How did Rendon Howe die? In a pool of his own blood, no doubt. It didn’t take very long, but Nathaniel had already convinced himself that his father deserved it, deserved everything. It was admittedly difficult for him to come to peace with this, but the process was not long. He had expected it to be longer, or rather he felt that it was expected of him to take longer accepting this truth. But the instant he became a Warden, Nathaniel came to have a very different concept of what was expected of him and what wasn’t.
This may have been a matter of perspective. Perspective was something that Nathaniel found himself keenly interested in as the days in Vigil’s Keep passed. He had yet to discover exactly why. Being with the Warden-Commander took him to strange places and introduced him to strange people, all of them from different backgrounds, holding different viewpoints on the world. By no means was Nathaniel intent on adopting the morals and values of that horrid-smelling dwarf Oghren, by any means – rather, he challenged himself to simply understand people’s opinions and where they came from, no matter if they were wrong, which they usually were. This was something the Warden-Commander did. If Nathaniel refused to call it inspiring, that would be because of his own pride. It was inspiring.
Why else would the Commander have spared Loghain Mac Tir if not for an incredible sense of empathy? Why else would he have been so successful in his uniting of Fereldan and his slaying of the Archdemon? Why else would he have conscripted Nathaniel himself? Nathaniel had put a lot of thought into this. At first, he had though it to be mere practicality, which he respected, but the Commander, although unbeatably pragmatic in his own regard, must have had other reasons. Despite the curiosity, Nathaniel did not speak with him much. No one did, not unless they were spoken to. But as they travelled, Nathaniel found his thoughts consumed with the man. At first his mind would wander, but as of late he found it increasingly difficult to stop thinking of him.
He was a Cousland, after all. And what a fucking joke that was. It must have been funny to the Maker or to the Howe and Cousland ancestors, all of whom were long dead and distant, but neither Nathaniel nor the Commander were laughing. Still, it was comforting, in a way, to picture someone else finding it funny. That comedian mage Anders found it funny, but Nathaniel cared nothing for his opinion or amusement.
The Commander never laughed at the irony of whatever was happening between him and a Howe. In fact, the Commander didn’t laugh at much of anything. He was focused. He was serious. Some would even call him humorless and dour, but not Nathaniel. Nathaniel knew that Cousland made an exceptional Commander, and that he had lost a lot of people that he loved, and that he was brave. It may have been the only things he truly knew about the man, but he knew them for certain, even in a world where there were so few things that were as clear.
In the first few weeks of being a Warden, Nathaniel took orders and followed them, ignorant to the bigger picture. He had stubbornly let his emotions and pride blind him, preventing him from seeing what all of this truly meant. It was a death sentence but that meant nothing. Everyone died, it was how and why the death occurred which mattered. Again, the person who had taught him that truth was the Warden-Commander. He was thankful for that, deep down in his core. He grew to respect Commander Cousland. It took a long time for Nathaniel to admit it, and even longer for him to say it aloud. It took him longer than it had taken him to renounce his own father’s actions, but the instant he did, he felt an odd and overwhelming sense of relief, though not before he found himself feeling something else entirely.
It had been raining that day. Not very hard, but not lightly. There was still black mud caked on the bottoms of his boots, and although his close were damp, Nathaniel stood post near the front door of the Keep and watched quietly as his Warden-Commander moved markedly around the room, doing his business and attending to every single individual who asked for his aid. Cousland eventually noticed that Nathaniel did not retire to his chambers, and by the time they were able to speak, the entire hall was cleared out of visitors. “I was hoping to catch you alone,” Nathaniel started, and then folded his arms across his chest as he noticed his faint apprehension begin to rise. “There may not be any perfect time to tell you this, but I want to let you know that I respect you, Commander.”
It was always so damned difficult to tell what the Commander was feeling. Not only was he usually wearing a silver, winged Warden helm that effectively shrouded his facial expressions and muffled the tone of his voice, but he was naturally stoic, almost to a degree that reminded Nathaniel of his stubborn self. Even so, when the Commander, currently unmasked, heard these words from Howe’s mouth, he was surprised. His eyebrows rose, almost unnoticeably, and his lips parted even before he spoke. “I’m honored to have gained your respect,” he replied.
For some reason, it shocked him to receive this answer. He was not expecting anything in specific, but somehow this was nowhere near what Howe may have guessed. The Commander, honored? Nathaniel bit his own tongue with his sharpest teeth so he couldn’t ask why, even though he desperately wanted to, perhaps even needed to. For his family’s sake. No, for his own sake.
Commander Cousland seemed to know, somehow. Keeping his shoulders level and square, the senior Warden regarded his new recruit carefully. His line of vision flicked from Nathaniel’s lips back to his eyes, silently studying, rapidly understanding. “It took courage to say that,” the Commander explained with a quick nod of approval.
His ability to understand Nathaniel’s question before it was asked was remarkable and impressive. Or had he asked it? Had it slipped off his tongue when he was distracted? Nathaniel unfolded his arms and put them at his sides. There were gloves on his hands but they were not what was making his palms clammy, sticking to the brown leather like a shirt on his back on a hot summer day. Something else entirely was making that happen. Something else entirely was making his heart churn hotter and harder, thumping so hard against his sternum he wondered if it would crack.
When the Commander kept his eyes upon him, not faltering for even a second despite the many thoughts whirring inside his head, Nathaniel found himself thinking of falcons, specifically of their eyes; how the blackness shone in the moonlight and the daylight with equal luminance, and how they always followed, and how their black depths seemed to hold the answers to everything. Nathaniel remembered hearing from his swooning sister that this Cousland was a falconer – or was it Fergus, or was that even true?
When he got no reply, the Commander was mildly befuddled. He tilted his head slightly. “Nathaniel?” If Nathaniel was coherent enough to come to a sound conclusion, he would have noticed that the warrior’s voice seemed concerned, but instead he only acutely attuned himself to each syllable and inflection of the way the Warden spoke his name.
When Nathaniel remembered that he had to speak, he shifted his eyes back to his Commander and said, “Yes, my lord?” The latter portion came out as easily as breathing did. He regretted it immediately.
Of course, Cousland noticed. “I am not your Lord,” he asserted. He did not budge from his place. Any curiosity or worry that showed in his voice or eyes previously was gone in a beat, as was whatever he was going to say.
“A harmless courtesy,” Nathaniel shrugged, wanting to get past the issue. It occurred to him in a flash of a moment that he was grateful the Commander was not wearing that sterling silver helm of his so that Howe could not see the stupid look on his own dumb face.
“Harmless,” Commander Cousland repeated, his grey eyes narrowing ever slightly. “It seemed to me more like a display of submission.” His eyes fixed upon his subordinate’s face again, looking to find something he seemed to have trouble unearthing. This frustrated him. “I am your brother now, a Warden foremost and highborn far second. That makes us equals.” He took a moment to breathe. That was another thing Nathaniel respected about him so much: his ability to keep calm, always, unfailingly. “I respect you as well, Nathaniel. You aren’t weak to hindsight… or much of anything.” He had long, dark eyelashes and a trimmed brow that was lowered in what may have been discontent. This only shaded his gaze further. His voice darkened. “The past has passed. Use it to your advantage, but turn your eyes forward.”
Meeting the heavy gaze of the Warden-Commander made Nathaniel’s ribcage feel like it had tightened, refusing to expand in tandem with his lungs, which seemed suddenly to be soldered, heated along with his heart. What was this? Intimidation? No, it could not have been that. There was certainly a degree of intimidation that comprised a prerequisite to admiration and respect, but still, it was not that. Nathaniel averted his eyes, considering, staring at the floor, introspecting for a long time, perhaps too long.
Nathaniel Howe’s father died in a pool of his own blood, as he deserved, but Lord Cousland died the same way. A familiar feeling started to twist and tighten in Nathaniel’s gut. Immediately, he thought it to be guilt, and he hated himself for it. Of course, he had nothing to do with what happened to the Couslands, nothing at all. Why feel so sick in response to something he had no part in? Nathaniel shifted his eyes again, his unfounded fears making him worry that if he caught a glimpse of his own hands, they would be red.
But it wasn’t guilt. It couldn’t have been. Nathaniel never had misplaced feelings, only unclear ones. He took the Commander’s advice and turned his eyes forward but all he saw was him. And thus the vile feeling strengthened.
Cousland could not hear the thoughts inside of Howe’s head, but if he could, Nathaniel doubted he would be pleased. “If your use of my title was an accident, don’t make the mistake again,” he cautioned. When the Commander paused and his lips parted, Nathaniel could see a sliver of white from his teeth, bared no more than a fraction of a centimeter, but it added a light to his face only matched in his firmly focused eyes. “Unless…” Cousland wondered aloud. His voice was quiet, careful, curious. “Was it a display of submission?”
An answer came to Nathaniel’s mind so quickly and decisively that before he considered the consequences, he let the response pass his lips, resolutely. “Yes.”
Before Cousland turned away for the night, Nathaniel could have sworn he saw the corner of his lips turn up a fraction of an inch in what may have been a smile.