Nathaniel always expected that when he finally met the Hero of Ferelden, his thoughts would narrow to a single focused pinpoint of vengeance. This is the one who killed my father. But in that as in so many other things, he is wrong. Throughout the whole conversation with Elissa Cousland, right up until the shock of his conscription into the Grey Wardens wipes all other thought from his mind, he's distracted by one thing: her armor.
She walks into the dungeons clad in dragonskin. He recognizes it from a few chance encounters with master armorers in the Free Marches, and he can't help but wonder where she got it. No doubt everyone assumes the great hero slew a monstrous high dragon in single combat. He thinks maybe she took it from his father.
* * *
He watches her as she fights, trying hopelessly to puzzle out the character of the woman who killed his father, who claims his father killed her family. His own style of combat affords him ample opportunity to watch that of more close-range fighters, as he aims arrow after arrow at the monsters that swarm the countryside--none of whom are the foes he once imagined he'd be fighting.
Cousland fights with perfect precision, like her whole being is concentrated in her sword arm--except when it isn't, and instead it's concentrated in her off hand, which turns out not to be so off after all as it plunges a dagger into an enemy's back. But somehow she always seems to do that when the others aren't watching. They only see the swordswoman with her elegant poise and complete control. It occurs to him eventually that she may be aware that he's the exception. She might be allowing it herself.
He also comes to the conclusion that she couldn't have taken the dragonskin armor from his father. It fits her far too well.
* * *
"You never told me the real reason you conscripted me," he says to her on a patrol around the Keep.
She glances at him and lifts a brow.
"I thought at first it was the worst punishment you could imagine," Nathaniel says. "For being the son of your enemy. For trying to kill you. But I think you meant it as more than that."
"I did tell you," she says. "Some of my best friends have tried to kill me."
"That isn't an answer," he says.
She stops to adjust those gleaming boots, or pretends to. "When I look at you," she says eventually, "I still see a Howe."
"What is that supposed to mean?"
But she doesn't answer this time.
* * *
She finally catches him staring, or at least, she finally decides to speak up about it. Wiping the blood from her hands after battle, she walks back to him while Anders complains somewhere in the near distance about how pointless it is to try to heal Oghren. "You're lucky you're good enough to be able to watch me instead of the battle," she tells him. "I'd ask if I'm really that beautiful, but you're too practical for that."
Nathaniel wonders if he is. He certainly should be, with the woman who killed his father. "I've been looking at your armor," he says. "It's of excellent make."
"It is," she agrees.
"I thought at first you must have taken it from my father," he says. "But I'm certain now that I was wrong."
"You were," she says. "Would you believe me if I said I delivered the killing blow to the dragon the scales came from?"
"Maybe," he says. "You're a very capable fighter. But I think you lie a great deal."
"I do," says Cousland. "Alistair delivered the killing blow." And she looks a little sad as she speaks the name.
"How well did you know the king?" Nathaniel asks.
She waves him off. "Another time, Nathaniel. Another time."
* * *
Another time is two days later, after they've made it through Kal'Hirol and Sigrun has taken her Joining. They're waiting for her to regain consciousness when the Warden-Commander passes by him on her way down the hall.
She says, "Walk with me, Nathaniel."
He follows her.
"I knew Alistair very well," she says. "But that's in the past."
"How far in the past?" he wonders. "Before Queen Anora, perhaps?"
"It's more complicated than that," she says. "It had more to do with the father than the daughter."
Something occurs to him. "I could ask why you spared her father and not mine."
"You could," she says. "Will you?"
"I think so," he says. "Loghain must have had something to do with the slaughter of your family." And, because he's still clinging to a few handfuls of illusions, he adds, "Maybe as much as my father did. Maybe more."
"It's possible," she says. "But Loghain was the nation's hero, once. He had a great debt to repay to the people he betrayed, and he couldn't do it just by falling to my blade. No matter how much he wanted to at the end. Your father was nothing, and wouldn't have settled for anything less than everything."
He's not sure he follows. Her logic is arcane enough to be out of a magical tome. But he feels like this is the closest he's come to seeing what goes on behind those glinting eyes all the time. "An interesting perspective. Why tell me?"
She shrugs. After a while, as they turn to walk back to the main hall, she says, "I've been thinking."
"You're always thinking," he says.
"I've had an elf and a king-to-be," she says. "If I had you, you'd be somewhere in between, wouldn't you?"
"You're very bold," he says. "Some might call that a terrible thing to say."
"Some might call me a terrible person," she says, "if only they knew. But they don't."
* * *
On a night when Oghren feels generously inclined to share and Nathaniel feels suitably inclined to be wary of the contents of his mug, Cousland settles down next to him at the table. He doesn't look at her at first, pretending to be absorbed in watching Anders, currently just shy of falling-down drunk, futilely attempt to heal himself so he can drink more while Sigrun plays some joke he can't quite comprehend the point of on Velanna.
"You've been quiet lately," the Warden-Commander says. "More than usual."
"I've had a lot to think about," he replies. When she says nothing more, he turns to her. "Why do you speak to me like this?"
"Would you rather I spoke to you some other way?" she asks.
"You coddle the mages," he says, "and you joke with the dwarves. I am not so good with masks myself, but I can tell when someone else is wearing them. Where is yours around me?"
She leans forward on the table, resting her head contemplatively on her steepled hands. "Why should I wear a mask around you?"
"I can think of many reasons," he says.
"I killed your father," she says, "and your father killed my family. I think we're a little far past masks."
"I'm not sure I understand," he says, but she says nothing more.
* * *
After a good day, sometimes she tells them all the tale of the final battle against the archdemon, always in suitable voices and with just the right gestures. But it's only Nathaniel who ever hears her thoughts afterwards.
This time, as the others return to their business, she comments, "It couldn't have ended better, really."
"You don't mind, then?" he says. "That the man who betrayed our order died a hero."
"That was the whole point," she says. But she laughs. "Zevran let slip once that he thinks I stabbed Loghain in the back during the battle to make it work out so neatly. He approves, of course. But he would anyway. He's still in love with me, even if he can't admit it to himself."
The elf. She mentioned him before. Nathaniel is feeling almost as bold as she seems tonight, and so he asks, "Then why don't you go back to him?"
Her eyes flash all indignant. "What kind of person do you take me for?"
"A very complicated one," he says.
"I left him for Alistair," says Cousland. "I won't turn him into a consolation prize now. Do you think I have no honor?"
"I might wonder."
She falls silent for a while. "You should wonder," she says eventually. "But everything I do has been for a greater honor. Maybe too much."
* * *
They are so weary on their feet as they trudge back to the Keep after all the battles, but still Cousland pauses to watch her companions go forward ahead of her. Nathaniel stays at her side. He thinks that by now she expects it of him.
"It seems a good time to ask," he says. "Why did you really bring me into the Wardens?"
"Then you remember," she says, lifting her hand gloved in dragonskin to swipe bloodied hair back from her face. "I said, some time ago, that when I looked at you, I still saw a Howe."
"It seemed a strange thing to say," Nathaniel says. "I am a Howe."
"I thought," she says slowly, "that on the day when I, when I of all people, could look at you and see something more than a Howe, then your family's honor would be redeemed. I thought I should give you that chance and see what you made of it."
"You have strange madnesses," he says.
"That I do," she replies. "Look, Nathaniel. Your family's home is still standing."
"Only because you took care of it," he says.
"Do you know what's funny about that?" she asks, with a gleam in her inscrutable eyes.
"I don't see anything funny about it," he says, suddenly wary. That gleam can mean nothing good. He knows this now.
"I did it at first to prove that the Wardens could do better with the Keep than the Howes ever had," she says. "But as time went by, and I needed to devote more and more resources to it, I started feeling like I was doing it because it was your home."
"The Commander flatters me," he says carefully.
"The Commander needs you," she says, rather less carefully. "And my name is Elissa. You should use it sometime."
The dragonskin shines on her hand as she holds it out to him. He doesn't know what to do, so he simply takes it.
They go home together.