Fandom: Dragon Age Origins: Awakening
Theme: #16; think of me and I’ll be there
Characters and Relationship: Nathaniel Howe/Moira Cousland, eventually romantic
Summary: She wondered what her father would have thought of this whole mess.
Note: From the Dragon Age Wiki: Reflection - A simple amulet with a mirrored back and an archaic symbol of the Chantry on the front. Sometimes, when gazing into the silvered backing, there are fleeting glimpses of someone else: the face is familiar, and the smile encouraging.
Moira, Anders, Nathaniel and their newly acquired Warden named Justice (the thought that a Fade spirit inhabiting the body of a dead man gave her chills) had just returned from the Blackmarsh. Her neck and arm ached from where a blight-ridden werewolf had mauled her – she was certain that encounter would join all the others currently fueling nightmares for nights to come – she was bloody and exhausted and all Moira wanted was a hot meal, a hot bath, and her bed, not necessarily in that order.
Of course, that meant that the second they stepped foot inside Vigil’s Keep, people were pulling her one direction after another. The Private who often delivered her letters said that Varel was looking for her while a maid fell into step beside her and was already fussing with her, repeating that her presence as Arlessa was needed and heavens, what did she have in her hair, entrails? Moira opened her mouth to protest when Nathaniel’s voice thundered behind her.
“Enough,” he barked, making everyone stop in their tracks. Turning to the Private, he crossed his arms over his chest and glowered. “Is this a dire matter?”
“I’m afraid so, Ser. Seneschal Varel requested the Commander’s presence immediately. There are several matters that need to be addressed, including criminal issues.”
“Report to Varel,” Nathaniel continued. “Inform him that the Commander will address these issues as soon as possible, but not until after…” He rolled his eyes at the maid who had her lip curled upwards in distaste. “Oh, for Andraste’s sake, yes, those are dead darkspawn bits in her hair.” He reached out and plucked the offending material out of Moira’s tangled braids at the back of her head, tossing them onto the ground. “Unless you think that he’ll mind her discussing matters as she is, then notify Varel that she’ll join him in the throne room once she’s had an opportunity to make herself more presentable.”
The maid bobbed a curtsey while stammering something about ordering hot water and the Private ran off into the Keep to deliver Nathaniel’s message. Moira all but sagged against him. “Thank you,” she said, giving him a halfhearted hug.
Nathaniel stiffened, remembering his encounter with the desire demons in the Fade. “You looked like you needed some assistance,” he told her, noting the way that the arm she had wrapped around his waist shook with fatigue. “Are you going to be able to do this?”
She looked up at him and he could see just how worn down she was. “I don’t have much of a choice, do I?”
His hand went over her shoulder, his fingers gentle as they traced over the still healing bite marks. Her breastplate had cracked and split under the pressure of werewolf fangs and demon hands; it had been far too painful to wear as is, so it was currently at the bottom of her pack. “You could order Varel to make decisions in your stead.”
“I could, but then people would say that I’m merely a figurehead; that if they really wanted to get to the true power of Amaranthine, then they needed to get past my seneschal.” There was a determined glint to her eye. “I might not have wanted to become Arlessa the way that I did, but I’m going to try to be the best one that I’m capable of being.”
“Go to your bath,” Nathaniel said quietly, stepping away. “Just try not to fall asleep in the tub; I might have bought you some time, but if I remember properly, citizens with concerns are only patient for so long.”
The hot water was heavenly against Moira’s aching muscles. She sighed and attempted to unwind, but her self-imposed time restraints had her rushing through her bathing routine. Jillian, the maid from the courtyard, came in and helped Moira into a dark blue gown with a contrasting girdle in a soft grey fabric. The dress had a high neckline and long sleeves, for which Moira was grateful. The fang and claw marks were still a vivid red against her pale skin, which would probably be seen as a weakness to whoever she would be addressing. Anders had healed her as best as he could, but he had already been exhausted trying to keep them all alive while they fought against the pride demon. She shuddered, still feeling the demon’s hand around her as it squeezed. Luckily, Anders had enough mana left at the time to heal the ribs that had snapped under the pressure of the demon’s grasp, but the muscles around them were still incredibly sore. Her breath hissed out between clenched teeth as Jillian tightened the laces of the girdle, her abused ribs protesting. Moira sat at her makeup stand and watched in the mirror as Jillian brushed her now gore-free hair away from her face, fastening it with a pair of silver combs edged with sapphires. Looking at herself without the familiar braids framing her face, she couldn’t help but notice the dark smudges underneath her eyes or the way that her face had lost all traces of its former girlhood roundness. She was only twenty-six, but she looked older. She wasn’t certain that was a good thing or not.
“I was sent to make certain you didn’t drown,” Anders said, knocking on her bedroom door even as he opened it, much to Jillian’s protests. Moira looked him over, noticing that even though he looked as worn out as she felt, he still had the energy to give her an appraising leer. “If I do say so, you clean up quite nicely, Commander.” He held out his elbow and she went to him, the two of them propping the other up as they walked down the hallway.
“You don’t have to stay,” Moira told him. “You look like you’re ready to drop.”
“Truthfully, this whole Grey Warden business isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I mean, freedom from the Circle is amazing, but it’s been nothing but work, work, work since I signed on. Where’s the wine, women and song that I’d been promised?”
She hid her smile behind her hand. “I don’t seem to recall that being part of the Joining,” she said. “Though I do believe we’ve all earned a rest.”
“Too bad you have to deal with Arlessa business.”
“Well, that’s what happens when you’re the boss of everyone.” She looked up at him. “Did Varel send you to escort me down?”
Anders shook his head. “No, our ever dour Howe did.” He arched his eyebrow when he felt her stumble against him in surprise. “What’s the story between you two? You hardly say a single word to the other for days, but now the two of you are chatting like you’re old friends.”
Moira bit her lip. “We are old friends,” she said carefully. “We grew up together.”
“Then what was with the ever so pleasant glaring contests the two of you were doing since you met him again? Let me tell you, filling in awkward silences with clever banter has never been so difficult.”
Moira’s hand went up to toy with the necklace she had chosen to wear, her fingers running over the raised Chantry symbol on the front of the pendant. “It’s a very long story, one that we don’t presently have time to go through. Needless to say, Nathaniel and I have worked through our differences.”
Anders gave an amused sounding chuckle. “I’ll say.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
He shrugged. “Nothing.” Pushing the door to the throne room open, he guided her through, his hand warm on the middle of her back. “One of these days, you’re going to have to ask him what he saw back there in the Fade.” She wanted to ask him what he meant, but he was already drifting away from her and headed towards his usual spot against the wall. She looked around, finding Nathaniel in his corner. None of the other Wardens were present, which made Moira wonder why he had decided to stay. She couldn’t help the blush that rose to her cheeks when she saw the look of silent admiration he gave her. Her eyes flew towards Anders, who was already smirking as if to say that he knew a secret that she didn’t. Deciding to ignore both of them – Anders because the knowing look was starting to annoy her and Nathaniel because she couldn’t afford to be flustered at the moment – she kept her back straight and walked as elegantly as she was able to in her current state towards the dais.
Sitting, Moira quickly found out, on the Keep’s throne was incredibly uncomfortable. It might have been better if the chair itself was constructed differently; the tall, hard back and narrow, unforgiving seat was not her first choice in seating arrangements. Then again, the dress she had been fit into wasn’t helping matters either. Sitting with anything less than perfect posture made the girdle’s boning dig into her ribs, which in turn made taking a full breath a challenge. She listened, uncomfortable and tired, as she was presented with three cases. The first two had been easy to judge; the sheepherder Alec had been conscripted into her army as payment for stealing grain and she had sided with Ser Darren in the land dispute between him and Lady Liza. The third had been more difficult. Ser Temmerly had been accused of murdering Ser Tamra. The news had caused her heart to plummet; it seemed as if the conspirators had claimed their first victim. Varel had advised her to let Ser Temmerly go due to lack of solid proof, but Moira knew in her heart that he had taken part in the murder. In the end, she had ordered him imprisoned while a lengthy investigation was put underway. Ser Temmerly hadn’t been pleased with her ruling and the glare he had given her as he was led away had chilled her to the bone.
Hall cleared, Moira found herself unable to leave. Part of it was plain exhaustion, but the other part was that she found herself brooding over her three judgments. Frowning, she played with her pendant again, holding it up in the torchlight. Every once and a while, she swore she saw her father smile up at her on the mirrored back.
“What would you have to say about this, Father?” she asked quietly, her fingertip running along the edge of the hazy figure. She could remember hiding behind the heavy tapestries in the Great Hall as a child, elbowing Fergus out of the way as they listened to their father address the concerns of the citizens of Highever. He had been fair with his judgments, justly punishing those that had committed crimes and dissolving potentially volatile situations with tact and grace. After, she remembered how he would sit in his chair – it had been wider and more approachable than the one she was currently perched on – and call out to his children. It had never amazed Moira how he had always known when they were listening in, especially since she and her brother took great pains to be as silent as Chantry mice for fear that Nan would find them and make them leave.
Have I done the right thing, Pup? he had often asked her, wondering what her and Fergus’ opinions had been on what they just witnessed. She remembered curling onto his lap and snuggling against his side while they spoke, feeling safe and loved.
She sighed. Here, she didn’t have a lap to sit in, nor did she have a sounding board to ask if she had done what was right. Wincing, she rose from the throne and put her hand against her aching ribs. It would be good to get out of the dress and flop atop her bed. If she had anything to say about it, she would be allowed to sleep until late afternoon.
“Are you still in pain?”
Moira stifled a scream and whirled around. “I wish you wouldn’t sneak up on me like that, Nate,” she said, her hand against her throat.
He gave her a rueful smile. “Sorry, habit.” Tilting his head, he thought her words over. “That’s the first time I’ve heard you call me Nate in years.”
She opened her mouth, but then shut it again, her cheeks pink. “It slipped out. I won’t, if you prefer.”
“No, I don’t mind.” He didn’t mind; hearing her call him by his old nickname sent a warm thrill through him. “But back to my original question, are you still in pain?”
She grimaced. “It’s these damnable stays,” she complained. “I swear some man fashioned this dress. A woman wouldn’t have put laces where one couldn’t easily reach.”
“It’s a very pretty dress,” he said, turning Moira so that her back was facing him. He’d seen her in mostly blood splattered armor lately; it made him forget just how lovely she could look in more courtly wear. Deftly loosening the grey laces, he heard her sigh in relief.
“I guess Leliana was right; beauty is pain.” They were quiet for a moment then she spoke up. “Did I do the right thing?” she asked. She may not have her father’s comforting words to fall back on, but she wondered if she might have a sounding board with her after all.
“On which one?”
“All of them.” Without the binding girdle, sitting upon the throne was worlds easier.
Nathaniel sprawled on the stone steps at her feet, leaning his back against the chair. “Theft from the Crown is punishable by hanging,” he said, quoting the law. “Had he stolen from anyone less he could have gotten away with a simple flogging.”
“That’s what Varel said.”
“Then why did you choose to have him serve in your army instead?”
Moira tapped her fingers against the arm of the throne. “Because he stole the grain to feed his starving family. The Blight has touched everyone, especially those who rely on their fields and livestock as a way of life.” Darkspawn had destroyed those fields and slaughtered the livestock, leaving nothing for the survivors. “A dead man cannot provide for his family, nor can a man recovering from a flogging.”
“He’s a sheepherder. How do you know he won’t simply die in the next fight he’s in?”
Moira pinched the bridge of her nose. “Even if he is, his family will be well taken care of. In the meantime, they will get their ration of grain as well as a soldier’s pay to set aside for more provisions.” She leaned back, her head hitting the hard back of the throne with a muted thump. “What of Ser Darren?”
“My father had a written pact with Lady Liza. Legally, that bridge should have gone to her.”
She sighed. “I know it should have.” She also knew that if she had denied Darren that she would have been without one more supportive voice in the crowd. She needed all the help that she could get.
Nathaniel looked up at her, noticing the way she worried her bottom lip between her teeth. It was a nervous habit of hers that she did whenever she was distressed about something. “You had very little choice in the matter,” he said softly, reaching up and taking hold of her hand. “You could have given the land to Lady Liza and risked losing one of your few allies doing so or you could have simply taken the land for yourself.”
She snorted. “Ah, yes. And then I’d be seen as a tyrant by both parties. I think not.” She looked down to where Nathaniel had laced his fingers with her own. She had forgotten just how tactile he had been when he had wanted to, and how much she had missed the simple touch of another person. Court life and the protocols that went with it all but forbade touching, lest gossips start rumors from a friendly elbow or supportive hug. She’d felt isolated in the palace, even when surrounded by a great deal of people. “Which brings us to Ser Temmerly.”
His eyes narrowed. “He is guilty.”
“You felt it as well?”
Nathaniel nodded. “He thinks that being born noble gives him immunity. Unfortunately, you didn’t have enough evidence to merely order his execution.”
“I wanted to,” she confessed. “Yet if I did, what message would that send to everyone?” The look Temmerly had given her had made her wonder if he was in on the conspiracy on her life as well. Keeping him behind bars meant that there was one less potential killer out on the loose.
“Imprisoning him was the fair verdict.” He glanced up at her, his face serious. “Although it doesn’t mean that he can’t meet his end behind bars just the same.” He too felt that Temmerly was involved with the plot against Moira and he would sleep much better knowing that the man was dead.
She arched her eyebrow. “You would do that for me?”
“If you asked it of me, yes.” They were whispering now, their faces close.
Moira looked away first. “I’ll not have you play the part of assassin,” she said quietly, slipping her fingers away from his. “This is my mess; I should be the one to clean it up.” She stood up and stepped down from the dais.
“Why must you think that you have to do everything alone?” he demanded, coming up behind her. His hand roughly went around her arm and she drew a sharp breath in through her nose as pain flared up her shoulder. “That sort of thinking is why touching you now hurts so much.”
“Anders doesn’t wear armor. He could have been killed had I not stepped in the way.”
Nathaniel fought the urge to squeeze her shoulders in frustration. “Then he should bloody well start wearing armor,” he growled instead, moving away.
“You’ve acted differently since we’ve come back,” she said, turning to face him. “You’ve been protective of me; what’s changed?”
“I thought we were friends now,” he said sullenly. “Isn’t it usual for someone to wish to protect their friend?”
“This goes past that, Nathaniel.” She bit her lip again. “Anders said that something happened when we were in the Fade.”
He shook his head and exhaled loudly. “What part of not a word of this to Moira does that man not understand?” he muttered to himself. Looking at her, he sighed. “We were married,” he told her. “The demons, they gave me a world where nothing had happened – the Blight, my father’s betrayal, everything. It was as it should have been once I returned from the Free Marches. I was in charge of Father’s garrison. We had a daughter together and another child on the way.”
Moira’s breath caught in her throat. “Oh, Nate…” Reaching up, she cupped his cheek with her palm. He turned his face against her hand, his lips dragging over the skin at her wrist.
“When I realized that something was wrong, they attacked.” He closed his eyes and pressed her hand tighter against his cheek. “I hate the fact that I have to kill monsters that look like you. I don’t know if I can bear to do it again.”
Moira’s heart went out to him. “Her name was Evelyn.”
He looked up at her. “How did you know?”
She gave him a sad smile. “I always wanted a daughter with that name.” She looked down. “Though now I’ll never get that chance.”
“Why do you say that?”
Moira sighed, her hand sliding down to rest on his chest. “Alistair said that he’s never heard of Grey Wardens having children after their Joining. I did some research and found out that it’s an incredibly rare occurrence, which is yet another reason I refused to marry Alistair when Eamon suggested that I would be a good match for him. The king needs an heir; if one Warden has a slim chance of conceiving a child, think how small the chances would be for two of them together.” She felt a pang, but quickly suppressed it. Why would she even think that Nathaniel would be interested in having children with her?
Then she thought back to his words. Desire demons played on their victim’s deepest wishes. They’d shown him a world where the two of them had been married, had they not? Did that mean…
He looked at her, the backs of his fingers gently running along her cheeks. He curled his fingers downwards until he was stroking the sides of her jawline with the pads of his thumbs. His brain was still processing I always wanted a daughter and frowning over marry Alistair when he realized that the upset look in her eyes was due to the possibility of the two of them never being able to have children. “You would have made a good mother,” he murmured, stepping in closer. Moira’s heart beat faster – he was so close now that she could feel his breath ghost over her lips. “And you’re doing the right thing now, with this arling. You might not have originally wanted this position, but you’re doing well. Don’t ever doubt that.” He stepped away then and headed to the door. He felt that if he had stayed any longer that he might have done something stupid, like giving into the urge to kiss her, if only to try to erase the sad look on her face.
Moira stared at his retreating figure. Bringing the pendant back up to eye level, she let out a shaky breath. “Well Papa,” she said. “What do you think of this development?” She searched the mirrored backing for any trace of the figure who usually smiled encouragingly up at her, but all that was reflected back at her was her own image.