Chapter 1: From This Day Forth
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.”
Chapter 2: Monsters Under the Bed
Young Nathaniel and his father make an uncomfortable trip to Highever.
Fereldan Countryside, 9:15 Dragon
The day’s journey from Amaranthine to Highever was more like an eternity to Nathaniel as he sat in the back of the carriage attempting to remain completely still and make as little noise as possible. His father sat across from him, looking out the window intently. He could hardly imagine what was so interesting about the grey Fereldan landscape. It was just hills and rain, and more hills and more rain. At least it wasn’t cold — well, except for his father’s icy silence. It was a silence with which Nathaniel was familiar, one that meant he was very, very angry.
Over the past several years, the elder Howe had been cross with Nathaniel more days than not, but Nathaniel didn’t really understand why. He was the oldest of his siblings, and always tried to behave as such, remaining quiet, not breaking anything, and looking after Delilah and Thomas while father was busy. He never cried, not even when he learned his mother was sick. His younger siblings cried, but not Nathaniel. He had to be strong for them, and for mother, no matter how sad and and scared he felt. A strong Howe man, he tried his best to make his father proud, though it seemed his efforts were in vain.
There was little Nathaniel could do that didn’t anger the man, let alone please him. He wanted nothing more than to be treated with the same fatherly warmth Delilah and Thomas received. Sure, they got in trouble too, but Nathaniel faced the brunt of it all. The more he attempted to earn affection, the more cold and distant his father became. Still, he persisted. He refused to give up.
Nathaniel’s most recent attempt to impress had gotten him into major trouble. Hoping to become a skilled archer like his grandfather, he began practicing with a bow and arrows everyday. Sometimes the soldiers even helped him set up the hay targets and cheered him on when he made a good shot. He took pride in how close he was able to get to the center of the target and sought to show off his progress; however, his father had been unimpressed with his marksmanship and furious that Nathaniel had found and used the disgraced Padric Howe’s bow to practice. He ripped the bow from Nathaniel’s hands, and made it clear that a man who abandoned his family to indulge a glorified fantasy by joining the Grey Wardens was not someone to idolize. Grey Wardens were the worst kind of cowards, or so he said.
This was the closest he had to a reason why he was in a carriage on the way to Highever now. His father explained nothing to him, simply demanding that he pack his things and get to the stables. At first, the prospect of father-son trip excited him, but after hours spent in heavy silence, he wished he was back at home.
They arrived at dusk, streaks of sunset fading quickly behind the grey stone walls of the castle. Soldiers stood like statues at the gates, armor and shields decorated with the green laurel branches of the Cousland family. Nathaniel had visited Highever on occasion for feasts and festivals that the two families had begun a tradition of sharing with one another. His father and Teyrn Cousland fought in the rebellion together, and had become close allies in the years since. Nathaniel always marveled at the kind, even-tempered teyrn, who he wished his father was more like, though he’d never say as much.
The teyrn was there at the door to greet them when they arrived, eyes squinting with the wide grin he offered them. He spoke the first words Nathaniel had heard since he left Amaranthine.
“Rendon! It has been… some time. Eleanor sends her regards. She is putting our daughter to bed—-or at least attempting to. That girl is never tired.” he explained cheerfully with a pat to the shoulder before turning toward Nathaniel. “And you! You were only this tall last time I saw you.” He motioned with his hand. “You’re almost a proper man now.”
Nathaniel’s chest swelled with pride, but before he could answer the teyrn, his father cleared his throat and huffed his disagreement. “Hardly.”
“Well, we’ll just have to work on that, won’t we?” Teyrn Cousland winked, keeping his gaze locked with Nathaniel’s for a moment longer, and smiling in a way that made Nathaniel’s chest tighten for reasons he didn’t understand. He tousled Nathaniel’s hair, before turning to address the other man.
“I believe your boy may be a good influence on him. Perhaps Nathaniel will see how a boy his age should behave.”
“Fergus is a good lad, but...” the teyrn interrupted himself with a chuckle. “Thirteen, and just this afternoon he let his sister convince him to cover for her as she skipped her lessons...again.” He shook his head.
Nathaniel vaguely remembered Fergus, having only seen him on occasion and never really speaking. The Cousland boy was three years older than him, soft spoken, and cheerful like the teyrn. He was tall, but stocky with sandy brown hair and dark eyes. He couldn’t remember Fergus having a sister, but he’d also never really paid attention, preferring to find a solitary corner amongst the crowds that filled their festivities, away from the noise and from other children who could get him into trouble. He always got in trouble when he played.
The two men continued to talk to one another, father explaining the situation to Teyrn Cousland, as if Nathaniel were not there. It was the first explanation he had heard about what was to happen. Apparently, his behavior had become a “burden on the family,” and it was hoped that a summer away would “do him some good.” The words stung, of course, but it was nothing he had never heard before. His father was not one to keep criticism to himself. The idea of a summer away from home without all of the fighting and finger-pointing didn’t sound too bad, when he thought about it. Sure, he would miss Delilah and Thomas, and he would worry about mother, but considering alternative punishments, he couldn’t help but be relieved.
Several minutes passed, as Nathaniel stood silently in his father’s shadow listening as the pleasantries wrapped up and a one of the teyrn’s servants arrived, looking eagerly at Nathaniel.
“Shall I show you to your room, my lord,” the woman said with a respectful bow.
Nathaniel looked at his father, then to the teyrn, and then back to his father, who, much to Nathaniel’s surprise, raised his eyebrows and smiled slightly.
“Well, go on,” he urged more gently than typical, only a slight edge of annoyance in his voice, “I will see you at the end of summer.”
Nathaniel smiled and nodded, fighting the tears that burned in his eyes. He hadn’t expected any parting words at all from his father, especially not words that sounded so much like the man he remembered from years ago.
“I’m ready,” he said as he looked back to the servant who perked up with his answer.
“Right this way then, my lord.” She motioned for him to follow her. He picked up his things and walked behind her, stopping just at the arched doorway to turn back. He opened his mouth to say something to his father, a more formal and affectionate farewell, but thought better of it. To ask for more fondness from the man would have been greedy. Shaking his head, Nathaniel continued on after the servant.
He followed her down a long narrow hallway and up a flight of dark, stone steps to the wing of the castle that housed rooms of the Cousland family as well as several guest bedrooms, one of which had been readied for Nathaniel. The servant opened the door for him. He hesitated as he entered the sizable room, feeling like he was somewhere he wasn’t supposed to be.
The servant bowed again, and exited the room, leaving him alone for the first time since he left Amaranthine. Alone to think about why father would have wanted to hand him off to another family for months. Alone to worry about mother. Alone to realize he wouldn’t see Delilah or Thomas for longer than he had ever gone without seeing them. The emptiness made his whole body ache.
Just as he was about to give in to the urge to cry, he remembered a gift Delilah handed him when she told him goodbye. He took the small velveteen pouch from his pocket and tugged on the string, pulling it open. Inside glittered a small golden ring engraved with his sister’s name. It wouldn’t fit on even his smallest finger, but his sister had also stuffed a bit twine into the pouch.
Threading the twine through the ring, he tied it around his neck, and tucked it into his shirt. There was a tiny slip of parchment sticking out of the pouch, drawing Nathaniel’s attention. Pulling the parchment from the bag, he saw on it a hastily scribbled heart shape in red ink. He smiled and returned it to the pouch. Delilah was only eight, two years younger than him, and she was already wiser than she knew. He wished he could thank her for the reminder that he was loved. It was easy to forget.
Now aware of how tired his body was, worn from the long carriage ride and emotional labor. Nathaniel flopped down across his bed with a huff, eyes drooping from sleep as his breathing slowed. Just as he was about to drift off, he heard a rustling noise from somewhere in the room. He sat up sharply and listened more closely. It sounded as if it were under his bed. His heart pounded against his chest, but he wasn’t afraid, no. There were no such things as monsters under the bed. Nothing was going to hurt him.
Hopping up from the bed he crouched down on the floor and tilted his head to look into the dark space between the floor and bed. He gasped when he saw pair of big, dark eyes looking back at him, surrounded by a mane of curly hair. It was a girl, or at least something that looked incredibly like a girl.
“Hi,” her tiny voice whispered, as she crawled forward. Nathaniel blinked in shock, not quite sure the proper way to greet a girl from under the bed. “I’m Elissa.”
“Elissa.” He hesitated, still examining her to make sure she was really just a girl and not some secret monstrous beast that absolutely did not exist and he had no reason to be scared about.
“You can call me Liss though,” she said with a bright smile still short a few grown-up teeth. “I like it better, anyway.”
“Okay,” Nathaniel muttered, not sure what to think of this Liss person, “I’m Nathaniel.”
“Nathaniel! Wow, that’s such a pretty name,” Liss squeaked, “Are you the Howe boy?”
He offered a slow nod in response.
“Papa told me you’d be staying with us… and that I shouldn’t bother you.” She laughed nervously. “I didn’t know this was your room. Oops.”
He began to ask her why she was under his bed, but footsteps echoed down the hallway, causing Liss to gasp and press her pointer finger against Nathaniel’s mouth with a “Shh!” She slid back under the bed, leaving Nathaniel sitting on the floor in stunned silence. He stood abruptly at the sound of a knock at the door.
“Sorry to bother you, Nathaniel,” a man’s voice said as the door creaked open. It was the teyrn, “I am looking for my girl. Her mother is going to be very cross with her if she doesn’t come to bed.”
Nathaniel panicked. He had no desire to get Liss in trouble. He didn’t know what that would mean for her. At home, if he or his siblings had broken the rules, it was never pleasant. Still, he did not wish to lie to the man who had been kind enough to open his home to Nathaniel, especially not so soon after getting there. He braced himself to reveal her hiding spot, but as he did so, giggles erupted from beneath the bed.
A good-natured smile crossed the teyrn’s face as he gave Nathaniel another wink. “It looks like we’re going to have to get you a new bed. I don’t think they’re supposed to laugh. What do you think?”
The teyrn’s lack of anger over the situation eased Nathaniel’s concern for Liss, and he braved a response. “I’ve never seen a laughing bed before, ser. I think it would be hard to sleep on.”
“Hmm.” The teyrn stroked his chin, “That’s a good point. That won’t do at all.” He knelt down by the bed, reaching underneath, provoking more laughter. “I think it might be ticklish, Nathaniel.”
He reached further to grab hold of Liss, and pull her from her hiding place, scooping her up into his arms as he did so. She struggled against him, squirming and laughing, but she was too small against her father’s embrace.
“Looks like you just had a little monster under there after all,” he said to Nathaniel before turning his attention to Liss, “Elissa Odette, what am I going to do with you? You’re giving your poor mother fits.”
Liss laughed briefly, but quieted herself, her face becoming more serious, “Sorry Papa. I’m just not sleepy.” She yawned as she spoke.
“You sure about that, pup?”
“Okay maybe just a little.” Another yawn and she rubbed her eyes.
“Say goodnight to Nathaniel,” the teyrn instructed, “Maybe you two can play together tomorrow.”
“Goodnight Nate,” Liss said, waving at him from her father’s arms. A smile curled at Nathaniel’s lips. His mother called him Nate too, and so did Delilah. He liked it.
“Goodnight Liss,” he replied as the teyrn carried the girl out of the room and gently shut the door behind them.
Chapter 3: Forgiveness and Fresh Air
After a meeting with Queen Anora, Elissa remains in Denerim as Fergus returns to Highever to begin his service as the Teyrn.
Warning: This chapter has some mention of trauma symptoms, including flashbacks and nightmares. Please take care of yourselves!
Denerim, 9:31 Dragon
A year ago, if someone had told Liss that she would be one of only two surviving members of the Cousland family she would have laughed at them. Couslands were strong and unbreakable, well-loved by the Ferelden people. Nobody should have wanted them dead, especially not a long-time ally like Rendon Howe.
Liss had awoken in the middle of the night to a knock at her door. One of her guards injured, eyes wide with panic had frantically warned her that the castle was under attack, just before he was run through by a man wearing armor adorned with the brown bear crest of the Howe family. The next clear memory of that night came with the image of her nephew’s tiny little body lifeless on the floor next to his mother’s.
It was an image that haunted her nightmares and caused her to wake up gasping for air, her heart beating so violently that it shook her entire body. She had been given charge of the castle for one single night, and she had not even been able to protect her brother’s wife and son, nevermind the rest of the castle’s occupants or her parents.
Liss’ parents were the reason she made it out of that castle alive, both injured and choosing to stay behind to hold off Howe’s men and give her time to escape. At first she had refused, wishing to die alongside them instead, but they asked her to live on for them as she couldn’t refuse. She narrowly escaped, clad in only her nightgown with an ugly iron broadsword in her hands. It wasn’t even her own sword, but one she had looted from one of the fallen castle guards.
She was not certain how she survived after that, other than by sheer force of will, and determination to see that bastard Rendon Howe punished for his crimes. She had never liked him anyway. His own family was too good for him, or so she thought. She hoped and prayed to the Maker and Andraste and any other deities that would listen that this was Rendon’s doing alone.
Liss had sought refuge at a small farm on the outskirts of Highever, with a kind elderly couple who had taken her in. She put on her best Marcher accent and told them she was the wife of a traveling merchant from Kirkwall, whose caravan had been ambushed on the way home. She said she was the only survivor. It was only partially a lie.
The couple provided her with a hot bath, a change of clothes, and a bed for the following few weeks as she healed from her wounds. In all of the chaos, she had not realized she had taken several significant blows to her body, with particularly serious injuries to her left forearm and shoulder blade. They were both long, deep gashes that bled a lot, and would have become infected had it not been for her hosts’ diligent care. Even still, she knew they were going to leave scars.
News of a massacre at Ostagar had caused a secondary wave of grief to course through her. Teyrn Loghain betrayed the King and Howe, the snake, was at his side and granted the Arling of Denerim. Perhaps he’d murdered the Kendalls family as well. It was as if it were bloody Antiva. She had thought Fergus dead, too. As soon as she was able, and against the kind couple’s pleas for her to stay, Liss had set out to Denerim. Someone in the capital would hear her, even if it meant her death. She would make them listen.
“Sis?” A voice beside her pulled her attention from painful memories, and into the present. To Denerim, where she and her brother stood in the throne room of the Royal Palace, awaiting an audience with Queen Anora. “You all right?”
Liss followed Fergus’ gaze down to her hands, clenched into fists, white knuckles at her side. Inhaling deeply she relaxed the muscles and offered him a weak smile. “I’m fine.”
“Fergus,” she mimicked his intonation, pretending she had no sense of the insistence behind his voice. He eyed her knowingly and scowled. “See, you don’t like it either.”
Fergus opened his mouth as if to argue, but was interrupted by the thumping steps of palace guards, who marched in and lined the hall, preceding the Queen’s entrance. Instead, he sighed, shook his head, and straightened his posture. Liss followed suit.
Anora approached them without hesitation, hands behind her back and chin high. There was a sadness in her eyes that did not match the poise and confidence with which she walked. It was a sadness that Liss didn’t remember. Anora had visited Highever on several occasions throughout the years. Obligatory meetings between teyrns brought Liss and Fergus to meet the future Queen’s acquaintance. Anora was one of the smartest people she knew, and she was grateful that she had not been complicit to her father’s actions, nor to Howe’s. In the days since the Grey Wardens has defeated the archdemon, Anora had worked tirelessly with the nobility to restore order.
It had been a shock to all at first when the scions of the Cousland family attended the landsmeet to denounce Loghain for allowing the atrocities that Howe committed. They were late, too, as the Hero of Ferelden had already killed Howe and won the Landsmeet with Anora’s support.
Still, their voices were welcomed, and the queen had asked for a private audience with them to discuss reparations. Nothing could bring back her family, but Liss was grateful it wasn’t being labeled a wartime casualty and swept under a rug with everything else.
“Thank you for agreeing to meet with me,” Anora said as she approached them.
“It is an honor, Your Majesty,” Fergus answered, bowing formally. Liss fought the urge to roll her eyes, but knew that her brother was only following social protocol. She offered a polite bow herself.
“I was not able to appropriately express my sorrow for your loss before. I have known your family as long as I can remember, and I cannot think of anyone less deserving of such tragedy.” Anora’s voice wavered as she spoke, finally hitching in her throat. “I wish that there had been more I could have done to stop it, that I could have seen through my father and Howe before it was too late.”
“It isn’t your fault,” Liss blurted before thinking, internally cursing herself for the informality. Thankfully, Anora didn’t seem to mind.
“Not directly, no.” She offered a bitter smile. “However, with Howe dead and my father imprisoned, the guilt is now mine to carry. I am your queen just as I was Cailan’s, and I failed to protect you just as I failed him.”
They stood in poignant silence for several moments before anyone ventured to speak.
Fergus stepped forward slightly. “We have all suffered losses, Your Majesty. We are sorry for yours as well.”
“There was no way anyone could have known this would happen,” Liss added, fists clenched at her sides again. The queen had no reason to blame herself. “Teyrn Loghain was a hero. We owe our freedom in part to him. Howe fought alongside my father in the rebellion, allies, friends even. This treachery belongs to them, and as far as I am concerned, it ends with them.”
“Thank you both.” She nodded, inhaled deeply, and straightened her posture. It must have been difficult for her to remain so poised and dignified amidst such grief. “Even so, your family is owed a debt. I know nothing can change what happened, but I would see to it that I do what I can.”
The queen paused and smiled, moving her gaze from Elissa to Fergus. “First, I am restoring ownership of Highever to the Cousland family. It has been under the care of crown since Howe died, however, the Teyrnir is rightfully yours, Fergus, if you will have it.”
“Of course, Your Majesty,” Fergus muttered, his voice hoarse. For all his confidence and all the preparation he had done for this very moment, Fergus looked scared. Elissa figured it wasn’t leadership that scared her brother, rather it was returning home to an empty bed. The last time he had been in Highever he had a wife and a son. He had not truly had to face their deaths until now.
“Additionally, in the process of rebuilding Denerim and repairing the fragile ties among the nobility in Ferelden, I have developed a small, private council to guide my decisions in the days to come. It is composed of members who represent parties who were most affected by the civil war and the Blight. I have no intention of repeating mistakes of the past. I think it is important for your family’s voice to be among those in my council.” Anora’s eyes found Liss’, an unspoken offer.
“Me?” Liss did not consider herself important enough to have the queen’s ear, especially not after everything that happened. “Your Majesty, I am flattered, but I don’t know that I am the right person.”
“Yes, you,” Anora answered, laughter in her voice, “You forget that we have been acquainted since we were children. I know you to be one of the finest diplomatic and military minds in this country. If you are willing, I would like for you to remain in Denerim. Your expertise and experiences will be an asset in restoring and improving our home.”
“It would be an honor.” Liss shifted her weight and looked toward Fergus who winked, one of the many things he did that reminded her of their father.
“Very well, then. It is decided.” Anora exclaimed, clasping her hands in front of her. There was a brief moment of silence before she continued. “If there are no further matters to discuss, then I will take my leave. I am certain that you two have things to discuss before you part ways.”
Liss and Fergus bowed as Anora turned to exit the room, her contingent of guards following behind her. Liss watched in admiration as the queen walked away, still stunned by the entire exchange. She had gone from losing everything to being a member of the Anora’s council in the matter of a year. It was dizzying. The prospect of separating from Fergus after having only been together for a few weeks upset her, but she knew that he needed to go home, and that she needed to stay. It was the right thing to do. Even so, she worried about him returning to Highever alone.
She placed a hand on his shoulder and turned to face him directly. “Are you going to be alright?”
He sighed, looking at the floor beneath them. “It will be difficult, but I’ll manage.”
“Are you sure?”
“I have to be sure.” His words were decisive as he returned his gaze to hers, filled with sad determination. “It’s what Mother and Father would have wanted, what Oriana would have wanted. Maybe it will bring me some closure.”
“Fergus, I’m -.”
“Don’t,” Fergus interrupted, “No more apologies. Okay?”
“Okay.” Liss fought with the tears that brimmed in her eyes, steeling herself so that her brother couldn’t see how close she was to falling apart again.
“That’s my girl,” he said just as father would have done, “I am so proud of you, sis. I know that Mother and Father would be, too.”
Fergus wrapped his arms around her and squeezed her tightly into an embrace, which she returned eagerly.
“Promise me you’ll write,” Liss insisted, as she pulled back, still holding on to his arms.
“You have my word.”
It was not long after Fergus left that a servant arrived to show Liss to her room. It was spacious, larger than she needed, with bed that could have fit at least five people - not that she would want five people in her bed. There was a personal bath, a desk and several bookshelves, and dressers that were already filled with clothing in her size. It seemed Anora had done her best to make Liss feel at home, and with some success. It had been a long time since she had been comfortable enough to truly feel the exhaustion in her bones. She lay down atop the coverlet, not even taking time to change into night clothes.
Sleep came quickly, and ended just as quickly, with flashes of images from the night her family was murdered. Oren’s tiny little body, the screaming, pools of blood, the strong scent of iron in the air. She awoke to her own screams, heart racing, suffocating under the weight of her memories. Luckily for her, it was not a new occurrence, and she was able to slow her breathing and ease the anxiety before it crippled her.
However, she knew that going back to sleep was not an option. She had woken up from these nightmares enough to know that it took time for her body and mind to ease enough to sleep again. Hoping to get some fresh air and clear her head of the painful thoughts, she grabbed a cloak from the dresser and left her room, making her way to the courtyard. It would be quiet at night, and she would be free to feel her own emotions.
The air was slightly too cold for her liking, teeth chattering as the wind nipped at her cheeks and nose. Despite her discomfort, she found the courtyard ideal, ferns and flowers illuminated only by moonlight. She wondered how the plants survived the frost that coated them each night, the hardy little things. Closing her eyes, she inhaled deeply and allowed her muscles to lose their tension.
The calm lasted only briefly, as she heard a rustle in the grass behind her and footsteps approaching. She turned on her heels abruptly, balling her hand into a fist, and jabbing forcefully in the direction of the noise. A man’s voice yelped in pain, and there was a thud as the figure, now in focus, fell to the ground. Liss moved to restrain the potential attacker, sitting atop him with her fist at the ready.
“No no no! Please don’t hit me again, I bruise easily,” the man, whose features Liss could now see more clearly, pleaded.
He was a young man with sandy hair, brown skin, and dark hazel eyes wide with shock and perhaps pain at the punch she had landed against his torso. He did not appear to be armed, or dangerous for that matter. Then again, she knew better than to let her guard down.
“Who are you,” she demanded, fist still at the ready, “And why were you sneaking around in the courtyard?”
“My name is Alistair,” he answered nervously, “I had come outside for some air, as one does, and I noticed that someone else was out here. I, uh…well I was hoping not to alarm you. I guess we see how well that worked out.”
“Alistair?” The name sounded familiar, and she stood up and stepped back as she realized who the young man was, “The Alistair? King Maric’s son? The Grey Warden who helped stop the Blight? That Alistair?”
He stood up and dusted the dirt from his pants. “The one and only.” He grimaced as he attempted to straighten up his posture, massaging the place on his abdomen where Liss’ fist had fallen. “Maker, that hurt. Who are you, anyway? Do you always go around attacking people?”
“I’m Elissa Cousland, and I’m so, so sorry,” she laughed nervously, bringing her hands to her face to hide the embarrassment. “I just couldn’t sleep, so I came outside for a walk. I heard footsteps, and I thought - well… I don’t know what I thought. It’s been a long year, and I’m a little on edge.”
“I’ll say,” he said pointedly, before flashing a grin, “I think it’s safe to say we’re all a little on edge, what with the war and the Blight. Better to punch first, ask questions later, huh?”
“I suppose,” Liss answered, still laughing at herself, “Though it’s probably not the best way to make friends.”
“I don’t know. Depends on how forgiving the person you punched is.” Alistair raised his brows and shrugged.
“Are you a forgiving person?”
“Too forgiving, if I’m honest,” he answered with a laugh.
“Good to know.” Liss nodded, darting her eyes around the courtyard uncomfortably. “Well, I should probably… get back to my quarters.” She turned to walk away, but paused mid-step as she heard Alistair speak again.
“Um, Lady Cousland. You said you couldn’t sleep, right?”
“I can’t either. It happens a lot these days.” His previously cheerful eyes darkened, and his thoughts seemed to drift somewhere else entirely. “But, I have learned the best place to go when I can’t seem to turn my mind off. Want me to show you?”
Liss thought for a moment, genuinely stunned by the offer from this man she just met, and who probably had a bruised rib because of her. “Um, okay. Sure.”
“Great. This way.” He motioned for her to follow him through the courtyard and to a small flight of stairs that led up into the battlements.
“Alistair,” she called after him, causing him to turn and look back at her, “You can call me Liss, by the way.”
“Liss,” he repeated, a warm grin spreading across his face, “I like it.”
Chapter 4: A Tiny Prayer for Mama
Liss is determined to make that grumpy Howe boy her friend, but she isn't prepared for what that entails.
Highever, 9:15 Dragon
Liss had made a new friend, or at least she was bound and determined to make that quiet, grumpy Howe boy her friend. Nathaniel — or Nate, as she had decided to call him — seemed much less interested in the notion, however. In fact, he didn’t seem interested in much at all, especially not normal things that kids should be interested in. He had been staying in Highever for over a month now, and she had never seen him play, not a single time. He just attended lessons, read books, and followed Fergus around like he was a sad, little puppy. Liss didn’t understand why anyone would want to follow Fergus around. He smelled like sweat and old cheese.
Papa told her she wasn’t to bother him, but she didn’t think that encouraging him to act like a normal kid was the same as “bothering.” Nate did not seem to mind it much whenever she left her lessons early and sought him out. While he was never really excited when she dragged him outside to the gardens and enlisted him in her search for the perfect flowers to braid into a crown, to play games, or even just to hide from Aldous behind some of the bushes, he didn’t complain. The only time Nate got annoyed with her was when she tried to make him wear the flower crown she had so artfully crafted. As soon as the white petals touched his pretty black hair, he blushed and took it off, handing it back to her forcefully. She tried to remember not to do that again.
Liss had once again persuaded her way out of Aldous’ lecture, this time by reciting the entire tale of Flemeth and Bann Conobar from memory when he asked if she’d even paid attention. Little did he know she had read several different versions of the tale -- multiple times. She did not need to attend to his instruction, especially when he couldn’t even pronounce the names properly. She was only eight and she knew that it was Oh-sen, not Ah-sen. Obviously defeated, the man had grumbled about “Bryce’s know-it-all children,” thrown his hands up in frustration, and told her she was free to go. Thrilled she did not have to sneak away this time, she skipped out of the room and into the open air.
She didn’t make it far as she had hoped before she felt a tug at her arm drawing her abruptly to a halt. She spun to face the person holding her arm only to see Fergus towering over her with his eyebrows raised.
“Skipping again?” He spoke in a gentle kind of way that he always did when he wasn’t really serious. “You’re going to get in trouble.”
“Aldous let me go, I promise.”
“That’s what you said last time.”
“Please don’t tell Papa, Fergus.’ She clasped her hands together and pouted, earning her an eye roll and a hair tousle.
“Your secret’s safe with me, sis,” Fergus answered with a smile, making Liss feel a twinge of guilt for thinking he was smelly. Just a twinge.
Liss nodded and turned to continue her traipse toward the courtyard, but Fergus called after her. “If you’re looking for Nathaniel, he’s out at the archery range.”
“Okay,” she chirped and took off running toward the castle gates. The targets were lined up just inside the walls, where guards sometimes practiced. There were no guards around at the moment, leaving the area empty and quiet.
Nate stood at the far end, several feet away from a target that was nestled in a corner. She didn’t understand his affinity for small, secluded spaces, but she didn’t plan on pointing it out to him. Several arrows already protruded from the target, close to the center, but not quite a bullseye.
Liss watched as he took another dull, training arrow from the quiver, line it up on the bow across his finger, and aim carefully as he drew back the string. His eyebrows pressed together as he released the string, sending the arrow flying toward the target and landing directly in the middle. The corner of Nate’s lips quirked up at the hit, quickly turning into a grin that spread across his face. It even lit up his eyes.
“Wow,” Liss exclaimed, causing Nate to jump and dart his head in her direction. His smile fell briefly and then returned when he realized it was her.
“Did you see that?” He motioned toward the target with his thumb as he walked toward her. “I’ve never done that before.”
“That was amazing ,” Liss said excitedly, “Mama tried to teach Fergus to shoot like that, but he’s better with a sword. How did you learn to do that?”
Nate shrugged. “I just practiced.”
“Can you show me?”
“You want to learn how to use a bow?” He blinked in disbelief. “Are you allowed? Father never lets Delilah use weapons. Says it’s not something girls should do.”
“That’s silly.” Liss was indignant, puffing out her chest and turning her nose up. “Papa says girls can do anything that boys can.”
“Right...sorry. I’ll show you.” He motioned for her to follow him, moving to stand in front of one of the targets. She ran after him giddily, eager for the chance to learn something new. Nate placed the bow in her hands and walked forward to retrieve the arrows from the target. It was heavier than she expected, coarse wood rough in her palms. He returned with the arrows in hand and extended one out to her. “I never got why Delilah wasn’t allowed. She’d be good at it.”
Liss took the arrow and stared awkwardly between it and the bow, unsure how to hold either, before looking up at Nate helplessly. He laughed, taking her shoulders and squaring her up with the target. “Which hand do you write with?”
She raised her right hand and wiggled her fingers.
“You want to hold the bow in your left hand, then,” he explained, “And line your left shoulder up with the target when you aim.”
“Mhm,” Nate said with a nod, “Make sure your feet are far enough apart that you can balance. Do you know what to do with the arrow now?”
Liss nodded in response, hooking the end of the arrow on the string and lining it up with her finger, just as she had seen her mother and Nate do.
“Right! Now you just shoot it.”
The bowstring was more difficult to pull back than she intended, and her arms shook as she attempted to aim. Her posture failed her, and when she released the arrow, it soared directly into the ground. Her cheeks grew hot with embarrassment, and she expected to find Nate laughing at her when she turned to face him, but he wasn’t. He only smiled gently and handed her another arrow. Fergus would have laughed at her.
“It’s harder than it looks,” he said, moving to stand behind her, lining her shoulders up again and holding her in place as she drew back the string and released the arrow. It wasn’t a great shot, a bit too high, but it struck and sunk into the very top edge of the target.
“Oh,” Liss said, bewildered as she turned to face her friend, “I did it! Thank you!” She threw her arms around him in an excited embrace. He stiffened, but didn't push her away.
“It’s-,” Nate began to reply, but he paused, blinking in the direction of the door to the castle’s main hall. Liss turned to figure out what had caused him to stop, only to see her father standing a few feet away, smiling as he always did. For a moment she worried that he would be cross that she was not in her lessons again, but he did not seem to realize she wasn’t where she was supposed to be.
“Good work, kids,” he remarked cheerfully as he moved closer to them, tousling Liss’ hair as Fergus had done and giving Nate a pat on the shoulder. Despite his typically happy appearance, something was wrong. He had a heaviness in his eyes she wasn’t used to seeing, and his hand lingered on Nate’s shoulder as he addressed her. “Pup, I need to speak to Nathaniel for a bit. Why don’t you go find Fergus and the two of you get washed up for dinner?”
“But Papa, I-.” She wanted to stay with Nate, and practice shooting more. She didn’t know why she couldn’t hear what Papa had to say, too.
“Elissa.” His tone was serious, and she knew she needed to do as he said without protest this time. She offered an apologetic smile to Nate, whose eyes had widened with worry, as she ran off to find her brother.
It took awhile to find Fergus, who had been down in the kennels with the Mabari trainers and breeders. His latest fixation was to have one of the puppies bond with him; however, he had no luck so far. Papa warned him that the more he tried to force a bond, the less likely it was to happen. Fergus didn’t listen, though, and stubbornly went down to the basement each day to pester the dogs. She hoped it would happen for him soon, for his sake and for the dogs’.
“I shot a bow,” she told him proudly as they walked up the stairs to their rooms.
“Get a bullseye?”
“No, but I hit the target once.” She beamed, as she spoke. “Nate helped me.”
“Good on him,” Fergus said, a chuckle at the end of his words, “Maybe he can help me, too. Get mum to stop lecturing me about it.”
After washing up and changing into a different dress, one that was not covered in dirty paw prints from being in the kennels, Liss joined her family in the dining room for the evening meal. Her parents and Fergus were already seated, awaiting her arrival. Looking across the table, she frowned when she didn’t see Nate, his usual seat empty and unset. She turned her gaze to her father, who just shook his head, somberly.
“Where’s Nate?” She pulled out her chair and sat down at the table that was nearly too tall for her. “Is he okay?”
Her parents exchanged glances and nodded at one another before looking back toward Liss and Fergus.
“Sweetheart,” her mother began, voice quivering as she spoke, “Nathaniel received some really sad news from home. He didn’t feel like coming to dinner today.”
“Sad news,” Fergus repeated, “What kind of sad news?”
“Apparently Nathaniel’s mother has been very sick for some time now,” her father said, “I don’t know if he told either of you. I know that it is not something Rendon has ever mentioned.”
Liss and Fergus both shook their heads. She remembered him talking about his father, sister, and brother, but not once since he had been in Highever could she remember him saying anything about his mother. Especially not anything about her being sick.
“Is she okay,” Liss asked, scooting her chair out and standing up again, hands on the table.
“She died, pup.” Her father frowned as he spoke, “Last week, actually. The letter just arrived today. They poor lad wasn’t even able to go to her funeral, to say goodbye.”
“Bryce,” her mother said pointedly, laying a soothing arm on his shoulder. Liss didn’t understand the exchange, but it upset her to see her father so clearly bothered. He almost seemed angry.
“Is...Nate okay?” Liss was still standing, fists now clenched at her side.
“No, but he will be,” her father told her softly, “He asked if he could stay in his room instead of come to dinner. I think he wants to be alone.”
Liss didn’t even ask to be excused before she took off running out of the dining hall, up the stairs in the corridor, and toward Nate’s room. She ignored her parents calls for her to come back, thinking about how she might feel if her mother were to die. It made her so sad she could hardly stand it and she couldn’t even imagine what Nate was feeling. She knew her father was right and that he probably wanted to be by himself, but she was his friend, and she couldn’t just leave him all alone. If he told her to go away, she would, but she at least had to try.
When she reached the door to his bedroom, she pressed her ear against the elaborately carved wood, but wasn’t able to hear anything. She knocked, and when there was no answer, she let herself in, turning the knob and pushing the door open gently. She scanned the room, which was illuminated by a lone sconce on the wall, only to find Nate sitting on the floor in a far corner of the room, his back against the wall. He traced the edges of a small, golden ring with his fingertips, staring at the ground. When he heard the door creak open, despite Liss’ attempts to be quiet, he looked up at her with swollen, tear-reddened eyes.
“Liss?” His voice was hoarse, and barely more than a whisper.
“Mama and Papa told me what happened,” she explained as she moved closer, sitting down next to him, “I’m really sorry.”
He said nothing in response, instead just closing his eyes and letting his head droop. Large tears rolled down his cheeks and dripped from his chin, and she didn’t know what to do. She’d never seen a boy cry before, and she was at a loss for how to make him feel better.
“I can go if you want me to,” she said softly, “Papa said you might want to be al-.”
“No,” Nate choked out, urgently, “Stay. Please stay.”
Unsure what else to do, she leaned over and put an arm around his shoulder. In a swift, unexpected movement, he turned to wrap his arms around her in a desperate hug, his face buried into her shoulder so that she could feel the warm tears as the fell. He wept and trembled against her and she put her other arm around him, reaching up to pat his head with her hand. It was just as Mama did when she was upset. She wondered if Nate’s mama had held him like this, too, but that made her sad, and sympathetic tears burned in her eyes before dropping to her cheeks.
“I’m so so sorry, Nate,” she said, squeezing him more tightly, “I’m sorry.”
She held him for a long while, until his breathing slowed and became more even, his grip on her relaxing, his shaky body finally resting, as he fell asleep against her. She guessed he had worn himself out, and she was glad to see him at peace. She was only slightly bothered that she was now stuck, unable to move him and not wanting to wake him up.
She was relieved when the door creaked open, and she looked up to see her parents standing there, framed by the light from the hallway. Her father frowned, eyebrows furrowed as her mother brought a hand to her mouth. Nate didn’t hear them, and they both entered quietly. Her father hurried over to pick up Nate, carrying him to his bed and tucking him in under the heavy covers. Her mother, noticing Liss’ own tears, rushed to her side and held her, much as she had held her friend just moments before.
“It’s so sad, Mama,” she mumbled into the the woman’s gown.
“I know, sweetheart,” she soothed, pressing a kiss against Liss’ hair, “I know.”
“My girl, you did a good thing tonight,” her father said as he knelt to join them. “But you must be exhausted. How about we get you to bed?”
Liss nodded, still sniffling. Tonight, she welcomed bedtime, comforted as she was carried to bed by her mother, who was still alive. She said a tiny prayer before she fell asleep that the Maker would take care of Nate’s mother, and that he wouldn’t take her own, not for a very, very long time.
Chapter 5: Alive
Now a Grey Warden, Nathaniel soon learns that it is impossible for him to dislike everything much less than he wants to.
Warning: If you’re triggered by animal death, read this chapter carefully, and take care.
Vigil's Keep, 9:31 Dragon
Nathaniel did not loathe being a Grey Warden entirely as much as he had expected, although, that wasn’t saying much considering that he’d initially asked for death instead. When he’d awoken after his Joining, nauseous, head pounding, but otherwise alive and unscathed, he was disappointed. After all, what reason did he have to live when his family was dead and he, disgraced?
Now, he was indebted to the Grey Wardens and their commander, Lucia. He wasn’t sure whether he should thank her, or resent her. However, the bitter taste in his mouth suggested the latter. It reminded him of the darkspawn blood he drank, and he shuddered as he recalled the cold, sickening feeling that had overwhelmed him. He wondered if that ever went away.
It felt more like hours than days, as time had flown in the process of clearing out the darkspawn from the Vigil. It unsettled Nathaniel to walk the halls of his own home as a stranger, to see barracks and armories where bedrooms used to be. Occasionally, flashes of faces of those he once knew crossed his mind, and he wondered at their fate. Standing in the dank basement dungeon, surrounded by dead darkspawn and charred remains, it wasn’t hard to guess.
“Andraste’s arse, that stench,” exclaimed Anders, one of the other Wardens, a mage whose flippancy did him a disservice. He covered his mouth and nose with the crook of his arm.
“What? You never smell a pile o’ dead bodies before,” Oghren, prodded with a low gravelly voice. The dwarf had about as many manners as a boar’s backside, but he generally meant well. He sniffed the air deeply, and laughed. “What do you think, Commander? Squeamish?”
“It only smells a little worse than you,” she stated, expression flat as she continued to look about the room intently, “I’m used to it.”
Oghren laughed again, unbothered by the less than flattering remark. He turned to look at Nathaniel. “Holding up alright over there, Howe?”
The question caught Nathaniel off guard, as he had not expected the dwarf to check on him, or anyone for that matter. The bodies were just bodies to them, but to Nathaniel they could be people he knew. Friends, family members, even. He still didn’t know what became of Delilah and Thomas. Were they among the dead here? Had they fled during the Blight? The thought of his little brother and sister being slaughtered in their own home sickened him more than the odor that filled the basement.
Nathaniel opened his mouth to answer when the sound of a dog, whimpering in pain, filled the room. In the far corner, Lucia knelt by the limp form of a young Mabari. He walked over to them and knelt down beside her. The hound had several deep wounds from darkspawn teeth and claws, infected and festering. It appeared to be corrupted and close to death.
Lucia turned to him, her piercing eyes brimming with tears, though she fought to hide them. “We can’t save her, can we?”
Nathaniel shook his head, somberly, “I am no healer, but those wounds -.”
“Anders,” she shouted desperately.
Anders, who was a healer, approached and examined the dog, before shaking his head as well. “I’m sorry, Luce,” he said with a degree of informality that baffled Nathaniel, “Even if I could heal the wounds… she’s been exposed to darkspawn blood, and that is beyond my expertise.”
“Better to put her out of her misery,” Oghren added, “Give ‘er a quick death.”
“Damn it,” she hissed, closing her eyes, brows pressing together as she inhaled a shaky breath. She pulled a dagger from her belt, and held it in her hand, the blade trembling despite her effort to keep it steady. She let the blade hover over the hound for a few moments before dropping it to her side, “I can’t do it. I can’t.”
Her grief was puzzling. It was impossible to believe that this woman, unable to bring herself to kill a hound out of mercy, could be the same ruthless, power-hungry tyrant Nathaniel expected her to be. How could someone who seemed so gentle and practical murder his father in cold blood? It was one of a few things he had learned in the days since his Joining that did not quite add up.
He shook his head and picked up her dagger that lay beside him. “I’ll take care of it.”
Lucia looked at him, stunned at his offer. He couldn’t blame her, as he had done little in the past few days that did not suggest he hated her. Still, she nodded and stood, walking over to Anders, who placed a hand on her shoulder.
Nathaniel held the dagger tightly, his own shaky hand betraying him. As a trained assassin, it should have been a simple matter. He knew the exact place to stab, to assure an instant, painless death. Yet his confidence wavered. Mabari were highly intelligent, and this one was barely more than a pup. It felt uncomfortably close to what he imagined it would be like to kill a child. He understood his commander’s struggle.
The dog whimpered again, and he reached out to pet her head with his free hand, careful not to touch any of the wounds. “Shh,” he soothed her “You’ve been such a brave girl fighting off these darkspawn.”
The Mabari calmed, her little tail wagging weakly behind her, and a pang of guilt surged through Nathaniel’s chest. He continued to pet and comfort her, until he sank the blade into her with one clean motion. When she fell limp immediately, he exhaled his relief and wiped the blood from the dagger. It was then that he noticed a small scroll of paper attached to the dog’s collar. He tugged it free and stood with the scroll and dagger in hand. He could hardly believe his eyes as he opened the note and read the hastily scrawled words.
“Adria,” he muttered under his breath, and his heart leaped with excitement. Someone he knew might be alive after all. He returned the Lucia’s dagger to her and showed her the note.
Offering him a slight smile of thanks, she nodded and put the dagger back into her belt, before turning her attention to the note. “Do you know this person, Nathaniel?” Her voice was weak, emotions clearly still raw.
“Yes,” Nathaniel answered quickly, eager to find the woman who wrote the note, “Adria was… like a mother to me, once my own mother passed. We have to help her.”
“If there’s a her left to help,” Anders stated dryly.
“ Anders ,” Lucia scolded, darting her eyes toward the mage, before turning back to address Nathaniel, “We’ll do what we can.”
Nathaniel could hear the doubt in her voice as she headed toward the steps that led to the lower levels of the Keep, but he appreciated her thoughtful response, and followed after her.
The lower floors opened up into a cavern Nathaniel could not ever remember seeing, not that he had been allowed the run of the entire Keep when he lived there. At the far edge of the room, near a stone blockade stood a cluster of hurlocks, and in the middle of them, a woman.
“Adria,” Nathaniel called out and she turned around slowly, her posture slouched. Her face was that of the woman he once knew, now marked and deformed by patches of corruption, her eyes milky white and hollow. “Adria… no.” He turned to the commander and the others. “There must be something we can do, some way to-.”
Adria interrupted him with a ghoulish scream, and rushed forward, followed closely by the darkspawn. Nathaniel cursed, readied his bow, and nocked an arrow.
“I hate to say I told you so, but...”
“ Anders ,” Lucia scolded again, this time more harshly. “Nathaniel, I’m sorry, but there’s nothing we can do.” She took out one of the hurlocks with her broadsword, and cast a wave of ice toward another. Oghren then promptly shattered it with his axe.
“I understand,” Nathaniel answered, drawing his bowstring back. He took aim at the monster with Adria’s face, yet he couldn’t bring himself to release the arrow. He stood frozen for several moments before relenting, turning to shoot the last hurlock. His arrow hit the creature right between the eyes. He nocked another arrow and made a second attempt at Adria, but his hands shook, and the arrow missed the mark.
Adria lunged at Lucia, clawing at her with black, corrupted fingernails. The commander offered Nathaniel and apologetic glance before running her sword through the ghoulish woman.
“Sorry,” he said, looking down at the dirty floor beneath his feet, “I froze.”
“I noticed,” she replied as she attempted to catch her breath, “I wish we had gotten to her sooner. Are you going to be okay?”
“I will be,” he sighed. He should have known better than to expect Adria to be alive, after all. “I think I need some air.”
“Go ahead, we can finish things up down here.”
“Thank you, Commander.”
When Nathaniel finally exited the basement, reaching the crisp air of the open courtyard, he headed directly for the makeshift archery ranges set up in a grassy corner of the area. Filled with nervous and angry energy, he knew he needed a distraction, something to focus on intently and forget the horrible state of his life at present. As long as he could remember, shooting had been his release, his escape, and even now after several hours of battling darkspawn, he wished nothing more than to practice his bowmanship.
Time passed quickly while he stood alone firing off arrow after arrow, each one hitting the target, mostly clustered toward the center, with a few straying further away. His younger self would be proud. Retrieving the arrows from the target, Nathaniel noticed that the light had begun to fade against the horizon, the chill in the air becoming colder with each passing minute. It was nearly time to turn in for the evening.
“There you are,” a voice rang out behind him, causing him to flinch. He turned to see the Lucia standing before him, her nose reddened by the cold. She appeared to be holding something behind her back. “When I couldn’t find you inside, I thought you might be here.”
“Am I that obvious.” He crossed his arms, both annoyed at her observation, and amused.
“Not particularly,” she said with a shrug, “I just pay attention. It’s good to learn those you work with, the sooner the better.”
“Smart.” He laughed, despite himself. He couldn’t pretend to despise her anymore. Not after everything that happened. “Is there something you needed?”
“”Yes, actually.” She pulled a large, ornately carved wooden bow from behind her back, and extended it out toward Nathaniel. “I found this while we were cleaning up in the basement. I thought it might be of interest to you.”
“Is this what I think it is?” He took the bow in his hands, tracing the carvings with his fingertips. “It is. This is the Howe family crest, right here.” He pointed to the image of the bear carved into the wood. “It belonged to my grandfather, or at least he was the last one to use it. It was crafted for an ancestor long before that.”
“It’s beautiful,” she remarked, a small smile at the corners of her mouth, “It’s such a shame that it sat in storage for so long, collecting dust.”
“I found it once, when I was just a boy, and used it to practice. Father was furious, and took it from me. Hid it away, I suppose. This is the first time I have seen it since.” Nathaniel’s chest swelled with a mixture of emotion the bow’s memory brought. He was glad it had not been destroyed after all. “I don’t know what to say. This is… thank you.” He brought his gaze up to meet the Lucia’s.
“I’m glad I was able to return it to you,” she said politely before looking down, and kicking at the grass with the toe of her boot. When she looked up at him again, a pensive expression had crossed her face. “I actually wanted to thank you, as well, for what you did earlier, helping that Mabari. I couldn’t bring myself to kill her, even though I knew it was the kindest thing to do. You must think me weak.”
“Not at all,” Nathaniel assured, surprised by her willingness to speak so candidly, “Compassion is not a weakness, Commander.”
“That is… good to hear.” She breathed in deeply and sighed, as if relieved. “And Adria, are you-.”
“I’m alright. I should never have gotten my hopes up,” he admitted, “ I’ve lost so much, I was just hoping that one person may have survived. Just one. I suppose that is too much to ask.”
Lucia opened her mouth to respond, but she was interrupted by a man’s voice, calling out as he waved and moved in closer to them. It was an elderly elven man, dressed in worn breeches and a dirty, linen shirt.
“Nathaniel Howe? Nate? Is that you,” the man shouted, excitedly. As he came closer into view, Nathaniel could see his features, kind and familiar. “By the Maker, it is! I’d recognize that face anywhere.”
“Groundskeeper Samuel?” Nathaniel rushed to meet him. “You survived!”
“I’m tougher than I look, son,” the man snapped, playfully.
“Tell me Sam, do you know how my brother died? My sister? I have heard nothing of them since I returned from the Free Marches.”
“Thomas died in the Battle at Ostagar, fighting in the King’s Army, the poor lad.” Sam shook his head, and Nathaniel’s stomach churned. It was one thing to think his brother to be dead, but another thing entirely to have it confirmed. It comforted him to know that Thomas had at least died honorably, fighting in the name of Ferelden’s leadership.
“Your sister, well,” Sam continued, “Lady Delilah’s not dead, Nate, at least as far as I know. Last I heard she was living in Amaranthine, married to a merchant in town.”
“Are you serious?” Nathaniel was so overcome with relief he nearly cried. “Delilah’s alive?”
“Thank you, Sam. It is good to see you.”
“Don’t mention it. It is good to see you, too, son.” The elf smiled, and gave Nathaniel a rough pat on the shoulder. “Don’t be a stranger.”
Nathaniel’s mind buzzed, torn between so many emotions. It was difficult for him to truly mourn Adria and Thomas, when he was so overwhelmed with joy and relief that his sister was alive, and married no less. Sweet Delilah, who had always endured his needless teasing, and who understood more than anyone else his conflicted feelings toward their father. He clutched at her ring that he wore around his neck before turning to face Lucia, whose eyebrows were raised with curiosity.
“My sister is… alive,” he finally spoke, stunned laughter lacing his words, “ I was beginning to wonder if it was possible for good things to happen to me anymore.”
“That’s wonderful news, Nathaniel.”
“I know that we are busy, but do you think we will have time for me to pay a visit to my sister?” His own groveling annoyed him, and he wasn’t even sure if it was necessary. It wasn’t as if Lucia were the heartless Warden-Commander of his imagination. No, she had surprised him in plenty of ways in such a short period of time. He was not afraid to ask for a favor.
She seemed to sense his apprehension, offering him a warm smile and a nod. “Sure. We will make time if we have to.”
Nathaniel breathed out a sigh of relief and thanked her, again.
Chapter 6: "N"
Just a year after his mother's death, Nathaniel is not enjoying his summer very much. Liss enlists the help of her older brother to cheer him up.
Highever, 9:16 Dragon
It had been just over a year since Nathaniel’s mother had passed. It was the worst year of his life, and he hated everything. Everything. It was only fair, since everything hated him, too. Without Mother’s calming influence, Father had become even more critical and dismissive, but that was only when he was present. Much of the time, he left children in the care of servants and tutors claiming to have no patience for their misbehavior. Honestly, Nathaniel preferred it that way. At least with Adria and the others, he was free to act like a child. He was free to play and cry and he didn’t have to worry of father would be disappointed because he never saw it happen.
He’d also been relieved to learn he would be spending the summer in Highever again. The Cousland family was kind and —more importantly — whole. They talked to him with soft voices, and made their home feel like his own, only better. He wasn’t sure that he deserved them, or anything for that matter. He was a poor example of a Fereldan boy, sensitive, moody and unable to control it most of the time. He must have seemed like the most ungrateful guest in the world, but he just wanted to be alone. The more they tried to include him, to reach out, the more angry he became that his own family couldn’t be the same way. It felt so broken all the time.
He just wished Liss would leave him alone. It wasn’t that he didn’t like her. In fact, he liked her a lot. Warm, caring, and incessantly friendly, the girl had become a friend to him, one of the only he could ever remember having. He’d actually become closer to her than he had to Fergus, despite what father intended, and he was glad to know her. But she wouldn’t let him be miserable in peace.
It was difficult to tell what time it was without any windows in his room. It could have been early morning or the middle of the night and he would not have been able to tell the difference; however, from the bustle of footsteps and echoes of conversation in the hallway, he figured it was mid-morning. He knew he should be up. He should be out practicing archery, or attending lessons, but he just felt like lying there, coverlet pulled up over his head.
A light succession of knocks against his door meant that lying there for the entire day wasn’t an option. He slid out of bed, bare feet touching the cold stone floor, and stomped clumsily to the door, pulling it open abruptly, as he rubbed the sleep from his eyes.
“Liss, I told you I don’t feel like-,” he began, but as his eyes adjusted to the new light, he looked up to see Fergus towering above him, rather than Liss. He wore an amused grin and Nathaniel’s face burned hot. “Sorry, it’s usually Liss knocking.”
“Not today,” Fergus said with a shrug, “She’s in big trouble.”
“What’d she do this time?” Nathaniel had learned not to be alarmed by “big trouble” in the Cousland household, as it meant something entirely different than “big trouble” at home. Liss was probably somewhere cleaning up a mess she made, or completing an extra hour of lessons. Fair consequences for misbehavior, which the girl seemed to do a lot of.
“Let one of the Mabari into the larder. The way Nan looked at her… she got such a scolding.” Fergus laughed jovially at his sister’s misfortune. “You’re lucky it was me and not her, the way you answered that door. She’s small, but she hits like some twice her size. Look.” He rolled up his sleeve to reveal a circular bruise on his arm.
“Liss did that?”
“Why?” Nathaniel tore his eyes from the dark patch of skin and turned them back to the the other boy’s face.
Fergus chuckled and tugged his sleeve back down. “Well, when she got in trouble, she made me promise to come check on you for her. So I told her I’d make sure her boyfriend was all right. Don’t think she liked that very much.”
Heat rushed to his face again, despite how he tried to remain unfazed. It wasn’t true of course, but to deny it aggressively in that moment would only imply that it was—and it wasn’t. “Your nine-year-old sister hit you hard enough to bruise?”
“Two things you need to know about my sister, Nate,” Fergus said, holding up two fingers, “One, she can kick your arse. Two, she will. So don’t mess with her if you’re not prepared.” He walked into Nathaniel’s room and sat down in the chair by the desk, long legs outstretched as if it were his own room.
“Why would I want to mess with her?”
“It’s fun,” he remarked cheerfully, “Don’t you ever tease Delilah?”
“No, and it’s not fun. It’s mean.” Nathaniel recalled the time when he took Delilah’s favorite doll, ripped the arms off, and hid them around their home so she couldn’t find them. In his mind, she had earned it. After all, she put beetles in his bed. Still, the girl had cried for hours and hours. It was not exactly his definition of fun.
“You don’t know what you’re missing.” Fergus leaned back so that the chair was on its hind two legs, precariously close to tipping over. Father would have scolded Nathaniel for doing something like that.
“Guess not,” Nathaniel replied with a huff, watching as the other boy nearly fell backward in the chair. He waved his arms desperately before grabbing the desk in front of him to stabilize himself. “Anyway, you’ve checked on me. You can tell Liss I’m okay.”
Fergus shook his head vigorously. “You can’t just stay up here all summer.”
“You’re not the boss of me.”
“Maybe not, but I’m twice as big as you, and will carry you outside to get some air if I have to.” He raises his eyebrows. Even sitting down. He was intimidating with his large hands and voice that was starting to deepen.
Nathaniel sighed and relented. “Fine.”
“Thought you’d come around,” Fergus said, standing up and tousling his hair before ushering him out of the room with a firm grip on his shoulder. Nathaniel was suddenly grateful to be the oldest of his siblings. To say this kind of thing was annoying would have been an understatement.
The two boys walked through the hallway, down a flight of stairs, and outside to the courtyard. It was a sunny day, and warm, even for the middle of summer. Nathaniel hated to admit it, but he already felt lighter. He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply, the scent of blooming flowers and wet grass filling his nose.
A shriek rang out from behind him, and he tensed, opened his eyes, and glanced over his shoulder just in time to see a mass of curly blond hair in a dress hurtling toward him at full speed. Liss crashed into him, throwing her arms around his neck. Try as he might to remain standing, the shock of the impact knocked him off balance, sending them both hurtling to the ground. Nathaniel could hear Fergus’ delighted laughter in the background.
“Liss, I thought you were in trouble,” he grunted as he rose up on his elbows. She lay on his back, arms still tightly clasped around him.
“I was,” she mumbled into his back, “But I snuck away when I saw you walking with Fergus.”
“Won’t you just get in more trouble later?”
“Nan’ll have to find me first,” she said with a giggle, and then nuzzled her face into his back again, “I’m so happy to see you outside, Nate.”
Nathaniel felt his face get hot yet again, as he recalled Fergus’ presence. He’d never live this one down. Not only had he been tackled by the small, impish little girl, but she was also being affectionate in a way that would warrant later teasing.
“Um,” he said, trying his very best not to be mean to his friend, “Could you get off of me, please?”
“Oh, right. Sorry,” she answered, sounding a bit embarrassed herself as she hopped to her feet. Nathaniel pushed himself up and stood to face her and her brother. She had several bits of grass in her hair and the brightest smile on her face.
“Thank you,” he said, his eyes darting to Fergus, whose grin revealed the dimples in his cheeks. Nathaniel wanted to punch him.
“Well, sis, now that I got him outside for you, I’ll leave you two lovebirds alone.” Fergus tousled her hair and she scowled at him, jutting an elbow up into his side causing him to yelp. “Ow! You’re mean, you know that? See if I ever help you again.” He threw up his hands and walked away.
Nathaniel kicked at the grass under his feet, ruminating on the ground as Fergus walked away. It was dumb to be so embarrassed by the other boy’s antics, and yet he still was.
“Fergus thinks he’s so big because he’s got a deep voice now,” Liss fussed crossing her arms, “He doesn’t scare me.”
“No, you’re definitely the scary one.” Nathaniel laughed nervously.
Liss flashed another mischievous grin. “Papa thinks so too. Says I get it after Mama.”
“Your mother’s scary?”
“She used to be a pirate!”
Liss closed the distance between them and reached up grab his face in her hands, squishing his cheeks together so that his mouth puckered. “I’m happy you came outside, grumpy.”
“You said that already,” Nathaniel mumbled, struggling to speak through the pressure against his jaws, “And I’m not grumpy.”
“Are so,” Liss said removing her hands from his face and sticking out her tongue. “Unless this,” she furrowed her brows, scrunched her nose, and pouted, “Means you’re happy.”
“I’m sorry, I just don’t feel like playing.”
A warm pressure surrounded his hand, and he looked down to see her tiny fingers wrapped around his. He looked back up to meet her gaze, and she offered him a soft smile.
“It’s not that,” she assured him, “It just makes me sad when you’re sad, Nate. That’s all.”
He squeezed her hand in return, an acknowledgment of the sentiment that he couldn’t figure out how to respond to in words, and the stood there in silence for several moments before Liss tugged at his hand. “C’mon, I want to show you something.”
Nathaniel followed her, hand-in-hand to the edge of the courtyard where he sometimes practiced with a bow.
“Close your eyes,” she instructed, and he did so. She released his hand and there was a shuffling and clacking sound, followed by footsteps as she returned. “Okay, open them.”
He blinked a few times, looking first at her face and then down to her hands. In one hand, she held a dark wooden bow carved with the Couslands’ laurel branches. In the other, was a matching quiver of arrows with an “N” carved onto the front.
“Papa and Mama wanted you to have your own to use here,” Liss explained, “I did, too. We thought it might make you feel better, at least just a little.”
Nathaniel found himself fighting to hold back tears as he took the bow and quiver from her and examined them carefully. It was the nicest gift he could ever remember receiving, and it was for no reason at all, no special occasion that involved gift giving. The Couslands had just done this for him because they cared, and he was overwhelmed with so many feelings he couldn’t even process them all.
“I… thank you,” he stammered, “This is, just, thank you so much.”
“So you like them?” Liss asked, hands behind her back, eyes glittering with excitement.
“I love them,” he replied with a nod.
She opened her mouth to speak, but was interrupted as the shrill voice of an elderly woman called out from the opposite side of the courtyard near the door to the main hall.
“Elissa Odette!” Nan stood at the top of the steps, hands cupped around her mouth so that her voice carried. It wasn’t really necessary, though, her voice was loud enough as it was.
Liss’ eyes widened and she grabbed Nathaniel’s wrist. “We have to go,” she whispered as she pulled him along behind her and into a cluster of bushes that lined that courtyard wall. Twigs and leaves scratched at his face as he fell through them, his hip colliding roughly with the ground. He looked over at Liss, who giggled silently, her hand over her mouth.
“Lissy, I know you’re out here,” the woman scolded, sounding as if she had gotten closer, “Fergus just told me you were out here talking to that Howe boy. Maker help me, when I find you, you’ll be scrubbing pots for days. Your father has already agreed to it.”
There was a rustle in the bushes, and a ray of sunlight peeked through, shining directly onto the two of them. Nathaniel looked up to see Nan hovering over them, scowl etched into the lines on her face. She glanced between him and Liss before taking them both by the arm and pulling them up out of the brush. She was stronger than he would have expected.
“What am I going to do with you,” she spat as she fussed over Liss’ hair, “First you let that bloody mongrel into my larder and then you run away before you finished cleaning up the mess. This is no way for a young lady to behave.”
“And Nathaniel, dear,” she said more softly as she turned to face him. He tensed and prepared for a tongue-lashing of his own. “This girl is a bad influence. She is a naughty, ill-behaved child, and will do nothing but get you into trouble.” He nodded but darted his eyes to Liss who could barely contain her laughter.
“I’m sorry Nan,” she said sweetly, “Nate hasn’t been feeling well and I just wanted to make sure he was okay. I’ll wash as many pots as you want me to.” Liss batted her eyelashes at the woman, who scoffed in return.
“You bet you will,” she retorted as she took Liss by the arm, just above the elbow, and turned to escort her back to the castle.
“See you later, Nate,” she shouted as they walked away, turning over her shoulder to wave at him. “Feel better!”
He chuckled softly and waved back to her, before returning to the bow and arrows that dropped to the ground in the rush to hide. He picked them up to examine them more closely, tracing the engravings with the tip of his index finger. His chest swelled and the tears he held back before fell freely now. He really did love them - the gifts and the family who gave them to him.
Fixing his stance, he nocked an arrow, took aim, pulled back the string and released.
It was a bullseye.