Vigil's Keep, 9:31 Dragon
The stone floor was cold and hard, unforgiving as the heavy iron bars that held him captive. Grey Warden guards paced about, armored boots clanking against the floor, metal plates scraping together, as the men and women occasionally paused to glare at him judgmentally. They talked about him as if he were not there, calling him a wide array of offensive names. What a lucky bastard he was for being safe and sound in his prison cell while better men than he fell to darkspawn blades and bows outside! He should be thankful for his imprisonment, and for the fact that he was not strung up the moment he was caught. How wonderful his captors were for allowing him to freeze his arse off in his own family’s dungeons for “stealing” things that were his by right! It was so ironic it was painful.
The son of the late Arl Howe, and squire under a trained chevalier in Starkhaven, Nathaniel was not accustomed to being treated as common rabble and especially not a criminal. When word of his father’s death at the hands of the Grey Wardens had reached him in the Free Marches, it had not occurred to him that he would return home to find his father’s murderers rewarded by Queen Anora herself. He had spent an entire month in hiding, plotting the assassination of the Warden-Commander, who he held entirely responsible for his current misery.
Nathaniel tugged at the collar of his shirt, reaching in to pull out a small golden ring that he wore on a chain around his neck. It had been a gift from his sister when they were children, and even then the band had been too tiny for his fingers. It was the only thing he had left of his family, and the only reason he had failed to follow through with his plan. When he arrived in Amaranthine to lay his trap, he remembered Delilah and how she would never approve of such violent and brash behavior. He resigned himself to retrieving a few of his family’s things: heirlooms, letters, small sentimental things that the Wardens would have no use for at all. Unfortunately, he was caught and slammed in the dungeon where he sat as Vigil’s Keep was ambushed by darkspawn.
There was a small commotion as the sound of a door opening at the top of the stairs echoed through the dungeon. Nathaniel’s guards clambered to stand at attention, backs straight and arms at their sides. This was obviously not a routine change of guards or visit from their captain. No, Nathaniel assumed that it was time for his sentencing. At last, he would get to meet the person who murdered his father and destroyed his family face to face.
The woman who appeared in the doorway before him and to whom the guards saluted was not what he had pictured. For as grand a title as “Warden-Commander” and “Hero of Ferelden,” she was small, unimposing, and incredibly young. She could have been more than nineteen or twenty, with piercing blue eyes that appeared much kinder than the dark brows furrowed above them suggested.
“Good thing you’re here, Commander,” one of the guards said before explaining the situation, repeating the same things he had been saying every time a new one of the Warden officers came to gawk at and interrogate him. Nathaniel had refused to give his name or any other information to anyone other than the Warden-Commander. With his family’s reputation as it was, the notion that he may be subjected to further scrutiny was unappealing. He thought it better to wait until closer to his execution to tell anyone who he was.
“Leave me to speak with him, please,” she commanded, her voice gentle yet decisive. The guards saluted again and exited the dungeon, leaving Nathaniel alone with her.
“I can’t say you are what I expected in the great ‘Hero of Ferelden’” he remarked snidely, not caring to feign respect.
“I am not what anyone expected, but I am what they got,” she answered matter-of-factly “I see my reputation precedes me.”
“It does.” He paused briefly. “Though I care little for your titles. I know you as the one who murdered my father.”
“Your father?” Her brows pressed together more deeply as a concerned expression crossed her face.
“Of course you wouldn’t remember my father. It was a war after all, and he was just another casualty.” Nathaniel’s fists balled at his sides as he felt the anger tighten like a vice in his chest. “But why should my whole family have to suffer?”
“I - Um..,” the Warden-Commander shifted uncomfortably where she stood, bringing her arms up to her chest and crossing them, “Who are you?”
“I am Nathaniel Howe, and these are my family’s lands - or at least they were until you showed up.”
“You are Rendon Howe’s son, then.” She seemed to think for a moment before opening her mouth to speak again. “Your father was a traitor.”
“My father,” he spat, ”Served the Hero of River Dane and fought against the Orlesian occupation. He was a hero, and now because of a horde of darkspawn, a petty civil war, and you my family has nothing.”
Nathaniel quieted, looking down at the stone floor that had been his constant companion for the past three days. He knew that his father was an ill-tempered, difficult man for whom many in the arling and even the landsmeet held no love. He knew his father was capable of rashness and poor choices. He may have been a traitor, but Nathaniel was certain that he did so because he believed it was the right thing to do. He always did what he thought was best, even if it was painful.
Nathaniel looked up to meet the Warden-Commander’s gaze again. “I came here to - I thought I was going to kill you, but then I realized all I wanted was to reclaim some of my family’s things. It is all I have left.” The words left a bitter taste in his mouth
“I’m sorry,” the Warden-Commander said softly, “You do not belong in this cell.”
“I- What? ” Her words caught him off guard. He was prepared for a public hanging, not an apology. “I just told you that I want you dead.”
“I heard you.” She moved to unlock the door to his cell. “I think I would want someone to blame, too. I’m not that person, but I understand why you would think so.”
“You’re just letting me go?” Nathaniel remained in the cell despite the door being open.
“Not quite. I understand you were difficult to apprehend.”
“I am not without skills,” Nathaniel answered, uncertain where this conversation could possibly lead, “My time spent abroad was not chasing skirts and drinking wine.”
“Then it is lucky for you that the Wardens are not currently in need of a skirt-chaser.”
“I am conscripting you.” It was another matter-of-fact answer from the woman, as if her reasoning was clear as day, despite the fact that it made no sense.
“No. I refuse,” Nathaniel protested, indignant, “I would rather die.”
“You might die, anyway. The Joining often claims the lives of our recruits,” she explained, “But I am not foolish enough to believe that every Howe is the same, and I do not wish you hanged for no reason. Don’t you want a chance to start over? To bring some honor back to your family?”
“I.. don’t know.” For a brief moment he allowed the anger and bitterness to fizzle away, truly considering the offer before he spoke “I might try to kill you again. Do you like having Wardens who want you dead?”
The Warden-Commander smirked, dropping her hands to her sides. “We have been alone in this dungeon for a while now. I am unarmed and I just let you out of your cell.” She motioned to the door with her hand. “If you really wanted to kill me, and if you are as skilled as my men tell me you are, you would have done so already.”
“A bold assumption,” Nathaniel remarked dryly, though he knew that she was right. It was easy to fantasize about getting revenge on the big bad Grey Warden who killed his father and invaded his home. It was much harder to stand across from a young woman who offered him mercy and feel the same. She was a person just as he was and just as his father was. It was possible that she, too, could have done no more than what she believed was necessary. The Warden-Commander offered him the benefit of the doubt, and he felt obliged to give her the same courtesy, as much as he resented it.
“I’ll do it,” he asserted, with a nod of the head, even as his stomach churned.
“Good, I’ll get Seneschal Varel, and we can start the ritual as soon as he is able.”
It was not long before the Warden-Commander returned and escorted Nathaniel to the throne room, where the Seneschal stood by the fire pit holding a large silver chalice. Several other wardens who he had not seen yet lined the hall as well, eyeing him with what appeared to be a mixture of suspicion and concern. It was more than a little unnerving.
Nathaniel walked forward to stand by one other recruit, his features sharpened by the light of the shadows. The Seneschal began by explaining the purpose of the Joining. The ritual was held to induct new members into the ranks of the Warden Order, and it required that recruits drink of darkspawn and archdemon blood enchanted with lyrium. It was the source of the Wardens’ power and immunity to the Taint, but it was also their demise if they were not strong enough to withstand the corruption. In the end, it would kill him anyway.
The Wardens in the hall began to speak in unison. “Join us brothers and sisters. Join us in the shadows where we stand vigilant. Join us as we carry our duty that cannot be forsworn. And should you perish, know that your sacrifice will not be forgotten, and that one day we will join you.”
“Ser Brendon, please step forward,” the Seneschal said and a young Templar approached, taking the chalice into his hands, “From this day forth, you are a Grey Warden.”
The Templar drank from the chalice and returned it to the Seneschal. For a moment, the hall stood in silence, watching and waiting to see if the man would survive. Suddenly, he fell forward clutching at his throat and gasping for air. The Wardens in the hall watched on, some of them bowing their heads sorrowfully as Ser Brendon stilled, lifeless on the floor. The Warden-Commander offered her apologies to the now-dead Templar and turned her gaze to Nathaniel.
“Nathaniel Howe, please step forward,” The Seneschal announced, his voice hoarse at the loss of the other recruit. Nathaniel inhaled sharply, attempting to calm his nerves, and took hold of the chalice. It was the moment of truth - would he die as the other recruit, his punishment for theft finalized? Or would he live, and have the chance to be a Howe that history may be proud of once again? He did not realize how badly he wished for the latter until he drew the chalice to his lips, taking a small drink of the thick, dark liquid.
The last thing Nathaniel heard before his consciousness faded, were the Seneschal’s words, sounding if they were shouted across a great distance.
“From this day forth, Nathaniel, you are a Grey Warden.”