It All Comes Down to This: Eleven

My Dearest Friend,

Today was such an unusual day. Simple, compared to most days we endure while taking up this task, but odd, nonetheless. We ventured into Amaranthine so Nathaniel could seek out his sister, and to dig deeper into the matter of the missing Orlesian Warden. While I was waiting for Nathaniel, I ran into Wynne. It was a strange thing, seeing her here, so unexpected as I had not spoken to her since we said goodbye all those months ago.

Some part of me was terrified when I saw her walking out of the Chantry, as if facing her would be almost as harrowing as rushing headlong into battle with an archdemon.

I thought she was angry with me because of Alistair. We all went into that final battle knowing I would not be coming back from it. We said our farewells, made peace with the notion, so when Alistair took the final blow, no one was expecting him not to rise again.

I thought she blamed me. She adored Alistair; everyone did, but I think Wynne held a special place in her heart for him because he was very close in age to her own son, who was taken away from her just moments after his birth. She said more than once that she liked to think her own son would have been a man like Alistair. Noble, good-natured, caring, giving, selfless.

I have tried to imagine what it must have felt like for everyone else who lost him, but in my selfishness, I cannot see past my own grief. As though in that perfectly contained bubble that was our love, only he and I existed, and no one else could possibly have loved him as much as I did. It makes me feel like a monster, Teagan, that in all this time I have been unable to think on the overwhelming amount of grief his loss brought to everyone else who loved him.

These feelings, their depth is so profound it worries me. This is the kind of longing and regret that inspires demons to dance at the edge of the Fade, whispering promises, quelling sorrows and plotting to take over those weighted down by their own weakness. I can’t believe I just wrote those words down, that I actually shared them with someone else. I feel like such a fool.

I cannot let go of him. I haven’t even tried, but I know if I did try would be an impossible thing for me to do. I am not strong enough to let go of him. What kind of person does that make me?

This is quite possibly the most depressing letter I have ever written. I thought after I saw Wynne today, I would feel better. Hearing her say she did not blame me was a great weight lifted from my heart, but after we parted ways again, I realized there were other things weighing me down. I just couldn’t feel them underneath the weight of that particular guilt.

Will this ever end? Will I ever feel like a person again? A few weeks ago, when I ran into Nathaniel in the larder in the middle of the night, I told him people like us didn’t get happily ever afters, and anyone who said otherwise was a fool. He asked me if all that remained for the likes of us was bitterness and woe, and I really think that’s all there is. At some point in the conversation, he said he can’t imagine the heaviness ever lifting from his heart, that he can’t imagine ever feeling like a person again.

That is exactly how I feel. I don’t feel like a person anymore, and I don’t know how to get back to that place where I once did. The heaviness began when I lost my family, but Alistair lifted me out of the darkness before it could consume me. Now, without him, there is no light and I can’t imagine there ever will be again.

Please tell me there is light, that I just can’t see it and I only need to open my eyes. I don’t know how much longer I can go on this way, feeling like there is no hope.

I’m drowning, Teagan. And there are so many other things more important than the fragile state of my emotions and this breakdown I keep refusing to have.

I’m sorry. I thought I was past this, but I’m not. I thought in coming here, in diving into throngs of darkspawn, I would either lose myself or maybe kill myself. I don’t know. Maybe I should have stayed in Redcliffe a little while longer. Maybe I wasn’t ready for this. Maybe I should have gone to Antiva with…

“Drinking alone, Commander?”

Arabelle glanced up from the parchment in front of her, suddenly very self-conscious, as well as aware of the things she’d written upon it. Her face felt hot, flushed with shame, or maybe it was the wine.

She’d made her way to the dining hall in the middle of the night, part of her hoping she’d find Oghren drunk and willing to make her laugh, but the dwarf wasn’t there so she cracked open a bottle of wine, rummaged up some parchment and began writing the burden of her hopelessness to a man who, at times, felt like the only person in the world who didn’t think she was crazy.

He might very well change his mind if he ever read the letter she’d just written him, she realized.

Snatching the parchment from the table, she crumpled it in her hand, tightened it into a jagged ball of edges that carved mercilessly into her palm the more she squeezed them, and brought the ball down to rest atop her thigh, as if she were hiding something.

Turning toward the sound of that observation, Nathaniel leaned against the doorframe, arms crossed over his chest, head tilted into the wood, the loose locks of his black hair waving from the disentanglement of his braid and falling across his cheek. He looked so casual, she wondered how long he’d been standing there, watching her spill mountains of unchecked grief onto the page.

“Is there really any other way for the lonely and pathetic to drink?”

“With fellow lonely and pathetic souls, or so I’ve heard. Might I join you, my lady?”

“By all means.” She gestured to the chair across the table from her and slid the half-empty bottle across the wood. It stopped just short of the edge of the table.

He pushed off the doorframe and sauntered toward the table, grabbing the bottle from the edge. He held it up to inspect it before declaring, “A 9:03. Very good year, or so I’ve been told.  I’ve never had the pleasure of indulgence, though my father had several of these stashed away…”

“That was probably one of his then,” she shrugged.

He tipped the bottle toward his lips and swallowed, one gulp, two, then he withdrew and tilted his head in thoughtful study, as though finally paying homage to the flavors. “Meh, I’ve had better. I like my wine dry, but this is a little too dry for my tastes.”

“You’re quite the connoisseur.” Arabelle, who’d already consumed half the bottle while furiously scribbling thoughts and feelings she now held balled in her fist, giggled a little. “I thought you said your time in the Free Marches wasn’t spent chasing skirts and drinking wine.” She pushed her chair away from the table, stood up with a bit of effort and walked toward the hearth burning steady and strong near the back of the hall.

“Not all my time, but I am only a man, after all, privy to his weaknesses.” She heard him take another drink.

“We all have weaknesses.” She tossed her penned emotions into the fire, watching the flames lap at the parchment, slow golden tongues that blackened and consumed the paper until all that remained were the ashes of her words and feelings. “I, for one, developed a dangerous soft spot for Antivan brandy last year, but I haven’t been able to get my hands on a bottle since I came to this place. Trade routes being blocked, as they are, by darkspawn and bandits.”

“I like a good glass of wine now and again,” he confessed, “and strong, dark ale is always welcome. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t aptly drawn by the swaying appeal of a shapely skirt.”

There was something delicious in the way he said that word, shapely. Belle didn’t know why, but she felt her cheeks grow warmer, as if he were staring at her while she stood in front of the fire watching her words burn to ash. Was it wishful thinking? Leftover infatuation from a time in her life so long gone she could barely remember ever being twelve? She’d thought everything was so complicated and painful when she was twelve, that her father’s denial of her wishes was the most unjust thing in the world.

She’d been such an insipid little fool. She sometimes wished she could slap herself.

“Well, we shouldn’t lie to each other then.” She turned back around, walking in slow deliberation toward the table to resume her seat. “Lying is bad.”

“I’ll drink to that.” He tipped the bottle toward her, took a swig, then passed it across the table. “Look, Arabelle, while we’re being blatantly honest with one another, I think I owe you an apology.”

“There’s no need, Nathaniel. It’s fine.”

“There is a need. It’s not fine.” The palm of his hand came down harder on the tabletop than he intended, the hardened features of his face instantly softening, along with the tone of his voice. “When I returned from the Free Marches I was certain my family was destroyed for being on the wrong side of the war. But my father did it to himself. No conspiracies. Just one stupid, selfish man. I should… I should have known better.”

He was so angry, all of that unchecked emotion and confusion spilling out in his words. She wanted to quell him, to take away his pain, but she didn’t know how, or if she should even try.

“How could you have known?”

“I should have dug deeper before I acted. I accused Velanna of shooting first and asking questions later, but Anders is right. I hate that I have to say that out loud, but the mage was right. I was an idiot, Belle, and like a child, I blamed you and the Wardens.”

“I’m sure your father was a good man once. He would have had to be for you to love him as you do.”

“He was. Once. But that doesn’t excuse his actions. The things he did to your family, to you… They were inexcusable. I was an idiot,” he repeated, fingers curling toward the bottle she held to him again. “You’ve been… kind to me, even when I was cruel, even after I said I came here to kill you. You extended your hand, you gave me opportunity to be a better man than my father. You’ve even proven to be a friend of sorts, or… am I reading that wrong too?”

Maker’s Mercy, he sounded so tentative and insecure, afraid she would shove his attempt at peace back in his face, or worse, crumple it the way she’d done her own letter and throw it into the fire. It was an odd thing to watch his stoic confidence dither with self-doubt.

“No, you’re not wrong, Nathaniel,” she shook her head. “I’d really like for us to be friends.”

“Good,” he smiled and accepted the bottle as she passed it back to him. “You know, when you conscripted me, I would not have thought I’d end up liking it, but we live very exciting lives, we Grey Wardens.”

“If you think this is exciting, just wait until the next Blight. Assuming we’re both still alive when that comes. If it comes… I sort of hope it doesn’t come. I’d rather not live through another one of those.”

“What was it like, facing the archdemon?”

She hesitated in answering, all of her swallowed up and forgotten emotions, all the things she’d tried to write to Teagan and then burned up in the fireplace behind her rising back to the surface. Maybe it was the alcohol, which she could feel dulling her nerve and her senses, making her feel as numb as she did empty.

“Terrifying,” she whispered. “I was supposed to die, you know? When we killed the archdemon, it was supposed to be me who slayed it.”

“I didn’t know that,” he shook his head. “But… why do you think that means you were supposed to die. You’re a rather formidable enemy, very skilled in battle. Sometimes I watch you when we’re fighting and I think to myself, ‘Wow, she fights with all the ferocity of a man, and yet retains the elegance and grace of a woman.’ If we were battling against mere men, they would quite likely fall at your feet rather than die by your hand.”

His compliment touched her, made the softness inside her feel molten and warm, like the oozing, fruity filling spilling from the crust of a pie just pulled out of the oven and prematurely cut.

Grasping through the fizzing thoughts that buzzed inside her head, she tried to remember how Riordan had told them, the words he’d used to make sense of the senseless as he told her and Alistair all the things Duncan hadn’t had time to tell them after her Joining. She didn’t blame Duncan for that, but she wished he had been the one to tell them. Somehow, she convinced herself that hearing it form Duncan would have changed the impact it had on them. They would have had a year to prepare for the worst, instead of only a long march toward Denerim, both of them praying guiltily under their breath that Riordan meet the Maker long before either of them arrived in the darkspawn-seiged city.

“There is a reason Grey Wardens fight the darkspawn,” she started.

“Because of the taint in our blood? Our connection to them, right?”

“Yes,” she nodded. “While anyone with a blade and a little bit of skill can kill darkspawn, only a Grey Warden can slay the archdemon.”

“Why is that, exactly?” She watched him position his palm under his chin. He leaned forward in his chair, captivated by her story.

“When an archdemon is slain, its essence passes from that fallen body to the nearest darkspawn and is reborn, but if it is a Grey Warden who kills it, that essence passes into the Warden’s body instead. Darkspawn are soulless, but we are not. Our soul destroys the archdemon, and our body dies along with it.”

“And you… you volunteered to do this? To kill the archdemon, even knowing you would die?”

“As Grey Wardens we must do whatever it takes to stop a Blight, no matter the cost. Even things others might not necessarily consider righteous or just. It has been the source of many problems for the Wardens over the years, as you no doubt already know. Anyway, as one of two remaining Fereldan Wardens, it was my duty to stop the Blight.”

“Let me guess, your fellow Grey Warden…”

“I didn’t give him a choice. He was meant to be king, so on the eve before we left for battle, after we learned our fates were sealed, I told him I would take the fall. We argued through much of the night about who was more important, who deserved to live, which of us the world couldn’t live without. I said it was him, he said it was me. In the end, he refused the one out I presented him with that would allow us both to walk away, and so I won the argument. Plain and simple. He was a king. His life was more valuable than mine.” She swallowed hard, the tightness in her throat so constricting she felt like she was choking. “I would destroy the archdemon.”

“Wait? There… there was an out? A loophole?”

“A dark ritual,” she nodded.

She’d never spoken of it to anyone but Alistair and Morrigan, and she didn’t know why she was telling Nathaniel about it. Maybe it was the wine. Maybe it was his apology. Maybe it was the fact that she’d seen Wynne just hours earlier, and hadn’t known what to say when the woman told her she wished there’d been a way for them to both walk out of Fort Drakon. She only knew that something heavy inside her was lifting away with every word she spoke and she didn’t want to stop. Some of the darkness and regret felt like it was exposing itself to the light, absorbing that light and filling her with bits of relief and peace.

It wasn’t much, but it was something, so she kept talking.

“Proposed by a Witch of the Wilds who’d been traveling with us all along. She said if Alistair lay with her, got her with child, the archdemon’s spirit would seek out that child’s soul and it would become one of the Old Gods. Alistair hated her. He never trusted her from the start. He refused at first, and then we talked some more, weighing it all out. He asked me if that was what I really wanted, for him to sleep with Morrigan. The very idea made my skin crawl and he could see it in my eyes. So then he outright refused. He said he’d rather die than break my heart that way. I didn’t realize he meant it so literally. I said, ‘Well then, it’s decided. When we meet the archdemon, I’ll take the final blow.’ Only it didn’t happen like that at all.”

“This…” he began. She watched his fingers drag through the loose tangles of his hair. He held the strands off his forehead for a moment, then let them fall and settle around his face again. There was concern in his eyes, unspoken sadness as he shook his head and muttered, “This must be so very hard for you to talk about.”

“I’ve never spoken of it, not to anyone. No one knew there was a chance for both of us to walk away, that we went into it knowing exactly what we were giving up. I was giving up my life, but he wouldn’t stand for it. He didn’t lie to me, never told me he would let me take the fall. He only said, ‘We’ll see what happens.’ There was still a small chance the warden from Orlais, Riordan, would reach the archdemon before we did. Anything could happen. We battled through Denerim for hours. Maybe it was days. I don’t know. It felt like a lifetime before we finally reached the top of Fort Drakon and challenged the archdemon. The remaining soldiers from Redcliffe, Arl Eamon’s men, stormed the fort, fighting alongside us, falling one by one as the relentless dragon raged. It was chaos, but we wore the beast down, dragged it within an inch of its life, then Alistair pushed me behind him. He said…”

So tight, her throat was so tight and her lungs… she couldn’t breathe. The world was spinning all around her. She just wanted something to grab onto, to make the spinning stop. Or maybe she could just get off, leap away and spin into the nothing and the darkness.

“He said, ‘Arabelle, I love you. You know that, so you also know that I can’t let you die. Not when I could do something about it.’ I protested, told him I wouldn’t let him die either, but he just smiled at me in that way he always did.  He kissed me then and said, ‘You say that as if I’m giving you a choice. Live a good life. Live a life that would make me proud, my love.’ And then… Then he was… Then he was gone. And there was nothing I could do. I was supposed to die, but I didn’t die and now…”

Now I have nothing to live for…

Warmth slipped down her cheeks, unexpected, purifying as it cleansed.

It was a long time before he said anything. “I am so very sorry, my lady. I… I don’t know that there are words, or what I could ever say…”

“You don’t have to say anything,” the hitch of her voice was like a hiccup in her dry throat. “I’m simply grateful that you listened. I think… I think I’ve needed to say it out loud for some time now. I could have saved him, Nathaniel. If only I hadn’t been so… selfish. If I’d convinced him…”

“No,” he protested in a husky whisper. “I don’t think you could have, Belle. I never met this great and noble man who held your heart, who saved your life and Ferelden, but it sounds to me there was no reckoning with a force that strong. He made a choice, and when a man makes a choice like that, he can rarely be deterred from his path.”

“He was lousy at making decisions,” she disagreed, an unexpected laugh catching in her throat. “He preferred it when I led. He never second-guessed my choices the way he did his own, even when he didn’t necessarily agree with me. And I made a choice. I was ready to die…”

“Maybe the Maker wasn’t ready to receive you.”

She slid her arm across the table, reaching for the bottle and drawing it toward her again. She hesitated with it in her hand for several minutes while she contemplated what he said, then took a long drink, swallowing several gulps until the last drop of liquid spilled into her throat. She lowered the empty bottle with a heavy thunk onto the table and declared, “Sometimes I don’t think the Maker had anything to do with it.”

Pushing the chair away from the table, it scraped loudly across the stone as the weight of her body guided it. She staggered a little when she stood, the sudden movement drawing attention to the light-headedness that often came from too much drink.

“Thank you, Nathaniel, I mean it. Thank you.”

“For what do you thank me, Lady?” He didn’t understand, she could see it in his expression as he watched her attempt straight steps past him, toward the door. “I’ve done nothing worth noting.”

“That’s not true at all. You listened.”

“That is what friends do, is it not?”

“Then I thank you for being a friend when I was in desperate need of one.”

And then she left him in the dining hall, alone with an empty bottle of 9:03. She made her way through the confusing hallways until she came to her room, and then she slipped inside, falling into bed still wearing her tunic and breeches. She cried herself to sleep, and for the first time in so very long she simply slept.

No nightmares, no dreams. Only peace.

About erica

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