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 not 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 fire. 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 a 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 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 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. The 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 they 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 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 raised 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.
Chapter 7: The Beginning
Liss and Alistair make a routine trip to the market that is anything but routine.
Denerim, 9:31 Dragon
It had only been a month since Liss arrived at the capital, yet it felt more and more like home each passing day. Perhaps it was simply that she had little time to think about how she wasn’t in Highever. After all, Ferelden was recovering from a Blight, and the beginnings of a civil war which still brewed beneath the surface. Tensions were high in the Landsmeet, and higher still outside of it. The Queen was a stable and calming influence, but she could only do so much to quell bad blood among the nobility. Betrayal upon betrayal made it difficult to trust. She imagined how hard it would be to repair an alliance between the Couslands and Howes after what had happened.
A smile crossed her lips as she fanned through a stack of death records on the desk before her. She’d thought about it a lot actually, the dissonance between her past and present was an uncomfortable friction that threatened to drive her mad. She couldn’t bring herself to believe that anyone in the family but Rendon would be capable of such atrocities, even if she knew it was very well a possibility. Blood did run thick in Ferelden.
She scanned the top page of impossibly small script, searching for the names of those she knew. Of course the nobility were listed, her parents names, Oriana, Oren. She thanked the Maker the scribe who’d written the documents took care to alphabetize them. As is the case with most wars, the list of casualties among the wealthy and powerful was small. It was the common folk who suffered, soldiers, innocents. Turning the page, she continued down the list, stopping cold with a short gasp as her eyes locked on a name she’d hoped not to see, “Howe, Thomas” written neatly below his father’s. It appeared that the young man served in the King’s Army at Ostagar, and was presumed dead. At least he’d died on the right side, Liss assured herself despite the ache in her chest. At least it wasn’t Nathaniel.
She did not have time to become too consumed with her thoughts, as there was a knock at her door, an impulsive and erratic succession of taps that did not stop until she answered.
“You can come in Ali,” she said cheerfully, blotting at the corners of her eyes with her sleeves hoping to hide the tears. The knocking stopped and the door jiggled in its frame.
“Um, no I can’t,” he shouted, voice muffled by the wood, “Unless, of course you’d like me to bash it down, but I don’t think Queen Anora would like that. Neither would my shoulder, for that matter.”
“Oh.” She shot up, and rushed to the door she hadn’t remembered locking. Unfastening the locks she pulled it open gingerly. Alistair leaned casually against the wall near the door, turning his head to look at her. “Sorry about that. Come in.” She motioned him in with her hand.
“You’ve been busy, I see,” he remarked, squinting to examine the papers on her desk, “Death records?”
“Just some… light reading”, she said with a laugh.
Alistair picked up the documents and thumbed through them, shaking his head. He set them back down without saying a word, but his haunted expression and the crease in his brow spoke volumes. He’d been at Ostagar, too, she remembered, lost his comrades. She should not have been so inconsiderate as to only mourn for herself.
“So,” Liss said, breaking the heavy silence, “What’d you need? I’m sure you didn’t come here so that we could be sad sacks together. Or maybe you did! In that case, feel free to carry on.”
A smile stretched across his lips, a beautiful, crooked smile that one expected to see on roguish characters from all the tales — thieves, assassins, and bards, but never a former almost-Templar. It was too mischievous, too blatantly unrefined. Then again, that’s what she liked most about her new friend. He was a real person, and he wasn’t shy about it. The fact that his smile was genuine was the most attractive thing about him.
“I, uh,” he said, chuckling as if her statement had caught him off guard, “No. Actually. I came here to see if you wanted to come to the market with me. I’m going to take my weapon to the blacksmith. There’s a nasty crack in the blade.”
“You want company to go to the blacksmith?”
“What can I say,” he laughed, “You have such an uplifting presence, my lady.”
“Uh-huh,” she replied skeptically, “And the real reason?”
“I don’t like the new blacksmith,” he answered sheepishly, kicking at the floor with the toe of his boot. “Don’t get me wrong, Wade was… eccentric, but I knew what to expect. This new one… she’s…” He shuddered.
“You’re afraid of the new smith!” She grinned at him, which made him fidget even more. “You want me to rough her up for you?”
“Maker’s Breath, no. She’s twice your size and all muscle,” he explained.
“Sounds like my kind of woman,” Liss said with a wink. “Maybe she’ll rough me up a little.”
“This was a bad idea,” he sighed, bringing his hand to his face. “I’d just rather not be alone while she’s leering at me like I’m her next meal.”
Liss opened her mouth to speak, but Alistair interjected. “If you say that you wouldn’t mind being her next meal, I’m going to throw myself into the forge when we get there.”
“That‘s dramatic.” She offered him her best scowl, despite the grin twitching at the corners of her mouth.
“It’s warranted,” he replied with a shrug, “Anyway, do you want to come, or not?”
“Yes, I think I could use a break.” Liss stepped forward and looped her arm through his, causing Alistair to stiffen, muscles tightening at her touch. She pulled away, immediately embarrassed by her accidental disregard for boundaries. “I’m so sorry. That was thoughtless of me.”
“No need to apologize,” he assured her with a laugh that didn’t quite mask his discomfort, “I’m just jumpy, that’s all.”
“Are you sure?”
“Of course,” he said with a nod, offering his arm to her again, “Shall we?”
Smiling, she accepted, and they walked side by side, arm in arm out of the castle and to the Market District.
The center square of the market, in its typical fashion, bustled with the activities of merchants and shoppers. It was late-afternoon and vendors stood at kiosks announcing their wares to anyone who’d listen. Women with Orlesian accents attempted to pull Liss aside to sell her floral-scented perfumes and hair products. When she declined, they spoke to each other in their native tongue, commenting on her appearance.
“Si vous étiez plus gentilles, peut-être auriez-vous plus de clients,” Liss remarked pointedly. It caused a satisfying look of stunned horror from the women.
“I didn’t know you spoke Orlesian.”Alistair raised his eyebrows, obviously amused. “I only know a few words in Antivan, but I don’t think I should say them I polite company. What was that about?”
“They called me fat and unrefined,” she answered nonchalantly, loud enough for the women to hear, “For people who claim to be so cultured, they certainly have poor manners.”
Alistair stalled and turned abruptly to face her, taking her shoulders in his hands. “That’s what they said to you?” His brow was furrowed deeply, a frown forming on his lips.
“They’re wrong,” he said with a measure of decisiveness in his voice. “You know that right?”
“Don’t worry. It takes a lot more than a couple of insults to get to me.” She smiled, and reached up to tousle his hair, causing him to scowl and pull away from her to smooth it back down.
“Hey, easy with the hair,” he grumbled, “You’re lucky I like you.”
His scowl softened into a smile as their eyes met, lingering on one another for longer than typical, long enough that her heart fluttered and heat crawled to her cheeks. Alistair must have felt the same, as he darted his eyes away quickly, straightened his posture, and cleared his throat. Liss looked toward the ground to hide her smile. His embarrassment was endearing, but she didn’t want to make him self-conscious about it.
“So,” she said, interrupting the silence, “Blacksmith?”
“Maker, yes,” Alistair answered, “I mean, not that this was... I mean. Damn, words.”
“Blacksmith,” Liss said again, a statement rather than a question. She grabbed his hand and pulled him behind her.
Much had changed about the smithy since Master Wade and Herren departed. The shop was tidy and organized, each of the materials having their own place, each weapon and piece of armor sorted. It even smelled better, or perhaps she was just imagining that it smelled better.
As Alistair had mentioned, a woman stood at the forge, dark skin glistening with sweat in the firelight. She was beautiful, with brown eyes and muscular arms. She was intimidating, sure, but not in the way she’d figured. She had no harsh features, nor even an expression that elicited fear. She was simply quiet and good at what she did.
“Ah, Warden Alistair, back again” the smith said looking up at them. She had a bright smile and the unmistakable Antivan accent.“You are hard on your equipment. It is almost if you are damaging your things on purpose.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Alistair protested, crossing his arms, “Why would I do that?”
“To have a reason to see me, of course.” She flashed another grin and Alistair spluttered. The smith laughed and turned her attention to Liss. “Your friend is easy to fluster, Lady Cousland. I wonder, are all Ferledan people so finicky?”
“Just the men,” Liss answered playfully, gently elbowing Alistair before crossing her arms, “How did you know my name?”
“I know many things,” the smith answered as if it were as simple as that.
“Right, well, I feel at an incredible disadvantage. You know my name, but I know nothing about you, except that you are a blacksmith.”
“My name is Bria, my lady.” The woman seemed genuinely touched that Liss cared to ask her name. “It is an honor to finally meet you.”
“Alistair here has spoken a great deal about you.”
Liss felt the heat in her face again as she looked between Bria and Alistair helplessly. Alistair, in an atypical manner for himself, did not seem bothered by the comment. Instead he smiled that crooked smile. What did he know that she didn’t?
“It seems it is not just the men after all.” Bria chuckled and sat her hammer down moving to reach for something behind the counter. When she straightened up, she held a broadsword in her hands. The handle was white gold with delicate laurel branch filigree. She extended it toward Liss.
“Is this,” Liss began, the words catching in her throat as tears bubbled in her eyes. She took the sword in her hands, tracing the laurel branch patterns with her thumb before pulling it from its sheath to examine the blade. It sparkled in the warm light of the smithy. The entire blade was new and in better shape than she remembered, but it was unmistakable nonetheless.
Liss returned the sword to its sheath and held it across her palms as if it were sacred. It was sacred. The sword was one her father had commissioned as a gift for her eighteenth birthday. She assumed it to to be lost or destroyed after Rendon Howe’s forces seized the castle. She told herself it was gone along with her family, yet there she stood holding her treasured sword in her hands once again. She struggled to form coherent thoughts, let alone words.
“This is mine.” She finally managed to force words past the lump in her throat. “Where? How?”
Alistair smiled in a way that made his eyes squint slightly. “Howe, actually. The sword was among the Arl’s personal belongings left in his estate here in Denerim. Queen Anora said she thought it belonged to your family, but it was in poor shape. I didn’t want to return a broken sword to you, so I brought it to Bria. I hope you don’t mind.”
Unable to contain them further, tears dropped from Liss’ eyes and rolled down her cheeks as her grip tightened around the sword.
“You’re upset,” Alistair said apologetically, reaching out to touch her shoulder. “I should have just-.”
“I’m not upset,” Liss interrupted abruptly, shaking her head and looking up to meet his gaze, then over toward Bria. “I’m just… speechless. Thank you both.”
“It is a beautiful sword,” Bria replied, “It was my pleasure.”
Alistair just nodded.
It turned out that his reason for the trip to the smithy was not entirely false. He actually did have a crack in his sword, and Bria really did terrify him despite their friendly rapport. She was kind enough, but there was something unsettling about her. It was as if she did not belong in a smithy. She was too smart, too charismatic, and overall too well-adjusted. Then again, perhaps she was just Antivan. They always seemed to have their lives together even when they didn’t. Living in a country run by a guild of assassins would require that a person be adaptable, she figured.
It was a quiet return trip to the castle, all the words that could have been spoken between Alistair and herself felt too personal to speak in the open air of the Denerim streets. She wasn’t certain how to take his affectionate gestures. He was very charming, enough to catch her attention, yet when she returned the sentiment he froze up. It was almost as if he didn’t realize he was flirting at all. What an interesting man he was, and she knew so very little about his life prior to his time since the Blight. He did not talk about the Hero of Ferelden or the war, none of it. Not ever.
As they reached the gates, Alistair, true to his typical evening ritual stopped to speak with the guard at the door.
“Any messages for me today,” he asked as he always did.
“No,” said the guard, annoyed at the unnecessary question.
For the first time Liss saw his expression change at the news, from hopeful to despairing. He tried to hide it behind his smile, but his eyes were sad. He quieted and looked as if he might cry at any moment. It surprised her that she never noticed before. Then again, she’d never thought to pay attention before.
As they entered the gates and through the courtyard toward one of the doors that led to the guest rooms, Liss gathered the courage to prod at Alistair a little, to ask him to open up just a bit.
“Who are you waiting on a message from?” She turned her head slightly to glance at him from the corner of her eye. The lines in his forehead and brow deepened at the question, before he laughed and painted on a smile.
“Nobody, I’m just being responsible,” he answered. It was amazing to watch him hide every ounce of grief she had seen in his face only moments before. He was quite adept. “You know, you should check your messages more. You never know who might try to get in touch with you.”
“First of all,” she said, holding up her index finger in emphasis, “They deliver our messages directly to our rooms. We don’t have to check.”
Alistair opened his mouth as if he intended to defend himself, but Liss held up another finger and continued to speak. “Second of all, I know what it’s like to wait for letters that don’t come, and if you would rather talk about it than hold it all in until you explode, I’m here for you.”
“You have enough to worry about without me whining over things that aren’t important.”
“Alistair,” she reached forward to lay a hand on his arm. “Anything that causes you this much pain isn’t unimportant. We’re friends. Let me be a friend.”
He inhaled a long shaky breath and stared off into the distance. “Alright… but I’m going to need a drink. You probably will, too for that matter, to put up with the grown man crying on your shoulder.”
“I doubt that,” Liss smiled her reassurance. “But I have an entire bottle of rum under my bed.”
“Do I even want to ask why you hoard alcohol under your bed? Are you a dragon?”
“It helps with the nightmares… well, it helps me go back to sleep after the nightmares.”
“Oh, right.” Alistair fidgeted uncomfortably.
Liss and Alistair walked to her room, where she crawled under her bed to retrieve the large glass bottle. It was much harder to even squeeze an arm under there than it was as a child when she hid from Papa before bed every night. Taking hold of the bottle, she stood up, popped open the cork, and took a swig before passing it to Alistair who looked stunned by the whole affair.
“Don’t be shy,” she laughed and moved to sit at the table in the corner, motioning for him to sit across from her. He took a drink and followed, flopping down in the chair, buckling from the weight of his own feelings.
“Where do I even start?” He pinched the bridge of his nose.
“The beginning, if you’re up for it.” She placed her hand on his forearm.
He sighed, leaned forward and took another drink. “Fine. Just remember that you asked.”
Chapter 8: Vultures
Young Liss is not fond of the way the world works.
Highever, 9:17 Dragon
“Lady Elissa, are you sure this is all right?” The girl’s large, green eyes were wide with worry as she scanned the room around them. “Mamae says I’ll get in trouble if I leave the servants’ quarters.”
“Don’t be silly, Rila,” Liss said with a giggle, taking the other girl by the hand, “I won’t let you get in trouble.”
“If you say so, milady,” Rila answered, bowing her head but smiling. Her skin was dark and her ears pointed like knives, but Liss wasn’t supposed to say so, even if she meant it as a compliment. Papa said that a lot of humans in Ferelden, Orlais, and other places thought they were better than the elves and used mean slurs to put them down. He told her that he expected his children to be better than that. She couldn’t imagine ever wanting to say something mean to Rila, or why anyone else would.
Liss led her friend outside and to one of her favorite hiding spots in the gardens, beneath willow trees where few people thought to look for her. It was sunny and warm, especially for Ferelden, so the shade of the trees served as a comfort as well as concealment. Rila, despite reassurances, continued to look around them as if she expected someone to show up at any moment to punish her for daring to enter the gardens. The elven girl moved from Denerim only a few months earlier, and Liss assumed she had simply not had time to learn that Highever was a much better place to be.
“What shall we play,” Liss asked, her voice not quite a whisper.
“Whatever you wish, milady,” Rila answered, eyes darting away as she spoke.
“You don’t have to call me that, you know? ‘Milady.’” Liss smiled and squeezed the girl’s hand. “You can call me Liss, just like everyone else.”
“I… I don’t think that’s a good idea, milady.” Her voice trembled as if she were frightened, but Liss had not done anything scary. Or had she?
“‘Course it is,” Liss exclaimed, “We’re friends, and you should call me by my name.”
Rila opened her mouth and prepared to speak, grin tugging at the corners of her mouth, but was interrupted by a rustling of the tree branches as they were pulled aside. It was Liss’ mother, lips pursed tightly, brows drawn together as they always were when she was about to scold someone.
“Elissa, darling, you’re going to miss the tournament,” she said, her eyes darting back and forth between Liss and Rila.
“I don’t want to go, Mama,” Liss whined, “It’s not even a real tournament. It’s just Fergus showing off against a bunch of boys smaller than him.”
“Elissa Odette, your brother has worked hard to hone his dueling skills. You should be proud of him.”
“I am, but I want to play with my friend,” Liss turned and offered a comforting smile to Rila, who looked even more terrified than before.
“Your friend,” she answered hesitantly, “Needs to be back in the servants quarters. I am certain that her mother is worried about her.”
“But, Mama, we just--.”
“Come, let’s take Rila back to her mother,” she stated definitively, taking Liss by the hand and offering her other hand to Rila, “You will apologize for worrying her, and then you will attend Fergus’ tournament, do you understand?”
“Yes, Mama.” Liss pouted and hung her head.
Rila’s mother was very grateful for her daughters return, accepting Liss’ apology before she even explained what happened. She even seemed to suggest that it had been Rila’s fault. Liss attempted to protest, but her mother pulled her away gently. Rila waved at her somberly before she turned to leave with her mother.
“Mama,” Liss said as she followed along happily with her mother, “Why do Rila and her Mama act so afraid of us?”
“Because they are afraid of us,” she said, more bluntly than Liss was used to.
“That’s,” she began, appearing to struggle to find words to explain, “Just how the world works.”
“The world is dumb,” Liss muttered under her breath, causing a serious look from her mother.
The sparring ring was not too far from the gardens, a small, circular patch of dirt enclosed by a fence and surrounded by rows of wooden seats. They were used often for training, and sometimes for tournaments such as this one. It allowed for young swordsmen to show off their prowess as they began to come of age. Liss knew she should be excited to watch her brother fight, and she was proud of him in her own way, but she also wished that she could be out there in the ring herself.
As she and her mother drew closer, Liss’ eyes were immediately pulled to the far side of the ring, a glimmer of dark hair catching her eyes. Nobody told her that Nathaniel had arrived for the summer, and her heart swelled with excitement. He had grown in the time since she had last seen him, looking taller, and lankier. Next to him was the frightening man Liss had come to learn was his father, Rendon. He sat stiffly, pale blue eyes scanning his surroundings. Flecks of grey spattered his hair and brows. He looked like a black vulture, menacing despite his elegant posture and poise. Liss wondered how her cheerful papa had ever become friends with him.
Still, a smile stretched across her mouth and she looked up at her mother for permission to go talk with Nate. She nodded her approval and Liss took off running around the side of the ring and toward her friend.
“Nate,” she shouted, throwing her arms around him as soon as she reached him. It had become somewhat of a routine for them. She would shower him with friendly affection, and he’d return it with a grumble she knew wasn’t real. He always hugged her back.
Except this time. This time, he tensed up in her arms, frozen, an unmoving statue. She released him and pulled away tilting her head and offering him a questioning look. His blue eyes looked sad beneath stern brows and he frowned at her.
“What’re you doing,” he asked harshly, pulling himself from beneath her grasp.
“I’m saying hi,” she answered.
“Then just say it,” he said, sounding annoyed with her, “You don’t have to touch me.”
“But… it’s what I always do.” Liss backed away from him, tears filling her eyes. She held them back, not wanting to look like a baby in front of Arl Howe and everyone else present.
“And I always hate it.” Nate darted his eyes to his father and then back to her before turning away.
“Oh.” She didn’t know what to say to him. Had he just been pretending to be her friend this whole time? “Sorry.”
Arl Howe chuckled and leaned forward to look at Liss, as he placed a long-fingered hand on Nate’s shoulder. “You’ll have to forgive Nathaniel, lovely girl,” he said softly as Nate sighed, fists clenched in his lap, “The boy has no sense for manners.”
“Nate has always been polite to me, my lord,” she said with a smile, “He’s probably just having a bad day.”
“Yes, well, how very gracious of you, my lady. You are everything your father has spoken of and more, aren’t you?” Rendon raised an eyebrow and smiled, seeming to be amused by her statement though she didn’t know why. “Perhaps I should introduce you to my Thomas someday.”
“Thomas, Nate’s younger brother?” Liss was familiar with his siblings but did not know for certain that was who the elder Howe meant.
“Yes. He’s a very charismatic child, much like yourself.”
“I’d love to meet him, my lord,” she answered cheerfully, “Delilah, too! Nate has told me all about them both.”
“I’m sure Nate has.” His words were cold and biting as a winter night, and Liss didn’t understand. She certainly didn’t intend to ask. Vultures weren’t very nice birds.
One of Fergus training instructors bellowed the start of the spar, and Liss rushed back toward her mother and father, sitting down between them on a row right next to the fence. She watched, enthralled, battle after battle, boy after boy. Fergus was easily the largest and most skilled. She wondered how it was even abt fun for him without a challenge.
“Papa,” she asked, eyes still locked toward the ring, “Why are there no girls sparring today?”
“Combat is not standard instruction for ladies, pup.” He tousled her hair and pinched her cheek.
“I want to learn sword-fighting,” she said determinedly, still watching the two boys swinging wooden weapons at one another in the ring.
“Are you sure? Wouldn’t you rather wear pretty gowns and raise children.”
Liss wasn’t sure if he was joking so she offered a defensive answer. “Mama does both.” Her mother chuckled beside her.
“That she does, my girl.” He laughed and shook his head. “That she does.”
“So will you let me learn to fight?” She drew her eyes away from the ring to look at her papa and bat her eyelashes. “Maybe I can be a, a knight or a Grey Warden when I get older. Like the Warriors from the stories!”
“I’ll tell you what, pup,” he said gently, “We’ll start with sword-fighting, and when you’re old enough you can decide what you want to do with your skills.”
Liss grinned excitedly, but her celebration was interrupted by a cheering of those on the benches as Fergus had bested his final opponent, and the small audience was rather more pleased than he was. She knew her brother, knew that he wouldn’t feel he accomplished anything without a real challenge, so what he did next should not have been surprising.
Taking the sparring sword from one of his defeated opponents, he approached the fence toward the far side of the ring, pointing at Nate and saying something she could not quite make out. Nate appeared to smile, accepted the sword and joined Fergus in the ring.
“Oh, Bryce,” Liss’ mother hissed softly, “Tell him to stop this nonsense. Nathaniel is half his size. He’s just going to humiliate the poor boy, and in front of Rendon at that.”
“I don’t know,” he replied, a mischievous smile at his cheeks, “Have you seen how hard that boy practices? He might be the only boy here who might prove a challenge to our Fergus.”
“He practices with a bow.”
“And he agreed to the challenge. He could have said no, Eleanor.”
Her mother protested further, but Liss didn’t hear, her attention captured by the beginning of the fight in the center of the ring. Like her mother, she had never seen Nate train with anything but a bow, but that didn’t mean much. Who knew what sort of lessons he got at home for the better part of the year. She crossed her fingers and prayed to Andraste that he would beat Fergus. Maybe that would make Rendon proud of him.
Nate held the sword comfortably in his hand, and Liss heard her parents remark that they hadn’t realized “the boy” was left-handed, but she had known that for a while now. He could shoot a bow with both hands, though, because he practiced. She figured he just wasn’t skilled enough with a sword to do that.
At the sound of a horn, Fergus made a swift swing at Nate, who ducked swiftly and backed away. Fergus swung again, and Nate dodged again. Liss had no idea he could move that fast. The fight carried on as such for several more minutes a constant stream of swings and dodges. Nate had not even used his sword once.
“Love, he fights like you,” her father laughed and looked at her mother who returned a grin.
Liss stood and moved to the fence, grabbing the wooden planks in suspense. Fergus was quite a bit taller than Nate, and had much more weight to him. He also had three years more experience with sparring. It should have been an easy fight, but this was the first time she had seen Fergus struggle. At one point Nate tripped Fergus and someone in the audience shouted something about the boy fighting without honor. She didn’t think it mattered to much of someone fought with honor, so long as they fought well.
Eventually, Fergus got the better of her friend, catching him one too many times and knocking him off balance. Nate was good as long as he avoided contact, but as soon as he had to block, Fergus gained the advantage and sent him hurtling toward the ground. Both boys laughed and Fergus offered him a good-natured hand up. In the distance, Liss caught a glimpse of Rendon shaking his head and wearing a disgusted expression before getting up and wandering away. He wouldn’t even say goodbye to his son before he left.
After the match, Liss was free to play as she wished before supper, with the exception that she was not to “bother the little servant girl.” She had huffed, but ultimately decided against getting either of them into trouble, returning to her hiding spot alone to braid flowers together into delicate crowns that would die before anyone wore them. It was sad that flowers didn’t stay beautiful once they were plucked.
Normally, she would have sought out Nate, to see if he wanted to play, but she figured he didn’t. She tried to forget the mean words he said to her before, but she couldn’t quite shake them. She told his father that he was probably just having a bad day, but she’d never actually seen him so upset by her affection. She’d never actually felt like he wanted nothing to do with her until today. What if he never wanted to talk to her again?
Liss wiped away her tears with her finger tips, but they kept falling. She wasn’t allowed to play with one of her friends, and her other friend hated her. It was too much for her to keep in. She hugged her knees to her chest, hung her head and cried.
A rustling of the branches drew her attention and she turned her head abruptly in the direction of the sound, expecting to see one or both of her parents coming to find her to wash up, but instead she found a familiar pair of bright blue eyes looking back at her.
“Thought you might be here,” Nathaniel said, ducking under the branches and sitting across from her. “Your parents are looking for you. It’s time for supper.”
She turned her face away from him so he wouldn’t see the tears. “I’m not” she sniffled despite herself “hungry.”
“Liss,” he said softly, reaching out to touch her shoulder, “Are you crying?”
“No.” She sniffled again.
“Yes you are.” He peered around so that he could see her face. “What’s wrong?”
“What do you care?” More sniffles. “You don’t like me anyway.”
“Don’t be silly.” He grabbed her shoulder more tightly, shaking her playfully. “Of course I like you.”
“Then why’d you act so mean earlier, huh?” She was shouting, but she didn’t care.
“It’s,” he signed, “It’s my father. I’m not sure why, but he doesn’t like that we’re friends. I just… didn’t want to make him angry, is all. I’m afraid he won’t let me come back.”
“Yeah.” He took a deep breath. “I’m sorry. I should never have said those things to you. I definitely didn’t mean them.”
“I forgive you,” she reassured him, content to know he was still her friend.
“On one condition.” She held up a finger playfully. “You have to wear this to supper.” She picked up one of the flower wreaths and sat it atop his head. He grumbled, but seemed to resign himself to wearing it.
“Just this once, Liss.” He sounded grumpy but she saw the hint of a smile on his lips.
“You. Look. Beautiful,” she chirped, kissing him on the cheek before placing another crown on her head. “And we match.”
It was difficult to see in the shade of the tree branches, but she was almost sure she saw a tint of pink across his face.
“I didn’t know you could fight with swords,” Liss said cheerfully, grabbing his hand as they walked together toward the dining hall.
“I can’t” Nate laughed, squeezing her hand in return.
Chapter 9: Delilah
[Sings] Hey there Delilah, what's it like in Amaranthine...
Amaranthine, 9:31 Dragon
Amaranthine was a jewel, if jewels smelled of piss and were overrun with petty criminals. How very little it had changed since Nathaniel last walked the streets as a child. He had once been so proud that his family owned such an esteemed city. Now, as with most things, he realized Amaranthine was much more pleasant in his memories.
Just over a week had passed since he learned that his sister was alive and well, married to a merchant in the city. Lucia had assured him that they would visit as soon as time allowed, but Warden business had taken them to the Wending Wood where they were captured by an unnerving talking Darkspawn and locked, half-naked in a cell in the Silverite Mines there, so they were delayed by a few days. Nathaniel had seen more of Oghren than he’d ever be able to forget. Still, it wasn’t completely horrible, as it had earned them a new companion, a young elven woman named Velanna. He hadn’t thought it possible for someone to have a bigger chip on their shoulder than he did, but she seemed to have him beat. Quite the accomplishment, really.
“Lighten up, gorgeous,” Anders chirped dumbly, and Nathaniel wasn’t certain if he was completely incapable of reading his audience or if he just didn’t care to.
Velanna didn’t respond, instead remaining silent and shooting him a look that might as well have been a fireball.
“Yeesh, and here I thought the commander was the master of silent, murderous glaring.” When she still said nothing Anders threw up his hands. “Fine. Be grumpy. You’ll fit right in with this lot.”
“Anders, focus” Lucia said calmly without turning her head, continuing to scan the crowds in front of them. “We’re looking for your contact, remember?”
“Right, sorry.” He walked more swiftly to keep up pace with her.
Nathaniel stayed behind with their new companion, studying her features as she bit her lip and looked around nervously. She reminded him of a woman he met in the Free Marches, one who’d nearly killed him when he stumbled onto the archery range at the Grand Tourney. She had large eyes and the same pretty markings on her face, only without the visible distress Velanna had,“I take it this is your first time in the city? It can be jarring.”
For a moment he thought she would ignore him too, but then she sighed and turned to look at him. "I've never seen so many humans in one place,” she complained, gesturing with her hands, “Look at them...crawling, all over, like rats.”
“That is… one way to describe it,”
“You are one of them, too, you know.” Her speech was hesitant, guarded. “And of noble birth, are you not?”
“I am,” he answered, earning him a deadly look, “Your glare suggests that my presence troubles you.”
“No more than anything else in this wretched place.” She shook her head. “I am simply wondering how your kind can call yourselves ‘nobles’ at all.”
“We like irony,” he answered with a shrug he knew he would regret later, “‘Nobles’ rolls off the tongue better than ‘oppressors.’”
“Ah, so you are a funny human.” She scowled, but he swore he saw a glimmer of amusement in her eyes.
“No, not I,” he replied irreverently, “Anders is the only fun one here, you heard him. I wouldn’t dare try to lighten your mood, my lady.”
Velanna rolled her eyes and shoved past him with a disgusted grunt of disapproval. He smirked and followed along after her and the rest of the party.
The search for Anders’ contact led them through the center of the markets, stalls set up in every direction, each selling some different type of ware. Immediately in front of them was a weaponsmith whose freshly forged swords hung on racks, and a grocer selling cheeses and dried meats that looked more appetizing than they smelled. Then again, it was impossible to determine whether it was the cheese he smelled or the city, not that it mattered.
“Nathaniel?” A familiar voice rang out through the crowd, drawing his attention from the grocer to a tall woman with dark hair and pale blue eyes, to his sister.
“Delilah,” he said, a smile twitching on his lips as he rushed to meet her. He’d expected to have to search for his sister, not bump into her in the crowded marketplace.
“Nate, it really is you.” There were tears in her eyes as she wrapped her arms around him. “I’m so glad you’re alright. I worried you might return to Ferelden and attempt to avenge our family or something else daringly stupid, to get yourself killed.”
“I intended to,” he explained, “I was captured by the Wardens before I had the chance.”
“Oh,” Delilah pulled away and examined his armor, then looked behind him toward Lucia and the others. “And you joined them, I see.”
“It was a mercy,” he explained, “I would have been executed otherwise.”
“Nathaniel Howe,” she said with a soft laugh, “A Grey Warden. You really are just like Grandfather.”
“Father would have hated it.” He shook his head.
“It doesn’t matter what Father would have thought.” She placed a hand on his arm. “You’re alive and at least reasonably safe, and that’s all that matters. Come, we need to catch up.”
Nathaniel turned to Lucia to ask if they had time to spare, but the clever woman was already two steps ahead of him.
“Visit with your sister,” she said, as if it were an order, but then smiled gently “Surely we can find Anders’ phylactery without you.”
“Thank you, Commander.”
Nathaniel nodded his gratitude to Lucia and followed Delilah into the small home behind them. It was quaint and tidy with green plants decorating surfaces throughout, exactly what he would expect from a house that belonged to his sister… and her husband. He stiffened at the prospect of his little sister -- sweet, clever Delilah -- being a married woman now.
“Groundskeeper Samuel told me you are married,” he said, looking around the room, more to avoid eye contact than to examine the decor.
“I am,” she answered, “His name is Albert. You’ll have to meet him sometime.”
“Does he make you happy?”
“I adore him,” she said with a smile in her voice. “I never thought I’d get to marry for love. I always assumed Father would wed me off to Fergus Cousland.”
Nathaniel couldn’t contain an amused snort. ”I can think of worse men to be wed off to.”
“So can I.” There was a somberness to her words he couldn’t quite place. She shook her head, as if chasing a thought away and turned her gaze toward him. “Still, it’s so much better to have a choice.”
A long silence stretched between them filled with the weight of so much shared loss Nathaniel didn’t quite know how to address. Thomas. Father. The family reputation. Delilah was the only person in Thedas who could understand, and yet it was so good to see her, and he was so relieved that she was happy. He did not want to bring up the dead bodies in the room.
“Delilah, what happened while I was away,” he finally spoke, his chest tightening as he watched his sister’s joy wash from her face.
“Father happened,” she answered tersely, crossing her arms. “He destroyed our family.”
“Father got caught up in politics. Don’t you think you’re… overstating it a bit?”
“You weren’t here.” Delilah’s eyes pierced him like knives. “You didn’t see what he became. He was a monster.”
“No.” He shook his head, still unable to believe it. Father had always been strict, harsh, and unfair, but he wasn’t evil. He couldn’t have been. “I’m sure there was a—.”
“Sit down,” she instructed with a heavy sigh.
“Please. Just...sit. I need to tell you something,” she said, gesturing to one of the two chairs pushed up to a small wooden table. There was an edge to her words and Nathaniel did as he was told. Delilah sat down across from him, lips pressed into a worried line. “I had hoped you already knew, but you wouldn’t be defending Father if you did .”
“If I knew what?” He tried to imagine the worst thing his father could possibly do, but nothing that came to mind was horrible enough to warrant his sister’s grave expression as she reached across the table and placed her hand on his.
“A few days after Thomas left for Ostagar, Father led the Howe forces to Highever, and left me in charge of the Vigil. He said that he and Teyrn Cousland were going to march south together just as they had done during the rebellion. It had been quite sometime since I’d seen him so excited about anything.” She shook her head and laughed humorlessly, delicate fingers squeezing more tightly around his hand. “The next morning, a handful of our soldiers — five, maybe six— returned to the keep, frantic and covered in blood. They had deserted.”
“Desertion? But that’s a death sentence. Why would they come back here of all places?” It didn’t make sense, and he searched his sister for answers, but her gaze was fixed on the table, a hollow expression on her face.
“That’s what I asked them,” she answered with another laugh, bringing her eyes up to meet his, “They said they had been asked to do something far less honorable than desertion and figured it was worth the risk to tell me. Apparently, their commanding officers had purposely delayed their arrival to Highever on Father’s orders. Teyrn Cousland sent Fergus ahead to Ostagar with the bulk of the Cousland forces, leaving only a small contingent of guards behind. When the Howe men reached the castle in the middle of the night…” She paused, face contorting with what looked like grief.
“What, Delilah,” he urged leaning forward, “What happened?”
“They slaughtered the entire family in their sleep,” she said, tears dripping from her eyes and down her cheeks. “
Nathaniel released her hand and sat back in his chair, in shock. “No,” he protested, “That doesn’t make any sense. The Couslands are our closest allies.”
“Nathaniel,” she said gently.
He shook his head. “No, I don’t believe it. Father would never—.”
“Nate.” Her voice was more insistent this time, and he felt the weight of the news fall on his shoulders and settle in his chest.
“Everyone?” He knew it was a foolish question, but he had to ask.”Even —.” Liss. The name caught in his throat and he couldn’t bring himself to say it out loud.
Delilah nodded somberly. “As far as I know, the only person who was not at the castle was Fergus, and… well, if he survived Ostagar, I wouldn’t know.”
Nathaniel stared straight ahead, focusing on a blank section of the wall behind Delilah’s head, so many feeling rushing through him that he couldn’t decide how to react. When he’d learned Father had been murdered, leaving his family in ruin, he left for Ferelden as soon as he could, filled with rage and a desire to make those who destroyed his family suffer. The Couslands were his family, too, and his father had them murdered for nothing short of callous ambition. He was conflicted, torn between holding onto the last shred of respect he had for the father he knew and blinding, white hot fury at the monster he had become.
“I never wanted anything from Father,” Nathaniel said quietly, holding back the storm that stirred inside for Delilah’s sake. Maker knew she didn’t need her only living relative to fall apart in front of her. “Other than for him to be proud of me. I followed every rule he had and never questioned his orders. I did everything he ever asked of me, no matter how much I disliked it. Do you know how much bloody restraint it took to not tell Elissa that I loved her?”
“You mean father is the reason you never…” She trailed off and smiled slightly. “I always assumed you didn’t have the nerve. I should have known better.”
“I wish I hadn’t tried so hard,” he continued with a heavy sigh. “It made me miserable, and it’s not as if I ever earned his favor. I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if I had rebelled a little, used my spine. Maybe I would have never had to leave. I could have been here, stopped Father… something. ”
Delilah leaned forward and took his hand again. “I know you’re sad, but please don’t blame yourself.”
“I’m not sad, Delilah,” Nathaniel snapped at his sister in a way she didn’t deserve, ripping his hand away from her and pushing his chair out from the table so forcefully that the table shook and nearly turned over, rattling the items that lay atop it, “I’m furious.”
“You can be both, Nate,” she replied quietly, calmly, and with a sympathetic expression. He was immediately embarrassed by his behavior.
“Sorry,” he said as he repositioned the table and chair, and straightened up the items on the table. “You’re right, of course.” He sat back down, and leaned forward, resting his elbows knees and face in his hands.
It was quiet for a moment with the exception of Delilah shifting in her seat. “Do you remember when Mother fell ill?”
“How could I forget?”
“Tom and I were inconsolable, and it was really upsetting to her. Father didn’t know how to handle the emotions we were feeling. Knowing what I know now, I’m not sure he had the capacity to.”
“You did, though. You were always so kind and strong, cheering us up so Mother didn’t have to worry, and never showing how upset you really were. I don’t know what we would have done without you.”
Nathaniel sat up straight and looked at his sister curiously, unsure why she had brought up the past. “What’s this about?”
“I wasn’t able to be there for you before when we were all hurting. My own sorrow drowned it all out.” Her eyebrows pressed together and more tears fell from her eyelashes, “But I can be now, and I will be damned if I let you bottle this all away and carry it alone.”
“I… thank you.”
Delilah stood and moved around the table to place a hand on his shoulder. “I really am sorry. I know how much they meant to you.”
He smiled weakly and nodded, looking up at her, then doing a double take as his eyes passed her stomach. He was not certain whether it was the angle or if he’d been too distracted to notice before, but there was a definite roundness to her abdomen that caused him to recoil.
Delilah chuckled and brought a hand to rest on her belly. “Stop scowling. It’s rude,” she said, shoving him playfully with her other hand, “I was wondering when you’d notice.”
Nathaniel blinked a few times, standing slowly and placing his hands on her shoulders. “You’re pregnant.” It wasn’t quite a question, but it wasn’t a statement either.
“Really? I had no idea,” she offered him a mischievous smile and rolled her eyes.
“Sorry. I...I wasn’t paying attention,” he laughed, dropping his hands from her shoulders, embarrassed, “When are you due?”
“In the spring,” she hummed, “I have about three months to go, give or take.”
“That’s soon.” He tensed and examined his sister’s face for any signs of concern or worry, but there were none, so he relaxed.
“Mhmm.” Delilah nodded “Al and I are so happy.”
“I’m happy, too, for both of you.”
Delilah threw her arms around him in a sudden embrace and mumbled against his chest. “I’ve missed you, Nate.”
He returned the hug, and placed a kiss on top of her head. “I missed you, too.”
Just then there was a knock at the door, soft, tentative and Delilah broke the embrace, rushing to answer it. “Warden-Commander,” she said cheerfully, “I take it you are here to retrieve my brother?”
“Yes, my lady,” Lucia answered just as Nathaniel arrived at the door. She had a cut on her cheek, and blood was splattered across her armor. Behind her, Anders and Velanna stood, both looking worse for wear than when they had departed. Delilah stepped out from in front of the door to let him pass.
“Looks like I missed out on all the fun.”
“It was not fun,” Velanna spat.
“I thought you liked setting Templars on fire,” Anders teased.
Lucia just shook her head and ignored the bickering that then ensued. “Are you ready to go?”
Nathaniel looked back to Delilah, who simply nodded and made him promise to return to visit her as soon as the mess with the darkspawn was over. He gave his word, said goodbye, and left with Lucia and the others.
Chapter 10: Undue Influence
Young Nathaniel begins to realize some things about Liss, but it wouldn't be a party if good old dad didn't mess everything up.
Highever, 9:18 Dragon
The sun beat down upon Highever from a cloudless sky, uncharacteristically hot and unrelenting for the typically mild Fereldan summer. Men and women, children, and animals accustomed to cooler weather walked about sluggishly, hoping for any sort of reprieve. Nathaniel wiped away the beads of sweat that formed on forehead as he sat on a grassy hill that overlooked a small pond where the other children played. He didn’t actually mind the heat.
The heat wasn’t the only thing unusual about this particular summer, as everyone at Castle Cousland busied themselves with preparation for the arrival of King Maric and Teyrn Loghain. From what Nathaniel could gather it was to be an important meeting of powerful people that would also include several feasts, music, and other festivities. Prince Cailan and Lady Anora were to accompany them.
For days, Liss prattled on and on and on about getting to see the Prince and his betrothed in an almost breathless way, eyes glittering with excitement. Nathaniel wasn’t certain she actually knew what it meant to be betrothed outside the pages of her stories. She’d read countless tales of young maidens and their arranged marriages to handsome knights with polished silverite armor and crooked smiles. He had, after all, listened to her recount the stories at great length. He knew her favorite characters and why they were her favorites. She’d even shown him drawings she’d made of a tall, muscular-looking woman who wielded a broadsword. According to Fergus, she’d even begun to write her own story, filling pages upon pages of a journal but never willing to talk about what she was writing. He annoyed her about it nearly every day, and nearly every day she awarded him with a scowl and a firm punch in the arm. It was clearly very private, and Nathaniel pretended to not even know it existed.
As he sat upon the hill, watching her splash around with Delilah and Thomas, who Father had permitted to join him in Highever this year, as well as the servant girl Liss’ parents did not like her to play with, he would have done just about anything to have her tell him the same story for the fifteenth time. It was lonely on the hill, but he definitely could not join them in the water. Delilah or Thomas might tell Father, or worse, Father might see. He still did not understand why he wasn’t supposed to spend time with Liss. He didn’t expect he ever would. Father rarely explained his rules, but Nathaniel trusted that he knew what was best.
“How did I know I’d find you sitting here by yourself,” a voice rang out from behind him, followed by a chuckle. It was Fergus who joined him. He was basically a man now, taller than ever with a deep voice and the beginnings of a beard.
“It’s kind of my thing,” Nathaniel answered with a sigh. He didn’t want it to be his “thing.”
“I’ve seen you have a good time, Nate,” Fergus stated bluntly as he sat down on the grass beside him, “Just never when your old man is here. What’s up with that?”
“Nothing,” Nathaniel snapped, darting his head toward the other boy who only smiled in return.
“My sister says your father doesn’t like that you two are friends.” Fergus plucked at some blades of grass at his side, tearing them between his fingers. “Is that true, or is she just making things up, again?”
“It’s true.” Nathaniel returned his gaze to the pond, his chest tightening as he watched Liss wrap her arms around Thomas in an attempt to pull him under the water, as she held Delilah’s hands, and as she kissed Rila’s cheek. “ I don’t know why.”
“I think I do.”
Fergus nodded grimly. “I overheard your father talking to mine. Something about wanting to arrange for my sister to marry your brother.”
“Like a betrothal,” Nathaniel huffed, “Liss will love that.”
“Father wouldn’t have it, said that Couslands do not treat their children like property, and that he would not decide Liss’ future for her.” He shook his head and laughed. “There was some angry shouting, and then your father stormed out of the room.”
“My father does a lot of angry shouting and storming out of rooms,” Nathaniel took a deep breath, and stared at the ground, unable to look back out at the pond or up to Fergus. “I still don’t understand what this has to do with me being close to Liss.”
Fergus tried and failed to contain a laugh, so he ended up half-snorting as he slapped Nathaniel roughly on the back. “Well, if Liss fell in love with you, that’d get in the way of her marrying little Tom one of these days, now wouldn’t it?”
“Me? And Liss?” Nathaniel’s voice cracked as he spoke, causing him to squeak. It’d been doing that a lot lately, and it was not helping him to sound serious or like anything other than some kind of awkward bird. He narrowed his eyes. “That’s the stupidest thing you’ve ever said, and you say a lot of stupid things.”
Fergus fell backward, cackling and holding his sides. Had Liss not been otherwise occupied she would have punched him to make him stop, but Nathaniel preferred to wait him out. Especially since any time he opened his mouth there was a potential to incite more obnoxious laughter. “Sorry Nate,” he said between laughs, “I know you can’t help your voice but…” he trailed off, “Hey, at least by next summer, you’ll sound completely different.”
“You can impress my sister with your deep, manly voice.” He elbowed Nathaniel in the arm. “Hmm?”
“It’s not like that, Fergus,” Nathaniel protested. “We’re just friends. We’ll always just be friends.”
“Right, right, whatever you say,” Fergus threw his hands up, “But you sure put up with a lot of my sister’s nonsense to just be a friend.”
“I don’t put up with anything.” Nathaniel let his annoyance show in his voice, “I like Liss’ ‘nonsense.’ It’s-.” He paused, realizing the initial end of that sentence proved Fergus’ point.
A devious grin stretched across the older boy’s face, one so similar to Liss’ that Nathaniel couldn’t hate it. “What were you going to say? Were you going to say that you think it’s cute?”
“You were,” Fergus shouted, “Hah! I knew it!”
Nathaniel rolled his eyes and ignored Fergus’ teasing. Did he like Liss in a different way than just friends? Was that why watching her spend time with the others when he couldn’t join made his chest hurt. He wasn’t used to feeling so angry or resentful toward his sister and brother, but ever since they arrived, he wanted nothing more than for them to go home. Now, with what Fergus overheard about Thomas, he wished it even more.
He watched as Liss climbed out of the pond, dripping from head to toe, quickly averting his eyes to the ground when he realized the linens in which she swam had become translucent in the water. He’d gone swimming with her before. This was nothing new to see, but it seemed impolite now. His heart climbed into his throat as he saw her walking in his direction from the corner of his eye. Fergus was still talking about her, and Nathaniel panicked.
“She’s coming, shut up,” he said slapping Fergus on the arm. Fergus looked at his sister and then back at Nathaniel, eyes sparkling with amusement. He took a breath, and opened his mouth to speak again, but Nathaniel covered it with his hand. “Shut. Up.”
Fergus raised his hands in a truce, eyes still smiling, and Nathaniel uncovered his mouth, but continued to glare at him with the most threatening expression he could muster. Not that it would stop the much larger boy from embarrassing him. There was no force in Thedas that would do that.
“You two are missing out on the fun,” Liss said cheerfully, plopping down on the ground beside Nathaniel. Cool water droplets bounced from her hair with the movement, sprinkling onto his skin.
“Don’t be silly, Sis.” Fergus’ voice was full of irony. “Nathaniel doesn’t know how to have fun.”
“Be nice.” Liss leaned over and around Nathaniel to smack her brother on the head. “You okay, Nate?” Her hand fell on Nathaniel’s shoulder and he looked up at her even though he knew he shouldn’t. His heart immediately skipped a beat and he wanted to bury his head in the dirt. He’d never thought about her like that before. Why now? Clearly this was Fergus’ doing for mentioning it.
He just nodded and Liss gave him a disbelieving look. She’d known him long enough to know better.
“I,” she announced, poking his cheek and letting her finger rest there, “Don’t believe you.”
His face burned hot, and he wasn’t sure if it was the actual heat or the insufferable shame he felt just being so near her now. He turned his eyes to look at Fergus who looked as if he were about to burst, then lightly swatted Liss’ hand away. It was absent minded, an attempt to alleviate the embarrassment boiling up in him, but he knew what it meant to her.
Nathaniel forced himself to meet her gaze, and to see the hurt expression on her face as she pulled away from him. “Liss, I - ,”
“I’m glad you’re okay,” she stated tersely, standing up and stomping away, back down to the pond where the others greeted her fondly. He brought his hands to his face and shook his head, falling back into the grass.
“That went well,” Fergus teased.“Tell me again how you don’t like my sister. I’m waiting.”
“Piss off,” Nathaniel muttered, voice muffled by his hands.
Nathaniel had the remainder of the afternoon and evening to ruminate. Despite Fergus forcing him to distraction by dragging him to the kennels, he couldn’t seem to get Liss off his mind. He still was not quite sure what to make of anything that happened. He had only known her for a few years, but it was impossible to remember a time when she hadn’t been a major part of his life. He honestly didn’t care to. There had been so few people who took such a vested interest in him, who truly cared. For all that he preferred solitude, he enjoyed her company more. Even when he said he wanted to be alone, it did not apply to her. He loved her, and he wasn’t afraid to admit that.
However, the new set of feelings that had smacked him this summer made him uncomfortable. He was afraid to admit to those because that meant that things between he and Liss could never be the same again. He would never be able to look at her without feeling like he was suffocating, without his chest aching. And, if what Fergus said had any truth to it, and he figured it did knowing Father, he would always feel that way. He would never be allowed to act on it. Ever.
With a mournful sigh, he flung himself down on his bed. It was still early for sleep, but if he lay there long enough, it wouldn’t be. He could drift off and not think about Liss and how pretty she was, or how she smelled nice, or how she smiled when she talked about her favorite books. He also wouldn’t have to think about the hurt in her eyes when he brushed her off earlier. He would have dreamless sleep and think absolutely nothing about Elissa Cousland or how she made him want to die. Maybe it was just a fever and he’d wake up with the tangled ball of emotions inside him gone. He rolled his eyes at himself. Unlikely.
A rapid succession of knocks at his door jolted him from his bed and he rushed to answer it. Unfastening the lock he reached for the handle but the door burst open before he even touched it, and he took a step backward to keep it from hitting him in the nose. Liss barged into the room and shut the door behind her, leaning against it. Her eyes were red and swollen from tears that continued to fall, and she was sniffling, trying to catch her breath.
“Liss, what’s -.” She fell forward into his arms, catching him off guard. All the shame and embarrassment from earlier fizzled away, replaced by overwhelming concern. He hugged her to him tightly, unsure what else he could do.
“I’m sorry to...to bother you,” she said through sobs and sniffles,”You probably don’t want me here.”
“No, it’s fine,” he reassured her, “What’s wrong?”
“After we finished swimming, Rila and I wanted to show Delilah and Thomas our spot in the garden. You know the one?” She looked up at Nathaniel desperately, and he shook his head. He knew the one. “While we were there, your father came to look for your brother and sister, I don’t know why - something about introducing them to some important people at dinner... “ She trailed off, tears still streaking down her face.
Nathaniel’s heart dropped like lead into his stomach. He had an idea where this story was going, and it made him sick. He placed his hands on her shoulders and pushed her out and away from him so he could look at her directly. “What did my father do, Liss?”
A look of anguish crossed her delicate features and she shook with sobs again. He’d never seen her like this before. “He saw Rila, and he got really angry. She didn’t even do anything, but he was just so angry. He called her a ‘knife-ear’ and told me and the others we had no business playing with ‘filth.’
“Rila ran off, and I went to find her once your Father left, but she wouldn’t listen. She told me she hated me and never wanted to talk to me again. This is all my fault.”
“It’s not your fault,” Nathaniel grasped her shoulders more firmly, “She is your friend and you couldn’t have known this would happen.”
She pulled back. “But I did! Mama and Papa have told me tons of times, but I just didn’t listen. I’m stupid. I’m a stupid, dumb person who never listens.” She tapped her forehead repeatedly with the heel of her hand. “Rila is never going to be my friend again.”
“I’m so sorry,” he said, almost in a whisper, and she wrapped her arms around him again. Her hair was still damp and smelled like the outside air. He wished he knew what to say, that he was good at consoling people, but that was not a strength of his. He wondered why she sought him out instead of her parents, instead of Fergus.
“I get it now.” Liss’ expression hardened as she pulled away again, and she offered him a definitive nod. “I know why you are different when he’s here. I didn’t before, not really, but I do now.”
“Father is…” He sighed. “Difficult.”
“I hate him,” Liss snapped, unapologetically.
“Sometimes... I think I might, too.” He laughed bitterly and walked to sit on the edge of his bed. “But he’s my father, and I have to respect his wishes.”
It was staggering to think that he might hate his own father, let alone admit it out loud. Liss walked over and sat beside him, leaning her head against his shoulder. She didn’t say a word, but she didn’t have to. He understood the gesture well enough. He offered her his hand and she laced her fingers through his, squeezing tightly.
They sat there for several moments in heavy silence until footsteps and the voices of men were heard down the hallway.
“Rendon, I assure you Nathaniel is not having an undue influence on Elissa,” Bryce’s voice urged, “And I certainly doubt she’s in his room right now.” He had spoken so loudly on purpose. It was a warning.
Liss and Nathaniel both startled, and they looked at each other with widened eyes, conveying their plan without any words. She drew a finger to her lips and slid down to the floor, crawling under the bed. He hurried to busy himself, taking a book from the shelf, rushing to his desk an pretending to be intently focused on the dusty tome that was almost certainly about Mabari.
There was a gentle knock at the door.
“It’s open,” Nathaniel shouted, his heart pounding in his chest.
Bryce entered first, followed by Father, who looked around the room suspiciously. “See,” he said in the same cheerful tone Liss always used. “She’s not here.” He winked at Nathaniel discreetly.
“Yes, well.” His father approached the desk, boots clicking against the stone floor. He placed a hand on Nathaniel’s shoulder with enough pressure that it was uncomfortable. “One can never be certain with this one. He is always up to something.”
“Nathaniel has always been on his best behavior with us,” Bryce’s voice was happy, but his eyes looked sad.
“I am sure he is.” He released Nathaniel’s arm and walked out of the room. Bryce lingered behind for a moment, offering an apologetic expression before exiting the room and closing the door behind him.
Liss crawled out from under the bed and stood, more shyly than he had ever seen her, in the center of the room. She had the same expression her father had worn.
“I should probably go.” She motioned toward the door with her thumb. “I don’t want to get you in trouble, too.”
Nathaniel wanted to ask her to stay, to say that he didn’t care what Father thought, that it was worth the risk because she was the only friend he had ever really had. But he didn’t. He just hung his head and watched as she left his room, closing the door gently behind her.
Chapter 11: Theft of Parsnip
Did someone say "Epistolary Chapter?" Oh wait, no, that was me... EPISTOLARY CHAPTER.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Denerim, 9:31 Dragon
Apologies for taking so long to write to you. I know you must be just beside yourself with worry. Never fear! Big brother is alive, just drowning in responsibilities. Assuming the role of Teyrn has a lot more to it than just sitting in the big chair and sending soldiers to do things. Who knew there would be so much bloody paperwork? Father certainly never mentioned it. He made it all look so very seamless and easy. Were he here now, I think he’d be wishing his brilliant daughter had been the heir instead. You should have been the heir from the start, precedent be damned.
I never expected to inherit Highever like this. Father led me to believe he would pass it on well before the end of his days and serve as my advisor. I’m honestly lost. There are so many things in disrepair. Queen Anora did a marvelous job at restoring the castle, but the city, our lands… they’ve suffered from the Blight, and from Howe’s piss poor management of them. I hope and pray everyday that I am making good choices for our home and for our family.
I know that you are eager to know how I am faring more personally, and to be honest Liss, it is all I can do to make it through the day without breaking down. It was one thing to be told that my wife and son were murdered, it is a completely different experience to walk into the room we once shared and for it to be empty. To see Oriana’s dresses and jewelry, that wooden sword you gave to Oren. Just being here is a constant reminder of everything I’ve lost. If I could bring Rendon Howe back to life just to murder him myself, I would without hesitation.
Did you know Queen Anora stripped the Howe family of their lands and granted it to the Grey Wardens? I just received a very official letter from the new Arlessa of Amaranthine, Warden -Commander Lucia Amell, Hero of Ferelden (What a mouthful!) I don’t think she wrote it. I feel like she might be too busy dealing with whatever is happening in Amaranthine right now with the Darkspawn. Either way, I thought you’d be interested to know. I’m not sure that I think Howe’s family deserves to pay for what he did. Maker… I wonder if word has even reached Nathaniel in the Marches. Wonder how he’ll take it.
Anyway, I am sure that you do not want to read pages of my rambling. I do miss you, sis. I wish that you could be here to kick the arses of all these families trying to arrange marriages with their daughters. I’m not ready yet... I don’t know that I ever will be.
I hope that Denerim is being kind to you. Does the queen keep you busy? Knowing Anora, I assume so.
Talk to you soon.
P.S. I’ve sent a package along with this letter. I found something that I thought you might want to see.
Liss sighed heavily, as if she could exhale the weight off her chest, and sat Fergus’ letter down on the desk before her. It was not easy for her to hear that her big brother, the man she looked up to above anyone else alive, was so defeated. Not that she blamed him of course. She had only to mourn the loss of her parents while he had lost his wife and son as well. He didn’t blame her for that, but she still did. She probably always would.
Blotting the tears from her eyes with the sleeve of her dress, she moved to open the package that had come with the letter, doing her best to avoid thinking about Howe or his family or Amaranthine or any of it. It sat atop a stack of correspondence which she had only gotten the chance to sort through today. Fergus was correct in assuming she had been busy. Restoring order to a country required long hours in a small chamber and many heated discussions.
She smiled at the package’s clumsy wrapping. There was no question that it was truly from her brother. Nobody else in Thedas could wrap something so poorly, and with such honest effort. She pulled at the twine that held the burlap in place, uncovering a thick, leather-bound journal. Even worn by time and water damage, it was unmistakable. It was hers, and she had forgotten it even existed.
Unable to contain her excitement she leaned back in her chair and began to thumb through the pages. The first several were relegated to poems and pieces of prose she had started but never finished, poorly drawn women with swords, and some pressed flowers. After that, she had apparently begun using the journal as a diary.
15 Justinian, 9:18 Dragon: Today was bad.
That was all Liss’ eleven-year-old self had written. Vague, but the expressive scribbles below depicted a man that looked like Rendon Howe with the word “knife-ear” written in a bubble beside his head. Her blood boiled remembering that day. Poor Rila. Liss had fond memories with the Elven girl, but she recalled all the times she got her into trouble, simply because she was too oblivious to realize that Rila did not have the same privileges she did. If she had, it would have spared them both some grief.
Liss flipped through several pages of brief entries from that summer, most of them complaining about the fact that Nathaniel was not allowed to talk to her. That had always pestered her, and she had not really understood the reason why his father frowned upon their friendship, at least not at the time. Obviously, he had been worried that it would develop into more and that she would want to marry Nate instead of Thomas, but Rendon did not know his own son. Nate had not been interested in her like that. If so, he would have taken one of the ample opportunities she had given him throughout their formative years to say so.
She laughed bitterly, shaking her head. Howe was dead, her family was dead, Thomas was dead, and she had not spoken to Nate in over seven years, so he might as well have been dead, too. None of it mattered anyway.
She slammed the journal shut and placed it in one of her desk drawers, unable to bring herself to go through the rest of it at the moment. She knew how the story went, after all. It had been some time since she had really let herself think about Nathaniel. Well, she always thought about him. There just happened to be a particular way she didn’t let herself think about him. He was a part of her, and he took that part with her when he left, that’s all that really mattered. Damn him for never writing. Damn him in general.
Opening another drawer, she pulled out a piece of parchment and reached for the quill and inkpot that sat at the far corner of the desk. She wanted to write to her brother while she had time. It would not do for her to become lost in thoughts of a past that wasn’t important anymore and forget to respond to Fergus for weeks while she drowned her sorrows in work.
You don’t have to apologize for needing time to get yourself sorted. I kind of expected that. I am just happy to hear from you at all. I wish that there were some words I could say to make everything better, but you and I both know that the only thing that will help us heal is time. I was going to try to avoid saying sorry again because you told me not to, but I am. I’m sorry. I seem to get sorrier every day.
I have heard about Amaranthine. More than I would like to, quite frankly. Amaranthine this, Amaranthine that. Amaranthine is all I hear about these days. One of the members of Anora’s council is a Grey Warden, and each time we meet, we spend more than half of the time listening to a bunch of angry banns complaining about the fact that an apolitical entity like the Grey Warden Order is now somehow nose deep in politics. Alistair — the Grey Warden — doesn’t even have contact with the Warden-Commander, so he can’t answer to any of it. I worry, Fergus. There are talks of an assassination, a plan to remove the Hero of Ferelden from her seat. It’s almost as if they’ve forgotten the woman saved their sorry arses from the Archdemon.
I understand the queen’s reasoning, but this has caused needless strife. If she had granted Amaranthine to Delilah, who almost assuredly had nothing to do with her father’s evil, we would actually be able to get some work done instead of rehashing the same arguments a thousand times. Andraste’s blood, I’m not cut out for this.
But that is beside the point, and I’m certain you don’t want to read me rant on and on about politics, of all things. Sounds like you have enough on your hands as is, juggling all of those marriage proposals. I will gladly march right up to Highever to put those power-hungry airheads in their place. All you have to do is ask. You need time to actually mourn, and taking a wife who will be more interested in your status than your well-being would not be a good decision.
Listen to me, Fergus, I do not care how lonely or hot and bothered you get, don’t you dare marry one of those glorified leeches. Get a friend. Go to a brothel. Get a friend who you feel comfortable doing brothel things with. Do what you have to, but I’ll not see my brother married to someone who does anything but love him for who he is. Do you understand me?
Remember that you do have a sister here who cares about you, too. Denerim is just a couple days’ journey from Highever, and as soon as things slow down here, I’ll be making a trip to visit. The thought of it terrifies me. The last memories of home I have are covered in blood and sound like screams. Still, I’ll have to eventually. What better motivation than to see my big brother who I miss dearly.
Thank you for the journal, by the way. It’s a difficult read, but I’m grateful to have it back. I had forgotten it even existed. Apparently, 11-year-old me was chock full of feelings about Rendon Howe, too. I’m sure you remember that.
I love you, Brother, and I will see you soon.
Liss folded the parchment and stuffed it into an envelope that she then sealed and addressed to be sent out tomorrow. She wondered whether she had been too stern with her brother, but someone had to remind him to think with the head on his shoulders and not the one in his breeches! He was a grown man who had basically been coddled his entire life, which meant he needed someone to look out for him until he learned to do that for himself. Sheltered young men always made the worst decisions. Perhaps it was hypocritical, coming from someone who was younger than him and also sheltered, but she didn’t care.
Setting the prepared postage aside, Liss focused on the stack of correspondence filling her desk, going through each envelope and scroll one by one. Many of the letters were junk: advertisements from local shops, political mailings, bounties, missing persons reports, and other things that Liss tossed into the waste bin at her side.
There were several messages from Bria, asking Liss to come visit, and she made a mental note to do so. Bria was intelligent, funny, and good at what she did. Liss enjoyed her company, and had spent many hours talking with the woman, learning a lot about Antiva and a little about the Forge. It was a friendship she had not expected, but one for which she was grateful nonetheless.
Speaking of unexpected friendships, there was also a handful of notes from Alistair -- tiny scrolls that, when unraveled, revealed brief messages with messy sketches beneath them. One in particular depicted a stick figure labeled as “Alistair” sitting atop a pile of little triangles.
There is too much cheese in this castle. What is it with you noble people and smelly cheese? Is it some kind of contest? I don’t even like cheese. It’s just old milk. Blech!
Another note featured some poorly drawn shape that looked oddly vulgar until she read the note that accompanied it.
Liss. Did you know that the first ever crime reported in Denerim was “Theft of Parsnip?” Look it up.
P.S. I don’t actually know what parsnips look like.
One note was written on the back of a book page, and Liss had to take some deep breaths to calm her feelings about the damaged literature.
Sorry about the damaged literature. I just ran out of parchment. I don’t actually remember what I wanted to say. I’m sure it will come to me later.
Another note written on a torn book page:
I remembered. It was that I wanted to say that I feel like I haven’t talked to you in ages. We’ve both been so busy, I guess. It’s weird to miss someone who lives just down the hall.
A flush climbed to Liss’ face and a smile twitched at the corners of her mouth as she read his words. Had she not known better, she would have sworn he was interested in her in a way that was more than friendly. She hadn’t known Alistair very long -- around three months -- but in the time that she had known him, she observed that he was kind to everyone, but not in the same way he was kind to her. It was slight, and hidden under a lot of other emotions he had, but it was there.
Yet, she knew better. The last time they’d really had time to speak outside of small exchanges in the hall had been the night they drank too much rum in her room and he talked about his past. Most of the conversation was centered around the Warden-Commander, who he affectionately referred to as “Luce.” Liss figured only he was allowed to call the Hero of Ferelden by that name. She doubted Alistair even remembered much of that discussion, and he never said it outright, but Liss could tell that he loved her. Even inebriated, his words sang praise of this woman whose absence so clearly wounded him. She figured it was best to not remind him of their conversation. The poor man would probably be embarrassed.
Rolling up each of his notes, she placed them in the same drawer with her journal, and turned her attention to the final letter on her desk. It was a large envelope with an official-looking seal. Upon closer examination, Liss realized that the seal was stamped with the shape of griffon, and she turned the envelope over to see to whom it was addressed. Alistair. It had been delivered to the wrong person. She hopped up immediately and ran out of her room, down the hall and toward the corridor where his room was, letter in hand. She knocked on the door erratically and relentlessly, not stopping until the door swung open to reveal her sleepy-eyed friend.
“Liss,” he mumbled groggily, although he did not seem particularly annoyed. In fact, he had the beginnings of a smile on his face. “What are you -?”
“Can I come in,” she blurted excitedly walking past him before he had time to answer. He closed the door behind them and turned to face her.
“To what do I owe the pleasure of this late night visit?” He rubbed at his eyes and motioned for her to sit down in the chair at his desk.
She shook her head politely, indicating that she wanted to stand, so Alistair slumped into the chair in her place, raking fingers through his disheveled hair. “I was going through my mail, and at the very bottom of the stack, there was this letter.” She extended the envelope out to him. “It has your name on it, and a griffon seal. It must have been delivered to the wrong -.”
Alistair stood abruptly and took the letter out of her hands, shaking nervously as he broke the seal and pulled out a piece of thick parchment. Liss watched as his eyes flicked across the page. The crease between his eyebrows deepened as he read on, and when he finished reading, he shook his head, crumpled up the letter, and tossed it to the floor.
“It’s not her handwriting,” he stated tersely, the laugh that followed more bitter than Liss had ever heard from him, “She can’t even write to me herself to tell me that she’s alive. Is it really so difficult? ‘Dear Alistair, I’m not dead.” No, I don’t think it is.” He threw his hands up. “Maker’s breath.”
“I’m, um,” Liss began, unsure what to say, and feeling incredibly guilty that she woke him up in the middle of the night just to cause him pain, “I’m sorry, I thought… Well. You know.”
“Don’t be sorry,” he assured her, expression and voice softening instantly as he reached out to touch her shoulder, “I thought the same. Thank you for bringing it to me.” His eyes lingered on her for longer than he intended, or at least it seemed that way when he darted them away quickly and took his hand from her shoulder, bringing it up to scratch the back of his neck.
“I should… go.” She motioned to the door with her head, and began to walk out of the room.
“Wait,” Alistair said, urgently, reaching out and taking her wrist in his hand. Liss turned back to look at him, his features pleading with her. “I mean.” He let go of her arm. “If you’re not… You know what, nevermind.”
Liss moved forward, taking his hand in hers and smiling as she met his gaze. “Alistair, we’re friends, remember? If you need company, all you have to do is say so.”
Alistair nodded slowly, eyes sparkling with tears Liss knew were about to fall. She moved closer to him, wrapping her arms around him in a hesitant embrace. She’d never hugged him before, and he had always tensed and flinched at her touch, so she was prepared for that. She was not prepared for the giant man to return the embrace so forcefully that it nearly knocked them both over. He buried his face into her shoulder, a few warm tears falling, wet against her skin.
They stood that way for several long moments, until Alistair released her and offered an embarrassed smile.
“Want to go to our spot in the Gardens?” Liss chirped, hoping to cut the awkwardness out of the moment.
“That would be good,” Alistair said with a nod. “Thank you, Liss.”
Fun fact: The whole parsnip line came about because I attended a Josh Groban concert in Cincinnati, Ohio on Wednesday. When he walked out on the stage he said: "Did you know: The first crime ever reported here in Cincinnati was 'Theft of a Cucumber,' and that's why I'm wearing a green suit."
While I was writing Alistair's notes, it just seemed fitting. ;D
Chapter 12: Warrior Hair
Liss knows she's in trouble when her father uses her whole name.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Highever, 9:18, Dragon
Liss was to be on her best behavior. That was what her father told her, and he had used her full name, so she knew that there would be serious consequences if she did not obey. Still, she wasn’t quite sure what her best behavior was. She always tried to stay out of trouble, to do good, to be kind, but somehow, it never quite worked out for her. The only reason she hadn’t spent most of her summers scrubbing pots was because Fergus and Nate came to her defense more times than they probably should have. She just liked to have fun, and sometimes that meant breaking the rules. Sometimes, it meant convincing Delilah Howe to sneak into the Great Hall with her to see the arrival of King Maric and his entourage.
Glittering and golden, Maric walked with an air of easy confidence one would have expected from a rebel hero and now King of Ferelden. He was exceptionally tall, but his loose posture and gentle smile made him seem far less imposing than the taciturn man at his side. Teyrn Loghain walked next to him with hard, clanking steps and a scowl upon his face. In many ways, he reminded her of Arl Howe, but in many ways he didn’t. There was a soft admiration in his eyes when he looked at Maric that became even softer when he looked at his daughter. She didn’t think she’d ever seen Howe look at anything with admiration except his own reflection in the mirror.
Lady Anora was everything Liss had imagined her to be, tall and graceful with hair as golden as the king’s armor, braided into an intricate design at the back of her head. Teyrna Mac Tir had not accompanied her family on this trip, so Liss wondered if Anora had a handmaiden who did her hair, or if she’d done it herself. It would have certainly been a surprise if the grumpy teyrn knew how to create such elaborate braids. She stood quietly, with perfect posture, and Liss was completely enamored. She had never seen someone so beautiful in real life.
Then there was Prince Cailan. He was shorter than his betrothed and lanky, with hands and feet he hadn’t quite grown into yet, much like Nate. In fact, Liss remembered reading his birth year in one of the books Aldous had given her, and she thought they were around the same age. Yet, the prince could not have been more different than her friend. Like his father, Cailan carried himself with a swagger and a flare of irreverence and disregard for the fact that his father and the other adults were engaged in a very formal introduction. He fidgeted and looked around the Great Hall boredly, whistling the tune of Andraste’s Mabari. He had no sense for the rhythm, but she’d recognize the notes anywhere.
“The prince is so… handsome,” Delilah giggled beside her and Liss turned to look at the raven-haired girl, who abruptly brought her hand to her mouth to keep herself quiet. Liss joined in her laughter but refocused her eyes on the scene before them.
“I don’t know, he’s alright I guess,” Liss whispered, disinterested, but watching Anora’s every motion.
“Oh, right,” Delilah said with another laugh, elbowing Liss in the arm, “You like my brother.”
“Don’t be silly, Delilah.” Liss rolled her eyes. “I already told you I don’t think of Thomas like that. I know everyone thinks we’ll be married someday, but that’s dumb. Papa says I don’t have to marry anyone I don’t want to, and that I’m too young to decide right now anyway.”
“I wasn’t talking about Thomas.”
Liss froze even as her face grew hot, that final comment enough to finally draw her attention from the scene before them. “ What ,” she hissed, causing an uncharacteristically mischievous grin to cross her friend’s face.
Her smile deepened as she sang her brother’s name, playfully. “Nathaniel.”
Liss huffed and turned her nose up at the suggestion. “That’s even sillier than Thomas.”
“You’re only saying that because it’s the truth. Your rosy cheeks are giving you away, Liss.” Delilah reached out and pinched Liss on the cheek.
“Even if I did,” Liss snapped, swiping Delilah’s hand away, “Nate doesn’t think about me like that. I’m just like an annoying little sister to him.”
Delilah opened her mouth to speak, but at the same time her eyes locked onto something across the room. Liss turned to see Cailan leaning around Anora, and looking directly at them. A smile stretched across his face and he winked. Anora turned to scold him, but her eyes flicked toward Liss and Delilah too, and she frowned, her pretty brows pressing together. She elbowed Cailan, who grumbled under his breath, catching the attention of both the king and the teyrn, as well as Liss and Delilah’s fathers.
Liss’ stomach twisted into knots, and she knew what was going to happen. She tapped Delilah on the arm repeatedly. “You have to go,” she whispered urgently, “Go.”
“But you’ll get into trouble.”
“Not as much as you,” she urged even more desperately, pushing Delilah out of the line of sight. “My father won’t be as angry as yours.” The other girl seemed to understand what she meant and hurried away as quickly as she could.
“Cailan,” Loghain barked, “Is there something you’d like to share?” Liss was shocked by the impropriety with which the man spoke to the prince, as well as by the lack of response from the king.
Cailan was flippant in his answer. “Not particularly.”
“Cailan,” Maric scolded, eyes still kind beneath serious eyebrows.
“Not particularly… ser?” Cailan laughed despite Loghain’s obvious seething and Maric’s forced attempt at a stern, fatherly expression.
Uncomfortable with the direction in which the conversation was headed, and fearful that Cailan might divulge Delilah’s presence there as well, Liss stepped from behind the pillar where she hid and out into the open. She curtsied as low as she could and kept her gaze down at the floor until she heard her father speak, or rather, sigh. “Elissa.”
It was her full name. She was in trouble.
“I know I’m not supposed to be here,” she explained, trembling, eyes still locked on the floor, “But I was so excited that the King would be visiting. I just wanted to see. I hid, but Prince Cailan saw me, and I distracted him. I’m sorry.”
A hand fell upon her shoulder, and she looked up expecting to see her father, but instead it was Maric who towered above her, an amused expression painting his face. “Tell me, dear girl,” he said, bending down slightly so that he was closer to eye level with her, “Now that you’ve seen me, am I worth all the excitement?”
“No, your majesty,” Liss blurted, without thinking. She could hear Arl Howe gasp in the background. “You’re just a person… with pretty armor.”
“Elissa!” Her father’s voice was more stern than she’d ever heard it, and she knew she had messed up. She’d be doing worse than scrubbing pots. She’d never see the light of day again.
Then, to her surprise, the king began to laugh, a hearty roar of a laugh that filled the entire hall. Liss’ father and Arl Howe wore confused expressions that seemed to echo what Liss felt in the moment, too. Behind Maric, Teyrn Loghain stood and watched, an amused smile perking up at the corners of his mouth as his eyes darted from Maric, to Liss, and then back to Maric.
“I like this one,” Maric said as he straightened his posture and looked at her father, ”Bryce, this must be your daughter. She is just like Eleanor.”
“Yes,” Loghain said in a manner that Liss could have sworn was playful, “It is good for the king to be reminded that the only thing that separates him from the common man is a suit of ‘pretty armor’... Lest his head become too big for his shoulders.”
Arl Howe continued to look horrified, and her father still looked disappointed in her. Not even the king’s approval would keep her from her punishment.
“Forgive me, your majesty, but I specifically told my daughter she was not to cause a commotion,” he bit down on the end of his sentence as he approached both Liss and Maric, “She has to learn that there are consequences for her actions.”
“Cailan could stand to learn that as well,“ Maric said, darting his eyes to the prince, who just shrugged, “So could I, come to think of it. Very well!” He backed away from the two of them, and moved to stand by Loghain and the others.
“Pup,” her father said, lowering his voice, “How many times do I have to tell you that you can’t just do whatever you want, whenever you please?”
“Sorry, Papa.” Tears brimmed in Liss’ eyes, even at her father’s gentle words. She hated disappointing him, and she seemed to do it so often.
“Nothing happened this time because King Maric is a kind man.” His voice became more stern. “But most people are not. Your reckless behavior and your tongue are going to get you into trouble.”
“I know, Papa.” She hung her head. “I’ll do better.”
He placed a large, rough hand on her cheek, and wiped away a tear before bending down to kiss the top of her head. “That’s my girl,” he whispered, pulling back to look at her directly in the eyes. “Why don’t you show Lady Anora to her room, and you and I will discuss your consequences later?”
Liss perked up at the opportunity to talk to the older girl, but tried her best to not show it. She wasn’t even sure she would want to speak with her after the events of the past few minutes. She’d made an utter fool of herself, and graceful Anora wouldn’t and shouldn’t want anything to do with her at all.
As it turned out, Lady Anora had no such reservations about following Liss to her room. In fact, she appeared to be relieved when Liss approached her. It must have been hard to stand with her back so straight all the while putting up with Cailan -- Not that Liss had any problems with the prince, of course. She had eagerly nodded and accompanied Liss out of the great hall and toward her room.
They walked in awkward silence for more time than Liss thought she could bear, or at least it felt awkward to her. Lady Anora smiled gently beside her, seemingly unbothered by the lack of conversation. The way she carried herself was so mature, it would have been easy to assume she was an adult. Liss would have thought so, had she not known the girl to be her brother’s age.
“I am sorry that Cailan got you into trouble,” Anora said finally, breaking the silence.
“It’s my fault, my lady.” Liss answered with a sigh, “I was told to stay out of trouble. I wasn’t supposed to be in there. I knew better..”
“There would have been no trouble if you had not been seen,” Anora smiled, blue eyes sparkling. “And there is no need to call me ‘my lady,’ unless you prefer such formalities. We have the same status, do we not?”
“For now,” Liss said with a shrug, “But I am not betrothed to the prince.”
Anora laughed with a sadness that Liss could not quite place. “Is my relationship with Cailan to be the only thing notable about me?”
Her words were little pinpricks, poking holes into Liss’ view of the world. She had never thought about what it might be like to be betrothed. All of her stories told her that it was the most important role a woman could play, to be the backbone to a powerful leader. She never thought about how it would feel to be forced to play that role. She had never imagined that Anora was anything but happy about it.
“I didn’t mean to -,” Liss began, but trailed off, not sure what to say. “I am sorry.”
“You didn’t know better,” Anora assured her, “No harm done.”
They continued on without a single word between them for some time, and Liss could have sworn the hallway that led to the guest wing had gotten ten times longer since the last time walked down it. She was both eager to speak to the older girl, but also afraid of shoving her foot into her mouth again. Finally, something came to mind.
“I like the way you wear your hair.”
Anora’s face brightened, and a smile not unlike her father’s twitched on her lips. “Thank you.”
“How did you learn to make it look like that,” Liss asked, pleased that her statement had not caused offense, “Do you do it yourself? Or does somebody help you?”
“My mother taught me,” Anora explained, “But my father actually helped me with this one.”
“What?” Liss halted briefly, stunned, and then continued to move forward again “Really? Your father? Teyrn Loghain?” She mentally scolded herself for babbling.
“Mhmm. According to Father, it is an old Alamarri tradition for warriors to braid their hair before going into battle. He says that it’s still common among the Chasind and Avvar, but that it has fallen out of practice among Fereldans.”
“How did your father learn about it?” Liss was enthralled by the new information. It wasn’t something she’d ever read about, or that Aldous had mentioned.
“My grandfather.” Anora smiled fondly. “I never met him. He died during the Rebellion, but Father says he was a good man who taught him everything he knows.”
“Yes,” Anora chuckled, “Even braiding.”
Liss slowed to a stop as they reached the door that led to Anora’s room. “This one is yours.” She motioned to the door with her hand.
“Thank you being my guide, Lady Elissa,” Anora said, bowing her head slightly.
“Liss. You can just call me Liss, er, I mean… If you want to.”
“Thank you, Liss.” She turned to enter the room, but paused when Liss called after her.
“Just so you know, you’re not important because you’re going to marry Cailan,” Liss said, matter-of-factly, as if her thoughts should be common knowledge, “You’re important because you’re going to be Queen.”
Anora blinked, appearing to search for an appropriate response.
“The Queen with the Warrior Hair,” Liss added playfully.
“I… thank you.”
Liss just nodded and offered her the brightest smile she could muster, before leaving her to her room. After all, she figured the longer she hung around, the more likely she was to say something else to upset the other girl. It was only inevitable.
The walk back to her own room felt much shorter without the impending sense of potentially saying something embarrassing. Even so, she dreaded the conversation with her father that awaited her once he finished up with the esteemed guests. She imagined what it might be like to be confined to her room for the remainder of the summer, her only interaction with the world being someone sliding trays of food through a slit in the door. Of course, her father wouldn’t do that to her. He’d just give her that sad, disappointed look that broke her heart into tiny pieces and make her work in the kitchens with Nan for three hours a day.
Guilt bubbled in her stomach. All her bad behavior ever earned her was chores. Nate never did anything bad, ever, but he seemed to always be punished for something. Liss didn’t know how Arl Howe punished his children, but she didn’t think Nate, Delilah, and Thomas would all be so afraid if it were just scrubbing pots. She would be thankful for whatever punishment Papa chose to dole out.
When she reached her room, she opened up the door to see Fergus lying on her bed, muddy boots dirtying her newly washed coverlet. He mocked her with his deceptively genial grin.
“What are you doing in here?” She tried as hard as she could to make her words sound sharp.
“ Oh, just catching up on some reading,” he said as he held up her journal, “Last time I saw this, it was just stories and drawings. Now there are secrets in here, too.”
“You read my journal?” Her blood turned to ice.
“Shall I tell Nathaniel that you think he’s the,” Fergus paused turning back a few pages, “Most beautiful person you’ve ever met.”
“You wouldn’t,” she stomped over to stand beside her bed, looming over him, “You promised me you wouldn’t tell anyone.”
“Yeah, but now you’ve written it down,” he laughed and shrugged, “So it’s official.”
“Stop it,” she ordered, frustrated and terrified tears filling her eyes as she reached for the journal, which Fergus held out of her reach with his stupid long arms. “Give it back Fergus.”
“When is the wedding, Lady Howe?”
“I hate you,” she shouted, throwing a punch that landed with a smack against her brother’s shoulder.
“Was that supposed to hurt,” he teased, tossing the journal aside and standing up so that he towered over her. He was so much taller than he used to be, but he didn’t scare Liss.
Taking a few steps back, she yelled and charged at Fergus, throwing herself against him hard enough that he lost his balance and tumbled to the ground, pulling her along with him. She moved to sit atop him, swinging her fists wildly as she did so. She landed a few blows to his chest and shoulders, but he didn’t even seem to feel them, and he blocked the rest with his large hands.
Just as she was about to hit Fergus again, the door to her room swung open abruptly, slamming against the wall.
“Liss! Are you oka--” It was Nate, and he stopped, frozen as his eyes moved skeptically from Liss to her brother.
Fergus smiled deviously, and Liss warned -- no, pleaded -- him with her eyes to not do the thing she knew he was thinking of doing.
“Oh hey, Nate,” Fergus said nonchalantly, as if he weren’t being assaulted, “Mind giving me a hand with my sister? All I said was that I thought Lady Anora liked me better than her, and she just went mad!” He darted his eyes back to Liss and winked.
Relief washed over her, and she played along. “She’d never like someone as ugly and stupid as you,” she shouted, smacking at him with open hands this time. “She’d be disgusted because you put your muddy boots on the bed!” It wasn’t entirely untrue, and she managed to swipe him across the cheek.
“At least she doesn’t think of me as annoying, sticky little kid,” Fergus said tersely, pressing a hand against her shoulder to hold her as far away from him as he could.
“The only person annoying and sticky here is you , you big… mean... arse!”
Fergus feigned a gasp. “Elissa, you said a swear! What would father think?”
“He’d agree with me.” She pulled her fist back to strike him again, but she was stopped by a hand grappling at her wrist. She looked to see Nathaniel holding her back, keeping her from potentially breaking Fergus’ nose. Maker knew she was still mad enough.
“Let go, Nate,” she warned, furrowing her brows at him, feeling more than a little betrayed despite the fact that they were supposed to be having a pretend fight. “He deserves it!”
“I know that’s probably true. I want to hit Fergus a lot, too,” Nate said calmly, “But I don’t think it’s a good idea to break your brother’s nose on the same night you insulted King Maric.” He raised his eyebrows.
“But I -” She deflated, and moved to stand up, allowing Nathaniel to help her to her feet. “That’s not what happened.”
“You did what now?” Fergus, still lying on his back, began to laugh so hard that he couldn’t catch his breath.
“My father seems to think that’s exactly what happened.” He smiled, but it was sad. “He said that if he were the king, he would have ordered you flogged.”
Fergus sat up. “Liss, what did you say?”
“He asked me if he was worth me being so excited that I snuck into the Great Hall when Papa told me not to,” Liss explained, “I said no.”
“Maker, sis. You can’t just talk to the king like that.”
“He thought it was funny, and said he liked me,” she said proudly, “He told Papa I remind him of mother.”
Fergus rolled his eyes. “Of course you’d luck out like that. If you’d said that to anyone else, you’d be dead.” He rose to his feet, shaking his head. “You need to be more careful.”
“I know.” Liss hung her head, ashamed, once again. Fergus reached forward and tousled her hair gently, and then looked over to Nathaniel.
“Thanks for saving my nose, Nate.” Fergus tousled his hair, too, before walking out of the room, winking at Liss one last time before he closed the door. She scowled at him.
There was a long, heavy silence that Liss had never before experienced with Nate in the years she had known him. Of course, she wasn’t really surprised. Due to Arl Howe’s vulture-like circling around the castle for the past two weeks, they hadn’t exactly gotten to talk.
Nate’s eyes darted around the room uncomfortably before they settled back on her. “Delilah said you saved her from getting caught.”
Liss nodded. “It was my fault she was there anyway.”
“I figured,” he said bluntly, but it was accompanied with a fond smile so she decided to not let it hurt her feelings. “Still, thank you. I don’t know what Father would have done.”
There was another pause in the conversation, so tense Liss could barely stand it. She opened her mouth to say something, but thought better of it.
“I should… probably go,” Nate sighed, pointing to the door.
Liss’ heart sank at his words. She knew he was right, that if his father found him in her room he’d probably never get to come back to Highever. Nathaniel was always right. That didn’t mean she had to like it. She rushed forward and wrapped her arms around him from behind, pressing her face into his back.
He tensed noticeably at her touch. “Liss. I can’t stay… if Father --”
“I know,” she interrupted, voice muffled against his shirt, “I just missed you.” Liss released him, and he turned to look at her briefly and sadly, before walking out of the room without saying a word.
There was no punishment her father could give her that would feel worse than that.
Shout out to Celeritassagittae for the idea about braids being a warrior tradition. It's a beautiful headcanon that I have now adopted forever.
Also, I know, I know, two chapters in less than a week. I'm sorry, I have a fire in me and I have to write while it's burning.
Chapter 13: Slings and Arrows
Nobody expected an attempted assassination of the Warden-Commander. They probably should have, but they didn't.
There is some canon-typical violence in this chapter, so please take care of yourselves while reading. ^.^
Vigil’s Keep, 9:31 Dragon
When Nathaniel was a boy, his father told him about the Blackmarsh and how it had once been a town that simply vanished in the years before the Rebellion. At the time, most people suspected dark magic, and thus, a legend was born. He always dreamed of returning to the marsh someday and setting things right. Though, he’d never expected the legends about the place to be mostly true. Had someone told him he’d visit the Blackmarsh as a Grey Warden, become trapped in the Fade, and assist a spirit of Justice in a battle against darkspawn and demons to heal the wounds of the past, he would have laughed at them. Yet, that was exactly what happened. He wasn’t sure if it was the excitement he enjoyed, or the distraction.
Nathaniel had lost so much in such a short amount of time, staying busy was all he could do to keep himself from falling apart. His fragile armor of anger and bitterness had cracked beneath the weight of the news his sister broke to him, and it was now desperately close to shattering. He couldn’t let that happen. If the wave of grief that loomed over him crashed through his defenses he would drown.
And that damned portrait of his mother was staring at him. He could almost hear her gentle voice scolding him for bottling up his feelings like he always did as a child. Before she died, his mother had been a source of reprieve from his father’s criticism and constant scrutiny. Father hadn’t seemed so bad when she was alive. Funny, considering all of the things that could have been taken or destroyed that a portrait of his long dead mother would still be at Vigil’s Keep. It was even funnier that it was hanging on the wall at all. His father despised the thing.
“Your mother, I take it,” a voice said, startling him from his internal chafing. He turned to see Lucia standing a few feet behind him, shoulders back, and without an ounce of self-consciousness. “She’s beautiful.”
“Good guess. That’s her.” He laughed dryly and turned his attention back to the painting. “My father hated my mother. Once she died, he only brought this painting out to impress her parents — my grandparents— when they visited. It wasn’t often. I don’t think they ever approved of the marriage.”
“If that’s the case, then I wonder why it’s on the wall,” Lucia observed, stepping forward so that she stood by his side.
“I don’t know.” Nathaniel shrugged, “Perhaps the Wardens needed it to cover a hole or something.”
“I am happy to have it taken down if it makes you uncomfortable,” she replied seriously, the concern shimmering in her eyes.
“It’s fine.” The emotion resonated in his voice and he was certain the woman noticed. She noticed everything. “The painting may have some unpleasant memories attached to it, but I loved my mother. It is good to see her face again.”
Lucia nodded but didn’t say anything, seeming to understand his words more deeply than he would have expected. Then again, nothing about the woman had been what he expected. Not only had she given him a second chance, when he’d given no reason for her to believe he deserved one, but she had also done everything in her power to return the tattered remains of his family to him. He owed her a debt he could never repay, but he would certainly try.
“I… owe you an apology,” he said at last, breaking the easy silence between them.
“That’s not necessary, Nathaniel,” she answered, smiling gently, “It’s alright.”
“It is necessary, Lucia... and it’s not alright,” he protested, turning to face her. “ When I returned from the Free Marches, I was so angry about what had happened to my family that I believed the rumors that my father was murdered by the Wardens for being on the wrong side of the war. My sister informed me that Father did it to himself — no conspiracies, just one man who cared for nothing but power and wealth. I should have known better.”
“You had no way of knowing that what you heard wasn’t true.”
“Didn’t I? He was my father after all. I knew him better than most, and still I let myself be motivated by lies. I should have dug deeper before I acted. I was an idiot, and like a child I blamed you and the Wardens. I was wrong… about everything.”
“Nathaniel, nobody can blame you for making impulsive decisions in response to grief.” She frowned and shook her head. “Everyone behaves irrationally when they’re hurting.”
“Stop making excuses for me,” he snapped, annoyed at her apparent need to not be apologized to. “I could have killed you.”
“Fine,” she said, her words clipped, but an amused expression crossed her face, “I’ll endeavor to be less reasonable.”
Nathaniel sighed. “I appreciate that you are able to be understanding, but I was horrible to you. And here you have proven to be a good person… and even a friend, above that” He brought his eyes to meet hers. “Or am I wrong about that, too?”
“You think of me as a friend?” Lucia laughed in what appeared to be disbelief. “I killed your father; conscripted you into an order you despised against your will, and dragged you on countless life-threatening missions. I’d think you would want to pick better friends.”
“You did those things as Warden-Commander,” he said, placing a hand on her shoulder, “Outside of your duties, you have returned some of my family’s important heirlooms to me, reunited me with my sister, and given me a second chance I never deserved. You’ve gone out of your way for me countless times. I know, without question, that I can count on you. That’s not something I can say about most people.”
“You hold me in such high regard.” She frowned and looked down at the floor, kicking at the stone with the toe of her boot, a nervous fidget of hers she’d done many times in the months he’d known her. “I’m bound to disappoint you.”
“And I you,” he reassured her, “Friends disappoint one another from time to time. That’s part of it.”
She nodded and placed her hand atop his that still lay on her shoulder, and as she did so Nathaniel noticed movement in the shadows behind her on the opposite side of the hall. Firelight reflected from the buckles of leather armor, the tip of an arrow catching his eye. Lucia said something, but he didn’t hear, heart throbbing in his ears telling him to act, and fast.
“Get down,” he shouted as he grabbed her other shoulder and pulled her to the ground. The arrow that had been trained on her struck the wall behind them instead.
“What was that,” Lucia asked, breath quick and shallow as she moved to sit up.
“Don’t move,” Nathaniel hissed raising up to push her back down again, his years of training screaming at him not to. He needed to stay down and hope that she could dodge on her own. The odds for both of them were best that way. He knew exactly what would happen the moment he moved to protect her, and he didn’t care. It didn’t matter. The white hot pain that seared through his chest moments later came as no surprise.
“Nathaniel,” Lucia cried out as he fell, the force of the shot knocking him back against her, and every hair on his body stood on end as she summoned some sort of magic shroud that surrounded the both of them. “Why would you do that?”
“If I had known you’d be so ungrateful, I wouldn’t have bothered,” he rasped and smirked at her. He could taste blood in his mouth, and it was becoming increasingly more difficult to breathe. The injury was more serious than he would have preferred.
“Of course, I’m grateful but…” She trailed off, her eyes moving to the same arrow protruding from his chest that he desperately tried to ignore. He’d never been so aware of his own mortality. “That arrow was meant for me. I should be dead.”
“Then, we’re even,” he said in more of a gargled whisper than anything resembling his voice. His vision blurred and began to fade to black.
“No, no, no! Stay with me,” Lucia commanded desperately, words echoing in his ears as his consciousness began to slip away, “Nathaniel! Nate!!”
Nathaniel awoke with a jolt, heart pounding in a chest that -- to his relief -- did not ache or have any projectile weapons lodged in it. Either Anders had worked wonders, which he doubted, or it was just another dream in which the Taint tried to kill him. It seemed that his days of dreaming that he was back at the castle in Highever, Liss’ arms around his neck squeezing him tightly as she always did, were over. He never understood how she managed to make her hair smell like lavender flowers. Perfumed soaps, he supposed. Perhaps her hair had just smelled like hair all along, and his memory decided to be dramatic about it. In any event, he hadn’t dreamed of her since he’d taken the Joining. He figured it was for the best.
He yawned, stretched, and sat up, pulling away the heavy sheets that covered him and sliding out of bed. The stone floor was cold against his bare feet as he made his way to his dresser across the room, path illuminated by a lone sconce he didn’t remember lighting, but was thankful for nonetheless. There were no windows in his room, and as he slipped into a shirt and trousers, and laced up his boots, Nathaniel wondered what time it was. Judging from the sounds, or lack thereof, in the halls of the Vigil, he figured it was late, and that he would be the only person awake for sometime.
If his nightmare had done anything but scare the piss out of him, it told him that he needed to talk to the Commander, to Lucia, to apologize and to thank her. He’d probably also be hypervigilant about the potential threat of assassins for the next few weeks. It couldn’t hurt, especially considering that Bann Esmerelle was openly scheming against the Wardens of Amaranthine and their leader. It would be nothing for her to hire some Crows to do her dirty work. Nathaniel would not let harm come to Lucia, and he would not be caught off guard.
The Great Hall was mostly empty, except for the usual contingent of guards that stood like statues at their posts as they did every night. Nathaniel walked up and down the spacious room, scanning every nook and cast shadow for any signs of traps that had been laid or hiding spots. He found nothing, and one of the guards eyed him judgmentally. He had a shield that bore the Howe family crest.
“You’ll have to forgive me for not trusting you lot to check for traps,” he stated dryly, “Or just in general for that matter.”
In a typical Fereldan fashion, the guard grunted, rather than say actual words that might have offered reassurance that he was not among the men that remained loyal to Nathaniel’s father, and that his insistence on carrying that wretched bear was from loyalty to the family instead. None of it settled well with Nathaniel, especially not since… He shook his head. It didn’t matter.
Just as he had assured himself that the hall was reasonably safe, the large doors at the front of the room swung open, and there was clanking of armor as the guards in the room all collectively turned to face the hooded figure that entered, small and unimposing against the backdrop.
“Nate?” The voice was so familiar his breath hitched in his throat. He knew who it was before she even dropped the hood.
“Liss?” He could hardly believe it. She was dead, or at least she was supposed to be, and yet here she was standing not fifty feet away. He was frozen, unable to process what was happening, and unable to make his feet move.
Liss, as she was wont to do, rushed to greet him, her swift walk becoming a sprint, and as she did so, the guards in the room stirred more.
One gasped and shouted, “It’s that Cousland bitch ! Get her!”
The others roared with various utterances of, “You were foolish to come here,” and, “She won’t get away this time,” among some other vile things that made Nathaniel’s blood boil.
“No,” he shouted desperately, breaking out of his stupor to run toward her, but he wasn’t fast enough. Arrows soared from various directions across the room. “Liss, look out.” His voice cracked as he met her in the center of the room, throwing his arms around her protectively. She smiled up at him, and then there was a thud, her big brown eyes widening in pain and horror, a grunt escaping her throat as she fell forward collapsing into his arms.
His heart shattered, and he looked around the room, dismayed at the guards who clapped and cheered as if they’d just shot some prize-winning game. The guard he’d spoken to before looked at him and grinned, pointing to his shield. “Don’t look so sad, boy. Far as I’m concerned, I did you a favor. Real Howe men don’t get distracted by pretty faces.” He sounded just like Father and Nathaniel thought he was going to be sick. The guard returned to his post, as did the others, none seeming interested in harming Nathaniel. As much as he wanted to gut the rotten bastards, they’d have to wait.
Liss coughed and sputtered against his chest, and he lowered them both down to the floor, where he sat cradling her.
“Nate,” she said, voice hoarse as she reached up to touch his cheek, her fingertips already cold. She was losing blood. Too much of it. Too fast.
“I’m so sorry Liss.” He shook his head. “I should have… I couldn’t… this is all my fault.”
Liss shook her head and frowned, moving her finger over to cover his lips in a shushing motion, before her arm fell limp, a final breath escaping her.
“No,damn it,stay with me,” he pleaded, embracing her more tightly, pressing his lips to her hair. “Please.”
A sudden, sharp pain surged through Nathaniel’s own chest, and he looked down to see blood seeping through his shirt, but there was no wound. He hadn’t been struck. He looked around and the guards had vanished. Then Liss had vanished. And then he woke up.
Nathaniel blinked his eyes open slowly, groaning against the heavy throbbing pain in his chest that was not entirely physical. Blinking away the tears in his eyes, he rose up on his elbows, wincing at the sharp, stabbing sensations that coursed through him with each movement. Across the room, Velanna sat in a chair, focused intently on the potion she was mixing, eyebrows furrowed as she bit her lip.
“So,” he said with a grunt, “That’s what it’s like to be shot. It was… not pleasant.” His thoughts were fuzzy in a way that was not unlike being intoxicated. The effect of one of the elf’s potions, no doubt. Still, if it was helping to cut the pain at all, he was grateful.
“You should not move so much.” Velanna stood up abruptly and rushed to his side, her voice giving away some measure of concern that she did not show on her face. “You’ll reopen the wound.”
“Too late,” he said with a laugh as he looked down at the blood seeping through the bandage. “Sorry.”
“Fenedhis,” Velanna said under her breath as she reached forward and began to remove the bandages that covered most of his torso and back. Nathaniel didn’t know what the word meant, but he knew it was a curse.
“You should ask before you touch someone, my lady,” he teased, for no other reason than to watch her get flustered. At any other time he probably would have thought twice before upsetting the person treating his wounds, but he couldn’t seem to care. Another effect of the potion, no doubt. At least that’s what he hoped. It’d be a shame if he’d knocked his head and somehow lost his sense of restraint permanently.
Velanna huffed. “I’ve already touched you hundreds of times while you were unconscious.”
“Oh?” He raised his eyebrows.
“To tend your wounds, you stupid man!” She threw her hands up in frustration before crossing them over her chest. “But if you object, I will kindly let them fester.”
“I don’t,” he said more softly, not wanting to embarrass her further. “Object, that is. Thank you for taking care of me, Velanna. I am surprised Anders isn’t here instead.”
“I may not be a healer, but I am perfectly capable of --,” she began to rant, but stopped when Nathaniel laughed at her. “What?”
“You find a way to make everything an insult, don’t you?”
“I thought you meant that you would prefer Anders.” She frowned, shifting her gaze to the ground.
“I meant that Anders is the healer among us, and that it’s odd he’s not doing this instead. That’s all.”
“Ir abelas,” Velanna sighed and shook her head, “I tend to jump to conclusions, let my temper get the best of me.”
“I hadn’t noticed.” Nathaniel offered her a smile, which she returned and refocused her attention to his bandages.
“After Bann Esmerelle and her assassins were dealt with, there was some urgent business in the Knotwood Hills,” she explained as she worked, “Apparently some hunters found some openings to the Deep Roads there. Anders needed to accompany the Commander and the others to investigate. I offered to stay with you.”
“It would be unwise to enter the Deep Roads without a healer,” he said with a nod, “Did you say Bann Esmerelle? Is that who I should thank for the hole in my chest.”
“Yes, and her hired birds.”
“You mean her hired Crows? ”
“Yes, though I would think a guild of assassins who call themselves “Crows,” would be more intelligent. The Commander was… very upset that you were injured on her behalf. She blames herself.”
“She should,” Nathaniel blurted, playfully, “ The bloody woman doesn’t know how to stay down when there are arrows flying from every direction.”
Velanna laughed as she pulled the last portion of bandage free from his chest. “I see that the potion I gave you for pain has loosened your lips.”
“A little.” He watched as she moved in closer to examine the wound, touching the swollen area around it.
“You are lucky,” she asserted, “It looks like the stitches are still intact. The main wound is just seeping a bit.” She moved to retrieve a damp cloth from a basin of water that sat near his desk, and then returned, using the cloth to wipe away the blood that trickled down his chest.
“Have I ever told you that you remind me of a woman I knew in the Free Marches,” Nathaniel asked, an abrupt change in subject.
“No, “Velanna answered, returning the cloth to the water basin and retrieving a small poultice vial and a roll of gauze.
“Well, you do,” he said, hissing as she applied the poultice that burned like fire. “She was an elf, too. Beautiful. Fierce. She nearly killed me. I never stood a chance.”
Velanna stopped her work, frozen, bringing her eyes up to meet his.
“What,” he asked, “Did I say something offensive?”
“You said that I remind you of a woman who was beautiful.” Her words were cautious and she returned her attention to dressing his wounds, as if to distract herself.
“Yes, and fierce,” he added nonchalantly.
“Are you implying that you think I am…,” she trailed off, seeming to be too embarrassed to finish the question.”
“You are beautiful and fierce.”
“You are only saying these things because of the potion,” she muttered, furiously wrapping him in gauze, “You are out of your head.”
“You’re probably right,” he admitted, “But I’ve thought them plenty of times before now.”
“Stop it,” she ordered, “You mock me.”
“I can’t have been the only person to ever call you beautiful.” He was in disbelief, searching her face for some sign that she was joking.
She finished up with the bandages and brought her eyes back up to meet his. “And what if you are?”
“Then you haven’t met enough people.” He offered her a smile, and she continued to hold his gaze for several long moments before looking away quickly.
“This woman in the Free Marches… she was your lover, then?”
“In a manner of speaking,” he answered with a smirk, “It didn’t last. I was still in love with someone else, and I couldn’t quite move on, no matter how hard I tried. I think that was difficult for her to accept. Not that she should have accepted it.”
“I see.” A heavy silence stretched between them, as Velanna appeared to search for words. “Do you still love that other person.”
“I suppose I do. Not that it matters anymore.” Nathaniel laughed bitterly, the events of his dreams rushing to his mind. “She’s dead.”
“I am… so sorry.” Velanna touched his arm in an expression of sympathy.
“Yeah," he sighed, bringing his hands to his face. " Me too.”
Chapter 14: Part of the Family
Puberty woes and expressions of familial bonds. Isn't that what it's like for everyone at fourteen?
Since this is a puberty chapter, there are some slightly more mature themes than I've had in previous chapters. Nothing explicit by any means, and nothing I thought would warrant a rating change. But in case any of my readers are sensitive to such things there are light mentions of physical changes and menstruation.
Highever, 9:19 Dragon
Nathaniel wasn’t going to survive the summer, at least not if his body had anything to say about it. Traitorous skin and bones, muscles and nerves, everything tense and aching in tandem at the slightest hint of stimulation. His senses did not seem to discriminate either: women, men, statues of anyone including Andraste, unusually shaped plants, and sometimes, on the days where the Maker really wanted to punish him, a slight breeze. Being at Highever, around Liss in particular, made everything worse.
More days than not, it felt like his skin was on inside out, sensitive to every small movement and touch. Sometimes her presence across the room was enough to knock the wind out of him. Other times, she didn’t even need to be physically present at all. Just the thought of her drove him crazy. It did not help the matter that she had changed since the last summer he had spent with her. She had grown taller, and the soft lines of her body had become curves -- not that he had looked. In fact, he tried desperately not to look at her.
It was something Liss made incredibly difficult. For as long as he had known her, she had always been outgoing and affectionate. She made herself seen and heard no matter where she was. At present, she was in the gardens, sun bouncing off her hair as she sat on the stone steps with Rila, talking and laughing, arms waving about erratically. The two must have made up since what happened the previous summer. She probably was still not supposed to be with servant girl. It would take more than her parents’ warnings to stop Liss from doing as she pleased.
Nathaniel was so engrossed in watching the girls talk that he barely noticed Fergus waving a hand in front of his face and speaking to him. “Hellooooooo? Are you even listening to me?” The other boy moved from waving to grabbing his shoulder and shaking him.
“I’m listening,” he lied as jerked away and directed his attention to Fergus again. After all, they’d been speaking before he’d gotten -- well -- distracted.
Fergus eyed him skeptically, eyebrows raised, grin spreading across his face. “Really? Because it looked like you were staring at my sister.”
“I heard every word you said.” Nathaniel ignored the obvious attempt to tease him. “You met the daughter of some wealthy Antivan merchant the last time you were in Denerim and spent a day together. Her name is Oriana, she is the most beautiful girl you’ve ever seen, and now you think you’re in love.”
“No, Nate,” he said cheerfully, patting Nathaniel on the back roughly, “I know I’m in love."
“How can you be in love with someone you just spent one day with?”
“It was a glorious day,” Fergus said, winking and wiggling his brows and Nathaniel rolled his eyes. A wistful expression crossed Fergus’ face as he continued, “Besides, we’ve been exchanging letters ever since.”
“You’re actually serious.” Nathaniel was genuinely surprised. The other boy had spoken to him about girls more times than he could count. Sometimes, he wondered if there was much else on Fergus’ mind beside which Bann’s daughter he could woo at the next festival -- something he was actually good at. He had an easy charisma that Nathaniel envied on most days. Talking to people, being likable in general, was not something that came naturally to him.
“Of course I am,” Fergus blurted, sounding more offended than he was, “ What do you take me for?”
“Not serious. About anything… Ever.” He offered Fergus a smirk. “Especially not about girls.”
“I’m a changed man,” Fergus said, lifting his chin and puffing out his chest.
“Right.” Nathaniel couldn’t help but laugh at him. Even at his most earnest, Fergus was hard to take seriously. “I feel sorry for Lady Oriana.”
“Between you and Liss, I swear,” Fergus said, shoving him playfully, “Brats the both of you.”
Several silent moments lapsed between the two boys. Nathaniel could tell Fergus had something he wanted to say, and was thinking over just how to say it. It was not typical for him, so it had to be serious, or at least something he perceived to be.
“I know I give you a hard way to go.” He laughed, though a serious expression followed, “But I’m glad to know you, Nate. I know things are bad for you at home sometimes — not that it’s any of my business — but you’re as good as a brother to me, and I’ll always have your back.”
“I…” Embarrassed, Nathaniel turned his gaze downward to look at the stone beneath his feet. “Where did that come from?”
“I don’t know.” Fergus shrugged. “Just thought you might need to hear it.”
Nathaniel didn’t know what to say, though he searched and searched from something equally sentimental. He settled for a simple, “Thank you. Same to you.”
It was almost too polite, and he knew it, but Fergus appeared to be satisfied with his response, slapping him on the back again before announcing that he’d be going to the kennels again, to check the latest litter. It had been years, and he had still not managed to have one of the hounds imprint on him. Odd, considering his demeanor made him an ideal match for a mabari. And yet it didn’t dampen Fergus’ spirit. Nothing seemed to.
Returning his attention to the garden, Nathaniel noticed that the girls were gone. He hadn’t realized how much time had passed in his conversation with the other boy, but figured that Rila had to return to her chores, leaving Liss to attend lessons or combat training. Unless, of course, she’s gotten in trouble, then, there was no telling where she may be hiding.
He set out to look for her. As uncomfortable as it was to feel the way he felt about her, that didn’t change the fact that she was his friend and he enjoyed her company. He would suffer physical agony if he had to, but he wouldn’t waste his summer avoiding her -- especially since he’d hardly spent time with her at all the year prior. Father made sure of it.
He searched for her in all the usual places, but Liss was nowhere to be found. Neither Aldous nor any of the trainers had seen her. The former made some remark about the “insufferable girl,” and Nathaniel bit his tongue, thanked him and headed back out down the hall. There was no point in debating with the stubborn old man. The only reason he didn’t like Liss was because she was smarter than him and he knew it.
Resigning himself to the fact that she would turn up eventually, Nathaniel headed toward his room to grab his archery gear. Over the past few years he’d built up a small collection of archers’ gloves and thumb rings, as well as tools for making arrows in the field. Not that he’d ever actually been in the field with a shortage of arrows. He still thought it would be a good skill to have. Just like picking locks, although he kept the fact that he had taught himself to do that a secret. He didn’t know what would happen to him if he were accused of stealing something, and he didn’t care to.
Pushing open the door, he was immediately met with a shrill, but muffled shout. “Go away! Leave me alone!”
The sound had come the girl lying face-down on his bed, face buried in the pillow beneath a mass of blonde curls. Entering the room and closing the door behind him, Nathaniel stood some distance away, perplexed by the whole situation.
“Liss,” he asked hesitantly, not wanting to upset her further.
“What don’t you understand about ‘Go away’?” Her question was pointed, sinking into him as well as any knife could have. He tried not to let it get to him, though. She was mad at something, but it couldn’t be him. He hadn’t even talked to her yet… unless that was the problem.
“I understand it just fine, but—.”
“But what? ” Another knife, right to the chest.
“This is my room,” he said as calmly and patiently as he could, despite his hurt feelings.
Liss’ head shot up and she scowled as she eyed the room critically, taking in each piece of furniture as if it wasn’t immediately obvious that this wasn’t her room. There were not nearly enough books, flowers, or candles.
“Oh,” she said, letting her head fall back down to the pillow muffling her voice once more, “Sorry.” She lay motionless, clearly with no intention of leaving.
“Is...everything all right?” Feeling as if he could move more freely, he began to mill about, gathering his things.
Liss didn’t answer with words, but rather growled an emphatic “ugh,” picking up another pillow and placing it over her head. It reminded him of how Delilah had been behaving the past few months. Adria had explained it to him, how girls’ bodies change when they start to become women. It all sounded frightening and unpleasant, and it made him grateful for all of the strange things his body did. Annoying as they were, it was not that.
“Your instructors are looking for you.”
“Well, they can keep looking. I’m not going,” she huffed, but immediately softened, turning her head to the side so her big brown eyes met his. They were glistening with tears. “I don’t feel like it.”
“Delilah has days like this too,” he said, continuing to busy himself with his things even though he already had what he needed. He didn’t want to annoy her with unnecessary eye contact. “We’ve never really talked about it, but she does.”
“Oh?” She seemed to perk up and rolled so that she was on her side completely. She picked at a loose thread on his coverlet. “Does she skip lessons? Probably not. Delilah’s perfect.”
Nathaniel laughed; his sister was far from perfect. “Sometimes she does,” he answered instead of speaking badly about her, “She stays in her room and likes to drink tea and take hot baths. I guess it helps.” He shrugged.
“Mama says it means I’m a woman now,” she sighed, “I’d rather not be a woman, I think.” Laughing, she sat up and slid off of his bed, facing him and wringing her hands nervously in front of her. “Sorry I came into your bedroom without asking. I’m so used to using it to hide when you’re not here.”
“It’s okay. I’m not mad about it or anything.” He nodded and picked up his bow and quiver, which he hung over his shoulder. “I was just worried something was wrong.”
“Oh no,” Liss blurted, and he jumped slightly. She was twisted around looking at her skirt.
“What’s wrong?” He dropped his things and rushed over to her.
“Nothing,” she said, throwing her hands behind her and backing up against the wall. She laughed, but he could tell she was upset.
He was torn between wanting to make sure she was okay and not wanting her to bite his head off, but he thought it worth the risk to ask, “You sure?”
Her eyes darted from side to side and settled on looking at the ground before her. She sighed heavily, stiffened, and looked back up at him with a threatening expression. “Promise you won’t tell.”
Liss turned slightly and tugged at her skirt, revealing a small, yet noticeable stain that looked like blood. At first he panicked, internally, about why she might be bleeding, but then realized what it was and settled down.
“Oh,” he said, blinking, unsure how else to respond.
“Just ‘oh’? You’re not going to laugh, or tell me it’s gross?”
“It’s not funny,” he assured her, stepping closer and smiling, “Or gross. Actually, it looks to me like you just sat in something.”
“Nate,” she hummed affectionately and returned his smile, though she still looked upset. “I think it’s pretty obvious what it is. Ugh! And I have to walk all the way to my room like this.” More tears though he could see her visibly fighting them. “Sorry, I just… keep crying. ”
Nathaniel stood awkwardly, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, not really sure on the appropriate way to respond. The entire situation was far outside his comfort zone, but he didn’t want to embarrass Liss by telling her so. She trusted him and he wanted to help.
“I have an idea,” he announced, closing the distance between them and examining the waist of her skirt more carefully. “Can you, I don’t know, twist it around a bit?”
Her face brightened as she seemed to understand what he meant and pulled at the waist of her skirt until the stain was at her side instead of behind her. She examined the spot and frowned. “It’s still very obvious, don’t you think?”
He grinned and offered his arm to her, playfully. “Not if I walk by your side, my lady.”
The ensuing giggle that escaped her was the most beautiful thing he’d ever heard. He wasn’t sure he’d ever made her laugh like that, at least not directly. She hooked her arm through his eagerly, and his chest swelled, but he did his best to stay calm.
After all, this was no different than any other time they’d touched or hugged or walked arm-in-arm. When they reached her room, the kiss she placed on his cheek to thank him was no different than any other time she had kissed his cheek. Only it was different. Completely. Now, he noticed how her arm felt in his, the way her hair smelled, and how soft her lips were. It was misery and it wasn’t at the same time.
Returning to his room, he grabbed his things as he intended before and headed to the archery range. He welcomed the distraction even more than he had before. If he couldn’t get past his feelings for Liss, he’d just ignore them, bury them in the hay target he filled with newly made arrows. That should do the trick. It had worked for other feelings he wanted to not have well enough.
“Nathaniel,” a gentle voice called from the steps leading down to where he stood. He turned to see the teyrna waving at him, the smile on her face as gentle as her voice. “Can I speak with you for a moment?”
He nodded, knots twisting in his stomach at the thought of what could make Lady Eleanor seek him out. He hoped he wasn’t in trouble.
“Come! Walk with me,” she said, motioning with her arm, and he obeyed, following her up the steps towards the battlements. The last time he’d walked the battlements had been when he’d received the news of his mother’s death. He hoped this time would be more pleasant. “I just spoke with Elissa. She told me what you did for her.”
“What I did?” He thought for a moment. “Oh, that. ”
A grin spread across the teyrna’s face that made him nervous. It was too wise, too knowing. It made him feel as if all his secrets were bared before her.
“I can’t say I would have expected a boy your age to act with that amount of grace and sensitivity.” She chuckled. “Fergus is older than you, and I know he certainly wouldn’t have. I just wanted to say thank you.”
“You’re welcome, my lady,” he answered, bowing his head to show respect.
The teyrna offered him another smile, this time with a sadness to it. He got that smile from adults many times. It usually preceded an apology about his mother or followed discussion of something less-than-noble his father had done. He hated that kind of smile.
“Your father is a respectable man, and a loyal ally to our family,” she began, looking out over the battlements, “But, for as long as I’ve known him, he’s been cold, harsh, and temperamental. When Bryce told me off his wish to take you in for the summer, I quite expected you to be the same. You look so much like him.”
It wasn’t the first time Nathaniel heard that, but it still stung. He wished he looked more like his siblings, with their soft features and pretty noses.
“But you’re nothing like your father,” she continued, “It seems like no matter what life throws at you, you remain thoughtful, gentle. You have your mother’s heart. I know she would be so proud of you.”
“I…” His throat burned as he choked back the tears he refused to let fall. “Thank you.”
Lady Eleanor stopped, turned, and placed a delicate hand on his shoulder. “You care for my daughter a great deal, don’t you?”
Nathaniel’s face grew hot as he steeled himself, trying as best he could to conceal the embarrassment. “She is my friend, my lady, my best friend.”
“I am glad she has you,” she said with another knowing smile. He wished she would stop. “I’m glad we all do. You’re a fine young man, and as far as I am concerned, you’re part of the family.”
Unable to conjure up words to appropriately express his gratitude, and with some amount of concern that he might cry in front of the dignified woman, he nodded and bowed his head again in response.
“That’s all I wanted to say,” the teyrna said, patting him gently on the shoulder, “I’ll let you get back to your archery. Who knows, maybe someday, you’ll be as good a marksman as me.” She raised her eyebrows playfully and disappeared down the steps.
Nathaniel lingered atop the battlements for a few moments longer, appreciating the cool breeze, and processing all that had just happened. Just as Fergus’ words earlier that day, the things Lady Eleanor said to him meant more to him than he could put into words. For years, he had envied the Cousland family for their wholeness, when his own family was tattered and torn to pieces. Yet, somehow, without even knowing it he had become part of it, something for which he would be forever grateful. Inhaling deeply, he headed down the steps and back to his target, an immovable smile on his face.
Chapter 15: Without Even Trying
Liss makes a decision about her feelings, and then another contrary decision. Feelings are confusing, you see.
Quick update! O.o
For those of you all who have read a particular previous fic of mine, some of this will sound very similar, and that’s because it is! That story was the inspiration for this story and the timelines overlap briefly. :)
Denerim, 9:31 Dragon
The flames from the forge burned hot, the warm glow illuminating the smithy as Liss sat lazily behind the counter and watched Bria work. The Antivan woman had worked up a sweat as she honed her most current set of blades, a pair of silverite daggers that glittered orange with the flames. It was an exceptionally cold day outside, even for winter in Ferelden, and Liss was thankful for the warmth. She was also thankful for the company.
Nearly four months had passed since she agreed to join Anora’s council, and while the restoration of order to the country was far from over, meetings had become fewer and further between. Many major decisions had been made, and everyone held their breath waiting, hoping that tensions died down among the nobility so that they could focus on a common goal: restoring the areas most affected by the Blight. Of course, the nobility wouldn’t be settled for long. Amaranthine was still a point of contention, but there had also been little word out of the arling in weeks, something that was particularly rattling for Alistair. He’d heard reports of some lone bands of darkspawn lurking on the roads outside the city, and took off alone to fight them. It was a stupid thing to do, but he said he could handle it and refused to let her accompany him.
Liss inhaled deeply and sighed, laying her head down on the counter, and earning her a chuckle from the other woman just before she dropped the blades in water to harden them. Steam burst up from the tub and hissed loudly before settling down.
“Why are you laughing,” she asked, raising her head and donning the best scowl she could, “I don’t like it when you laugh at me. It usually means you’re about to tell me some obvious truth about myself that I was too stupid to notice. It makes me feel inferior.”
Another chuckle and Bria shook her head, continuing to work. “You come to me and say ‘Bri, I am bored,’ because you want company. Yet you sit and mope about the whole time. I do not think you are bored, Liss. I think you miss Alistair.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Liss scoffed, “It’s not like that.”
“I did not say it was.” A mischievous grin flashed across her face before it was replaced by feigned innocence.
“He’s only been gone for a little over a day,” Liss explained, “Sure, I’m mildly concerned for his safety, considering that he insisted on going to fight those darkspawn alone. I know he’s strong and skilled, but he’s also clumsy. What if he were to, I don’t know, get caught in a trap or something? I don’t miss him. I’m just worried.”
“Are you trying to convince me, or yourself?”
“You picked the wrong profession,” Liss said playfully, “You’d be an excellent spy or diplomat.”
“In my country, spies and diplomats do not have long lives. I like to think I chose wisely.” Bria walked away from the forge, dabbing at her face with a towel as she sat down beside Liss. “Besides, I am good at what I do.”
“You know, Alistair speaks of you often.” She offered Liss a brief smile, genuine this time. “I do not think your care for him is one-sided. You two might-.”
“Don’t, Bri,” Liss interrupted, shaking her head, “He is still in love with someone else.”
“Someone who he has not heard from in months.”
“That doesn’t matter.” Liss didn’t mean to laugh so bitterly. She didn’t mean to let Bria pull all of this information from her at all. She’d intended to, for once in her damn life, not act on her first impulse. As much as she liked Alistair, and as easy as it would be to love him, she didn’t think it prudent to let infatuation and vulnerability make her decisions for her. She had a knack for loving people who didn’t or couldn’t feel the same about her, and she knew better than to give these thoughts any space to grow.
“Life is short,” Bria remarked almost dismissively, “In Antiva, when we love someone we tell them so.”
“I’m not Antivan, Bri,” Liss said seriously, “I’m Fereldan, and in Ferelden, we hold all of our powerful emotions inside and live in agony for the entirety of our long, fur-coated lives.”
“Have you not suffered enough already?”
Bria laughed, draped a friendly arm around her shoulders, and kissed her cheek. “Have it your way, muñeca.” She hopped up from the stool and returned to the forge.
Liss remained in the smithy with Bria for an hour longer, more so for the warmth than anything else. By the time she decided to leave, the air had chilled even further as afternoon turned to early evening, and she could see her own labored breath as she hurried to the castle. She entered the main hall and rushed immediately to a brazier that remained lit in the center of the room, standing beside it before she was sufficiently warm, and then turning to go to her room.
A loud creak erupted as the large, wooden door creaked open again, and she stopped, looking over her shoulder to see Alistair enter. Upon first glance, he looked no worse for wear except for some splatters of blood on his breastplate and dark circles under his eyes. A weight lifted from her chest at the sight of him, and she waved at him excitedly. He did not seem to notice, so she waved again and shouted, “Hey! You’re back! How fare the darkspawn?”
For a moment when he looked up to see who was speaking to him, she caught a glimpse of the hurt behind his eyes, which he was quick to tuck away behind a handsome, crooked smile.
“Oh, you know, same old, same old. They were very upset that you never write them anymore.” He laughed and raised his eyebrows. It was impressive how genuine the smile seemed. He was very adept at hiding behind that mask of his.
“Well, we didn’t exactly leave things on good terms, did we? What with the Blight and all.” She crossed her arms and shifted her weight from one hip to the other.
Alistair shrugged. “That’s what I tried to tell them, but they weren’t having it, so...I had to kill them.”
“Seriously, though, did it go smoothly?” Are you all right?” She scanned his body for any signs of physical injury, frustrated with herself for being so obvious in her concern, something that had never bothered her before. This was Bria’s fault.
“Pfft, a few darkspawn hurt me?” He tilted his head upward and crossed his arms in feigned offense. “Never.”
As he moved, she noticed a large gash across his arm that looked as if a blade had slashed right through his bracer and nicked the flesh. There were some discolored, green spots around the wound that looked like poison. It would have burned, but may not have been obviously painful, especially in the heat of battle. Still, she was surprised he didn’t notice it at all.
Smirking, she tugged at his wrist, ignoring his grimace and tiny pained yelp as she pulled it up so he could see it. “Oh really? Then what’s this?”
He laughed, and attempted to brush it off as a scratch, but she knew better and so did he. Depending on the poison, and especially considering the filthy darkspawn blade that inflicted the wound, the risk of rot or infection was substantially higher than with a standard cut. She convinced him to go to the nurse, and he only protested briefly, most of it just a playful attempt to irritate her.
Liss watched and did her best to stifle her laughter as Alistair cringed and hissed off a string of curses that seemed to offend the very obviously devout, Andrastian nurse who treated his arm, causing her to work more roughly. She cut and peeled away pieces of his shirt that clung to his skin, and although Liss knew it must hurt, she could not help but be amused at his choice of profanity. She lay a hand casually on his shoulder in an effort to comfort him, though she doubted it would do much good.
“Liss, you’re from Highever, right,” he asked when the nurse stepped away to work at a table, crushing and mixing the ingredients of some sort of antidote.
“What gave it away: The last name, the fact that my brother is a Teyrn, or the fact that I’ve mentioned only about a hundred times since we’ve known one another?”
“You know what I mean.” He grunted as the nurse returned and spread the dark green mixture on and around his open wound. Liss cringed in sympathy, and had to keep herself from telling the nurse to be more gentle. It’d probably only make it worse for him.
“Yes,” she answered him, proudly, “I happen to be intimately familiar with Highever. What of it?”
“I’ve been meaning to go there for a while now,” Alistair explained, visibly relieved when the nurse began to bandage the wound, “My friend, Duncan, was from Highever. He died in the battle at Ostagar, and I wanted to visit so that I could, I don’t know, honor him.”
“I remember Duncan,” Liss said gently, squeezing his shoulder as she remembered the tall, soft spoken man she’d seen on occasion growing up. “He visited from time to time looking for recruits - sometimes from our guard, sometimes from our dungeons. He didn’t seem to discriminate and I always admired that about him. I was relentless with my poor father about wanting to join the Wardens, but he wouldn’t have it.”
“You’d make a great Warden.” He smiled and then looked down at the ground.
“Thank you for saying that. It always bothered me when Papa told me no, but I know he only meant to protect me. From what I’ve seen, being a Grey Warden is not quite as romantic as the tales.”
“Yes,” Alistair laughed, “There’s a disappointing lack of griffons.”
There was a long and heavy pause in the conversation, though it wasn’t uncomfortable. The only sound in the room the nurse’s cheerful humming as she tied the bandages, pulling them so tightly that Alistair flinched. She must have really disapproved of Alistair’s creative use of Andraste’s name.
“There you go young man,” she announced sharply, “That should do the trick, so long as you don’t move it around too much until the antidote dries.”
He nodded and stood, thanking her for her time, to which she replied with an unimpressed grunt before walking away to tend to a guard who entered with a broken arm. Liss could not bring herself to trust the nurse’s work, considering how roughly she’d treated her injured friend, and she moved to examine the wrappings herself. She could find no fault with them, and released his arm, satisfied.
“You’ll also want to keep it clean,” she added, looking up at him seriously, “You wouldn’t want it to get infected.”
“I know how to tend a wound, thank you very much ,” he snapped, pulling his hand away from her. His words stung, and shame bubbled up in her chest for being such a nuisance.
“I just --,” she began, but just threw her hands up in frustration. “Nevermind.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, meeting her gaze and smiling at her softly, “I know you’re just worried about me… I appreciate it. Really.”
As they exited the infirmary, and walked down the hall, Liss remembered the conversation he’d started earlier. “I could go to Highever with you, if you want,” she offered, “I haven’t seen Fergus since I got here, and he seemed bothered in his last letter. It would be nice to see him, to make sure he’s holding up all right.”
“I...” Alistair began, but froze, clearly torn. “Thats, well…Hmm.”
“What is it?” She touched his shoulders gently. She knew it was too affectionate considering her resolve to not act on her feelings. He made it difficult.
“”It’s just, I…” He trailed off, laughing nervously and looked about the hall as if to avoid Liss’ gaze altogether. “Lucia and I planned to visit Highever together. It was a long time ago, but it just made me think.”
“But she’s not here, is she,” he spat, an edge to his words that was sharper than Liss was used to hearing from him, even when he was at his most sarcastic, “She probably doesn’t even remember.”
“I don’t have to go, if that makes you uncomfortable.” She offered him a smile she didn’t mean and made an attempt to sound much less disappointed than she was. She really did want to go home, and the trip would be much better if she didn’t have to go alone. “I just thought I would offer, you know, since I know my way around.”
“I -- no. You should come.” His answer was quick and he seemed just as surprised at it as she was.
“I don’t want to spoil your trip.” She kept the excitement at bay, expecting him to rethink his decision at any minute.
“You? Spoil something? Never. ” Alistair no longer seemed nervous, the smile that crossed his lips soft and genuine and Liss was very confused. “Please come. I could use the company.”
“Are you absolutely sure?”
He nodded. “Of course! Shall we leave first thing in the morning?”.
“So long as you can bear to look at me without my beauty sleep.”
“You don’t need it anyway.” He made the mark rather casually, but immediately flinched and muttered a Sweet Maker under his breath. He looked at her apologetically, though he did not recant what he said and it brought a warmth to her face.
“I’ll see you in the morning,” she laughed, patting him on the shoulder as she walked past him and down the hall to her room.
They did, in fact, leave the first thing the next morning, and Liss questioned her judgement. The journey from Denerim to Highever was just long enough that riding straight through was uncomfortable. In the midst of a Fereldan winter, it was completely unbearable. She did not appreciate the frigid air and frozen rain that smacked against her face. It was a miserable time, enough that she did not even feel like speaking until she and Alistair set up camp at the end of the day, and was able to thaw herself by the fire.
“You know,” he began, a playful tone in his voice, “ if you stand any closer to that fire, you’ll roast yourself.”
“That doesn’t sound so bad right now.” She struggled to speak through shivers and chattering teeth. “I’d sit inside of it if it weren’t, you know, for the burning flesh.” She rubbed her hands together furiously in a vain attempt to keep them warm.
“I take it you’re not used to being out in the elements?”
Liss darted her head around to glare at him. “Of course I am! What do you take me for? Orlesian ?”
“My apologies, Lady Cousland.” He threw his hands up, and tried to keep his tone sincere, but she could see the laughter in his eyes. “I just assumed you’d have more comfortable traveling accommodations. That’s all.”
Liss huffed. “Bryce Cousland would never have his children being soft and spoiled. ‘You’re Fereldan! Fereldans are hardy!’ He always said things like that.”
Her heart sank into her stomach at the thought of her father, his final words to her echoing in her ears almost as clearly if he were there. He could have told her to be strong or brave, and bid her to avenge the family. In that moment, he could have charged her with anything, made any request, and she would have sworn on her life to see it through. Her father was her hero, after all. Of course, he’d made no such requests of her. As he lay there on the floor, wounded, prepared to die so that she might have a chance to escape he made her promise to him that she would live a happy life. Now, she didn’t know if she’d ever be able to keep that promise. She could scarcely remember what happy felt like.
She paused, looking into the fire and steadying herself with a smile before walking away from the flames to sit by Alistair. “I’m Fereldan. I’m hardy. It doesn’t mean I have to like the cold.”
Alistair frowned and he sat in somber silence, appearing to search for something to say. “Your father sounds like he was a good man.”
“He was the best ,” she managed to answer, smiling even though tears welled in the corners of her eyes. It was strange to be so sad over someone whose memory was so happy. “I’ll never forgive that traitorous vulture, Howe, for what he did to my family.”
“I’m… so sorry,” Alistair muttered, his kind eyes overflowing with sympathy that made her chest hurt.
“Queen Anora told me the Warden-Commander killed him. She said that he’d taken her prisoner, and it was the only way to save her.”
“Yes,” he answered quietly, looking off into the distance, likely trying to remember the exact details, “In the process of freeing Anora, we stumbled upon his dungeon. Hundreds of innocent people tortured and killed.” He paused and laughed bitterly. “He got what he deserved, if you ask me.”
“Good,” she asserted, leaning into Alistair and resting her head on his shoulder almost unconsciously. Her desire for warmth and comfort outweighed her reservations. To her surprise, he seemed to welcome contact as well, even going so far as to wrap an arm around her shoulder and pull her closer to him. Perhaps it was the cold, or perhaps it was something else, but he’d never been so openly affectionate with her.
“I guess,” he spoke, finally, clearing his throat, “Well… I know what it’s like to lose everything. I’d never really had a family until Duncan recruited me. When I lost them I felt so empty, and alone.”
She shook her head, angry with herself for once again failing to realize she wasn’t the only one who’d had a traumatic year. “And then you had to save the world on top of it all. It’s kind of impressive.”
“Oh, I don’t know about saving the world,” he laughed away her praise, clearly uncomfortable with it. “I couldn’t have done any of it on my own.”
“You aren’t giving yourself enough c-credit.” Liss shuddered.
“Maker’s Breath, Liss,” Alistair exclaimed, “You’re still shaking.”
“I’m still cold,” she mumbled into his shoulder, her own breath warming her nose. “And now I’m sad, too.”
“I know.” He nodded, leaning forward and turning his gaze to the fire before looking back to her, “Me, too.”
Alistair removed the heavy blanket he had wrapped around his shoulders and draped it around Liss’, atop the other blanket under which she was already huddled. His eyes met hers as he did so, lingering, expressing more than he probably would have been able to conjure up with words. It was an overwhelming urge she experienced, to lean in slowly and press her lips to his. It was soft, hesitant, and he had enough time to pull away if he wanted to. Something in his eyes told her that he wouldn’t, and she hadn’t been wrong.
Still, she pulled away, searching his face for any sign that she’d overstepped, but there was none, and as she attempted to mutter an apology, he interrupted her with a kiss of his own, deeper, more urgent than hers had been. He wrapped his arms around her more tightly, pulling her into an embrace. She allowed herself to become lost in the moment, reveling in the warmth and comfort, in the taste of his lips and the smell of his hair. It was a horrible idea, and she knew it, but it felt so good, and so right. For the first time since she lost her family, she didn’t feel alone, and that was not something she could apologize for.
Without trying, and even with active attempts not to, she had come to care for him, to love him. She knew it was most likely a mistake, but in the moment, with his arms around her, holding her so close, she couldn’t bring herself to care.
Chapter 16: Butterflies
The middle of summer makes combat training miserable, and thirteen-year-old Liss struggles to cope with the... heat.
Highever, 9:20 Dragon
The middle of the summer was not for combat training, Liss decided as sweat trickled beneath her sparring gambeson causing her undershirt to cling to her skin. The armor was lightweight, nothing compared to the steel and silverite she’d seen her father’s soldiers wear, but it was still miserable in the hot sun nonetheless. Dizzy and lightheaded, completely unable to concentrate, she wondered if she may not be cut out to be a warrior. She shook the doubt away rather quickly, though. She just needed to practice, to build stamina and strength! After all, melting beneath a suit of armor was preferable to suffocating in a corset.
Liss had always envied the attention that Fergus had gotten by the trainers, but now that he was gone for a few months visiting with that girl from Antiva, she wished he was back so that they would leave her alone. Of course, that wasn’t the only reason she missed Fergus. It was strange and quiet without him there to pester her, cheer her on, and get her out of trouble. She didn’t realize how big of a part of her day he was until he wasn’t there anymore. She tried her best not to have bad feelings toward Lady Oriana, but she was taking her brother from her, and it was hard not to be jealous. At least Nathaniel was still there.
Several yards away, Nate stood at the hay targets, bow in his left hand, and an arrow nocked and drawn in his right. It was a reversed stance for him, considering he was left-handed. When he released the arrow, it was less precise than she knew him to be, and it struck the target well outside the middle. Apparently, he was going to train himself to shoot with both hands, the show off. A smile twitched at her lips as she watched him nock another arrow.
He had grown taller by quite a bit since the previous summer, though he was still just as thin. His hair had grown, too, and he now wore braids at the sides that kept dark strands from falling into his face. Liss liked the braids more than she probably should. Heat rose to her face and her stomach twisted into knots just like it did when she realized that she thought Rila was beautiful. It wasn’t really new for her to feel this way around him, but now she knew what it meant and it bothered her. He was her friend. She wasn’t supposed to think about him like that. Still, she wished he could see what did when she looked at him. .
A dull pain and heavy pressure followed a thud against Liss` chest that knocked her to the ground. She looked up to see her opponent standing over her, wooden sword extended. He was a young recruit, just a few years older than she was, training to serve in the Highever Guard when he came of age. He wore a smug, victorious expression that she wanted to smack off of his face. The only reason he’d been able to get the advantage was because she was distracted. She was better than him and she knew it.
“Apologies,” he said in a tone that put his smug expression to shame He offered his hand to help her up. “I don’t usually like to hit girls, especially not ladies .”
Liss slapped his hand away and stood up on her own. “That’s stupid.”
“Easy now.” He threw his hands up defensively. “I was just being polite.”
“No,” she answered matter-of-factly, trying her hardest to keep herself from smiling, “You were just underestimating your opponent. Something any of the trainers would tell you is a very bad idea.”
By the time the recruit realized what she meant, Liss had already grabbed the front of his armor, pulled him close to her and kneed him in the groin. He yelped and fell to the ground, a string of curses rolling from his lips. Smirking, Liss extended her sword toward him, a silent call for him to yield. In the corner of her eye she noticed that Nate had stopped what he was doing and was watching intently. Unsettled by the pounding in her chest that his attention caused, she focused singularly on her foe. If she ignored it, it would go away. Besides, she didn’t want to be caught off-guard again.
“I won’t yield to someone who fought dirty,” the young man groaned, voice hoarse from the pain, “It’s not a fair fight.”
“I won,” she spat with arrogance she knew was unbecoming, “Doesn’t matter if it was fair. Yield.”
He scowled and opened his mouth to say something, but stopped, his eyes shifting to look at something behind Liss. Just then, she felt a hand on her shoulder, and she turned to see her papa standing behind her, grinning proudly, but also rolling his eyes. There was another man beside him, tall, muscular with dark skin and several piercings in his ears. As intimidating as he looked, he had kind eyes, and was smiling his approval as well.
“The young lady makes an interesting point,” the man said to the recruit who had scrambled to his feet. His voice was softer than she expected it to be, “Do you believe all your enemies will fight with honor?”
“I never really thought about it, ser.”
“Well, perhaps now you’ll think about it.” He moved to give the recruit a reassuring pat on the back. The young man just nodded in response and scurried away, clearly embarrassed by the whole affair. Liss flinched a bit as he left, but he’d asked for it, after all.
The man turned his attention back to her and her father. “So, Bryce, I take it that this is your daughter?”
“That she is,” Papa said turning to look at her, “Elissa, this is Duncan. He’s Commander of the Grey Wardens in Ferelden. He was actually born here in Highever.”
Liss examined this man called Duncan in awe, the revelation that he was a Warden framing him in a completely different light. He wore no armor that would have identified him as such, and she had to use much of her self-control to keep herself from asking him about griffons. She didn’t want to make a fool of herself in front of the man, especially if she ever wanted to join the Order some day.
“It’s good to finally meet you, Lady Elissa,” Duncan said, pulling her out of her thoughts, “Your father speaks highly of you.”
“It’s Liss,” she blurted without thinking and Duncan raised his eyebrows, “Sorry. It’s just... I go by Liss.”
“Well, Liss , you are quite skilled for someone your age. I’m impressed.”
“Thank you, ser,” she replied, bowing her head respectfully. “It’s nice to meet you too.”
“I’m proud of you, pup,” Papa added, patting her shoulder affectionately, “I think you’ve earned the rest of the afternoon off.”
“Really?” She jumped a little, though she could hear her trainers protest in the background.
“Yes,” he laughed, “Even though your trainers seem to disagree with me. You can always practice another day. It’s too hot anyway. Keep this up and you might faint.”
“I am going to show Duncan to some potential Warden recruits,” he explained, and then motioned off toward the archery range, “It looks like Nate is waiting for you.”
Liss followed his arm with her eyes to see that Nate was still standing there. He wasn’t watching, but he was fidgeting and pretending to be busy, but she knew he wasn’t. He was waiting, just as Papa said. Her face grew hot again and she was thankful she could blame it on the sun. She waved to the two men and headed over to talk to her friend, ignoring the butterflies flapping around in her stomach.
It was just Nate, and he was still himself, the same person she had known for five years now. It was silly that she couldn’t seem to talk to him the same anymore, no matter how much she tried. She even said the same words as she always had, but they all sounded wrong now. She worried he might hear it, too. That he might notice. Would he still be her friend? It wasn’t a risk she wanted to take. Ever.
“Hey Liss,” Nate said as she approached him. She’d nearly forgotten his voice was deeper.
“Hi,” she muttered and cleared her throat, “I mean, hey Nate.”
His brows pressed together as he looked at her. “Everything all right”
“Mhmm.” She nodded, hoping it looked more convincing than it felt.
“You look hot.” Nate’s brows were still knitted, but Liss flinched and recoiled from him a bit.
“You think I’m…,” she began, head spinning, “What?!”
He laughed and rolled his eyes, as if he hadn’t said something shocking and out of character. “I meant temperature-wise. You look like you’re burning up.”
“Oh.” She’d never had such a strong desire to throw herself into the nearest body of water. Both out of shame and because she really was very hot.
“But, you can take it as a compliment if you want it so badly,” Nate said with a smirk.
“I know Fergus isn’t here, but you don’t have to tease me in his place,” she huffed, narrowing her eyes to glare at him, “You were watching. You saw what happened to that other boy.”
“Did you just threaten me?” He laughed, and she hated it. He made it very difficult to be cross with him.
“You think I couldn’t take you?”
“No, I think that boy was an idiot who underestimated you,” he explained, all humor gone from his voice, “I’m not an idiot, and I’m definitely not going underestimate you.”
The butterflies in her stomach became restless again, and she puffed her chest out and crossed her arms to keep up the whole “offended” act. “Whatever,” she spat and pushed past him, “I’m going to change and cool off at the pond.
“I’ll meet you down there, if you want company.”
Liss waved her hand at him dismissively instead of responding, even though she really wanted to give him an enthusiastic “yes!” Of course she wanted company, but she did not want to seem too excited or give him the impression that she was no longer cross with him for teasing her. She wasn’t, but he didn’t need to know that.
Once inside the armory that stood adjacent to the training area, it did not take her long to kick off her boots, unfasten her gambeson, and strip down to just her linen undershirt and trousers. She sighed, her skin free to breathe again, and hung the armor up on a rack with her boots down below it. She wouldn’t mind if she did not have to look at the stuff again for the rest of the summer, let alone wear it. Eager to be outside and down at the pond with her toes in the water, she didn’t even bother to slip on shoes, running out the door and into the open air.
The little pond, partially surrounded by trees, and located just outside the castle walls was an oasis amidst the summer heat. It was one of the few places beyond the castle to which Liss had been allowed to venture on her own. Her parents constantly worried for her safety, particularly as a “lovely, young noblewoman.” Apparently that made her a target or something like that, so she was not supposed to go to the city alone. She couldn’t even go near the city by herself. Dumb rules. Highever was her home and it was safe. They shouldn’t worry so much.
By the time Liss arrived, Nate was already standing near the edge of the water. His back was to her, so she couldn’t see his face, but she figured he wore some sort of sad expression like he always did when he was thinking. Sometimes she wished he could just be happy, but then she imagined her papa treating her like Arl Howe treated him, and she didn’t figure she could be happy either.
Shaking the bad thoughts away, an opportunity presented itself to her as she gauged the distance between herself and Nate, and between Nate and the water. If she ran fast enough, and threw herself into him, she could push him into the water, a glorious payback for the teasing she endured. His back was turned and now was her chance. She took off running, bracing herself for impact, and just as she reached him he stepped to the side casually. With no time to stop, she stumbled past him and plunged directly into the water.
Liss pulled herself up to the surface, inhaled deeply, and wiped her now soaked hair from out of her eyes so that she could give Nate her most menacing scowl. It didn’t seem to affect him, as he just laughed and shrugged.
“I’m sorry, “ he said, but she couldn’t believe him with all the laughter that followed, “You should have believed me when I said I wasn’t an idiot.”
She rolled her eyes and moved toward the edge so that she could crawl out of the water She enjoyed swimming, but not in her trousers. She cringed at the thought of the chafing that could occur. As she reached the edge, Nate extended a hand out to her, an offer of assistance of which she took advantage and used to yank him down into the water with her. Got him.
“Thought you said you weren’t going to underestimate me,” she teased as he rose surface looking about as thrilled as a wet cat.
She expected him to grumble and protest, claim that he’d never help her again even though he wouldn’t mean it. He didn’t do any of that though. Instead, a small smile formed at the corners of his mouth that turned into a bigger smile, and then he was laughing, truly laughing. It was a lovely sound she’d not heard enough of. In fact, she couldn’t remember the last time she had.
“I should have known I’d eat those words,” he said, shaking his head and pulling himself up out of the water. Liss grinned followed him, and he offered her a hand again. It was a bold move considering what had just happened. She accepted it graciously, and without funny business this time, allowing him to help her out.
She flopped down on the grass with a sigh, reclining backward and cradling her neck with her hands, gazing up at the clouds. She’d need to dry out a bit before she tried to move, unless she wanted to strip down to her smalls, which was absolutely out of the question. In the corner of her eye, Nate did the same, lying back on the ground and looking up toward the sky. It reminded her of the many times when she was much younger that she and Fergus had watched the clouds together. He always saw the goofiest things in them.
“Hey Nate,” Liss spoke, breaking the comfortable silence that had fallen between them.
“Do you ever miss Delilah and Thomas when you’re here?” She turned and rose up on an elbow so that she could look at him.
“Sometimes,” he answered, his brows pressing together, “Why?”
“Fergus is visiting with Lady Oriana this summer.”
“I’m sure he’ll be happy to know you miss him.”
“It’s not that,” she explained, “I mean, I do miss him, but I’m just… I’m afraid he’s going to forget me.”
“That’s ridiculous.” Nate smirked and laughed like he knew some secret she didn’t. “He’s not going to forget you. You’re his sister. ”
“Then why hasn’t he written?”
“He’s distracted,” he explained, staring off into the distance, “When you feel about someone like Fergus feels about Oriana, it’s hard to think about anything else.”
“He loves her doesn’t he?” Her heart sank. It shouldn’t make her sad, but it did.
“He thinks he does.”
Liss sighed and lay back down, closing her eyes. There were a few more moments of silence before she spoke again. “Do you think you’ll ever love someone like Fergus loves Oriana?”
Nate shifted beside her, moving several times before he answered. “I... hope so.”
“Well, when you do,” she said, trying her best not to cry, “I’d really like it if you didn’t forget about me.”
“I don’t think I could,” he reassured her, “Even if I wanted to.”
Sometimes when Nate said things like that, it made her feel special. She could almost convince herself that maybe he liked her, too. It had to just be in her head, though. She was just like a dumb sister to him, talking his ears off and getting on his last nerve. Some day, he would find an Oriana, too, someone his father approved of, and he’d forget about her, no matter how much he said he wouldn’t. She knew it.
Chapter 17: Choices
A chance encounter in the Coastlands turns Nathaniel's life upside down.
Thank you for your patience with the update. This is a long chapter, but probably one of my most favorite so I took extra care with it! I hope you all enjoy it! :D
The Coastlands, 9:31 Dragon
Black smoke billowed up from Amaranthine City, filling the sky like quiet, brooding storm clouds. Though it had been days since Lucia had given the order to burn the capital of the arling to the ground, the last of the flames were yet to die out, and the hazy sky that resulted was a dark testament to the tragedy that occurred. Difficult and ruthless as it was, she made the right decision. Nathaniel had said as much, though she didn’t believe it.
Just days before the darkspawn attack, Delilah had written to him to say that she and Albert fled the spread of disease in the city to stay with his family in Kirkwall. Even before the Mother’s forces laid siege, Amaranthine was a lost cause. Lucia’s actions prevented more harm than they had caused, though the stubborn woman insisted upon blaming herself. He could scarcely fault her for that either. She was a young mage, not a hardened general and it was difficult to watch a city burn, especially one that did so upon your own command.
There was a flash of lighting, and thunder rang out, causing Nathaniel to jump, his attention shifting from the ruins in the distance to his more immediate surroundings. The Coastlands stretched between Amaranthine and Highever and were known for their temperamental weather. Now, they were better known as the lands where the talking darkspawn stragglers fled. When news of the creatures attacking villages and outposts in the area reached Vigil’s Keep, he offered to investigate and search for entrances to the Deep Roads. Velanna and Sigrun, the newest recruit, had asked to join him. Though he would not say so directly, he was glad. Being a Warden, having comrades who cared for him, it was the first time since he’d spent his last summer with the Couslands that he felt like he truly belonged. Solitude no longer had the same appeal.
“Fenedhis,” Velanna hissed as another clap of thunder rattled the sky, introducing the subsequent downpour. She pulled the hood of her cloak up over her head, grumbling.
“You sure are jumpy for someone who’s lived on the surface your whole life,” Sigrun said, giggling, “Nate too.”
“And you are surprisingly unaffected by the storms,” Velanna remarked dryly.
“I’m used to it,” the dwarf answered with a shrug, “The Stone is loud when it moves.”
Nathaniel laughed and pulled up his own hood, scanning the area around them for anything that could provide shelter from the cold, winter wind and rain. They’d be no use against any darkspawn they encountered if they were soaking wet and freezing. He spotted a cliff several yards in the distance with a sizable overhang that would be suitable protection from the elements.
“We should take cover,” he explained, “Just until the storm lets up.”
Velanna and Sigrun nodded, relieved expressions crossing each of their faces, as they made their way toward their temporary shelter. The space beneath the overhang was actually larger than he expected, and even he was able to stand comfortably beneath it. He sat anyway. He should rest while he had the opportunity. His blood vibrated in his veins as it did when darkspawn were nearby, and it was certain to be a long afternoon of scouting and fighting, not to mention the several hours of walking back to the Keep. It wouldn’t have hurt the Warden-Commander to spare a horse or two.
“You are quiet,” Velanna stated, voice as soft as she could manage, which was not actually that soft. She was so accustomed to having to shout to be heard. It made sense.
“I am always quiet, my lady,” he replied, with no effort to hide the smirk that twitched at the corners of his mouth, “Unlike yourself.”
“I am not -,” she began, stopping as she heard her own voice echo off the stone around them. She crossed her arms and adjusted her voice to just more than a whisper. “I am not loud.”
“I apologize,” he said, a twinge of guilt pricking at him, “I didn’t mean to make you self-conscious.”
“He was just flirting ,” Sigrun interjected without looking up from the dirt where she traced spirals with her finger, “He thinks its fun to tease you.”
Velanna turned to look at him, brows furrowed, blinking in disbelief. Nathaniel just shrugged in response. It wasn’t an inaccurate appraisal, after all.
Velanna opened her mouth as if to speak, closed it, and then opened it again, but before she could do more than huff at him, she was interrupted by men shouting and a horse whinnying in distress. The commotion came from the cliff just above them.
Nathaniel rose to his feet and grabbed his weapon. “I’ll check it out.”
His companions nodded in response, each preparing themselves for battle, should it come to that, and he rushed out from beneath the overhang and up the hill that led to the ledge. A group of four men in worn, rough leathers surrounded a cloaked figure in expensive plate, who sat atop a horse that looked twice as expensive as the armor. Bandits looking for profit, and some noble fool who was stupid enough to travel alone while flaunting his wealth. He shook his head. He’d have to save the idiot.
Nathaniel readied his bow, aimed, and shot in one fluid motion, the arrow piercing the back of one unfortunate man’s knee just as he landed a blow to the fool’s arm, causing him to release the reins and fall from the horse. The thug cried out in pain and collapsed to the ground as well, his comrades turning to face Nathaniel.
One of the men, middle aged, carrying a shield decorated with an all-too-familiar bear, scowled and shouted, “Oh, look. It’s a Warden. Bet his pretty little head is worth a fortune.”
“Them’s the ones that burnt the city,” added another, younger man—no, a boy— knuckles white against the hilt of his sword. He couldn’t have been more than fifteen, trembling with tears filling his eyes. “My mum was in there. Little sister, too. You lot are murderers. ”
“I lost my wife to the darkspawn,” said another, “Lost my son to the fire. Heroes my arse,” He bounced his daggers in his hands and spat, and then flung one at Nathaniel. Before he could move to dodge the projectile a wall of roots and vines surged up in front of him catching the dagger before receding back into the ground.
“A knife-eared witch,” rasped the man on the ground, pointing a shaky finger at Velanna who now stood just behind Nathaniel.
“What did you say, Shem,” Velanna growled, clenching her fists. The ground around them trembled and Nathaniel stretched an arm out in front of her.
“Don’t,” he said softly,
“What?” She shook her head indignantly. "No!”
“Look at them,” Sigrun spoke, “They’re terrified, and they look like they haven’t eaten in days.”
“We haven’t,” the men chimed in unison.
“We’ve got nowheres to go,” the boy added, a large tear visibly streaking down his face. “No money. Nothin’ to our names.”
“You meant to rob that man just to get by.” Sigrun furrowed her brows and frowned. She was thinking of Dust Town, no doubt.
The men nodded, silent and stone-faced. The hooded man who had remained remarkably still and quiet, clutching his wounded arm, had only been attacked because these men were desperate. They were only desperate because they’d lost everything. The Wardens had cost them all but their lives. It didn’t matter how many people had been saved, the Wardens were villains in their eyes. To them, the means would never be justified, regardless of the ends.
“On behalf of the Grey Wardens,” Nathaniel said bowing his head, “I apologize for your losses, I-“
“What do you now of loss, Warden?” The middle- aged man spoke calmly, despite the deep, disdainful lines on his forehead, and his stance that suggested he was ready to attack at any moment.
“Me?” Nathaniel laughed a dry and empty laugh, reaching up to remove his hood despite the heavy rain that still fell. “My name is Nathaniel Howe. In case you are unfamiliar: these were my family’s lands before the Wardens took them from us. I am bitter, and I am angry, and there isn’t a day that goes by without me wishing I could have been here to make sure that this didn’t happen.”
Nathaniel paused and scanned the faces of the men, noting their shock and bewilderment. They all had lowered their weapons, and the boy had stopped his crying.
“But I am also grateful. You heard what happened at Ostagar, the West Hills. Without the Wardens, there would be no lands left untainted by darkspawn filth. I am sorry for what happened to your families, your homes. It was a difficult and terrible decision, but it was the right thing to do. We desperately want to make things right -- I desperately want to make things right -- but that won’t happen if you go around killing us before we get the chance.”
“Lord Howe,” the middle-aged man said with some degree of reverence. His shield was clearly a symbol of his loyalty to the family.
“I am no lord,” Nathaniel said, shaking his head, “Not anymore.”
“Here. “ He removed his coin purse from his belt and tossed it to the ground at the man’s feet, “There’s enough there to feed you and your men… and to fix that one’s leg.” He motioned to the wounded man.
“I… thank you.”
“If you need refuge, you are welcome at Vigil’s Keep. We’ve been providing shelter for those displaced by the darkspawn uprising.”
“But we tried to kill you,” the boy protested.
Nahaniel smirked. “You’ll be surprised to know how little that matters to the Warden-Commander.”
He sighed as he watched them walk away, hoping he’d made some difference, that they’d choose a better path. There was no way to be sure.
A warm hand squeezed his shoulder and he turned to see Velanna offering him a smile. “As much as I would have loved to teach those shemlen a lesson, I believe you did the right thing.”
“I agree,” Sigrun added, a sad smile on her face as she, too, watched the men walk away.
A rustling and scraping together of metal behind them reminded Nathaniel that the man he’d saved was still there, wounded. He turned to see that the man had risen to his feet and removed the hood he’d been wearing. Nathaniel blinked several times at the sight of his face, a familiar face, and one he would never have expected to see in the middle of the Coastlands being attacked by starving refugee bandits.
“Maker’s Blood.” He took a few steps forward, examining the man more closely. There were more lines on his face since the last time they’d seen one another, but there was no mistaking who he was. Especially not when he smiled that wide, cheerful grin. “Fergus?”
“Little Nate,” Fergus replied, clicking his tongue, “All grown up, and a Grey Warden at that.”
There was a long, heavy pause before he moved forward and embraced Nathaniel, who tensed at the sudden affection. It was as tight and sincere a hug that could be managed with only one arm unwounded, ending with a rough pat on the back as Fergus pulled away. For the first time Nathaniel could ever remember, there was an indescribable sadness behind the man’s eyes, and he didn’t know what to say.
He didn’t have to, as Fergus spoke first. “It’s good to see you, brother.”
Brother. It had been so many years, and there was so much strife between their broken remnants of families now, the term hardly felt deserved.
“It’s good to see you, too,” Nathaniel said, still stunned. This whole affair had been emotionally taxing to say the least, and now Fergus Cousland was standing in front of him. Not dead, and a very solid, very real reminder of what Father had done. He looked down, rage and grief building in his chest again. Then, he looked up. “I-.”
“I know what you’re going to say, Nate,” Fergus interrupted him, shaking his head, “And don’t.”
“Delilah told me what Father did,” Nathaniel explained, holding onto his composure by a thread, “I owe you an apology.”
“No you bloody don’t,” Fergus snapped, “You aren’t you’re father, and you’re not responsible for his actions. Besides, I’m sick of apologies. It’s been the first thing out of everyone’s mouths when they see me. It’s a nice gesture and all, but no amount of sorry is going to bring my family back, you know?”
Nathaniel nodded. “I know. I just… wish I could have been here. I would have never let it happen. I’d have died first.”
“I know.” Fergus smiled somberly but then hissed and clutched at his wounded arm with the opposite hand, which was stained with fresh blood when he pulled it away. “Damn. It’s worse than I thought.”
“Velanna, do you think you can…” He trailed off, motioning vaguely at Fergus, his mind in a blur.
“I will see what I can do,” she answered, “But we will need to get out of this rain.”
“Good idea,” Sigrun said, teeth chattering, “I’m starting to change my mind about this whole weather thing.”
They returned to their spot beneath the rocky overhang, Fergus walking along beside Nathaniel, clumsily. He must have been disoriented from falling from horse which had run off during the fighting. Fergus said that he figured she hadn’t gone far and would wander back eventually. Either she was a well trained horse, or the man’s hopes were misplaced.
It was still cold under the ledge, and it’d be difficult to start a fire with damp kindling and wood. However, it was dry and illuminated well enough by the daylight that Velanna could get a better look at Fergus’ arm.
Nathaniel sat quietly observing as Fergus introduced himself to the other Wardens, charming as ever. Sigrun bantered back and forth with him playfully, but Velanna scoffed and rolled her eyes. She was probably a lot more entertained than she’d let on.
“Can’t say I expected you to return to Ferelden after everything,” Fergus said, grimacing as Velanna pulled away his armor and the tattered bloody fabric just below his shoulder.
“I had to see what happened for myself.” Nathaniel laughed. “I planned to kill the Warden who destroyed my family and took our lands.
“And so you joined them instead?”
“I was conscripted, a pardon for theft.”
“Theft?” Fergus squinted. “You’re no thief.”
“The Wardens claimed some of the Howe heirlooms belonged to them. I got caught trying to take some of them back.”
“Maker’s Breath… and they conscripted you for that?”
“It was that or the noose.” Nathaniel shrugged. “I chose the noose, but the Warden-Commander refused, so here I am. Killing sentient darkspawn and pissing off the people of Amaranthine.”
Fergus shifted uncomfortably as Velanna began to tend the wound. Without healing magic, it needed stitches, and stitches were painful. Nathaniel wished he had something to offer him to cut the pain. It was a shame Oghren wasn’t around with a flask of whatever. Ever since he’d started to cut back, he was much more inclined to share. In fact, he’d been annoyingly pushy about it. Nobody wanted the ale he found in some dungeon somewhere.
“That’s actually why I came out this way,” Fergus said through a pained growl, “I’d received word of some commotion in Amaranthine City, but nothing official from the Arlessa.”
“The Warden-Commander was busy putting out fires,” Nathaniel replied more defensively than he should have.
“Seems more like she’s been busy starting them,” Fergus said with a wink and Nathaniel relaxed, “Sounds like it was necessary, though.”
There were a few moments of silence and Nathaniel spoke again hoping to change the subject from such an intense focus on himself. “You’re the Teyrn now, huh.”
“Unfortunately,” he mimicked Nathaniel, before grinning. Again, his smile only barely concealed his sadness. “It’s unbelievable to me that people would be so hungry for this kind of power. It’s miserable. I miss my family. I’d be a poor, powerless man if it meant I could kiss my wife again, if I could tuck my son into bed.”
“I can’t imagine.” Nathaniel frowned, unsure what else to say besides an apology that Fergus would no doubt reject.
“Elissa had it worse than I did, there in the castle, witnessing it all…” Fergus trailed off, eyes losing their focus briefly. “She blames herself, you know. Wishes she could have died instead of my son as if the Maker would have been open to barter. You should really try to talk some sense into her. She might listen to you.”
For a moment time stood still, as Fergus’ words rang in Nathaniel’s ears. Liss was alive.
“What’s wrong, Nate?” He flinched as Velanna continued stitching the wound. She looked up at Nathaniel briefly, meeting his eyes. Sigrun watched him as well, and Fergus continued. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“I…” He couldn’t quite form a meaningful message for his mouth to say.
“You… you didn’t know my sister survived, did you?”
Nathaniel shook his head. “No. My sister told me everyone who was in the castle that night died. I just assumed-.”
“You know better than to underestimate Liss,” Fergus scolded, “Fought her way out with a borrowed sword wearing nothing but her nightgown. She’s a damn legend.”
“Where is she now?” Nathaniel’s breath was shallow and his heart raced up his throat as if it were going to crawl out of his mouth at the news.
“Denerim, working for Queen Anora,” Fergus answered, smiling mischievously. “You should pay her a visit. It’d make her entire year, I think.”
“Why not? Your father isn’t stopping you anymore.”
“It’s been nine years.” Nathaniel laughed and shook his head, despite his nagging desire to take off to the capital at that moment. “I’m sure she’s -.”
“What? Happy and moved on?” Fergus interrupted him. “Hardly. I mean, she tried, but nobody ever mattered to her like you did. She never stopped waiting for you, even when she swore she had.”
“Oh, how romantic,” Sigrun said, clasping her hands together.
“There,” Velanna announced abruptly as she finished tying up Fergus’ bandages.
“Thank you, Lady Velanna,” he chirped cheerfully.
“Ugh. There’s two of them,” she groaned, and rolled her eyes. “You are welcome, I suppose.”
She wiped her hands off with a strip of cloth and busied herself with putting things back into her pack —loudly— and announced that she needed to take a walk, stomping out into the rain, which still lingered as just a light drizzle. Fergus looked to Nathaniel, eyebrows raised in amusement, but Nathaniel just sighed. It wasn’t amusing.
“Anyway,” Fergus said rising to his feet, “You should at least talk to her. You’ll regret it for the rest of your life if you don’t.”
“I will need to think about it,” Nathaniel stood as well, “I am not the same person I was when I left.”
“Neither is she.” Fergus laid a heavy hand on his shoulder and eyed him sincerely. He hated that the man could still get to him like that
A horse whinnied behind them and Fergus’ face brightened.
“There’s my girl,” he said, walking over and running a hand down the horse’s forehead and muzzle. He turned back to Nathaniel. “Well, the storm’s let up. I suppose I should head out. Let you all get back to… wardening. Thanks for saving my arse back there.”
“Take care, Fergus.”
“Yeah, you too,” Fergus said, climbing up onto his horse, “Go talk to my sister, and don’t be a stranger. We’re family.”
Nathaniel nodded, a smile spreading across his lips and Sigrun waved at his side.
“It was nice to meet you, Lady Sigrun. Lady Velanna, too, if you’ll pass along the message.”
“Did you hear that?” Sigrun giggled, bringing a hand to her face, as they watched Fergus ride off in the direction of Highever. “He called me a lady.”
Nathaniel was silent in response, aching already at Fergus’ departure. As fraught with emotion as their reunion was, it had been good. He’d missed the man, someone who’d so readily accepted him as a friend and brother. Perhaps they’d have more time to catch up in the future, especially if Liss, well, if he went to her in Denerim. If nothing else went horribly wrong.
“What are you going to do?” Sigrun asked, eyes blinking up at him.
“I’m going to find Velanna,” he answered, knowing that wasn’t what she meant, but hoping to avoid a discussion about it. “Then, I’m going to kill whatever darkspawn are nearby making my blood itch.”
It did not take long to locate Velanna, who sat in the grass, leaning against a large tree that looked as if it had been split in two by lightning. She stared off into the distance, forehead wrinkled and twisting the tattoos that marked her face.
“There you are,” he said, sitting down beside her. “I’d ask if you’re okay, but considering the way you stormed off, I think I already know the answer.”
“I apologize for leaving as I did.” She shook her head. “It was juvenile.”
“My conversation with Fergus upset you, didn’t it?”
“As foolish as that sounds, yes. It did.” Velanna brought her eyes up to meet his briefly before looking away. “I have always been an outsider. Lonely. Misunderstood. Excluded even by my own kind. I thought that it was some sort of flaw in me, that it was how I deserved to be treated. It’s not as if I had any reason to believe otherwise.
“Then I met you, a human, a noble...the epitome of everything I should hate, and yet I could not. Besides Seranni, you were the first person to ever treat me as if I was worthy of kindness before I did anything to earn it, or before I scared it out of you. On top of that you gave me compliments, called me beautiful. It would be hard for anyone not care for you after that, I should think.”
“You would be surprised,” he answered, dryly, “Justice did not take kindly to my compliments about his complexion. The rotten bastard called me disingenuous.”
“You were being disingenuous,” she said laughing slightly, “With him. Not with me.”
“No.” He shook his head, tone serious. “I meant what I said to you. Still do.”
“That woman you all spoke about, his sister. She is the person you could never move on from isn’t she?”
“Yes,” Nathaniel admitted, “I have been in love with her since I was just a boy, though I was never allowed to say as much.”
Velanna was quiet, and he worried for a moment that she would lash out at him, furious that he led her on, but she didn’t. Instead, she just smiled and sighed. “I envy her.”
The soft acceptance pierced him more deeply than any amount of anger could have. “Velanna, I’m sorry. I would not have been so forward with you had I any idea whatsoever that she was alive.”
“I know that,” she assured him. Her small hand was warm to the touch as she placed it over his. “Please do not be sorry. I’m not.”
“But-,” he began, interrupted by the soft pressure of her lips against his cheek.
“I am disappointed, but that is all,” she said, laying her head on his shoulder. “I will get over it, and I would like it if we could still be friends.”
“I’d like that, too.”
Taking a deep breath, Nathaniel wrapped an arm around her shoulders, and they sat in silence for several moments before Velanna spoke again, moving out from under his arm to glare at him. “You have to tell her how you feel, Nathaniel. You would be a fool to let her go again.”
“I know,” he said, rising to his feet and offering a hand to her, “As soon as we take care of these darkspawn stragglers and return to the Vigil, I will ask for leave to go to Denerim.”
“Good.” Velanna took his hand and allowed him to help her up. “I will harass you if you do not.”
“At this point, I think everyone is going to harass me if I don’t.”
By the time they found Sigrun, she had -- to no one’s surprise -- already dealt with a half-dozen darkspawn, and made a much-deserved prod at Nathaniel and Velanna for being “lazy bones.” They had not exactly been lazy, but they also had not been fighting hurlocks either. Altogether it only took a couple of hours to scout the area and finish off the remaining creatures. They located only one Deep Roads entrance in the area, and boarded it up so that some unfortunate wanderer would not stumble into it accidentally, and set out on the return trip to Vigil’s Keep. One of the experts there could seal the hole properly at a later date.
It was not until the next morning that Nathaniel sought out Lucia to request permission to travel to the capital. He and the others had not arrived back at the Keep until late at night, and he’d been too emotionally and physically exhausted to do anything but take a bath and collapse into bed. No doubt the Warden-Commander would grant him permission. She would most likely wonder why he even felt the need to ask her. Still, regardless of their friendship, she remained his commanding officer, and he intended to give her the formality and respect she deserved.
He made his way to the Great Hall, intending to visit Lucia in her office, which was just off it’s east wing. The office had previously belonged to his father, and he was never allowed in there. He wondered what the man had been hiding, if anything at all. He was stopped in his path by Garavel, the former Guard Captain who was promoted to Seneschal in the wake of Varel’s heroic demise.
“Warden Howe,” he shouted, his voice reverberating throughout the hall, “I take it you are looking for Warden-Commander Amell.”
“She’s not there,” Garavel stated with some hesitation.
“You seem concerned, Seneschal.”
“We don’t actually know where the Warden-Commander is right now,” the man explained, “Some of the guards saw her leave her quarters in the middle of the night, but she has yet to return.”
“Was she armored?”
“The guards said she was just wearing nightclothes…” he trailed off as Nathaniel shook his head and sighed. “What is it?”
“I know where she is,” said Nathaniel, turning to exit the hall. He grabbed a woolen blanket from the storage bin conveniently placed by the main door. “Thank you, Seneschal.”
The battlements that surrounded Vigil’s Keep were extensive, encompassing the entire courtyard, as well as the castle itself. When he was a boy, Nathaniel had often sought refuge from his father’s wrath up there. If anything, it kept him out of the way during the worst of it. Father had lacked the patience to search the entire length of the wall for him. He suspected that’s what had happened with Lucia and the guards. He’d run into her up there several times, often late at night and completely underdressed for the weather. She seemed to have as much trouble sleeping as he did, perhaps more.
Certainly enough he found her, elbows on the parapet, looking out over the Keep. She did not hear him at first, and he took a moment to watch her as she twisted what appeared to be the dried up remnants of a rose between her fingers. There were tears in her eyes, and she looked so broken and sad. It was too intimate and not for him to see. He shifted uncomfortably, preparing to walk away and attempt to speak with her again later, but she heard him, hurriedly wiping a tear from her cheek and straightening her posture.
“Nathaniel?” She furrowed her brows at him as he moved forward to stand by her side.
“Sorry to disturb you. Some of the guards saw you leave your quarters in the middle of the night, and Garavel was worried when you did not return. I figured I might find you up here, attempting to freeze to death,” he explained, unfolding the blanket and draping it over her shoulders, “If you want to die, I can think of a hundred more noteworthy ways to go about it.”
“I’m not trying to freeze to death,” she snapped, pulling the blanket more tightly around her, “I just… couldn’t sleep.”
“Troubled?” It was none of his business, really, but he had to ask. He leaned forward and joined her in resting her elbows on the parapet.
“I’m fine. Just restless.” She looked straight ahead, off into the distance, and sighed.
“You know, you’re an excellent commander, but a piss poor liar.” He looked at her, then down to the flower in her hand, nodding at it. “What’s that?”
She laughed humorlessly and looked at him. “My latest weapon of choice.”
“A withered rose?” It appeared he was not the only with difficult feelings he’d rather avoid.
Lucia shrugged. “It’s poetic.”
“Right.” He rolled his eyes, grateful she was his friend as well as his commanding officer. Any other commanding officer might be offended by the sheer insubordination. “Permission to speak candidly?”
“I’m not sure what is on your mind right now, and I’m not going to ask. Whatever it is, though, you’re thinking entirely too much about it.”
“That’s a bit hypocritical, don’t you think?” She raised her eyebrows and grinned. “I believe “brooding” is the term Anders uses to describe you.”
“Maybe so,” he conceded, “But, just from experience alone, I know that it’s stupid to waste so much time thinking about all the things that could go wrong that you lose something important to you.”
“It’s unwise to act without thinking things through,” she argued, “That’s how you end up hurt: making rash choices.”
“Failure to act is also a rash choice.”
“I… I don’t know what to do, Nathaniel,” she exclaimed, throwing her hands up, voice cracking, “I feel like every decision I’ve made in the past year has been wrong. I made sound, logical choices and they all had horrible consequences. People got hurt. People important to me. I don’t want that to happen again.”
“People always get hurt, even when you do the right thing ,” he said gently, his own voice raw with emotion, “Sometimes, all you can do is go with your gut, and hope it works out. You have to trust yourself. I learned that the hard way.”
“How does one go with one’s gut,” asked the woman who had clearly never made an impulsive decision in her life.
“If you could do anything in the world you wanted right now without consequence, what would you do?”
“I’d go to Denerim,” Lucia replied almost instantly. Nathaniel couldn’t help but smirk at her coincidental answer.
“Then you need to go to Denerim.”
“Just like that?”
“Just like that,” he answered with a nod, “It’s funny because I actually came up here to ask for leave to go to Denerim. I have some business to attend to there, myself.”
“That’s ironic,” she laughed, “When shall we leave?”
“Now, if you’re up for it.”
Lucia tensed up and blinked several times. “Now? Right now?”
“Yes. Right now. I’m tired of both of us moping about.” He whirled around as he spoke, waving for her to follow, and she did.
For better or worse, they were bound for Denerim.
Chapter 18: Enough Room for the Maker
Teenage Nathaniel has a lot going on in his life, and his return to Highever does not go exactly as he expects it to.
Thanks all for the patience with my updating. I've been busy these past few weeks, and it's just taken a bit more time than usual! This is a very fun, very dialogue-heavy chapter with a lot of information that'll be important for later, so I hope you all enjoy!
Highever, 9:21 Dragon
It had been an interesting year for Nathaniel, to say the least. In fact, interesting was a rather positive spin on the things that transpired since his prior visit to Highever. Fergus’ involvement with “that Antivan tart” enraged Father as it effectively ruined his chances of a match between the heir to Highever and Delilah. It was a similar rage to that which he displayed when Teyrn Cousland refused to arrange a marriage between Thomas and Liss. He’d spent much of the year fussing about being “thwarted at every turn.” Perhaps Nathaniel had been too young to understand it before, but he could see now, the alliance between the Howes and Couslands was very much one-sided and based upon conditions. Conditions that were slowly slipping out of his father’s grasping fingers.
It seemed the man’s primary mission in life had become finding suitable matches for all three of his children, including Nathaniel, which was particularly odd considering all previous indications suggested that his father wanted him alone and miserable. “Suitable” also meant that he was still not permitted to pursue Liss, however. His father still held onto hope that Thomas could woo her and Nathaniel was thrust in front of countless minor lords and their beautiful, yet ridiculously passive daughters with personalities like sacks of flour.
It was unfair of him, he knew. They were perfectly lovely young women who he was certain would come out of their flour sacks with time and attention. They just weren’t her. Nobody ever would be. The thought that he might forever be dissatisfied worried him terribly. It also caused him to resent his little brother. Cheerful, handsome, Thomas with his curled ringlets of hair and dark eyes who looked so much like Mother it ached. He did not deserve hard feelings, and Nathaniel was cautious to never show them.
“Nate,” Thomas had asked one day, hovering at the doorway to his room, “Can I talk to you about something?”
Nathaniel sat his book down, and straightened up. “You can always talk to me, Tom.”
“Can we,” he looked down and wrung his hands, an unusual self-conscious state for the boisterous boy, “Go somewhere nobody will hear?”
“I’m sure that if you come in and shut the door nobody will hear. What’s the matter?”
Thomas had just lowered his head somberly and refused to say a word until Nathaniel agreed to walk up to the secluded portion of the battlements with him. He would have told Thomas to find Delilah instead if it hadn’t seemed so urgent. She was better at the whole talking and reassuring thing.
“So,” Nathaniel said with a sigh as he leaned out over the battlements, spring wind rustling his hair. “Are you going to tell me what’s going on, or am I supposed to guess?” He smiled to show he was not as irritated as he sounded.
“I don’t want to marry that Cousland girl,” Thomas blurted, slamming his fists on the parapet.
“You wouldn’t be marrying her now, Tom.” He laughed despite the bitterness.
“I don’t want to marry her ever.”
“Why not,” Nathaniel asked, offended and relieved at the same time, “What’s wrong with her?”
“Nothing,” he explained, “And that’s the problem. She’s beautiful and perfect and I see why you love her, but I don’t think I ever could. Not like that at least.”
“Like what,” Nathaniel teased though he knew what his brother meant and Thomas shot him a look that could have killed.
His brother sighed and slumped forward, elbows on the parapet, face in his hands. “That’s why I wanted to talk to you. I need to tell you something, and you can’t tell Father or Delilah or anyone.”
“You have my word.”
“Remember when you told me that you sometimes think that other boys are just as beautiful as girls?” He rose up and fidgeted when Nathaniel nodded.
“Well… I have never seen a girl that I liked in that way, ever. I thought I just hadn’t, you know, seen the right one yet, but…” Thomas trailed off, shook his head, and furrowed his brows thoughtfully. “I just don’t think I like girls.”
“I see,” Nathaniel said with a sympathetic nod.
“I’ll still do what I’m supposed to,” Thomas asserted, lifting his chin proudly, “I’ll marry a pretty girl, have a family, carry on the name. I’ll do as Father asks, but it won’t be with Elissa.”
“Tom.” No fourteen year old boy should have to be thinking about such things. No sixteen year old boy should either. Not really.
“I’m not going to do that to you. Or her. It would just make you both hate me, I think.” He nodded decisively.
“I appreciate that,” Nathaniel said, placing a hand on Thomas’ shoulder and meeting his gaze, “But how in Andraste’s name are you going to keep Father off your arse about it?”
“I will be horribly bad at wooing,” Thomas laughed, “Actually, I might not have to pretend. Father might even ask you to take me under your wing and teach me.”
“You act like I’m some expert or something. I promise you I’m not.”
“Then how come I saw you kissing all those banns’ daughters?” Thomas elbowed him.
“You saw that?” He panicked briefly, attempting to remember which bann’s daughters. They were all the same to him in that they were not Liss. Memorable as kissing washcloths. He was a horrible person.
“You weren’t exactly hiding it, in the middle of the courtyard like that.”
“Well, they offered. It would have been rude to refuse,” Nathaniel said matter-of-factly and then sighed, “I have to make father believe I am at least trying. If he thinks I am holding out to be with Liss… I don’t know that he will let me go back to Highever.”
“Oh. Right.” Thomas frowned. “I think it’s stupid father won’t let you be with her. I don’t know why it needs to be me. You’re the heir. He should let you be the heir.”
“I don’t even know that she would want to be with me,” he answered, shaking his head, “But, thank you, Tom. That means a lot to me.”
That conversation had been just weeks ago, but it still rang so clearly in Nathaniel’s mind as he hopped from the carriage, grabbed his things, and made his way to the gates of Highever’s Castle. Its grey stone walls stood just as they had years ago, stark against the pleasant backdrop of the Waking Sea. It was not nearly as imposing as it had been when he’d first visited. In fact, nothing was as imposing as it had been back then, not even his father.
Thomas’ decision to deceive Father motivated Nathaniel to consider the same. What would be the harm in confessing his feelings to Liss, after all? If she reciprocated, he could explain that it would need to be a secret until he was old enough that he could tell his father where to shove his stupid rules. She would understand, surely. Still, there would always be the danger of them being found out by others and father punishing him, shaming her. There was also the possibility that Liss would not feel the same. Then what?
He shook his head, and trudged forward. It didn’t matter considering that he was too much of a bloody coward.
”Ho,” Fergus greeted with a cheerful wave as Nathaniel entered the courtyard through the castle gates, “Welcome back, Nate!”
A woman stood at his side, tall and slender with auburn hair that was braided and decorated with metal pieces that glinted in the sunlight. Her clothing was unusual and far from being practical enough to be of Ferelden make. Fergus’ hand clutched her waist comfortably, as she looked up at him with an almost sickening admiration.
“Fergus,” he called back, closing the distance, and directing his attention to the woman and bowed his head respectfully, “You must be Lady Oriana.”
“I am not a lady,” she replied with a chuckle, her accent thick and charming, “But my Fergus has told me it would be pointless to argue with you about it.”
“Probably,” Nathaniel said, shrugging and smiling.
“That’s just Nate,” Fergus explained, moving away from Oriana and drawing Nathaniel in a brief hug, “He’s like that with everyone. I think he’d be a big hit if he ever visited a brothel.”
“Fergus,” Oriana gasped, scandalized.
“What?” He continued with a laugh despite her bright blue eyes glaring up at him. “I’m just saying he’d make several ‘ladies’ there blush with all that chivalry of his.”
She scolded him again, shaking her head this time and turning her eyes to Nathaniel, “I apologize on his behalf. I don’t know what’s gotten into him.”
“No, I’m sorry,” Nathaniel laughed, “You’re the one who has to put up with him.”
“Someone has to,” she said, pressing a kiss to his cheek and tousling his hair.
“Damn it, woman,” Fergus grumbled and raked his fingers through his hair to smooth it back down.
“Uh-uh,” Oriana replied, wagging her finger, “According to Nathaniel, I’m a lady. You should address me accordingly.”
“‘Damn it, my lady,’ just sounds ridiculous.”
“How is that any different from the rest of the things you say?” Nathaniel chimed in and Oriana laughed.
“I like him,” she exclaimed.
“Unfortunately, so do I,” Fergus remarked dryly.
“Well,” she said, looking between the two of them, “Who am I to keep you from catching up? Besides, I am due for some evening tea with your mother and Elissa.”
“ Maker, don’t keep them waiting. Mum’ll get bored and pick a fight, and Liss will stomp off to her room crying.”
“If your sister even shows up.” Oriana frowned and looked down at the ground, kicking at the grass.
“She will,” Fergus said softly, tilting her chin up and kissing her briefly on the lips. It was both endearing and annoying. ”She gave me her word.”
With that, Oriana turned and headed toward the entrance to the main hall, Fergus watching her proudly as she left. He turned to Nathaniel, scowl painting his face as soon as she was out of sight.
“I hope Liss shows up,” he remarked tersely, bringing his hand to his face. “She’s always loved older girls, looked up to them. Now, there’s one that’s actually important to me, and she doesn’t seem to like her.”
“That’s not it.” Nathaniel shook his head, recalling a conversation he had with her the previous summer.
“She’s worried that you are going to forget about her, now that you’re in love.”
“That’s… dumb. I would never! She’s my sister, for Andraste’s sake. Why would she think that?”
“Maybe because you forgot to write to her while you were away.”
“I did, didn’t I,” he asked wistfully, “I was just...er, distracted.”
“Right. Of course,” Nathaniel laughed, “She made me promise I wouldn’t forget about her, when I fall in love, too.”
“Are you ever going to tell her how you feel?” Fergus tilted his head to the side and looked at him with a concerned expression.
Nathaniel just shrugged and Fergus seemed to accept that as an answer as he didn’t press further. Instead, he changed the subject, sharing stories from his summer away in Antiva to meet Oriana’s family. He spoke very briefly about the country and her family, choosing to save the painstaking detail for the things he and Oriana had and had not done while they were there and since they’d been back, and Nathaniel could have done without knowing most of it. Still, he wasn’t going to interrupt.
Eventually, the conversation dwindled and Nathaniel parted with Fergus, tired from the long trip, and desperately wanting to drop his things down on the floor in his room and flop face first into the bed. He’d speak with everyone else in the morning.
Turning the knob and pushing open the heavy wooden door with his shoulder, Nathaniel looked up to see that the room was occupied. Rather intimately so, as two very familiar girls sat on the bed, arms wrapped around one another, fingers tangled in hair as they kissed. His heart sank, and he stiffened, clearing his throat to make sure they noticed he was there. He had no right to be upset and yet jealousy boiled under his skin at the sight of Liss and Rila together.
Both girls darted their heads toward Nathaniel with horrified expressions, scooting apart so that they were a polite distance away from one another, what Delilah would have called “leaving enough room for the Maker.”
“N-nate,” Liss said, standing up and straightening her skirt. It was the first time since the first summer that she hadn’t embraced him first thing. Instead, she bit her lip and looked frantically between him and Rila who looked as if she were about to cry. “I’m in your room again.”
“You are,” he acknowledged with a nod, “But don’t let me spoil the fun. I’ll just set my things down and come back later.”
“No, no,” she rushed to him and placed her hands on his arm. “You don’t have to--.”
“Liss,” Rila interrupted, voice strained with emotion, “You promised it would be safe here.”
“It is. It’s just Nate, and he won’t tell anyone,” she insisted, then looked at him with a plea in her eyes, “You won’t tell anyone, right?”
“No,” he said and watched the relief wash over her face. He could not say the same for the elven girl who still looked at them both with wide eyes.
“I’m sorry,” Rila muttered shaking her head and pushing past them to leave the room, “I”m going to… go.”
“Ri! Wait,” Liss called after her, but she didn’t listen, “Ugh.”
Liss sighed and groaned, walking back to Nathaniel’s bed and flopping down backwards, hands pressed into her face. Nathaniel stood frozen in place, not certain what would be appropriate to say or do in such a situation. He only knew that it would be wrong to let his hurt feelings change the way he treated her.
“I’m sorry,” she mumbled from beneath her own hands, “I’m stupid and I’m sorry.”
Nathaniel laughed and dared to walk over and sit down on the bed beside her. “You’re not stupid.”
“Oh, but I am. Papa told me you’d be coming today, and I didn’t even think... “ She shook her head. “I’m embarrassed.”
“It’s pretty embarrassing,” Nathaniel echoed, and Liss glared up at him through her fingers. “What? It’s the truth.”
“I’d say it wasn’t what it looked like, but it is exactly what it looked like,” Liss sat up and crossed her legs beneath her. She laughed and shook her head. “What must you think of me?”
“Nothing bad,” he said, unconsciously bringing a hand up to brush a loose curl from her face, but retracting it quickly when he realized what he was doing. “Kissing is nice.”
“It really is,” she explained, “And with all of this Fergus and Oriana stuff, I’ve just felt so lone -- oh no.”
“I was supposed to have tea with Mama and Oriana,” she tapped her forehead with the heel of her hand repeatedly. “I promised Fergus, and I really meant to go this time. I just got… distracted. I should go talk to him.”
Liss stood up. “I should also go talk to Rila, shouldn’t I?”
She nodded at him and smiled, scurrying out the door and closing it behind her. A few seconds passed before the door swung back open and Liss ran back into the room. She threw her arms around him and squeezed tightly, pressing her lips to his cheek and pulling away.
“Welcome back, Nate, ” she said in a way that warmed his whole body, “I missed you. We can catch up tomorrow, okay?”
Nathaniel nodded and Liss whirled around and exited the room, leaving him to go to bed as he originally intended. He laid down, closed his eyes, and hoped the full pain in his chest would go away eventually.
Chapter 19: Predictable
Home is where the hurt is.
Just a trigger warning. There are some mentions of trauma symptoms. Take care of yourselves.
The Fereldan Countryside, 9:31 Dragon
Cold, morning air pricked Liss’ skin as her eyes flickered open, blinking away the darkness of sleep. She shuddered even beneath two heavy blankets, warmed only by the memory of the night before that made her face burn hot and her stomach flutter. It could very well have been a dream. Her imagination was fairly vivid, after all, and it was not uncommon for her to dream about kissing handsome men under the stars. Those dreams, however, had ceased since the night her family died. She only had bad dreams now.
No, kissing Alistair wasn’t a dream, nor was him holding her afterward, sharing his warmth until she fell asleep. Perhaps he had fallen asleep, too. She couldn’t remember, but she could still smell him in her hair and on her clothes, and her lips still tingled with the memory of his. A smile twitched at those same lips as she sat up and stretched briefly before drawing the blankets back up around her. Damn the winter for existing.
Looking around the makeshift camp, she noticed Alistair standing near the horses, still as a statue, staring off in the distance toward Amaranthine. Remnants of smoke clouds lingered in the sky. What had the Wardens done? Were they all right? She supposed Alistair probably wondered the same.
Liss rose to her feet and walked over to him, footsteps intentionally loud so as to not startle the jumpy man. Closing the distance, she slid her arms through his and clasped her hands over his abdomen, pressing her cheek against his back. He tensed beneath her touch, spine stiffening and he held his breath.
“Oh, sorry,” she said, pulling away from him quickly, “I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“You didn’t. Not exactly,” he answered with a heavy sigh as he turned to face her, pointing toward the smokey sky, “That’s Amaranthine, isn’t it?”
Liss just nodded slowly and watched concern wash over Alistair’s face, knitting his brow and causing his lower lip to tremble. Maker, was he going to cry?
“Well,” he announced very suddenly, wiping at his eyes with a thumb and index finger that he brought together to pinch the bridge of his nose. He sniffed and continued, “It’s probably just… a funeral pyre to destroy all the rotten darkspawn corpses. Can’t leave them just lying about. That’s how you get diseases.”
“Ali,” Liss soothed, placing a hand on his cheek.
Alistair put his large hand over hers, which she had never thought to be small until now, and squeezed it briefly before dragging it down and away from his face and letting go. He brought his eyes up to look at her, and the expression shattered her heart. She knew what that look meant, where it led, and that she had nobody and nothing to blame but her own impulsive self. Instinctively, she took a step back from him.
“Liss, I’m so… sorry,” Alistair said. It was an introduction, a preface to what he actually wanted to say.
“This is about the kiss, isn’t it?” She stole the gut punch from him. If she said all the things first, it couldn’t hurt her as much. “I knew I should have asked. It was a dumb, careless idea. I’m an idiot.”
“Yes, I mean no...um.” Alistair huffed and tried again. “What I mean to say is: Yes. This is about the kiss, but no you’re not an idiot.”
“Was it bad?” That was a dumb, pointless question that just fell out of her mouth.
“Maker, no. No! It was very nice,” he answered waving his hands frantically and then settling, “But it shouldn’t have happened.”
”I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to overstep. I’m just horrible at reading people sometimes.”
“You have nothing to be sorry for.” He reached out as if to touch her shoulder, but stopped and let his hand fall to his side. “You didn’t overstep. I…enjoyed it, but it was wrong.”
“Why?” She hated the hurt in her voice but was unable to stop it. She laughed to brush it off and added, “It was just a kiss.”
“No it wasn’t, Liss.” Alistair dropped his head, “It meant something.”
“Is it so bad for it to mean something?”
“Yes.” He brought his eyes back up to hers again. The word was hard, cold, even in his sympathy, that he might as well have thrown an icicle at her. “It’s just - ”
“I understand,” she said just as coldly, and moved to start packing up her things if only to keep him from seeing her cry. “It is pretty obvious that your heart is elsewhere.”
“Liss,” he muttered and she snapped her eyes up to him causing him to look away.
“No, I get it.” She laughed angrily, and it wasn’t even Alistair she was mad at, not really. “It’s hard to move on from something special. Sometimes you waste years and years of your life trying to fill that hole, but nothing ever does. Nothing even comes close. Maybe you even start to realize that you’re not really you without that person, and that your best memories are with them. Only now, they’re gone, and the thought of that person makes you unbearably sad. So you shut it out, you make jokes, and you convince everyone you’re fine, but you’re not. You’re miserable, and the only person who can fix it, the only one in the world you want to see, isn’t there.”
Liss began to roughly ready her horse, and continued, “Maybe you end up kissing a good friend on a whim for comfort. It’s nice and warm and you feel whole again, but it’s just for a moment because surprise, you’ve somehow now made yourself feel ten times worse than you did before, damned for even trying to be happy.”
Alistair blinked at her silently and frowned. “I didn’t tell you about any of that.”
“I never said it was about you,” Liss answered through her teeth and climbed up onto her horse, “Come on. We can talk about this later if you wish. Right now, I just really want to see my brother.”
Painful, awkward silence hovered over them as they made the final leg of their journey to Highever, and Liss was haunted with the immediate echo of the things she’d said. Out loud. She squirmed in her saddle and focused every ounce of her energy on not thinking about it, yet she still thought about it anyway. About him. Nate. It finally happened. Years of hiding and hurting and it all came out just like that. They were feelings she didn’t need. Especially not as she was about to face home for the first time since… well, everything.
As soon as they reached the city gates, Alistair parted with Liss to pay his respects to Duncan as she made her way to her family’s castle. She stood at the gates for what felt like an eternity, staring up the length of the large wooden doors while her stomach twisted into increasingly intricate knots. A warrior stomach, it was, braided for the battle to come.
“I’m ready,” she said with a deep breath, nodding to the guards who pushed open the doors and held them for her to enter in to the courtyard. It was quiet and empty, as it was in the winter, the only signs of life were the soldiers that lined the battlements. She passed another pair of guards through another set of doors to reach the main hall, large, open, and warm. It was filled with the sound of chatter and servants milling about at their jobs.
“Lady Cousland,” one woman exclaimed, clearly recognizing Liss, though Liss could not return the recognition. “We were not expecting you.”
“My apologies,” Liss answered, “I know it is polite to send word ahead.”
“No matter,” the woman said, “The Teyrn is in the middle of a meeting with some representatives from Amaranthine, but I will let him know you are here.”
“Thank you, uh…”
“Thank you, Isobel,” Liss said with a smile, “You can tell the Teyrn that I will be wandering the halls. He’ll have to find me.”
Isobel eyed her curiously, likely due to the complete deviance from etiquette, but bowed anyway and left to retrieve Fergus. Liss remained in the main hall for a few moments, breathing and taking in the scenery. It looked as it always had, smelled as it always had, and sounded the very same. Yet it was a different place entirely. Everything that had once made it home was gone. Liss did not know what to make of it, nor if it could ever feel like home again. Tears burned in her eyes at the thought of all that Howe had taken from her.
She tore away from the main hall, not wanting to be seen were she to lose her composure, and ambled up a flight of stairs that led to the living quarters. A mistake, she knew, but the only relatively private place in the castle. Her chest tightened, breath becoming panicked and shallow as she approached the door to her room. Each time she blinked she could see pools of blood on the floor. She heard screams and smelled iron, remembered Oren and Oriana’s lifeless faces. It was all her fault. Thoughts raced and swirled in her head. She should have stopped it, done more, died trying. All the things she’d only revisited in nightmares were crashing down on her all at once and she was suffocating.
Liss passed by her own room frantically, unable to even look at it, opting instead to turn down an adjacent hallway, the guest wing, running until she reached the very end. She turned to face the door immediately to her right, the last room in the hall. It was Nathaniel’s, or at least the one he had used during his summers there. How many times had she run down that hall to hide, to be comforted, to see her friend? How many times had she gone into his room when he wasn’t there just to feel closer to him, or just because it felt like the safest place in the world? Of course her feet carried her there now. It only made sense.
Grabbing a torch from the wall, she pressed down on the door knob gently, hand shaking, and let herself into the room. It was dark and cold from too many vacant days, but otherwise the same as she remembered it, perhaps the only place in the castle untouched by recent events. She hung the torch in an empty sconce and moved to examine the rows of dusty books that lined the shelves. Most were boring, standard-issue texts on the history of Ferelden, tactical manuals, and refuse from Aldous’ collection. One book stood out, however. It was smaller, leather bound, and crammed between two volumes of Brother Genetivi’s writings. She pulled it out and examined the cover as she kicked off her boots. Fereldan Myths and Folklore.
She’d read the book many times over, of course. It was nothing new, but perfect for keeping her mind busy until Fergus came for her. She climbed up on the bed and sat, back straight against the headboard. As she fanned through the pages, she frowned at the sight of a page that had been folded down at the corner. It was one of the shorter tales in the book, a chilling legend called “The Baroness of the Blackmarsh.” Her heart fluttered as she noticed charming little letters in black ink, straight and sharp-edged, cluttering the margins at the sides. Nate.
The tale was simple. It warned travelers of the Blackmarsh to be wary as they wandered through, making sure to think of the Maker, place Prophet’s Laurel under the tongue, and carry a vial of Lyrium to ward away the demons that whispered in the dark. Supposedly people who passed through the Blackmarsh reported hearing voices, seeing faces of the dead in the water, and becoming tangled in trees that grabbed at their clothing like gnarly, jagged hands. These events were blamed on a wicked baroness who practiced blood magic to maintain her youth and beauty. The Veil was bound to be thin in such places after all.
Liss glanced over to read Nate’s notes at the side.
“Not the whole story. Baroness was well-loved by her people after she saved them from a dragon. Something bad must have happened.”
She smiled. Leave it to Nate to take a folk legend seriously. Then again, hadn’t he visited the Marsh? Perhaps there was more truth to the myth than it seemed. She scanned her eyes over the rest of the page, noting another brief message at the bottom.
“Liss, if you read this while I’m gone, I’m not being too serious, so stop thinking it.”
Liss flinched and read the words again. How dare he presume what she was thinking about him, even nine or more years ago, whenever the stupid note was written. And how dare he assume she’d pilfer through his things. She may have invaded his personal space on a regular basis, but she drew the line at pilfering. Arse.
Still, the smile that curved at her lips deepened and tears dripped onto the page as she ran her fingers over the writing. The droplets startled her, and she reached up to wipe them from her face, unaware that she was even crying. Maker, she missed him, and it was easier to breathe just admitting to it. She missed him.
“There you are,” a familiar voice rang out, causing her to start. She looked up to see Fergus standing in the doorway, a sad, knowing grin on his face, “I should have known to look here first.”
“Am I so predictable?”
“Yes, actually.” Fergus stepped into the room to stand at the foot of the bed, tracing the wooden footboard with the fingertips of one hand. His other arm hung unusually limply at his side. Had he been hurt? “If I knew you were coming, I would have greeted you at the gate, and you wouldn’t have had to face the castle alone... or hide in here to find some little shred of Nathaniel to comfort you.”
“That’s not - “
“I may not be as smart as you, but I’m not an idiot.” Fergus moved over to where she sat on the bed and rested his big, heavy hand on her head, shaking it slightly and causing her head to move around.
Liss grumbled and slapped his hand away. “I came with a friend, a last minute kind of thing, or I would have written ahead. Believe me when I say I would have much preferred by glorious return home to not have ended with me a pitiful weeping mess, but I just don’t think there’s a way around it.”
“There wasn’t for me,” he said with a sigh, staring blankly off into the air, “That’s what it takes to get past it, I think.”
“It’s good to see you, Fergus,” Liss muttered weakly, not really wanting to spend the entire visit with her brother stuck in the past. “How are you?”
He laughed and shook his head, looking back at her. “As well as I can be, considering. And you?” He winced and grasped the limp arm.
“I’ve been better,” Liss replied absently, setting the book aside and sliding to her feet. She grabbed his arm and examined it through the sleeve. A bulky spot rose up under the material just by his shoulder, a bandage. “What happened to your arm?”
“You won’t believe it,” he said, raising his eyebrows.
“So it’s a good story, then?”
“Depends.” His grin was so wide she could count his teeth, not that she wanted to.
“Well, go on. Out with it,” she said dryly, sitting down on the edge of the bed “Lest I die from suspense.”
“Well, I was in the Coastlands, on my way to see what was going on in Amaranthine. I’d heard nothing from the Arlessa, Warden-Commander -- whatever she is-- for weeks, and that pillar of smoke was concerning.” Fergus paced about in front of the bed, gesturing emphatically. “On my way, I was cornered by some bandits, well… they weren’t actually bandits. They were some men who’d escaped the fire and darkspawn in the city, who were just desperate for money.
“Anyway, one of them managed to slash my arm and knock me from my horse. I fell to the ground and hit my head. I was dizzy, and my ears were ringing. I thought I was done for.”
Fergus paused and looked to Liss expectantly, and she obliged him with a response. “Don’t you know how to defend yourself? Mother would be so very disappointed.”
Fergus rolled his eyes, but continued with the same level of enthusiasm. “It didn’t take long for me to notice the men had stopped their attack, and the one who landed the blow to my arm was on the ground clutching a wounded leg. The others were yelling at this Grey Warden, blaming him for the loss of their families and livelihoods.”
Liss leaned forward, chin in her hands. “A Grey Warden?”
He nodded. “A Grey Warden. One of the men tossed a dagger at him, but then another Grey Warden showed up, this mage who made roots come up from the ground to shield her comrade.”
“No, I’m serious.” He shook his head and she believed him. “The men called her some unkind names and she was going to attack them, but the other Warden stopped her and began to talk to the men, sympathize with them. He said he understood and vowed to make it up to them if they’d give him the chance.”
“Mighty noble of someone they just tried to murder,” she said tapping her chin.
“Well,” Fergus said, dropping his gaze to the ground as he kicked at the floor with the toe of his boot, “You know how Nate is.”
Liss’ breath caught in her throat, a noticeable, horribly embarrassing gasp escaping her. She would have sworn her heart stopped for a moment. “Nate?”
“A Grey Warden?”
“Mhmm.” Fergus nodded and continued on to explain how Nathaniel had landed among the Wardens’ ranks, how he’d returned believing his father had been murdered and his family disgraced for no reason. How he believed he needed to avenge them, but decided to just gather some of his family’s belongings instead, and how he’d been captured and branded a thief for doing so. He would have died had it not been for the Warden-Commander.
“That’s good,” Liss said half-heartedly, “I’m glad he’s not dead.”
Fergus stared at her skeptically for a moment before speaking. “That’s it? I can’t say you’re as excited as I thought you’d be. Still pissed he never wrote?”
“I’ll always be pissed about that. How hard is it to write one damn letter?”
“Pretty hard, depending on who you ask.” Fergus tried and failed to lighten the mood.
“I miss him,” she said, her voice cracking, “And I want him to miss me too.”
Fergus pulled her into an embrace and squeezed tightly, sighing into her hair. “I think you should tell him that.”
“Why,” she asked sharply, voice muffled by Fergus’ shirt, “So he can ignore me for another nine years?”
“No, you idiot,” Fergus said with a frustrated laugh, “So maybe you can be happy again.”
“I don’t know if that’s possible, Fergus,” she rasped, tears falling freely and dampening his shirt, “I forgot how.”
“Me too, Sis.” He kissed her hair. “But we have to try.”
Chapter 20: More Than Anyone
It would be better if everyone could live in a world where they could be with whoever they wanted.
Highever, 9:21 Dragon
Liss had been in trouble plenty of times, but she had never been in “sit in Papa’s chair in his office while he and Mama pace about angrily” trouble. She actually wasn’t certain who to be more afraid of at the moment: Her mother, who ranted and scolded and lectured and scolded some more, or her father who tapped his chin quietly as he read over a small scroll of parchment in his hand. She decided they were equally bad, and she wanted to toss herself into the nearest waste bin, melt into the floor —something, anything to escape her parents disappointment and scrutiny.
It didn’t help that she wasn’t even sure what she had done yet. She’d been telling Nate, well actually expounding in great detail to Nate, about Orzammar and Dwarven Culture. Specifically, she’d been discussing brontos, how they were rare in Northern Ferelden, and what she would sell to see one. Namely, her left arm. He had gently encouraged her not to do that and then her parents walked in, pale and scowling. Whatever it was, she was done for.
Papa stopped reading and pacing and sat the parchment down on the desk in front of Liss, sliding it to her. She blinked up at him to make sure he meant for her to read it and he nodded. His eyes were still gentle, but she could tell he was trying hard to hide it. It was good that he wasn’t too stern because Mama was mean enough for the both of them when she wanted to be.
Looking down at the note, Liss saw lines of neatly written letters, nothing elaborate as a scribe would produce, however. Her stomach sank as she began to read aloud.
To My Lord and Lady Cousland,
It is with much sorrow that I ask to be released from my duties here at your castle, so that my daughter and I may move and begin our lives elsewhere. I am concerned with the relationship between my Rila, and Lady Elissa, and what it might mean for both of them. I harbor no hard feelings toward your family, but I have lived long enough to know what happens when elven servants become involved romantically with nobility. I would hate for either of our daughters to be a part of such a scandal. They care for one another deeply, I can tell, but it is hard for them to understand how serious it is. I think it is best if I remove Rila from the situation altogether.
I am grateful for your family’s kindness in many ways.
She looked up from the note, tears hot in her eyes and rolling down her face as she looked at her father. Even less stern than before, he still shook his head to indicate his disapproval. Her mother grew quiet, eyes filled with concern even through her obvious anger.
“We told you to leave that girl alone,” she said coldly, words clipped at the end, “We made it very, very clear that you were not to even be friends with her, let alone more than that.”
“Why,” Liss cried, more tears falling, “Why can’t we be together? It’s not fair.”
“Elissa,” Papa sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose, “Pup, I wish that we lived in a world where you could be with whoever you wanted. I wish I could give that to you, but I can’t. Unfortunately, there are those among the noble houses of Ferelden who would view your relationship with Rila as political leverage against our family. They’d use it to hurt us and you. Rila, too.”
“Sweetheart,’ Mama said, softening finally, “Can you not see that we are protecting you, just as Rila’s mother is protecting her? You are lucky Deveni is a kind person. No telling who she could have sold this information to otherwise.”
Papa furrowed his brows, thinking, and looked at Liss. “How many people know about you and Rila, that you know of?”
“Just Nathaniel,” Liss replied with a sniffle, “I didn’t even tell Fergus.”
He shrugged. “Wise choice. That boy couldn’t keep a secret if his life depended on it.”
Liss disagreed. Fergus was very good at keeping secrets -- the best-- but she didn’t feel like suffering his teasing, or putting him in an awkward position with their parents. Besides, he had enough on is plate, spending every waking minute with lovely Oriana. Liss couldn’t blame him. She was perfect, after all.
“Do you trust Nathaniel?” Her mother’s question was sincere and curious, though Liss was taken aback. Of course she did!
“More than anyone,” Liss answered with a nod, and her parents both raised their eyebrows and looked at one another.
“Even us,” Papa asked.
Guilt washed over her, but she told the truth anyway. “Yes.”
“Well,” he replied with a chuckle, “Better hold on to him. People like that are hard to find.”
Mama nodded along in agreement, and they all sat in a tense silence for a few moments before Liss gathered the courage to speak again.
“Could I, um,” she began, heart climbing up her throat, “Could I at least say goodbye to Rila?”
Again, her parents looked at one another and then back to her with sympathetic expressions.
“Pup, Rila and her mother left this morning,” Papa explained, placing his hand on her shoulder. “I’m sorry.”
Liss choked back the sob that followed and took a deep breath, eyes focused on the grain of the wood of her father’s desk. “Are we done talking?”
“Yes,” Mama said gently, “You can go, if you want to.”
That was all the permission she needed to jump up from the chair, and dart out of the room leaving her parents with their tired and worried expressions behind. Her heart was broken, shattered at the notion that her parents waited until Rila was gone to tell her any of this. That she couldn’t even say goodbye to the girl she loved. What if she blamed Liss? It was her fault, after all. Rila had always been worried that it was a bad idea, and Liss just ignored her concerns. Liss probably deserved all the heartache, considering.
When she looked up, the door to Nate’s room stood before her. She hated that she always wound up there when she was sad. Nate made her feel better, but what if it was the same with Rila, and he just felt like he had to comfort her? She didn’t exactly give him a choice, spilling her guts over and over without even asking if he cared to hear it. What if he actually resented her for it? She stared at his door a few moments longer and spun on her heels to walk away. It would be selfish of her to bother him with something like this again.
Liss had only taken a couple of steps when the sound of a door creaking open echoed through the hallway. “Liss? You okay?”
She turned back to look at him immediately, and judging by the look on his face, she didn’t have to answer. “I’m sorry, I just… I’m…”
“Want to talk about it?” He motioned with his head for her to come in, and she nodded, walking slowly, ashamedly past Nate and into his room.
Liss sat down unceremoniously on the floor by his bed, wrapping her arms around her legs and pressing her forehead to her knees. She trembled as she fought the urge to release the sob she’d been holding since she’d run from Papa’s office. It wasn’t long before there was a warmth at her side and arms pulling her over into an embrace, Nate’s arms, hugging her first . His chin was on her head, and were she not so overwhelmingly sad, she might be flustered.
“Sorry to bother you,” she mumbled against his chest.
“You’re not,” he reassured her, “The only time you’ve ever bothered me is when you woke me up in the middle of the night to tell me about Warden Garahel and the Fourth Blight.”
“Yeah, that could have waited until the morning.”
“You think?” He laughed, and it vibrated against her cheek. There was a pause and he continued, “What’s wrong, Liss?”
“My parents found out about Rila,” she explained,”Which wouldn’t have been that bad, but the reason they found out was because her mother wrote them a letter to request permission to leave her job here and find work somewhere else. She and Rila left this morning. I didn’t even get to tell her goodbye.”
Her lip quivered despite her efforts to keep it steady, and she became more and more upset with each word. She grasped at the fabric of Nate’s shirt, and he held her more tightly as she released that stubborn sob.
“I’m sorry,” he said, nearly whispering, “I know you love her.”
“I’m not sure. I mean, I feel like I love her, but… you don’t put someone you love in a situation like I did with Rila, do you?” Her tears began to fall more slowly, though her chest still ached. “No matter how much your heart wants you to.”
“It’s hard not to listen to your heart.”
“Why can’t we live in a world where it doesn’t matter?” She leaned back and looked up at Nate who stared off into the distance until he noticed her eyes on him and brought his to meet them. “We could love who we wanted.”
“It’d be nice, wouldn’t it?
“What about you,” she asked, pulling out of the embrace and leaning back against the side of the bed, “Have you ever loved someone you couldn’t be with?”
There was a pause, but he answered. “I have.”
Liss snapped her head in his direction. She had never imagined Nate loving anyone, or being with anyone in any romantic capacity. He’d never really talked about it like Fergus did. He seemed completely uninterested. It hurt, how much she did not know about this side of him, but it was her fault that she never thought to ask.
“Really?” She raised an eyebrow.
“Is it that hard to believe?”
“No, it’s just… I thought you’d tell me something like that, is all.” She couldn't really disguise the hurt that lingered at the end of that statement. She couldn’t tell if she was more hurt over the fact that he kept the secret, or that it existed in the first place. She hated the jealousy that gnawed at her. She had no right.
“It’s hard to talk about,” he explained, dropping his head, “Sometimes I think about what might happen if I told her how I felt, but…it’s a bad idea. Father has forbidden it, and I don’t know if she even feels the same way about me.”
New tears formed in Liss’ eyes, and they weren’t for Rila this time. She reached over to take Nate’s hand, lacing her fingers through his. .
“Sorry,” he said and shook his head, squeezing her hand more tightly, “I didn’t mean to make this about me.”
“You didn’t. I’m the one who asked.” She shrugged. “Besides, things are about me enough.”
“I wish…,” Nate began, but paused as if reconsidering what he was going to say. He frowned and continued. “I wish that I could tell you about her.”
“You can.” She perked up.
“I really can’t.”
“Is she beautiful,” Liss asked and a smile twitched at the corner of Nate’s mouth. She grinned. “Oh, so she is then?”
“She’s the most beautiful person I’ve ever met, in every way. Not just on the outside.” He sighed and looked at her, pale eyes sparkling intently. “She doesn’t even realize it, though. It’s frustrating how average she thinks she is.”
For a brief moment, Liss could have sworn he was talking about her, the way their eyes met, but that was stupid. Nate wouldn’t think about her that way. She wasn’t beautiful enough.
“Wow, she’s lucky,” Liss blurted, and immediately regretted it, “...to have someone feel that way about her, that is.”
“You think so?” Nate laughed, clearly amused.
“If someone said that about me, I’d probably cry.”
“You cry over a lot of things,” Nate teased.
“Yes,” she remarked tersely, frowning, “And I’d cry over that, too.”
Liss almost forgot that she was holding Nate’s hand, until she noticed his thumb grazing hers softly, back and forth. She watched for a moment, an overwhelming rush of feelings flooding through her. It was as natural and easy to hold his hand as it was to interlock her own fingers. She’d never thought much about it; it was just something they did, something they had always done. Now, it meant so much. She tried to imagine a world where she couldn’t hold his hand, and every option made her sad. Sadder than when she found out Rila was gone, sadder than anything.
Maybe she loved Rila, maybe not, but she knew without a shadow of a doubt, that she could never love another person like she loved Nathaniel. She just wished so desperately that he loved her, too, that she was the person he’d been speaking of. She hated the idea that someone could swoop in and take him away from her.
“Liss?” Nate waved a hand in front of her face, and leaned in more closely, squinting. She’d been so lost in her thoughts and she hadn’t even realized.
“Hmm?” She blinked and shook her head, heat rising to her cheeks with the nearness of him.
“You’re about to cry again,” he stated as if it were an indisputable fact.
“No, I’m not,” she protested as tears fell from her eyes.
Nate grabbed her shoulders firmly. “What is it?”
Probably,” he said, dryly, “But it’s making you upset.”
Liss took a deep breath and braced herself for the confession she knew she shouldn’t make. “It’s so much easier to think about the fact that Rila is gone now than it is to think about you having to leave in the future.”
Nate blinked at her beneath furrowed brows, but said nothing, so she continued.
“I don’t know what I’d do without you, Nate,” she explained, throat aching with the emotion she kept trying to hold back.
He laughed, and she wasn’t sure what to make of it. “I’m not going anywhere.”
“What if you do?” She pouted. She must seem like such a child.
“How can you be so sure?”
“Because you are smart, and strong, and kind, and everyone who meets you loves you.” He brought a hand up to wipe a tear from her cheek and let it linger there for a moment. “How could they not?”
“But everyone leaves,” she remarked, more tears replacing those that had fallen before. “Just like Rila.”
“I’m not everyone,” he said, almost sounding annoyed, as he brushed away her tears again. “I’m also not Rila.”
Nate pressed his lips to her forehead briefly and then pulled away, eyes meeting hers, faces hovering close enough together that his breath warmed her face, colliding with hers. Had she not not known any better, she would have thought he wanted to kiss her, and she wouldn’t dare stop him. In fact, she wanted him to do it, welcomed it. She wondered if his lips would be soft, what he’d taste like, and if he’d run his fingers through her hair. Surely, he’d be good at it. He was good at everything else, so it only made sense.
But he didn’t kiss her. Of course, he didn’t. It was Nate for Andraste’s sake! He was too thoughtful and reasonable to ever consider doing something so impulsive as kissing someone who clearly wanted to be kissed, who closed her eyes and waited until she realized he had turned away.
“You don’t have to worry about losing me,” he said, picking at a loose thread on his breeches and then looking up at her. “You’re my best friend, and I won’t let that happen.”
“Swear?” She glared at him through squinted eyes. It was as playful a gesture as she could manage in her disappointment.
“On my life.” He smirked and looked back at her.
Leaning over against him, she looped her left arm through his right, head dropping to his shoulder. He tilted his head so that it was against hers. It wasn’t a kiss, but she’d take it.
“Fine,” she relented, and told him what she had known all along. “I trust you.”