Chapter 1 - Another Amell

Nathaniel Howe was getting desperate. Surrounded by darkspawn on all sides, he couldn't fire his arrows fast enough to keep them all in check. But he had to survive, had to get out of the Deep Roads and find help, or it would be too late for Temmerin and the others. And then, suddenly, a crossbow bolt whizzed past his ear, and lightning was raining down on the attacking hurlocks. Within minutes, the attack was beaten off. He turned to see a group of people walking towards him, led by a dark-haired woman in fine, light armour.

"You're the Champion of Kirkwall, aren't you?" He lowered his bow.

She nodded. "Call me Hawke. Or Cass, if you prefer."

Cassandra Hawke. Easy to recognize from the descriptions in the dossier Leonie had handed him before he set out for this expedition. The Commander had considered it important for him to be prepared, especially in light of the fact that the Champion was a close relation of her own predecessor, the Hero of Ferelden.

"Another Amell." Leonie's expressive mouth had curved up into a smirk. "There must be something special about that family, don't you think?"

He had just nodded, refusing to be baited. There was a cruel streak in Leonie's character, and it wouldn't do to admit any weakness. But it had shaken him considerably, this reminder of Morena Amell. It was almost five years since she had died, not slain in battle or killed by the taint, but poisoned in the safety of her own home, by someone she had trusted. In a way, it had been a fitting ending for a woman who had spread her fair share of venom herself. Morena hadn't been an innocent victim, far from it.

Yet some part of him still hurt at the memory of loving her and losing her. Their relationship had never been sweet or romantic. There had been more fighting than cuddling, more violent passion than tenderness. But he had loved her, more than he had ever loved a woman, and he'd been sure she loved him as well. It had taken him a long time to get over her betrayal, and if it hadn't been for Loghain and the constant support and advice the older man had given him, he'd probably still wallow in self-pity.

And now he was faced with her cousin. Another Amell. And she's a mage as well. He took a closer look at Cass. There was a resemblance, but it was faint, just something about her eyes and mouth. Her hair was just as thick and black, but her skin was pale and she was taller and less curvy. A beautiful woman, but the expression on her face was harsh and proud. She was accompanied by a beardless dwarf - he had to be Varric Tethras, Bartrand's brother. And an Elven warrior, whose skin was covered in elaborate silvery tattoos. Fascinating. But Nathaniel lost all interest in the others for a moment when he realized who had been hiding behind her. A tall blond man in mage robes stepped to the front.

"Anders?" He knew he sounded incredulous. What was the mage doing here, in the Champion's company? Could this possibly be a coincidence? They both tried to keep the brief exchange that followed as light and superficial as possible, but the tension was palpable, and the Champion didn't miss it. Her eyes narrowed as she watched them, and the look she gave Anders made it clear she would make it her business to get behind the mystery later.

She was quick to focus on the task at hand, though, and with her help, the remaining darkspawn were soon driven back. Nathaniel was impressed by the power of her spells. He hadn't seen a battlemage like her since... well, since Morena's death. The elf, Fenris, never left her side, and it was obvious they were close, but Nathaniel noticed they went out of their way to avoid touching. When Fenris took a nasty wound fighting an ogre, Cass was at his side immediately, a worried look on her face, but she left it to the dwarf to apply the much-needed poultice. Nathaniel was intrigued.

When the last foes had been slain, they said their goodbyes. As they were leaving, Cass turned and threw him an appraising glance. "Stay safe, Nathaniel. And come and see me at the Amell estate when you're in Kirkwall. I would like to talk more with you."

He didn't quite succeed at hiding his surprise, but he assented with a nod. He too had a number of questions.

When Nathaniel arrived in Kirkwall two weeks later, the streets were abuzz with rumours of the Champion's latest exploits. A High Dragon had terrorized the miners at the Bone Pit. No longer. The Champion had seen to that. Nathaniel was impressed in spite of himself.

A shy Elven servant opened the door of the large town house and showed him to a small but comfortable study. A fire was burning in the fireplace, and the bookshelves were well stocked. He had just spotted the usual collection of Brother Genitivi's travelogues when the door opened and Cass walked in.

"Nathaniel Howe." Cass looked genuinely pleased to see him. She was wearing a short house dress and had let her hair down. The last time he had seen her, she had been in armour. No robes. But that wasn't surprising, really. After all, she had been an apostate for all of her life.

Morena had loved long, heavy robes. She'd always claimed they'd kept her warm in the inhospitable Fereldan weather. And she'd never seemed bothered by them in battle. Having grown up in the Circle, she would probably have felt uncomfortable in any other form of dress. And the robes had suited her, emphasizing her curves, offering tantalizing glimpses of her soft brown skin whenever she moved...

Shaking off the memories, Nathaniel greeted Cass with a wary smile. "Hawke."

"Will you have a glass of wine and some cheese with me?" When he nodded, she gave a sign to the servant, and a few minutes later they were seated in comfortable armchairs in front of the fire, sharing the meal in companionable silence.

Cass wasn't much of a talker, but her sharp eyes were fixed on his face most of the time, missing nothing. When she finally spoke, her voice was cool and clear, her tone decisive. "You're a Grey Warden. Tell me about the situation in Ferelden. The darkspawn. The new commander at Vigil's Keep. It's not often we get news from such a reliable source."

They talked for more than an hour, mostly Nathaniel telling her what he was allowed to divulge, occasionally interrupted by a probing question from her. She was very bright, he realized, and very quick to spot what was important. Easy to talk to, at least until she turned her attention to more personal matters.

"You knew my cousin well, it seems. What was she like? The Hero of Ferelden?"

He laughed, a short, bitter laugh. "Morena? I am not sure I ever really knew her. Why not ask Anders?"

"Anders!" Cass rolled her eyes impatiently. "In Anders' eyes she could do no wrong. Look, Nathaniel, I'll be blunt. I know you were in love with her, and I know what she did to you. Anders told me that much, even if he was conspicuously silent as to his own role in it."

"Of course he was." Nathaniel didn't bother hiding his contempt. "He knew it all, Cass. All the time she kept me in thrall with her little tricks, she was secretly sleeping with him. Anders betrayed us all, just as much as she did. They were childhood companions, lovers, the best of friends. All the rest of us, we were just tools for her ambition or playthings to be enjoyed and then discarded."

Cass' face hardened. "It seems my cousin was a manipulative bitch."

Nathaniel closed his eyes, the feelings of shame and hurt returning. "Yes, she was. Manipulative, cheating, power-hungry and selfish. And utterly charming, incredibly full of life, fascinating, fierce... I wish it was that easy."

Cass frowned. "Still, she must have been ruthless. To abuse her magic in such a manner..."

He raised an eyebrow. "She certainly had few qualms about it. But you're a mage too. Are you saying you wouldn't use blood magic?"

"Oh, I do." Cass laughed at his shocked expression. "When things get tough in battle. I would do anything that gives me an edge in a fight. How do you think I survived for such a long time? And it doesn't get any easier."

For the first time, he noticed the bandage around her left calf and the red, burnt skin on her ankle. Her gaze followed his, and she smiled. "Anders did his best, but it will take a few days to heal. The dragon put up quite a fight." Her smile vanished. "But I would never use blood magic on my lover. I couldn't do that. It would be... dishonest."

And you are far too straightforward to lie. Nathaniel was fascinated. No, she was not like Morena. Just as beautiful, true, but apart from that...

With a deep sigh he put down his glass. "Time for me to go, I'm afraid. But I would like to see you again, Cass, if I may. I'm sure my duties will take me to Kirkwall from time to time in the months to come. So..."

"You're welcome at my house whenever you're in town." She smiled warmly at him. "I like you, Nathaniel. I shall be looking forward to your visits."

Nathaniel realized his heart was beating faster at her words. When he took his leave with a chaste kiss on her cheek, he was certain he would be back.

Many, many thanks to zevgirl for taking on another long story of mine.

In case some of you are wondering: Nate's background story can be found in more detail in my story "Murder at Vigil's Keep". You won't have to read it to follow this story, but maybe you'll enjoy it anyway.