Bow lifted, eye narrowed on the target, she drew back the string with precision and let loose the arrow. She didn’t shift her stance, but stood as she was, watching the feather glide in a tan blur before the tip struck straw and the shaft wavered and bounced until it was still again.
“So who taught you?”
She hadn’t heard him come up behind her, which seemed to be growing more and more typical of late. Everyone else, she heard coming from a quarter mile off, but Nathaniel could arrive to stand almost against her back and she wouldn’t know he was there until he spoke.
Hiding the fact that he’d startled her as best she could, she lowered her bow at her side and glanced back at him through the loose strands of ginger hair that fell across her face with the movement. “There were plenty of archers in my father’s army, but none of them took me seriously because I was a girl, so at first I taught myself, and once I started to show promise, they all wanted to guide and teach me.”
“Not to sound complacent…” he began.
“But you’ll do so with great pleasure, no doubt.”
Ignoring her, he went on to say, “But you can tell that you weren’t formally trained from the start. There is something in your stance that’s just a little bit off, a little bit telling. It does not necessarily affect your shot, so it isn’t exactly a problem. It’s just…”
Shrugging his shoulder slightly upward, he noted, “A little.”
“The thing about darkspawn,” she started, “is they don’t care how you’re standing when you put an arrow through their skull at forty yards.”
“But imagine how flabbergasted they’d be if you could peg them off from fifty, or even sixty yards.”
“Sixty?” Eyebrows knitted together in disbelief, she scanned the yard, then returned her gaze to meet his. “You’re saying you can hit a target from sixty yards these days?”
“Sometimes seventy if the wind is just right.” For the briefest of moments, he was sixteen years old again, the superiority in his tone so compelling she almost didn’t know what to say in reply. “You don’t believe me?”
“It’s not that I don’t… I’m not calling you a liar. That‘s just… How is that even possible?”
“Haven’t you ever noticed how much distance I put between myself and our enemies?”
“Well, yes, but I’ve never taken out a measuring stick and charted that distance. Are you sure it’s sixty yards?”
He shrugged nonchalantly and said, “It could be sixty-five.”
“Now you’re just being cheeky. No one can do that. It’s not even possible.”
“But it is,” he insisted. “Believe it or not, quite a bit depends on body position. I could show you, if you like. Perhaps even correct a few of the mistakes you’re making without even realizing they are being made. I hope I’m not being too… arrogant.”
“Absolutely full of yourself, really, but I’ll overlook it. You were my inspiration, after all.”
Tilting his head thoughtfully, she watched him shake his head, wisps of black hair jostling across his cheek with the movement. “You’ve said that before, but I didn’t believe I made any kind of lasting impression on anyone in your family the summer we came to Castle Cousland. Your brother absolutely hated me.”
“Are you kidding me?” she balked. “I was enamored with you. I thought you were a god among men, as surely only a god could do the things you did with a bow.”
“Now you’re just making fun of me, my lady.”
“Making fun of you? Hardly. Had I been any good with charcoal sketches, my bedroom wall would have been absolutely plastered with pictures of Nathaniel Howe and his trusty bow I’d drawn in earnest of capturing the memory of that amazing feat. Unfortunately, I was rubbish at the arts and so my walls were bare.”
“You are very cruel to mock me like that.”
Arabelle felt her lips rise. “If I show you something, do you swear not to laugh at me?”
“After the manner in which you’ve just derided me, I’m not sure I can make such a promise and keep it.”
“All right then, have it your way, but just know, what I was going to tell you… it was pretty embarrassing. It would have given you something to chuckle about for ages.”
“When you put it that way, how can I resist?” He crossed both arms over his chest in homage and tipped his head forward in valiant promise. “On my honor, I would never laugh at you, my lady. No matter how you embarrass yourself.”
Reaching over her shoulder and into her quiver, she felt the fletching of every arrow until her fingers touched the stiffened raven feathers of the arrow she’d drawn out of the wood in her father’s practice yard ten years earlier. She knew it by feel alone and always had. Grabbing it almost gingerly, she tugged it from the quiver and brought it out, holding it between them. Nathaniel looked at it, grey eyes narrowed curiously, and then he shook his head.
“It seems I’ll have no trouble upholding my vow not to laugh at you. It’s an old arrow, cracked and blunted, and I don’t see what’s so funny about it.”
“That’s not just any arrow. It’s yours,” she explained. “The arrow you used the day you shot that apple from atop my fool of a brother’s head in the practice yard.”
“You are… you’re joking, right?”
“No, I’m not joking. I yanked it out of the wood after your father left and I just sort of kept it.”
“You… you kept this?” He held it tentatively in his hand, carefully, as if he half-expected it to shatter in his grip if he moved it just so. “But why?”
“Do you want the truth, or should I make up something more exciting?”
“I thought we agreed some time ago that lying was no good.”
“All right, but don’t’ say I didn’t warn you.” She drew in a deep breath, huffing her hair off her forehead as she exhaled. “The truth is, I wanted to marry you when I grew up. There, I said it.” She shrugged, some part of her not even sure how she’d managed to allow those words to slip so casually from her lips. Even worse, she kept going, as if speaking them somehow bolstered her confidence. “I thought you were amazing and mysterious and… I don’t know, amazing. So, I kept it. After a while, it became a sort of good luck charm, I guess. Nathaniel’s arrow.” She reached out and plucked it tenderly from his grip and twirled it between her fingers the way she’d always done. “I never repaired it, never used it. I just kept it in my quiver and eventually it became a source of superstition. Without it, I would tragically perish in battle. It seems to work, I suppose. I survived so many things I probably shouldn’t have.”
“Wow.” He took a step back from her, once more shaking his head in disbelief. “I don’t know what to say.”
“You don’t have to say anything. I was twelve,” she pointed out. “Twelve year old girls do incredibly silly things. At one point I even asked my father if he would arrange our marriage, but he said I was being ridiculous. What can I say?”
“I’m… I am touched, Belle, really, I am. I had no idea.”
“And why would you have? I was twelve, as I said. You were sixteen, already a man and I was a child. What interest would you have ever had in me?”
“Of course, but…” He didn’t seem to know what to say, so for a long time neither of them said anything at all.
It was Arabelle who finally found her voice, clearing her throat as she replaced the arrow to her quiver. “I hope you don’t want it back, now that you know I sort of stole it from you.”
“I’d advise you not to tell Justice this story, though he might finally let up on me about my own implied status as a thief,” he stroked thoughtful fingers through the tuft of hair on his chin, “say I was justified in my actions.”
“Maybe it would change his mind to know I stole from you first. Anyway, its status as a good luck symbol is pretty potent. I’ve become so conditioned to it being in my quiver, I don’t think I could go into battle without it.”
“Well then,” he began, “keep it, if it pleases you. With my blessing. What kind of man would I be to interfere with the flow of your good luck?”
“Would you like permission to laugh at me now?”
“Laugh at you, my lady?” He was grinning, a bold and unchecked smile he made no effort to disguise. “I would never dare, unless, of course, we were in formal competition and you thought you might best me with that ill-mannered stance of yours. In which case, it would be bad form not to mock you openly on the field. For the benefit of those watching, of course.”
“Oh, of course. You know, I hear humble is incredibly handsome.”
“Then I must be a real heartbreaker.”
“Will you lower yourself to correct my stance, my lord? Show me what I’m doing wrong, so there is hope I might one day be half as skilled as you are.”
“I would be happy to, though I daresay you will likely never be as skilled as I.”
“I said half,” she pointed out. “Your inflated ego must have muffled your hearing a bit.”
“If my ego is swollen, ‘twas you who stroked it, my lady.”
She quivered inside, the muscles of her stomach rippling and tightening at the suave implication of that statement. She was quite positive she was blushing as well, and he took silent delight in that fact before clearing his throat and scanning the yard as if marking distances. She was treading dangerously, and she knew it, but for the first time in a very long time, the thought of endeavoring into that kind of calamity thrilled her beyond recall.
“From here to that post it’s about sixty yards, give or take a yard or two,” he noted, then held his hand out for her bow. “May I?”
She handed it over and he tested the weight and balance in his hand before positioning it while she fished an arrow from her quiver. She stepped back, arms snugly crossed over her chest as she watched him. “This is an extraordinary piece of equipment,” he said. “Ironbark?”
“Made by a remarkable Dalish craftsman during the Blight,” she nodded. “Master Wade keeps trying to tell me he could do better, but I’m sort of attached to it just as it is.”
“With good reason. Great care was taken with the crafting of this beauty. She was made specifically for you, but I can still make her sing.”
“Her?” she quirked a brow at him. “How do you know it’s a she?”
“All bows are women in my arms.” She watched him raise, nocked arrow drawing back with slow precision. “One with me,” he muttered. “Supple, compliant, eager… Like a lover arched against me and searching for release.” His form was solid, the position of his elbow perfect. He released, the arrow soaring forward in search of its target. Belle shielded her eyes, following its movement and watching as it sunk into the wood of the distant post. “Bullseye.”
“Now, it’s your turn. Here.” Returning her bow, she took it, fingers curling around the place his hand had been, absorbing the warmth that still lingered there. “Nock your arrow, position your body and draw.” She did as he told her, stretching her arm back and holding. “You turn your feet slightly toward your target on instinct, but the only part of you that should move in that direction, unless you’re running, is your torso.” Slipping in behind her, he toed his boot along the side of her right foot, gently kicking it into position. He slipped his leg between her thighs, slid his foot along her left, then tapped it into place. Positioning his hands on her hips, he leaned into her from behind and moved with her. “Feet forward, torso right. Fluid movement, Belle. Like this.”
The feel of his fingers on her hip, other hand sliding up the length of her drawn arm as he guided her upper body rightward, was strange and exciting. The heat of his chest, even through their armor, was electric. The tickle of his hair against her cheek , the exhale of his breath made her shiver. She felt nauseous and tingly, her stomach flipping and flopping inside her like a child jumping precariously on a bed.
The tightness of her drawn arm was starting to stretch muscle uncomfortably, threatening to tremble and skew her shot off-mark if she didn’t release soon, but she didn’t dare complain or fracture that strange, delightful moment.
“You want to angle your drawing arm just a little bit higher.” He edged her arm up with his own, then stepped back, his other hand still positioned on her opposite hip, as if holding her in place. It wasn’t necessary to keep his hand there, but he did. The feel of it made her nervous, excited her beyond recall. She was positive her arm was shaking, that the arrow would flop to the ground when she released it. “Steady yourself, equal pressure both drawing and holding, and let the muscles in your back naturally relax as you gently let go.”
He breathed those words across her cheek.
The snapping fluidity of release actually surprised her and she jumped back a little, her body colliding with his. They watched the shot soar, arching and dipping downward before burying itself in the grass several feet away from the post. Nathaniel’s hand was still rested on her hip, but she pretended not to notice.
“Damn,” she muttered, leaning her back into him without even thinking. “So close.”
“And yet so far.” He was so casual, as reluctant as she was to move away. “Not bad though. With practice and time, I’m confident you will get it.”
Turning her head up to look at him, they just stared at each other for a moment and then she looked away from his eyes. Her face felt so warm, her blood pumping furiously through her, making her feel a little lightheaded. She found her gaze on his lips, full and indulgent. Even the neatly trimmed patch of black hair beneath them looked soft. She wondered what it would feel like to kiss him, to feel his hands on her hips, drawing her body closer in an act near desperation, but before that thought could carry her away, reality yanked her back to the moment and she turned from him.
“Sixty yards seems so very far from back here.”
“Actually, my lady,” he began, “I think I was slightly off in my calculation. That post is probably closer to seventy yards. You might very well have taken your first sixty-yard shot today. You should be proud, but we should probably get the measuring tools out just to be sure.”
“Now who’s making fun of whom?”
“Me?” She felt the fingers of his right hand come in to settle on her hip. He was deliberately holding her, quietly seeking the closeness and comfort of their present nearness, and suddenly the electricity of it was alarming. “Make fun of you?” His voice was a husky whisper against her ear, those tickling strands of his hair against her cheek so enticing it terrified her. “I would never deign to tease you, my lady.”
It was a bold maneuver, one she nearly didn’t follow through with, but she couldn’t stop herself. Pushing off of him, she started in the direction of her arrow, calling back over her shoulder, “Oh, I don’t know. I might like it if you teased me.”
She ambled toward the edge of the yard, Nathaniel several steps behind her. She didn’t have time to glance back over her shoulder to gauge his reaction to her shameless flirting because there was a commotion in the courtyard and Justice was at the center of it.