Chapter 1 – The Prisoner
Sarah Cousland rubbed her arm. Even though Anders had healed it, it was still a little bit sore. It would heal on its own, however, and she didn't want to bug the mage any more that night. He had, after all, just survived his Joining and deserved a good night's sleep.
The Joining… Sarah had hoped that Mhairi would've made it. She had rather enjoyed her company on their journey, and it would've been nice to have another woman Warden by her side. But perhaps it would've been a very unwardenlike ceremony if everyone had lived.
"About the prisoner," seneschal Varel said, and Sarah focused her attention. In all honesty, she just wanted to sleep, just like her mabari was doing. Floyd had curled up in front of the fireplace, and was doing the dog version of snoring. Sarah wished she could also curl up by the fire, or preferably under a blanket, but it was clear that the seneschal wanted to get things going again. Things had been going quite well, she'd learnt, until the darkspawn attack. She had been told she would be taking control of a perfectly organized Keep; instead, she found herself with a pile of dead soldiers and the mystery of the missing Wardens to solve on top of arranging all the funerals. And Alistair, well, Alistair couldn't help her much.
He had looked very royal, Sarah had to admit, riding to the Keep in front of the small army, which, as armies often are, was horribly late. Others had bowed in front of Alistair, she'd hugged him. A hug between friends, nothing more, she would have to remind Oghren, who had managed to make an impossibly high amount of suggestive gestures during the one hour that Alistair had spent at the keep.
She found it strange that so many people thought there was, or had been, something going on between her and Alistair. They were both Wardens, yes, and they had spent quite a lot of time together, travelling, fighting darkspawn, talking by the campfire. But from the start they'd been more like brother and sister than two people thrown together by winds of destiny, finding each other in the middle of tragic events that could change the world forever.
"Maybe I should marry you," Alistair had told her when they'd been discussing his current predicament before he left the Keep. "After all, you made me king, so this is partly your fault."
"Things aren't that bad, are they?" Sarah had asked, laughing. "I mean… Isn't there really any noble girl you like?"
"Like as in 'just marry' or 'marry and actually be able to live with'?" Alistair had sighed. "You at least I get along with."
"Yes, but all the marital duties…" Sarah had made a face. "Can you even imagine it?"
"Not really," Alistair had admitted. "It would be like… You're like a sister to me. The nice kind of sister, not like Goldanna. Although, when you think of it, most royal bloodlines are so inbred that marrying someone who only feels like a sister is practically normal."
"Yuck," Sarah had said, which had made Alistair laugh heartily. "I'm sorry I made you king," she had added, smiling a little. "But you'll be better than Cailan. And certainly it'll be better to have you than Anora on the throne. You haven't thought about marrying her, have you?"
"Maker, no!" Alistair had looked almost shocked. "I guess I'll just have to keep looking. But you know, dating is quite difficult when you're king."
"Well, I met lots of noble girls, some of them nice, when my mother still dragged me to all the social gatherings," Sarah had said. "Maybe I could find out what they're up to, see if someone's suitable?"
"Warden-Commander and a matchmaker," Alistair had laughed. "I'm going to miss you, you know."
"And I'll miss you," Sarah had said and they'd hugged. Then his guards had shown up, telling him they would have to leave if they wanted to catch the ship. Alistair had muttered something about being the bloody king and that ships would just have to wait for him, but had then headed out, saying goodbye to Oghren on the way. And then he had been gone, leaving Sarah feeling very tired and alone.
"Sorry, I was…" Sarah mumbled as she realized Varel was staring at her and she had no idea what he'd just said. "I wasn't listening. The prisoner?"
"He broke in and wounded three people before he was captured," Varel explained. "It took four Wardens to take him down, so he's dangerous. And the last words he muttered to me before refusing to speak at all were 'I will find a way to kill your Commander'."
"So not a big fan of the Wardens, then?" Anders said, appearing behind them. "Sorry to bother, I was only wondering where the kitchen is," he added when both Sarah and Varel turned to look at him.
"Through that door and to the left, "Varel said and the mage nodded.
"I don't know, maybe it was slaughtering darkspawn or the horrible thing you made me drink at the Joining, but I'm starving," he grinned.
"Probably both," Sarah said and was awarded a bright smile from the mage. "You should rest."
"I will, don't you worry," Anders said. "I don't want to disappoint you tomorrow with my… performance."
"Please, leave the double entendres to Oghren," Sarah said. Anders seemed to ponder on this and then looked at her, cocking his head.
"I do believe I could do the double entendres, since Oghren's specialty seems to be single entendres. I, for one, haven't had any trouble understanding what he's implying."
"Perhaps you're right," Sarah said. Anders smiled at her again and then headed to the direction Varel had pointed. Sarah turned back to the seneschal, who was rubbing his temples, looking tired.
"I'll go see the prisoner and decided what is to be done with him," Sarah said. "You should get some sleep," she added to the seneschal. "You haven't has what I'd call an easy day."
"Being threatened by a talking darkspawn, that certainly is not easy," Varel laughed. "I'll wait here until you can tell me what we should do about the prisoner. Try to at least find out who he is. There's something strangely familiar about him that I can't put my finger on."
"Alright, I'll see what I can do" Sarah nodded and headed towards the prison. Of course a prison was a necessity in any keep, but there were prisons that were for just holding prisoners, and then there were places such as the dungeon in the estate of arl of Denerim. That place had disgusted her even more than the darkspawn filled Dark Trenches and their horrors, because back in the Dark Trenches she could've comforted herself with the fact that the darkspawn were monsters. It wasn't strange that they tortured and maimed. But to see people, humans, doing things like that to one another… She had wondered how Rendon Howe actually had slept at nights. Or maybe he had needed the cries from his victims to lull him to sleep. She really wished she hadn't thought about that.
She hoped the prison at Vigil's Keep didn't reflect arl Howe's obsession with pain. If it did, she would have to order most of the soldiers Alistair had left her to tear down every single torture device. She wanted nice prison, even though the concept was a little amusing, but nevertheless, a prison that was for keeping prisoners, not destroying them. A prison with the right purpose, like the one they'd had in Highever.
Oh yes, Highever, where poor Fergus had to pick up the pieces all on his own. Sarah wished she could've stayed with him for longer, but the Wardens had called and she had had to leave. At least there had been the funeral. And Fergus already had men rebuilding the main hall when Sarah left. But would it ever feel like home again, when all those people who had made it home were gone?
Sarah shook those thoughts away. There was nothing she could do now, apart from writing Fergus some comforting letters, and it was best that she tried to think of the castle and what had happened there as little as possible. It still hurt, and that pain was not what she needed right now. Thankfully, there was a never-ending array of distractions, such as the mysterious prisoner.
"The prisoner is down here. It took four Wardens to take him down, so it would be best not to go to the cell," the guard said as they walked down the stairs. Sarah nodded, wondering if three Wardens had been a number everyone wouldn't have bothered repeating to her over and over, and followed the man into a room where another guard got up to his feet.
"Warden-Commander," he greeted her, saluting clumsily. "The prisoner is…"
But Sarah had stopped listening to him as soon as she had seen the prisoner. Sitting on the floor of the cell, dark hair pulled back and eyes watching her closely, he looked like he would attack her if he had the chance. Sarah knew him, and even remembered the last time she'd seen him four or five years ago, in some tedious party in Denerim. She hadn't paid much attention to him, since Thomas had still occupied quite a lot of her mind at the time, but she'd always thought that Thomas' older brother was a nice person. Now that nice person was glaring at her, fist clenched and eyes cold.
"I wish to talk to the prisoner," Sarah interrupted the guard. "Leave us."
"Of course, Warden-Commander," the second guard nodded and both men left the room. Sarah turned to look at the man in the cell. He got up and walked close to the bars, still staring at her intently.
"So you're the Warden-Commander, the new owner of the Vigil" he said, his voice low and menacing. He looked like a caged animal, ready to pounce on his master at the first opportunity. She half expected him to snarl at her or to try to scratch her as she walked closer, but not close enough for him to reach her.
"Yes I am, Nathaniel," Sarah said, and saw his eyes widen. "We have met before, you know."
"What…" he stared at her, brow furrowed, but she had no intention of letting him speak.
"You don't even know who I am," Sarah laughed humourlessly. "You've come to kill me because I'm a Warden, and you didn't even try to find out my name."
"You're the Warden who murdered my father over politics! Who caused all the problems in Denerim!" Nathaniel growled. Sarah was almost shocked; the man's voice actually reminded him of hungry wolves they'd have to fight on their journeys months ago. "That was all I heard when I came back to Ferelden and all I needed to know!"
"Then you are a fool," Sarah said and turned to leave.
"Wait!" Nathaniel's voice was still cold, but there was a hint of desperation in it. "How do you know me?"
"How do I know you? Let's start from the first time I remember seeing you. You didn't visit our estate that often, your father usually brought only Thomas along, so I don't think I met you as a child. Or maybe I just don't remember that. Your entire family was at my brother's wedding ten years ago, you should remember that. I know I do. I danced with Thomas. He had just turned fifteen and was nervous and clumsy. I was wearing a really pretty pink dress my mother had bought for me from Denerim. He said I looked pretty and tried to kiss me, but I stepped on his foot. I was thirteen, and I still thought boys were kind of icky."
"You're…" Nathaniel stared at her, realization dawning in his eyes, but she went on.
"My brother and his wife had a child. Oren. My perfect little nephew. Wasn't your entire family in his name-giving ceremony as well? I found Oren and his mother dead, both slain without mercy by your father's men. I found my father lying wounded on a cold stone floor. I had to leave my mother behind as I fled from your father's men, because she loved my father too much to leave him behind to die alone. I stood on a cliff and watched your father's men set fire to my home." She stopped to draw a breath and then stepped close to the bars, staring into the grey eyes watching her from the other side.
"I am Sarah Cousland. Your father ordered the murder of my entire family. And he died at his newly acquired estate in Ferelden after I'd confronted him about all his crimes and after he refused to surrender. He gave me no choice. And you want to kill me for that? Fine," she turned around and walked to the door. "Guard, I need the keys to the cell door."
The guard appeared, stammering something, but Sarah wasn't listening. The rush of blood in her head made her ears hum and she wondered whether the guard could hear the beating of her heart, since it felt like a loud drum. She took the keys and ordered the man out. The guard almost fled, terrified by the look in her eyes.
"You wish to kill me?" Sarah walked back to the cell and opened the lock. Nathaniel hadn't moved form his spot near the bars, but he watched her as she swung the door open and stepped back, spreading her arms. "Kill me then. Try."
Nathaniel stood perfectly still, not knowing whether he should move or not. It was a trap, he was certain of it. If he made even the slightest move towards her, a mage would appear to blast him with a spell or an archer hidden behind some secret door would shoot him.
And she… The Warden, the little Cousland girl, Sarah, Tommy's crush, for Maker's sake, was standing there, staring at him defiantly. She was armed, but she hadn't made a move to draw her weapons. Maybe it wasn't a trap. Maybe it was his chance for revenge. Perhaps his only chance for revenge.
She hadn't moved, her eyes hadn't left his face. Then the door behind her opened, she turned to look behind her and Nathaniel lunged forward. She spun back towards him, but he caught her off balance, drew a dagger from her belt and spun her around, pressing her back against his chest and the dagger at her throat. He twisted her arm behind her and heard her inhale sharply; maybe there was an old injury he could use to hurt her. He wanted to hurt her.
"Get back!" he shouted at the guards and the old man, Varel, who had clearly betrayed his father and now worked for the enemy. They had stopped by the door, staring at Nathaniel and Sarah. "I just wish to leave. So back away, nice and slow, and make sure the way out of here is clear. Once I'm out, I'll let her go. If you do anything stupid, we'll see how much a Warden can bleed." He wasn't very proud of that last bit, but clearly the clichéd words had an effect on the men.
"You really think you can outrun an arrow shot at you when you let me go?" Sarah muttered as Nathaniel led her up the stairs and into the yard. "Because that is what will happen."
"Shut up," Nathaniel muttered, adding pressure to her arm and making her gasp. She was right, he knew it, but what else could he have done? The moment he had pressed the knife against her throat he'd known he couldn't cut it. He wasn't a murderer. So getting out was the only option left. Get away and run as far as he could, leave behind the tainted name of Howe and live as a nobody, a man without a family and name.
"There are other options," Sarah said as Nathaniel led her towards the gates. The angry eyes of soldiers followed him closely, hands ready to grab arms that they've been told not to touch yet.
"Don't lie to me," Nathaniel growled into her ear, looking around him. He turned slightly and Sarah could see a glimpse of Anders, sneaking behind the nearest building. She had no idea which spell the mage was planning to use, but she readied herself.
"Now we just walk through that gate and…" Nathaniel's words were cut as he suddenly felt his entire body stiffen as energy flowed out of him like a stream. Sarah had been ready and slipped out of his grip, grabbed his arm and pushed the knife away from her throat. As Nathaniel staggered under the spell, she turned and punched him in the face, sending him falling on the ground.
"Don't kill him! Anders, no more spells!" Nathaniel heard her words through haze of red. The pain in his body diminished, but he felt horribly weak. He tried to open his eyes, but his eyelids weren't co-operating.
"The gallows, then?" he heard Varel's voice come closer.
"You said it took four Wardens to take him down. And he surprised me! I'm tired, sure, but still, he surprised me." For some reason's Sarah's voice wasn't scared and it was only slightly shocked. Mostly she sounded excited. "Not the gallows. Find him a room and let him rest. And get everything ready for a Joining. Once he wakes up, I'm going to present him with options."
"The Joining? You plan to make him a Warden?"
"He'd make a good one."
"Are you serious? He…"
Nathaniel tried to keep listening, because clearly he'd heard something wrong. Why would she ever make him a Warden? Why would he agree to become a Warden? Why would he want to be one of those murderous bastards? He tried to force his mouth to open, to protest, but the pain throbbing in his body finally decided to release him and allow him to slip into unconsciousness.
Note from the writer: So yeah, I should be working on my Lady Aeducan/Gorim fic, but then came Awakening and during Awakening I spent way too much time positioning the camera so that I could stare at Nathaniel. Especially his thighs. I mean, the rest of him (both physically and personality-wise) is good too, but damn, those thighs when he's wearing that short leather armour… Wow! I played Awakening as an Orlesian Warden (my FemCousland has just left Lothering; she's nowhere near Amaranthine), and therefore I have no idea how the "you killed my father – well, your father killed mine"-tension is going to play out, so I'm making it all up! Reviews are welcome, as always.