Arabelle removed the writing plank from the edges of the tub, transferring it over to the nearby chair along with the inkwell, quill and parchment upon which she’d penned her latest letter to Teagan. Once more, she felt hesitant in the sending of such a letter, but at least she hadn’t poured every bit of her confusion and woe onto the page. She’d kept her insane thoughts about spirits of the Fade to herself, but they did not abate simply because she tried to hide from them.
She’d come back from the Fade, untempted by her unnatural desires, but filled with shame over entertaining them. She wondered if Justice knew what horrors she’d considered in that place. Somehow she doubted that he did, otherwise he would have lectured her on the unjust and selfish course of her thoughts.
What would she give to have Alistair back? To love again in that way? Even if only for a moment, an hour, a single day?
And just when she was sure she would give whatever was asked of her, she swore she heard his voice somewhere in the back of her mind willing her to, “Let me go. You will love again, but first you must let go.”
It made her angry, confused her. It was all very well and good to say that, especially considering he wasn’t the one who had to let go. Had he even thought of that at all before he shoved her aside to save her life and plunged headlong into heroic death? Had that been his way of letting go? Had he thought about what life without him would be like for her at all?
“Maker, I am so selfish,” she muttered, dipping her body lower into the water.
Wynne had been right all along. Love was ultimately selfish, but not for Alistair. He’d loved so selflessly. Given up his life for it, in fact. She’d been willing to do the same, but her efforts blunted by his sacrifice, she was left holding an empty bag and feeling resentful and bitter and… wrong.
Hero of Ferelden.
Bah! Alistair was the real Hero of Ferelden, not her. In his final hours, before they stormed Denerim, he’d been steadfast, determined. He’d rallied men with all the vigor of a king, and as he marched before them, filling them with confidence and strength, she knew that was what he’d been born to do. To be a king. He resisted so fervently, and yet when the time came it was such a natural thing for him to be. King… She stood beside him on the platform, tears of pride stinging in her eyes. She felt confident in that moment that he would do her proud, that he would give every part of himself to Ferelden.
His first and only act as king: the ultimate sacrifice. He gave himself so they all might live.
Why did he have to be so bloody righteous and good?
She felt the damp tendrils of her washed hair soak in moisture before floating and spreading out to dance around her submerged shoulders. Tilting her head along the back of the tub, she closed her eyes and tried not to feel the cold, which had surely seeped into her bones and would never be warmed again.
Would she ever be able to let go of that anger? That resentment? That pain?
The worst part was, sometimes she did actually feel better in Nathaniel’s company. Hopeful again, almost human, capable of opening herself to possibility and experiencing the thrill and wonder of falling in love.
No, that was ridiculous. She wasn’t falling in love with anyone, not ever again. It was her twelve-year-old self talking, that was all. She was attracted to him, yes. She certainly could not deny the quivering of butterflies she felt whenever he was near her. The touch of his hand against her hip, the suggestive proximity of his body to hers while he guided her shot and whispered, “Let go,” against her face was utterly thrilling.
And yet she’d written those very words to Teagan, all but confessing she was falling for someone else. For Nathaniel Howe… the son of her enemy, the man who’d come to Vigil’s Keep to kill her, then found himself softening in her company as they got to know each other. She’d told him things, things she hadn’t felt safe telling anyone else, and he hadn’t judged her. He’d felt sad, sympathetic.
Maybe the Maker wasn’t ready to receive you.
“The Maker always has a plan,” Eleanor Cousland used to say when things went inexplicably awry. Arabelle thought her mother was too quick to look to the Maker to solve everything, but what if she was right?
What if…? No.
It was foolish, and yet her mind pushed past that instant roadblock and allowed her to entertain the possibility she wanted desperately to deny.
What if Nathaniel was the Maker’s plan for her all along? But … were that the case, why hadn’t He simply answered the prayers of a twelve-year-old twit on the verge of begging her father for an arranged marriage to the very man she now found herself almost longing for? The opportunity had been there from the start. Why hadn’t He just made it easy for her? Planted the idea in Bryce Cousland’s head, made sure the two of them were bound from the start?
Couldn’t she have learned to love the easy way? Without the loss of her family, the stain of vengeance on her soul, the extrication of her very heart from her earthly body as Alistair was wrenched from her so quickly there was barely time to scream the words, “Maker, no, please don’t!”
She would have been a good little wife to Nathaniel if things had turned out differently. She would have been devoted, supportive, encouraging. She would have taken care of him, loved him, showered him with affection and praise enough to make him feel as if he were the luckiest man in the world. She’d have given him sons and daughters, an entire castle full of little Howes to carry on his family’s name and traditions… Whatever he wanted, she would have done it…
She wouldn’t have. She’d have been a selfish wife, consumed by some adolescent daydream that hadn’t lived up to her expectations. She hadn’t known the first thing about love when she was twelve, or fifteen, or seventeen—when she’d have actually been permitted to marry. She knew nothing of the devotion it required, did not understand how supportive, encouraging and nurturing one had to be to truly love another. How willing to sacrifice…
Love was sacrifice.
Beyond the example of her mother and father’s relationship, she knew nothing about love, not until she watched her mother sacrifice herself to die with her father, to give Duncan enough time to get their child away from that madness. A fine example, yes, but she’d felt completely awestruck and unprepared by her love for Alistair. Her father said she would understand, that one day she would thank him for giving her the freedom to fall in love the way it was meant to be experienced.
Naturally, unexpectedly, vulnerably…
“So, all this time we’ve spent together… you know, the tragedy, the brushes with death, the constant battles with the whole Blight looming over us… will you miss it once it’s over?”
“There will always be more battles to fight somewhere, I guess.”
“True,” he looked away, his chest rising with a deep breath that held in for a long time before releasing it as a sigh. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean we would be fighting them together.” Arabelle watched him, her heartbeat quickening inside her so unexpectedly. “I know it… might sound strange, considering we haven’t known each other very long, but I’ve come to… care for you. A great deal. I think maybe it’s because we’ve gone through so much together, I don’t know. Or maybe I’m imagining it. Maybe I’m fooling myself.” He was fidgeting, feet shifting nervously, eyes cast down at them as he moved, afraid to meet with hers. “Am I? Fooling myself? Or do you think you might ever… feel the same way about me?”
It came so naturally, and yet it was so unexpected. She felt vulnerable and soft, her insides trembling as she forced herself to duck her gaze down to look at him. “I think I already do, Alistair.”
“So, I fooled you, did I?” He took a step toward her, hands reaching to cradle her face as he murmured, “Good to know,” before kissing her for the first time.
How she’d managed to not see that coming from a hundred miles off, she would never know, but it progressed so naturally it was unexpected. And with the vulnerability attached to loving someone else that much, there’d also been empowerment. Love made her believe she could do anything, but could she ever allow herself to be that vulnerable again? To love another with the same intensity? To believe anything was possible all over again? Find herself so willing to sacrifice?
She really didn’t know, but deep down there was a part of her that wanted to find out. She wanted to go on playing whatever game Nathaniel was playing until she found herself in his arms, his hands cupping her face as he tilted her into his hungry, waiting kiss.
Just thinking about kissing him made her… feel. She thought she’d forgotten how.
That had to mean something, right?
She could almost hear Zevran laughing at her, muttering that all she needed was a good tumble with someone who meant nothing to her. “Such an itch is easy enough, even I could scratch it for you,” but she wanted more.
She wanted to love again, to lose herself in the intensity of it, not know where she ended and he began. She wanted to fall asleep all tangled together, feeling not just sated, but safe knowing that the only person who mattered in her world was right there with her.
Zevran would tell her she was crazy, that she’d already let herself be broken by that kind of vulnerability, and what had she gained from it? Pain? “Do you want more pain, my dear Grey Warden? Are you some kind of masochist?”
Closing her eyes, she slid her foot along the bottom of the tub and sighed. Maybe she was a masochist, but she did want to feel that way again. Even the pain that came with it.
She gripped the edges of the tub, drawing herself splashing from the water and reaching for her robe. She wrapped it tight around her dripping body and lifted her foot up over the edge, stepping out onto the cold stone floor below. Her wet feet slapped across it, leaving damp footprints as she walked around the partition and headed toward her wardrobe to find something warm and comfortable to sleep in.
She could feel the air seeping through the old stone walls, and though the fire in her hearth burned steady, the heat it put off wasn’t always enough to dry the damp and chill from the air. She slid into long, blue woolen dress, cinched at the waist, then she sat down on the edge of her bed and started brushing the tangles from her hair. It seemed foolish to dress when she was just planning to go to bed, but part of her knew going to bed was futile.
A mind so heavy with thoughts would not amble peacefully to sleep, and it would help matters to already be dressed when she grew tired of tossing and turning in her bed and rose to wander the castle. Twining the wet locks of her hair into a single braid, she tossed it over her back and then drew her legs up into the bed. Reclining against the pillows, she nestled her head into their feathered comfort and closed her eyes.
What she wouldn’t give for a good night’s sleep. She’d had one in the time she’d been at Vigil’s Keep, only after confessing Morrigan’s plot to Nathaniel. After that, it was back to nightmares and restlessness.
Even drink did very little to encourage dreamless sleep. Oghren said she wasn’t drinking enough. That in order to enter into a state that severe and blunted, she needed to drink until she saw stars, until it felt like she was going to fall up into the sky. In her twenty-two years, Arabelle had never been that drunk, though she’d come close after the archdemon. Had it not been for Teagan, she might very well have passed out in a puddle of her own sick to never wake again. All those months later, she had no desire to visit that strange inebriated place her dwarven friend was so fond of, but sometimes she did envy his escape from reality.
It seemed the Mother waited for her every time she closed her eyes. Sometimes it was the hideous creature that called itself the Architect. Their faces flashing, images disturbing her sleep until she jerked from agitated slumber. She sat in the dark for a long time, tipped forward hugging her knees, trying to shake the images from her mind. Whatever they were up against, they were getting closer. Or rather, it was getting closer to them.
Throwing her legs over the side of the bed, she slipped into her boots and gave up entirely on sleep.
She drew a cloak around her shoulders, hugging it tight like a blanket against the drafty air, and shuffled into the hallway. Her feet carried her through corridors she now knew by heart, past the rooms of her fellow wardens, around the winding staircase, through the library and toward the dining hall. She didn’t know why she always went to the dining hall on her nightly wanderings, probably looking for Anders and Oghren, but when she arrived they weren’t there.
Nathaniel sat with his boots propped on the table, hands folded across his waist and head tilted back. His black hair was loose, hanging over the back of the chair, and she crept quietly, arriving close enough to see his eyes were closed before he startled her with, “Your stealth skills could use a little work, Huntress.”
“What? How did you know it was me?”
“You use fragrance oil in your bathwater. Essence of honeysuckle, if I’m not mistaken. A fine scent to cover you in springtime, but only if you’re planning to attack a hive of bees. Mistress Woolsey prefers lavender and I’m not even sure Velanna bathes at all.”
“I’m sure she does. She’s not really so bad, you know?”
“Isn’t she?” He withdrew his legs from the table and lowered his boots to the floor. He sat upright and positioned his hands in front of him before turning to look at her.
“Do you like any of our companions at all? It seems you have something critical to say about everyone we know.”
“I like you,” he told her. “Isn’t that enough?” Before she had chance to answer, he went on about Velanna. “The elf complains incessantly and she’s only in this for herself. The first opportunity she’s given to cut and run, once she gets what she wants of course, she will abandon this cause and not look back.”
“You don’t know that, Nathaniel. She fights well when in battle, and her magic has both defended and healed us all.”
“Regardless, I don’t think she’ll be taking her responsibilities as a Grey Warden beyond this incident. Once we get to the bottom of this business with the Mother, I think she will leave.”
“Being a Grey Warden isn’t for everyone, I suppose. I remember when I thought for sure you would cut and run the first chance you got.”
“Did you?” he tilted his head, the black locks of his hair sliding down his cheek. “Did you really think I would abandon duty because it had been forced unwillingly upon me?”
“I had hoped you wouldn’t, but there were days I wasn’t sure at all. Your hatred for me was so severe, made only worse by my forcing you to become something you despised.”
“I never really hated you, and besides, I’ve already said I was fool,” he pointed out. “As I’ve also confessed I’ve come to enjoy this position. It is an honorable one, and I will do it gladly so long as I am welcome to.”
“Well, I don’t think the Grey Wardens actually turn people out, unless they’ve really done something despicable, but I’ll have to get back to you on that. The whole Right of Conscription allows us to more or less take on murderers about to meet the hangman, so…” She hadn’t thought about Duncan in a long time, nor the story he’d told her about his own induction in the Wardens before she’d even been born. “But I am glad that you have found this position to your liking. That was my hope from the start.”
“Then I thank you for having faith in me before I earned your trust. Being a Grey Warden is much better than death.”
Her grin was playful, but complacent as she leaned her backside into the table and scooted up to sit atop it. She felt the hemline of her dress whisper against her calves, tickling as it settled into place. “Remember when you said you would never thank me for this.”
Head lowered shamefully, she watched the loosened tendrils of his hair fall into his face. Waving strands intertwined against the straight, result of his disentangled braid and she wanted to reach out and tuck them away. She even felt her hand start to rise from her thigh, inching forward, but then he lifted his head again. “I have never asked for your forgiveness for that night. I must have terrified you something awful.”
“A little bit, but there is no need to ask forgiveness. If you ever want that blade back, however, I’ve decided you have to come and beg for it.”
“Have I told you lately how very cruel you are?”
“Twice today, I think.”
“The third time’s the charm, or so they say.”
“So, is that why you are out here in the dining hall so late? Were you having trouble sleeping again? More nightmares?”
“There are always nightmares now, but that is not why I am here.”
“No? Then why?”
“Shall I answer truthfully, or make up something more exciting?”
“Lies are bad,” she reminded him. “As per our previous agreement, I’d like to hear the truth.”
“Very well then,” he nodded. “The truth is that every night for the last few weeks I have come here when the keep grew quiet. I was looking for you, hoping I might happen upon you here again. Then I waited for you here until I had enough drink in me that sleep became an inevitable truth I could no longer deny.”
“You… you were waiting for me? Why?”
“I thought you might need a friend, and what kind of friend would I be if I were nowhere to be found?”
“Should I not have waited?”
The hair dropped back into his face again and that time she couldn’t stop herself. She slid off the table fluidly, fingers already pushing through it, revealing his eyes as she tucked it behind his ear. As if he’d expected her, he rose into her, hand grasping the wrist of her reaching hand, sweeping that arm around his neck and pulling her against his chest.
And then he was kissing her, his hungry mouth seeking hers, the rising fingers of his hand sweeping up her spine, pushing her braid aside and tangling into the hair at the nape of her neck. His grip tightened almost violently as he drew her in deeper, stepping her backward until she could feel the table edging at the backs of her thighs again.
No one had ever kissed her that way before. Fervently, on the edge of desperation, every muscle in her body pulsed and tightened with conflict and submission.
Tipping his forehead in to rest against hers, he brushed his lips against the corner of her mouth and asked, “Was it wrong of me to wait for you here, Belle?”
She did not answer with words, but surged upward, onto the tips of her toes to kiss him again, losing herself in the strength of his arms around her, the solidity of his body against hers. It wasn’t wrong, was it? It felt right. He felt right, righter than any of her childish daydreams had ever portrayed that desired moment. Everything that happened, every moment leading up to that one felt as if it had been carrying her to that place, to that kiss, to Nathaniel.
How often she’d fantasized kissing him as a girl, but it was nothing compared to the reality. It was so much better, so much more intense than she ever could have ever dreamed, but as her heart sped up in answer to the excitement, the flutter of it gave her pause.
Was she betraying her heart? Did the eager response of her body answering another man’s touch betray her love for Alistair?
She drew back, one arm still looped around his neck, the other bracing his chest, as if preparing to push him away. But he was not about to stop. Coming into her again, his lips were soft but his kisses were hard, eager and passionate and so wonderful it terrified her. It was as though he’d been waiting for that moment, for the taste of her for so long there was no holding back anymore. A dam had broken, the pieces of his resolve that held it in place tumbling into the rushing waters of that moment and carrying them both away.
“I have struggled with this,” he confessed in breathy murmurs across her lips. “I have fought with myself, Belle. From the moment I felt you stirring in my heart, I tried to stop. How could I possibly… After everything… And yet, I do. Maker help me, I do. I want you. No, it is not want. It is need. I have never needed anyone or anything as much as I need you. This evening in the practice yard it took every ounce of strength I possess to stop myself from kissing you, and now that I’ve begun I don’t think I could ever stop.”
Tracing the tip of his nose along her cheek, she was so conflicted, so afraid, but when he kissed her again she couldn’t deny him. It felt so right. Too right. As if everything she’d endured, every moment of her life before that one had been leading straight to him.
“Nathaniel, I… I am so afraid.”
“Afraid?” His voice was a husky whisper of uncertainty. “Of me? Surely, you know by now I would never do anything to hurt you, my dear lady.”
“But how do you know I won’t hurt you? I already have… I…”
He brought both hands in and cupped her face between them, staring down at her as he asked, “Do you want to hurt me?” It was a strange thing to realize he was grinning, enticing, playful and instigative—some odd game and she didn’t know the rules. “I don’t think you do, but I would suffer it gladly if you did.” She watched his brow rise, accentuating the faint widow’s peak of his hair. “I would stand down and allow you to do whatever you want to me, my lady, no matter how much pain it wrought.”
“I’ve done unforgivable things… I…”
Silencing her with another kiss, he whispered, “I forgive you.”
“Why? Why would you?”
“Because you are everything good and pure in this world. Because I never knew what need was until I needed you.”
“You don’t mean that…”
“Don’t I?” And then, as if to prove himself, he kissed her again, one hand slipping from her face, down the length of her arm and curling in around her waist. He gripped and squeezed as he drew her body nearer. They were so close she could feel his heart beating beneath the palm pressed into his chest. “If you don’t feel the same, command me to step away and I will. It would break my heart, but I would do it.”
“I don’t want you to step away,” she confessed.
“Then we have an accord?”
And he was kissing her again, the table once more edging into her thighs as they lost themselves in that moment.