It All Comes Down to This: Six

She’d been at Vigil’s Keep three weeks, and still had a hard time navigating its halls. It wasn’t even comparable in size to Castle Cousland, but she’d known those halls all her life, could walk through them blindfolded and find her way anywhere. In the dead of night Vigil’s Keep felt haunted and strange, confining in ways that made it difficult for her to breathe. Every shadow lurking in the corner seemed a strange threat she didn’t quite know what to make of from a distance, and then felt ridiculously foolish about as she approached only to discover it was some old statue lurking in the corner.

Not darkspawn, not a ghost, not Nathaniel lying in wait to ambush and slit her throat with a dagger slick with poison.

Nathaniel barely spoke to her at all, in fact. Following her lead without question, only occasionally muttering sarcastic remarks under his breath when she issued commands he didn’t necessarily agree with. He was upset when she took on Velanna, disgruntled that the Dalish mage had gotten them captured and imprisoned within the hidden walls of some strange darkspawn who called himself The Architect.

They’d battled their way out of that place, setting aside their differences and disgruntlements until they were standing in the clean air of the Wending Woods again, all of them so relieved to be free and alive and none the worse for wear, no one dared make a single remark about what a stupid idea it had been to ally themselves with a crazy, Dalish elf who’d slaughtered men first and asked questions later.

On the way back to the Keep, he taunted Velanna viciously, the cold woman holding her own just fine, but when he started to doubt Arabelle’s decision to allow the Dalish to undertake the Joining, she turned on him and asked, “Do you really think you could lead this outfit better than me? That you know better than I how desperately we need allies and friends over enemies?”

The ferocity of her spin caught him off guard and forced him two steps back, hands shooting up to ward her off and head shaking as he murmured, “I just… You always seem to take on people who would delight in stabbing a knife into your back. It was just an observation, that’s all. There’s no need to get your knickers in a knot.”

Praise the Maker for Anders, who hissed and meowed like a cat to break the tension, remarking with a clever wink that he wouldn’t mind her pouncing him like that later, perhaps without her clothes on.

He was always talking about being naked, making suggestive remarks that caused her to roll her eyes and consider aloud setting up rules about sexual harassment on the job if he didn’t straighten up and fly right. Maybe having another female Warden at the keep, someone to stand united with her against all those lusty men, would put them in their place.

Even that was grounds for his teasing, drawing a carefully considered stroke of his chin as he asked, “Would the punishments for such offenses involve chains, Commander? Perhaps… a riding crop?”

“I was thinking a hot poker, actually, but I’m willing to negotiate.”

“Why do you taunt me like that, you incorrigible little minx? One day you’ll give it up. I’ve been told I’m irresistible.”

“Well, I’ll be dead on that day, Anders, and you will be a necrophile, I’m afraid.”

“Ouch! You’re so morbid. Would I be a bad person if I confessed that sort of turned me on? Just a little…”

“Yes, you would be a bad person. In fact, you are a bad person.”

“I do try, so very, very hard.”

Outlandish and overly perverted, as he often was, the mage was growing on her. If not for Anders, every excursion they made would have been mercilessly tense. She just hoped she didn’t run into him in the middle of the night while traversing the confusing halls of the castle searching for the larder. Not that she didn’t trust herself. She was lonely, yes, and his humorous ability to dissolve tension did remind her of Alistair at times, but she knew the difference as well as she knew there was no replacing Alistair with anyone.

She might very well never love again. In fact, more than once she’d thought to get in touch with Leliana and ask about becoming a cloistered sister after the insanity at Vigil’s Keep was righted again.

Coming upon the larder after what felt like hours of aimless wandering, she was surprised to discover she was not the only one starving in the dead of night. Nathaniel was already there, sitting casually atop a barrel crunching through the crisp skin of an apple when she walked in. Her sudden appearance startled him almost as much as it did her, and for a moment the two of them just stared, wide-eyed, wordless. He held the apple in his hand, mid-way to his lips, which still shone with the juices of his last bite.

“Commander,” he drew his lower lip into his mouth, the neatly trimmed triangle of black hair below it almost disappearing for a moment, and then he released it again. “I had not thought to find you here.”

“I was hungry,” she shrugged.

“As was I.” He almost smiled. Almost. “I am always hungry now, it seems. No matter how much I eat at mealtimes, I still lay abed feeling empty. Ravenous. As though I haven’t eaten for days and days.”

“Alistair used to make fun of me after my Joining, saying I wolfed down food like a pig. That it was a good thing I got a lot of exercise…”

“You speak so fondly of him,” he noted, “this Alistair. He was Maric’s bastard, was he not?”

“He was a Grey Warden, as I said before.” It was hard to disguise her offense. Maric’s bastard. How much he hated being called that, how much it hurt to carry the stigma of being a bastard everywhere he went, all his life—even before people knew the king had been his father. “And yes, his father was King Maric. He would have been king himself had he not… He…”

“And I have offended you, once again. It seems to be something I am quite good at.” Hoisting himself from the barrel, he landed on his feet like a cat and straightened his back. “As much pleasure as it brings me to rile you, my lady, that was not my intent this time. On my honor. I simply meant to note the fondness with which you speak of the man, that’s all. It is an impossible thing not to notice.”

“Yes, well, the two of us were very close. We endured a lot together during the Blight, and at the end of all things he died so I might live. So all of us could live. It’s difficult to speak of someone so selfless with anything other than reverence.”

“He must have been a truly great man, indeed.”

“Great does not even begin to encompass or adequately describe his character.”

“Was it true then, what Anders said before? That you were… engaged to the would-be king?”

“For less than a week, though not formally. He hadn’t even been crowned. Anyway, it was a dream both of us knew from the start would never come true. People like us don’t get happily ever afters, and anyone who says otherwise is a fool.”

“So in the end, it all comes down to this? All that remains for the likes of us is bitterness and woe?”

“Is becoming a Grey Warden really such punishment for you, Nathaniel? A thing worse than death in your eyes? Being a Grey Warden is an honor and a privilege, an op…”

“You know,” he started, taking a tentative step toward her, “I’m not the first Howe to become a Grey Warden.”

“Seems like your father didn’t remember that.”

“Or maybe he did.” Stiffening his shoulders, for a moment she thought he was going to forget what he was about to say and pass her by entirely, too frustrated and vexed with her to finish what his thought. There was a single loose lock of black hair disentangled from the neat braid he tied back from his forehead and it wavered for a moment when he shook his head, slipping in to rest across the bridge of his nose before he huffed it away again. “It was my grandfather we were talking about, not my father. His name was Padric Howe. He joined the order before it returned to Ferelden, just after the war.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“Never contacted his family again… Just… vanished. Now that I know about the Joining, I think he died.” Tilting his head downward, that disentangled strip of hair fell in along his cheek and nestled in to rest just above his lip.

“Many good men and women die during the Joining.”

“I know that now.”

He brought his gaze up to meet with hers again, the storm of his eyes calm and serene and so… beautiful. It was the same soft look he cast upon her in the hallway the night they overheard their parents talking about them from the shadows, when his guilt over snapping at her apology overwhelmed him. He was trying, she realized. Some part of him was attempting to reach out to her in ways she didn’t understand, but felt desperate to accept.

“Father always said he was a horrible man for abandoning his family and joining a pointless cause. I grew up ashamed of my grandfather, but now I see his bravery. That will take some getting used to.”

“The only shame was your father’s, Nathaniel.”

“My father often forgot that ‘nobility’ has another meaning.”

“I think a lot of nobles forget that sometimes.”

“Perhaps. Perhaps we… perhaps they do. I suppose we’re not nobles anymore, you and I, are we?”

“No. We’re Grey Wardens now. If you ask me, I think that’s a far nobler station that simply being born into the right household.”

“Perhaps you’re right. You know, my grandfather had a bow passed down from his grandfather. I wonder if it’s still around. At any rate, I shouldn’t trouble you anymore. You came here looking for something to eat, not the burden of my insufferable company.”

Before she could stop him, he edged past her, the sleeve of his shirt brushing across her forearm and making her shiver. She turned over her shoulder to watch him, calling out when he reached the edge of the larder.

“Nathaniel?”

“Hmm?”

“May I ask you something?”

“If it please you, my lady.”

“Do I really seem bitter to you? Woeful?”

“A little, at times,” he shrugged. “Though you’re no more bitter than I am, I suppose. They say time heals all wounds, but sometimes I can’t imagine the heaviness of my heart ever lifting to free me. Sometimes I can’t imagine I will ever feel like a person again at all.”

She swallowed hard, the sound of it so loud in the quiet larder. “Neither can I,” she lamented.

“We should not give up hope. Perhaps you will still find your happily ever after one day.” Tipping his head forward, he said, “Goodnight, my lady,” and left the larder.

“Goodnight,” she muttered, quite sure he didn’t hear her.

 INTERLUDE

Dear Teagan,

Let me begin by stating that you, ser, are a shameless flatterer who should not be encouraged, and yet I find it so very difficult to resist your charms. While it is nice to be appreciated, I do say there are far gentler women than me out there, all of them more deserving of your affections. Perhaps in another life, in a less complicated world, you and I could have been more than just friends, but I fear we’ve been through far too much together to ever separate ourselves from it all.

I am also not entirely sure I can ever find it in my heart to love again, and you deserve so much more than a cold-hearted shrew like me.

I know you say your responsibilities don’t lend time for romance, but I can tell you from experience that the only way there will be time for such things is if you make it.

Make time, Teagan.

I remember when Alistair and I fell in love. It all just sort of happened between the Tower of Magi and our return to Redcliffe to help Connor. Wynne was beside herself over the whole thing, claiming that by indulging in each other we were shirking our duties as Grey Wardens. There were far more important things than our emotions, our need for one another. What those important things were, I still don’t know, but I was furious with her for sticking her nose into our business. I didn’t speak to her for three days, but Alistair said I was being very silly about the whole thing. That she was only concerned for our well-being, and that while our feelings were certainly our business and no one else’s, he was touched that she cared enough about us to express her worries.

In time, however, she came to another conclusion, realizing that were it not for what we’d been through, the bond we formed and the love that grew between us, neither of us would have made it as far as we did. We took advantage of every single moment, as if any one of them could be our last. I am grateful we didn’t listen to her. I am grateful for all those moments we took advantage of. Without them, without that fleeting time I had with Alistair, I’m not sure I would be the woman I am today.  

So seize the moment, my friend. Make time to love someone who deserves you. You are a good man and somewhere there is a good woman who needs a man like you.

Now that I am done preaching from the Chant of Love, I will say that fortification of the Keep has kept us very busy. I have spent more time in the keep’s basement than anywhere else in Amaranthine since I arrived, but I cannot say why. Only that the darkspawn here are… different. Perhaps if you are able to come this way for a visit, I can explain, but for now I can only say things here are dire, and I am doing my best to put them to rights again.

In other news, Nathaniel no longer wants to kill me. At least I don’t think he does, anyway. It’s hard to let my guard down, after spending so much time in the company of an Antivan Crow, and yet it was from that friend of mine I learned that trust is born from opportunity and forgiveness, and friendship built upon it.

Nathaniel was resentful toward me for forcing this life upon him at first, and perhaps he is still, but I think he might be coming around to see the honor of this noble task. I came upon him in the larder tonight, and we had an actual conversation. No threats, only a handful of frigid glares. He told me his grandfather, Padric, was once a Grey Warden. He said his father raised him to be ashamed of the man for abandoning his family to join a hopeless cause. He actually said before we parted ways that sometimes his father forgot there was more to being a nobleman than the name and prestige that came with it.

Perhaps I am ruled by my twelve-year-old self. Don’t think that thought has not occurred to me, but I still believe Nathaniel is a good man, not in any way accountable for his father’s mistakes, nor likely to attempt to repeat them. But I do fear the day will come when he will ask me about his father. I’ve overheard him asking Oghren questions when he thinks I cannot hear them talking. Asking if his father suffered much, or if he was granted a quick death. He hasn’t asked me directly about that day, and I pray to the Maker every time I’m in the Chantry that he never asks. I wouldn’t know how to answer without snapping the thin and fraying thread of amity we’ve begun to establish.

How do you tell a man you feel almost no remorse for killing his father? Despite all my memories of Rendon Howe being a cruel and callous father to his children, Nathaniel seems to worship the very ground the man walked upon. I suppose I don’t understand that, but then if someone ever told me my father was a horrible tyrant and torturer of innocent souls, I probably wouldn’t believe it either. Bryce Cousland could do no wrong in my eyes, and yet he ruled over Highever, no doubt making enemies with people who thought him undeserving of that position. People like Rendon Howe, for example, who believed until his last breath that my father sold himself to the Orlesians. 

I loved my father fiercely. Perhaps Nathaniel did too.

Have you heard from the Circle or Connor? I hope he fares well there. If I chance to speak with Wynne, I will ask her to check in on him, make him feel at home there. It must be so difficult to be taken from one’s home and family, and forgive me for saying so, but I hope Eamon does not feel as though he’s being punished. I spoke with him at great length after Alistair’s passing, and he mentioned that he still felt guilty for sending him to the Chantry when he was ten years old.

 For better or worse, everything happened as it was meant to, and those experiences made Alistair the incredible man he was. I hope Eamon realizes that.

The hour grows late, and though I doubt I’ll find much sleep this night, I should at least try. Thank you for continuing to write to me. Your letters are always a bright spot in my day when they arrive.

With Love,

Belle

About erica

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