A/N: This longer fic suggests a familiarity that appears in "As You Wish", its predecessor. While I would hope you'd read that first, should you desire to dive right in, all you need to really know, I suppose, is that Nathaniel and Elissa were betrothed just before he left the last time for the Free Marches, and he was gone for two years before the events of the Cousland Origins story. Their betrothal was their choice, rather than an arrangement, which Bryce and Eleanor greeted with pleased relief (as their daughter had been rather...uncooperative in terms of being appropriately matched) and Rendon appeared, at best, mildly indifferent, as he seemed to hope for more for his eldest son, but could not vocalize a good reason to deny them their troth. Nathaniel promised to return in two years and marry her, at which point he would take over his father's garrison in preparation to step into the arl's place. Fate, however, had other plans.
Disclaimer: Bioware owns all.
9:32 Dragon, Vigil's Keep
The prisoner was sleeping when she went down to see who everyone had their knickers in a twist about. Took four Wardens to bring him down, they said. She was, frankly, expecting someone the size and shape of a golem, and was briefly disappointed in her discovery that it was nothing more than a man.
"Rise and shine, princess," she said aloud, and tapped one dagger on the bars, ringing it between them.
"Commander," Varel cautioned in a low voice, and she just shrugged one shoulder.
"He's in the cell, Varel, what can he do to me?"
The voice that replied was straight out of the past, and she froze, her face still turned away.
"Well for one thing, I've quite the reach, and it would be easy to kill you now that you've made yourself so readily available." There was more gravel in it than she remembered, but maybe the huskiness was the result of sleep or lack of water. She squinted her eyes shut, and did not reply to Varel's soft 'Commander?' as she counted backwards from twenty.
She turned her head to look at him, and it was a measure of a moment before he recognized her.
"Oh, Maker, no," he said, and backed away from the bars. There was no stealth to the slide of his feet across the stone floor, the slap of his hands and the soft bump of his shoulders as they hit the masonry at the back of the cell in his retreat. "Please, Andraste," he said very quietly, his voice almost breaking.
"It's no nightmare, Nathaniel," she said, trying for firmness and barely able to get the words past her clenched teeth. This isn't happening. Maker, Andraste, what did I do that made me deserve this?
"You know this man?" Varel looked at her, curious.
She clenched her jaw for a moment, and almost laughed at the unfairness of it all. "I'll do you one better, Varel. I still have the promise token he gave me when we were betrothed," she said bitterly. She had no reason to share that information, and yet still it spilled from her lips. Varel merely raised his eyebrows. He had known this woman for a mere two days, and while her reputation preceded her, he always felt those things were secondary to getting a real impression of her himself. That impression was of someone without a goal – he'd seen it many times before. A task, once completed, leaves a person feeling adrift. It was this word which described the woman before him.
And now he knew, in his gut, that they had stumbled upon something better left buried. He reached out his hand to hers, and pressed a key into her palm.
"Do what you must, Commander," he said, and with a quick nod of his head, sent the guards out before him.
She watched as the door slammed shut behind him, and she was left standing there, her back to the cells, the key clutched loosely in her hand. She uncurled her fingers slowly, and looked down at it. Turning her head to the side, she saw that Nathaniel had slid down the wall, and was now curled up tightly, his arms wrapped around his knees, his gaze unfocused and concentrating on the lines of mortar between the blocks of stone.
She walked over to the small table the guards sat at, and faced the cell. She turned the key over in her hand and then set it on the table, and began spinning it in a slow circle with her forefinger.
"Stop that. Stop making that noise."
"What are you doing here, Nathaniel?"
He wasn't looking at her, and his voice was heartbreakingly flat. "Rather I should be asking what you are doing here. This is my home. Imagine my surprise to return to it and find it occupied by Grey Wardens."
"The king awarded the arling to us as a reward. It was considered property of the Crown considering the acts of treason Rendon Howe committed against Ferelden."
"My father was no traitor," he insisted, this time with a little venom, but still he did not look at her.
"Stop being a fool, Nathaniel. Ask anyone. Don't take my word for it."
He was quiet for a time, and she started to spin the key again, but abruptly cut herself off. Instead, she used her finger to trace around it on the bumpy wood, buffed to a shine from years of use.
"Once upon a time, your word meant a great deal to me."
She watched her finger trace around the curves of the key, down the straight bar. "And once upon a time I had parents and a life to look forward to. I had a sister and a nephew, and friends I had known since childhood. Once upon a time is how fairytales begin, and this is no fairytale."
He snorted lightly. "Of that, I am completely assured."
"I'll ask you again. What are you doing here Nathaniel?"
She looked up just as he turned to look at her, and met his eyes. "I came here to kill you."
Her chest ached, a quick, sharp feeling that stole her breath before she could reply. "Sorry I couldn't make that happen for you."
"No guarantees I would have carried it out, if I had caught your face in the moonlight."
"I wasn't even here when you were captured. Five seconds of overheard conversation could have told you that. Now tell me the real reason."
"I wanted some of my family's things back. Nothing more," he admitted, and looked away again.
"You could have just asked."
"Yes, because the request of a traitor's son is held in such high esteem."
"If you had waited, I would have given you whatever you wanted, whatever I could."
His eyes were on her again, she could feel it. "Is that so?"
"No reason to keep sentimental objects," she shrugged.
"I wonder how it never came up that the famous Warden who slew the archdemon and ended the Blight was a Cousland. Your family name still carried weight the last time I was in Ferelden."
"When we become Wardens, we lose our families. The Wardens are our family. We are asked to give up titles, give up revenge, become equals."
"And yet you still killed my father."
She raised her chin to look him in the eye, meeting his pupils even across the distance and poor lighting. "I killed your father because he was a traitor to Ferelden." She paused. "I did a good job of it because he killed my family."
"Tell me, how much did he beg before you finally killed him?" His words were bitter, like he expected her to tell him it was a great deal – one more nail in the coffin of his soul, so to speak.
"Not one word. He went down fighting, insisting that my family had more than they deserved, and that instead, it was he who deserved more."
Nathaniel had nothing to say to that – he was no stranger to his father's greed. But it was one thing to know it himself and another to allow someone else to speak ill of the man.
"They betrayed us to the Orlesians," he stated, less sure of the words, and he knew she knew it.
"Your father was the one who insisted as much to Loghain. One didn't have to know the Hero of River Dane for more than a moment to know that it was the Orlesians that were his hot button. He agreed readily enough that if my family were indeed such dirty traitors that Rendon Howe should 'take care' of the situation. The man did a damn good job of pretending ignorance when I met him." Considering they had both, at several points in their lives, considered Loghain Mac Tir a personal hero, discovering otherwise was mildly traumatizing at best.
The door to the dungeons opened again, and there was the clink of plate as Varel came back down the stairs. She rose from her seat and met him halfway. He peered around her to see the cell door still closed, and they began talking quietly. Nathaniel only heard a few words, not enough to really get an idea of the topic, so much as the emotion – Varel was the one he could see the most of, and his face was quite expressive: surprise, confusion, uncertainty, acceptance. At that, the older man turned and tromped back up the stairs, closing the door behind him again.
"Is the hangman's noose ready yet?"
She turned on her heel to see him standing closer to the bars, hands clasped behind his back. "Hmm?"
"They were merely waiting for your blessing on their justice. Didn't you hear, I'm to be hanged."
"No you're not."
"Personal reasons aside, Elissa…" It was the first time since she'd come down here that he'd called her by name. She had used his name over and over again, but he had not returned the familiarity. "You are taking over as the arlessa of these people, and the first justice you are to mete out cannot be seen as weak. Mercy is a weakness when making first impressions of this caliber."
She crossed her arms over her chest. "So you would have me hang you, even though, in truth, all you did was trespass?"
"With intent towards thievery and murder," he added, in case she had forgotten.
They stared at each other for a long time, and then she approached the cell door, key outstretched. He stepped back and let her open the cell door.
"I'm sorry it had to be like this," he said quietly, carefully keeping his distance.
"You're possibly going to be sorrier later."
"Yes, I do suppose a stretched neck would make me quite sorry," he allowed, the conversation having taken a turn towards the macabre, and not in the way he suspected.
"Alas, you don't get to hang today," she said, and stepped away gesturing for him to precede her, and he looked confused. "Nathaniel Howe, I am conscripting you into the service of the Grey Wardens."
"Sorry, I can't hang you, and luckily for you, conscription is its own sick justice," she admitted cryptically. "Everyone wins here. Hopefully."
He took hold of her arm, and her entire body stiffened. "What are you doing, Elissa?"
Her mouth twisted in a sad moue, made more unfortunate by the furrowing of her brow. "I can't march you out there, knowing with complete certainty that it was by my hand that you left this life. I loved you once, Nathaniel Howe. Can you really blame me?"
"You are complicating things."
As she escorted him out into the sunshine and across the courtyard of the keep, she clung desperately to the hope that what she was about to do was not the same as handing him his own carefully fitted noose that she had tied herself.