It All Comes Down to This: One

A/N: This story is a strange, sort of experimental word adventure I’ve been working on. A Lady Cousland/Nathaniel Howe story, it will draw from elements of memory, personal correspondence between Lady Arabelle Cousland and Bann Teagan Guerrin and “present” moment interactions. This tale is directly connected to Through the Heart.

ONE

Long after everything fell apart, after the Howes betrayed the Couslands, and she swore vengeance against Rendon Howe for the wretched, unforgiveable things he’d done to her family, after all those darkspawn and the archdemon, after losing everything else that mattered, she still had it.

It was her good luck charm, she told herself. Though how lucky it had actually been, she really couldn’t say.

It hadn’t saved what really mattered in the end. Not her family, not her love. On more than one occasion she thought maybe it would have been better to snap it in half and throw it in a fire, but she could never quite bring herself to do it.

Some things never died.

Like a girl’s first crush. Her irrational emotional attachment to a young man who barely knew she existed beyond a single summer’s memories and her family name.

She’d been only a girl of twelve that summer, her foolish little heart thumping stupidly inside her breathless chest as she watched him split an apple, balanced atop her brother’s head, down the middle with a single arrow at fifty yards.

Her love for archery was born that day, along with an obsessive crush on a boy four years her elder. A brooding, scowling, arrogant young man who knew exactly what he was capable of and who told her only moments before his father descended like the wrath of the Maker that he would be happy to show her how to do what he’d just done.

He never got the chance. After the incident with the apple, Nathaniel spent the sum of his days at Castle Cousland, before the Howe’s returned to Vigil’s Keep, confined to the guest quarters. His father claimed Nathaniel could not be trusted to socialize among the civilized, a fact Bryce Cousland outright claimed preposterous much to Rendon Howe’s stifled dismay.

“Nathaniel is at a difficult age,” Rendon insisted. “Surely, you and Lady Eleanor experienced similar trouble with Fergus…”

From her sneaky vantage point at the top of the stairs, she overheard her mother’s soft laughter as she confessed, “Fergus has never been difficult, though I do understand where you are coming from, Rendon. I imagine Belle will give us plenty of trouble in a couple of years. She’s very headstrong, very clever, not unlike your Nathaniel.”

Plenty of trouble? Headstrong? At least she’d called her clever.

“You know, I hear they torture spies in Orlais.” He crept up skillfully behind her, a lean shadow in the dark with both arms crossed over his chest as he leaned into the wall almost casually. His voice was tempered, quiet, as though he practiced speaking in hushed, conspiratorial tones.

Belle’s blood felt electric in her veins, like lightning. The breath she’d inhaled caught in her chest like a bubble and stuck there until she swore the pressure of it against her heart might make it explode. It was a small wonder she managed to find her breath and her voice.

“Well then it’s a good thing we’re not in Orlais, isn’t it?”

Turning over her shoulder to look at him, the thin shadows veiled his gaunt face, but she did not miss the sneering appreciation of his grin as he offered a single nod of agreement.

“Fergus said your father locked you in.”

“That he did,” Nathaniel shrugged. “But there is not a lock I can’t pick.”

“Really?” she marveled.

“You don’t believe me?”

“I didn’t say…”

Anything. She didn’t say anything. He reached a hand down to silence her, long fingers curling into her shoulder, pushing into her flesh in warning. Tilting his head, she watched his eyes narrow and turn toward the sound of voices in the parlor below.

“…the end of the summer. I just don’t know what else to do with him. He’s completely out of control, and after what he did here, I am beside myself with shame.”

“Boys will be boys, Rendon,” Eleanor scolded him. “Fergus assures me he played his own part in the matter, instigating the whole thing. They are boys, after all. It’s what they do.”

“Not my boy.”

“Perhaps it will do him some good,” she heard her father say. “If he’s squired to the right lord, it could turn his life around, set him on an honorable, straight and narrow path. I could write to Eamon on your be…”

“No,” Rendon cut him off mid-sentence. “I would never ask such a thing of Eamon. No, the arlessa has family in The Free Marches, and so it is there he will go.”

“But the Free Marches are so far away from home, Rendon,” her mother gasped. In all that time, she hadn’t heart the arlessa say a single word in defense of her own son. “Surely there is someone closer who’d be willing to take him in? If we weren’t taking in Gilmore in the fall, I’d suggest sending him here…”

“You are too kind, Your Ladyship, but…”

She never got to hear what Arl Howe said in reply because Nathaniel cursed over her shoulder, the tightness of his fingers slackening as he withdrew his hand and took two staggering steps backward. “How… how could he?”

At first she didn’t understand, but she didn’t need to understand. The horror on his face when she looked up at him said enough. His father was sending him away, squiring him to some lord in a distant land.

“Nathaniel, I’m so sorry.”

“Sorry?” he choked. “You’re sorry? And just like… That’s supposed to make me feel better?”

She remembered too late that her brother told her not to pity Nathaniel Howe, at least not to his face. He was very proud, or so Fergus said, and it seemed her brother was right, judging from the dagger-sharp needling of his cold, green eyes.

“I didn’t… I just meant…”

The hardness in his face softened unexpectedly, eyes closing in thoughtful submission. “You meant well, Belle. I know. I shouldn’t have snapped at you, and now I am the one who is sorry.”

“It just doesn’t seem fair.” She didn’t know what else to say, so when those words escaped her she felt so very young and stupid.

As if he sensed her insecurity, he found it in him to offer the barest sliver of a smile. “No, you’re right. It doesn’t seem very fair at all, does it, and yet fathers send their sons away, squiring them to distant lords all the time. I just… The Free Marches? That seems so extreme.”

“You could always run away.”

“I could,” he nodded, “but what good would that do? I’d still be far away from home, from Delilah and Thomas… Who will look after them, if not me? No, Arabelle, running away solves nothing.”

Maybe she was crazy, but her first thought in relation to being far from home when she was twelve years old was not how much she’d miss Fergus. No, that realization would come much later, when they were both older, after he had his own family with Oriana.

She started to open her mouth to reply, but Nathaniel’s swift hand came down on her shoulder again, drawing her backward from the top of the stairs as a pair of steady boots marched the hall below. He waited until the sound of them faded once again, then withdrew his hand.

“You’re going to get into trouble, Belle, if the guards or servants find you here spying. You should go back to bed before they catch you.”

“I’m not afraid.”

“Of that I’ve no doubt, but I do not wish to see you punished on my account. Please,” he reasoned with her. “Make your way back to your rooms.”

“I don’t want you to get into trouble either.”

“I think it might be too late for that,” he sighed. “But if it please you, I will return to the guest quarters and stay out of trouble.”

“For what it’s worth, Nathaniel, I am truly sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry for me, Belle. I’ll be all right. I always am. Now go,” he gestured toward the hallway with his head, “off with you. Back to bed.”

She did not see Nathaniel again until the Howe’s departed Castle Cousland. For the briefest moment, he lifted his downtrodden stare from his boots and offered her a smile.

She never saw him again.

Not for lack of trying. She convinced herself there was still hope. Her father was a great and powerful man, and he could do anything. She knew that. Even better was that he found it very difficult to say no to her, a fact that made Fergus raging mad on most occasions. She was his pup, his little darling, but when she approached him and asked if he might consider negotiating betrothal arrangements with Arl Howe to see their houses united, Bryce Cousland actually laughed at her.

“You’re being silly, pup,” he chuckled. “Our family friendship with the Howes goes back many years, but I’m not so certain I’d wish to tie our houses together in that capacity.” Upon seeing her frown, he ducked her under the chin and tousled her hair, making her feel silly and childlike when he pointed out, “And besides, he’s much older than you.”

“Not that much, only four years!”

“By the time you’re old enough to marry, he’ll likely have been married several years himself. There will be plenty of time for you to find a suitable match, Belle. Time to come into your own and figure out who you are, what you want from this life. I promise you. One day, when you are much, much older, you will thank me for saying no to infatuation’s impulse.”

On the verge of foolishly blurting out, “But I love him, Father,” some semblance of sense kept her from making that confession.

She had no idea what love was. She was twelve, and her heart was too easily stirred, her emotions and hormones on the verge of some monumental shift so confusing it would take years for her to understand and sort them out again.

By the time she was sixteen, she managed to convince herself Bryce Cousland was right, that she hadn’t really been in love with Nathaniel Howe. But she did notice a certain trend during those troubling, hormonal years. Every boy she batted her eyelashes at bore an uncanny resemblance to Arl Rendon Howe’s eldest son.

Tall, lean, stunning, stormy green eyes, dark hair, incorrigible smile tinged with mock arrogance and modest pride—a daring combination of traits, if ever she’d seen one. She looked for him in every young man she met, and if he did not meet her requirements, he was hardly worth her time or her attention.

Even Fergus seemed to notice, once commenting when she all but snubbed the very idea of a formal introduction to Teagan Guerrin, Bann of Rainesfere and brother to Queen Rowan, at a noble ball in Denerim. Fergus called her an idiot, much to his bride’s shock and dismay, for ignoring a potentially powerful match with young King Cailan’s uncle.

“Teagan is a perfectly nice man, and he’s single, Belle. A little older than me, but…”

“I’ve told you I am not interested in Bann Teagan, Fergus, now please, stop.” He followed her gaze, which lingered on a young Orlesian noble, who bore striking resemblance to her childhood heart’s desire.

Clicking his tongue against his teeth, Fergus rolled his eyes and shook his head in disappointment. “Well, at least we know you have a type, little sister. I really thought you would have grown out of this by now.”

“Whatever is that supposed to mean?”

“Yes, Fergus?” Oriana tilted her head into the conversation. “What is that supposed to mean? Grown out of what?”

“Oh nothing,” he rolled his eyes. “Nothing at all, my dear.”

But Arabelle knew exactly what he meant.

It was a funny, funny thing, how tightly Nathaniel held onto her heart. Especially considering he had no idea she’d given it to him when she was stupid and impulsive and twelve years old.

Interlude

My Dear Friend,

You once asked me about the raven feather arrow in my quiver, the one I never use. I’ve never spoken of that arrow to anyone, not even Alistair, who died knowing almost everything about me that ever really mattered. I did not purposefully keep it from him. He simply never asked if it was significant. An oddity in itself, I think, as it was the type of thing Alistair noticed. Little things, he had a penchant for them, but this one, he never even questioned.

Had he done so, I am not even sure I would have told him because the story itself is slightly embarrassing. That’s a strange thing to realize because I shared every part of myself with him in the days before he died.

So why am I telling you the story now, Teagan? I don’t know. Perhaps I am feeling sentimental. Perhaps I drank too much wine after Mhairi and I set up camp. On this long road without companions I feel comfortable with, I just want someone familiar to talk to, I guess, and in these last few months that someone to talk to has graciously been you. You have been a blessing and a friend during this, the hardest time of my life, and so I wish to tell this story to you.

It was a good luck charm, as you once surmised. Not given to me, but taken by me, though I suspect its owner never even knew it was missing. You’ve no doubt guessed I have always been a treasure hunter. Drawn in by the allure of that which shimmers, my friend from Antiva used to tell me that my proclivity for the finer things and my skill with poisons would have made me a fine Crow, but that in itself is a story for another time.

I was talking about my arrow, my good luck charm, which I have all too often wondered whether or not it was actually a curse, rather than a charm.

You see, the arrow once belonged to the son of Arl Rendon Howe, sworn enemy of the Couslands, who murdered my mother and father and met the vengeance of my blade two weeks before the Landsmeet. As you know, the Howes and the Couslands were not always enemies. Our families were friends once, and the arrow was acquired during the summer of my twelfth year while the Howe family was visiting Castle Cousland.

Fergus later said it happened on a dare, which he issued after growing weary of Nathaniel Howe’s incessant bragging about his skill with a bow. Nate, as my brother called him, swore he could halve an apple with a shot from fifty yards away. Fergus said that was impossible and the next thing we all knew Thomas Howe was quivering near the other end of the practice yard, crying and begging his elder brother not to put an arrow in his eye.

To make a long story short, I convinced Fergus to take Thomas’s place, and watched in awe as Nathaniel did exactly what he promised he could do.

Of course, before we had time to bask in the awe of Nathaniel’s amazing talent, Arl Howe descended from the castle like a nightmare and sent both Nate and Delilah packing back to the castle, where Nathaniel remained locked in his quarters for the remainder of their visit. He never retrieved his arrow, but I did. I don’t recall if I had planned to give it back to him, or not, but I am thinking now I probably never intended to do any such thing.

I had a painful crush on Nathaniel, Teagan. No doubt you are laughing at me as you read this, and I suppose that is fair. The memory brings a smile to my face as well, but it only gets more embarrassing from there. I asked my father to negotiate with Arl Howe a marriage contract between Nathaniel and myself when I was old enough to marry. Oh, how father laughed. Nathaniel never had any idea, praise the Maker for small favors.

I was twelve, and I was a silly little fool, but I often wondered over the years that followed, especially after Arl Howe betrayed my father, if things might have turned out differently had Father taken my proposition more seriously and at least broached the subject of my marrying Nathaniel.

I don’t know. I suppose it doesn’t really matter, as I can’t change the past. Maker knows I’ve tried. And besides, had I married Nathaniel, I would never have loved Alistair. There are some pains worth enduring, as I would not give up our brief time together for anything in the world.

So, there you have it. The reason I kept the arrow. Not because it was an actual lucky charm, though I suppose the sentiment of it proved blessing enough. After all, I am still here, still alive, and over time the thought of removing it just seemed like it might be… unlucky.

Not so interesting a story as you might have thought. It wasn’t charmed, and it didn’t belong to my great-great grandfather. It was not plucked from the corpse of some deserving enemy of note. It simply belonged to Nathaniel Howe, whom I thought I loved when I was twelve years old.

Silly, yes? Oh, go on. I won’t mind if you laugh at me, Teagan. We are friends, after all, and what good are friends if they can’t laugh at you when you are irreproachably foolish?

Keep well and be sure to give my best to your family.

Yours,

Belle  

About erica

Erica North is the fanfiction pseudonym for fantasy/romance author Jennifer Melzer.
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