An hour passed before either of them spoke: Nathaniel Howe and Bethany Hawke, the only two Grey Warden survivors of this latest attempt to find the ancient thaig where the red lyrium idol had been found six years ago. Between this disaster, the previous false starts, and the awful fate that had befallen Bartrand Tethris, Nathaniel suspected that the damn place might be cursed. At least Temmerin would also make it out, assuming he didn't take a wrong turn or become overwhelmed by deepstalkers along the way. With Dworkin on the run from the Qunari, Nathaniel didn't relish the idea of telling Voldrik that he'd lost yet another of his family.
Meanwhile, the two Wardens walked along in silence. Thinking of Voldrik and family put Nathaniel in mind of Delilah, and he shook his head. When would his sister stop worrying? This was a dangerous job, one that would kill him eventually; she needed to accept that inevitable fact sooner rather than later. He glanced sidelong at Bethany, who stared stonily forward, black hair falling into her dark brown eyes. Perhaps she, too, was thinking of family, given the encounter she'd just had with her brother.
"So," he said, finding the silence suddenly heavy, "your brother is the Champion of Kirkwall."
She shrugged. "And if he is? I thought we left family ties behind when we joined the Grey Wardens."
"More or less," Nathaniel said. "Although try convincing my sister of that." He looked at Bethany again, but she betrayed no reaction, not even a smile. "It's hard to let them go entirely. Especially for those of us who use family ties to help define who we are. I don't know if that's the case for you, but it is for me."
With that, she did cast a look at him, though she continued walking at the same brisk pace. "Your name is Howe. As in the Arl, who worked with Loghain during the Blight?"
"My father." Nathaniel shook his head. "His sins brought me to the Wardens against my will, but now I hope my deeds help atone for his actions." He took a deep breath. "And you? Any skeletons in the Hawke family closet?"
Bethany shrugged. "A few. Garrett's, mostly. But you'll understand if I don't want to talk about him right now."
"Of course," Nathaniel replied. "I'm sorry that went so badly. And that we had to leave so abruptly."
She laughed, but it was not a pretty sound. "Just as well," she said. "I didn't want to make conversation anyway."
"All right," Nathaniel said. "But if you want to talk later, I'm here."
"Thank you." At last, Bethany smiled; the expression was fleeting, but genuine, and Nathaniel was glad to see it. "How long before we're to the exit?"
"An hour, perhaps." Nathaniel grimaced. "I wish we had a dwarf here."
"We'll make do," Bethany said. "Lead the way."
Another hour passed, mostly in silence, before they reached the surface. Just seeing the door brought a weight off Bethany's shoulders, and as Nathaniel pushed it open, she took a deep breath of fresh air, then let it out. The sun was down, so she basked in moonlight instead, lifting her eyes to take in the sky full of stars. It was always a relief to be out of the Deep Roads.
A few feet past the exit they found Temmerin, who had already built a campfire and started dinner. He stood at their approach, and saluted. "Howe," he said. "And-- the mage? Where are the rest?"
"Down there," Bethany replied, grimly. "We were the only ones who made it out."
Temmerin's face fell. "Damn, I'm sorry. That was a hell of an ambush, wasn't it? Guess the Architect's intel was wrong."
"Let us hope that is all it was," Nathaniel said. "None of us would have made it if it weren't for your dynamite. So thank you for that."
"Glad to be of help." Temmerin shrugged. "I only wish it could have been more." He took another look around. "What about Anders, and the Champion?"
"Fine so far as I know." Nathaniel crouched on his heels next to the fire. "They took a different way out."
"Figures," Bethany muttered. "No matter the scrape, my brother always manages his way out of it unscathed. I wish the rest of us were that lucky."
Nathaniel raised an eyebrow in her direction, but he said nothing. Bethany ignored the look and took her own place by the fire, warming her hands against the chilly night air. This was her first mission with Nathaniel Howe -- she'd been reassigned from her usual team because of her knowledge of the ancient thaig; she'd heard Nathaniel was appointed leader thanks to his past experiences with the Architect, and Temmerin had come with him. So they'd all been outsiders, with little opportunity to interact with each other or the rest of the group before getting thrown onto this mission.
Next to her, Nathaniel shifted. "I'm sorry, I should have asked earlier. Did you have any close friends on this team?"
Bethany shook her head. "I was just thinking about how little I knew any of them," she replied. "I served with Stroud from the day I was recruited, and only joined this group a few weeks ago. Right before you did."
"Ah." Nathaniel sighed. "It's odd, not knowing them well enough to mourn them."
She shrugged. "I suppose. It's not like Stroud or his men are my friends, either. When you're all marked for death, it's harder to care."
"Really?" Nathaniel raised an eyebrow. "It's often been the opposite for me."
"Then you're lucky," Bethany said. She leaned back on her hands and looked back up at the sky: the treetops brushing the black sky, the stars glittering overhead. "I wish I could know them better. But that would mean accepting that I'm a Grey Warden, now and forever, and that's been... difficult."
"Ah." Nathaniel folded his hands together and bowed his head. "Conscription is a blessing for some, a cruel blow to others. I, too, came unwilling to the Order, but I soon found that the life suited me. But not everyone makes the same happy discovery, and I'm sorry that you are among their number."
Bethany tilted her head to look more carefully at Nathaniel, really study his face. Her first impression, that he was too craggy to be truly handsome, was softened by the firelight dancing across his features, and by the genuine regret she saw in his eyes. "Thank you, but it's not your fault. Just a stroke of bad luck."
"Perhaps," Nathaniel replied, "but a good Warden Commander can ease the transition, and it seems that Stroud failed you on that account. So for that, I am indeed sorry."
"He's not a bad man, but you may be right; he's a good commander, but probably not the right one for me." Bethany shrugged again. "Not much to be done about it now."
"I suppose not, but when we get to Ansburg, perhaps we can see about getting you reassigned." Nathaniel sat up a little straighter. "I may not have Stroud's seniority, but I do have a little influence."
Bethany's jaw dropped; she quickly closed it. "I-- well. I appreciate it. You would do that for me?"
Nathaniel turned to face her with a nod. "For you. And for anyone who was unhappy, were it in my power. I can't promise, but I can try."
She smiled. "Thank you."
He smiled back. "That smile is thanks enough." He got to his feet, then held out a hand. "I think dinner is ready; join me?"
Bethany took his hand, and he helped her up with a strong, warm grip. Archer's hands, she thought, lean and dexterous... then pushed back a blush. Now that was an inappropriate thought. "Of course."
Nathaniel, Bethany, and Temmerin were a day on the road to Ansburg when the runner reached them: the hunt for the ancient thaig was officially called off, and Nathaniel and any of his surviving company were to head directly for Amaranthine, where new orders awaited them.
"Well, that answers that then," Bethany said as she handed the parchment back to Nathaniel. "I guess I'm getting my transfer, without even having to ask for it."
Nathaniel folded the document and placed it in his pack. "I suppose you are." He looked to the runner. "Let them know that Bethany was the sole Warden survivor other than myself, and that I'll be glad to take a mage of her caliber into the fold at Amaranthine."
"Yes, sir," the runner said. "Anything else?"
"Not from me." Nathaniel turned to Bethany. "Would you like to add anything?" She shook her head and moved away, face blank. Nathaniel wondered at that, but set it aside for later. Instead, he returned his attention to the runner. "We're off for Ostwick and the port, then. Anything else we can do for you? Provisions or perhaps you'll camp with us tonight?"
"Thank you sir, but I need to get underway. Safe journey." The runner saluted, then took off back in the direction he had come.
Temmerin watched him go, then pulled out his map. "All right then. If we stay on this road, for another day or so, then turn off here, we'll be at Ostwick two or three days later."
"Ostwick?" Bethany paused, then faced Nathaniel. "Not Kirkwall?"
"Not from here." Nathaniel indicated their approximate location on the map, just south of the Vimmark, then drew a line along the coast to Kirkwall. "It would take another week to get there. Ships do run to from Kirkwall to Amaranthine more often. But I suspect it's faster to get a ship bound for Gwaren or Highever from Ostwick, then take another ship to Amaranthine, than it would be to take the time to walk back to Kirkwall. If we had horses..." he shrugged. "But I'm sure you know as well as anyone that the Wardens rarely keep them outside of Orlais or the Anderfels."
Temmerin nodded. "Can't exactly take horses into the Deep Roads, yeah?"
"Fine," Bethany muttered. "All right then, let's get going." She hitched her pack up higher on her shoulder and trudged down the road, back stiff. Nathaniel watched her for a moment, wondering. First she had been disinclined to spend any more time with her brother than absolutely necessary; now she seemed disappointed not to get another chance to see him. Well, family was complicated; he knew that as well as anyone, better than some. With a quick nod to Temmerin, he followed Bethany, letting her take the lead-- and her space.
A week and a half later, Bethany stood on the deck of a merchant ship, the city walls of Amaranthine rising in the distance. By rare good luck, the next Ferelden-bound ship from Ostwick had been willing to make Amaranthine its first port of call -- the captain hailed from Denerim, and was grateful enough to the Grey Wardens to make an alteration to her planned route. "Being a Warden is occasionally good for something," she murmured. She leaned over the rail, felt the sea spray on her face, the warm sun on her back, and reveled in the sight of the green cliffs of Ferelden.
"Home," she said, still to herself. Or so she had thought, so she was startled by the sound of a soft sigh behind her.
"Home," the newcomer agreed, and she turned around to see Nathaniel, walking to stand beside her. "It's been too long."
Belatedly, Bethany remembered that Nathaniel was actually from Amaranthine, the province if not the city, and that he spoke quite literally. "Well, Ferelden, anyway," she amended. "For me. I don't think I've ever been to Amaranthine."
Nathaniel nodded. "I recall hearing that your-- family hails from Lothering."
"Among other places," Bethany said. "My mother was from Kirkwall, and Garrett was born in the Free Marches, but my father was Fereldan, and he brought his family home. I believe my other brother and I were born in Highever, but we left from there before I can remember. We moved around a lot before settling in Lothering. And I think we'd have stayed there for good, but... well."
Nathaniel lowered his eyes. "The Blight," he said. "I'm sorry."
She shrugged. "At least we made it out. Many others can't say the same."
"Yes." Nathaniel got the same faraway look that Bethany had seen when he had talked about Arl Howe's role in prolonging the Blight a few weeks ago. "I went on a recovery mission to Lothering a few months after joining the Wardens. It was a sobering trip."
Bethany softened at the guilt that tinged his words. "If I understand the story aright, it was Teyrn Loghain who withdrew from battle, leaving Lothering to fall. Not Rendon Howe."
Nathaniel nodded, but did not look away from the sea. "True enough," he said. "Still, it is hard not to feel the atrocities for which he was responsible hanging over every tale of the Blight, his burden or not."
"His burden." Bethany found herself reaching out to Nathaniel, laying a hand on his arm. "Not yours."
He looked at her then, smiling gently. "True enough," he said. "Thank you."
"You're welcome," she replied. She squeezed his arm -- it was warm, and muscular, to go with his archer's build. At that inappropriate thought, she dropped her hand and stepped back, facing the view from the bow, fighting back a blush. She wondered what had possessed him to open up to her like that. He'd been cordial on the journey so far, but not nearly this familiar.
"Apologies," he said, voice tinged with amusement. "Being so close to home again brings memories back, but I didn't mean to burden you with them."
Bethany rested her arms on the railing and leaned forward. "It's all right," she said. "It happens to my brother all the time. He just has one of those faces, you know? Something about him makes near-strangers willing to confess their innermost secrets within minutes. Perhaps a bit of that has rubbed off."
"Perhaps," Nathaniel agreed. "You do look a great deal like him."
She shrugged. "So people say." But now she'd said too much, and she fell silent as the city approached. Who knew how long she'd be here, in Amaranthine? Better not to get too attached. Instead, she focused on the city walls, on the dark stone tower looming above, on the green hills drawing ever closer. Ferelden. For however long, it was nice to be back.
It had been well past noon when the ship docked at Amaranthine, so the sun was already low in the sky by the time Nathaniel spotted the gates of Vigil's Keep. He sped his steps with home in his sights, and soon they were passing through the walls, a soldier on either side raising their arms in greeting. "Welcome home, ser," one of them said, and Nathaniel responded with a nod. "Your message was delivered to Garevel; he said he'd join you for dinner. Also, the Warden Commander is waiting for you."
"Thank you," Nathaniel replied, then turned to Bethany as they walked further into the grounds. "Well. Welcome to Vigil's Keep, the primary Grey Warden base in Ferelden, as well as my childhood home."
Bethany raised her eyebrows. "How so?"
"Howe lands were forfeit, thanks to my father's treachery. So the Queen gave the arling, the keep, and all associated holdings to the Wardens, in thanks for their service and in exchange for future protection." He shrugged. "A fair boon, though it took me some time to see it that way."
She nodded, then continued looking around. "My word, this is a big keep. It's almost like a village in here."
"More or less," Nathaniel replied with a smile. "It takes a village to run a keep of this size. I'll give you a tour later; for now, we have an appointment with the Warden-Commander."
Bethany shot him a dubious look. "You need me for that?"
Nathaniel tipped his head to the side. "I ought to introduce you, and we need to make our report on what happened in the Deep Roads. The Warden Commander is a good sort; Askasha came from Antiva some years ago and has run both this place and the arling with a steady hand. I hope you'll like her." He let out a slight smile. "Certainly you'll find her more personable than Stroud."
She cracked a small smile in return, transforming her face as always, then lowered her head. "I hope so."
"Oi, Howe!" The gruff voice broke through Nathaniel's distraction, and he turned to see Voldrik Glavonak striding toward him. "Temmerin with you?"
"He's right--" Nathaniel took a quick look about, but couldn't find the dwarf. "Well, he was right here. He must have gone his own way after we arrived. But he's back, and he's fine. And helpful -- none of us would be here if he hadn't been there with his black powder."
Voldrik grunted. "Glad that damned stuff is worth something, given how much trouble it's brought us." He squared his shoulders and scowled. "The Qunari were back while you were gone, sniffing around again. Doesn't matter how many times we tell them that Dworkin left, they don't believe that he's not here, working away and breaking their precious monopoly." He looked up at Nathaniel. "I'm surprise you didn't see any on the road."
Nathaniel shook his head. "The road was clear, but that doesn't mean they aren't around. Just that the militia are doing their job."
"For once," Voldrik muttered. "At least the walls are reinforced again, so we can hold out if they try a siege."
"Let us hope it does not come to that," Nathaniel said. "Now I'm off to introduce our new Warden to the commander. Bethany, this is Voldrik, who's in charge of arms and Keep maintenance."
Voldrik tipped his head to Bethany. "Ma'am. Welcome to Amaranthine."
"Thank you," Bethany said.
Nathaniel exchanged another nod with him, then headed up the stairs to the keep, ready to make his report.
Bethany stood on the ramparts of Vigil's Keep, soaking in the warm afternoon sun. She had been in Amaranthine for two uneventful months. Other than her first debriefing with the Warden Commander -- who had, true to Nathaniel's word, been personable and professional, not as gruff or as impatient as Stroud -- her responsibilities had been few: sparring with the militia and other Grey Wardens, a few hours each day brewing poultices and other simple remedies that could be used in the field, regular team meetings with the Warden Commander. Otherwise, her time was her own, which had not been the case in Ansburg. Sometimes she would relax in the library, studying or reading a novel, but most often she found herself here, looking over the hills and enjoying the outdoors.
And there were other things to like about the view -- this wall had a perfect line of sight into the practice grounds, where the Wardens and militia members undertook regular feats of strength and skill. Sometimes Bethany would be down there, tossing about attack spells and protectives, but today she had been excused, so she watched instead. Today it was archery practice, lead by Nathaniel Howe. Over dozen fighters stood in a row, drew in unison, and loosed their arrows and bolts at Nathaniel's call. It was a contest of skill, and Bethany appreciated the grace with which the arrows flew through the air and found their targets with a satisfying thump. But she also appreciate the physique of the archers: arm muscles pulling taught, then relaxing, smiles of pleasure or scowls of frustration as their aim struck true or false.
She watched them all, but over and over her gaze returned to Nathaniel. He cut a particularly fine figure, standing taller than most of the others, his long elegant fingers gripping the arrow, his stance one of easy confidence, his gruff baritone drifting above the practice grounds. He was in his element here, on the grounds of his ancestral home, firing arrows and leading a group of warriors, and Bethany wasn't too shy to admit she admired him for that. Not to mention his biceps, easily visible thanks to the sleeveless leather breastplate he wore. Yes, she found much about Nathaniel Howe to admire.
From afar, at least.
After the last draw and release, Warden Commander Askasha rose from her place on the sidelines with a clap. "Good work," she said, loud enough for Bethany to hear clearly. "Now, who's up for a speed challenge? Most true shots in two minutes gets a week off latrine duty the next time they're in the field."
Three Wardens and two militia members stepped forward, followed by Nathaniel; the others groaned, and he smiled. "Afraid to try your luck?" He looking around at the other volunteers. "What can it hurt?"
"Just my pride, ser," one of the militia said, and everyone chuckled.
"All right, clear the targets and take your places."
All the archers went to collect their arrows and bolts, and then the six competitors took their places behind the line: two with short bows, one with a crossbow, and three, including Nathaniel, armed with longbows. As they assembled, a hush fell over the crowd -- somehow word of this contest had spread, and more people had gathered at the sidelines, and a few others on the roof with Bethany. One of her roof-mates whistled in anticipation, and Nathaniel turned in the direction of the sound. His eye fell on her instead, and he winked at her; she smiled and raised a hand, mouthing "Good luck". With a quick grin that seemed to signal that he wouldn't need it, he returned his attention to the target and drew his first arrow.
"Ready..." Askasha lifted her arm high, then chopped downward through the air. "Go!"
The next two minutes passed in a blur, each archer moving at lightning speed. Nathaniel worked with a graceful efficiency, wasting no motion, releasing each arrow on his way to pulling the next. The other two longbow shooters were clearly outclassed, as was the one woman with a short bow; to Bethany's surprise, the crossbow user nearly kept up despite the limitations of the mechanism, but the real threat was the militiaman who fired from a short bow. He was not as fast as Nathaniel, but his accuracy was uncanny, every single arrow finding its target, while a few of Nathaniel's had flown too far. When Askasha called time, all five dropped their weapons, breathing heavily; it was a near thing, but after counting the arrows she went up to the soldier and held up his hand in victory.
There were whoops and hollers and handshakes all around. Bethany noted that Nathaniel was the first to shake the victor's hand, then lightly clap him on the back before disappearing into the keep. She settled back on her heels and exchanged nods with the other Wardens on the walls, but she didn't leave -- instead she watched the militia celebrating their fellow's victory. It was rare for one of the militia to best the Grey Wardens in one of these contests, so no one begrudged them the moment. The impromptu party was still going strong when she heard a soft noise beside her, the clearing of a throat.
"Enjoying the show?" It was Nathaniel; she thought back to their conversation on the boat, two months ago, and marveled anew at how easily he could sneak up on her.
"Always," Bethany said, moving aside to make room for him on the wall next to her. "But I was rooting for you."
"I'm pleased to hear it," he replied with a quick grin. A few strands of hair had come loose from his braid, and he pushed them off his cheeks; that and a slight patina of sweat on his face were the only signs of exertion. He wasn't even breathing hard from the climb up the stairs. "But I'm not truly surprised -- Alen is the most accurate shot I've ever seen."
"You'll get him next time." Bethany bumped him with her shoulder, then pulled away, turning back to the view. They fell into a companionable silence as the bustle on the practice ground died down, the activity below moving back into the usual routine after the day's sparring came to a close -- the hired hands gathering up all the arrows, putting away the archery targets and practice dummies, preparing to shut up for the night and have dinner.
As they watched, Bethany snuck the occasional look at Nathaniel, and wondered at his presence. Beyond the occasional shared training session and the regular team meetings, she had not seen much of Nathaniel these two months, except in passing. But he always had a friendly smile for her, a warm hello, a kind word. And he had, as promised, given her a thorough tour of the keep and its grounds within a week of her arrival, introducing her to every person they met and telling her the history of every nook and cranny. She expected his care in showing her around was part of why she felt so at home here.
"So," Nathaniel said, "you are doing well in Vigil's Keep? At least from the little I've seen of you, you seem content."
Bethany shook her head. "You sure you aren't a mage? I was just thinking about that." He chuckled, and she flashed him a smile. "But you're right, I am content. I like serving under Askasha, as you suggested I might, but I think it has to do more with the place, the people." She looked toward the front gate, where dozens of houses and small business nestled against the walls -- the armory, the blacksmith, a handful of the merchant stalls scattered about. "It's a small community, comfortable and friendly. In a way, it reminds me of Lothering."
Nathaniel made a soft noise of agreement. "I didn't appreciate it enough when I was young. It felt too small and isolated to me, and I went to the city as often as I could. Then my father shipped me off to the Free Marches, and I didn't see the place for nearly a decade. I didn't realize how much I'd missed it until I returned."
"Home can be like that," Bethany said softly.
"Indeed." There was a smile in his voice. "And perhaps it will feel like home to you too, someday."
She shrugged. "Maybe. We'll see." She wasn't sure anything about being a Grey Warden would ever feel like home. Although maybe if she could stay here, and if Nathaniel... The thought was both too comfortable and a bit scary, and she shied away from it. He was kind and friendly, but that didn't mean he'd noticed her crush on him, or returned her feelings. She was content to stand here and talk with him, feel his warm solid presence, consider him a friend.
They stayed a little longer, until the setting sun shifted into their eyes and the first dinner bell rang. Nathaniel cleared his throat, then looked down at her. "I had planned to meet with Garevel at dinner, so I'm afraid I can't join you. But perhaps I'll see you another time soon?" Bethany nodded, and he smiled at her. "Have a good evening." And he left, through the doorway and down the stairs, leaving Bethany to watch him go.
After that, Bethany and Nathaniel developed a routine: time, travel, and other duties permitting, they would watch afternoon drills from the roof together; if one or both of them were on the practice field, they would find each other up there afterwards. Though it was not possible to meet every day, they managed it often enough, and Nathaniel soon found that afternoons were the highlight of his day. Either he was out on the practice ground, or watching Bethany's considerable skill with magic, or he was with her, discussing the drills or the latest news of Amaranthine and the Vigil. Her insight was keen, conversation with her easy, and she seemed happier as time went on, her eyes glowing, her smile fresh and lovely.
And if thoughts of that smile followed him throughout the day and into his dreams... well, he supposed there were worse burdens to bear. But even if there had been some sign that she might think of him in that way, he would be unlikely to act on his feelings. Fraternization among Wardens was not technically against the rules, but many of the order frowned upon it, and by some lights he could be considered her superior officer. Better to let the fantasy remain a fantasy, and hold on to the friendship.
The weeks passed into months, and one day, nearly half a year after Bethany had arrived in Amaranthine, Nathaniel climbed the stairs to the ramparts to find her already waiting for him. The past few days had been cold and rainy, freezing into ice, and though the storm had broken an hour or so past, the day's training had already been cancelled. So he hadn't been certain that she would be here, but there she stood, wrapped in a heavy cloak, face tipped up toward the sun. As the door fell closed behind him, she turned to him with a smile.
"Good afternoon," she said. "I admit, with no drills today, I wasn't sure you'd come."
"And I wasn't sure you'd be here," he replied, smiling in return. "It hasn't been the best weather for the roof, of late."
"That's why I came." As he stood next to her, she faced forward, toward the distant snow-dusted mountains. "With the weather turning, I want to take advantage of the sunlight every chance I get. And, well." She lowered her chin, a lock of hair falling into her face. "I have missed our meetings."
His breath caught at the admission, but he kept his voice even. "As have I." He rested his arms on the wall. "But it seems we have both been busy, of late."
"It's true." Bethany looked back up. "I always miss coming up here, seeing the familiar sights, and the small changes. Like that embankment, to the left of the gate. I wonder when Voldrik's men dug that?"
Nathaniel frowned and leaned forward, trying to get a closer look. "I don't know why they would have done so." He strode over toward one of the soldiers on guard duty. "You there! Do you see that embankment? Who authorized that?"
"No one I know of, ser," the guard said. He pulled out a spyglass, then let out a shout. "Qunari! To arms, to arms!"
He hurried away to blow the horn that signaled the keep was under attack; Nathaniel was already running along the ramparts, getting into range of what was, now that he had looked closely, obviously an entrenchment, built to either lay groundwork for a siege or dig beneath the keep walls. Perhaps both. How had this not been noticed? There would be some difficult meetings once this battle was through.
Bethany had been a few steps ahead of him, so she was already in place by the time he reached her side. Below them, the Qunari spilled out of their fortification: a phalanx with spears standing shoulder to shoulder, a row of archers forming up behind, a few saarebas scattered throughout. One Qunari male, even taller than the rest, stepped into the middle of the group and cupped a hand to his mouth. "Bring out the dwarf!"
Nathaniel groaned, then called back. "He's not here! As we have told you, repeatedly."
The Qunari shook his head. "You lie, human, like all your kind. Prepare to fall at our hands." The archers lifted their bows and drew, holding in place. Nathaniel stepped back from the wall and readied his own weapon, thanking the Maker that he was already dressed for a fight, in armor with bow and quiver close to hand, thanks to the cancelled drill. Unfortunately, the rest of the archers were unlikely to be so fast to the wall, and everyone else was certainly scrambling. It would be up to the two of them to hold the line until others could take the field. The two of them, he thought, noting that Bethany wore no armor, carried no staff. "You are unarmed," he said. "Are you sure..."
She shared a rueful smile. "A mage is never unarmed," she said, and she lifted her hands in the air and waved them in a circle, murmuring an incantation as a circle of yellowish light gathered around the Qunari's feet. Then she clapped her hands overhead, and the surrounded soldiers fell and slid across the ground, pulled together into a heap by some mysterious force. With a fierce smile, she turned her right hand, made a slow fist, and drew it sharply down in front of her face. With a resounding noise similar to a thunderclap, a blast of arcane energy slammed into the Qunari on the ground, and several of them moved no more.
"Oh well done!" Nathaniel shouted over the cries from below, then loosed his first arrow, the battle well and truly begun.
It was rather like the speed trial from a few months ago, those first few minutes: Nathaniel drawing and releasing as quickly as he could, taking less care with his aim than usual. He had a full quiver, with more presumably on the way; no matter if a few arrows missed their targets, or hit them off center. Out the corner of one eye, purple and yellow energy crackled out of Bethany's fingertips, while on his other side he vaguely sensed the other archers gathering, running behind him with shouts and the jangle of armor and the scraping of someone pulling the ballista into place. As much as he could, he focused his fire on the archers and mages -- better if their ground troops were not immediately cut down from a distance. And it was working, their numbers thinning, as the door from Vigil's Keep burst open with militia and Wardens, blades whirling.
Nathaniel took that moment to breathe, to look down the wall and see more archers gathered. It would be enough, surely the Qunari had no siege engine hidden in that embankment--
"Look out!" Bethany cried, but her shout was drowned out by a blast of force to the side of his face; Nathaniel was falling, his vision going dark, his limbs numb with cold, a sharp pain in the back of his head, and then he knew no more.
Somewhere very nearby, Bethany heard someone's scream. Dimly, she realized it was her own. Nathaniel lay on the ground, eyes closed, skin blue with cold, frost crystals dusted through his dark hair. Heedless of the battle that raged around her, she dropped to her knees and framed his face with her hands.
Bethany didn't know much healing magic -- that had been her father's specialty, never hers -- but what little she had, she poured into him, willing the color back into his cheeks. "Please," she whispered, to the Maker, to Andraste, to the power of her own magic. "Please don't let me lose you, too."
An age passed as she pushed the last of her energy into him, tapping into every reserve she had-- and then he took a deep breath, his chest rising and falling. Bethany pulled away, then collapsed, head in her hands, as tears of fear and relief sprung to her eyes. She had been enough -- he was alive.
"Beh-- Bethany?" She looked up and saw him, his eyes fluttering open as he turned his head toward her. "What... hap... pend?
She went back to his side and rested a hand on his shoulder. "Don't try to move." His breathing was better, yes, and he was conscious, but his skin was still too pale, and the frost on his hair hadn't entirely melted. "You were hit by a Cone of Cold spell, strong enough to take you down in one shot. I did what I could, but you need a real healer."
She lifted her head to call for someone, to see that someone already running her way with a stretcher under his arm. He was another Grey Warden mage, a fairly new recruit; Bethany couldn't remember his name. "I saw what happened. Good work stabilizing him. Did you hit your head when you fell?" This last was directed to Nathaniel, who nodded, then winced with pain. The man carefully checked the back of Nathaniel's head. "A bump, but no bleeding. That's good." He glanced up and around the battle. "Still, we should get him out of here. Can you help me carry him to safety?" Bethany nodded, and he laid out the stretcher next to him. "You get his feet, and I'll support his head. Yes, like that. One, two, three-- lift!"
Together they rolled him on the stretcher, then carried him behind the archers and other mages, into a more open area that Askasha had set up as a make-shift command center. Her eyes widened as they approached, a look of dismay settling across her features. "Is that Howe?"
Bethany nodded. "He went down on a single spell. We should warn everyone that the Qunari have at least one very powerful mage." They set him on the ground; Bethany stepped back as the healer moved in, but found she could not look away.
"Bethany." Askasha's voice was gentle, but firm. "Do I remember rightly that you aren't a healer?" She nodded, but didn't move, or take her eyes off his face. "Then I need you back on the field. Go get your staff, then take your place."
She shook herself free, forced herself to meet Askasha's eyes. "Yes, Warden Commander. I'll be back as soon as I can." She knelt down next to Nathaniel and touched his hand; he twitched his index finger just enough to hook it around hers. "And I'll see you after the battle." He nodded again, then let his eyes fall closed. With that, she stood, then ran off to her rooms to fortify herself for battle, still trembling, but secure in the hope that she'd done all she could.
The rest of the day passed in a blur as Nathaniel drifted in a haze of pain and unconsciousness. Sometimes he could hear the battle in the distance: the shouts of Wardens and soldiers and Qunari, Askasha barking orders, the crack of the ballista and of thunder magic. Sometimes the sounds were closer by, the gasps and moans of pain from his fellow patients -- occasionally followed by ominous silence.
Once he opened his eyes and saw Bethany there, kneeling next to him, her upper arm wrapped in a bandage. "You're injured," he said, or tried to say, but the words came out slurred, and he realized that it hurt too much to talk.
"I'm all right," she murmured. "Just a glancing blow from an arrow. The Qunari called a truce -- Askasha is talking to their leader now. So everything is fine, and you need to rest."
She ran a hand over his hair, and he leaned into her, her warm touch turning cool. Magic, he thought, or maybe just... And with that, he passed quite suddenly into a deep sleep.
When he woke, he was back in his quarters with no memory of how he had gotten there. The room was dark, the shades pulled down -- from the dim light that came in through the cracks, he thought it must be near dawn. Carefully, despite the pain in his head, he sat up, and took a look around. He was indeed in his own bed -- the healers must have carried him here after the battle -- with a full glass of water on his bed stand and a fire burned nearly to embers in the fireplace. A figure drowsed in the nearby armchair, but as he stirred, so did they, and as they stood up and walked closer to the bed, Nathaniel recognized the Grey Warden healer who had helped him on the battlements.
"How do you feel?" the man asked.
"Better," Nathaniel said. "But I still have a splitting headache. Did I sleep the rest of the day away?"
"Yes, and a good thing." The healer shook his head. "A blast of cold like that should have frozen you straight through. You're lucky you had a mage nearby with just enough healing skill to thaw you out. I might not have gotten to you in time otherwise."
"Still, I thank you for your help." Nathaniel picked up the glass and took a long drink. "I will recover?"
The healer nodded. "But you'll need to stay on light duty for at least a week, once you're out of bed. And avoid bright lights whenever possible. I'm confining you to quarters for the day, and we'll evaluate the situation tomorrow morning." He stood up, then grinned. "Now, you've had a visitor waiting, if you're up to it. Bethany, the mage who saved your life?"
Nathaniel's heart thudded into his chest, but he only sat up a little straighter. "Of course," he said.
"All right. Let me see if she's awake." The healer stepped out into the hall, looked around, then made a beckoning motion. A moment later, Bethany stood in the doorway -- still bandaged, a little rumpled, her hair in a halo around her head. She stepped into the room, and the healer closed the door behind her.
She took one step forward, then stopped. "How are you?"
"Much better, thanks to you." He took another sip of water, then put the glass back down. "I do have a headache, but I'm told it will pass."
"My father had a tonic for that," she said. "I'll make you some."
He smiled. "Thank you. And... for saving me. I understand I might not have survived the cold spell if not for your aid."
She ducked her head. "I'm sure he exaggerated my role. I'm no healer. But I did my best."
"That's all I could ever ask." He reached out a hand, and she stepped close enough to take it. "And I appreciate it, now and for always."
"Of course." She smiled back at him, but it was a wobbly smile. "How could I have done anything else? You've been so kind to me, and I... I couldn't face losing you. Not like all the others."
Nathaniel's breath caught. "The others?"
She nodded. "Everyone else I've cared about." She sat on the edge of the bed, not letting go of his hand. "That's an exaggeration, I suppose. But I've long felt that way, rightly or no. I couldn't bear to lose you, too."
"You've... cared about." Nathaniel tightened his hand in hers, then looked into her warm brown eyes, bright with unshed tears. "I care about you, too, Bethany. More than I've imagined I could ever say."
"Nathaniel," she whispered, and then she leaned forward and kissed him.
He closed his eyes and kissed her in return, bringing his other hand up to rest on her back. She trailed a finger across his cheek and murmured his name again, following that up with another kiss, soft and warm and lingering. He ran his hand down her back and pulled her closer into the embrace he'd dreamed of but never dared hope for.
Forever later and too soon, she pulled away, her smile less tentative now. "I've wanted to do that for a long time," she admitted, and his own smile broadened. "I'm sorry it took a near-death experience to get me moving."
He stroked her hair and kissed her forehead. "We're here now, and that's all that matters."
"I hope so," she said. "I know so." Her eyes softened. "You know I haven't always been happy in the Wardens. But I'm happy here. And I'm happier to be here with you. So what matters most to me is getting you well again."
"This is all the medicine I need," he replied, voice husky as he leaned forward to kiss her again, his mouth lingering on hers, drawing on her warmth and life.
She chuckled. "Would that were true." This time, as she pulled away, she stood up. "We probably have a lot to talk about," she said. "About how this will work, without jeopardizing your place, and how much time we'll have together and so forth. But that can wait. For today, you need that headache tonic, and some food. And I could eat a house. So I'll get us some breakfast, and maybe we'll talk more."
Finally, reluctantly, he let go of her hand, stroking her fingers as she pulled free. "Yes, my lady. I look forward to every minute."
She backed away and out the door, never breaking his gaze until the last minute, and then she was gone. But that was all right, Nathaniel thought as he settled back against the pillows. He could wait for her return. Forever, if that's what it took.