Just as a note, this was written by both myself and my girlfriend, SerNature. We'll be updating it as often as possible, though we're both working on our own solo projects so it may not be as often as we'd like! That said, we may completely ignore original stuff to write more of these two. Who knows? Not us! Enjoy!
There would not be a day when Nathaniel didn't relive the night his father showed his true form.
Rendon Howe had never been the bear that was so proudly used as their sigil. People of their ilk would be more inclined to think of him as a viper or a spider that made trapdoors out of webs and dirt, but he had always seen his father as one of the panthers from the great jungles of Seheron. He was a calculated man, one who waited in the shadows for his prey to lower their guard, and when he struck, it was with a precise, brutal efficiency.
And most of all, wild animals do not know the rules of dogs. They will bite the hand that feeds them.
They will take the entire body if it pleases them.
Even still, Nate never believed his father was capable of this. Of unrepentant butchery, of a betrayal of this magnitude.
Blossom woke him. Even three doors down the hall, Rhys's mabari had a bark that resonated through the stone halls. His friend may have slept through such a ruckus easily, but Nathaniel wasn't so lucky... though, it was a blessing in this case.
He already had a dagger in hand when his father's men came through with swords at the ready. Their guard dropped quickly, however. Nathaniel had been living with the Couslands for going on four years; why did it surprise him that his father knew which room was his?
"Master Howe!" Nate knew the man. Richard or Rickon. Something with an 'R'. His father had favored him, which meant Nathaniel had an immediate distaste for the scarred blonde in front of him. "Glad we got it right! Need'ta get ya outta here, m'lord, 'fore it gets too bloody."
Nathaniel remained calm, spinning the hilt of his dagger in his hand, grey eyes shifting from soldier to soldier as they all left to assist with the hostile takeover of Highever. "It's a coup, then?" he asked, masking his disgust as best he could. "Have you killed the Couslands yet?"
"No, ser. We-"
Whatever the man had to say was cut off by the blade embedded in his neck.
Richard or Rickon or whatever his name was clutched at his neck, grasping at it comically, as if removing the steel in his windpipe would be akin to magic, healing his wounds and allowing speech once more.
When he crumpled to the ground, Nate stepped over him to reach his quiver, freshly stocked of arrows, and his bow. He had several on his wall. One from his father that was far too small for him now, another he won during Highever's archery contest the year before, and finally there was the ironbark recurve bow from Bryce Cousland himself, given to him when he had returned from the Free Marches.
Nate came home to a dead mother and a father who decided to work from Denerim, so the Couslands invited him to stay.
A few days became a week, a week quickly turned into a month, and Nate found himself falling into a friendship that had no reason to work as well as it did. Nearly a decade age gap and glaringly different personalities, and yet Nate found himself spending more time with Rhys and less time with Fergus, the one he had actually grown up with.
His first instinct was to head up the hall and to his friend's room, damn waiting to put on his armor.
There was no waiting, no hiding in the shadows as he preferred. He had no time to line up his shots for mortal blows, so he crippled instead, sending serrated arrowheads into the tender flesh of thighs and shoulders and stomachs. He would gather them again once they began making their way to the gates.
Nate lost count of how many of his father's men he sent to the Maker, or at least to the ground. Beyond that one soldier, they were not men he knew. Far too young to account for the six years in the Marches and another four spending only summers in Amanranthine, wondering if Rendon might dare to speak to him.
It didn't take long for the clashes of steel on wood to be broken by a guttural growl, followed by screams. Crunching. Gushing of blood.
Blossom was still alive, then.
When he finally came to the small ramp that lead to the family's bedchambers, he was greeted with a sight that elated him, as well as worried.
Rhys's shield was covered in gore; the bottom point was still dripping, chunks of brain and skull falling to the floor with a sickening, wet sound. Blossom was no better, her once kaddis-stained snout was now a terrible red, all the way up to her ears, leaving only small parts of silver still noticeable on her back.
Her hackles were still raised, and she made no move to lower her guard or wag her tail. She was no normal dog. A mabari would not rest, would not relax for a moment for as long as their master was in danger.
"Rhys." Nate's throat was dry from sleep and fear; it roughened his voice more than usual. "I- I came as quickly as I could. We should get to your parents."
When Rhys let his shield droop, no longer held at attention, he shook his head. "Not yet."
The words spat from his lips, and he gave a shuddering sigh as he set both weapons at the foot of his bed, only serving to stain the bedclothes farther. Remnants of the soldiers seeped into the blanket, darkening the wool to match the sheets still tangled around the elven woman still in his bed. If not for the crossbow bolts in her chest, her death might have been easily passed as a deep slumber.
"Those were your father's men," Rhys continued, moving around the room to reach for whatever clothes he could find. Fighting men naked was never his forte, shown in true form by the gash at the back of his shoulder that turned his back a bright, vital shade of red. His hip was scored to match. "Tell me why. I'm not going anywhere with you, least of all to my parents, until you tell me."
Nate had an anger to match the younger man's, and while he bristled, even sneered, he did not make a scene. "There's a trail of my father's men, dead and dying, leading from my room to yours. All with green feather fletching." His jaw twitched, eyes darting around the room, muscles tensing should Rhys choose not to believe him. "I know as little as you do. One of my father's men attempted to make me leave the castle. He now has a dagger in his throat."
"I appreciate the solidarity, but this..."
Rhys made a disgusted noise as he shrugged on the lightest armor he had piece by piece. Adrenaline forced a shake down into his fingers, and he cursed under his breath as he struggled with his laces. Being pulled from a deep sleep by Blossom's ever-watchful growling set his nerves on edge, and having his door kicked in and watching the intruders kill Iona without a thought twisted him into frantic knots.
When he looked back up at Nate, his expression was desperate rather than angry, his blue eyes wide. "What is this?"
"A coup." Nate moved forward slowly, setting his bow down on a chair. Blossom growled in warning, but didn't lunge. Rhys seemed just as apprehensive, but when he, too, did not threaten, the older man finally reached out to assist with his laces, drawing them tightly, keeping his eyes on them rather than seeing that look on his friend's face.
"Every noble in the land covets your family's power," he murmured, callused fingers working their way up Rhys's breastplate, securing the latches to his standards rather than the other man's. "It appears my father decided to take it from idle talk to action. I couldn't tell you where he got the support."
Rhys set his jaw, waiting until his laces were tied to step away. His movement was stilted, as if his body wound its own muscles tight enough to splinter, as if the deliberate movement of his neck from side to side would cause a break. If the stretch relaxed him, the change was not obvious.
"He has known my father since before the Rebellion. They fought alongside each other. They were friends, and he does this? Threatens to overwhelm us in our sleep?"
As he spoke, his voice rose, and he did not grab his sword so much as snatch it up to grip the hilt in a white-knuckled hand. Behind Nate, Blossom growled yet again, this time taking a few steps forward until Rhys shook his head. She turned her back after that and a jerk of Rhys's chin towards the door, a wordless command to keep watch.
Grasping his shield, he held it against him as if he was composed for another attack. "Get your armor, then," he said, a command ill-fit to his voice, still steeped in worry as it was. "I'll not sit and wait for them to attack again."
Nate did not deign to answer him. He ran off back down to his room, snatching arrows as he went. When he made it to his chambers, he donned his padded leather as hastily as his hands would allow. Black and light, the armor covered his body head to toe and made him nearly invisible in the night, with several hidden pouches throughout the breastplate that was more vest than armor.
Even as quick as he was, Blossom forced him to move even more so when she barked. Once, twice, and a third time that was cut short by a yelp and a bellow of such rage he could scarcely believe it was human, let alone his dear friend.
All thoughts toward his own survival once again fled his mind as he bolted back up the corridor, bow in hand and arrow docked.
The moment he saw someone other than Rhys in view, he loosed it, grinning briefly as the man flanking Rhys dropped face first to the cold stone.
He did not speak, he only acted, firing again and again until the men outside the Teryn's door were all dead, most by Rhys's hand, a few by Nathaniel himself, and a handful by Blossom. Even more now as she went from body to body, tearing their throats to ensure they were dead.
Across from them, the door the men nearly splintered opened to reveal Rhys's mother, armed to the teeth and looking just as angry and confused as her son. Eleanor Cousland was every inch a warrior, and she paid the mabari no mind even as its jaws closed around the last guard's windpipe, silencing the bloody gurgle in the man's throat.
"Rhys! Oh, Maker's sake, I dressed as quickly as I could." She moved over to him, her hands seeking out his face. "I heard Blossom, and the fight that broke out. Do you... do you have any idea what is happening?"
"Howe." The word caught in Rhys's mouth, all but choking him. His mother's introduction into the fray changed things; Nathaniel knew that. This was no longer about their survival; it was about keeping his mother safe and getting her out of the castle, far enough away from this coup to breathe at the very least. "He's betrayed father. We have to find him. I don't – I don't know anything else. They've already killed Iona; I don't doubt they're doing the same to everyone."
This news tore a frown into Eleanor's lined face, but she took a slow breath and shook her head. "We won't see our friends slain in our own home," she murmured, her hands falling from Rhys's cheeks to grip at his shoulders. Just as her hands shifted position, her eyes moved, as well, finding Nathaniel's face and managing a weak smile. "You're with us, I take it?"
"Of course, my lady." Nate did everything he could to keep his voice steady. They was no time to stop and think about his words, what they meant. "I will do whatever you need of me."
That seemed to satisfy the teryna, despite the narrowing of her sharp, green eyes that might have told him otherwise. "Good." Turning back to Rhys, she smiled once more, this time warmer, concern creasing her brow. "We'll find your father. He was with Duncan as well as Rendon tonight; I'm sure he's safe."
Without a word she walked toward Nathaniel, stepping behind him and taking roughly half his quiver, replacing it with some of her own. They were well made, but suited for hunting. The arrow heads did not pierce as well as he would have liked, and frankly he took issue with anyone touching his things.
His body must have told of his discomfort, because Eleanor chuckled behind him. The noise sounded forced; she was attempting to ease her son.
"Have you checked on Oren? Oriana?" She peered at the closed door of Fergus' room. "I imagine they'd be good hostages, thank the Maker."
Rhys went rigid again, a panic settling into his face despite his mother's endeavor to calm him down. "I didn't. They might still be here." He twisted towards the door and pressed past the both of them in its direction. There was a moment of hesitation, when Rhys stood in front of the door and thought of something. Only when the young man set aside his sword and shield did Nathaniel realize what he thought about.
Oren was young enough to still be frightened by a too-loud noise. If Rhys burst into the room in armor with his shield and sword coated in a heavy layer of gore, the boy wouldn't sleep for a year.
Lifting his fist to the door, Rhys knocked quietly, asking Oriana to let him in. He repeated this twice more before giving up and grasping at the handle instead, finding the lock free. When he pressed into Fergus's bedchamber, he looked to the bed, to the walls and the chairs. It took his mother trying to push past him to pull his gaze downward, and what he saw made him hold her back.
Howe thought the second Cousland heir was better off a corpse with his mother than a prisoner. Both Oren and Oriana had been run through what seemed like long before. In the light of one flickering candle hastily lit and the moon shining in from the windows high on the walls, the two were drained of all life. They were pale, a washed-out shade of blue, and around them spread a halo of cold blood, black on the stones and black on the rug beneath them.
"No," Rhys whined. He filled up the doorway as best he could, squaring his shoulders and turning to block his mother from entering. With his failing, blurry vision, he could only just make out the hard lines of Eleanor's face. He knew she would move past him. It was an inevitability he could delay only by seconds. "Mother, please."
"Let me through." Something in her voice spoke of an otherworldly awareness. It was as if Rhys's voice had given everything away, as if she could decipher the fate of her grandson from his expression alone. "I want to see them."
Rhys did his best to keep her away, but eventually her insistence overrode his strength. At least, what little of it remained.
"No," she echoed her son, falling to her knees. "No! They- they were innocent. Why would he do this? What point is there in butchery."
Nathaniel watched in silence as Rhys sunk down to the floor to console his mother. No words were spoken; from the look on his friend's face, he doubted the man could put two words together. It was the teryna that sent them on their way, directing them first to Cousland's vault.
This time, he didn't lose track of the number of soldiers. Death on this scale was something he was not accustomed to, nor was Rhys, but Eleanor lived through the Rebellion. She was an excellent sniper, age being the only thing keeping her arrows from striking true more often than his own.
They had killed seventeen soldiers and five mabari by the time they made it to the vault. Nathaniel wisely kept his mouth shut about his issues with Rhys carrying a shield with the emblem of his family of it. If his father did this, he must have a way to get out of a traitor's punishment. He must have some sort of falsified proof that the Couslands themselves were no longer loyal.
Not only that, it had to be something grave for anyone to possibly believe it. The Cousland bloodline was older than the Theirins. If one family truly embodied Ferelden, it was them.
He understood his father's envy.
Their next heading was the reception hall, hoping that the loud clamoring meant the teyrn was commanding within.
Instead, they were met with a slaughter. At least twenty Howe soldiers and even two mages versus ten house guards who were more for show than anything else and Ser Roland Gilmore behind a hastily built barricade of tables and chairs. From the number of corpses on the floor, it appeared the Cousland forces had once outnumbered the Howes.
The three of them joined the fray without an ounce of hesitation, but Roland nearly cold-clocked Rhys, a thick, armored arm snapping out and catching him by the chest.
"No." He pushed Rhys back, using all his strength to push him away as his paltry forces closed rank around the Couslands, palm heavy on the center of his chest. "My Lord, no. You cannot waste your time on us."
"I would hardly call your lives a waste of time," Rhys replied, pressing forward to where he stood only a moment before, sword already drawn. "I've already seen far too many familiar corpses tonight, Gilmore. I won't have anyone else fall on account of my safety. So turn 'round and fight with me."
The tone of Roland's voice made the hairs on the back of Nate's neck stand on end. The man didn't even need to finish his sentence for them all to know what he would say next, but he continued regardless.
"We're dead men," the knight explained. "But we will die ensuring you and the teyrna live." When it appeared Rhys was not moved, Roland huffed. "Your father should be at the larder. The Grey Warden was with him. My Lord," he nodded toward Eleanor, "my Lady – he is wounded. Badly. Leave this to us."
"He's right, dear." The teyrna rested her hand on her son's shoulder. "We must go. There's no other option."
Nate shifted on his feet, grinding his molars with indecision before speaking as well. "I've been counting. Amanranthine's army is much larger than just the men you've seen. The alchemist's fire will be coming out shortly. If we stay, we forfeit our lives."
The knight's normally soft gaze hardened when he found Nate in the shadow of the doorway. "Perhaps you should stay in Rhys's stead, then."
Rhys's voice hardened, brittle as it was, and he shook his head. The determined light in his eye was little more than the smoldering embers of hope until it was replaced entirely by a haze of pleading. "Once I make sure my father and mother are safe, I will come back. I will. I swear."
Gilmore wasn't convinced. No one standing behind the barricade was, not even the young man who spoke of promises. Instead, his brows knitted together, and he took a step back, closer to his mother.
"Good luck," Rhys said, a wish for every guard there though he didn't look away from Gilmore. Good luck sounded too much like goodbye, and another wave of unease set down around him. "Whatever you can do... whatever you have done, it has helped."
"It has been both a privilege and an honor to serve you." Gilmore smiled. Content and genuine.
The reality of what was happening seemed to crash down on Rhys. Seeing men he knew dying for his family sent him on a frenzy; neither Nathaniel nor Eleanor were able to get more than a few shots off before a sword pierced some vital organ or another. Blossom was right beside him, feeding off her master's fury, often times barreling ahead to cripple the legs of the bastards sorry enough to be in her way, leaving them vulnerable for the ancestral Cousland blade to slip into the gaps of their armor.
Getting to the larder was remarkably easy. Rhys was so focused on finding his father, he didn't bother to look around the kitchen. Nathaniel thought it best not to mention the body of his nanny.
"I... knew you'd come." The voice, haggard though it was, still held warmth to it. Bryce sat up against some sacks of grain, clutching his gut. He moved his arm further over the wound when Eleanor ran to his side. "Hello, darling. You're...?"
"I'm fine," she cut in. "Rhys is fine. He saved me, and now we've saved you." Eleanor wasn't looking at the blood. As far as she was concerned, to look away from his husband's eyes was to kill them both. "The exit's right here, Bryce. We've made it."
Bryce's jaw clenched. He turned his head toward Rhys and Nathaniel, though his blue eyes lingered on his wife for a few moments before focusing on the two men. "Saved your mother, did you?" He chuckled, wincing in pain as a result. "Always intent on showing up your father, aren't you, pup?"
"I wouldn't, if you did not make such a feat so simple." Rhys idled near the door. Even Nathaniel stood farther into the room than he did, though not by much. His only movement was an awkward shift on his feet, and while his face was skewed with worry, Nathaniel knew that worry was for his mother, even now, even after seeing Bryce's state and the surely mortal wound he'd fallen prey to only recently.
A long moment passed between them as the castle burned and bled at their backs.
Eleanor smoothed a gloved hand over her husband cheek, a tight smile pulling at her wet cheeks. This was for her own good, but it helped only a little.
Bryce looked crestfallen when his son didn't move to kneel beside her, and that disappointed look on his father's face was enough to guide Rhys forward, pulled as if by another's will and not his own. Not even the weight of his arms and armor could hold him in his place.
Rhys groaned softly once his knees touched the stone floor, his armor only serving to dig into the wounds he'd collected that night. Still, his were scrapes compared to the slice in Bryce's belly, so he bit his lip and glanced towards the back door, his mouth set into a hard line. "We have to go. Nathaniel and I will carry you if need be."
Nathaniel felt his muscles tense as Bryce's eyes found his. They narrowed, much like how his wife's had earlier, but it didn't take long for his face to soften. He didn't smile, but he didn't order his death, either. Nate considered that a win.
"Gladly," Nate agreed, taking a few steps closer but not enough to intrude. "If we put enough pressure-"
"He will slow us down."
The deep voice drew the eyes of everyone in the room. Apparently, the Warden had been off scouting. He his blades were stained with blood.
"I apologize for being blunt, but it's the truth," Duncan continued, sheathing his swords and heading to kneel down by Bryce's body, settling between mother and son. He lifted the teyrn's hand, revealing a cut down to the gut, mild pressure being the only thing keeping his internal organs in. "We have minutes at most before the arl's men find us."
"Then we fight the arl's men," Rhys said without a moment's hesitation, already pulling himself up from his knees. When he pulled himself to his full height, his quickly tindered rage flickered, then grew into a flame. "I am not going to leave my father here to be butchered. We get him out, or we go nowhere."
Duncan didn't pay Rhys the slightest mind. Nathaniel found himself drawn to his friend's side, if only as a show of support.
"Duncan," Bryce pleaded, taking the warden's hand in his. "Please, take my son and wife. Get them away from here."
"I won't leave you." Eleanor curled herself by his side, helping him wrap an arm around her own shoulders. "I won't let you die like this, and I won't let you send me off."
The Warden simply nodded. "I came seeking someone suitable for to join the Grey Wardens," he murmured, nodding his head toward Rhys and Nate. "If I help them leave, I expect them to fight the Blight with me."
"Are you blackmailing a dying man?" Nate couldn't help himself. "This night has been full of nothing but horrible men doing horrible things; are you so eager to join their ranks?"
While Nate spoke, Rhys worked his parted lips in shock. All the color had since drained from his cheeks, and there was an underlying threat in the clench of his jaw. If there was anyone stupid enough to stand against a Warden, it was him.
"I don't need your help to leave," he finally managed to say, his upper lip curled. Blossom snarled for him, filling the silence until he spoke again. "I know this castle and the surrounding lands better than you could ever dream. I would be saving you. You are not in the place to ask such things of me or my father."
Nate tightened his grip on his bow just as Rhys's mabari growled, turning away from the larder door to face down the man who was making her master so angry. Nathaniel had never seen Rhys in this sort of situation before. His loyalty to his friend was continuing to surprise him.
Duncan lost none of his calm. In fact, he still wasn't looking at either of them. "My Lord, your family has supported the Wardens for many an Age. You know why I ask this. This Blight will ravage Ferelden to its core if I do not have enough able-bodied men and women to fight the darkspawn with me."
Bryce's brow furrowed deeply. After a long pause, he peered up to his son. "It is our duty to serve our land when the call comes, Rhys. You may know Highever, but Duncan can take you to Ostagar. And that is where you need to be. Someone has to tell Fergus."
The Cousland boy's pride was stronger even than his sense of duty. Everyone save Duncan was well aware of the fact. Whatever strain worked its way into Bryce's voice was little more than the urge to temper his son for the better, an attempt that failed when Rhys's voice raised high enough to echo into the passage Duncan sought to escape through.
"I will not answer the call of a man who does not think me important enough to face me!"
The Warden drew himself to full height. Rhys easily had a few inches on the man, and Nathaniel had to force himself not to settled a hand on his shoulder. He knew he'd shrug it off.
"If you choose to be a child about this, I will force the matter," Duncan explained, voice irritatingly calm. "There is more at stake here than your pride. Even your parents. I am sorry for what you must be going through, but I will not apologize for my methods. You will either come willingly or I will conscript you here and now."
"Are you mad?" Nate's own composure cracked at that, and stepped up beside Rhys, sneering. "The Wardens have barely been back in Ferelden for twenty years and you're threatening a Cousland with-"
"I do not make threats, Master Howe." The Warden's eyes went from Rhys to Nate and back again. "Become a Warden or die. Those are your choices."
Eleanor spoke up from her place by Bryce's side. "Rhys, darling," she pleaded, "You must get to your brother. He needs to know he is teyrn, and you must tell him of—" She had to stop herself from sobbing. Taking a deep breath through her nose, she continued, voice even and cool. "You must go."
Rhys's chin trembled, though he never took his eyes off of Duncan. All it took was another distressed noise from Eleanor for him to crack, tearing away from Duncan to move beside his mother again.
His fingers curled around her forearm. He knew she would struggle if he tried to guide her to her feet, so he waited, hoping beyond anything that she might change her mind. "I can save you, mother. If you'd let me," he said, all but begging with his words and his eyes and his touch. "I could care less about this Warden; I can find a place for you, somewhere safe, and then I can search for Fergus. You don't have to die here."
"If I leave your father to die, I will have passed with him, no matter where I am." Eleanor's eyes welled with tears as she reached out, brushing her thumb over his cheekbone. "If I stay here, I can hold them off. Give you and Nathaniel the chance you deserve. Your father and I... we've lived a full, happy life."
Bryce groaned, clutching his wound even tighter. "Ah— listen to your mother, Rhys. You know there's no convincing her. Besides, there a good chance she'll kill every soldier in the castle protecting me."
"I can't leave her here to die!" Rhys cringed at the sharp sound of his own voice. "I've read about the Wardens. I know what happens to them. It's a death sentence, same as this. I would rather go down fighting for you than for the good of Ferelden."
Eleanor frowned deeply before leaning forward to press a kiss to Rhys's forehead. "Stubborn boy," she murmured, aware of the way Rhys only moved closer to her when he felt her tears on his skin. "You must tell Fergus and the king. It will be easy for you to gather men enough to come back and retake your home." She paused. She sighed. "It will be a good story."
Rhys nodded, finally relenting, before pulling away from her. "I'm sorry," he muttered, his words tight and painful-sounding. "I won't rest until I have fixed this."
Nathaniel reached back to his quiver, removing all but a few of his arrows, holding them out to the teyrna. "My father will answer for this," he said, voice quiet but sure.
"Look after my boys," she murmured, moving to her knees to dock an arrow in her bow. "You owe them that much.
Before Nate could respond, the sounds of crashing could be heard just outside the kitchen. Or perhaps in the kitchen.
"We must leave." Duncan used an arm to attempt and herd the two men toward the tunnel. "Now!"
Rhys barely repressed the urge to shove the Warden away.
Time was melting away, moving faster than before, causing a blur of the larder and his parents and all the blood his father had spilled. Eleanor glanced in Rhys's direction for just long enough to catch his rushed, "I love you," and reply with one of her own, before falling into position.
His father said nothing. Perhaps he was already dead. Or he wanted the last word to be hers.
There was another crash and a garbled shout that echoed down the cramped alleyway Duncan and Nathaniel ushered him through. Then everything was blotted out, silenced by his blood pounding hot and loud in his ears.