It All Comes Down to This: Three

The sound of her boots drummed steadily upon the stone as she stiffly stalked the hall beside guardsman. Head held high, jaw clenched, it was not Alistair she thought of in that moment. An odd thing for him to be so absent from her mind. He was always there, refusing to be forgotten or cast aside, but it was Duncan who consumed her thoughts.

She felt like Duncan.

The weight of the world suddenly thrust upon her shoulders, she imagined the stoic sense of duty she possessed was reminiscent of the man who made her a Grey Warden, though she would never deign to compare herself to that great and fearless who not only saved her life, but changed it forever.

She was exhausted. Couldn’t remember the last time she’d slept more than a few minutes. The Blight, despite having ended with Alistair’s sacrifice, was never going to end judging from the hordes of darkspawn overrunning Vigil’s Keep when she arrived. And now the guard in front of her was laying the inconsequential fate of a single prisoner at her feet, expectantly awaiting her to do something about it.

She’d already taken on Oghren, who seemed to be running from something she couldn’t quite place her finger on, and then she invoked the Right of Conscription to spare an apostate mage who allegedly killed a band of Templars set on dragging him back to the Circle of Magi just so he could escape again. Poor, sweet Mhairi hadn’t survived the Joining, a fact that made Arabelle sadder than she was prepared to admit. The girl had been starry-eyed and overzealous, deigning to hero-worship in the most disturbing way, but she’d been good and dedicated and she would have made one hell of a Grey Warden.

“It’s good you’re here,” the guardsman deemed. “This one’s been locked up three nights now. Good men died, while this one was protected in his cell.”

They arrived outside the cell and she passed her blurred eyes over the prisoner hunched in the corner. Greasy black locks hung against gaunt cheeks, his chest rose and fell in slow, almost peaceful breaths, as if he meditated on his own fate before she handed it over to him. There was no recognition in that quick glance, no warning bell inside her that made him known to her. She barely saw him before she returned her attention to the captain.

“Who is he?”

“He won’t give his name. All I know is he was caught poking around the estate in the middle of the night. I’d say he was just a thief, but it took four Grey Wardens to capture him.”

“Four?” She ducked her head back, impressed. Grey Wardens were not inexperienced fighters by any means, but not a single one of them had survived the chaos there. She found it hard to believe that a single man managed to elude them, even if the darkspawn had taken them all out.

“You best be careful. Whoever he is, he’s no ordinary burglar. That’s for sure.”

Inside the cell, the man shifted in the shadows like a predator. Unnerving chills tickled along her shoulders, making her shudder beneath the leather of her armor. “Leave me to talk with him,” she sighed.

“As you wish, Commander,” he nodded. “I’ll tell the seneschal you came. He’ll want to know what you decide to do with this man.”

Without turning back to the cell, she listened to the sound of the guardsman’s boots marching steadily across the stone leading down the hallway. She waited for the door, the long groan and heavy thunk as it caught behind him. Shaking off the weariness with a deflating sigh, she took the keys off her belt, turned back to the dungeon cell and began fingering through them so she could unlock the door. Keys. So many keys. It would have been easier to just whip out her picks and make the tumblers sing and spring sweet freedom to her delicate touch.

At some point, the prisoner stood up while she was looking for the right keys, approached the cell door when at last she reached for it. Proud, broad shoulders drawn back, his head lifted at last to reveal a face once familiar, but altered by the hands of time.

She knew the man before her, though he was different from her girlish daydreams. He was even taller than she remembered, still lean and agile as a cat as he stalked forward to meet her, the mussed tangles of his black hair hanging around his face making him appear savage and wild.

Something inside her snapped, her tight throat so dry that when she swallowed she felt as if she might choke.

Nathaniel Howe…

As she lived and breathed. What cruel jest of the Maker was this?

Before she could utter his name in surprise, before she even had time to reprocess the cruelty and betrayal of his father, he assaulted her with angry words.

“So, you’re the new commander of the Grey,” he sneered. “The one they’ve all been talking about. Conqueror of the Blight and vanquisher of all evil. Aren’t you supposed to be ten feet tall? With lightning bolts shooting out of your eyes?”

“I see my reputation precedes me.” Nearly two years of hardening herself against life’s little cruelties and a lifetime of shooting quick-witted banter at her brother every chance she got lent an air of arrogance to her tone that surprised even her.

She let fall another sigh that sank her shoulders just a little lower. A situation she had no desire to deal with in the first place had just escalated into territory she wanted nothing more than to distance herself from.

“It does, though I know you best, Lady Cousland, as the woman who murdered my father.” She wasn’t sure he could lift his head any higher, but he did, steadying those steely eyes upon her and declaring, “I am Nathaniel Howe. My family owned these lands until you showed up. Do you even remember my father?”

“Of course I remember your father, just as I remember you, Nathaniel. The Couslands and the Howes were friends, until your father murdered my family.” She was surprised at how stoic her tone was, how relaxed and clear her voice had grown over the last few seconds. She may have felt twelve years old on the inside, but her demeanor painted portrait of a woman grown, a woman who’d seen, done and suffered many things he quite likely would never understand. “Rendon Howe deserved everything he got.”

“Your family was going to sell us out to the Orlesians!”

“You can’t possibly justify his treachery. Our fathers were friends, Nathaniel. Arl Rendon was trying to convince me to marry your little brother just hours before he stabbed my father in the back and then twisted the blade for good measure. He sent assassins after me after Loghain murdered the king and every Fereldan Grey Warden save for one other and myself. He laughed in my face when we met on equal footing and spat at me before all was said and done.”

Tipping his head back, pride oozed from his pores as he declared, “My father served the Hero of River Dane and fought against the Orlesians, and yet we lost everything. I came here… I thought I was going to try to kill you. To lay a trap for you. But then I realized I just wanted to reclaim some of my family’s things. It’s all I have left.”

In that moment his sorrow was all she could hear, the undertone of heartache and loss so powerful it moved her to regret. “Nathaniel, I’m… sorry. What happened was… unfortunate.”

“Unfortunate?” he scoffed, his long arms crossing over his chest as he leaned back to stare at her in mocking disbelief, the manacles he wore on his wrists clanking and jangling with the movement. The look he gave her reminiscent of the night they’d overheard his father announcing he would be sending Nathaniel away, squiring him to some distant relation in the Free Marches, but unlike the lament that followed his harsh acceptance of her apology that night, there was no softness in his expression. “Yes, I guess it was unfortunate for everyone, wasn’t it? Look,” pausing, he lowered his head, shaking the loose, black strands around his face, “I don’t know what happened with the Couslands. It sounds like it was horrible. The entire war was. Whatever my father did, however, shouldn’t harm my whole family. The Howes are pariahs now, those of us left. It’s all thanks to you, and now you get to decide my fate. Ironic, isn’t it?”

Some broken part of her heart she’d thought lost amidst a bloody road littered with darkspawn and treachery ached inside her so severely she almost lifted her hand physically to her chest to placate the thumping fury of it inside her.

Nathaniel.

Hadn’t she just written to Teagan about him days earlier? How many times had she daydreamed about him over the years, imagining the next time they met and never once envisioning it turning out that way? In those daydreams, he saw she wasn’t a little girl anymore, found her charming and irresistible.

But the reality was cruel.

Oh, how he hated her.

“What will you do if I let you go?”

“If you let me go?” he stammered, shaking his head as he confessed, “I… I don’t know. I only came back to Ferelden a month ago. If you let me go, I’ll probably come back here. You might not catch me next time.”

Was he saying he’d follow through with his original plot and kill her?

Belle’s crossed arms pressed harder into her breasts as she exhaled frustration. It didn’t seem like a good time to point out that he’d once arrogantly told her he could pick his way out of any locked room. He certainly hadn’t picked his way out of that cell, or his manacles.

“You’re not making the best case for yourself, Nathaniel.”

“I could lie, if you prefer,” he smirked.

“I understand we had trouble capturing you.”

“I’m not without skills,” he declared. “My time abroad wasn’t spent chasing skirts and drinking wine.”

She wondered if he was still incredible with a bow. If he could still halve an apple at fifty yards.

“And what skills are those, exactly?”

“Hunting,” he professed, the chains that bound his wrists rattling as he moved them, “scouting. Poisons.” He said that word, poisons, with the same glee she often felt when discussing the delightful brewing of deadly toxins with Zevran around a campfire. It used to make Alistair shudder and then more carefully inspect his drinks with teasing, narrowed eyes. “Why? What do you care?”

What did she care? He said he wanted to kill her; why was she asking what he could do?

“You know, your family only has itself to blame for its troubles.”

“The Howes served Ferelden for twelve generations.” She hadn’t thought he could harden himself any more than he already had, but he stiffened, his upper lip curling into a powerful sneer. “My ancestors served under King Calenhad. And now it’s all lost. So go ahead,” teeth ground tight together, bits of spittle flecked the corners of his mouth as he dared her, “do what you’re going to do.”

“Do you really hate me so much, Nathaniel?”

She did not presume to point out they’d once been friends, as that illusion had only taken place in freshly stirred, childhood fantasies, but the thought of hearing him hiss the word yes in answer terrified her for reasons she didn’t quite understand.

He was not his father. He was not to blame for Rendon Howe’s actions. He did not deserve to suffer a traitor’s brand, simply because his father had been a turncoat.

She watched him shake his head, conflicted in his response. “The darkspawn are a menace. If it weren’t for the Blight, maybe my father would never have… done what he did.” The Blight made Rendon Howe kill her family? Torture people in the basement of his palace in Denerim? She was starting to wonder if they were talking about the same man. His voice had become so thoughtful and quiet, almost tranquil, and then he raised it again, shouting, “But I can’t do anything about them, can I? There’s just you and the Grey Wardens, here in my home!”

It struck her so quickly, it was like a flash of powder exploding before her tired, aching eyes. He could do something about the darkspawn, maybe.

“Perhaps you should work to redeem your name.”

“You’re right,” he declared, a touch of sarcasm in his voice. “I’ll go join Queen Anora’s service immediately. She’d be sure to give a Howe another chance! I hear she all but worked hand in hand with my father to maintain her throne.”

Maybe it was a mistake. Maybe it was twelve year old Arabelle whispering in her ear, or the woman who still kept that arrow in her quiver and thought it was the one thing that continued to keep her alive, despite the many times she should have died.

It should have been her, not her mother and father. It should have been her, dying with King Cailan and Duncan and the other Grey Wardens. At the end of all things, it should have been her, not Alistair, who took the final blow and killed the archdemon.

Every time she thought about it, all she could hear was her friend Zevran, the Antivan assassin who once laughed when she remarked on his uncanny luck and said, “What can I say? I live a charmed life?”

Her life was equally charmed, or was it cursed?

Everything I love turns to ash and crumbles all around me. Now I will taint him too…

She kept that arrow all those years, telling herself it was her lucky charm. Nathaniel Howe had saved her life more times than she could count, and he never even knew it. She supposed, despite everything, she owed him something. Maybe he wouldn’t like her decision; maybe he would even resent her for it, but she knew what she had to do. She lowered her arms from her chest and folded her hands together thoughtfully at her waist.

“I think I’ve decided what to do with you,” she declared. She would do what Duncan would do. She would give him the chance to be something more.

“Already?” he scowled. “Good.”

Turning his back to her, he slunk into the shadowed corner of his cell. For a few minutes, Belle just stood there and stared.

Nathaniel Howe.

A man grown. No longer the awkward and insecure young teen, downtrodden by his father’s stern oppression. He was his own man now, raging and angry and bitter, and only he could change his fortune.

The Maker had the oddest sense of humor, she thought, and then she turned on heel and marched out of the dungeon.

 

INTERLUDE

My Dear Friend,

I hope this missive finds you well, though I do wonder if I overstep in even writing it. I’ve already written you once since I departed for Vigil’s Keep, and I imagine a second letter so close upon the heels of the first will not only appear scandalous, but give nosy nobles the wrong impression about our relationship.

It’s just that your friendship in the months following the slaying of the archdemon has meant the world to me. I don’t think I ever mentioned that, only took advantage of your ever-ready ear and never ending kindness and patience for a fool’s tearful ramblings and regrets.

There are still no words to adequately describe this grief, Teagan. There are days I wake up in a state of confusion so profound, I don’t remember where I am, or what I’ve lost, and then it hits me all at once and I can’t breathe. I literally cannot breathe and it feels as though my heart will burst inside my chest and finally kill me.

I loved him so deeply that sometimes the mere thought of living without him makes me want to die. That is pathetic, isn’t it?

How long must I suffer this debilitating grief? It has been almost seven months, and I keep expecting him to arrive here at the Keep, laughing and joking and clunking toward me in Cailan’s armor with Maric’s sword and Duncan’s shield on his back.

Andraste’s grace, I know Alistair would not want me to feel this way. An ironic thing, considering how often I watched him as he stared vacantly into the heather while we traveled the Blighted roads what now feels like a lifetime ago. Always with tears in his eyes, words of self-blame on the tip of his tongue for what happened to King Cailan and Duncan and the other Grey Wardens while the two of us were spared. As if he, alone, held the power to save them all.

I think to myself he would surely forgive this weakness and grief, but I know he would not want me to suffer because of him.

That is so much easier said than done. Sometimes I feel dreadful when I realize this was exactly how I would have left him, had things ended differently than they did, if they’d gone the way I planned. That realization only serves to make me feel worse.

I would wish this pain on no one.

As I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, I arrived safely at Vigil’s Keep, though I’m not so sure safe is an accurate description to assign to my arrival. It was far worse than we could have dreamed when I set out. I don’t know what I expected to find here, but it was certainly not what I met. I cannot write it, as it would probably insight panic were it to fall into the wrong hands, but perhaps if you make your way northeast to visit at some point, you will see for yourself just what we face here. It terrifies me. Some foolish part of me thought that with the archdemon dead, there would be peace—at least for a little while. How wrong I was about that.

In other news, I was subject to the strangest twist of fate once things calmed down here after my arrival. Something so unexpected occurred, it made me think of both my last letter to you and our conversation in the Chantry just before I left. Do you recall what you said to me, about the Maker and purpose? You said that maybe there were reasons beyond my understanding that Alistair chose to sacrifice himself, that maybe I still had things to do.

Well, there was a prisoner in the dungeon when I arrived. A man who survived the chaos here, and whose fate now rests in my hands. It is up to me to decide what must be done with him on the morrow. Whether he will hang or go free.

I’m sure that’s nothing new to you, all that time you sat in Eamon’s seat, passing down judgment that could not be ignored while waiting for your brother to get well again. My father once made these kinds of decisions on a day to day basis, passing judgment, determining fates, issuing death sentences. Even now, that responsibility falls to Fergus, but for me this is something so strange and new I hardly know how to approach it. The seneschal said that as Commander of the Grey, I am also arlessa to these people here in Amaranthine. I will have to hold court, judge others and pass sentence. 

I did not want that, of all things.

Ah, but I digress. What is my point? Surely you must wonder at that. Beyond the simple fact that I will never grow used to holding the fates of others in my hand this way, the prisoner I mentioned was Arl Rendon Howe’s eldest son, Nathaniel.

Nathaniel, who I spoke of my last letter. Who shot the apple from my brother’s head, as I told you, from fifty paces. Owner of the arrow I keep in my quiver—a good luck charm I’ve often questioned the actual luckiness of over the years.

I would not be so bold as to say that we were friends when we were children. Perhaps we were, in some way, but now he says he returned to Vigil’s Keep to kill me because I murdered his father. To kill me, Teagan, and suddenly I regret convincing my assassin friend to leave my side to take care of personal business in Antiva. Not that I doubt my own skills, or that I fear I cannot protect myself, but to be forced to take the life of someone I once cared about? Even if he has no idea how much I actually cared? Surely, that is a task better reserved for friends who will kill anyone you ask them to simply to save you the pain of having to twist the knife yourself.

Nathaniel said once he arrived he wanted only to recapture the scattered bits and pieces of his lost family, and I can relate to that more easily than he understands. I have only returned to Castle Cousland once since I became a Grey Warden, when you and I traveled with Eamon to see Fergus take our father’s place as Teyrn of Highever. I thought I would feel relieved setting foot inside the castle, that some strange blanket that had been suffocating me would lift away and I would not only be able to breathe again, but feel at home for the first time in more than a year. It was just the opposite. Castle Cousland will never be home again. I’m not sure anyplace will feel that comfortable.

Teagan, the dreadful things his father did… I know they can never be forgotten or excused, but Nathaniel Howe is not responsible for his father’s crimes. He suffers so, the brand of traitor, and it truly breaks my heart.

I cannot hang him for trying to take back what he lost. Perhaps you’ll think me weak for sparing him, when he boldly confessed his original intent to kill me, but I’ve decided to invoke the Right of Conscription tomorrow and induct him into the Grey Wardens. He may not admire my decisions, and who knows, he might even attempt to kill me, but I think he could win back his family’s honor in service to the Wardens, assuming he survives the Joining.

I do hope he survives.

Do you think me a fool for sparing him? For being merciful? Perhaps you would be right to think me so, but I keep thinking about what you said to me in the Chantry before I left. Maybe this is the good I was meant to do. I just don’t know.

The hour grows late, and I am weary, but before I end this letter I wanted to tell you once more how much I appreciate all you’ve done for me these last few months. You are a good man, Teagan, to listen to my woes, to offer comfort and advice. One day I’ve no doubt you will be a steadfast and noble husband to some very lucky young woman, and I will envy her good fortune.

Please give my love to Eamon, Isolde and Connor. Especially Connor.

Yours,

Belle

About erica

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