One of the things she loved about Vigil’s Keep was how much it reminded her of Castle Cousland once she’d grown accustomed to its strange hallways and unforgiving passages. Despite the fact that its connection to the Deep Roads lent a haunted atmosphere that always unsettled her, she’d begun to think of it as home. It occurred to her just moments after entertaining that thought that the hominess of it had come when she and Nathaniel became friends the night she told him her darkest secret in the dining hall.
Her room was always quiet, sometimes in a stifling way, but when he was there with her it felt comfortable and safe. The silence, however, amplified the gurgling protest of her empty belly, which spoke out to remind her she hadn’t eaten in several hours.
“Your stomach is very loud,” he chuckled as he drew her across his bare chest and kissed the top of her head. “Did you eat anything today?”
“Breakfast,” she muttered, “I think. And an apple at some point, or maybe that was yesterday.”
“How do you function without eating?” he wondered aloud. “I’ve always had an appetite, but I can barely go two hours without eating something these days.”
“It’s the taint in our blood. I get hungry at the most absurd times, usually in the middle of the night. I sneak into the larder and eat all the cookies.”
“So that’s what happens to them. I’ve heard rumors of cookies in this place, but have never actually seen any since I’ve been here. I thought the cookies were a lie.”
“Not a lie,” she sighed. “I eat them all. Sometimes I share with Anders. We split them between us and brush the crumbs into Oghren’s sheets.”
“That’s… a little childish.”
“But funny,” she shrugged against him. “Oh come on. It’s funny. Admit it. And besides, he hardly ever sleeps in there. He passes out on the floor.”
“It is sort of funny. But now I’m hungry for cookies,” he mused. “With milk. And cake.”
“Yessss,” she hissed agreement. “Cake would be very good. And roast chicken.”
“Chicken and cake?” His laughter shook them both. “That’s an unlikely combination. Would you eat them together?”
“I hadn’t thought much about it, but I suppose I might.”
“You have strange appetites, my lady. Maybe we should forage for food. Get something in that empty belly of yours before you grow delirious and start pairing even stranger groupings.”
“Pickles with dark chocolate?”
“Now you’re just being ridiculous. Come on. Let’s get dressed and go find something to eat. I had no dinner either and I’ll surely perish if I go much longer without.”
Tightening her arm across his waist, she hugged him closer with a soft, lamenting moan. “Let’s just stay this way a little while longer. You’re warm,” she murmured. “And I like the way your arms feel around me.”
“A little while longer then,” he agreed, “but we have to eat. We can always come back and resume this delightful position again afterward.”
“We absolutely could. We could stay this way straight on until morning if you like.”
“I would like that very much.”
“I… I enjoy sleeping with you, you know,” he said, and then feeling that his words must have sounded shallow, he corrected himself. “I mean sleeping in the literal sense. I enjoy making love to you, too, don’t get me wrong. I more than just enjoy that, but I just… I feel safe and comfortable when you’re sleeping in my bed with me. As if I’d never gotten a good night’s sleep before I slept with you.”
“Even with the nightmares?”
“Waking from those nightmares and being able to pull you close to me is a comfort.”
For her, it had been much the opposite. Waking from dreams of Alistair made her feel guilty when she rolled onto her side and saw Nathaniel curled up beside her. Even when he reached for her, drawing her close and promising she would be all right, she was riddled with remorse for having given in so easily, but what did she have left of Alistair to cling to? Moving on would not be easy, letting go would feel downright impossible at times, but she was exhausted from grasping at air and catching nothing but nightmares for her efforts.
“I feel the same way.”
The delicate tips of his fingers drifted along the curve of her hip, dipping inward, tickling across her side and up to rest on her arm. “I know it’s been only a few months since life threw us into this chaos together,” he started, “but it did throw us in together. I meant what I said before.”
“I love what we do. Battling darkspawn, unraveling this strange plot, protecting people from things they may not ever realize threaten them… I never imagined I would find pleasure in this kind of life, but I do. I expected to spend the rest of my days commanding my father’s garrison, but this is better. Being a Warden is an honorable thing, and it’s exciting, but I can’t imagine it would be even half as thrilling without you to share it with me.”
“So if they try to separate us, do we walk away?”
“Could you ever walk away from this life, Belle?”
“For the right reasons, I could,” she decided, surprising herself with how easily that decision was made. “I gave up a lot for the Grey Wardens. Duncan saved my life when he dragged me away from my parents, but the price I paid was higher than I could have ever dreamed. I lost my family, along with almost all opportunity to ever have a family of my own someday. I’ll never have a normal life, and neither will you. Doesn’t that bother you?”
He drew in a deep breath, his chest rising, lifting her with it before he exhaled. “What is a normal life anyway?”
“You and I will never have families of our own, Nathaniel.”
“Well, we’ll have each other.”
“I suppose you’re right, but still… I see how excited you get when you talk to Delilah about her baby. Your face lights up until you’re positively glowing when the subject of your becoming an uncle comes up.”
“Being an uncle and being a father are two different things.”
“Do you want to be a father?”
He was quiet for a long time, the silence making her feel frightened and cold, even though his body was warm and comfortable. He continued to stroke fingers thoughtfully across her skin until at last he lowered his cheek to the top of her head and brought her closer. “Sometimes, but I don’t suppose I’m meant to be the one who carries on the Howe family name and make it something to be proud of once again. Not anymore, anyway.”
“Don’t be sorry. For whatever reason this is who I’m meant to be now. Maybe it is the Maker’s will, or maybe it isn’t, but I accept my role in this world.”
“You are far more accepting of the Maker’s will than I am. After Alistair died, I swore I would never let myself love again, but it seems the Maker has other plans for me. That maybe He had this planned all along. I fought the hand that guided me to you, and sometimes I may still falter, but I’d be stupid to let you slip away.”
“You said it,” he pointed out, “not me.”
He winced, arching dramatically against her and laughing as she raised a hand to playfully slap the bare skin of his chest. “And I do suppose since I got you into this mess, the only fair thing to do would be to stick with you, no matter what.”
“Your generosity knows no bounds, my lady.”
“If the First Commander tries to separate us I’ll walk away.”
“And if he doesn’t, do we stay? Here? At Vigil’s Keep?”
“Or wherever else he sees fit to send us, I guess. The Grey Wardens are my family now, you’re my family.”
“I like the way that sounds.” Arabelle’s empty stomach gurgled and rumbled inside her again, making him chuckle softly. “All right, I can’t take anything you say seriously so long as your stomach keeps butting into the conversation. Come on, up with us and to the kitchens. Maybe we will find cookies there.”
“And chicken.” She dug her elbow into the mattress and edged herself into a seated position before stretching down to grab her tunic from the floor. “With potatoes and gravy.”
Nathaniel’s eyebrow shot up when she hefted herself back onto the bed, followed by an appreciative grin. “You truly know nothing about spoiling one’s dinner with sweets.”
“Old Nan was very strict about finishing one’s dinner before having dessert.”
“Oh, come on,” he chuckled, kicking his legs over the edge of the bed. “Don’t tell me you and Fergus never snuck sweets before dinner.”
“Never,” she shrugged. “We were very well-behaved. Nan ran a tight ship, you know.”
“Why don’t I believe you?”
“It’s in your nature to be suspicious, I guess.”
They left her room together, Arabelle openly sliding her arm in around his waist and falling into him as they walked through the hallways toward the kitchens. It was well-past the dinner hour, but their companions and several members of the staff were still in the dining hall as they approached, sharing drink and conversation. Oghren’s boisterous laughter rolled out like thunder to meet them while Justice watched on contemplatively from the other end of the tabale. Even the seneschal was there, enraptured by their most recent recruit’s enthralling description of life in the Legion of the Dead.
There was still food on the table, and spying it from the hallway, Belle stopped and drew Nathaniel toward the camaraderie and commotion. He seemed to hesitate, flashing a wary eye at her, but she edged him forward anyway, the two of them entering the hall just as he lowered an arm over her shoulders as if for support.
“I hope you saved us some food,” she said.
Their laughter and chatter stopped, all eyes turning on them as they approached the table.
“Food, yes,” Anders looked between them two of them, paying close attention to their obvious display of affection. “Drink, not so much.”
“There’s plenty of drink in the stores,” Garevel lifted his cup toward her.
“Don’t let Woolsey hear you say that,” Varel offered an uncharacteristic laugh, followed by an appreciative snort from Sigrun. “Come and join us, Commander. We may not have much to celebrate as it stands, but we’re fine company.”
Glancing over at Nathaniel, he smiled at her before edging his forearm into the small of her back to draw her forward. As they joined their companions, her taking seat at the head of the table, Arabelle found herself looking to each and every one of them as they passed a plate from one end to the other, piling food onto it for her.
It wasn’t an odd thing for her to think of Alistair, but in that moment it struck her as strange the memory that chose to rear its head. He’d told her a story once about what it’d been like to be a Grey Warden with the others before her Joining. There hadn’t been many of them, but they’d been close as kin, he said. The enjoyment of their company, the camaraderie they all shared had been one of the things that made losing them so hard for him.
They’d been the closest thing to family he’d ever had…
She’d promised him they would rebuild the Grey Wardens one day, remember the sacrifice of everyone he’d lost, most especially Duncan, but he hadn’t lived to see the beginning of that effort and for a moment that made her incredibly sad.
“Here.” Nathaniel plunked an overflowing plate down in front of her and slid it toward the edge of the table. “Tuck in and quiet that empty stomach of yours.” When she looked up at him, he smiled at her as if he knew it was exactly what she needed to draw her back from sorrow’s edge.
She leaned leftward, grabbed the half-empty bottle of wine from in front of Anders and poured a drink for both herself and Nathaniel.
“First, I want to say what an honor it is to be here with all of you. We may not have much to celebrate, as Varel pointed out, but we have each other, and I could not have been blessed with a finer group of Grey Wardens to call my family.”
“Well said,” Anders lifted his cup. “To the Grey Wardens.”
“To the Grey Wardens,” Nathaniel agreed.
One by one they each chimed in, and in that moment they were truly family.
The Wardens of Ferelden still had a long road ahead of them, and there was no telling what would happen as they edged along that road leading to the Architect and the Mother. But she had a good feeling about the people in that room, and for the first time in longer than she could remember, she felt like she was home.