“First day, they come and catch everyone.
Second day, they beat us and eat some for meat.
Third day, the men are all gnawed on again.
Fourth day, we wait and fear for our fate.
Fifth day, they return and it’s another girl’s turn.
Sixth day, her screams we hear in our dreams.
Seventh day, she grew as in her mouth they spew.
Eighth day, we hated as she is violated.
Ninth day, she grins and devours her kin.
Now she does feast, as she’s become the beast.
Now you lay in wait, for their screams will haunt you in your dreams.”
–Dragon Age: Origins, A Paragon of Her Kind
Arabelle shot from the dream like a nocked arrow leaving the taut sinew of a stretched bowstring and seeking its mark. Hurling forward, a painful gasp of breath caught in her lungs and her heart pounded obnoxiously in her ears, making her head feel as if it would explode.
Hespith. She could still see the dwarven woman’s dead eyes, the madness drooling from her slackened lips as she stared and pawed at her own face in shame and horror.
“You’ve cursed me.”
A small, stifled scream clawed at her throat as the shadow looming at the edge of her bed came into view. The hanging strands of hair wavering in the darkness, shoulders rising and falling with gasping breath, he took another step toward her, but she was frozen where she sat still trying to catch her breath and make sense of the moment.
Where was she? Why was she there? Who was that standing near her bed?
“Kill me,” he pleaded. “Maker please, if you have any mercy in your heart, you’ll kill me as I begged of you before.”
The last nineteen months of her life spun forward, screeching to an abrupt halt as she came to present moment and blinked her eyes. Her heart still hadn’t slowed inside her chest, and somewhere in the back of her mind she could still hear Alistair muttering the word, “Creepy,” as they looked upon the horrors of the Deep Roads.
“The dreams,” he muttered. “Nightmares… hideous things, they haunt my sleep and I… I don’t want to live like this. Kill me.” He drew blade from scabbard, the whir of it ringing metallically through the night, the steel catching the barest hint of moonlight streaming through the window and accentuating its curve and sharpness. Thrusting the blade forward, his grasping hand found her arm and before she had chance to squirm away, his fingers dug deep into her flesh as he tried to force the pommel between her fingers. His skin was feverish and hot, sweat slicking his hand. “Do it.”
“No,” she whimpered, wrenching her arm from his grip and shoving him away. The blade clattered to the floor beneath her bed. He faltered several steps back before surging toward her again. He attempted to grab onto her, fingers pawing at her nightgown, unable to gain purchase as she asserted herself again and pushed him forcefully stumbling backward. “Nathaniel, stop it! Get ahold of yourself!”
“Why didn’t you just kill me?”
“For the same reason you didn’t kill me.”
“Wardens captured you and put you in a cell?” The fear faded from his voice, replaced by calculated calm and spiteful sarcasm that sent a trail of shivers marching the length of her spine. “You are a coward.”
“Killing you would not bring my family back, just as killing me will not bring back yours.”
“So you thought to curse me, instead? You are a foul and wretched woman, Arabelle Cousland.”
“No, Nathaniel, it… It wasn’t like that. It’s not a curse, it’s a chance at…”
“A chance?” he scoffed. “A chance at what? Madness?”
“Redemption…” but he hadn’t heard her.
“Hasn’t my family suffered enough for my father’s alleged crimes? Now you thought to drive me insane, as well.”
Did he really believe that? That his father was an innocent man? That she killed Rendon Howe in cold blood for crimes he did not commit? That she hadn’t stood helplessly by, Duncan clutching her and drawing her away, his strong hands pulling her from her family as she watched the pool of her father’s blood grow wider around the perimeter of his body.
Her voice stuck like thickened honey in her throat, and the sound of it surprised her as she told him, “We all have them. The nightmares. The taint connects us to the darkspawn, allows us to sense and track them. Alistair called it the hive-mind, and during a Blight we can even hear the archdemon.”
But why had she been dreaming of Hespith, of cursed Laryn with her snapping tentacles and hideous breasts swaying, rotting mouth agape as she spewed forth acid and darkspawn and hate? She woke with the sulfuric, lyrium smell of the Deep Roads in her nostrils, the heaviness of the underground weighing heavily in her lungs.
“Alistair, he was…” My love? My best friend? The rock I clung to as the raging winds of life tried to blow me from my task? “We were both Grey Wardens, the last of the Wardens here in Ferelden after the Hero of River Dane betrayed the king. Alistair sacrificed himself to slay the archdemon, so the rest of us could live.”
“Well wasn’t he the noble one.”
Ignoring his slight, even as it stirred an unquenchable urge inside her to leap forward and slap the smugness from his tone, she curbed her temper and stiffly said, “I would have prepared you, warned you about the nightmares, but we haven’t spoken since your Joining.”
For three days he’d lain in the infirmary, drifting in and out of consciousness, feverish, muttering nonsense that breeched the edge of madness. When she was not working to help restore the keep, Belle sat near his bed watching him sleep and trying to come to terms with what she’d done.
She’d had three days to think about it, to really mull it over and arrive at the point where she began berating herself for tainting his blood. She’d told herself it was an act of mercy at the time, a chance for him to redeem himself. And on the inside, she placated herself with the notion it was some misdirected act of twelve-year-old infatuation toward a boy who’d never even so much as glanced at her.
But if she truly wanted to be merciful, why hadn’t she just let him go?
She could have; it would have been the kinder thing to do, but instead she’d tainted him just to keep him close. Upon further reflection, she supposed she really hadn’t changed as much as she thought over the years. Deep down she was still twelve years old and still besotted with him. She didn’t know how she felt about that, considering everything.
“Perhaps you could have warned me beforehand,” he pointed out. “But I suppose it wouldn’t have mattered, not really. I didn’t exactly have a choice, did I?”
“And I am sorry for that, sorrier than I am sure you’ll ever know.”
“You’re sorry,” he snorted laughter. “Somehow, I find that hard to believe.”
“Then that’s your problem, not mine.”
The clip of her tone silenced him. For a long time he stood at her bedside, and all she could hear was his breath. Loud, ragged, heavy, frantic… scared.
“Some people learn to master the dreams,” she softened her voice. “To master the taint, or so they say. The dreams become less harrowing and we don’t lose as much sleep, but others are haunted so severely it’s difficult to sleep at all.”
“And which one of those are you?”
“I hardly ever sleep.”
“You seemed to be doing just fine when I walked in.”
“I wasn’t, not really. I was dreaming of the broodmother.”
“The brood… what…?”
“When we were in Orzammar last year, trying to gain the promised allegiance of the dwarves with the Warden treaties, we spent a lot of time in the Deep Roads searching for their Paragon. Her search for the Anvil of the Void drove her mad, and when we came upon her house, or rather what was left of it, we discovered she’d left them to fend for themselves against the darkspawn. She betrayed them and the darkspawn overtook all that remained, tainting them, beating them, raping them, feeding them to each other.”
She hadn’t meant for it to rhyme in that bizarre, disturbing fashion Hespith had recited their trials like a haunted echo in the darkness as they scrambled through the thaig.
“They turned one of the women, Laryn was her name, into a broodmother, this hideous, tentacled breeding machine…”
“Yes…” Nathaniel’s shadow visibly shuddered at her bedside. “That is what I dreamed…”
How? He hadn’t been there and she’d never heard tell of Grey Wardens sharing dreams of darkspawn past.
“I suppose you think I should be grateful for what you’ve done, but I will not ever thank you for this.” He took steps backwards, edging his way toward the door on the other side of the room. He didn’t even bend to retrieve his blade, nor did he turn his back on her, as if he half-expected her to leap from bed and stab him.
Alone in the dark, anxiety pressed in around her like a thick, heavy storm cloud. For several hours after he left, she couldn’t go back to sleep, and she wasn’t sure if it was because she was actually afraid he’d return and try to kill her, or that she’d dream of Laryn and Hespith again.
She’d almost rather Nathaniel kill her.
“So, I heard the oddest rumor last night and I simply don’t know what to make of it. Perhaps you could clarify for me.”
Anders was always chattering, rattling on behind her as they trekked the road to the Wending Woods. He’d already annoyed Nathaniel with some joke about liking the Howes as much as he liked the whos, the whats and the whys, and Oghren only grunted at him whenever he tried to goad him, so it seemed it was now her turn to suffer his almost-uplifting brand of sarcasm. He’d spent a lot of time alone, she realized, and though he hadn’t said as much she thought he was grateful to be a part of something voluntarily. She’d offered him his freedom, not once, but twice. Both times he said he would do far better for her, than she would do without him and he stayed.
At first Arabelle didn’t know if he was talking to her, or one of the silent men who walked the leaf-littered pathway beside him, but when she didn’t answer he prodded her again. “Is it true, Commander, that your older brother is Teyrn of Highever, and that you were damn near the Queen of Ferelden?”
She turned stiff head over shoulder to chastise the dwarf with a scathing glare. His guilty blue-green eyes flitted from behind the faceplate of his helmet. From the corner of her gaze she glimpsed Nathaniel, looking nearly refreshed, save for the dark, heavy circles under his eyes denoting severe loss of sleep. It lent an almost ghastliness to his gaunt features, accentuating the cut of his cheekbones and the rigidity of his jawline.
Judging from the dryness of his lips, he was dehydrated and she thought to remind him to drink more water, then remembered he’d done nothing but scowl at her since they left the castle at the crack of dawn that morning.
She hadn’t spoken to him since he’d come into her room and asked her to just kill him two nights earlier, not even to quietly return to him the blade he thrust into her hand while begging her to kill him. If he wanted it back, he could come to her and ask for it. For the most part, he didn’t seem all that worried about it. He’d outfitted himself in a set of sleek leather armor and procured himself a bow from the armory, as well as a quiver full of arrows. There was another dagger tucked into his belt and a shortsword dangled from the scabbard.
No, she thought. He didn’t need his blade back. He had an entire armory at his disposal, and no one would question one of the Grey Wardens if he delved within to arm himself. But if he wanted it back, he could ask.
“In the dwarf’s defense,” Anders began, “he was drunk.”
“That’s not a defense, Anders. It’s his natural state of consciousness. Perhaps I might have been more inclined to withhold judgment had you said he was sober when he spouted nonsense. I might have even felt a little sorry for him.”
“Good one, Commander, but you still haven’t answered my questions. Were you really almost Queen?”
She’d chosen her fate. She made promises at the Landsmeet, said she would rule beside Alistair, but even then she knew one of them would not walk away from the archdemon. They both could have walked away, if only she’d trusted Morrigan. But she hadn’t, and she’d just assumed at the time she made promises to the Landsmeet she would never have to keep them because she wouldn’t be coming back from the battle with archdemon.
After the fact, when Riordan confirmed their fears and explained why one of them would have to die, the illusion of a future she and Alistair skirted around fell away like a sheer curtain being torn from the bedposts, exposing a truth neither of them wanted to face, but had never outright denied. There was always a slim chance Riordan would reach the archdemon before them, but it had always been an impossible possibility that the sacrifice would be his.
How stupid she’d been.
No doubt there were those who thought she’d only aligned herself with Alistair because of his blood and his claim to the throne, because she wanted power, but she’d have loved Alistair no matter what happened in the end. King or Grey Warden, she would have stood beside him either way, but he refused to take Morrigan, whom he hated with a passion, to his bed and she hadn’t pushed him. If only she’d pushed him. He’d be sitting on the throne in Denerim waiting for her to come back to him. Or he’d be right there beside her, clunking along in his armor and making jokes that would give Anders a run for his money.
“I don’t think being Queen was ever really in the cards for me.”
“I imagine you’re quite disappointed about that,” Nathaniel muttered.
Arabelle’s breath caught in the back of her throat, a disgusted sound she nearly choked on but tried desperately to disguise. He had no idea the number of disappointments she harbored, the least of them her lacking crown.
“So, I shouldn’t call you Her Majesty, then?”
“Not if you value your life, Anders.”
“And Her Royal Highness is also out of the question, I assume.”
“I will not hesitate to stab you.”
“Wow,” form the corner of her eye she watched him stumble just a little over his own boots. “You don’t mess around at all, do you?”
“I told you our commander was a real firebrand,” Oghren grunted. “She would have made some queen…”
“Only because I had a just and righteous king to rule beside.”
He must have heard the hitch in her voice, the not-so-subtle tightening of her vocal cords with emotion. An odd thing, that, considering Oghren had the emotional range of a teaspoon on the best of days. “I miss him too, you know.”
“Yes, well… That will be enough talk of that. We have important things to take care of. We need to find out what happened to these merchants so we can report back.”
She couldn’t afford to appear weak or emotional in front of her recruits. She was a Grey Warden, after all. Commander of the Grey. Swallowing her emotions, she blinked rapidly until the unshed tears stinging in her eyes dried, but she could still feel them wetting her lashes.