‘It’s all right, you know? To feel again. I would never expect you to spend the days of your life pining for me. How rude would that be? And I’m anything but rude, aren’t I? I’m not a rude man. No, I want you to feel and to live, to love and be loved. It’s all I ever wanted for you. I’m just sorry I can’t be the one to give it to you.’
It wasn’t real. It couldn’t be, but the sound of his voice was so distinct, so clear.
‘I told you to live a life that would make me proud, and I expect you to do it. I meant it, Belle. You know I don’t say things unless I really mean them. Unless I’m joking of course, but this is no joke.’
‘Alistair, is that really you? Where are you? I can’t see you…’
‘You aren’t meant to see me, my dear, only hear me, so listen, if you would, please. I have a favor to ask of you. Will you do something for me? Just a little thing.’
‘I want to see you,’ she whispered. ‘To touch your face and feel your arms around me.’
‘I wish I could give you that, but I’m afraid I can’t.’
‘Then why are you here? Where are we?’
‘We aren’t anywhere, not really. Inside your head maybe, which was definitely cracked a bit back there. The odds were against you from the start, but I certainly understand why you took such a risk. You always were a risk-taker, especially when it came to the people you care for. Which brings me again to the reason I’m here. Will you do this thing I ask of you? It might feel like a risk, but it won’t be. I promise. There will be pain though, but some of the most painful things turn out to be worth it in the end. Right?’
‘You know I’d do anything for you.’
‘Even if it means letting me go?’
‘No. I can’t do that,’ she protested. ‘I can’t let you go.’
‘You have to, Arabelle.”
He never called her Arabelle unless he was angry or trying to be painfully serious… Arabelle, you can’t just let a dangerous maleficar practice blood magic. There has to be another way, Arabelle. You know I love you, Arabelle… Arabelle, I want you to live a life that will make me proud.
‘You have to let me go… Free me, and you free yourself. You will love again, but first you have to let me go.’
Something soft and fuzzy brushed across her cheek, twitching and tickling as it swished beneath her nose. Whatever it was, it was noisy and it smelled of… fire and smoke and burning. The creature chirruped, an odd sound if she’d ever heard one, and then she heard Anders sigh relief.
“Sweet Andraste’s flaming bloody sword! I thought we’d lost you and I was going to have to explain to the seneschal why two idiots were down here by themselves and the one in charge got herself killed.”
“Anders?” She started to tilt her head upward, the pain throbbing mercilessly through her skull and making her lower it once again to the floor behind her. “What… what happened?”
“Well, you convinced me to follow you into this dank, wretched, abominable crypt below the keep to search for some Howe family heirloom to give to Nathaniel, whom you claim you don’t like-like, but I still say you’re lying about that, and we were nearly murdered by demonic skeletons. That’s about it, I think, but no harm done, really. All’s well that ends well, and we’re none the worse for wear. Though I think you might be bleeding a bit. That’s not good.”
“Are you all right?”
“’Am I all right,’ she says without even checking to see if her brains have leaked out all over the floor? Of course I’m all right. I’m a mage. The real question is, are you all right?”
“My head is… swimming. I feel… woozy.” And confused. She swore she could still hear Alistair’s voice echoing somewhere inside her.
You have to, Arabelle. You have to let me go…
“Probably cracked your skull, brains leaking out all over the place, like I said. Oh, wait… no brains. We must have left those back at the keep. I can’t believe we came down here alone like this. I feel so stupid.”
“So do I…”
“I thought, ‘Well we already cleared out most of the filth. How bad could it actually be?’ We should have known better. This place is an absolute nightmare. It’s a small wonder we’re not all murdered in our sleep by old ghosts and darkspawn.”
“We should have known better, you’re right. I’m sorry, Anders. Forgive me. I made a bad judgment call and I nearly got us both killed for nothing.”
“Oh, don’t be so hard on yourself. I’m only razzing you a bit. I’m a bit of a sadist, really. I thought it might be fun to torment you a little while you were vulnerable, but… to make it up to you, here. I think I found that little bit of nothing you came down here looking for for that guy you don’t actually really like.” He reached behind him and drew something forward to present to her. Her eyes were still blurred, but there was no mistaking the delicate appearance of the wood, nor the distinctive branding on the arch.
“What we came to find? I bloody well hope so. And Howe better be grateful too. Considering we almost died trying to find the damn thing, if he doesn’t at least crack a smile, I’ll kill him myself.”
She blinked several times, trying to regain the clarity of her vision as she half-sat. Ignoring the throb in her skull, she took the bow and examined the clear char of the brand. The bear, noble sign of House Howe.
Nathaniel’s grandfather’s bow…
“He will be,” she said quietly. “He’ll be very grateful, I think. Here, give me a hand and help me up?”
“Are you daft, woman? Er… I mean… Commander. Are you daft, Commander? You cracked your head pretty hard. I’m not sure it’s a good idea to be up and running around, and it’s certainly not the time for you to be barking orders.”
“Well, I can’t very well just lie here in the bloody basement forever, can I?”
“No, I suppose not, but I’ll only help you back to the keep if you promise to take it easy the rest of the day. No hunting darkspawn or traipsing about issuing orders. If the seneschal tries to make you hold court, you tell him, ‘No ser!’ I’ll post Ser Pounce-a-lot in your quarters to watch over you, and he’ll tell me if you try to be all Commander-y… er… ish. Is it ee or ish? I guess it doesn’t matter. Either way, I’ll know, and…”
“Oh, very well. I’ll do whatever you want for the rest of the day if it’ll shut you up.”
“Really? Whatever I want?” he hiked a brow in devilish flirtation. “This could get interesting.”
“Whatever you want except for… that.”
Anders helped her to her feet, which stumbled involuntarily under her weight. Both of her legs felt like jelly underneath her and her head swam like a whirlpool, threatening in its silent beauty to pull her back down into the darkness and hold her under. For a moment she saw stars, golden and silver, bursts of red and green and…
“Whoa, whoa, whoa. Here, lean on me. Maybe we should wait to move you. Give you a bit more time to come back to your senses. I can use my magic, but I’ll need a few minutes to recover. Even still, you might feel wobbly until we can get you back to the keep and brew a potion for you.”
“I’m fine,” she snapped. Though she didn’t feel fine. She felt stupid and weak and very much like she wanted to vomit. “Let’s just go.”
“Uh-uh-uh. No commandering. You promised.”
“Commanding. I believe the word is commanding, and tomorrow I’m going to make you run laps around the keep for hours.”
“You can’t do that, can you? You wouldn’t dare…”
Ser Pounce-a-lot, who trotted along behind them, belted a loud meow in answer, which seemed to confirm what Anders already knew. She would dare, and she’d take an inhumane amount of pleasure in it too.
Shameless flatterer, you say, and perhaps you’re right, but what can a man do to preserve himself against the charms of a woman like you, save return the flirtation tenfold in his defense? To say there are far gentler women in this world than you is simply criminal, and you are hardly the heartless shrew you paint yourself to be. The truth is, I have met none in my lifetime who quite match your beauty, grace or warmth, and your heart is simply one of a kind.
As you keep saying, I’m sure this mysterious woman who is not you is out there somewhere. And I suppose it is up to me to find her.
Where does one even begin to look? I loathe going to court, you know that. It’s stuffy and uncomfortable, and you never quite know who’s really interested and who just wants to get close enough to put a knife in your back. After trying to uproot her from her throne, the queen has made it perfectly clear the Guerrins will be tolerated, but not warmly welcomed.
And besides, I know all of those women, and they are dreadfully mundane. Proper, uptight and boring, not a single one of them would know a worthwhile adventure if it came up and bit them on the backside. At least I know exactly what I want in a woman. Now it’s just a matter of finding one who fits the bill.
I have said before, and will likely say so again, that I envy what you had with Alistair, but I think you speak prematurely when you say you will never find it in your heart to love again. You no doubt grow weary of hearing this, but time, as they say, heals all wounds, even the deepest. I know you feel at times that the pain of losing him is killing you, yet you live on. You wake up each morning, draw breath and go out into the sun because you know that’s what he would want you to do.
Poets differ in their varying opinions on the necessity of love in order to live a meaningful life. I, personally, believe the sharing of one’s heart with another is essential to our well-being. Will we die without love? Most certainly not, but it sure does make the living worthwhile when we come to know it in our hearts. Love got you through one of the most difficult times of your life, and sure, it ended that difficult period with further suffering, but you’ve said yourself so many times you wouldn’t trade the time you had with Alistair for anything in the world.
Don’t you want to feel that again one day? To know that warmth and surety? To feel the way someone else needs you just as much as you need him? Maybe not right now, but one day with the right man? Can’t you see yourself opening your heart again to that possibility with someone worthy of you? It would be a crime against humanity for the world to miss out on seeing you in love again. You were a beacon of brilliance and inspiration when his heart gave you wings.
Ah, the philosophical trappings of the heart. I fear we could debate this matter until we are both blue in the face and the world’s run out of ink to pen these letters of ours, so let us move on to other matters for a spell, shall we?
On the subject of Nathaniel Howe… Where do I begin? Do I think your motivations stem from twelve-year-old infatuation? Hardly. Perhaps the underlying fondness you felt toward him when you were young provided you with a certain amount of clarity that your otherwise clouded judgment regarding the Howe family might have skewed. It is quite possible the childhood feelings you harbored for him, coupled with your regrets over killing his father, made it easier for you to step outside the situation and think logically.
It seems he serves you well as a Grey Warden thus far, and who knows what else might come of it if given time? As for the matter of telling him the truth about what happened with his father, I think you should tread carefully. Telling him the truth is a necessity if you wish to further grow your friendship, but telling him that truth with spite and malice in your tone will no doubt dash any hope you may retain of making and keeping peace. The things you’ve endured together, even as they were experienced hundreds of miles from one another, are quite powerful.
In time, Nathaniel may turn out to be a dear and treasured friend, someone willing to walk through fire with you, or to risk his own life to save yours, but you will only reach that place through honesty.
I think you may be right about Eamon. Outwardly, he’s accepted the necessity of sending Connor to the Circle of Magi, but he misses him terribly. He was always remorseful in regards to sending Alistair away and worked hard for years to try and keep the lines of communication between his fosterling and himself open, but resentment and anger drove an irreparable wedge between them. Though Alistair forgave him, even thanked him in those final days for giving him the best life he was able, I think my brother feels this is penance for not raising Maric’s son as he should have. No one expected to lose Cailan so young, but I feel Eamon believes now he could have been preparing Alistair all along, making him ready, rather than reluctant to take his father’s throne in the event that Cailan was lost. Hindsight is such a burden. It changes nothing, and yet it provides us with such perfect clarity.
Connor will, no doubt, thrive in the Circle. He writes when he can, and Isolde shares his letters with me. I confess, that despite the depth of her regret and sorrow at having lost him, those missives bring her joy, and it is good to see her smile.
I hope you, too, find reasons to smile. The world is a poorer place when you are not doing just that, my dearest friend.