He edged his way nervously into her quarters, turning a curious gaze through the fading, twilit space before finding her propped against the pillows in her bed, the letter in her hand rolling in upon itself after having read it. Her head still throbbed, but Anders mixed her a healing draught he claimed would not only take the pain away, but knock her out entirely for a good eight to ten hours.
She didn’t have time for eight to ten hours of sleep, and she certainly had no desire to spend that long tangled in a web of dark and tainted dreams, but the pain in her head was growing unbearable and Anders warned just before departing to leave them alone that he would check back on her after her visitor left.
He expected her to be all but unconscious by that time and if she wasn’t there would be trouble.
“Anders said you wanted to see me, Commander?”
He arrived at the end of her bed and stood almost rigidly, arms hanging at his sides, face expressionless and impossible to read. Except for his eyes; they held trepidation and fear. He was worried she was going to reprimand him for something. She wondered what he could possibly have done to have so guilty a conscience, what childhood horrors he’d suffered to always be afraid he was on the verge of punishment.
“I did, yes.” She summoned a slow, warm smile then reached with some effort to retrieve the bow she’d propped beside her bed. “Here, Anders and I found this earlier.”
“Is that…” His eager steps were tentative and unsure, but they carried him forward. His hand twitched at his side, as if he wanted to reach out and take it from her almost greedily.
“Go on,” she urged. “Take it.”
“Is this what I think it is?”
“I think so, but I thought I should check with you to be sure.”
“It is!” he remarked, grasping it in his hands and holding it up to inspect it with reverence and awe. “That’s the Howe crest burned into the wood right there.” He ran his fingertip over that crest, then held it out to show her. “This is… my grandfather’s bow. Or rather, he was the last to use it. Wherever did you… How did…”
“We found it in the basement crypts.”
“It was originally made for an ancestor during the Exalted Marches.” His pride was monumental, and for the briefest of moments he reminded her so much of the sixteen year old boy in the practice yard, smugly grinning after he shot an apple from her brother’s head.
“Well, it’s yours now.”
“Thank you,” he muttered. “It’s good to have a part of my family’s legacy again, something to be proud of. I… I will treasure this, my lady. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. I’ve been looking for it ever since you mentioned it. Every time we ventured below into the basements, in storage rooms and guest rooms in the keep. I remembered the locked door we hadn’t ventured past in the basement and thought I’d try my luck there today. Luck was on my side.”
“In the crypts? Please,” his brow furrowed and some of the light left his eyes, “don’t tell me you were injured searching for this. For me?”
“Oh, it’s nothing,” she waved off his concern. “Anders says it’s just a skull fracture. Nothing one of his tonics won’t mend during a good night’s sleep.”
“A skull fract… But… after everything… Why? Why would you risk your life to find this for me?”
“Because I thought it would mean something to you. Ever since you told me that story about your grandfather, Padric, I figured maybe it would help to have something to remember him by. Maybe something to make you feel just a little bit of pride in being a Grey Warden now yourself.”
“That was… unexpectedly thoughtful of you. I don’t… I fear I am at a loss for words.”
“You’ve already said thank you. Twice. That will suffice.”
“Then I shall say it again. Thank you, Lady.” Bowing his head respectfully, it delighted her far more than it should have to see that he was smiling. “I will make good use of this gift.”
“I’ve no doubt you will. Maybe we can set Anders up in the yard with an apple on his head and see if you can still halve one from fifty yards.”
An unexpected chuckle followed. “You remember that?”
“Remember it?” she balked. “It was that day I realized there was no other weapon in this world that would feel right in my hands but a bow. I practiced for years, trying to achieve your greatness and never quite managing.”
“Oh, I don’t know. Your skills are not without their merits.” It was a funny thing, watching him blush, she thought. Payback for his winking flirtation earlier that afternoon, something she still wasn’t sure had actually happened, or if she’d just read too much into the gesture.
She tipped her head back against the headboard of her bed and closed her eyes to stop the spinning for a moment. It didn’t help, not really. If anything, she only spun a little bit more, nearly yielding to the murmuring of a thousand-thousand distant voices chattering inside her skull before the ringing in her ears overpowered it again.
“My lady?” The sound of his voice drew her back to that place, the ring of her skull dulling to an empty, hollow nothing before her ears popped and she could hear the world again. “Commander, are you all right? Can I get you anything?”
“I’m fine, really. I think the healing draught might be starting to take effect. Have no fear. Anders has forbidden me from barking orders for the rest of the day, but he assures me I will be up and around and back to my bossy old self after a good night’s sleep. We will venture into Amaranthine on the morrow to ask after your sister and see if we can find out more about Kristoff, the Orlesian Warden that disappeared.”
“We will go to Amaranthine when you are on the mend, and not a moment sooner,” he insisted.
“And that will be tomorrow.”
“We shall see. At any rate, I should not keep you from your rest. Thank you again for this. I will treasure it.”
Maybe it was because she’d cracked her skull open, but she longed to hold a hand out to him and ask him not to go. She didn’t. But she wanted to. She wanted company, conversation, someone to talk her to sleep as the world spun out of control every time she closed her eyes. And she didn’t know why, but she wanted that someone to be Nathaniel.
You will love again, but first you have to let me go…
“No!” She hadn’t meant to say the word out loud, but it stopped him in his tracks just as he was reaching for the door handle to let himself out.
“Nothing,” she shook her head. “I was just… answering the voices in my head.”
“That can’t be healthy. Should I send for the mage? Or better yet, the healer?”
“No, I’ll be fine, really. Though I’m sure Anders will come anyway. He’s threatened to force his cat to guard me, make sure I don’t try to do anything foolish.”
“Ah, so he’s keeping the new Mr. Wiggums, then? Good. Then the scratches I suffered on my forearms catching the beast were not in vain.”
“The cat. He called him Ser Pounce-a-lot.”
“Oh for the love of Andraste…” He chuckled then, an unexpected sound that made her realize that in all the time she’d known him, both as children and as Grey Wardens, she’d never heard him really laugh. It was a remarkable and warming sound and inside her chest her heart fluttered just a little bit. “Anders is a ridiculous man, even for a mage.”
“Indeed, he is, but he’s all right. Just…”
“Misunderstood. I remember. Are you sure I can’t get you anything else before I go? I… I could stay and keep you company… if you’d like.”
Yes, please stay…
“I’ll be all right, thank you. Rest well, Nathaniel. We have a long day ahead of us tomorrow.”
He lingered at the door, hesitant to follow her command, but finally he nodded submission and departed from the room. She’d only just tilted her head back against the headboard again, felt the heaviness of it tilt toward the comfort of the pillows she’d propped around herself when the mage returned.
“You know, you’re really quite stupid, if you don’t mind my saying so.”
“I do sort of mind you saying so, actually.”
“Regardless, it’s already been said. Can’t take it back now.” He lowered the cat onto the lower half of the bed and it immediately arched its back in a stretch before sauntering toward her. “Well, don’t you want to know why?”
“Why I think you’re stupid.”
“I suppose even if I said no, you’d tell me anyway, so please, do tell.”
“You had him.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You had him, you know? He was right there, probably standing here at the edge of your bed, all soft and warmed up and ready to curl himself around your little pinky finger, and you told him to get lost. Women are such strange people. I don’t think I’ll ever understand any of you.”
“Were you spying outside the door?”
Shrugging his shoulders upward, he shook his head and confessed, “I wouldn’t call it spying. I simply told him I’d wait outside, and I said I’d watch over you. I feel responsible, letting you talk me into that business this afternoon, then barely getting you out alive.”
“I’m not barely alive, Anders. I’m fine.”
“Tell that to the hairline fracture in your skull.”
“You said it would be all right. Nothing to worry about with a little rest and this potion. I think it’s starting to work, actually. I feel… light.”
“That’s a good thing.”
“Anyway, what makes you think I want him anyway? You’ve cooked up this whole thing in your head that I like him in some inappropriate way, and now you’re seeing things where they aren’t, Anders. You’re being very presumptuous.”
“Presumptuous? Me?” As if he’d already crossed a line there was no coming back from, he sat down at the foot of her bed like an old friend with personal boundary issues and stretched back to rest on his elbows. “I may be presumptuous, as you say, but you’ve given plenty of reasons to raise my curiosity. A person doesn’t delve into a dangerous crypt full of demonic skeletons and get her noggin busted for someone she doesn’t like in that way.”
“I went to a lot of trouble to catch Ser Pounce. I’m all scratched up, see,” she held up her arms. “And I don’t like you that way at all.”
“I know, and it breaks my heart into a million tiny little pieces, but what can I do? Your heart belongs to another.”
“My heart belongs to a dead man.” She felt woozy again, drunk and lightheaded. The cat wedged itself in against her thigh and she could feel its purr rumbling against her, placating and soothing her.
“So tell me about this dead man of yours. What was he like?”
“You don’t want to hear about Alistair, trust me. I’ve been told it’s all very fluffy. Saccharine and too sweet even for adorable, little old ladies to stomach.”
“I like fluffy things, isn’t that right, Ser Pounce-a-lot. Come on. I have never been in love before.”
“You’re a virgin?” she balked. “I find that highly unlikely.”
“I never said I was a virgin. I’ve had plenty of lovers. I said I’ve never been in love before. Really in love, as it seems you were before it all went horribly wrong. It would seem I ask for far too much though. I mean, all I really want is a nice girl, a decent meal and the right to shoot lightning at fools.”
“I find that hard to believe too.”
“Me too. I really don’t think that’s too much to ask.”
“Not that, that you’ve never been in love.”
“Well, they didn’t exactly encourage loving relationships in the Circle, you know. It was a dangerous business to get attached to anything. The Templars used it against you if they thought you cared about someone, so it was better not to take any chances beyond quick trysts in the shadows. What was it like, being in love in that way?”
“What are we having a sleepover party now?” she chuckled, the sound slow and soothing inside her head. She really was starting to feel drowsy. “Next you’ll want me to put your hair in pigtails and let you borrow my favorite corset.”
“Would you? Let me borrow your favorite corset? I’ve always wanted one of my own, but the Templars wouldn’t allow that either. They never let me have any fun.” When she opened her eyes to look down at him, he was propped on his elbow facing her, legs drawn up to rest on the edge of the bed and blinking comically at her.
“Sometimes you remind me of him, you know.” It must have been the healing draught. She knew sometimes they were mixed with potent spirits, something in the alcohol enhancing the herbal properties and making them stronger. “He had a sense of humor quite a bit like yours, only less… raunchy. He was a perfect gentleman, raised in the Chantry for a time. He was almost a Templar, but Duncan conscripted him before he actually took his vows.”
“Ooh, I don’t know that I would have liked this man very much at all then.”
“No, you would have. Everyone liked Alistair. He was just so… so… damn likeable. Soft and thoughtful and… And he was so… strong. I mean, physically strong, you know?”
“Most Templars usually are. I think they make them lift weights and practice hitting things with those really big swords of theirs because we mages are absolutely out of control. We have to be beaten into submission.”
“He didn’t hate mages, well, except Morrigan, but she was kind of a bitch. I think he would have liked you, though, except for the way you’re always talking about my backside. He wouldn’t have liked that very much at all.”
“Are you getting sleepy? Your voice is starting to slur a little bit.”
“A little bit.”
“Good. So, this Alistair… How did you meet him? At a Grey Warden party, or something? Do Grey Wardens have parties? Can we have a party here at the keep?”
“Duncan brought me straight from Highever to Ostagar after… after Arl Howe betrayed my father. I wanted to stay and defend the castle with my mother, but it had already fallen. I tried, but Duncan convinced my father to let him take me and there was no way I could have fought Duncan. He was twice my size, and he was just trying to save my life…”
“I’ve already heard that part. Get to the bit about Alistair already, would you?”
“Oh, right… He was to be our guide into the Kocari wilds to collect darkspawn blood for our Joining and old treaties. He was there at my Joining and then the next evening, when King Cailan and the Wardens marched against the darkspawn, the king asked Alistair and me to light the beacon to summon Loghain’s men to join the battle. If King Cailan hadn’t… If Alistair and I had gone into battle… But we didn’t. We were at the Tower of Ishal it all went to hell and the Hero of River Dane stabbed King Cailan in the back.”
“How did you escape? I’ve heard stories about the battle at Ostagar. Brutal stories.”
“The Witch of the Wilds saved us. I don’t know how. I never asked her, but her daughter, Morrigan…”
“Yes, the bitch. She said Flemeth shifted into a great bird, swooped down on the tower and took us up in her talons to fly us away from the battle.”
“Flemeth? The legendary Flemeth?”
“I have no idea if she was the Flemeth of legend. I only know she saved our lives.”
“Wow… That’s some story.”
“After we regrouped and figured out what we needed to do, we set out and the rest is… history.”
“But when did you fall in love?”
“Somewhere between the Tower of Magi and Redcliffe,” she muttered and nestled her head further into the pillows, allowing her body to slouch deeper into the mattress. Her eyes were closed, but she swore she could still hear the sound of her own voice, the words she spoke spilling forward and carrying her away from Vigil’s Keep, from that moment.
“Here. Look at this. Do you know what this is?”
“Is this a trick question?”
“Yes, absolutely. I’m trying to trick you. Is it working? Aw, I just about had you, didn’t I?”
She watched him stroke the tip of his thumb thoughtfully along the thorned stem, carefully avoiding the jagged edge as he stared down at it. “You’ve been thumbing that flower for a while now.”
“I picked it in Lothering,” he confessed. “I remember thinking, ‘How could something so beautiful exist in a place with so much despair and ugliness?’ I probably should have left it alone, but I couldn’t. The darkspawn would come and their taint would just destroy it. So… I’ve had it ever since.”
Tilting her head, she felt the soft locks of her hair tickle along her cheek as they slid with the movement. “That’s a really nice sentiment.”
“I thought that I might give it to you actually.” There was hesitation in his voice, uncertainty and insecurity. “In a lot of ways, I think the same thing when I look at you.”
“Thank you, Alistair. That’s… a lovely thought.”
“I’m glad you like it. I was just thinking here I am doing all this complaining and you haven’t exactly been having a good time of it yourself. You’ve had none of the good experiences of being a Grey Warden since your Joining. Not a word of thanks or congratulations. It’s all been death and fighting and tragedy. I thought maybe I could say something, tell you what a rare and wonderful thing you are to find amidst all this… darkness.”
He’d been trembling when he handed it over to her, their hands brushing, touching. So warm, so real and solid, even as he quivered with uncertainty and hesitation. The tension had been so heavy, so absolute she could have carved into it with her family sword, so she did the only thing she knew to really reach him.
She smiled and asked, “So, are we married now?”
“Ha! Ha! You won’t land me that easily, woman! I know I’m quite the prize after all, no need to start crying on me, or anything. I guess it was just a stupid impulse. I don’t know… was it… the wrong one?” She watched his brow inch hopefully upward as he awaited her reply.
“No, it wasn’t. Thank you, Alistair.”
“I’m glad you like it. Now if we could just move past the awkward, embarrassing stage and get right to the steamy bits, I’d appreciate it.”
“Sounds good! Off with the armor, then.”
Nervous laughter followed, his grin nearly reaching his ears. “Bluff called. Damn, she saw right through me.”
“You’re so cute when you’re bashful.”
“I’ll be…” he cleared his throat. “I’ll be standing over here… until the blushing stops. Just to be… uh… safe. You know how it is.”
“Wait a minute,” the sound of Anders’s voice dragged her from that peaceful place where one of the most beautiful moments of her life kept playing and replaying on a blissful loop. She swore she smelled roses and felt the soft stem, the hard thorns on her fingers. “Things like that actually work on women? What a suave bastard this Alistair was. You’re right. I think I would have liked him. How did you not tear his armor off and ravish him right then and there?”
“I don’t know. Do you know how many buckles it takes to hold all that armor in place?” she mumbled. “It would have been a real pain in the backside, probably morning by the time I got him out of it, mood… completely ruined. And besides, we were both really new at the whole being in love thing. Neither of us had ever… not until…” He was her first. Her only… She yawned, the sleepiness rolling through her like a warm wave. It lifted her, drew her back down. Her head no longer felt like it was swimming, but her spirit swam. In some light, ethereal wonder, she swam and swam through the Fade and it was wonderful. “Whatever you gave me, Anders, I think it’s working. I feel… not here.”
“That’s a good thing then. Are you tired of talking yet?”
“I think so.”
Another yawn, this one buried in her shoulder and somewhere so very far away she swore the cat was still purring and Anders was talking, but she didn’t know what he was saying anymore. Something about leaving her to sleep, about Ser Pounce-a-lot watching over her.
All the words ran together, streams of sound and color, and for the first time in a long time she didn’t dream of darkspawn. She dreamed that she was standing on the banks of the tributary flowing through the Brecilian forest, the birds twittering and chirping in the swaying trees overhead, the water gurgling and singing just a step away.
And Alistair was there with her. She could feel his arms around her, the warmth of his chest against her back.
“Have I told you how much I love you?”
“Only twenty-three times today.”
“Really? Is that all? Twenty-three? I’ve been severely remiss in my devotions, my dear lady.”
“Is this the part where you ask me to borrow Leliana’s old robes and rap your knuckles with a ruler?”
Drawing out to look at her, there was a playful glimmer in his eyes. “Would you actually do that? For me? Maker’s breath, I am a lucky man. Did I ever tell you about Sister Lenice?”
“You should stop talking now. Stop talking and kiss me while its quiet and we’re alone.”
“Right…” he dipped in to kiss her neck and she stretched her head right to accommodate the tender, seeking of his lips. “How is that?”
“Very nice,” she shivered, chills rippling and rising along her bare skin. “Do it again, a little lower this time.”
“You’re so bossy,” he growled playfully, nibbling the sensitive skin of her neck until she squirmed and writhed against him. “I love it when you boss me around.”
“I only do it to fool you.” She lifted her hand across her shoulder, tangled her fingers into the soft, close-cropped locks of his sandy-blond hair. “I’m not really all that bossy.”
“You just keep telling yourself that, Boss…”
Had that moment actually happened? She suddenly felt disconnected from it. On the outside looking in, watching his hand slide down the curve of her hip, strong fingers squeezing flesh as he spun her inward to face him and drew her against his chest. She swore she felt his need for her rise, the naked warmth of his body as he laid her down beside the water and made love to her as the trees whispered and watched and the stream sang praises to their love. Back arching into the ground, the heaviness of his body was delightfully suffocating. Her thighs pressed into his as she rose to meet him and dug the tips of her fingers into the flesh and muscle of his broad back.
There was nothing in the world quite like the bliss of him inside her, of their joined bodies, matched rhythms, the whispered exaltation of her name upon his lips as he found her gasping mouth and drank deep from her kiss.
“Did this…” She was lying on her back staring up at the canopy, watching the blue of the sky flitter between the puzzled patterns of the leaves as they ebbed and flowed against the shifting wind. The sheen of sweat upon her skin cooled, the caress of his fingertips across her belly coupling with that coolness and making her quiver. “Did we actually do this? I wanted to, but we didn’t. When would there have been time?”
“We always made time.” He tilted his forehead into her shoulder, lips brushing against her bare skin. “But now you have to make time for someone else.”
“Why are you saying this to me? There is no one else, not for me. There’s only you.”
“But I am gone, Belle. I’m gone and you’re alone. I don’t want you to live your life alone.”
“I don’t want to live my life without you.”
“You’re alive. You have no choice, I’m afraid.”
“How am I supposed to live?” She lifted her hand to his cheek, fingers tracing through the stubble there, relishing in the grittiness of it. “How do I live without you?”
“One day at a time, my dear. One by one, open your fingers and let me go. You don’t have to let got all at once, but you have to start…”