When the Arl of Amaranthine came that afternoon to join her father on the road to war at King Cailan’s side, her first inclination was to ask after Nathaniel. Proper manners and upbringing forced her to choose her words carefully, and so she phrased her question to encompass the whole of the Howe family, rather than a single member.
How disappointed she was when he confessed he’d left them at home, that it wasn’t safe to travel with them under such dangerous conditions.
“Of course,” she nodded agreement. “Of course, how very silly of me not to consider that.”
“They do send their best wishes, however,” he added quickly. “My son…” and for a moment she heard only what she wanted to hear, “…asked after you. Perhaps I should bring him with me next time.”
“I would be absolutely delighted to see Nathaniel again.” She swore she heard her father clear his throat just over her shoulder.
“I’m afraid that won’t be possible, my lady. Nathaniel has been away from Ferelden these last seven years, squiring in the Free Marches. I believe he only recently left Kirkwall, and I’ve no clue where he’ll go next. Thomas, however, saw you at a Denerim fair and has talked of little else since. He’ll be pleased to hear you remember him.”
Thomas Howe. Her shoulders sank just a little. Thomas was nothing like his older brother. He was whiney, squirrelly and obnoxious, spoiled to the core and four years younger than she was. Barely sixteen and already more trouble than was worth noting, she didn’t have to acknowledge her father’s narrowed gaze to know she should put her best face forward for the arl and at least make pleasant conversation.
“Do tell him then that I send my regards. It would please me to see Thomas again… at some point.” Perhaps when he’d grown up a little, stopped making a drunken fool of himself at courtly gatherings, though she highly doubted it. It hadn’t been that long since last she’d seen him. The kid was a mess. No small thanks, in part to Rendon Howe’s cruelty.
Thomas made her sad, reminding her of something her brother muttered to her years earlier: It must be a dreadful thing, being a Howe.
It must, indeed. Arl Rendon Howe was a cold man. Even when he feigned to offer the illusion of warmth and caring, it came icy and indifferent. She should have seen it then, the betrayal lurking in his eyes, his plot to destroy her family. How many times in the months that followed did she try to remember that moment in great clarity, imagining his face, his bemused grin as they spoke.
“He will be absolutely charmed to hear you think so, my lady. Perhaps I might even convince your lord father to reconsider arrangements for our good houses to merge. A marriage between our noble families would be most welcome.”
“Oh, Rendon,” her father chuckled. “What kind of father would I be to force her hand like that? My Belle is a spirited young woman, of her own mind in all things, and even if I suggested such a match, I can tell you firsthand she would be likely to deny the matter simply on the merit that I thought it was a good idea.”
Did her father think it would be a good idea for her to marry Thomas Howe, or was he simply being polite? She couldn’t tell, and later, on the long road to Ostagar with Duncan, that question plagued her, along with so many others.
Arl Howe seemed flabbergasted by the notion, ducking back and knitting his bushy brows together as he declared, “You don’t say.” She was reminded of the conversation she’d overheard between the arl and her parents when she was twelve, of his plans to send his troublesome, oldest son away from Ferelden. Her mother had called her headstrong and willful and clever.
The next morning, her own free-spiritedness and clever willfulness made her feel guilty. Perhaps if her father had been more assertive with her. Maybe if he’d insisted she marry Thomas Howe, things would have turned out differently. Or maybe, if he’d just listened to her when she was twelve years old, if he’d struck arrangements to betroth her to the Arl of Amaranthine’s eldest son, her entire family might have lived through Loghain Mac Tir’s betrayal and the Blight.
Duncan hadn’t pushed her to talk, only reiterated time and again that if she wanted to speak with him about what happened, he was a good listener, but what was there to say? She felt like it was her fault the Howes betrayed the Couslands. What more was there to say about it? If only she’d agreed with the arl when he mentioned it would be good for their houses to merge in that manner, maybe he would have called off his betrayal. Maybe her family would still be alive.
Her life was an unending stream of maybes and regrets over things that in the face of the Blight seemed foolish to worry about. She couldn’t change anything, but it didn’t stop her from wishing it. She’d have suffered marriage to Thomas Howe if it meant her family got to live. Amazing how much perspective shifted in the wake of so much tragedy.
“Whatever you are feeling, do not let their sacrifice be in vain, Belle,” Duncan said. “You did what you could for them, and now you’ll do your duty for Ferelden.”
She hadn’t though. She hadn’t stood beside them, hadn’t been able to convince her mother to come with her. To live.
“They died so that you might live.” Duncan didn’t really believe that, did he? That there was sense to be made from anything that happened? He was a grizzled man, a hard man with the slightest hint of softness in his dark, brown eyes, so she questioned him silently when he tried to say there was purpose in what happened, reason to explain away her parents’ death. “This is what your father wanted for you in the end. Make him proud.”
As hollow as his words of comfort felt, she respected Duncan a great deal, and so with heavy heart she tucked all of her regrets deep down inside her, along with the conflict of emotion over the foolish feelings she harbored for Nathaniel Howe. As the world crumbled down around their shoulders, the Grey Wardens and King Cailan falling to Teyrn Loghain’s betrayal, she had no choice but to rise up with Alistair and make it right again.
The last two Grey Wardens in Ferelden, they took their responsibilities in stride and somehow managed to fall head over heels in love on the Blighted road winding toward the archdemon.
Alistair was nothing at all like Nathaniel Howe. He was boyishly handsome, funny and clever, easy with a laugh and a smile, and he gave her hope in a world where hope seemed an impossible thing to grasp onto. In a single year, Alistair showed her what it meant to truly love someone, to be loved, and then he sacrificed himself to destroy the archdemon, begging her the last time he kissed her to live a life that made him proud.
I won’t let you die, not when I could do something about it.
No! I won’t let you die either, Alistair.
You say that as if I’m giving you a choice.
Alistair, who’d once been afraid to assert himself, to take charge of things and make hard decisions, and he’d made the hardest decision of his life for her. There hadn’t been time enough to stop him, not that she could have even if she tried.
In War: Victory.
In Peace: Vigilance.
In Death: Sacrifice.
He was a Grey Warden, right up until his last breath.
Her Alistair… Her king.
The love of her life.
The way she felt about Alistair was incomparable to anything she’d ever experienced in her twenty-one years. It made her childhood crush on Nathaniel Howe seem like a joke. Her brother had been so very wrong when he told her she had a type, and for a long time she lamented she hadn’t been able to rub that in Fergus’s face because she thought he was dead. But Fergus wasn’t dead, and she had nothing to show him at the end of it all. No monumental love of a lifetime to present to her brother in hopes of gaining his approval. No Alistair to parade before Fergus knowing the two of them would get along famously as they got to know one another.
If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.
Her father used to say that, and she never quite understood its meaning until she stood face to face with Fergus again, without Alistair and wishing once again the Maker would give her back just one more piece of herself. All that time she’d wished Fergus was still out there, still alive, and it came to be, but Alistair was never coming back. No amount of wishing would ever make it so.
Six months of praying and crying herself to sleep at night. He haunted all of her dreams, the memories of him a torment that forced her gasping from the dark chasm of sleep and into the even darker tomb of reality. Why couldn’t they at least be pleasant dreams, peaceful memories of those priceless moments between the fighting and the death and darkness when they’d fallen in love with each other? Instead she only dreamed she was holding his lifeless body in her arms, staring through the unreal blur of her own tears at her lover.
Zevran and Wynne stood stunned at her back, no words, nothing to say. They’d gone into that final battle expecting it to be her. She was making the sacrifice. They’d all resigned themselves to it, said their goodbyes.
When all was said and done, she was left standing there and Alistair was gone.
Teagan, after making his way through the battlegrounds, finally managed to draw her away from her king. She couldn’t remember what he said to convince her to let go of the body. She only recalled the heaviness of her own arms pressed in tight against her as Teagan lifted and dragged her to her feet, the chafe of her armor as he ushered her away, her jellied legs shuffling and tripping through the ruins of Fort Drakon.
Teagan, beside himself with grief, knew there were no words, no comfort. He said nothing. Only stared ahead, a stream of tears cut through the smoke-stained skin of his face.
Only when they were on the ground again, the smell of smoke and death and battle heavy in her lungs, did she lift her vacant eyes to Teagan and declare, “It should have been me.”
“Oh, my dear lady…”
“It was supposed to be me. We agreed. I told him…”
“He made the noblest of sacrifices for his people, Lady, and for you.” Indeed, he had, but that did not make losing him any easier to bear.
Alistair was with her everywhere she went. The memory of him, the emptiness of her bed, the starkness of his absence haunting her like a ghost. Was that how he felt after Duncan died? He’d tried to explain it to her so many times, always failing, losing his words as his lower lip trembled before he drew it between his teeth.
If only I’d been there, maybe I could have saved him… Maybe I could have saved them all.
But she had been there, right beside him until the end and he died anyway.
“It is called survivor’s guilt, my lady,” Teagan told during their last conversation in the Chantry just before she departed from Redcliffe for Vigil’s Keep the week before. “I know it is not my place, that you don’t wish to hear this, so I hope you will not think I am out of line when I say that every time you speak those words, saying it should have been you instead of him, it belittles Alistair’s sacrifice.”
“But he could have done so much,” she insisted. “He was going to be king, Teagan. He would have been the most incredible king.”
“He did what any good king would do. He gave his life for his people and perhaps in some way you have yet to understand, he knew in his heart you could do so much more.”
Fingers pressed into her forehead, she shook with disbelief and denial. “I don’t believe that. Not for a minute.”
“We have been friends for some time now, Belle,” he started. “More than a year, almost two.”
She had not thought much beyond her innocent flirtation with him when they first arrived in Redcliffe, the lurid stares, the playful banter as he remarked her lack of husband must surely be a crime somewhere, but it was true. In the eighteen months behind them, they had become friends as they worked together to convince Alistair of his worth, to make him believe he was not only capable, but deserving of a throne.
“And in that time, my lady, I have witnessed your ability to work miracles. You found the Urn of Sacred Ashes, rallied an impossible army… The Maker put you here for reasons neither you nor I can even begin to understand. Alistair’s sacrifice is further proof of that.”
“So… you’re saying it was the Maker’s will that Alistair took my place?”
“I would not be so bold as to claim I know the Maker’s will…”
“Then what are you saying, Teagan?”
“I’m simply saying…” Turning his head downward, he pinched the bridge of his nose and squeezed his eyes tight together. “All I am saying, Belle, is that Alistair’s will was quite clear. You are still here. You have duties to honor, a purpose to uphold, and you do Alistair’s memory no justice by insisting his sacrifice wasn’t important.”
“But that’s not what I… I never said that his…”
He did not smile when he raised his head to look at her. “Now do you see what I’ve been trying to say all along? Serve his memory. Make it mean something. Take up the mantle of the Warden Commander, as you’ve been asked to do, and go to Amaranthine, to Vigil’s Keep. It’s what he would want you to do, my lady.”
“You must stop calling me that, Teagan.”
“Calling you a lady?” He leaned back, blue eyes shining playfully. “I think not. You will always be a lady in my eyes. Even when you’re Warden Commander.” He paused to offer her a slow, sincere smile, then asked, “So, will you do it? Will you go to Vigil’s Keep and take on your responsibilities as Commander of the Grey?”
“I will go. It is my duty.”
“He would be so proud of you, my lady.”
Yes, she thought. Yes, he would. And the awareness only served to make matters that much harder to swallow. She didn’t want him to be proud of her. She wanted him to be alive, to take her in his arms again and tell her he loved her. She wanted to lay her head against his chest and listen to the sound of his life beating inside him.