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Chapter 5 Ned
Ned shudders with disgust as he puts the surcoat with the Howe emblem over his armour. Not for long, he promises himself as he waits for Erlina to distract the guards. Even so, his skin itches from the mere idea of having that thing near.
And then they are in. So far the easy part.
All too easy for my liking.
They walk casually through the corridors, without as much as earning a second glance from those they encounter. They pass the crossing of two corridors, which would have been perfect for an ambush, unattacked, and turn to the main wing.
To Ned's immense surprise, Queen Anora is truly there, locked; and he is hardly surprised that the door is magically sealed, meaning no quick get-in-and-out rescue but seeking the particular mage, and most probably Howe himself.
All the experience of the past months, all the discipline of Alistair's mental training, barely suffices to keep Ned's emotions at bay. How easy it would be to succumb to the rage, to slaughter his way through the estate, till he finds him.
Ned feels his heart race. A trap? We shall see who is the hunter and the prey here.
Still no guards as they head to the private quarters, until they almost run into one. Fortunately, they manage to back out while the man's attention is directed elsewhere as he is busy fondling a serve maid in an alcove.
Leliana suppresses a giggle, and Ned pretends not to see the look she gives him, which amuses her even more. She flushes in the face, pressing her hand against her mouth to remain quiet.
"Alistair, have you – " Ned bursts into the room and freezes in midstep. Alistair turns red more than usually and Ned feels that his own face imitates the process. Neither is able to say a word, and so it is Leliana who saves the situation as she raises on her elbow, without any attempt to cover herself: "Come in or get out, but don't stand in the doorway. Was there anything you needed?" Then with a glint in her eye, she adds: "Or maybe you would like to join us?"
In retrospect, Ned is sure that at this point, Alistar started to suffocate, but since he fared no better himself, the assumption remains unconfirmed. "I – I'll come later," he manages to stutter.
"Sure, do – but I suggest that you knock next time."
Leliana's laughter rings in his ears long after he has closed the door.
The problem of discreet passing is solved as the soldier and the maid retreat to an empty bedroom. Leliana inspects the corridor for other disruption, then nods. "The lord's chambers should be at the end." For a moment, her face shows an emotion Ned cannot exactly place, then she purses her lips in a tight line.
A moment of preparation as they stand before the door, then they dart in.
Of course, this would have been too easy. The rooms are empty.
Ned turns, expecting an attack from behind, but still nothing happens. After a while, Leliana says softly: "There used to be a secret entrance to the dungeon here." At their quizzical looks, she shrugs. "I have been here. A long time ago." Then, as if remembering something, she chuckles. "Actually, I think we might take the chance and look around a little. I'd like to check something."
Saying that, she she cautiously peeps back into the corridor and runs to the heavy door just opposite. Meddling with the locks seems even quicker than usually. Leliana shakes her head. "Would you believe that people don't change the locks after they have been broken into? Even more so, they don't change the locks after they have moved in a new house? Tut-tut. Oh blissful ignorance." She steps aside and motions to the door with a wide gesture. "Help yourself, Arl Howe is most generous to support the Wardens' cause."
Ned stares for a moment, then laughs quietly. "I'd better leave to your appraisal what to pick. I think I also need to check on something." Not that I expect Howe to be so stupid as to leave the proofs of his crimes around but one never knows.
The assumption is correct, yet the search is not fruitless. Puzzled, Ned inspects the pack of documents retrieved from a massive chest. Grey Wardens' seal? In Howe's property? What's going on here?
The answers, if there are any to be found, must be in the dungeon.
Answers are to come first, it would seem, or at least some of them.
Riordan. A Grey Warden.
A Senior Grey Warden, here, all that time while I was on my own, without help or guidance, just me and Alistair, walking at the edge… How different it could have been had we had you along!
Seeing the marks on Riordan's body, Ned shivers. Months here, like this? 'Trying to keep your mouth shut' - I don't even want to imagine how I would fare in your place.
Just one more item on the list of things you're going to pay for.
The payment awaits in a large room, under the arch supported by massive columns, and not alone.
Good. The elf was right saying that you would keep the mage near. One more does not make a difference.
Rendon Howe folds his hands and sneers, baring the uneven teeth. "Look what we have here. Bryce's little boy, all grown up and still trying to fit into his daddy's armour. I didn't think you would be so stupid as to come down here."
With his peripheral vision, Ned sees guards closing in, stepping out of their hiding places in the corners, behind the columns. Undoubtedly, Howe's elite. His heartbeat quickens. "You know what?" he says slowly. "I hoped you would be so stupid as to wait down here for me."
With that, the fight starts.
The trap has snapped.
Chapter 6 Ned
The clashing blades fill the cold dungeon with their song.
Concentrate. It is the mind that controls the body; make it forget the pain and perform the movement with instinct gained by practice.
So Ned does, and with a swift swirl he brings the swordsman down.
"Come on," Alistair rolls his eyes, "it's just a small dose, a spoonful."
Ned suspiciously eyes the vial: the blue radiating content is definitely uappetizing. "Why is it that every time I am around you, I end up drinking something suspicious?" he sighs. " Didn't you say that the initiates do not take lyrium?"
"They don't, at least not regularly – but you do need the initial dose, without it you could concentrate for hours and nothing would ever happen. Now, don't be a chicken, you've had worse."
"Like, dwarven beer?"
"Yeah, forgot about that one."
Focus. Draw your energy, then unleash it with a single strike.
Drained of the mana, the mage gasps and raises his hands in a desperate attempt to defend himself.
With one smooth move, the Keening's blade slices through the hands and the chest alike; the runes alongside glow, blood slides off the glistening surface.
The Keening. The best blade Ned has ever had, yet not the one he loves best.
He gently runs his fingers along the black hilt, dwelling for a moment on the golden pommel with the family emblem, and resolutely draws the leather covering back. He hands the pack to Alistair, who accepts it with a slight bow. "Keep it for me before I return. In case I don't, and if you ever have a chance to give me a decent burial, send it with me to the Maker. – No, I'm not going to change my mind," Ned stops the protest.
"You're going to get yourself in trouble without me," Alistair pouts.
"Less likely than with you," Ned grins and quickly avoids a punch.
If he lives till that day, the Cousland family sword will accompany him on the last journey to Orzammar. Meanwhile, it is the Keening he relies on: the blade that increases the chances that the Cousland line will live a little longer.
Yet, it is the old Cousland family sword that should have been here today, to bite at the flesh of the one who made Ned the last of the Couslands.
Ned slightly adjusts his grip of the Keening's hilt. When he raised it the first time, it seemed incredibly light; now, after the hard fight, its weight can already be felt. He looks around, counting the odds. Morrigan leans against the wall, paler than usually; Leliana lies senseless at her feet. Sten slowly limps towards him, leaving stains of blood on the floor. Ned's own tunic soaks wet warmth in more than one place, yet the wounds seem minor so far. "Stay back," he commands.
Arl Howe, as yet unharmed, sneers: he has also counted the odds. "So it's me and you, then? How very fitting that you should die by my hand like your father."
"Why?" Ned asks, knowing it's a mistake but he cannot help not to. "Why did you do it? Why do you hate us so?"
"It is hardly 'us' any more," Howe observes with mockery. Then his grimace twists. "Couslands, Couslands, Couslands – and what about the Howes? You had all that should have been mine. So I made that history, and will do the same with you!" He strikes like a viper, even before he finishes; Ned barely deflects the blow with his shield.
Just one more time, concentrate.
"I do not care about the cost. I simply want it repaired." Ned is beginning to lose patience.
The dwarven smith glares back at him. "It's not worth the effort. If it means so bloody much to you, you should have taken better care of it."
The object of the dispute, the shield of Highever, bent and battered past recognition, lies on the working table. Ned grits his teeth. I probably should have told the golems to be gentle. Aloud, he only says: "I see that the rumours of the dwarven smiths' skills seem to be exaggerated. If you're unable to repair it, just say so."
The smith's face turns an ugly red. "Come and collect it in three days."
And so it is the shield of Highever that pushes aside the left-hand dagger while Ned's blade drives through Rendon Howe's abdomen. The man freezes, his eyes goggling in shock, then he falls to his knees with a wail as Ned turns the blade in the wound and pulls it out, jerking it upwards to enlarge the gap.
"How very fitting that you should die like my father," he remarks, watching his enemy writhe in a quickly spreading pool of blood.
"Maker… spit on you… I deserved more!" With a howl of hatred, Howe exhales his last breath, his unseeing eyes transfixed at Ned, who would much like to do the spitting part but his mouth is dry.
You did. How fortunate for you that you died quickly.
The room suddenly swirls around; only when Sten and Morrigan rush to his side to support him, Ned realizes how badly bleeding he is. His knees give way; as he is being laid down, his eyes never leave Howe's body.
It does not feel the way I thought.
I feel… nothing.
This quickly turns out to be a self-deception when his wounds are being staunched; Ned gasps and archs his back until Sten holds him down.
– writhing on the floor in a pool of blood –
On the same floor –
"Don't… let my blood mingle with his!"
"Don't worry, kadan."
The wave of healing magic washes over him with the familiar tickle; again and again. Ned finally relaxes, closing his eyes.
Arl Howe's eyes still stare back at him. Then the image slowly tranforms into that of his father, clutching at his abdomen, mother leaning over him.
The picture is as painful as ever.
With Sten's help, he slowly sits up. Morrigan's healing is not as effective as Wynne's but it will have to do. Ned wipes his face and frowns at the bloody smudge. The idea of putting back on his armour is unappealing but inevitable. He takes a deep breath.
Let's get out of here.
Nonetheless, that desire has to be postponed for some time; Riordan may not have been the only prisoner worth saving.
And so Ned does the other thing he wishes to very much: he pulls Morrigan closer and kisses her, long and hard. When she finally withdraws, her eyes are hazy, and so Ned leans closer and plants on her lips one more brief, gentle kiss.
She does not protest.
So. Let's go and clean this place a little.