In the blanket of night, Nathaniel snuck into the Keep. He had been reduced to vagrancy, made a trespasser on his family's lands. And for what? To reward Grey Wardens and a Cousland? A banished order and a murderer? Disgust and hatred raged in a wild fire of barely constrained emotion. His actions had purpose, his final goal tipped with a want for revenge and reclamation.
The people that filled the Keep did not belong there. The plates they ate on were not theirs to claim. The utensils they used belonged in other hands. They walked the halls as trespassers. They slept peacefully at night, their crimes weighing not at all upon their minds. Nathaniel hated every last one – pretenders and opportunists the lot of them.
The trespassers gossiped freely in the halls, never suspecting that they were overheard. The Warden Commander, Elizabeth Cousland, was to arrive soon. He heard and made note. He wanted to kill her, to watch the life drain from her eyes much as she must have watched his father's. But all he could picture when he thought of her was a small girl of ten. She was nothing more than a babe in pigtails with a gap-toothed smile and a girlish giggle she often suppressed behind a mud covered hand.
He needed justification. He needed to put the mask of a monster upon her face and it compelled him to linger longer than was wise. A darkened corner, a small closet, he found his hiding places carefully and kept to them, hoping to hear slivers of information or even rumors about the woman, Elizabeth, anything that might dehumanize the portrait of innocence within his memory.
No real portrait was revealed, however. There was talk of her heroics and how she put Maric's bastard on the throne and was to be his Queen. And yet, she was not Queen. Anora was. Death had shattered those ambitions, the new King dying during the fight against the Archdemon before her coronation could take place. Some claimed her heart broken. Others scoffed that she had no heart to break given her lack of tears at the King's funeral.
It would have served her right, to have her heart broken like that. Pain for pain. Justice for justice.
Let her suffer…
While he listened and spied, he made an effort to retrieve things of his family's. Not everything had been taken by his father when he went to Denerim. Evidence of the Howes could be found throughout the keep be it the statues in the library, paintings in the main dining hall, or personal belongings that lingered with in bedrooms.
His wanderings brought him to his mother's rooms. While many of her more luxurious decorations had been removed, small reminders of her still remained. If he closed his eyes and sniffed, he was certain he could still smell the scent of lilacs in the air.
Her armoire was still present, sitting proudly against the wall closest to the windows. His hand glided along the side of the furnishing, stopping only when it felt a familiar indentation. He pushed down upon it, a small hidden compartment popping open, a small drawer coming into view. Once, he had caught his mother putting away her jewelry in the secret spot. With a smile, she bade him to keep it between the two of them. Our secret, she claimed.
She had been gone for some time, dead long before the scandal. He gaze drifted down, searching the drawer. Inside, he found a necklace. He toyed with the golden strand, twirling it about his finger. Recognition came instantly. His mother's. He remembered her wearing it often. At the time, he never thought much of it. But, as it laid there in his hands, it took on a whole other level of importance. To claim a small portion of the past, to take back a bit of his life, the necklace held such promise. He wanted a small piece of his history back, something to keep the memory alive of what it had been to be a Howe. Others would forget, others would strike their names from the annals and speak only of the family's treachery. But Nathaniel? He wanted something to remember the happier times; and but for the actions of his father, the Howes deserved better.
A voice ripped through the quiet, "What do we have here?" Nathaniel turned, his mother's necklace still within his grasp. Standing in the doorway were two men in armor – one tall and thin, the other shorter and meaty.
"Seems like we have ourselves here a thief," the thin one noted, hooking a thumb in gesture to Nathaniel.
His lips twisted in sneer. A snort of a reply spoken, "A thief? Hardly." It was not thievery to steal what once was yours.
The shorter man shook his head, hand moving to palm the hilt of his sword. "Looks like a thief and hides like a thief? Must be a thief."
Their intent was obvious. There would be no talking his way out of this one. To them, he was an unknown sneaking about the Keep and freeing it of its treasures. "Mmm, yes, however will I combat such logic?" His body tensed in preparation of the inevitable.
"Got a sodding wise arse here too, eh?" The attack was quick. Both men lunged for Nathaniel, but his armor was far lighter and his movements far more nimble and quick. A sidestep to the right avoided the onslaught of the taller man. Another turn and he avoided contact with the shorter one.
Down the hall, he started to run when he heard the shouts of warning.
Intruder. Thief. Stop him.
Past knowledge was drawn upon. Endless games of hide and seek Thomas and he had played as children. The inhabitants of the Keep might have changed, but not the layout. He ducked around a corner just in time to avoid a group of men. He snuck through one room into another and through a secret passage built between the walls.
He planned his retreat - go to the kitchens and exit through a servant's entrance. No one would have expected him to know such an avenue of escape. Unfortunately, a group of four men sporting Orlesian armor emblazoned with the crest of the Grey Wardens were lying in wait for him. The advantage was theirs, surprise definitely on their side.
Two of the men he easily avoided, deft movements and the quick fire of his bow causing them to keep their distance. The two others, however, flanked him when he was distracted. Caught. There was little he could do to evade their capture. He fought against their clutches, unable to garner his release.
"We'll just put you in a cell until the Seneschal decides what to do with you." And though he was now a prisoner in his own home, soon to enjoy the hospitality of the Keep's dungeon, a small bit of relief tickled beneath the surface. His mother's necklace… No longer did it belong to them. He had managed to stuff it within a secret pocket of his armor.
The dreams came every night and no amount of drink or poultice could dampen their call. Images of the past, memories flecked in black and red haunted her sleep, filling her mind with things she would rather have forgotten. She wanted to feel nothing, to be numb and forget. Every sensation, every feeling was wrong and undeserved. A life undeserving was saved atop Fort Drakon. Her movements had not been fast enough. His will greater than her own.
It is the sanest thing I have ever done.
The taste of his lips lingered upon hers as the life in his eyes and the smile upon his lips passed within a burst of light. The Grey Warden dies. An explosive force quaked along the rooftop, toppling all that stood upon it. Her gaze locked desperately upon his, torn away as she felt herself pulled backward. When next she found him, a crumpled mass of metal, blood and flesh, he was gone.
She had failed him. She had failed herself. She had failed her country. Ferelden had lost their King before they had gotten to know him. She had lost Alistair when they had only just begun to know each other.
Morrigan proposition had been declined at Redcliffe Castle. Too timid, too selfish, too unbelieving, the excuses were many, but none were good enough. Not anymore. If she had only… Alistair would have agreed. He would have done whatever she asked. She did not like the thought of another woman, that woman… It had been the right thing to do. The risks were too many, the outcome unknown. To leash such a child upon all of Thedas was unfathomable. The path of what was right had been paved with jagged rocks.
Too many regrets tumbled upon her shoulders. Her parents, Connor, all the lives lost at the Circle Tower, Alistair… Nothing had gone to plan. Happiness had been within her grasp and she let it go and there was no one else to lay blame upon but herself.
Guilt and remorse tugged at her dreamscape, each night bringing a repetition of her past mistakes. Pictures from the past played in staggered sequence; remembrances of the happy and sad mixed together in a collage of self-condemnation.
Each nightmare ended the same, the sounds of her sobbing awakening her. Until she started on the trip to Amaranthine and Vigil's Keep, however, she had been able to keep her tears a secret.
Mhairi stared across the smoldering embers of the fire, concern overtaking her features. "Commander, are you alright?"
This soldier, so full of patriotic optimism, had yet to be touched by the harshness of the warrior's life. Duty, a life of service to country, it drew many prospects to the Wardens after the end of the Blight. Mhairi was no different. Her elation at escorting the Warden to Vigil's Keep might have made a different person to feel flattered, honored even. Elizabeth only felt contempt and a pang of jealousy for such enthusiasm.
Fingers raked a trembling stroke through her hair, nerves on edge from her unrestful slumber. "I will be fine." Now leave me alone. The words were meant to silence. Walls had been erected; no passage to be given.
"It's just…you woke up and looked so…pale... I thought…"
"I'm fine." Annoyance edged Elizabeth's tone. She would not become this woman's friend. She would not be her Hero. She would be simply her Commander and maintain an appropriate distance. The Joining loomed. No guarantees. She would not bury another friend. Never again. "But now that we are both up, we may as well pack up and head back on the road." Vigil's Keep awaited them.