The phylacteries weren’t in the warehouse.
She didn’t know why she, or even Anders for that matter, allowed themselves to believe it would be that simple. Hope was a ridiculously powerful thing that left a person believing in the impossible. Strange, after all she’d been through she still found herself clinging so desperately to such things. It never failed to make her feel a fool.
And yet, she thought it should have been an easy thing. As if a man having to hunt down a vial of his own blood to destroy it so he could be free shouldn’t even be a thing in the first place, but it was.
It made her sick.
Ambling into the setup, Arabelle found herself wondering when it all went wrong just what Anders might have done to Namaya to make her bitter enough to betray him that way. Later on, he would say he didn’t know if she’d betrayed him, or not, but Belle felt sure she had and it only served to make her angrier. She’d never been the betraying type, and maybe it was naïve of her, but she expected the same amount of respect and loyalty from the people she considered friends.
She trusted Anders—with her life on a regular basis. She’d learned long ago that sometimes the best relationships were built when one extended trust even when it didn’t seem as if it was deserved. It was how she’d become friends with Zevran, after all, and though his philosophy certainly differed from hers, he’d turned out to be one of the most loyal people she’d ever known. She felt the same way about Anders. He was a little crazy, and definitely paranoid but he had good reason. He was genuine and honest and he would do anything to protect the people he cared for; it was difficult to imagine someone stabbing a friend like that in the back.
And that was why she helped him. Well, that and she really was weary of Templars. Nearly every one she’d ever met was a self-important zealot who thought he was better than everyone else because he served the Chantry and kept mages in line. It was no wonder they had so much trouble with blood magic. The iron fist with which they governed was heavy and hard, and every time it smashed down on someone, they only made things worse. One day the mages were going to rise up, she thought, and when they did she hoped she was well away from the fallout.
She also couldn’t believe they’d been hanging around in Amaranthine for months, waiting for a single rogue apostate to make a move and reveal himself. Surely, they had more important things to do than chase after one escaped mage. Worse was that they’d known exactly where he was the entire time. She’d argued with Rylock when she conscripted him to save him from persecution, garnering the Queen’s approval as well.
The woman’s relentless pursuit of him pushed an already angry Warden-Commander to the brink and she lashed out.
She took a great deal of pleasure, probably more pleasure than was healthy, in slaughtering those Templars. As if fueled by Justice himself, she didn’t bother drawing her bow. She unsheathed the Cousland family blade to do the honors, hacking and slashing into that uppity Templar bitch until her face was no longer recognizable.
And it felt good. Dangerously good.
Standing above the puddle of bloody meat and bones, she gasped for breath, the fury rolling through her in red hot waves she didn’t know how to get under control again.
Was that what it felt like to be… possessed?
Only when Justice lowered a hand to her shoulder and said, “It is done, Commander,” did she remember where and who she was. “Justice has been served.”
“Several times over,” Velanna muttered.
Arabelle wrenched her shoulder form his grip, wiped the blood on her face into the stiff leather of her smattered bracer, only serving to smear it. She must have looked a terrifying sight when she rose, still seething, and stalked through the warehouse until she came out in the market and nearly barreled into a very round and pregnant Delilah.
“Warden?” She took a step back, catching herself. She waddled a little bit as she tried to stay her steps, her back catching on the wall behind her. “You gave me quite a fright. Do I even want to ask what business you had in the warehouse?”
“Probably not.” She swallowed her angst and tried to find a more pleasant demeanor to wear for the woman. “Not that I’m averse to telling you, per se, so much as it’s one of those the less you know situations…”
She was so much greater than the meek and timid little girl Arabelle once played with. There was survival in her storm-grey eyes, hints of strength beyond anything Belle could fathom. She saw the same persistence and unwillingness to yield every time she looked into Nathaniel’s eyes; it was one of the reasons she adored him so.
“Ah, of course. Nathaniel tells me just about everything you Grey Wardens get up to is very hush-hush. He never tells me what he’s doing, where he’s been or where he might go next. I try not to worry about him, but I’m no fool. I know whatever it is you’re up to, it is dangerous business. You always did have more fun playing at battles than you did playing with dollies. If you’d been just a little bit older back then, you’d have wrapped him around your finger a long time ago, I’ve no doubt. ”
“I…” She didn’t know what to say.
“Oh, don’t mind me. Just thinking out loud.” She chuckled thoughtfully. “I suppose I should take comfort that you look after him, but after everything we’ve been through I can’t help myself from worrying.”
“I’m so sorry, Delilah. It’s not right that you have to worry about him that way.”
Her laughter filled the market, rising above the chattering voices as if carried on feathery wings. “I’ll worry about him no matter what he’s doing. He’s always been reckless, that brother of mine, eager for the next adventure. I’d be more worried about what kind of trouble he might get you into if I didn’t already know of your own penchant for adventure. Is he with you, per chance?”
“Not today, I’m afraid,” she shook her head. “He took the day, but did ask that I say hello if I happened to see you in the market. Honestly, I didn’t expect to. You must be near to bursting.”
“Any day now,” she grinned. “Tell me, is he well? Eating enough? Getting plenty of sleep?” There was a knowing gleam in her eyes, one that let on she knew far more than Arabelle imagined. Nathaniel visited with his sister whenever opportunity presented itself; had he told her about them? Confided his conflicted emotions to Delilah before he was ready to embrace them. “Listen to me, here you stand dripping the blood of your enemies all over the square, and I’m asking silly questions. Where are my manners? Would you like to come and clean yourself up? Have a cup of tea? It’s been more than a decade since we had a nice chat.”
Anders shoved through the door at her back, arguing with Velanna as they stumbled into the market. “…your blood in a tube so I can always find you, you stupid…”
“I’m not alone, I’m afraid. Babysitting today. Perhaps another time though, if the offer stands.”
“Of course. Consider it an open invitation.”
“Wonderful.” She found a genuine smile through the displaced bitterness and anguish she was feeling. “I will take you up on that. And so you don’t worry, he eats like a horse, slaughters enemies from the edge of the fray and he gets as much rest as he is able.”
“So long as you’re not keeping him up all hours of the night, I suppose that’s good enough for me.” It was a subtle tell, obvious enough to let her know that she was well aware there was something going on between them without coming out and saying it. “Look after him,” she added thoughtfully. “Take good care of him. He’s the only family I’ve got left, you know.”
“Not for long.”
Belle glanced down at the woman’s swollen belly again and felt a pang of envy. Bloody hand twitching at her side, she longed to reach out and touch that swell the way she’d done when Oriana was carrying Oren. She’d been so excited the first time she felt him kick inside her sister-in-law’s belly, and every time thereafter. She was only fifteen when Oren was born, one of the first people to hold his tiny, squirming body as he wailed and screamed at the small injustice of being taken from the warmth of his mother’s womb.
She’d never been the mothering type herself, never imagined herself having children of her own, but Maker she had loved her nephew like no other. She imagined her face lit up back then just the way Nathaniel’s did every time he talked about becoming an uncle. She wondered if he ever thought about having children, if he lamented the notion that as a Grey Warden he would likely never be a father… Most especially if he planned to spend his days with her.
Nieces and nephews made the childless reconsider; watching Oren grow and become his own person had allowed her imagination to run wild a time or two. And not just because she wanted to have babies and play house, but because she loved her family and she could think of nothing more that she wanted than to make that family bigger and more comfortable. She would never know that kind of comfort or familiarity again. Now she would never have a family of her own; she felt conflicted and raw when she thought about it.
“I do hope you’ll send word when the baby comes. He gets anxious, worrying about you.”
“I will send word to the keep, I promise.”
“Very well. It was nice seeing you, Delilah. And worry not. I will guard your brother with my life. You have my word.”
“Then that is good enough for me.” She nodded once before turning her gaze across Arabelle’s blood-spattered companions. “Good day, Belle.” She excused herself, shuffling through the market crowd to return to her husband’s stall.
“Back to the keep.” She tossed that order over her shoulder without really looking back, then picked up her feet, supple leather boots carrying her through the city and toward the gates.
Her mind was a busy and terrifying place on the way back to Vigil’s Keep. Justice’s words kept playing and replaying in her mind as if they’d gotten stuck on some repeating loop and she couldn’t find the off lever for it.
Unfair and unjust are two different things.
She’d always thought they were synonymous, but when he put it into context, claiming Alistair made a choice of his own free will, it changed everything. Who was to blame for his death, if not her?
She didn’t like the way that made her feel. She didn’t like being absolved of responsibility. Some part of her still believed she could have tried harder to convince him to sleep with Morrigan. It was only one night, it didn’t have to mean anything. Love was so much more than two bodies in the dark and a little pleasure, and yet their last night together, when there were no words left to say he’d drawn her into his arms and made love to her one last time.
“You are the only woman for me,” he whispered into her neck. “My first and last. There will only ever be you, Arabelle.”
Later on, after he was gone and her mind was a prison of grief and despair, she couldn’t decide if he meant that he wouldn’t ever love again if she died, or if he already knew in that moment he was going to leave her behind.
Not knowing the answers to questions like that… That was what felt like injustice. Because she certainly hadn’t remained celibate, and sometimes she struggled with how easily both her body and her heart answered to Nathaniel. It made her feel like she was being unfaithful to him.
If what Justice said was true, and it was not an injustice because he’d made his own choice, why did she feel the way she did? And wasn’t she doing Nathaniel a grave injustice by refusing to let herself love him the way he deserved?
Justice… What in flames was it really, anyway. She’d always thought it a concept derived by the people of the world, the great thinkers. And yet the embodiment of that non-mortal ideal walked four steps behind her, armor rattling and clanking all the way back to the keep.
A true injustice would have been her standing in the way of his decision the way he’d disregarded hers. And that was the thing, wasn’t it? The true nature of that injustice was that in the end, Alistair’s choice nullified hers. But who walked around blaming a dead man for things that couldn’t be changed? It was so much easier to blame herself, to feel angry and betrayed by her own foolishness. It was far simpler than trying to imagine a world in which she was mad at Alistair for leaving her, especially considering she’d been planning to do the same thing to him.
No one said a word to her on that long trek, and they all kept their distance. Several times Anders attempted to find his courage, appearing just over her shoulder as if he might take a chance and make conversation, but all it took was a single look from her to change his mind. He lingered, staying close to her as if he sensed she might need a silent friend to walk beside her.
She wished Nathaniel was with them, and then she was glad he wasn’t there. She didn’t want him to see her that way. He already saw far too much of her grief, and it wasn’t fair to him. He wanted to be happy, and she wasn’t doing her part to give him that. It was embarrassing and she was so ashamed of herself, but no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t stop feeling that way. Maybe she should back away, tell him it was best if they just stopped. Maybe he could find someone else, someone who deserved his love and devotion.
Maker! Was there no end to it? To the relentless grief and anger? The dark chasm always threatening to swallow her whole and gulp her down into the emptiness? Nathaniel wanted to make her happy; she wanted that too, just as much as she wanted to make him happy. But how was she supposed to do that when she couldn’t let go of the past?
People died all the time and the people who loved them eventually found ways to move on, didn’t they?
Fighting Duncan in the Fade, even though she knew it wasn’t really Duncan at all, had strengthened her resolve and reminded her once more of her duty, of his final words to them before he went into battle: Remember, you are both Grey Wardens. I expect you to be worthy of that title.
Returning to Ostagar had been awful. The darkspawn desecrated King Cailan, hanging him up like a spectacle on display. After cleaning that place of the filth, they’d taken him down together, honored their fallen king on a carefully constructed pyre that billowed smoke toward the heavens. She remembered thinking those wisps carried his soul to the Maker at last. Alistair told her later that he’d never thought of Cailan as his brother, not until then. They’d both walked away from Ostagar feeling less like they’d failed him than they had before.
She’d mourned her mother and father deeply, but coming face to face with her father in the gauntlet had given her unexpected peace. Bryce Cousland told her to take the pain and guilt, acknowledge and let it go, and she had. She’d stood before the Urn of Sacred Ashes feeling cleansed and elated. She no longer blamed herself. As she descended the mountain, heading back to camp, she felt free from her grief. As though she could finally let go and move on. Even when she stood face to face with Rendon Howe, the fires of vengeance weren’t nearly so strong as they’d been just months earlier.
But Alistair… No matter how many times she stared at her own clenched hand and willed her fingers to open one by one and let go, she just couldn’t do it. She’d gotten closure. They’d held a royal funeral for their king. The black smoke drifting toward the sky carried him to the Maker’s side, or so the Revered Mother said, but she’d walked away still feeling empty and uncertain. She kept expecting the one person she’d counted on for comfort to come and take away the agony of his own loss. But he couldn’t comfort her anymore.
And that felt like… injustice.
It wasn’t. It was just unfair, as Justice had so astutely and insensitively pointed out.
Now, Nathaniel wanted to comfort her. To give her peace, but it terrified her whenever she thought about it. She hid from him when she was feeling low, escaping from the quiet of his room while he still slept and rushing down the hallway to her own quarters to avoid having to face him after waking from dreams of Alistair. Anders had teased her about avoiding confrontation over her dalliance with Nathaniel, but she wasn’t hiding from her fellow Wardens. She was hiding from the man who made her talk to him about her feelings, who told her loved her again and again—even though she’d never once returned the sentiment verbally.
Worse was that she felt it. There was no denying the intensity of her feelings for Nathaniel. He was everything she’d ever wanted him to be, and more, but spilling her emotions only to have him ripped away from her the same way Alistair had been… She couldn’t bear the thought.
Overrun by her thoughts, she pushed into the keep as soon as they arrived, fully intent on barring herself in her room for the night and avoiding any and all confrontations, but Anders gripped her arm just inside the doors to stop her. He drew her around to face him, and though she could tell he was tentative about sharing himself, he was smiling when she stared up at him.
“Hey,” he started, loosening his grip when she glanced down at his fingers curled around her bicep. “You were so… angry after all that, I didn’t want to bother you with this, but before too much time escapes I need to thank you. You stood by me and I appreciate that.”
“You’re my friend, Anders,” she reminded him. “Friends stick up for each other.”
“I…” lowering his amber gaze toward the floor, he almost seemed struck speechless for a moment. “I guess they do. I haven’t had many of those, you know? I mean, not real ones, anyway. I thought Namaya was my friend, but I guess I’m a poorer judge of character than I ever thought.”
“No one who calls themselves your friend and means it would ever do anything like that to you. You’re a good person, Anders.”
He actually blushed, his cheeks splotching red with the inability to express how deeply touched he was by her words. “Do you think… I wonder if she knew about the ambush. I suppose it doesn’t matter. Anyway, thank you.”
“And I understand why you were angry. I know it had nothing to do with the Templars or…”
“I’m sure some of it was Templar related, but I really don’t know that I want to talk about it right now. I’m very tired and I just want to get out of this armor and wash up.”
“Of course, but before you go, just hear me out, please. What Justice said is true. Maybe that will make you mad at me, I don’t know, but you need to think about it. What happened to Alistair, it was not your fault. It is unfair and painful and I honestly can’t even begin to imagine how difficult it must be for you every single day, but you are not to blame.”
“I don’t know what part of I don’t want to talk about it right now was unclear…”
Tilting his head down to look at her, he offered a gentle smile as he shrugged. “Sometimes friends push.”
“Very astute for someone who doesn’t know much about friends.” A soft snort of laughter escaped her as she shook her head. “Well, my pushy friend, you should know I am doing my best. Allowing myself to spend time with Nathaniel is a greater step than you realize.”
“But are you really with him? I’m the last person in the world who’d ever stick up for Howe, you know that. It’s just, I see the way the two of you look at each other, Belle. The fact that he can make you laugh, that when you smile for him it’s one of the most genuine things I’ve ever seen… You have the opportunity for something really amazing here. You’ve got another chance and I don’t want to see you blow it by holding him at arm’s length. Eventually, he’ll grow tired of having to reach for you and the thought of you spending your life alone… some bitter old shrew in a hovel with a hundred cats her only company…”
“I don’t know… Cats aren’t so bad.” Ser Pounce-a-lot wove himself between their legs, pausing to rub his back against her calf.
“Cats are fantastic, yes, but you’re completely missing my point here.”
“You’re awful preachy for someone who’s never been in love,” she smirked.
“Maybe,” he hiked his shoulders up again. “I just think if you’re going to love someone, you should do it right. Not everyone gets a second chance. Flames, some of us don’t even get a first one.”
“I will take that under advisement.”
“So you’re not mad at me?”
“Furious, actually,” she grinned.
“Ah, good. I look forward to running laps around the keep at your whim then.”
“Go clean up,” she urged him. “You’re a bloody disaster.”
“Not half as bloody as you are.”
“And I’m off to remedy that now. Thanks for the talk, friend.”
“You’re welcome, friend.”
A/N: This story has been ridiculously therapeutic for me in dealing with my own grief. My mother passed away eighteen months ago, and just when I start to think I’m all right, that I’m able to move on, it hits me all over again like a brick wall. Writing this, transposing my emotions and my grief into this situation has helped me put a lot of things into perspective. So if you’re reading, thank you.