“You do realize that your dear Maggie is missing both of her arms, Delilah.”
Arabelle turned her worried stare away from the doll clutched in her playmate’s arms and toward the bustling servants rushing through the courtyard. Maggie, as Delilah called her, did not appear to be weathered, or even poorly cared for. Her golden curls were perfectly placed and her dress was immaculate, the lace and ruffles some of the finest Orlesian craftsmanship Belle had ever seen, but she did find the doll’s lack of arms deeply disturbing.
Delilah’s voice was laden with sorrow as she confessed, “Of course I know that. I’m not stupid, Belle.”
Arabelle Cousuland wasn’t so sure about that, but for the sake of keeping the peace, as her father had so politely asked her and Fergus to do before the Howe’s arrived, she bit her tongue. “So, what happened to her, exactly? Was she in an… accident, or something?”
“Nathaniel,” Delilah muttered. “Nathaniel happened to her, and I can assure you it was no accident on his part.”
“He tore off her arms and hid them from me.” The other girl’s lower lip trembled a little bit at the memory, her large, green eyes flitting nervously left and meeting with her companion’s before glancing away again. “I’ve looked all over the castle, several times actually, and they are nowhere to be found. I suspect he fed them to his dog, or burned them in the hearth.”
They had not seen the boys for several hours, and for that Belle was glad. The three of them had done nothing but tease and mock the girls all morning, and Belle was just two small jests away from hiding a poisonous spider in Fergus’s boots.
“I don’t know why the Maker gives us brothers. They seem so… unnecessary.”
Delilah giggled, a sound not unpleasant, and the lingering nervousness and discomfort that stifled the air around them seemed to lift just a little more.
“They do, don’t they? Thomas does nothing but whine and cry, and Nathaniel thinks he’s so clever, but he’s not. Not really.”
“Nathaniel is the older one, right?”
“Yes, and Thomas is the whiney one.”
“I don’t know how you manage with two of them,” she sighed, the exhale of her breath wavering through the loose, auburn strands of hair that whispered around her freckled face. “I can barely live with one Fergus on the best of days. I could hardly imagine having two of him around. You know, he once painted my mabari pink. He painted flowers all over poor Ser Lance and said it made him look as girly as he deserved.”
Glancing over at the mabari sitting proud and tall between them, Delilah’s brow quirked with disbelief. “I don’t think there’s anything girly about Ser Lance at all.”
“Neither did Fergus after he took a bite out of his backside. Never thought to try his hand at painting after that.”
Once again, her friend laughed, a joyful and relaxed sound that was quickly interrupted by Nan’s shrieking from the other side of the courtyard. “There you are, girl! I’ve been looking all over for you.”
“You must not have been looking very hard, Nan. I’ve been playing out here for hours.”
“I’ll not be having any of your sass, Lady. It’ll be off to bed without any supper if you don’t mind your tongue.”
“Are you cooking?” Arabelle beamed at her nanny, blinking sweetly. “Because if so, bed without supper might not be such a bad thing.”
“That mouth of yours is going to be your end, little lady! Just you wait and see.”
Ser Lance whined at that threat, straightening his shoulders and tilting his head at the old woman.
“Where’s your brother? It’s nearly time to dress for dinner, and I want you both clean and presentable.”
“I haven’t seen him,” she shrugged.
“Well then, off with you. Go find him and come straight back. Her ladyship will have a bloody cow if she sees you as you are. Your hair looks as though you haven’t run a brush through it in three days, and you’re filthy, child! Were you flopping in the mud?”
“I brushed it just this morning!” she shot back, pushing off the stone bench in the courtyard.
“I’ll take the brush to your backside if you give me anymore lip. Now off with you. Find your brothers and bring them back to dress for supper. Both of you. Go!”
Delilah jumped a little too easily at Nan’s command, but Arabelle took her time just to spite the woman. Nudging Ser Lance to fall into step beside her, she didn’t have to look back to know Nan stood scowling, arms crossed and lips tight, her narrowed eyes practically shooting fire.
“Old witch, that woman,” she muttered under her breath once they were out of earshot and on the path toward the training yard, where they’d last seen the boys hours earlier. “One of these days, Mother’s going to find a sack full of old toads in her room and call the Templars.”
“Is she really a witch?” Delilah’s eyes widened so easily, her gullibility almost more than Belle could bear.
Playing along with her own game, she shrugged her shoulders. “She could be. Once I swore I heard her chanting strange words in her room late at night, raising demons, I suspect.”
The other girl shivered at the thought. “Maybe your mother should call upon the Templars.”
“I’ve told her that a hundred times, but she insists I’m just being cheeky. One day that will come back to bite her, I bet. Poor Mother. I wonder what the Templars do to those who house and employ dangerous apostates to watch over their innocent young children.”
Following the growing sound of male laughter, they wound the path downward until she spied the top of her brother’s perfectly combed, dark brown hair. Beside him stood a tall, lanky young man with a bow clutched loosely in hand, his rakish black hair tied away from his face and dangling in a loose queue at the nape of his neck. At the other end of the yard, eight-year-old Thomas stood trembling, an apple in one hand and a terrified look in his wide, green eyes.
“I don’t want to do this, Nate,” Thomas whimpered. “Please don’t make me.”
“Don’t be such a baby. Just put the apple back on your head and stand still, Thomas. It’ll be over before you know it.”
“But… what if you miss?”
“I never miss,” the older boy proclaimed, his deep voice oozing the kind of arrogance that only came with confidence.
“Come on, Thomas,” Fergus coaxed. She watched her brother cross his arms over his chest, a boyish grin finding the corners of his mouth. “I want to see if he can really do it.”
“I’ve already told you I can do it, Cousland.” Nathaniel Howe shot a steely gaze over his shoulder, the hawkish length of his nose and the sneering curl of his upper-lip making him appear almost regal and refined. He was sixteen, a year younger than Fergus, yet he appeared so much older. “Do you doubt my word?”
“Oh, I’ve no doubt you’re a fine marksman, but cutting an apple in half with an arrow at this range? It’s the most preposterous claim I’ve heard out of you all day, and you’ve made quite a few.”
“Then I shall prove you wrong,” Nathaniel tilted his head back, still sneering as he trained his attention once more on his little brother. “Apple, Thomas. Do it. Now.”
“Don’t argue with me. Shut your mouth and put the apple back on top of your head. And remember, if you fuss and fidget, I might accidentally kill you, and then what would Father say? He’d be beside himself with grief over the loss of his favorite son.”
“Don’t listen to him, Thomas!” the girl beside her warned. There was an unexpected motherliness in her tone that commanded the kind of respect Arabelle never thought to have for Delilah. She’d seemed so mousy and meek most of the day, and to see her demeanor shift so suddenly struck Belle as odd.
“Mind your business, Delilah, or I’ll put Maggie up there on top of his head and take her legs off, arrow by arrow.”
“You wouldn’t dare!”
“Wouldn’t I?” he challenged.
“You’re going to get into trouble, Nathaniel,” Delilah announced, picking up the pace and marching into the yard with both hands perched on her hips.
“Only if someone tattles on me,” he sneered
“Thomas will squeal,” she pointed out. “He always does, and you know it.”
“Is that a hint of concern I hear in your voice, dear sister?”
“I just… Father will be… Please, Nathaniel, don’t…”
“Thomas,” the older boy sang in warning, “you have until the count of three to put that apple atop your head. If it is not there when I reach three, there’s no telling where this arrow will land. Maybe into your knee,” he proffered, “or perhaps your shoulder. I just don’t know. One… Two…”
“And I thought Fergus was cruel,” Arabelle interjected. “He’s just a scared little boy. Must you torment him so, Nathaniel Howe?”
“Stay out of it, Belle,” Fergus rolled his eyes at her. “I want to see this.”
“Then maybe you should be the one with the apple atop his head.”
“I would do it,” her brother shrugged.
“So do it. What do I care if he puts an arrow through your eye? Maybe Father will finally let me have your room.”
“Your sister raises a good point,” Nathaniel interjected, offering her a slow smile of appreciation. “Put your money where your mouth is, Cousland.”
“Fine,” Fergus agreed, his shoulders hitching one more time. He stalked across the yard to relieve poor, little Thomas of his apple, but Belle saw apprehension in his gait. The confidence and arrogance her brother naturally possessed did not waiver, not outwardly, but as he tossed the apple into the air, catching it in his hand with a reverberating slap, she swore she saw that hand trembling just a little.
Thomas darted off, barreling between Arabelle and Delilah and racing up the trail, wailing as he ran, as though someone had pinched him.
“Well, where do you want me, Howe?”
“Right where you are will be sufficient,” Nathaniel decided after tilting his head to size up the situation. “Stand up straight, Cousland. Shoulders back, head up, apple in the center.”
Crossing her arms, She watched her brother do as he was ordered, positioning the apple, then wavering in his stance until he achieved perfect balance. The shining, red fruit gleamed in the late-day sun, catching the light and looking almost otherworldly for a moment.
“Can you really do it?” she asked, inching her way forward until she arrived beside the older boy and stared up at him for confirmation.
He was so incredibly tall, not as broad-shouldered or thick as Fergus, but lanky and lean, and though at twelve-years-old, she shouldn’t have thought such a thing, she couldn’t help noticing when he cast a bemused gaze over his shoulder at her that he had the most stunning eyes.
Green and grey, like the angry sea crashing upon the craggy shore, she thought.
“Of course I can. Are all Couslands riddled with doubt?”
“I do not doubt you, Nathaniel.” She hiked her shoulders up quickly. “I simply asked if you could really do it. Split an apple in half from this distance.”
“Right down the middle,” he assured her, a cocky grin stretching the corner of his mouth.
“Have you actually done it before then?”
“I have, now, if you please, step back, Lady Cousland. I can’t afford distractions. Not if you wish to keep your brother alive.”
“Oh,” she took two steps back, adding, “I never said I wished to keep him alive.”
Nathaniel laughed, a scuffing sound of amusement that rippled through Arabelle the way she’d once seen lightening move fluidly through a mage from the Circle, who’d come to speak with her father when she was a little girl.
“As much as I would like to please you, my lady, I think it would best if I don’t honor your wishes. Your lord father would be most put out to lose his only male heir, I suspect.”
“You do realize, Nathaniel, if something bad happens to Lord Cousland’s son, Father will be the one who is most put out,” Delilah informed him.
“While I thank you, as always, for stating the blatantly obvious, little sister, would it be too much to ask that you have faith in me? Just this once.”
Delilah clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth, her head shaking as she looked away from her older brother. “I always have faith in you, Nathaniel. There’s no need to go on proving yourself every chance you get.”
“Cousland will never let me hear the end of it if I back out now.”
“He’s right, I’m afraid,” Fergus called from the other end of the yard. “I never will shut up about it if he backs out now. Not after all his bragging.”
“I have a bad feeling about this,” the other girl muttered.
“I don’t,” Arabelle said.
“Are you ready, Cousland?”
“Ready as I’ll ever be for you to prove me wrong, Howe.”
“Prepare to be proven wrong,” Nathaniel gloated.
His entire demeanor changed, his lean body turning sidelong, feet facing right and torso turning agilely forward. Reaching into the quiver on his back with his right hand, he drew an arrow, nocked it along the taut string of the bow he held in his left, then slowly raised it. The string drew with the almost relaxed fluidity of his movement, the muscles in his back tightening, his shoulders stretching as he pulled back.
Arabelle didn’t realize she was holding her breath until her heart thumped furiously, as if in reminder, upon release of the arrow. The musical drum of the string sang to the whirring spin of the arrow soaring across the distance, where it did exactly as he’d promised it would, splitting the apple in half and thunking into the wooden pillar just behind her unflinching brother.
The sound of the apple tumbling to the ground on both sides of his body startled Fergus, and he jumped back into the post behind him with a gasp. Nathaniel casually lowered the bow and began walking across the training yard.
“As promised,” he announced. “Right down the middle, two equal halves.”
Arabelle darted behind him, catching up and hurrying her legs to match his stride until they arrived on the other side of the training yard, where Fergus had knelt to pick up the split apple for inspection.
“Well,” her brother rose from where he’d dropped, an apple-half in each hand, “I’ll be damned, Howe. That is… most impressive.”
She expected more of the same arrogance from the older boy, but Nathaniel offered only a humble smile as he bowed his head and said, “Thank you, Cousland.”
Beautiful? Incredible? The most amazing thing she’d ever witnessed in her twelve years? There were truly no words. He might has well have put that arrow straight through her heart, she thought.
“Could you…” Arabelle stammered, “Can I… Do you think you could show me how to do that, Nathaniel?”
“I would be happy to, your ladyship…”
“Nathaniel!” A booming voice echoed at their backs, stiffening the shoulders and wiping the modest grin from the boy’s lips. “What is the meaning of this?”
“Father,” Nathaniel gasped surprise and closed his eyes, his head lowering regretfully. “I was just…”
“I don’t want to hear excuses, boy, about why you were attempting to fill Lord Cousland’s only son with arrows. We are guests in Lord Cousland’s home, and this is how you repay his hospitality?”
At some point, Delilah had joined them on the other side of the training yard, though when that happened, Arabelle couldn’t be sure. She’d been too wrapped up in nearly swooning over the amazing feat he’d just achieved, her heart palpitating, her tongue dry behind her teeth.
“I told you Thomas would squeal.”
“Shut up, Delilah,” he hissed under his breath.
“I apologize, young Lord Cousland, for my son’s behavior.” Arl Rendon Howe marched toward them, a stiffness in his bearing that told of cruelty and dominance the likes of which Arabelle had never seen in her own father’s demeanor, not even when she’d managed to shock him with her behavior. “You’ll have to forgive Nathaniel. He is a dreadful showoff…”
“No harm done, Lord Howe,” Fergus interjected. “His skills are certainly worth showing off. I’ve never seen anyone use a bow with such accuracy. He could rule competitions all over Ferelden.”
“Yes, well… skill is certainly no cause for reckless and deplorable behavior. Nathaniel, back to the castle. I’ll deal with you later.”
“And you, young lady, would dare to defend him?”
“No, Father, I…”
“Now. Both of you, back to the castle. Not another word.”
“Yes, Father.” Nathaniel’s voice was so stiff, his shoulders hunched as he hung his head. The stark black ponytail of his hair fell forward, hanging against his cheek and nearly hiding the bright pink flush of his embarrassment. He fell into step with his little sister trailing quickly behind him, her armless doll gripped loosely in her hand.
Only when they’d reached the incline under Arl Howe’s narrowed and meticulous watch did the man turn a cold, apologetic eye back on the Cousland children. “Again, I must apologize for Nathaniel’s recklessness. I assure you, he will be severely punished and forced to make amends in the presence of your lord father.”
Arabelle winced, a chill moving through her as she realized that Arl Howe’s definition of severe punishment differed very differently from Bryce Cousland’s.
“I hope you won’t be too hard on him, my lord,” she found her voice. “He really is quite amazing.”
The corner of the arl’s mouth twitched and tightened, a scowl disappearing behind a stiff, meaningless smile. “Worry not, Lady Cousland. Nathaniel will learn a necessary lesson for this. Now if you’ll excuse me…”
Fergus and Arabelle stood watching after him until the arl disappeared at the ridge of the hill, and only then did she realize she’d been once more holding her breath. Exhaling after she swallowed, she glanced over at Fergus and said, “I don’t think I’ll ever think badly of Father for sending me to bed without supper again.”
Her brother nodded agreement, noting, “Me neither. It must be a dreadful thing, being a Howe.”
She reached over Fergus’s shoulder and gripped the shaft of Nathaniel’s arrow, tugging with all her might to dislodge it from the wood. She held it in her lowered hand as Fergus dropped his palm onto her shoulder and started steering her toward the incline leading back into the castle.
“Poor Nathaniel,” she lamented. “I feel terrible for him.”
“It does him no good feeling sorry for him. It would probably only make him angry if he heard you say that, so if you see him again, keep your pity to yourself. He’s very proud, you know.”
Neither of them seemed to know what to say at all after that, so they said nothing. They were very lucky, and they both knew it. Their mother and father loved one another, and they cherished both of their children. Punishments were just as they’d said: bed without supper, threats of being sent to fosterage in the Chantry, but they were almost always just that—threats neither Bryce or Eleanor Cousland would ever carry out.
Ser Lance trailed between them, the clip of his nails pawing the gravel, tail wagging as if ignorance and bliss truly walked hand in hand and he was living proof.
It wasn’t until they reached the top of the hill that she glanced up at her brother and asked, “Fergus, do you think Father will let me marry whomever I wish when I am old enough?”
“Father already lets his precious little pup do whatever she wishes, so I don’t see why not. Why do you ask?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” she shrugged her shoulders. “I think if I had a choice in the matter, I wouldn’t mind marrying Nathaniel Howe. He really is quite amazing.”
“Belle,” he laughed, flabbergasted by her confession. “You silly little thing, you. You can’t be serious! You’re twelve-years-old. You were just sitting in the courtyard playing dress up with your dollies this morning. And besides, I’m sure he’ll be long married and already bouncing crooked-nosed little Howes on his knee by the time you’re old enough to catch his eye.”
“Maybe he’ll wait for me.” She grinned sheepishly up at her brother again. “Or maybe Father could talk to Arl Howe and arrange it. Ooh, wouldn’t that be lovely? I’m going to talk to Father after supper!”
“Ugh,” Fergus shook his head. “And so it begins. I can see I’ll be busting a lot of heads to protect your honor, starting with Nathaniel Howe. Poor blighted bastard won’t even know what hit him, or why.”
“You leave him alone! I can protect my own honor, thank you very much.”
“We’ll just see about that.”
“There you are!” Nan screeched when she saw them. “Can you do nothing I ask, girl? Not a single thing?”
“I did just as you asked, Nan.” She drew right and gestured toward her brother. “See, Fergus is right here.”
“Upstairs! Both of you, and ready yourselves for dinner. And not another word out of you, Lady Cousland, or you’ll be gargling soap water for all your efforts.”
Arabelle twisted her fingers across her lips, as if she were locking them tight together, then she tossed the imaginary key over her shoulder, a gesture that never failed to make her brother laugh, and then he followed her up the stairs to dress for dinner.