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Chapter 23 Anora
"'Goaded' him? How very peculiar that the 'goaded' Cailan considered waiting for reinforcements while you insisted they were unnecessary! But I surely cannot contradict your expertise when it comes to manipulating others. You have proven your skill when you sent your tool, Rendon Howe, to kidnap and torture the citizens of Ferelden!"
Hidden in the alcove of the side entrance, Anora smiles as she listens to the escalating debate. Truly, father, it was a big mistake to make this man your enemy! Had we had him on our side, it would never have come to this.
If only you ever listened to me, it would never have come to this.
For a moment, there is astonished silence as Bann Sighard confirms the accusation, and then she hears her father's voice, hoarse with emotion: "Howe was responsible for himself!"
Now, you are lucky that the man is dead, he would have dragged you along if you had tried to put the blame on him like this!
"Whatever Howe may have done, he should have been brought before the seneschal. There is no justice in butchering a man in his home!"
"What do you know of justice?" Unlike her father, Ned Cousland keeps his voice calm, yet cutting deep. "You who awarded a murderer with the lands and titles of his victims. You who have abandoned the battlefield and left your king die at the hands of the worst enemy of mankind and left the land exposed to the Blight!"
Yet another good point. The southern lords certainly do not need to be reminded of the consequence of your action.
"What would you have me do? Cailan's was not the only life in my hands. Should I have sacrificed the entire army for his mistake?" Even if it was a military decision, no-one is going to believe it, after what they have heard. Will you ever tell me if it was truly the way the battle went, or you simply got tired making up for Cailan's foolishness? "Do not imagine you can shame me with Cailan's death. He was Maric's son. My king. No one regrets his loss more than I do!"
The shaming, sadly, will have to be my part, Anora sighs, growing impatient as she waits for her chance to step in.
"And this is why you stole his throne from his widow at the first opportunity?"
As expected, her father jumps at the bait. "By every means let us speak about my daughter!"
A few more sentences, to excite the nobles, and she steps out. "I believe I can speak for myself!"
She lets the awed murmur die; watching her father's expression change from joy to suspicion does not shatter her determination. Carefully tuning her voice, she addresses the nobles: "Lords and ladies of Ferelden, hear me. My father is no longer the man you know. This man is not the hero of River Dane. This man turned his troops aside and refused to protect your king as he fought bravely against the darkspawn." Really, Cailan, more credit than you deserve. "This man seized Cailan's throne before his body was cold and locked me away so I could not reveal his treachery." She issues a heart-breaking sigh. "I would have already been killed, if not for Ned Cousland's timely rescue!"
The pained look in her father's face ... This was necessary, father. Your stubbornness left no other way. I'm sorry.
The very embodiment of stubbornness. Can't you see that this is leading nowhere? The voting went the way she had expected, yet she never imagined that Loghain would not abide by the outcome of the Landsmeet.
Such… an unpredictable way.
"Have you a champion, or will you fight yourself?"
"I will fight myself."
Alistair sharply turns his head as if to protest and Anora frowns inwardly: an unnecessary risk… though, in the long-term, certainly advantageous for Cousland's reputation.
If he wins, that is.
As she watches the combat, the prospects of Ned Cousland's victory are not particularly convincing: youth and agility may not suffice against a strong, experienced warrior who has never allowed himself to lose his skill with age. Once again, Loghain's shield bash sends Cousland to the ground – yet once again, he fails to secure a final blow.
Anora gasps as Loghain barely deflects a slash that would have cut off his head, and clutches at the fabric of her robe as Ned Cousland almost gets cut in halves. Maker, which one should I be supporting? The one I love, or the one I need?
Both men are already bleeding, and both are panting heavily. For a while, they disengage, circling each other, waiting for the opponent's move, and Ned Cousland seems to be the one more exhausted.
"Your pride will be your undoing once again, young Cousland," Loghain grunts. "Even if you survive this, you will be charged with treason!"
Anora does not hear Ned's answer, she only grasps the word "letters" and sees her father freeze for a moment.
That moment costs him everything.
Loghain staggers under a shield blow, and sways as the blade cuts deep under his pauldron. He loses balance as his defence is broken through again, and falls hard to his knee and side. Before he can rise again, he has a point of the sword at his throat.
Silence but for the two men, breathing hard. No-one moves.
Anora realizes that she has been holding her breath, and holds it again as Ned Cousland says: "You will die for your crimes."
"Wait. There is another option."
Anora is impressed: she had not thought of employing the Warden for this. His suggestion makes her rather uneasy: this is not what she had expected as a way out for her father. Too risky… though I should probably be grateful for this; it's not only a way out for his life but also a way to redeem his reputation. You did think this through, well, Ned Cousland! She looks at her father who has taken the opportunity to rise to his feet: you must endure this, you must survive!
She is unsure if Alistair's exaggerated reaction is a part of a role: she didn't think him capable of such performance, but by this time she has full trust in Cousland's abilities to handle the situation.
Then, it goes terribly wrong.
"You can't do this!" she exclaims as she overcomes the initial shock over his refusal. "My father may have been wrong but he is still a hero to the people!" And we have a deal, we have a deal! You can't do this to me!
"Anora. Hush. It's over."
Much later, she realizes that the way he said it probably meant 'I forgive you', but at the moment she is too distracted to see past the words. "Stop treating me like a child! This is serious!"
The way he looks at her as he says that ridiculous thing about daughters never growing up… 'I love you, I forgive you, my little girl.'
"Father…" her voice breaks. She makes a move to intervene, to stop – The blade flashes in a broad swing, and she feels something warm trickle down her face. Her knees give way as she stumbles to him – to his body –
As she raises her head, the first time she meets Ned Cousland's eyes, cold and impassionate.
Never before has she hated anyone like that.
There is only one thing she can do now: to struggle on her own, since she can hardly hope that he will keep the rest of the bargain.
Yet she can only stand and listen as Cousland passes the crown to that impossible bastard of Maric's. You have doomed us all now. You traitor, you…
And he dares to bid her to be reasonable, to give up her throne, to swear fealty – "Reason had apparently nothing to do with your choice!" she hisses, trepidating with fury.
Something flashes in his eyes then as he responds, too quietly for anyone else to hear: "On the very contrary, I had plenty of reasons for revenge."
I underestimated him, and overestimated his ability to see past his personal goals.
To her surprise, it is Alistair who shows most reason here. She tilts her head in disbelief. "You would give me a chance for the throne? After all this?"
"I said, 'if I fall', Anora. If I fall, the throne falls to you. I won't kill you while there's still a chance that may happen. Someone has to take this Blight seriously."
"How uncharacteristically wise of you." And how incredibly naïve. If you disposed of me now, when the country is under the imminent threat, no-one would protest too much. They won't let you carry this out afterwards. If you live at all.
I will have my chance yet. And then, you will pay for this, Ned Cousland. Later. When you have forgotten, and started to feel safe. Then, and only then, I will find what you hold dear, and I will destroy it all. I swear.
She turns away and marches ahead of the escort.
Her face itches under her father's drying blood but she washes it only hours later.
Chapter 24 Alistair
Yet another toast to 'our new king', to which Alistair responds with a sip, and then he takes his chance to apologize from the banquet that Eamon threw as a small celebration of their victory. Ugh. I hope this is not going to happen again any time soon. Fortunately, Eamon showed his common sense and didn't let this get out of hand, there's a lot to do for the days to come.
The sounds of merrymaking don't make it to the first floor and Alistair welcomes the quietness, he still feels that events rush ahead of him and drag him behind. And I am most happy that no-one insists on moving to the royal palace right away, I certainly don't feel like sleeping in Cailan's bed. He would much prefer a moment for himself but this will not happen until he gets rid of that pressing thought. He makes a pause before knocking on the door. "Ned? It's me. May I for a moment?"
There is silence, even though Alistair knows that Ned is almost certainly there, having retired from the banquet early, with tiredness and injuries from the duel as an excuse. I'm not buying this, man, not from you. And knowing for sure that Morrigan is currently alone in the library, he insists: "I know that you are in there, and I have plenty of time on hand. If you think you can put up with knocking up till midnight, you're welcome."
Again the silence, but then he hears Ned say: "Come in, it's open," so he does and closes the door behind him.
And he pauses, at a loss: Ned is sitting in the alcove by the window, staring at the darkening sky, holding a silver cup in his hand. The bottle next to him is empty.
Alistair has never seen him drinking excessively, or getting purposely drunk.
"What do you want?" There is only a slight tinge of slurredness in Ned's voice, yet as an introduction it is far from inviting.
Never in his life has Alistair kept his mouth shut, and he's not going to break the habit. He takes a deep breath. "I want to… I have to ask you something. About the Landsmeet… about Anora." Ned stubbornly stares out of the window, not giving any clue, so Alistair has to continue, painfully aware of the atmosphere that is cold at best.
Were it not his friend, his comrade – his brother – he'd almost use the word 'hostile'.
"You never told me about your conversation with Anora prior the Landsmeet. Actually, you were quite elusive when I asked, if I recall. Given that odd exchange between the two of you when you proclaimed me… I wonder."
Ned takes a long drink from his cup. "You do not want to know," he says blankly.
The hard way, then. Alistair slowly says: "I don't think that wanting is an option any longer. You made me king, and I accepted. In my book, kings do not have the luxury of not wanting to know. I guess it's time… to accept other things, too. Tell me what it was about. I need to know."
Ned finally turns his stare from the window and his look builds a hard lump in Alistair's stomach. It's too late to back out now, though. "You promised her something you didn't keep," he says softly.
"I promised her something I never intended to keep," Ned corrects him and takes another drink.
Alistair is beginning to understand, or so he thinks. He brings a chair and places it next to Ned's. "You promised to support her claim in exchange for her support in our cause, and then you gave the crown to me."
"I promised to support her in exchange for her promise to marry me."
Never minding the interruption, Ned continues in the same impassionate tone that sends chills down Alistair's spine. "I convinced her that I was as power-greedy as herself. That I would betray a friend just to elevate my own status. I did everything I could to make sure that she would feel safe and keep her end of the deal."
Alistair feels as if a void opened under his feet. "You could have gone through with it if you wanted the crown. You would make a better king than me. Why didn't you just tell me?"
"You were not listening; I said I never intended that." Ned's breath hisses between his teeth. "Never, ever, would I unite myself with an offspring of Loghain's. I'd rather be dead than that."
Alistair quietly ponders for a moment. "Very well," he says, trying his best to sound matter-of-fact. "So, you lied to the bitch who most likely played an active part in that little trap they set for you, to make sure that we win the Landsmeet. Given what was at stake – I condone what you did. If we didn't manage to bring Loghain to the justice he deserved, it would not only cost us our heads but Ferelden would most likely fall to the Blight, as well."
"That's why it probably had to be done. The reason why I wanted to do it –"Ned's knuckles turn white as he is holding the cup. "I wanted to do it," he continues almost in whisper, "because I wanted Loghain not only dead but stripped of everything he ever achieved: his power, his reputation… his daughter. I wanted to see that look on his face when she slandered him in public." His voice turns hoarse. "It was not justice I was after, it was revenge."
"On my part, I cannot see what's wrong with that." Alistair's own voice is also hoarse, his head is spinning. "Two birds with one stone. Why are you tormenting yourself over it so?"
"Do you not see? Loghain excused everything he did that it was for the sake of Ferelden. I can excuse everything I've done by the Blight, or justice, or whatever. I am the same as him."
Maker's breath. "Ah. Oh. Well, if you exterminated half an army while committing regicide, ignited civil war and had people enslaved and tortured, you really managed to keep that from me. Easy to fool, am I. Next time you tell me that due to your new sense of brotherhood with that bastard, you are sorry to have dismissed Riordan's suggestion."
Ned chuckles humourlessly. "I am only sorry I couldn't have him on his knees before I cut off his head."
"That's fine with me. You know, for a moment, I thought that you were… considering it. I'd never forgive you if you did."
"I'd never forgive myself if I did."
Alistair's relief is pre-timely, though, as Ned continues: "But I should have done it, not just because it was yet another thing I promised to Anora. I should have, were I worthy that armour I put on for display. I dishonoured it. I played the Warden Commander but I did not act like one. I… failed my duty. I pursued my personal goal, and used the Wardens as a cover-up. I…" Ned's voice begins to tremble. He stares with unseeing eyes, his pupils dilated, lost in the haze of self-accusation.
"Ned… "Alistair's mouth feels so dry that his voice creaks. He feels as if drawn into the depth of Ned's own despair. Impulsively, he grabs his friend by the shoulders and gives him a violent shake, spilling the rest of the wine from the cup. "He deserved it. He bloody well deserved it. No matter what your personal reasons were, he did deserve to die. For Duncan, for Cailan, for your family and yourself – " A sound between a chuckle and a sob brings him to a halt. "What?"
Ned's reply is barely audible. "When… he was trying to make me confess, I hurled in his face an accusation of the way little Oren and his mother died. He blurted out that he had not ordered that. I do not know if he meant that particular thing, or that he did not order murdering my family at all. I will never know, I killed the bastards both."
Andraste, how do I get him out of this? Alistair draws his face close to Ned's. "Listen. It. Does. Not. Matter. You did the right thing, and necessary. If you had your doubts, you should have let me deliver the blow."
"That would make no difference. Besides, I wanted to keep your hands clean of this."
Alistair withdraws. Now I'm sorry I have drunk so little. A cup would do now – or rather a barrel. Finally he says: "That was unnecessary. As a king, I will have to do my dirty job myself, anyway."
"As a king you will have people to do it for you."
"Bloody never more!" Alistair grips Ned's shoulder again. "Or at least not you, of all the people!"
They both fall silent, Ned still staring somewhere past the chamber's walls, Alistair frantically looking for something to say. "You see," he ventures at last, "I still do not get why you're so convinced that letting Loghain live would have been a bright idea. Yeah, we did well even despite Loghain – now, can you imagine how incredibly easy things will be without him? No, don't tell me – you like challenges. Sweeping the Archdemon with one blow and the whole horde with another is not heroic enough. You wanted Loghain to mess things up his usual way, so that we have more fun."
Ned looks at him with disbelief. "Alistair," he says almost lovingly after a while, "have I ever told you that you are an idiot?"
Alistair cocks his head. "Well, yes – on countless occasions. Just don't know what it makes of you who have put me on the throne, an idiot's idiot?"
Ned shakes his head and laughs a little. "Rather a king's fool, provided that we both live to see the day." He looks at the empty cup. "You have spilt my wine," he complains.
Oh, finally. "Maybe My Majesty should fetch another bottle, as an atonement?"
"Definitely. In case you do not realize, this is possibly our only chance to get drunk magnificently."
And to get sick magnificently, Alistair thinks but does not protest. Eamon and Wynne will have our heads for this, and Leliana will have my, uhm… But for a friend's sake, one must sometimes make sacrifices.