tagCelebrities & Fan FictionThere and Back Again Ch. 101-102

There and Back Again Ch. 101-102

byElyssaCousland©

Chapter One Hundred One: Accusation and Explanation

*Trigger Warnings: Mentions of all of the Very Bad Things you fear would happen in a medieval dungeon. No detailed descriptions.*

Once all of our companions – except Wynne, Aedan, and Duncan, for obvious reasons – were there, Alistair stood. He rubbed at his neck the way Theron always did, and I saw Anora flinch. "Alright, so, would someone please explain what in the Void happened over there?"

Zevran was the first to speak. "We were betrayed, is what happened, isn't it, your Majesty?" His gaze never left Anora's face, and she flushed slightly. "You had the opportunity to stop it, to tell the truth, and you lied to save yourself."

She stood, pacing a couple of steps back and forth. "I told you that no one could know it was me. I told you I'd be taken back to the palace, perhaps even killed. The Warden spilled my identity to a room full of those who identified themselves as my father's soldiers! What did you expect?"

"I expected that the reigning monarch would have enough control over her own people to assure her own safety. I expected that she might consider the good of an entire nation over her personal well-being. Do you know there are only three Grey Wardens in the country who can end the Blight?" That she was supposed to know of – Aedan, Alistair, and Riordan. "And your selfish actions almost caused the death of one of them."

He stalked closer to her slowly during his tirade, and Anora stepped back again and again, until her back was against the bookshelves behind her. Finally Alistair put out his hand, and Leli stepped forward and tugged on Zevran's arm.

With a disgusted snort, he shrugged them off; the assassin turned and stepped back against the opposite wall, then brought out a dagger and began ostentatiously cleaning under his fingernails with the sharpened edge.

Leliana offered a small curtsy to Anora. "I am Leliana, your Majesty. We didn't have a chance for introductions earlier." They exchanged nods and she turned back to Alistair. "Perhaps if I tell the story from the start?"

Alistair nodded and gestured; he and Anora sank back into their chairs.

"We infiltrated the estate through the ramparts, as we planned. We had poisoned the guards' food, and so there were very few walking the halls. We worked our way toward where her Majesty was being detained. When we arrived at her door, we discovered her door had been sealed with magic. We went to find the mage responsible.

"We found Nathaniel in one of the rooms, chained to the wall; he can perhaps tell us his own story after, yes?" The archer nodded, and Leliana continued, "He asked to come with us, and Aedan agreed. Kallian was with him, and after Anders healed her, she came as well."

I blinked. Kallian? As in Tabris? As in, the city elf origin? I'd assumed Tabris had died in the assault on the Arl's estate, after Vaughn interrupted the wedding in the Alienage...

I realised I was missing what Leliana was saying.

"...stairway to the dungeon was in Howe's actual bedroom! What sort of depraved person has private access to the dungeon from his bedroom?"

Kallian had paled at the mention of it, and shrank back behind Wulf; I realised my worst imaginings probably didn't do the truth any justice. I shuddered and shot the poor girl a sympathetic look, which she didn't see, hiding as she was behind Wulf. I checked Nathaniel's expression, but he was staring at the wall, not allowing any emotion to creep through.

Leliana continued, "We went into the dungeon and fought our way through the guards – apparently they hadn't eaten any of the poisoned food. We found a nobleman, Oswyn, the son of Bann Sighard, in a cell, having been tortured to within an inch of his life – all because he knew that one of his guards was in the army and had been ordered to leave the field at Ostagar before the King was over-run by darkspawn."

She paused, letting that sink in for everyone. "There was a templar, Alfstanna's brother – the one who'd caught Jowan – in Lyrium withdrawal, being detained so he couldn't tell anyone that Loghain had freed a blood mage and sent him to Redcliffe; Anders gave him some Lyrium, and we've already sent a message to his sister, who should be here soon. We also found Vaughn, the son of Arl Urien, the late Arl of Denerim, but he was...already dead."

I doubted most of the group would have noticed Leli's brief pause before saying Vaughn was dead. I glanced back at Kallian to see her tensing, looking ready to flee. Vaughn might not have been dead when they arrived, but he didn't last long after. And no one will miss him, either. I wondered whether they'd managed to find his stash of gold before he died, not that we were in desperate need of the money. Wulf reached out and squeezed her hand softly, and she relaxed slightly when no one jumped up to accuse her of murder.

"We freed some other prisoners, including Kallian's cousin." I was fascinated to learn there were others we didn't see in the game; it made sense – it was a huge dungeon, there had to be other victims. "Then we finally found Howe. He must have heard the commotion in the rest of the dungeon, because they were waiting for us when we opened the door. We fought; Anders was injured, but we won. Nathaniel killed Rendon Howe, and we left to see if her Majesty was free."

I was rocked again. Nathaniel killed Howe? There was more to that story, I knew, but clearly Leliana wasn't going to give details. I'm amazed Aedan let him live, never mind allowed him to be the one to kill Rendon. I'll ask Zevran later, if Nathaniel doesn't tell us.

"She was, and so we left; as we tried to sneak back out the way we came, we were ambushed by a large group of Loghain's soldiers. Aedan tried to tell them that we were rescuing the Queen, but she denied it and told them to arrest him and take him to Fort Drakon. We fought, and I assume her Majesty slipped out while the soldiers were occupied trying to capture us." Anora nodded. "We won, but with Anders unable to heal..." She glanced in the direction of Aedan's room, leaving the rest unsaid. "It was a long battle, and then getting back here took longer as well because we had to evade every guard on the streets, not knowing if they'd been alerted to look for us."

The mood in the room was ugly. Aedan was on the verge of death upstairs, and the one person who could have prevented the fight sat among us, posture rigid, expression neutral, hair perfect. It made me sick, and clearly I wasn't the only one. Theron was shaking his head, and I could almost picture the sorrowful expression hidden behind his helmet. What I wouldn't give to see Anora's face if Theron took off his helmet...The rest of the companions radiated rage, and Teagan was looking at Anora like she was a bug he'd accidentally crushed with his best shoes.

"So would you like to wait until Aedan is awake, or would you prefer to start now with denying that it was you who drew us into a trap, your Majesty?" Zevran's tone was deceptively calm, but the danger patent in the question was obvious. "Or are we supposed to ignore the similarity in tactics between yourself and your father at Ostagar?" In a way, I was glad he'd asked it; not being able to accuse Anora of exactly that in the game had infuriated me. Theron twitched, whether in shock or anger I couldn't say.

Anora stood, drawing herself up to her full height. "I will try not to hold your impertinent accusations against you; your friend is injured, and I will attempt to remember that you are not yourselves at the moment." She turned to Eamon. "I wish to retire to my room to rest. I would like to be notified the moment the Warden is awake, Arl Eamon."

Eamon nodded silently, and Anora stalked out of the room, shoulders stiff. I took a big breath of relief when she made it through the door without one of Zevran's daggers buried in her back. With her gone, we closed and locked the door.

The mood wasn't exactly brighter once Anora had left, but it certainly was a little less hostile. I wasted no time before crawling into Alistair's lap; Zevran took my abandoned chair, and we all just relaxed for a moment, getting our bearings.

Alistair sent a runner to get Duncan, who slipped in with his helmet on. We quickly filled him in on what Leliana had told us, and Zevran's accusations.

Leliana turned to Zevran. "We cannot be sure-"

"Can't we? That ambush was no accident, Leliana." Zevran looked right and truly pissed. He turned to Nathaniel, practically spitting fire. "What of it, Howe? Was Anora conspiring with your father the whole time?"

The dark-haired man sighed. "I don't...know. I can't be sure. My father bragged to me about the Queen being at the estate, but he didn't say whether or not they were colluding. I just don't know."

To my surprise, Zevran seemed to accept this, and despite his pinched lips, his objections subsided. I was shocked. Zevran believes him, respects him enough not to question that? After a minute, attention turned back to Nathaniel and Kallian, who was still half-hidden behind Wulf. I wondered how much of that was because he was an elf, and how much because he was one of her rescuers.

Alistair gestured to Nate. "Perhaps you'd care to fill us in on your story, then?"

He nodded, a familiar broody expression reminiscent of the game on his face. "For those of you who don't know me," his gaze travelled around the room and paused noticeably on me, "I am Nathaniel Howe. My father was the man responsible for the deaths of the Couslands and, apparently, countless other atrocities over the past few months. I had been in the Free Marches for years, when I received a strange letter recommending I return and see what my father had been up to first hand. So I did, arriving in Denerim...a month ago or so? Only to learn that my father had indeed assumed the Teyrnir of Highever as well as the Arling of Denerim.

"I went straight to the Arl of Denerim's estate, where I'd heard he was living, to inform him of the rumours circulating about him...only to find all of them, and more, to be true."

He turned for a moment, apparently examining a shelf of books, but I guessed he was giving himself time to school his expression. "My father was surprised to see me – he never intended for me to return to Ferelden, I knew that long ago – but he took me in anyway. He bragged about his new titles, excited that the Howe family 'had finally gotten what we deserved.' He didn't come right out and say that he betrayed the Couslands, but between what he did say and the rumours, even among his own men, it quickly became obvious.

"I confronted him, and he didn't deny it. And then...he showed me the basement."

"The dungeon." Alistair's expression was grim, and Nathaniel sighed.

"Yes. I didn't know...at first I didn't know what was down there. Having figured out that I was unlikely to approve of his methods, he tricked me into going down there saying he'd found something I needed to see. He gave me a tour, showing me all of his prisoners – in cages, being tortured, being raped by his soldiers – and then he locked me in a cell. Told me he'd give me some time to see if my attitude improved."

Kallian sobbed at the mention of rape, and Wulf turned and wrapped his arms around her, hiding her from us. Leli got up and went over to the two elves, whispered for a moment, and then Wulf led the poor girl out of the room. Kallian briefly made eye contact with Nathaniel, and nodded; he acknowledged it with a frown.

He continued, once the door closed behind her. "He made sure I could hear what was happening...I had to listen while they..." He gulped. "He let my brother participate. In the rape and the torture. He corrupted my little brother, and Thomas took part in my father's vile perversions." The silence in the room was painful as we all contemplated that horror.

"I wasn't given food or water for three days. By the time they let me out, I was delirious, and too weak to stand. He locked me in a bedroom and gave me a day to recover. Then he came back and asked if I would join him in ruling the world – he implied he would marry me to Anora, and then he would be the power behind the throne – or if I would throw my life away.

"I told him no. I called him a monster. He...had me tortured. While he watched. And then healed, and tortured again."

The impassivity on his face was quite possibly more horrifying than the story he was telling. How bad do things have to be that someone can describe being tortured by their own father without flinching?

"I cracked. After enough time, he broke me. All in ways that wouldn't permanently mark me, of course. But I finally agreed to do whatever he wanted, if only the torture would stop." Now he looked ashamed, and I wanted to cry. He was tortured, and the part that really bothered him was that it worked?

"He brought in Kallian. She was one of the ones I'd seen being..." He didn't have to complete that sentence for us to catch on. I buried my face in Alistair's shoulder, not sure how much more I could hear before I started going mad. "He made her nurse me back to health. Refused to have his mage heal me, refused to give me poultices or potions. She had to hand feed me, help me bathe and...things." He flushed. I bet they don't make bed pans in Thedas.

"She was kind. Far kinder than I deserved, being the son of the one who'd violated her. I know she'd been captured by Vaughn, and I assume raped, but nothing he did to her could match what my father had done. And despite that, she was kind. Over a couple of weeks, I slowly healed to the point that I could move, start rebuilding my strength. There was never enough food – he wanted to keep us both weak – but I was recovering.

"And that's when he came to me with his demands. He wanted me to prove my loyalty to him. Prove that I was capable enough, ruthless enough to do what he needed done. And to prove it..."

He turned away again, practically whispering, as though saying it quietly could alleviate any of the pain. "I was to...to rape Kallian. To torture her and rape her. The kind woman who'd nursed me back to health. And he made his demand in front of her, no less. He'd refused me healing, made her take care of me, so I would have two weeks to get to know her, respect her...to make it that much worse when I was to rape her. And the alternative, if I refused...he would give her to Thomas. He said he would give me a day to make up my mind. That...was yesterday."

****

We called a break after that, everyone eager to escape the terrible mental images brought on by Nathaniel's story, but none more than Nate himself, I imagined. I wanted to go try to offer comfort to Kallian, but imagined she might not welcome the efforts of a human. Likewise I thought to offer sympathy to Nathaniel, but he held everyone at arm's length with his glower alone. Instead, I invited him to go with Zevran, Alistair, and I to check on Aedan.

Anders informed me he'd have a nap and when his mana had recovered sufficiently, he'd come to Aedan's room. Solona dragged the blond mage off towards our room, and I wondered if he would get any rest at all, not that I'd blame them.

Aedan was unchanged; Wynne took the opportunity to slip out and get something to eat while we were there. Zevran knelt by Aedan's bedside, holding his limp hand; we decided to give him some space. I ended up back in the library with Alistair, Theron – still helmeted, Leliana, and Nathaniel. We locked the door so I could crawl back into Alistair's lap, and he stroked my hair while holding me tightly.

I turned to Nathaniel, the guilt so overwhelming I had to say something. "I'm sorry, Nathaniel. I wanted you to see what your father was doing, but I never thought...it's my fault. Everything you went through. I'll never be able to tell you how sorry I am."

"You sent me the letter?" His eyebrows crawled up his forehead in surprise. Leliana let out a gasp as well, and I realised I'd only told Aedan and Alistair about my letter. Leli had mailed it, but didn't know what it said. Duncan...is going to be furious.

I nodded, holding out the rose necklace I'd used in lieu of a signet ring to seal the letter.

"But, my Lady, I don't understand. How do you know me? I'm certain we've never met. I don't even know who you are."

"I'm Sierra, Aedan's sister. We haven't met, but I know of you."

His expression was incredulous. "I grew up with Fergus Cousland, my Lady. If he'd had a sister, I'd have known."

"I was raised...away from Highever."

He shot me a skeptical look. "Why would the Couslands send their only daughter away?"

I sighed, trying to decide how to respond, when he flushed. "Did they know? That my father...?"

"No, no. Nothing like that. It's a long story, one I don't have time to prove to you at the moment. But I knew that if Aedan killed your father, if you hadn't seen it for yourself...I knew you'd be angry. You wouldn't believe that your father had done...everything he has. That you might even try to kill Aedan thinking he'd murdered your father without reason. I wanted to avoid that." I sighed, covering my face with my hands. "I never dreamed he'd do...that...to you."

"But how did you know what he was doing? He hid it extremely well – none of the rumours even mentioned the dungeons, or the Queen. They were all about the Couslands."

"That's the long story. Let's just say I...have my sources. For the same reasons I was sent away as a baby. Once Aedan is better...well, we can tell you about it then, okay? I just wanted to say I'm sorry."

He stared at me for a minute, unblinking, and then looked away. "It's not your fault. If he hadn't had me here to distract him, he might have done something worse to someone else. This way...well, I got to see exactly who my father was. It's better this way."

Abruptly he got up and fled; Leliana shot me a sympathetic look and went after him. I turned to bury my face in my favourite spot on Alistair's shoulder and let out a few tears that had been threatening for a while. Theron slipped out of the library and closed the door behind himself, giving us some time alone.

"I didn't...Maker, I never thought about the consequences of the things I did. I never thought anything like this could happen because of me. What if...what if I've done something terrible? What if, because Duncan and Theron survived, or something...what if I've made everything worse?"

He tilted my tear-stained face up and kissed the tears away from my cheeks. "All you can do is your best. No one can know the outcome of their actions, regardless of how much knowledge they have. You did what you thought – what we all thought – was right, and you have to believe in that. Even when things seem bad."

He kissed me then, a soft, warm, giving kiss, letting me take what I needed from him. I wanted to stay like that forever, but there were so many things to worry about. I sighed and pulled away, running my fingers through his hair and pressing my forehead against his.

"I don't know if I can do this." His eyebrows furrowed in confusion, so I explained, "Pretending we're not together. Everything is just too horrible, I can't deal with it without you." He rubbed his nose against mine, and my lips twitched in the barest of smiles. "It was a terrible idea," I admitted. "I wanted Anora to look bad. I wanted to see if she was as horrible as I thought. And she is. But it wasn't worth it."

He squeezed his arms around me. "Honestly, we'd have had to do it anyway – if I'm supposed to be the contender for the throne, I can't already have a wife. The nobility wouldn't be okay with that, according to Eamon. But I don't see any reason we have to continue to pretend not to be together...I'm sure the servants already know anyway. Which means Anora can find out, if she cares to. And since the nobility seem convinced that political marriages are the way to go, I doubt she'd really even see it as an impediment if she decided she wanted to consider a marriage alliance. We can pretend you're my mistress."

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