensive.
And I also must have been delirious. The image of Morrigan in a Chantry robe can't have been produced by a sane mind, that is for sure.
As Ned looks at his hands, he is surprised to find out that he is still wearing her ring. As he recalls, the ring was not taken when he was stripped, which surprised him even then: improminent as the ring is, it still has value.
Is there more to the ring than she has told me? Morrigan was there, he realizes, and… Wynne? His memory contains a vague sensation of Wynne's soothing voice, and the touch of her healing magic, but no more.
Not a clue what might have preceded his waking in his bed.
His fruitless musings are interrupted as the door quietly opens and Wynne peeps in; she seems half-annoyed, half-resigned that he has woken too soon for her liking, and with unusual sternness she orders him to stay in bed. Ned complies, in exchange for a brief account of his rescue, and after she leaves the room, he lies, staring at the ceiling again.
So, there was a Chantry robe, after all? He can't stop laughing for quite some time. I must ask Morrigan how she liked it. Among other things.
As the time passes, Leliana and Alistair come by to chat and carefully avoid saying anything important, and Sten brings Wolf, who jumps on the bed and attempts to lick Ned's face every now and then, profoundly wetting the pillow, until Wynne appears and sends everyone out.
Really, am I an acid flask about to break?
Morrigan never turns up.
The ceiling is becoming less and less appealing. Ned would much like to use the time to think over and plan strategies, but since everyone was careful not to provide any information, there is nothing he can build on. He looks with disgust at the green mug with the sleeping potion that Wynne placed just next to the bed, "just in case": I think I have spent enough time unconscious to provide for the next ten years.
Finally, the forced serenity and idleness become too much to bear. Ned curses and gets out of the bed, paying attention to every move. A few steps still reveal no major problems, so he gets dressed, determined not to to be confined to the bed again. When no Wynne appears immediately to strike him down with rightful vengeance, he takes the opportunity to shave.
As he washes and wipes his face, he hears voices from the corridor – unsurprisingly, one of them Wynne's.
Maker stand by me, retribution on the way.
"I have told Lord Eamon clearly that the Warden needs rest!"
The answer is too hushed for him to hear but he decides to take up the chance.
"Am I needed?" he asks, nonchallantly leaning against the doorframe as he opens the door. The look Wynne gives him would freeze even the lava but the servant looks relieved.
"My lord… Lord Eamon is concerned about your health and asks if you are fit to see him in the library."
Involuntarily, Ned looks at Wynne, whose lips are pressed in a thin line but she says nothing. "It would seem that I am ready for a little walk. Tell Eamon that I will see him in a few minutes."
The servant rushes away and Ned does his best not to shun from Wynne's eyes – it's not so difficult as he expected. "I am feeling fine, Wynne – thanks to you," he says softly, "but I am afraid that we have precious little time left and I cannot spend it idle in bed."
To his surprise, Wynne also replies softly, and looks at him with – compassion? "I only wanted to give you this one day to recover, because you are in need of it more than you realize. You're not going to have any more; as you have said yourself, there is little time left. Do not strain yourself, and come to me should any problem occur."
Surprised, Ned watches her disappearing figure, then shakes his head and makes for the library.
He realizes his mistake as soon as he enters but it is too late to back out now. Fade take it, Wynne was right. I'm really not up to this.
What is she doing here? And why didn't anyone tell me?
The first question is answered immediately but Ned barely listens, even though the fact that Loghain's very daughter has come to seek their alliance and offers yet another source of information to use against her father, is certainly a reward from the Maker. Instead, he is gripped by a strange nausea and it takes him a great effort to pull himself together so that he answers coherently.
Fortunately, it seems that he gives a convincing performance. Talking to demons and werewolves is a good practice.
The 'don't-strain-yourself' instruction is hard to comply with, though.
Finally, Anora rises while he and Eamon make a deference. Her eyes linger on him with an unspoken promise: "You and I should talk before the Landsmeet, my dear Warden. Come and see me soon."
Ned only bows again, unable to answer as the thought he has been holding back since the first moment finally breaks through:
Loghain's eyes. She has Loghain's eyes.
Chapter 16 Ned
Answers. I need some damned answers.
Ned strides across the corridor to Alistair's room. He knocks profoundly, and waits for the invitation before he enters.
Seeing him, Alistair springs from the armchair. "Hey! Weren't you supposed to stay in bed?"
"I'm quite fine. I'd be even more so if I was informed what was going on around here."
Alistair's smile vanishes. "I am sorry but Wynne ordered it. She insisted that you needed rest and peace, no big issues and stuff, at least for today." He throws his arms wide. "Who am I to dispute a fearsome mage? I hope nothing went wrong?"
I just ran into Loghain's little girl with her daddy's looks, 'tis all. Aloud, he says: "The fault is partly mine – Eamon sent for me and I did not expect anyone to be with him, Her Majesty least of all."
"Aww." Alistair makes a sympathetic face. "She has a nasty glare, doesn't she? I guess someone must have told her I was going to steal her throne. But what's her issue with you?"
Ned smiles wryly. "None, so far – in fact, she's offering us yet another piece of rope to hang her father on."
"Oh? Meaning, she is really, really grateful for what you've done for her? Well, she definitely should. What is it that is supposed to break Loghain's neck?"
"A little trip to the Alienage – there's something going on there that he has a hand in."
Alistair narrows his eyes. "How do we know that this isn't yet another trap?" he asks slowly.
"Well – we don't," Ned has to admit.
As expected, Alistair uses Andraste's name in the connection that Chantry would definitely disapprove. "Don't you even think to make me stay back this time because I'm telling you right away that I won't! After what you've –"
The way Alistair bites his lip and looks aside is definitely suspicious. "Yes, Alistair?" Ned asks softly. Really, never good at keeping anything for yourself.
"You… don't remember it, or do you?"
The hesitation makes Ned's heart beat faster. No use to tiptoe around this. "I don't know what you are talking about. Frankly, I remember none of it – none how I got here from – from Fort Drakon. Wynne told me only little, so I've come to ask you." Alistair clears his throat and looks away again, so Ned adds: "In detail, please."
"Details." A sigh. Staring somewhere past the walls, speaking in a calm, controlled voice, Alistair does give the detailed account.
As Ned listens, seated on Alistair's bed, he realizes that Wynne was right once again. He is beginning to feel very tired, and unwell: something is gnawing at him from the inside. Maybe it's good that I don't remember that snivelling part. Frowning, he ponders the final stage of the return from Fort Drakon. "So, you say they never noticed that I was gone until we safely arrived? Did they not even demand later that I be handed over?"
Alistair chuckles. "Actually, Leliana reported that there was quite some fuss in the city just after we made it, and Loghain's guards did come looking for you, once. Eamon's captain refused to let them in and said that he cannot account for the presence of any traitor and murderer in here but that he could tell them about one in the royal palace."
Ned forces a smile, struggling with a strange, nauseating feeling which makes him suddenly perspire and short of breath.
"Ned? Are you alright?"
His mouth is dry and he swallows with difficulty; his hands are sweating and trembling. "Could you pour me a cup of water?" He does not hear the answer, does not see Alistair's reaction –
"Don't give him water until he begs!"
– the utter helplessness and humiliation, waiting for another lash –
Ned gasps at the unexpected vividity of the memory; his muscles tense as if he were struck again. He shakes his head, pushing the memory away, and bends over to lean his elbows on his knees –
– his back forcedly bends as his tied hands are pulled upwards –
– he struggles for breath, like he did back then –
– till all his weight rests on the reversed arms –
– cannot breathe, cannot even scream –
"Can you hear me?"
– a sharp sound as the shoulder joints snap from their sockets –
"Maker's breath, what is it with you?"
What is it with me? Ned realizes that he has slided down from the bed and Alistair is kneeling beside him, holding and supporting him, his face drawn with worry.
"Are you in pain? Shall I call Wynne?"
Ned shakes his head, unable to speak. He is numb and dizzy, and the sweated shirt is getting annoyingly cold against his body. As he slowly becomes more aware of his surroundings, he realizes that he has been clutching Alistair's arm with a death grip. "Sorry," he mutters, releasing his fingers.
"If it helps, you're welcome. What has happened? You've scared me to the Fade!"
I've scared myself. Ned covers his face with his hands for a while, realizing that it is wet with tears. Maker, what they have done to me…
As he leans against Alistair, waiting to regain control of himself, an idea flashes his mind and he shudders; then he feels anger, slowly building inside. "I won't let him break me like this! It's enough what he did to me then, I'm not going to let him win over me again!"
He realizes that he has spoken aloud only when Alistair sharply draws breath: "Do you mean that he personally – "
"No, Alistair, not like this, personally." Ned struggles hard to keep his rapid breath under control. "He just stood by. He came round for a little chat, and I didn't know better than to talk back." He shudders again: the emotions just won't comply. Did Wynne foresee this to happen? He attempts for a smirk. "That big mouth of yours is definitely a bad influence. Don't worry, I'm taking you along to the Alienage, Maker knows what mess you might make here if you were left on your own."
The familiar ground of the banter brings a relief. I must give you credit for this, Alistair, it really helps. – Though, you look weird now, man.
"It is my fault, after all. I should have been there."
Oh no. After all that time when I was blessing the Maker that I was right to have left you behind... "Alistair, don't blame yourself. I sure don't blame you. Honestly. Really, really. I simply thought that I could handle anything coming my way, and got my lesson." One that I'm not going to forget. Angrily, Ned clenches his fists as yet another wave of shudder grips his body.
Alistair stares at him a little longer, unconvinced, then finally nods. "Alright. What now?"
Ned laughs, surprised how quickly the emotions flopped on the other side. "Right now, I guess I could use a bath; I'm just afraid that you will have to help me to my room. – Please, don't make this your hobby."
Later, as he subdues himself in the hot water, the tension of the body is relieved while that of the mind is pushed aside: he has to plan a lot, and carefully.
The idea is slowly getting shape.
He is still lost in thought as he sits by the window while the servants dispose of the bath and sunlight slowly tinges red.
Time for the green mug, it seems. I don't feel like testing my newest nightmare today.
Just as he is about to take a drink, there is a knock on the door.
The senior Warden assesses him for a while, then remarks: "You seem no worse for wear after your stay at Fort Drakon."
You think so? Ned keeps a polite face. "Wynne is a great healer." As you have found out yourself. And I do not want to know what kind of dreams you have. "Was there anything you needed?"
"I understand that you have spoken to Eamon, and Her Majesty. May I ask what your intentions are?"
That's very simple, Riordan."To win the Landsmeet." And no, I'm not going to tell you the details.