Fandom: Dragon Age Origins: Awakening
Theme: #11, ice
Characters and Relationship: Nathaniel Howe/Moira Cousland, eventually romantic
Summary: He had been prepared to face anyone, he just hadn’t figured on anyone being her.
Note: This is Nathaniel’s side of Here Is Gone, so all the dialogue is the same.
Nathaniel found it incredibly ironic that he had once been in the very same cell as a boy, hiding from his younger siblings during a game of Chase and Find. They hadn’t been able to find him, partly because they had been afraid of the dark shadows and stale smell of old straw. The cell had seemed bigger then, not the claustrophobic cage that it actually was. He’d lost track of how long he’d actually been sitting in his father’s dungeons. For all he knew, it could have been days or even weeks. Nathaniel had heard sounds of fighting earlier, but they had since stopped. The surly guard stationed in front of him wasn’t any help; all he muttered was how lucky Nathaniel was to be locked up tight while good people fought darkspawn outside. There had been no use telling the guard that he had been concerned for those fighting – his family had been responsible for their well being, after all - but the man probably wouldn’t have believed him anyway.
He glared at the lock on his cell again. Pity he had never mastered unlocking it before. It was an even bigger pity that his lock picking kit was safely stored away in a trunk several feet from his cell. If he had it, then he guessed that overpowering the guard barring his exit would have been easy and he would have been well on his way before this new Commander of the Grey had arrived. As it was, he was reduced to sullenly sitting in the shadows, wondering if this Commander, this Cousland, would let him live or have him killed.
Cousland. Nathaniel’s eyes narrowed and he thought about all he had learned since coming back from the Free Marches. A Cousland had killed his father, murdered him outright in a newly acquired family estate, and then had stolen all their lands and titles from under their noses. Nathaniel had done some investigating and had even heard the titles of Hero of Ferelden and Teryn thrown about.
It hadn’t seemed real; Fergus had once been one of his closest boyhood friends. What right did he have to do this to the Howes? Word was that Bryce Cousland had betrayed the kingdom and had been selling information to the Orlesians. That bit of information had been difficult to hear; Nathaniel had thought of the Teyrn of Highever as something of a surrogate father, especially since he had once thought to call him his father-in-law. Nathaniel had also picked up some information saying that his father had attacked Highever first, but he had thrown that out as pure gossip spread by Fergus’ followers, as justification for the injuries done to his family. What reason would his father have to attack his oldest friend? What would he have to gain? The Rendon Howe that Nathaniel remembered would never do something so rash, especially if there was a chance that his actions would damage his family’s reputation.
He eyed the trunk holding all his possessions, rubbing at his chest all the while. Amid his personal items stored there was a chain that held a plain gold band he had worn around his neck for nearly a decade. He’d still been in the Free Marches when he had heard that the entire Cousland line save for Fergus had been killed in Highever and it had felt as if someone had ripped his heart out of his chest. When he had heard the news that the Teyrn had also been killed that night, he had felt sorry that he hadn’t survived, if only because he had wished to have been the one to kill him himself. In the span of one night, Teyrn Bryce had taken everything from Nathaniel. He’d mourned Moira’s death for two solid years before finding the strength to come back to Ferelden, cursing at her father for letting his political ambitions put those that he had claimed to love the most in danger. When he had been captured, he had stood by quietly as his guards had taken his armor and weapons from him, but he had fought them when they pulled his necklace off. The only place the heirloom wedding ring was supposed to be if not around his neck was on Moira’s hand, and now that she had been taken from him, he would fight anyone who dared to touch it.
His efforts earned him a kick to the ribs from his captors, but at least he had the satisfaction that he had blackened one of their eyes and broken the nose of another beforehand.
Nathaniel’s thoughts came to a halt when he heard voices near the dungeon’s entrance. He couldn’t make out who it was, but he was betting that it was the new Commander. He didn’t want to give Fergus the satisfaction of seeing him so defeated, so he decided to keep his eyes glued to the stone floor in front of him until absolutely necessary.
“Ah, my father’s murderer decides to grace me with their presence. Strange; from what I heard of you, I had expected you to stand ten feet tall and have fire shooting out of your eyes,” Nathaniel said quietly, his voice echoing in the cell. He congratulated himself on his bitter tone, especially when he heard the almost silent footsteps pause before stopping a foot away from his cell.
“So, you have heard of me.” The soft voice that replied threw Nathaniel for a loop. That was not Fergus. Eight years had deepened the tone a little, but after hearing it night after night in his dreams, he could easily pinpoint who it belonged to. “How does the real thing fare in comparison to my reputation?”
Nathaniel slowly forced his gaze upward, still not believing that the person in front of him was real, hope flaring in his chest for the first time in two years and the single thought of she’s not dead. She’s not dead running through his head. He swallowed hard, watching her as she watched him and the years fell away. Instead of the woman grimly standing in full armor with her hands wrapped around the metal bars of his cell, he saw a young woman, her dark hair loose about her and dressed in a bright blue gown, her lips curled upwards in a smile that had once warmed him to see. She’d cut her hair; the ends barely brushed past her shoulders where it used to fall in waves down her back. He wanted to leap up, to wrap his arms around her and crush her tightly to him in relief, not caring if dragon scales got in the way of feeling the gentle curves her armor hadn’t managed to mask. The armor befuddled him, as did her words, making his heart plummet. No, she couldn’t have… “Moira?” This couldn’t be the same person who had run a sword through his father’s heart.
Then she tilted her head upwards, crushing what little bit of hope he had that he was mistaken by allowing those familiar hazel eyes of hers to harden and it felt as if he had been the one to suffer the mortal blow instead. If he had been standing, he was certain that he would have staggered backwards. I’ll wait for you forever, Nate. Don’t tell me goodbye; just say that you’ll see me later. I love you. Memories that had kept him company when he had been away were now useless and he fought to find some sort of foothold on a suddenly slippery slope. “I hadn’t pegged you as a murderess.” His voice was flat and lifeless even to his ears, and he briefly enjoyed the uncomfortable expression on Moira’s face.
Her fingers tightened on the bars and he watched as she took a deep breath. “You don’t know the whole story.” Something painful flashed behind her eyes and Nathaniel had to push away the urge to hold her, to do something to ease whatever hurt she had suffered. That was when the full effect of what had happened finally hit him, that his father was dead and she had been the one to end his life. He hadn’t heard a word about Thomas or Delilah’s whereabouts; had Moira had something to do with them as well?
Nathaniel stood up and walked towards her. “What? That my father was killed in cold blood in Denerim by someone – apparently, you – just because he wouldn’t support Alistair’s bid for the throne?” Anger burned hotly in his chest and made him want to reach out and shake her. How could she do this to him? How could she do this to both of them?
“Rendon Howe butchered my family!” She had been quiet up until then, and the sudden outburst of rage caught him unaware, as did the way the flat of her palm hit the bars, making them shake. “My father never would have supported Loghain, so he was taken out of the equation. Your father stole lands and titles that were not rightfully his; his death was nothing less than what he deserved.”
Her words made him seethe. He had mourned her loss, had wandered about feeling lost and empty for so long only to find out that she held no remorse for her actions. “Your father was a traitor to the kingdom, selling his allegiance to the Orlesians. What he got was nothing less than what he deserved.” It was a cheap shot, but he wanted her to hurt as much as he did. He needed her to suffer just as much as he had suffered.
“How dare you…” Her eyes were narrowed and he had never heard her voice sound so hateful before in his life.
Nathaniel arched an eyebrow and crossed his arms over his chest, cutting off whatever else she was planning on saying. “And it seems as if you’ve decided to return the favor. Tell me, my love, did your precious King grant you the title of Arlessa before or after you stabbed my father in the heart?” The endearment felt like a knife twisting in his chest even as he spat it out at her like a curse. He watched with some satisfaction as she flinched, closing her eyes as she fought to tamp her temper down like he had often seen her do. She was so close to him now that he could smell the faintest whiff of lavender come off her. The scent made another unwanted memory come to the surface: he was twenty again, holding her close to his chest with his nose buried in her hair, marveling at how perfectly she fit in his arms and wondering if she would object to him kissing her like he had wanted to since he and his father had arrived in Highever that morning.
The thought of his father gave Nathaniel something to focus on. He shook his head and brought himself back to the present, noticing that Moira had opened her eyes again and was staring at him.
“Yelling will not solve anything,” she said quietly. “What are you doing here?”
“The last time I checked, Vigil’s Keep was my home” he snapped. “When I heard what had happened while I was away, I meant to set a trap for you, to kill you and avenge my family for stealing our lands and dragging our name through the mud the way you did.” He might have been anticipating her brother as his father’s killer, but he wasn’t going to let her know that, especially since he saw how she recoiled at the thought of him wanting to kill her. “However, as I lay in wait, I realized that all I really wanted was something tangible of my past, something to remember them by. There has been so much death on both our sides. As much as it galls me to admit it, I would hate to continue adding to the body count.” He wrapped his hands around the bars, his fingers almost, but not quite, grazing Moira’s and bowed his head. Maker, but he was tired. In all honesty, he did just want to take a few mementos of his former life and leave, never to come back. He didn’t belong here, and he certainly didn’t want to be anywhere near her any longer.
Moira let her forehead rest against the metal. “What will you do if I let you go?” she whispered. She sounded as broken as he felt and his heart momentarily went out to her. It seemed that no matter what she had done to his family, he still had a vulnerable spot when it came to the girl he had fallen for. He looked down at her, noticing how unguarded she looked just then with her eyes shimmering in the torchlight and he had to stop himself from reaching out and brushing away the lone tear that had slipped down her cheek.
He twisted his lip into a sneer and looked at her with such hatred, berating himself for wanting to believe that she might still feel something for him. “I would just come back. I said that I wouldn’t like to add to the body count, not that I’d necessarily decide to spare you. Next time, you and your guards might not catch me.” If he wanted to survive this encounter with his sanity intact, he was going to have to do a better job of guarding his heart. The logical solution was to encase it in ice, to distance himself from Moira until he could convince himself that the girl he had loved so long ago was gone, that this woman who had taken her place had killed her.
He had thought her dead once and it had nearly killed him. To see her like this, to know that she was responsible for his family’s downfall, was like reopening that barely healed wound all over again.
She made it easier for him to hate her when she threw her head back and laughed. The sound was completely devoid of mirth and made his skin crawl. He took a hesitant step backwards and watched as she wiped at her eyes with the backs of her hands. “I defeated an archdemon, Nathaniel. You are certainly more than welcome to try your hand at what an entire darkspawn hoard failed to do.” It was the first time that she had called him by his name, and he was grateful for the mocking tone she said it in, if only for the fact that it helped fuel his anger towards her.
“Fortunately,” she continued, “I have several choices on what to do with you. I could let you go and risk facing an assassination attempt; it certainly wouldn’t be the first I’ve ever seen, nor would it be the last, so I feel I should warn you that I am fully capable of thwarting such attacks. You say that next time I might not catch you; well, next time I might not be so merciful either. My second choice would be to order your execution right now. What would you prefer: swinging from the courtyard rafters or being left here to rot?”
“Either way would show fear on your part,” he hissed, his head held high. He refused to be intimidated by her threats of death, even as part of him wondered just who had tried to kill her in the past. “Yet that would be just par for the course where your actions are concerned. Fleeing your home instead of staying to defend the people in the city below and killing instead of bringing the accused to justice are marks of a true coward.”
“Then I guess that leads me to my third choice. I hereby conscript you into the Grey Wardens. You said that you have lost your name and the respect that went with it; I am giving you a chance to redeem yourself and your family.”
“Odd, how it is up to you to decide my fate,” he murmured, more to himself than to her. “You must be insane to want someone at your back who just said they had no problem killing you.”
She gave him a humorless smile. “It’s strange, but I meet most of my friends that way. Besides, not only is there a chance that you’ll die instantly during your Joining, but you’ll only have thirty more years to live if you do happen to survive.”
He narrowed his eyes and crossed his arms again. “So it seems as if you win no matter what.” Not only had she stolen everything he held dear from him, but now she had even stolen his life. Even if he were to survive this Joining, whatever it was, and escape, he would ultimately die. And it was all because of her.
“Yes, it would seem that way. Although if I kill you now, you wouldn’t have thirty years to take back your name, now would you?”
He glared at her before taking hold of the bars again. His fate was set, and he could either face it kicking and screaming or he could walk forward with dignity. “I accept your offer.”
She let go of a breath and Nathaniel saw a ghost of the smile he had once treasured appear on her face. “I’m glad. I need all the Wardens I can get.”
“I am not doing this for you,” he said, his voice flat. “I am doing this for my family, nothing more.”
“I…” Her smile froze on her lips before vanishing completely, her expression as cold as his own. “Very well. Can I trust that you will refrain from killing your Commander, at least before we find out if you make it through your Joining?”
“I don’t see how I will have the chance to do so later, not with other Wardens in the area.” He stepped back and watched as she unlocked his cell door. “I don’t suppose that there’s an oath that prohibits me from allowing darkspawn to kill you instead?”
“There isn’t, although I have been told on more than one occasion that I’m royally tough to kill.” She stood aside as he walked out. “If you would be so kind as to head towards the throne room, we can get this over with.” It seemed as if she couldn’t help herself from taking one more stab at him as he passed by. “I believe you’re familiar as to where that is.”
He looked behind his shoulder, refusing to allow her words to affect him. “Not going first? How unlike you; I would have thought you’d want to parade your prisoner about instead.”
“Forgive me if I think you have a knife hidden somewhere my guards didn’t think to check. I didn’t get the reputation of being hard to kill by being stupid.” She gestured towards the chest he had been eyeing earlier. “Take whatever personal items you wish; my guards have assured me that everything besides your weapons have been stored there.”
He snorted, thinking that her tone just then was more like what he remembered when she had been a little girl and had wanted to tag along with him and Fergus while they practiced their swordplay in the front courtyard of the Keep. But I don’t want to play with your sister’s dolls! Just because I’m a girl doesn’t mean that I can’t fight as well as you two! Shaking that memory aside, he knelt and sifted through his belongings, finding his necklace and quickly slipping it over his head. He tucked the ring underneath his tunic before Moira had a chance to recognize it, to demand that he give it back to her since it had once belonged to her mother. No, he thought vehemently, his palm pressing the cool metal band against his chest. This belongs to me. It’s all I have left of the girl I once loved. She might have stolen everything else from me, but I’ll be damned if she takes this as well. The only other thing he took out was the ring his sister had given him that he’d worn for years, placing it back onto his left index finger where it belonged. Standing up, he went to the door of the dungeon and stepped out into the night. Behind him, he could practically feel Moira reaching for the wickedly long dagger he had seen strapped to her back, almost as if she were afraid that once freed, he would turn and attack. Good, he thought. She should be wary of me.
“You aren’t the only one who hasn’t lived as long as they have by being stupid. I don’t plan on being anything except the docile lamb being led to slaughter.” Really, what did she expect him to fight her with, his bare hands? He was certain that even if he had gotten a few hits in, a single cry to her guards would have left him dead on the flagstones. He continued walking towards the throne room, determined to prove to Moira that even though she might have won this battle, he wasn’t going to go down without a fight. He would join the Grey Wardens, bring honor back to his family’s name, and live out the rest of his life the best that he could.
Moira Cousland might have destroyed everything he cared for, but he refused to allow her to lord it over him. He felt her fall into step beside him on his left as she had always done since the very first time they had met as children, but he didn’t acknowledge her presence. He would walk these halls as if they still belonged to the Howes and there was nothing that she could do to stop him.
Another subtle hint of lavender assaulted his nose and he cursed himself for letting it affect him as much as it did. He might feel hatred towards her now, but he hoped that the layer of ice that he had put around his treacherous heart would hold.