It relieved me to receive your letter, which I suppose is an odd thing considering its damnable contents. Noble conspiracies, plotting darkspawn and little to no support at all from the First Warden in Weisshaupt. It infuriates me that after everything you’ve done already, after all you sacrificed and lost because of your commitment to the Wardens, they do not send you the aid you require. Raising you up to Warden Commander of Ferelden was an honor recognizing your capabilities as a leader. I get that. But one woman is not an army—no matter how much taint she has in her blood, and certainly not because she came face to face with an archdemon and walked away to tell the tale.
I suppose I do not understand the Grey Wardens, and I likely never will. Every Warden I have ever known was like you, steadfast, obligated, unshakable. Your commitment to duty is honorable. I just wish there was more I could do. You must be so frustrated.
I know you did not ask it of me, but I have spoken to Eamon on your behalf. He has agreed to send a unit of soldiers to Amaranthine if you wish it, but I worry you will refuse his assistance. You Grey Wardens are always so secretive with your dealings, and that is understandable considering the nature of your work, but I want to help. Damn the First Warden and High Constable, Arabelle. If you require aid, the men of Redcliffe are yours.
You need only say the word and I will lead them to Amaranthine to assist you. Please take Eamon up on this offer. It pains me to think we could help and you would not accept it. We need not know the nature of the situation. We will kill darkspawn with you without question, if that is to be the way of it.
As for the other matters you mentioned, I must confess that after all the letters we’ve exchanged these last few months, I was not surprised to hear of your growing affection for Nathaniel Howe. Stepping back to look over the events, I cannot help but think the Maker’s plans are incredibly convoluted at times. Bringing people together in ways we can’t even begin to imagine before it happens, and yet, when it does it seems so very… obvious.
Maybe you were meant for one another all along, or maybe there is no rhyme or reason to it at all, but you know you cannot go back now. You know there is no way to recapture what was lost. The only way to go from here is forward. Whether you make that forward journey alone, or beside someone who cares for you, all that matters is that you make the journey.
Speaking of strange coincidences and the Maker’s influence, I met someone interesting the last time I was at court. A young woman from Redcliffe, of all places, by the name of Kaitlyn. Perhaps you might remember her. It seems you and your friends not only helped find her little brother before the battle that nearly destroyed the city, but that when you returned the boy to her care, Alistair paid handsomely for their family sword.
She used the money to travel to Denerim, where she opened a foundry and made quite a name for herself.
I find it odd that she was there in the Chantry through the battle and our paths did not cross. There was so much going on and you know there was scarcely time for social pleasantries, but now that I have met her I cannot stop thinking about her. The Maker, He does work in mysterious ways, and though I’ve only spoken with her on a handful of occasions, I am utterly smitten.
She is breathtaking, Belle. Bold, beautiful, adventurous, and certainly not afraid to take risks. Just the kind of lady a man of my refined tastes appreciates. I got so flustered while I was talking to her, I probably made a fool of myself. You know how I tend to be in company of the fairer sex, but these last weeks the distance, coupled with some of the conversations you and I have shared in our letters, has driven me to write to her. I haven’t sent the letter yet. I keep finding excuses not to, but the excuses have to stop. I am lonely, and I am not getting any younger.
I will keep you apprised of the situation and ask that you light a candle and pray for me the next time you’re in the Chantry. Maker knows I’m hopeless when it comes to these sorts of things.
Do write back and tell me to come to Vigil’s Keep with Eamon’s men, and I will be there.
Your Devoted Friend,
She was actually smiling. An unexpected burst of happiness at the thought of her friend finding much deserved joy with someone worthy of him. She did remember Kaitlyn. The girl was pretty, quick with a smile and willing to brave the chaos of the world around them for a chance at a fresh start. It warmed her heart to think she’d made a new life for herself in Denerim with the coin they’d given her for that sword. It warmed it further to think that new life might somehow involve Teagan.
Allowing the parchment to roll in upon itself again, she was reaching for the other letter on her desk to reread it, the first communication she’d received from Zevran since they’d parted ways months earlier, when a soft knock rose at the door.
Hesitating over the letter, she glanced back over her shoulder and called, “Come.”
Zevran was getting himself into plenty of trouble, or rather he was causing trouble for others—as was his nature—but she couldn’t help worrying about him. Zev was arrogant, brash, overconfident and he liked to think he could take on the entire world all by himself, but she knew better. She should have gone with him. She’d never met the fortune-telling whore who’d told him as a boy he would not die young, but she didn’t trust the woman’s prophecy. Yes, he did tend to have the most uncanny luck of anyone she’d ever met, but eventually luck ran out. She just hoped his didn’t until she was there to watch his back again.
Nathaniel entered tentatively, head down as he stepped inside and closed the door behind him. Arabelle watched him take hesitant steps into the room, grey eyes scanning the interior before finally resting on her face. He offered a sincere and thoughtful smile that made her heart speed up inside her chest. Only one other person had ever looked at her that way; the gentle and unspoken reverence made her uncomfortable, but she couldn’t look away.
“I didn’t see you when we came in. Where were you?”
“I went hunting in the woods beyond the keep.” He stood near the bedpost, which he casually leaned against before folding his arms across his chest.
“That sounds nice.”
“It was, very peaceful. When did you return?”
“About an hour or so ago. I was going to look for you, but I was covered in blood and I just wanted to take a bath and wash the filth of this day away.”
“Blood? I thought you went looking for Kristoff’s wife. Were you attacked on the road?” Brow furrowed in concern, worry lines dug deep and his lip curled with distaste.
“No, nothing like that. We ran into some trouble. That’s all.”
“What kind of trouble? Had I known it was going to be such bloody work, I’d have insisted upon coming along.”
“It wasn’t supposed to be a bloody day,” she sighed and pushed Zevran’s letter aside for the moment. “We had a run-in with some Templars in the city. Some plot to set Anders up and lure him into a trap so they could take him back to the Circle in Ferelden. Though I suspect they had more than just making him Tranquil on their agenda.”
Pushing off the post as if he’d been settled in for hours and could no longer stand there, he started toward her, slow, ambling steps that brought him to the back of her chair. He lifted one hand to rest on the wood, the other he lowered to her shoulder. Without thought, he immediately began playing with the damp tendrils of her washed hair.
“Templars? Are you all right?”
“A few bruises.” She shrugged and tilted her cheek down to rest atop his hand. “But everyone came out of it none the worse for wear. Anders is a bit emotionally crushed. He was hoping for the opportunity to destroy his phylactery, but part of me thinks he was more disappointed that a friend he trusted betrayed him and set him up.”
“His phylactery. When mages are taken to the Circle, a blood sample is drawn and kept under lock and key. If the mage escapes the Circle, the Templars can use that blood to track and recapture him. It’s one of the reasons he kept getting caught.”
“That’s… disturbing. It sounds like blood magic.”
“It might very well be. I have no idea how they use that blood to track the mages, but I couldn’t let him go in there alone. And it’s a good thing I was there because it was a trap. We were lucky to get out of there alive.”
“That unsettles me. I don’t like the idea of you needlessly risking yourself that way. Not if I’m not there to watch your back.”
“That’s sweet,” she kissed his knuckles before lifting her head, “but I was fine and it wasn’t a needless risk. Anders is my friend, and I would do anything for him, just as I would any other friend.”
“I understand that. Loyalty is an admirable quality, but I guess what I’m saying is that I’d like to be there the next time you decide to run headlong into dangerous battle with a bunch of Templars or darkspawn or whatever so I can watch your back.”
“I’m perfectly capable of taking care of myself.”
“I never said you weren’t, but if I could protect…” Craning her neck to look up at him, he shook his head at her before glancing away, his thought unfinished and hanging in the air between them.
“You won’t always be there to protect me. We may not even be able to watch each other’s backs at all once this is done. We’re Grey Wardens, Nate. Duty will always have to come before… us.”
He scoffed and stepped around the chair to stand in front of her. “That may be, but so long as I am able I will watch your back, and maybe I’m being overly optimistic, but I would hope you’d do the same for me in any battle we might face.”
“Of course I would, but what if you can’t watch my back? Or what happens when I can’t watch your back and something… What if something happens to one of us? What then?”
“I don’t like to think about it,” he confessed with a long sigh.
“Well, maybe we should think about it. We aren’t exactly living the simple, noble lives we once knew. Things aren’t safe or easy, and there are certainly no guarantees.”
“What has that to do with anything?”
“Everything! Once we are finished here in Amaranthine, assuming we even live through this chaos, there’s no telling where we’ll be sent. Maybe the First Warden will keep us here in Ferelden, or maybe he won’t, but what if he doesn’t even keep us together at all?”
“I got the impression the First Warden really didn’t care all that much, so long as we were doing our jobs. You’re the Warden Commander…”
“Surely, you have some say in where you end up? You’re the bloody Hero of Ferelden. You ended the Blight.”
“I didn’t end the Blight. Alistair did. And being a Grey Warden doesn’t mean you get to be celebrated, no matter how severe your acts of heroism. If I don’t have a say in where I go, or who I take with me after this is over, what then? You said before that if I felt like things were moving too quickly and maybe…”
“Andraste’s blood, Belle. What brought this on all of the sudden?” he balked and took another step outward to really look at her. “Did something else happen today?”
“Answer the question, Nate. What happens if I have no say in where I go next? Is this really worth pursuing if they’re only going to pull us apart?”
“It is to me! Why are you trying to bait me into an argument?” Exasperated, he threw up his arms. “I thought of nothing all day but coming home and seeing you, and yet since the moment I walked through that door you’ve been cross and antagonistic. It’s as if you want to do little more than bicker, and I don’t want to fight with you.”
“Just answer the question. If I have no control over where I wind up, and we are separated…?”
“I don’t know, Belle. I thought things were going well. Can’t we cross that bridge when we get to it? Focus on the moment? The day to day?”
“All the while allowing myself to fall in love with you, to get attached to you only to have you torn away from me? No, we can’t focus on the moment… the day to day. Every moment I allow myself to feel for you brings me closer and closer to the moment I lose you.”
“You’re not going to lose me.” Stepping around her chair, his movements were quick, fluid. Both hands grasping, he was bracing her arms, one in each hand to draw her to her feet in front of him. “I have never been one to walk away from duty, but I care for you more deeply than I’ve ever cared for anyone. I am not about to let anything come between us, not even your stubborn refusal to be happy. Not now, not ever.”
“I want to be happy.”
“Sometimes I don’t believe it when you say that. You rush out in the mornings before I wake up, avoid me throughout the day…”
“I have responsibilities, Nathaniel! I can’t spend every waking moment of my day with you…”
“…but once night falls you’re with me again. You lie in my arms and bear your soul to me, but as soon as day breaks again you’re gone. This morning you left the keep without even saying goodbye.”
“You were still asleep.”
“You could have woke me!” He was nearly always so quiet and soft-spoken, even when riled, so when he shouted at her it caught her off guard and she jerked back as if he’d struck her. His grip on her arms slackened, hands dropping at his sides. “What if something happened to you today? What if you hadn’t walked away from your fight with the Templars? Do you ever think about me, about how I feel at all?”
“I always think about you! For months all I’ve been able to think about is you.”
“You say that like it’s an awful thing! Some burden you have to bear. You tell me you want to be happy, that you want to find happiness together, but it’s like you’re not even trying.”
“How can you say I’m not trying? How can you insinuate that I care nothing for you after…”
“Do you love me, Belle?” he interrupted.
“It’s an easy enough question and you forced me to answer several of yours. Now answer mine.” Narrowing his eyes, his mouth tightened as if he were bracing himself for the worst. “Do you love me?”
“Yes,” she lowered her head and allowed her hair to fall in around her face like a shroud. “I do, but…”
“When you love someone, there are no buts.”
“If only that were true,” she sighed. “You say you won’t let anything come between us, but can you promise me you won’t ever die? I love you, but if I lose you…”
Saying the words out loud made it feel all too real, more than possible. It felt probable, likely, just days, maybe even minutes, away from happening.
She and Alistair never talked about those inevitable possibilities. Death was the only plausible outcome, and sometimes she thought Alistair’s refusal to talk about the future was his way of not tempting the Maker. The one time she’d questioned him about where he saw their relationship going, he’d shut down completely—thrown duty back at her and made her feel stupid for even asking about it. They never spoke of it again until they lay together on their final night, murmuring wishes in the dark both knew would never come true.
Nathaniel reached for her again, gentle hands drawing her to her near to him. A single loose tendril of black hair rested against his cheek, and despite the tension she’d forced between them, she wanted to reach up and brush her fingers through it. She didn’t want to be cruel to him, to argue with him and push him away, and yet there she was doing it because it was easier to harden herself than it was to consider how much pain she would feel if she lost him.
“All men die, Arabelle. That is a cold thing to say, but it is true. Refusing to let yourself love me won’t keep me alive.”
Perhaps not, but it would keep her from getting hurt, wouldn’t it? And yet she was reminded of what he’d said to her the night he’d first kissed her. “Do you want to hurt me? I don’t think you do, but I would suffer it gladly if you did. I would stand down and allow you to do whatever you want to me, my lady, no matter how much pain it wrought.”
At the time she didn’t understand it. She’d thought it was some strange game he was playing with her heart. But it was his way of saying he loved her for the very first time. Loving someone meant more than just experiencing joy together; it also meant enduring pain. Sometimes because of one another.
“I… I don’t want you to die.” She didn’t deny herself the urge any longer. Hand lifting, he let go of her arm so she could raise it and closed his eyes as she stroked fingers down his cheek. “I don’t want to live in a world without you in it.”
“I’m sorry, Belle. One day I will die, and so will you.” The tears came on so quickly, she didn’t even realize they were there until they slipped down her cheeks one after the other. “If we are lucky that day will be twenty or even thirty years from now. Maybe we’ll even venture into the Deep Roads together someday and make our final stand. But even if we’re not that lucky, I won’t spend my days refusing to love you because I might lose you.”
“I don’t…” Swallowing, her throat felt so tight it ached. “I don’t want to lose you.”
“Nor I you. Please don’t push me away.”
Everything seemed so much easier to bear when he was kissing her. Trembling fingers brushed against her ears as he cupped her face and drew her in, she gasped as his soft mouth moved over hers in delightful whispers of desperation and fear.
“Let’s stay together, Belle. Into battle, we go together, and if the Wardens try to separate us, we’ll tell them no. We do this together.”
“You would… leave the Wardens if they tried to separate us?”
“I thought I’d lost everything when I first came here, but you gave me purpose. You showed me there is another way to be a good man, to change my fortune. I never thought when you conscripted me that I would like this life, but I love being a Grey Warden. It is an honorable and noble thing to be, but I don’t want to be a good man without you beside me. Once this is over I stand with you, or not at all.”
“You really do love me? Even though I’m obviously insane?”
“I thought that was relatively clear by this point,” he laughed.
She hadn’t said the words to him before that day, even though she’d felt and recognized the sentiment. She was in love with him, beyond twelve-year-old crushes and fantasies. She was in love with the man he’d become and she was relieved to have finally said it out loud. She’d realized it for the first time the night she poured her soul out to him while they passed a bottle back and forth. Only love had allowed her to share that terrifying, intimate part of herself she’d never thought she would be able to share with anyone.
“I do love you. Maker curse me, I do.”
She felt him smiling as he kissed her. “’Tis not a curse to love, my lady,” he murmured in a whisper against her lips. “The only curse is when it ends, but I will not leave your side so long as I live. Only the Maker could tear me from you, but even then I’d like to see Him try.”
“Don’t tempt Him.” She gripped the front of his shirt in both hands, clenching the fabric in her fingers and tilting her cheek to nuzzle against his.
“Then let me tempt you instead.” His voice was a heated whisper against her ear. Reaching for her wrists, he stepped back and led her with him toward the bed. He sat down on the edge, pulled her into him and let her fall—into the mattress, into his arms, into love with him.
There was no sense of desperation as he slowly undressed her, careful, thoughtful hands exploring every curve of her body as he stripped away the few slips of fabric between them. Dipping his head down to kiss the places his fingers touched, Arabelle found herself responding with soft moans each time his delicate lips brushed across bare skin.
Every gesture was slow, drawn out—as if they had all the time in the world. It was an odd thing for her to realize as their bodies came together, but every time they’d been in each other’s arms before that endeavor, it had been an act of desperation. As if each touch, each breath might be their last. They’d been driven by fear, but everything had finally fallen into place.
Their path had been forged years earlier, every twist and turn mapped out by the Maker, every road winding around obstacle after obstacle before finally leading them to the place they belonged. Together. From that moment forward they were as one, and nothing was going to come between them.