Arabelle paced outside Nathaniel’s cell. The rattle of her loose mail skirt jostled against her bare thighs almost musically as she pivoted and turned and marched like a soldier back toward the opposite wall. The tightly woven metal links were cool upon her skin and made her shiver, or maybe she was just cold. She’d spent an hour outside that morning in the rain, trying to catch a small, orange tabby cat Anders spotted the day before in the courtyard.
She didn’t know what it was about him, but he had a thing for cats, and while she couldn’t imagine the others would appreciate having a furry little ball of orange fluff racing around the keep, she had a feeling Anders would appreciate the gesture. He was a strange man, and not because he was a mage. He had a bizarre sense of humor, sarcastic and witty, and at times he reminded her vaguely of Alistair. Or perhaps she was only looking for Alistair in every face she scanned, signs of him shining through the people around her to make her feel less alone.
Either way, she liked Anders, even if he did rub everyone else around them raw.
She hadn’t caught the cat yet, but she would. All she’d gotten for her efforts was wet, and though she’d dried off thoroughly before slipping into her armor to deal with the matter at hand, the chill of that rain had seeped into her bones.
Fitting, she thought, for her to feel so cold as she stood outside Nathaniel Howe’s cell waiting for the seneschal to join her.
He hadn’t said a word to her since she arrived, barely even lifted his head at all to acknowledge she was there. She knew because she watched him from the corner of her eye. Entirely disinterested, he was, as if he’d already made peace with the Maker and simply awaited his sentencing and death.
At the other end of the hall, the dungeon door swung wide and Garevel marched through it with the seneschal beside him. Their armor clanked and rattled as they walked, a sound that had always been both comforting and familiar to her as the soldiers marched past the practice field where she mastered the bow every afternoon after her lessons as a girl. A task she’d taken quite seriously, some silly part of her hoping she might one day show off her skills to the very man who sat huddled in the cell behind her. And she would tell him he’d been her inspiration…
“I brought the seneschal for you, Commander,” Garevel, the captain of the guard, announced as they approached.
“Seneschal Varel,” she nodded her greeting.
“I see you’ve spoken to our guest.” Varel glanced over her shoulder. She heard Nathaniel move inside the cell, the soft hush of his footsteps and rattling of chains as he approached the door that held him prisoner. “Quite the handful, isn’t he?”
“Quite,” she agreed.
“Have you decided what’s to be done with him?”
“Are you aware, Seneschal, that this man is Nathaniel Howe?”
“A Howe?” he drew his head back in genuine surprise. “It figures that they would turn up again. The Howe’s are implacable enemies, Commander.”
“I wish to invoke the Right of Conscription,” she announced.
For the first time since they’d arrived, Nathaniel found his voice, disbelieving and hardened with disgust. “You what?”
“I’m sorry, Commander. The Right of Conscription?” Varel balked. “On the prisoner?”
“No,” Nathaniel stalked to the front of his cell, arms crossing in front of him in a furious gesture of refusal as he shook his head. “Absolutely not. Hang me, first!”
Turning a curious glare in his direction, she hadn’t expected him to be grateful, but she hadn’t thought he’d rather die than serve beneath her.
“You don’t think this is better than dying, Nathaniel?”
“Hard to say,” he mused, cold, narrowed eyes flitting across her face. Curling his upper lip he asked, “You like having Grey Wardens who want you dead?”
“Some of my best friends have wanted me dead,” she shrugged.
“You really want a Howe? As a Grey Warden?”
“I’ve made my decision.”
“You are a very strange woman,” Nathaniel declared. “I can’t decide if this is a vote of confidence or punishment.”
“An interesting decision, Commander.”
Varel didn’t have the stones to say what he really thought of her decision, that it wasn’t just strange, but downright reckless. An invitation for a backstabbing no one would be there to protect her from. For the first time in her life she sort of liked having the kind of power that kept peoples’ teeth together. She had enough doubts on her own; she didn’t need her men voicing them in her ear every time she made a decision.
“Perhaps, but that is my decisions.”
“As you will, Commander. Come with me, ser,” Varel barked, leaning forward to unlock the cell. “We’ll see if you survive the Joining.”
Nathaniel did not even look at her as he walked out of his cell, head held high, shoulders back as he fell into step behind the seneschal. Arabelle followed them, her face feeling warm and flushed, her nerves jumbled and twitchy inside her. She swore, she was developing an irritating eye-tick. Maybe she was just overly tired, or maybe the stress that had become her life was finally catching up to her at last. She didn’t know if she was making the right decision, or not. He might very well sneak up on her in the dark of the castle and put a knife in her back when all was said and done, but that was a chance she was willing to take.
Twelve-year-old Belle believed in Nathaniel Howe, that he was capable of doing anything he set his mind to, and as much as she wanted to believe that little girl, all her innocence and naivete died with her parents. She was still trapped somewhere deep inside, though. And that little girl was terrified for Nathaniel, not of him. She worried he wouldn’t survive the Joining, that he’d get his wish and suffer gruesome death because his blood could not handle the taint.
He stood stoic, impassive and seemingly unafraid while they prepared the chalice. She didn’t know why, but she wanted him to look at her, to make eye contact and see why she was doing it. She was doing it because the twelve-year-old part of herself cared about him and could not imagine a world without him in it—even though she hadn’t seen him in almost nine years. She was doing it because she believed he deserved a chance to prove himself, to show that not all Howe’s were like Rendon. They were a noble family, true and steadfast, and he could prove that if he had a chance.
She really hoped he didn’t die…
Approaching with the chalice, Varel said, “From this moment forth, Nathaniel Howe, you are a Grey Warden. Is there anything you’d like to say, Commander?”
Belle’s mind flashed back to her own Joining, to Alistair’s speech, which she’d all but memorized in the days that followed, but couldn’t call to mind at the moment. Daveth lying dead on the ground just feet away, Duncan’s blood still wet and gleaming with Ser Jory’s blood—sometimes that was her only real memory from the strange and warped moment of her life.
Duncan’s dark eyes wide, foreboding as he passed the chalice to her and nodded for her to drink. What had Alistair said? What were the words?
“Join us, brother,” she began, lifting her gaze to meet with the storm of his wide, unblinking green eyes. She shuddered, feeling for the moment that Alistair was right there beside her, hand rested in comfort on her shoulder, cheek pressed to hers as he whispered those sacred words into her ear. “Join us in the shadows where we stand vigilant. Join us as we carry the duty that cannot be forsworn, and should you perish know that your sacrifice will not be forgotten and that one day we shall join you.”
Nathaniel inhaled deep, that telling breath insight into his fear. He reached out and accepted the chalice Varel held forward, boldly stating, “The moment of truth,” as he clutched it in his hands. He was trembling, she noticed, both hands shaking, the silver chalice within them a strange blur of movement before he steadied himself with another breath. He lifted the façade of calm back over himself like a veil and tilted the cup to drink.
She swore she could hear the darkspawn stirring as Nathaniel’s consciousness joined with what Alistair once called their hive-mind. He wavered where he stood, hands once more trembling as he lowered the chalice and the shake began to spread through his arms, into his shoulders, down his spine. Head tilting back, swaying as the only visible part of his eyes became the whites, she instinctively surged forward as he whirled toward unconsciousness and dropped into a heap upon the cold, hard floor.
The chalice clattered noisily, tainted blood splattering, staining the stone.
Varel surged past her, almost brushing her aside to kneel beside the body. Belle just stood there, rigidly steeling herself for the inevitable. She closed her eyes, muttering silently to herself, “Is it too much to ask, Maker, that you spare this man and let him do this duty? Is it too much for me to ask for this?”
“The Howe is stronger than I expected,” Varel observed as he withdrew fingers from Nathaniel’s pulse and turned over his shoulder to look at her. “For better or for worse, he will live.”
She hadn’t meant for the relieved sound of her breath to be so evident, but the seneschal took note of it, his curious gaze flitting across her face when she opened her eyes again.
“Praise the Maker,” she smiled, a stoic gesture meant to confuse the seneschal. “Give him time to rest in the infirmary, have the healer keep an eye on him and do keep me informed on his recovery, if you please.”
“As you wish, Commander.”
“If that will be all, I’ll take my leave.”
“That will be all.”
The guards were already moving in to take Nathaniel by his arms and legs and carry him off to be tended by the healer when she turned from the scene and headed out, into the hallway where she let loose the heavy breath she’d felt building in her chest and pushing hard upon her heart.
He would live, and as Varel implied, only time would tell if the decision she’d made in sparing him would prove foolish.
Raising her head, she marched stiffly until she reached the reception hall, where she found Anders and Oghren bickering back and forth over, of all the things in the world, ale. Upon seeing her coming toward them, they both perked up expectantly, Anders the first to ask, “Did he die a horribly painful death then?”
“No,” she drew her head back slowly to regard him. “Why would you assume that?”
“Oh, I don’t know, because you were smiling. I just assumed that meant he was dead and all was right in the world again.”
“I didn’t invoke the Right of Conscription just to watch him die painfully, Anders. If I wanted him dead, I would have had him hanged.”
“A kindness I’m sure he would have thanked you for all the way to the gallows.”
“Perhaps,” she shrugged. “He was not altogether thrilled with my decision, actually said it would be kinder if I just killed him.”
“He’s probably right, you know?”
“I didn’t hear you complaining when becoming a Warden got the Templars off your back.”
“No, and neither will you. I’d much rather live and remain somewhat free, thank you very much. At least here no one kicks me to wake me up in the morning.”
“I can do that, if it would please you.”
“You’re free to go anytime you like, you know. I won’t force you to stay here if you don’t want, Anders.”
“Oh, I know. For the moment, I’m perfectly content to watch your shapely backsi… your back. I meant your back. In battle, I mean. You know?”
Oghren grunted bemused laughter, three appreciative rumbles that ended with a snort that prompted her to roll her eyes at both of them.
“Right, anyway, we have work to do. Let us get to it, shall we?”
“Has she always been like this?” Anders muttered to Oghren as they fell into step behind her.
“Oh yeah,” Oghren grunted his amusement. “Just wait until there’s a crisis. She’ll never stop barking commands. That’s why she’s the commander and we’re the grunts.”
“I sort of like pushy women,” the mage declared. “There’s something sexy about a girl who’s not afraid to say drop and give me…”
“You better be about to say twenty, Anders,” she shot over her shoulders.
“I was going to say fifty, actually, but if all you want is twenty, who am I to say you aim too low. You’re the commander, after all.”
“I can already tell being the only female Grey Warden at Vigil’s Keep is going to be a nightmare.”
“Or a dream come true. You never know…”
Rolling her eyes, she ignored them both after that, tuning out the sound of their banter as they passed through the gates and into the drizzling afternoon. Specks of rain chinked off Oghren’s armor, Anders complained that his feathered paldrons were going to get wet. They wound through the courtyard, toward the smithy, where she was surprised to see two familiar faces waiting to be acknowledged.
The armorer from Denerim, Wade, who’d crafted a fine suit from drake scales and refused to charge her for it, waved her over to say hello. Both he and his partner, Herren, struck out from Denerim to find their fortune, or so they said, and Wade was eager to help outfit the Wardens in the event she could find any rare crafting materials for him to work with. Wade considered himself an artist, and wouldn’t work in simple metals no matter how much coin he was offered. After agreeing to seek out whatever she could find to aid him, she made the rounds, talking to the men in the yard, learning whatever she could about the keep, its people and what would be required to make it strong again after the darkspawn attacked.
She distracted herself as best she could from the nagging worries in the back of her mind that she might return to the castle and learn from Varel that Nathaniel’s survival had only been a temporary hitch. She didn’t know why she was so afraid of losing someone who could have cared less whether she lived or died, though she presumed he’d much rather she do the latter, but she really didn’t want him to die.
She didn’t know what she wanted from him, if anything at all; she only knew she wanted him around.
I was most pleased to receive your letters, as I was worried for you when you departed for Vigil’s Keep. Not that I doubted for a single second an outstanding woman such as you could handle herself in a scrap, but there are many who believe the years following a Blight are often far worse than the actual Blight itself. Scattered and directionless, the darkspawn know not what to do with themselves, and so they attack relentlessly until they find their way belowground once more.
It disturbs me deeply to learn things in Amaranthine are worse than we imagined. There has been trouble in the Bannorn, but perhaps, with Eamon’s leave once it is settled, I will gather some of my men, make my way Northeast and lend aid to your cause. It would delight me to no end to see you again, to help the Grey Wardens in any way I can.
Your story did make me chuckle, my lady, and I thank you for sharing it. It is hard to imagine you were ever twelve years old, though I do picture you bold and forthright, all fists and freckles, and a part of me now wonders how it is you were not actually married to Nathaniel Howe.
You seem to me someone who has never taken no for an answer, most especially when she was a child. Your powers of persuasion are enviable, and I believe you could charm the scales from a snake if given opportunity to negotiate with one. I imagine you had Bryce and Eleanor wrapped around your delightfully devious little finger.
Alas, as you noted, had your wish been granted you might very well have missed out on the opportunity you had with Alistair. Short, though it was, the time you shared with him was precious, as you no doubt already know.
The Maker moves in mysterious ways, or so the Revered Mother says. I tend to find that true in most cases, such as the one you presented in your last letter. I won’t deny it strange to me that you were brought face to face with Nathaniel Howe again, and so soon after your arrival at the Keep. Especially as you had just written to me about him, about the arrow in your quiver that you took from him when you were children. Serendipity. It is a beautiful thing, is it not?
I can’t begin to imagine how that must have felt for you, and I applaud you for striving toward mercy in the sensitive matter of Nathaniel’s life. Had you hanged him, I can’t help but think the regret would have been far more than you could bear. Already you have seen so much senseless death, and you said yourself to me more than once that killing Rendon Howe did nothing to alleviate the pain of your losses. Vengeance does not truly quell suffering, though it certainly does give us a righteous reprieve while he work toward achieving it, does it not?
The son is certainly not responsible for the father’s crimes, and therefore should suffer no punishment for them, but I fear no matter what the Howes who remain will bear the brand of traitor for many years to come.
Giving him opportunity to prove himself might seem unfair upon first consideration, but I have a feeling one day Nathaniel will thank you for that mercy. And though I know very little of your friend from Antiva, if his reputation is to be believed, he would likely tell you to keep your friends close and your enemies closer.
Perhaps you will find the forgiveness you seek for killing Rendon Howe, as I know you surely do long to be absolved. Death is not always the answer, but in the case of Rendon Howe you did the world a service that it will not soon forget, my lady. There is no telling what madness he might have wrought, had he been spared.
I am sure you have your doubts, but I think you did the right thing, the honorable thing. You are always so hard on yourself, but such is the curse of those tasked with great responsibilities. Especially those who do not take those responsibilities in stride.
The Senior Enchanter himself arrived day before last with the Knight-Commander to see about Connor. He has gone, off to the tower to be properly educated and Isolde is beside herself with grief, but she knows it must be. I cannot understand her reasoning, and as you too often wonder on the what ifs and why fors, I find myself asking how different things might have turned out had Isolde been forthright with Eamon from the start about my nephew.
There would have been no need for deception, no opportunity to invite that blood mage into the castle to poison Eamon and corrupt Connor. Loghain’s plot could have been clipped before it even had chance to sprout wings and fly and we could have focused all our energy on the Blight much sooner than we were able.
Beautiful and charming as she is, I certainly understand what Eamon sees in her, but sometimes I wonder if the Maker botched her attributes just a little when piecing her together, or maybe her mother dropped her on her head when she was small. She is a featherhead, and I am a bad man for saying so aloud. Forgive me, dear lady, but as you said in your letter, we are friends, and what use are friends unless we can laugh at one another and share all the awful things we’d never say to anyone else?
But what good does it do us to linger on the inevitability of things we cannot change no matter how we long to? I am simply grateful you were able to find a way to save Eamon’s family. They mean the world to him.
Senior Enchanter Irving seems a nice fellow, he spoke rather highly of you and lamented that he’d only just missed you. Connor took to him straight away, filled to the brim with questions and excitement at the prospect of finally learning to control that which he feared and tried desperately to hide from his father. Eamon is taking the whole thing in stride, accepting of what must be, but there are times I cannot help but relate to Isolde.
Our children, they are more than just our legacy, they are a part of us and letting go of them… I can’t imagine what she’s feeling. What Eamon’s feeling, but not saying aloud.
As for the scandal, I say let them talk. They always talk, and I, for one, wouldn’t mind being at the center of a scandal. Who knows, it might just turn a few lovely glances my way, as they start to wonder whether or not I’m ineligible.
You do flatter me, dear Belle, when you speak of this lucky woman who will one day call me husband. I am certainly not getting any younger, and while it seems there is little time for courtly pleasures or romance these days, I dare say I lament this loneliness, but I do so in silence. Perhaps I am not meant to be a husband, to have a family of my own. My responsibilities center around Eamon and his family, as they have always done, and there just is not time for such things.
Besides, since the day you swooped in to our rescue in Redcliffe, my standards while searching for a wife have become remarkably high. The Maker only made one Arabelle Cousland, but he did not make her for me.
My loneliness does not compare to what you suffer, however, and I know this. To have known love and lost it is the greatest tragedy of all, but as I’ve said before you were incredibly lucky to have been given what you had with Alistair while you had it.
I do hope you’re fairing all right, that you’re at least starting to forgive yourself. It will take time, I know, but I worry about you nonetheless.
I am here for you, and will continue to be so forever, my dear.
Your Devoted Friend and Servant,