“Is that… a fish sandwich?”
The stray tabby, which had been just a breath away from rubbing its chin against her fingertips, darted away at the intrusive sound of that voice, slipping agilely into a gap between the stones supporting one of the outbuildings. Arabelle huffed back onto her ankles with a perturbed sigh, the loose locks of her auburn hair dancing around her face before settling in.
“Thank you very much, Ser Stealth and Shadow.”
“Oh, my apologies, my lady.” Over her shoulder, she watched him cross both arms over his chest, fingers scratching absently along his bicep as he tilted his head to look at her. “I didn’t realize I was on a stealth mission when I ambled into the courtyard, minding my own business, might I add.”
“You’re usually much quieter when you’re sneaking around. I almost never know when you’re behind me.”
“I wasn’t sneaking. I’ve been standing back here watching you for almost ten minutes. What exactly is it you’re trying to accomplish, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“Isn’t it obvious?”
“Honestly? No. No, it isn’t.”
“I’m trying to catch the cat you frightened off.”
“The Templars once confined Anders to the tower dungeon for an entire year after one of his escape attempts.”
“And rightly so. That mage is a menace at the best of the times.”
“Oh, he’s not so bad.”
“Let me guess, he’s just misunderstood.”
“Aren’t we all?”
“I suppose you have a point there.”
“Anyway, he told me there was an orange tabby that used to come and keep him company in the tower. Mr. Wiggums, he was called. Sometimes that cat was his only visitor for days on end.”
“How sad for him. So, what then? You think he needs… a feral cat? To visit him and make him feel at home here?”
“I don’t know. I just thought it would be a nice gesture,” she shrugged. “He saw this cat a couple of weeks ago and remarked on his likeness to this Mr. Wiggums.”
“I know, right? Long story short, I thought I’d befriend the little fur ball and give him to Anders.”
“I see,” he nodded. “Might I make a friendly suggestion?”
“Are we friends now?”
“Well, I haven’t tried to kill you lately. That should at least say something about the strength of our relationship.”
“And in a relationship…”
Maker, she sounded like Morrigan. Even her tone matched the sarcastically delicious meter of the witch she’d once called friend. The woman who’d offered to save her life and her love if only she could convince Alistair to sleep with her and give her a child.
“All right, if you don’t want my help…” he started to shrug and turn back toward the keep when he spied the groundskeeper emerging from one of the buildings. “Samuel?” he called, darting off toward the elf. “Groundskeeper Samuel, is that you?”
“Who… Maker’s breath! If it isn’t Little Nate! I’d know that face anywhere.”
“Groundskeeper, I didn’t know you’d stayed on here.”
“I couldn’t leave this place, even if I wanted to. I’ll die here one day, if the Grey Wardens keep me around.”
“You know you’re welcome to stay, Samuel, as long as you like. The Grey Wardens are happy to have you with us.” Arabelle sauntered up to join them.
“I didn’t know you were still here. I hadn’t seen you, and I never thought to ask. I’m sorry. I should have asked after you.”
“Oh, don’t trouble yourself over me, my boy. I was injured during the attack on the keep, been on light duty, healer’s orders, these last few weeks.”
“Groundskeeper, please, do you know how my brother died? And my… sister? I was… away. In the Free Marches. I had no idea what happened here, and when I returned, I was already too late.”
“Well, your brother died in the war, but Lady Delilah… don’t you know? She isn’t dead, son, not that I know of.” The old elf shifted his weight and lifted a hand to scratch his chin. “Last I heard, she married a storekeep in Amaranthine. Don’t know which one, poor girl.”
Arabelle had never seen Nathaniel’s face light up before, but in that moment he was positively glowing when he turned to look at her, remarking, “Did you hear that? My sister’s alive.”
“That’s wonderful news!” she declared.
“Could we ask around the shops, next time we’re in Amaranthine?”
“Of course. We can head over that way first thing tomorrow morning.”
“Thank you, Belle. I would be interested to know just what happened to her.”
“Give her my best when you find her,” Samuel started to hobble away, calling back, “and it is real nice to have you around the castle again too, my lord. Little Nate. I can’t believe it!”
“Little Nate,” she chuckled, turning her grin on him and watching him do something she wasn’t sure was possible: blush. It spread in splotchy patches along the milk-white skin of his chiseled cheeks, hiding among the stubble there. He cast his eyes sheepishly downward and stared at the dirt beneath his boots, but he was still smiling. “So, Little Nate, are you going to help me catch this cat, or not?”
“Not if you’re going to keep calling me Little Nate.”
“But it’s an adorable nickname,” she laughed again and turned back toward the outbuilding under which the cat had disappeared. “It suits you.”
“It doesn’t really,” she heard him mutter. “There’s nothing little about me at all.”
Something inside her tightened, a strange tingle stirring in her midsection she didn’t know how to react to. It was not an unfamiliar feeling, but it was certainly one she’d never thought to experience again in her lifetime. Her whole body tensed, her shoulders stiffening, knees locking as she stopped to wait for him to catch up with her. Part of her wanted to run, but she couldn’t. Instead she fell into step beside him when he caught up and pretended she hadn’t heard him.
“So, how exactly does one catch a cat?”
“Very, very carefully, my lady.” He grinned down at her and then he winked.
Was he… flirting with her?
No. She was imagining things, but the part of her that tightened only moments before melted so unexpectedly her knees almost gave out and she stumbled through her next two steps as though she’d tripped over something jutting out of the ground.
“Watch your step, Commander. Dry grass is a tricky thing. Come on. I have a plan.”
“Anders? Look what I found.”
“Oooh, look at the cute little kitty!” He became instantly soft and sympathetic as a child, fingertips reaching outward to scratch beneath the tabby’s chin. The cat yowled as if in reply and began to purr as Arabelle hoisted it into the mage’s waiting arms. “He looks like Mr. Wiggums.”
“I thought you might like to take care of him.”
“But… I don’t know if I should keep him. We do get into some dangerous scraps.”
“Well, he could stay here,” she suggested, “at the keep.”
Drawing the cat up under his chin, he snuggled it close and closed his eyes for a moment, not as if thinking it over, but as though he were relishing the moment itself. The soft feel of its fur against his skin, the comforting vibration of its purring body in his arms. “I suppose…”
It meowed at him again, its purr drumming louder and making Belle feel suddenly comfortable and sleepy. She missed her mabari hound, which she’d gifted to her Qunari friend Sten before he departed to tell the Arishok what he’d found in Ferelden. Sten and Ser Barks had grown awful close on the road, and though the dog seemed a little broken up when they said goodbye, he trotted off after his new master wagging the point of his tail in earnest.
“Well, I’ll keep him just for a little while. Until I find somewhere safer. Is that okay with you, Kitty?”
It rumbled and purred and squirmed blissfully in the mage’s arms, answering in a soft mewl.
“I’ll call you Ser Pounce-a-lot!” he declared, grinning up at Arabelle. She wondered for a moment if he was only doing it to appease her, remembering aloud that her mabari had been called Ser Barks-a-lot, and deciding either way it was a fine name. “You can stay in my pack, just for a while, yes. How did you manage to catch him?”
“With a box trap and a fish sandwich.” She shrugged her shoulders. “Well, I didn’t catch him. Nathaniel did, but I helped.”
“Thank you, Bel…er… Commander.”
“You can call me Belle, Anders,” she laughed. “Just not in front of the soldiers. They might get the wrong idea and think I don’t know how to lead men.”
“Aye-aye, Commander. If there’s ever anything I can do to repay you for this, just you say the word. You know, if you need a good snuggle or someone to warm your bed later…”
“It’s never going to happen, Anders.”
“Ah,” he sighed, “can you blame a man for trying? You do know I only tease you, right? You’re really not my type, well, except for the bossy part. I do like being told what to do in that commanding bellow… But you’re… just not sarcastic enough, I don’t think. You’re a little too sweet for my tastes.”
“Thanks. I think that’s a compliment. But now that you mention it, there is something you could do for me.”
“Name it and it is done.”
“I need to head into the basement again to search for something. I’ve looked everywhere else in the castle, but there’s a room we haven’t been in down there and I think what I’m looking for might be there.”
“Oh? What is it you’re looking for? Trouble? Should I tell Ser Pounce-a-lot to get his claws all sharp and ready? Did you hear that, Kitty? We’re going to get into some trouble, yes we are.”
“There might be a little trouble down there still. It’s a room we haven’t been in, so it’s hard to say. I’m searching for Nathaniel’s grandfather’s bow. I think he might like to have it.”
“You like him, don’t you?”
“What?” she took a step back, the stunning acknowledgment of that fact from an outside source almost more than she could stomach to hear. “What are you talking about? I like all of you. You’re all fine Wardens and I’m lucky to have you.”
“No, not like that. You like him-like him.” An appreciative grin quirked the corner of his mouth. “I couldn’t understand why you were so resistant to my charms at first, as women are almost always intrigued by dangerous men who can summon lightning to the tips of their fingers. It makes for interesting foreplay, or so I’m told…. But that’s beside the point. Now it makes sense. You like him.”
“Stop it, you’re being ridiculous. I’m not here to like anyone. I’m here to do a job and if I can keep the men who work with me happy, then it will make the doing of that job easier on all of us. It’s important to get along.”
“But… he tried to kill you.”
“He never actually tried to kill me. He changed his mind before he was caught.”
“I imagine he changed his mind because he was caught.”
“Well, he hasn’t tried to kill me since…”
“That you know of…”
“…so I think that speaks volumes on his character. Are you going to help me, or not?”
“Of course we’ll help you, won’t we Kitty?”
“Thank you, Anders.” He held the cat toward her. “And er… thank you, Kit—Ser Pounce-a-lot… Thank you both. Shall we?”
They descended into the damp and musky basements of the Keep, winding through the corridors, stepping over the bloodstains of their last foray into that place. There was an unfortunate passage below that led to the Deep Roads, and the dwarves at the Keep were clearing out the rubble so the Wardens could delve deeper and discover where they were getting in and whether or not the entryway could be blocked off.
“It’s really dark down here, isn’t it?” She didn’t need to answer. Ser Pounce-a-lot caterwauled in muffled agreement from inside Anders’s robes. “And wet and dark.”
“And creepy,” Arabelle added. “I always thought the basement of Castle Cousland was creepy, but this place tops that tenfold. I wonder if it’s because of the Deep Roads being so nearby.”
“What was it like growing up in a castle?”
“I don’t know, fine, I suppose.”
“Don’t you ever miss it? Being a noble, I mean? Having servants to do your bidding, make your bed and cook your supper. And all that money… I’m sure you could go back. You’re the Hero of Ferelden, after all. Doesn’t that sort of give you the right to do whatever you want?”
“Loghain Mac Tir was the Hero of River Dane, and I think he thought that prestigious honor gave him the right to do whatever he wanted, so no. I don’t think it does give me that right.”
“Oh, yes, true. Good point. Power like that is a dangerous thing.”
A soft, appreciative laugh scuffed through her throat. “I could leave if I wanted to, especially now that the Blight is over, but I don’t really want to. I am a Grey Warden now. There will always be darkspawn.”
“But don’t you want to do anything else with your life? Fighting darkspawn… That can’t be all there is, can it? If you weren’t a Grey Warden, say, what else would you do? What would you like to do?”
“I honestly don’t know. Maybe I’d become an assassin. I’m really at killing things.”
“Oghren said one of your companions was an Antivan Crow.”
“That is true.”
“How does one even become friends with someone like that?”
“He tried to kill me,” she shrugged, “and then swore his service to me if I spared his life. Alistair thought I was insane for trusting him, but he turned out to be one of the most devoted and steadfast friends I’ve ever had. He was with me right up until the end, unflinching in his loyalty and willingness to die to stop the Blight.”
“So you have a penchant for people who try to kill you? This Antivan Crow, Howe… Maybe I should try to kill you. Would that get you into bed with me?”
“No, it wouldn’t.” Once again, she chuckled and shook her head. “I think I just have a natural instinct for seeing the good in people. Sometimes we all do things because circumstances beyond our control put us between a rock and a hard place. My friend Zevran never had a choice. He was an orphan and the Crows bought him when he was seven years old. Nathaniel returned to Ferelden after almost a decade away to find his entire family in ruins, their name dragged relentlessly through the mud. He lost everything.”
“We’ve all lost things,” Anders pointed out. “I mean, hello. Where’s my freedom? But you don’t see me running around trying to kill…”
“Yeah,” she interrupted. “About those Templars I found you with in the keep.”
“I didn’t kill them,” he swore. “And even if I did, they had it coming…”
“Then you understand, am I wrong? In desperation, we will do whatever it takes sometimes to keep ourselves alive.”
“But Howe’s life wasn’t ever in danger. Was it?”
“Maybe he thought it was, I don’t know. He was in the Free Marches and he had no clue what happened here. He came home to chaos, his family ruined, disgraced, many of them dead. Maybe he thought his father was victim of some coup d’état, that his family was slaughtered for political gain and that he was next. A sort of ‘wipe out the Howes’ thing. I don’t know what he was thinking when he came here to kill me and the other Grey Wardens, but I spent an entire year daydreaming wickedly about the many ways I could kill Rendon Howe for the things he did to my family. So, in essence, I guess Nathaniel and I really aren’t that different.”
“But his father actually… betrayed your family. Murdered them in cold blood. And he tortured all those people in his dungeon in Denerim.”
“So was I in the right then, in killing him?”
“I think you’d make a lousy assassin, to be honest. If you’re going to beat yourself up over killing a man who clearly got his just desserts, maybe you’re not cut out for that kind of work.”
An appreciative smile twitched at the edges of her mouth. Zevran, who’d been showing her techniques in the days before they parted ways, had more or less said the same thing. Conscience was a weakness an assassin could not afford, and she certainly had one of those. Her conscience weighed heavily upon her shoulders, pushed her down until she felt like she was dragging herself through quicksand.
“You’re just too nice, my dear Warden. You cannot walk up to your mark and say, ‘Excuse me, I’m here to kill you. Is that all right with you, or should I come back when it’s more convenient?’”
“Am I no better than Rendon Howe? Did my killing him the way I did make me just like him?”
“To be honest, I never met the man, but if it’s true what he did to your family, then no. You’re nothing like him. You didn’t kill him to gain political advantage or prestige. You didn’t kill him because you wanted your family’s power back. You killed him because he was a wretched bastard who clearly had it coming. And if you feel badly about it, then… I just don’t know what to say, Belle.”
“Do you ever feel badly about killing those Templars?”
His face lengthened stoically, his amber eyes flitting forward in avoidance as he cleared his throat and said, “No. No, I don’t.”
“Then perhaps you should become an assassin.”
“Or a terrorist,” his face brightened again. “I hear there’s all kinds of glory to be gained in well-planned acts of terrorism, especially if the cause is righteous and just.”
“You’re so twisted.”
“I know,” he laughed. “It’s a delightful thing to be this messed up, isn’t it?”
“It does have its charms.”
She knelt down in front of the door at the bottom of the stairs and took out her lock picks. Ser Pounce-a-lot was still purring from within the comfort of Anders’s robes when the tumblers gave and she pushed open the door. The air was oppressive, stifling and heavy as she stepped into the crypt and felt it push back against her like a wall. The hairs on her arms stiffened and rose, a slow tingle tickling along the back of her neck that made her shudder.
“Lovely,” Anders sighed. “A crypt.”
And the next thing she knew they were firing shots into a horde of reanimated skeletons hell-bent on overrunning them and making their way to the surface for freedom. She realized, as the heavy-hitting punch of bony knuckles hammered into her side and knocked her aim askew, maybe bringing just Anders wasn’t the best idea she’d ever had, but both the mage and his delightful little pussycat surprised her. He summoned a storm of fire that swept burning through the crypt, setting old armor and bone aflame, the gusts of its heat rushing backward and knocking her off balance.
She cracked her head on the hard stone floor, and still clutching her bow in her grip she heard the arrow she’d nocked clatter to the ground beside her as the world swam and wavered.
Then it all went dark.