And another chapter done! I'd initially planned on this being a oneshot, but I decided that Nathaniel's character and the start of his odd friendship with Cousland needed some work as well. A bunch of dialog taken directly from the game, with my own spin and additional dialog added to it.
Another chapter of this fic is in the works already, and then I swear I'm going back to Mass Effect 2 to do the next story after "Demigod." Reviews are always appreciated, and I hope you enjoy. :)
Nathaniel hadn't really known what to expect upon returning to Ferelden.
It had been eight years since he'd seen his family and his childhood home, and though he hadn't particularly missed either of them, he still occasionally thought of them and wondered how they'd changed in the time he'd been away.
In general, however, he'd tried to avoid thinking about his father when he was in the Free Marches. As an adult looking back on and critically considering his childhood, he found that he had nothing but bad memories of him. If he was being honest, it wasn't only freedom he'd sought when he left, but a fresh start. He had little love for the man even now.
But he was still a Howe. As much as he tried to pretend otherwise, he was still devoted to the family name, if not the family itself. When he'd heard rumors of a Blight, Loghain's rebellion, and the death of King Cailan and most of Ferelden's Grey Wardens, he hadn't particularly cared, since he doubted any of it would affect him much. Tales of Arl Rendon Howe's murder at the hands of a surviving Warden, however... that was enough to incite more feeling for his father than he'd had in years.
He'd left for Ferelden the next day. He hadn't known exactly what he was going to do; he found that he was barely in control of himself as he made the trip back. He hardly remembered finding passage on a ship, the few days on seas rough enough to suit his mood, the exhausted day and night he'd spent at an inn at Amaranthine. His feet seemed to take him toward Vigil's Keep of their own volition.
He only knew that he had to avenge his father, and kill whoever this murderer Warden was.
His plan for vengeance was delayed, however, upon being discovered in the Keep by four Grey Wardens, who had managed to stop him. Despite his unplanned capture, the infiltration did give him something, even if it wasn't the revenge he sought. He learned that not only was the Warden who killed his father on her way to Vigil's Keep, but she was the new Commander of the Grey, the Hero of Ferelden, the one who had ended the Blight, and the Maker-be-damned queen.
My father is dead and my family name is slandered, and the one who caused both of these gets nothing but praise and more power, he'd thought bitterly, sitting in his cell. The world is just and fair, as always.
But occasionally, the world was just and fair, and he couldn't help but feel a bit smug as he saw darkspawn run past the window of his prison and heard the screams of the Wardens who were occupying hisfamily's home. Even as he sat there, expecting to die at any moment, he regretted that he hadn't been able to confront the woman who'd killed Rendon Howe.
And then everything was quiet again. For some time he wondered if he should free himself now, before the darkspawn found him, or wait until cover of night but run the risk of them stumbling in to the prison before that. But then that same Maker-damned guard who had been with him for the past three days walked back in to the prison as calm as could be, like the entire keep hadn't just been under attack.
I should count myself lucky, Nathaniel thought, though he didn't feel very lucky at all. The Wardens still haven't figured out who I am. I wasn't killed by Wardens or darkspawn. The keep seems to be relatively intact. And, he smiled, I may still have a chance to kill my father's murderer.
He wondered how long he would be stuck in this cell. It had only been three days, but he'd been so used to having complete control over his life in the Free Marches – so much more so than he'd ever had at the Keep – that he was feeling extremely restless. He could have freed himself twenty times over by now, but he was still holding out hope that the new Commander of the Grey would make a personal appearance so he could get the vengeance he so desperately longed for.
And then I'll be free, he thought stubbornly. Free of this cell, free of Rendon Howe, free of being a Howe at all.
He wondered if he would survive when he tried to kill her. According to the rumors he'd heard while being stuck here, the woman ended the Blight, and from all accounts was a force to be reckoned with. He knew that if he had been able to set a trap for her, there would have been no chance for her at all, but he hadn't gotten to do so due to a critical error.
As he'd walked through his childhood home, he'd found himself reliving memories, times that he had forced himself to forget until they were stirred by being in the place where they'd occurred. He'd remembered playing with his siblings in the stables, stealing food from the cooks in the kitchen, his father's anger whenever he interrupted him in the library. His rage at the murder was pushed aside briefly. As much as he hated them, he wasn't able to help it – he'd had to see his parents again.
So he had made his way in to the Great Hall where he knew their portraits would be hanging. And as he stared up at his father's face, sneering in the portrait just as he always used to sneer in life, he wondered if he would ever be able to truly escape his father's shadow and what was now the curse of his family name.
Before he'd been able to come back to his senses and hide, the Wardens had spotted him, and through the force of sheer numbers, they were able to capture him.
So he sat in a cell, waiting to either kill or be killed by the woman who'd killed his father. If he was being honest, he couldn't force himself to particularly care either way. He just wanted it done.
And as if she cared what he wanted, the woman who must be Commander of the Grey and Queen of Ferelden Irien Cousland-Theirin strolled in to his prison, flanked by a mage and a dwarf. His jailor bowed and scraped just as Nathaniel had expected.
"Who is he?" she asked, nodding toward Nathaniel as if he couldn't hear her.
The idiot shrugged. "He won't give his name. All I know is he was caught poking around the estate in the middle of the night." You don't know the half of what I was doing, fool, he thought. "I'd say he was just a thief, but it took four Grey Wardens to capture him. You best be careful. Whoever he is, he's no ordinary burglar, that's for sure."
The Warden nodded, looking at Nathaniel. "Leave me to talk with him."
The man bowed formally. "As you wish, Commander. I'll tell the seneschal you came," he added almost as an afterthought, as he handed her the keys and started for the door. "He'll want to know what you decide to do with this man."
She wasted no time in unlocking and opening the door to his cell, and Nathaniel got to his feet a bit awkwardly with his hands shackled in front of him.
"Are you sure that's wise?" the mage asked, taking a hesitant step back and looking a bit nervous. "Didn't the guard say he was dangerous?"
The dwarf guffawed. "Did you pay any attention in the Keep, lad? If you're sayin' that three of us can't handle one of him, they might need to give you the boot from the Wardens for bein' too damn daft even for them!"
The Commander didn't respond, just approached him in the cell with an expression of slight curiosity. He couldn't hold back a sneer as she stepped closer. "If it isn't the great hero, conqueror of the Blight vanquisher and of all evil," he said mockingly. "Aren't you supposed to be ten feet tall? With lightning bolts shooting out of your eyes?"
She raised an eyebrow. "I see my reputation precedes me."
"It does," he said flatly. "I know you best as the one who murdered my father." She didn't respond at first, unsure of whom he meant. She's killed too many fathers to have any idea who I mean, he thought. "My name is Nathaniel Howe. My family owned these lands until you showed up. Do you even remember my father?"
She changed completely when he mentioned his family name. She'd seemed calm and reserved until this point, but at this, her hands curled into fists and her whole body tensed. What's she so upset about? he thought, his anger pushed aside for a moment. "Anders, Oghren," she said, her voice dangerously calm. "Wait for me outside."
"Are you sure that's a good-" the mage began, then was cut off with a loud "ow!" when the dwarf elbowed him. "Er, yes, it is a very good idea, see you outside," he said as the dwarf practically dragged him out.
The Warden didn't look away from Nathaniel for even a moment during this exchange, her eyes narrow. The door shut, and she finally spoke again. "Arl Howe killed my family," she said. Her voice was quieter than before, but he could almost see her shaking in anger. "He deserved everything he got!"
That he hadn't known, but he couldn't say he was terribly surprised. The Cousland family home at Highever was near enough to Amaranthine that they'd been able to visit a few times a year. While Nathaniel hadn't ever been allowed to go himself – he wasn't the favored son, and his father always told him that he couldn't be trusted not to cause trouble if he came along on the visits. But he remembered that his father had always come home furious, insisting that the Couslands were weak, Orlesian sympathizers, and Bryce didn't deserve to be Teryn. The fact that Rendon had wound up killing them was no shock to him at all, especially if even half of what his father had said about them was true. "Your family was going to sell us out to the Orlesians!" he retorted.
The Warden laughed a little in stunned disbelief at his response, shaking her head and looking at him in amazement. "I suppose your father told you that?" she said, as if it wasn't a question at all.
"How could he?" he shot back. "A Grey Warden stole into his estate and slaughtered him before I even got a chance to talk to him."
She didn't have a response to that, instead just crossing her arms. He sighed and looked down. His wrists were sore from the shackles, and he tried moving the chains to a slightly more comfortable position on his arms. She lost her family and actually grieves them, he thought. I lost my father and all I can think of is getting revenge, for a man I didn't even love and doubt I'll even miss.
"I came here..." he began, then stopped himself, considering what to tell her, deciding to go with brutal honesty. All I could do was lie to my father to make him happy, or at least less angry, he thought. Maybe a different approach will work here. "I thought I was going to try to kill you. To lay a trap for you," he admitted. He didn't look at her, not yet. He didn't want to see her reaction to this statement until he told her everything. "But then I realized I just wanted to reclaim some of my family's things." He sighed, staring at his chains. "It's all I have left."
"You tried to have me killed?" She didn't sound surprised, or even angry, and he looked back up to see that her expression had returned to neutral after her outburst about her family.
"That was the plan," he replied flatly, then relented a little. "Look, I don't know what happened with the Couslands," he admitted. "It sounds like it was horrible. The entire war was," he said sadly. "Whatever my father did, however, shouldn't harm my whole family. The Howes are pariahs now, those of us left. It's all thanks to you." His bitterness was clear in his voice. "And now you get to decide my fate. Ironic, isn't it?"
She was silent for a long moment. "What will you do if I let you go?"
"If you let me go?" he asked in surprise, before he could stop himself. I never planned on walking out of this without you dead, he thought at her. I was going to kill you and run, or die trying to kill you. This is... a surprising change. "I... don't know," he said hesitantly, not daring to tell her the full truth of his intentions, his expectations of his own death. "I only came back to Ferelden a month ago. If you let me go, I'll probably come back here," he admitted flatly. "You might not catch me next time."
The Warden leveled a serious look at him. "You're not making the best case for yourself."
He shrugged. "I could lie, if you prefer." But I feel like you don't.
She paused a moment, considering what he'd said. "If I let you go," she said, "I don't want to see you again."
He laughed, a short bark that made her start in surprise. "That would be more convenient for you, wouldn't it?" He shook his head. "If you're going to hang me, hang me. One more death shouldn't really bother you."
"Do you really hate me so much?"
His lip curled in anger at this question. Of course he did. That question clearly means, "don't you also think your father deserved to die? Shouldn't you be thanking me for conveniently disposing of him?" She's worse than I thought if she truly thinks I won't hate her for killing my father, despite what a bastard he was. But he kept his mouth shut on that thought.
"The darkspawn are a menace," he said instead, trying to dodge the question a bit. "If it weren't for the Blight, maybe my father would never have... done what he did."
He wondered if he'd just lied to her. After all, Rendon had been expressing his hatred of the Couslands to his family for years. All he needed was an opportunity, he thought. The fear and distraction of a Blight would certainly provide that for him, but I doubt he would have put it off forever.
"But I can't do anything about them, can I?" he continued. He could hear how angry he sounded, how powerless he knew he was. Rendon's death was mostly his own fault, he admitted to himself, but she was the one who took his life, and she can't just get away with that, no matter how much he may have brought it on himself. "There's just you and the Grey Wardens, here in my home."
"Perhaps you should work to redeem your name," she suggested.
He had to stop himself from laughing in her face, instead settling on a sneer. "You're right. I'll go join King Alistair's service immediately," he said dryly. "He'll be certain to give a Howe another chance!" Especially since my father murdered his wife's family.
Nathaniel wondered exactly how it had happened. His father had never been one for a direct confrontation when he wasn't absolutely certain of victory, and since the Couslands' military and political strength both far outstripped the Howes', he could only assume that there had been a betrayal of some kind. That would be more his style, he thought.
In his mind's eye, he could practically see what his father must have done. The families had been allies for years, so a visit wouldn't be unexpected or unwelcome. Bryce and Eleanor had probably welcomed Rendon to their home with open arms, and additional soldiers he'd brought along could be explained by the fear of darkspawn and the Blight. Then under the cover of darkness, he would have eliminated the Couslands without hesitation, without second-guessing or mercy. They wouldn't have seen it coming, and it was probably over before anyone had any idea what had happened.
He was a traitor, he admitted to himself. He supported the man who left his king to die, ignored a Blight to focus on his own power, and killed Teryn Cousland for his title.
It was a power-grab years in the making, and Nathaniel was truly shocked by just one aspect of it – after all his father's careful planning and what must have been perfect timing, the attempt had still failed completely. He wondered, too, how he had failed. Perhaps it was Loghain's fault, and after all of Rendon's betrayals, he'd been betrayed in return.
But he suspected that the answer to his father's downfall was standing right in front of him. Against all odds and all Rendon's planning, Irien Cousland had survived. He was sure that his father had tried to kill her – any remaining heirs or members of the family would have made Rendon's already flimsy claim to Highever even weaker. He wondered if she was there when her parents were killed or if she'd already become a Grey Warden and had only heard about it later. He wasn't sure which one would have been worse.
"I didn't know," he said suddenly.
She looked a bit startled. "What?"
"I didn't know what he did to your family, not until you told me he killed them," he said. "I still don't know what he did or most of what went on during the war, to be perfectly honest. As if that makes a difference," he snorted. "I was still coming here to kill you, after all, even without knowing what happened. I had just heard in the Free Marches that my father was dead and that you were the one who killed him. I can't say I was too upset to hear that he was gone; I just knew that family honor dictated that I had to get revenge."
She didn't respond. Her expression was a careful neutral, and he wondered if he shouldn't have said anything at all. Too late for it now, he thought. Might as well tell the truth. I'm damned either way.
"But... perhaps there's been enough revenge," he offered. "Your parents became teryns and my father just an arl after the war, and he never forgot it. I suspect that all those years of bitterness are the cause of what he did. And I don't know where you were when he attacked your family, but wherever you were, you weren't able to stop him, so you killed him in return." He shook his head. "And I... I thought that I might be able to redeem the Howe name by doing what was 'right,' killing you for killing him. But coming here... it just made me think about growing up in this house, and reminded me of all the memories I've tried for years to forget. This revenge cycle has to end somewhere; maybe it can be with me." He sighed. I sound like a fool. "For whatever it's worth, I'm sorry for what he did," he said. "No amount of 'sorry' is going to make it any better. But I am sorry."
She was silent for a while, looking at him critically. He knew that she must be wondering how genuine this sudden outburst was. I'm a Howe, and therefore untrustworthy, he thought a little bitterly. But I'll die having said what I really thought, for the first time.
"Thank you," she said finally, sounding a little puzzled, like she wasn't quite sure that to think of this sudden apology. "I-" she started, stopped herself, then shook her head and continued. "I'm sorry too. For what I did to your father. I doubt you believe me, but it wasn't something I did lightly, and I haven't forgotten it. If he'd surrendered, if there had been any other way to stop him-"
"I wouldn't have taken it, if I was in your position," he cut her off bluntly. "He deserved what he got, and had it coming for a long time. He may have been my father, but I know what he was like. I didn't often think of him or his madness for power and revenge when I lived in the Free Marches. I don't miss the man. He was my father by blood, but nothing else. Being here, and seeing everything I grew up with, it made me miss what we could have had but never truly did." He shrugged. "It sounds heartless, when I think it and say it, but he's gone and I may as well be honest."
She was silent again, and they spent a few long moments looking at each other. He suspected he was fooling himself, but he didn't see any judgment in her eyes. We don't know each other at all, he reminded himself. We judge each other on past actions, and on the actions of our parents, without a clue about who the other really is. What could have happened without the Blight and my father murdering her parents and her killing my father? They were both the younger children of nobles, after all, both insurance for their families in case something should happen to the heirs, and likely more similar than either of them would readily admit.
For a brief moment, he felt like they weren't a powerful teryn's daughter and a universally hated arl's son, the Warden-Commander and a disgraced thief, a judge and a prisoner. They were just young people who would never be nobles, never directly deal with political squabbles, never have to worry about doing anything but what they wanted in life. They were equals.
But he remembered, suddenly, that she was the queen of Ferelden, and any feeling of equality vanished. He was the son of the man who killed the queen's family, and none of his noble sentiments about revenge needing to end somewhere meant anything at all. Any hope that he'd had for getting out of this situation alive was extinguished, and there was a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.
"I've decided what to do with you," she said, disturbing his reverie.
"Already?" he asked, no longer surprised. I'm about to die. "Good."
The guard walked back through the door just a moment later.
"I brought the seneschal for you, Commander," he said, and the man himself approached the cell. The Warden turned and stepped out of it to stand next to him.
"I see you've spoken to our guest. Quite the handful, isn't he?" Varel asked, sounding slightly amused. "Have you decided what's to be done with him?"
She glanced at Nathaniel briefly before turning back to the seneschal. "Did you know this was Nathaniel Howe?"
"A Howe?" Varel sounded surprised for a moment, then shook his head. "It figures they would turn up again." He sounds like he's talking about pests like rats, instead of my entire family, Nathaniel thought angrily, his hands clenching into fists. "The Howes are implacable enemies, Commander."
Cousland was silent for a long moment, and he waited impatiently for her to tell him that he was going to die. He wondered how it would happen. Will she hang me? Send me at the darkspawn with no armor or weapons? Or perhaps kill me herself? "I wish to invoke the Right of Conscription," she said without elaboration.
"You what?" Nathaniel's jaw practically dropped. I come here to kill her, and my father kills her family, but instead of killing me, she wants to make me a Warden? Is she mad? What kind of queen, what kind of person is she, that she would make this decision?
Varel seemed to be in shock as well. "I'm sorry, Commander... the Right of Conscription? On the prisoner?" he asked, as if he didn't quite believe his ears.
"No!" he insisted, trying to ignore Varel. "Absolutely not! Hang me first!" I won't live the rest of my life with men who spit on my family name, he thought angrily. I won't protect them from the darkspawn, I won't work to help those who hate me, and I won't be indebted to this woman.
She looked at him and their eyes met again. "Did I say I was giving you a choice?" she asked, and the tone in her voice surprised him. No fanfare, no emotion, no doubt in her decision as she simply gave him his life back.
"You really want a Howe as a Grey Warden?" he asked, his voice still colored with doubt. "You are a very strange woman." He shook his head and couldn't help but laugh at himself. "I can't decide if this is a vote of confidence or punishment," he said honestly.
"An... interesting decision, Commander," Varel said, still sounding just as doubtful as Nathaniel himself felt. "Come with me, ser. We'll see if you survive the Joining."
The guard stepped into his cell a bit gingerly to unlock Nathaniel's shackles and free his hands at last, then scurried out of the way to let him walk out on his own. He rubbed at his wrists, raw from his three days in chains, and looked at Cousland again. She met his eyes, and the two of them just stared at each other. He couldn't tell what she was thinking, but this didn't surprise him – he found her quite impossible to read, even when she was saying exactly what she thought.
But her green eyes weren't quite as cold as they had been before, and her face not quite so emotionless. In fact, he'd venture to say she looked curious, of all things.
She wants to see what I'm made of, he thought, breaking eye contact to follow the seneschal out of the jail, and I'd like to see the same about her. She was the queen and he had wanted to kill her, but they would both just be Wardens soon, and truly equals, like he'd previously wondered if they could have been. And as he stepped outside into the sunlight, for the first time in ages, he was truly excited to find out where his life would go from here.