I would like to say a huge thank you to everyone who has read, alerted or favourited this story, and to those of you who took the time to leave reviews; in particular those of you who review regularly - you have truly inspired me. I would also like to thank CCBug yet again for her help with Cullen & Gabby, and to Jen4306 for making this story readable and for an excellent edit of yet another monster chapter! Thank you!
And last but not least, thank you to Nithu for giving me such a wonderful idea in the first place!
As darkness fell over Lake Calenhad, activity within the Circle Tower slowed. The apprentices, being younger on the whole than their harrowed kin, had already retired, and most of the mages and enchanters were settled in their rooms. The Templar night shift had taken over, and torches were extinguished throughout the Tower, leaving only a few still burning; a night like any other.
Another constant, as inevitable as the sunrise, was the Wardens' difficulty in sleeping; both Wardens in the Tower were awake long into the night. Although Nathaniel, being the organised one of the two, had packed earlier on in the day, he checked through his pack once again, ensuring he hadn't missed anything. He and Gabby still had a few dried rations remaining, which they would keep for emergencies. The Tower's cook had very kindly promised to prepare enough fresh provisions for a few days' travel in the morning, and he could hunt for food when supplies ran low. Food for their horses would be purchased at the stables next to the Spoiled Princess. He anticipated, with all being well, that they would reach Vigil's Keep in around a week's time.
The only thing Nathaniel had not yet packed was a small black case. He opened it and looked forlornly at the solitary dagger lying within, bereft of its partner. Ser Smyth had promised to thoroughly investigate its disappearance and bring any findings to him in the morning. The pair of daggers had been a birthday gift from the Wardens at Vigil's Keep.
He had been stunned when a celebration was thrown for him at the Keep a few months previously. He'd had no idea anyone at the Keep knew when his birthday was; he barely acknowledged it himself anymore. During his eight year tenure in the Free Marches he hadn't celebrated it once, and his birthdays at home were always a very dry affair; his father was never there, and his mother was too busy running the Arling to really notice him. A few Sovereigns were usually placed in trust for him to mark the occasion. As though I needed them, he reflected miserably.
He smiled fondly to himself as he remembered his first ever birthday party. He had been out on an early morning hunt in the woods to the west of Vigil's Keep. Although the Keep didn't need any extra meat, Nathaniel enjoyed hunting and would occasionally wander off for a few hours, after first informing Gabby. She noticed that he tended to do this when he was unsettled about something, and the solitude seemed to do him good. She guessed correctly that he would go hunting on the morning of his birthday – having gleaned that information from his sister, Delilah – and, as soon as he set off, she and the other Wardens sprang into action.
Upon his return, the guards at the gate bowed to him, and informed him that his 'subjects' awaited him within the Keep. Nathaniel made a mental note to have Anders pay them a visit, as they appeared to be suffering from some malady of the mind or blood. He entered the Keep, and turned a few hares over to the cook.
An ear-splitting cacophony came from behind him, and a bizarre sight met him as he turned around. Oghren, dressed in a shirt, singlet, pantaloons and tricorn hat, was making several tuneless attempts at playing a bugle he'd snatched from one of the Keep's wall displays. "Hear ye, hear ye!" Oghren proclaimed. "The Master of the house is here! Take up your positions!"
Nathaniel exited the kitchen into the dining hall, his mouth agape. Standing in a line in front of him were his fellow Wardens and Varel, all in fancy dress; the hall itself was festooned with banners and tapestries, and a large chair sat at the end of the dining table, draped in purple and gold fabric. His fellow Wardens bowed to him, and Gabby, who was dressed as a minstrel, walked over, took his arm and led him over to his 'throne'. A wooden crown – made by Samuel, the Keep's carpenter - was placed atop his head, although it was slightly too big for him, and kept slipping down over one eye.
They all took turns pledging fealty to the 'birthday King', each friend presenting him with a gift. Varel, who was dressed as a farmer – complete with an ear of corn sticking out of his mouth – gifted him a beautiful pair of steel bracers. Anders – whose simple costume of an old potato sack and a smear of mud across his face denoted him as the village idiot – gave Nathaniel a new, and very expensive, pair of archery gloves, after accusing Howe of being an embarrassment to the Warden Order, for constantly wearing his tatty old leather gloves.
The rest of the Wardens in turn gave him a gift, and then Gabby presented him with a magnificent pair of inscribed daggers with mother-of-pearl handles, in a black leather case. All of the Wardens had pitched in to buy them, and Gabby had crafted a fire rune upon one dagger, and a lightning rune upon the other. Nathaniel received them joyfully, and named them 'Aed' and 'Tintreach'.
Then they had games, songs, and a scavenger hunt. As captain of the hunt's losing side, Nathaniel was placed in the stockade and pelted with overripe tomatoes and eggs, although, upon Gabby's insistence, everyone had a turn. Finally, after cleaning up, they returned to the dining hall, where a boar was being spit roasted by the kitchen staff, and a wonderful night of feasting, dancing and celebration was had by all. After recovering from his initial bemusement, Nathaniel felt deeply touched and honoured that his friends had gone to so much effort to make his birthday so special.
Turning Tintreach over in his hand, Nathaniel no longer cared who had taken Aed, or why; he just wanted it back.
Gabby, too, was awake, but for different reasons. For one thing, she hadn't even thought about packing yet, and decided that now would be a good time to start. She didn't get very far, however, as her mind kept wandering. Although she was looking forward to going home, she was dreadfully worried that Cullen would revert to his old ways once she had gone, and when she thought of him, an ache bloomed within her; a yearning that she knew would never be assuaged. She had her duty and so did he; they simply were not meant to be together.
She reasoned that if she kept telling herself that, eventually she would believe it, and would be able to move on; but at that moment, alone in her room in the dead of night, it seemed a rather lofty ambition, and she found herself in a very dark and lonely place.
As though able to read her mind, Nathaniel knocked on her door and asked if she wanted some company. He helped her to pack, and they stayed up for a while talking and drinking tea, before the need for sleep finally overcame them, and they retired to their beds.
Nathaniel and Gabby stood near the main doors of the Circle Tower the following morning, which had been opened for their imminent departure. Gabby kept an eye out for their recruits, and Nathaniel stood quietly talking to Ser Smyth.
"I fear, Nathaniel, that my investigation has turned up nothing of note," Smyth said humbly, "but rest assured, I will not stop until your dagger is found, and the guilty party exposed."
Nathaniel nodded sadly and shook Tristan's hand. "I know you've done your best," he reassured Smyth.
"No," Smyth replied. "I am appalled that a distinguished guest such as yourself has been victim of such a reprehensible act. I am deeply ashamed," he said, shaking his head. "I will get to the bottom of this, Nathaniel," he vowed.
The two men walked over to where Gabby stood, waiting for the recruits to arrive. "Now, I must bid you farewell," Ser Smyth said with regret in his voice.
"It was an honour to meet you, Ser," Nathaniel said, shaking Smyth's hand again.
"The honour was mine, Nathaniel," Smyth replied.
"And I am proud to call you a friend, Tristan," Gabby said warmly as they shook hands.
Ser Smyth, touched, bowed his head deferentially. "I do hope you are able to visit again," he said to the Wardens. "You are always welcome here." He closed his eyes for a moment, and held his arm out toward them in blessing. "My hearth is yours, my bread is yours, my life is yours," he said softly, "for all who walk in the sight of the Maker are one."
He then stepped back and crossed his arms over his chest, bowing low. "May the Maker's blessings light your path, and guide you safely home," he said with a gentle smile.
Gabby and Nathaniel returned his bow, and they bade Tristan farewell.
"Very decent man," Nathaniel said in admiration as Smyth walked away. Gabby nodded in agreement, wiping a tear from her eye.
"What's taking them so long?" Nathaniel wondered aloud.
"If you mean your recruits, Warden," one of the Templars stationed at the door said, "I think they're in the chapel, praying for a safe journey, perhaps. They'll be along shortly."
"Ah," Nathaniel replied. "Thank you."
"Here comes someone, now," Gabby said as they heard the familiar swishing and clanking of Templar armour.
The Templars at the doors straightened up as their Knight-Commander approached. "Ser," they addressed him in unison. Gabby stood rooted to the spot; she had not expected to see him this morning.
"Dismissed," Cullen said curtly. The two Knights bowed and retreated around the corner. Cullen glanced at Gabby. "Warden-Commander, a moment please?" he asked and stepped outside, not waiting for her answer. Gabby and Nathaniel followed, unsure of what to expect.
Cullen looked at Nathaniel, who stepped back and glanced away from them. Cullen then retrieved something from his pocket and gripped it tightly for a moment as he stared at his hand. "I, um, I wanted to give you something," he said softly. "If you will accept it from me, that is."
"What is it?" Gabby asked curiously.
"This," he replied, opening his hand. Coiled in his palm was a small silverite idol, hung on a thin leather strap.
"A necklace?" she asked brightly.
"In return for yours," he replied with a soft smile, holding it up in front of Gabby. "This is Andraste," he explained, pointing to the idol. "May she protect and keep you on your journey home, and ever afterwards."
Gabby took the necklace from him and admired it for a moment. "Thank you," she whispered. "I will treasure it."
Cullen nodded slightly, and stepped back. Gabby watched as he sighed and looked up at the sky for a moment, then at the ground, and sensed he was unsure of himself. His gaze returned to her, and together, they looked down at her hands, at the idol shining in the sunlight.
"I'm pleased you like it," he mumbled, and shifted uneasily under her gentle stare. "Don't forget, you promised to write to me," he reminded her.
She grinned and agreed. "I hadn't forgotten," Gabby whispered, her thumb idly stroking the symbol of the Maker's bride.
"Well, then," he replied. "Have a safe journey, Gabby. You will be missed." Cullen bowed to her and began walking away before she could respond.
Gabby watched him depart, her heart aching at the unspoken words in their good bye. She opened her hand, and again looked down at the face of Andraste.
From the corner of her eye, she spotted Cullen come to a halt, and heard a heavy sigh. Gabby's head snapped up as he strode back to her, and she gasped as his arms encircled her waist.
"C-Cullen?" she stammered, both thrilled and shocked to be in his embrace.
"Gabby," he whispered, then pulled her against him, as he lowered his mouth to hers.
She felt her knees liquefy as their lips finally met; the passion they had both so dutifully suppressed acknowledged for the first time. Lost in him, she wrapped her arms around his neck, pulling him deeper in, and his arms tightened around her slender waist. His kiss was as sweet and tender as she had always known it would be, but the urgency of it, unexpected and overwhelming. Moaning softly, Gabby prayed it would never end.
He pulled away from her suddenly, breathless and red-faced. Gabby, thrown by the abrupt end, and desperate to feel his touch again, stepped closer, but he retreated. He hung his head, although his expression was not one of shame, but of bashfulness. A shy grin crept along his lips, and he sheepishly looked up at her. "You will write?" he asked softly.
She smiled and nodded mutely, before Cullen stepped away quietly. With one last stolen glance at her, he turned and quickly walked back inside.
Gabby stared after him, breathless, her fingers touching her lips, the feel of his kiss still on them. She hardly noticed when Nathaniel appeared beside her.
"Are you going to put that on?" he asked.
"Uh?" she mumbled blankly.
"The necklace," he said. "Are you going to put it on?"
Gabby looked up at him. "What, no smart comments?" she asked. "No disapproving stares?"
"What good would that do, now?" he asked softly, taking the necklace from her and slipping it around her neck.
Gabby sighed and rubbed her forehead. "I'm sorry," she said quietly.
"Look, why don't you go across the Lake now, while I round up the Templars?" he suggested, sensing her need for solitude. "Kester can't take all of us across at once, anyway."
"Yes, alright," she mumbled. "I'll get the horses ready."
Nathaniel watched as she walked away in a daze, gently clutching the idol of Andraste in her hand. He shook his head and walked back inside.
Cullen headed straight up to his quarters on the fourth floor, locked his door, and sat by his window. From here he had a full view across to the Lake's northern shore, and, on a clear day, the Spoiled Princess could be seen; today was such a day. He watched as the previously idle Kester became animated and walked toward the Tower, out of Cullen's view; after a few moments, Kester reappeared, carrying various items which he stowed on his boat.
Cullen leaned forward and sighed as Gabby appeared, carrying a few more items. Kester assisted her with them, and then helped her onto the boat. As they got underway, Gabby turned around to face the Tower, and sat with her knees drawn up, resting her chin on one of her hands. Cullen wondered if she was looking up at the fourth floor, and thought of waving from the window, then immediately changed his mind, thinking it too maudlin. His stomach knotted as Kester bore her further away from him, and she became smaller with each moment that passed. "May Andraste keep you safe, Gabby," he said softly to himself. "I…"
I love you.
A knock at his door jarred him from his musing. He groaned to himself and stood up. This had better be good, he thought angrily as he unlocked the door and opened it.
"Yes?" he asked in surprise. "What do you want?"
After six days and nights of travel, Gabby, Nathaniel and the Templar recruits finally arrived at Vigil's Keep. Gabby could not contain her excitement as Varel strolled out to greet them. She dismounted her horse and ran over to him, ignoring his proffered hand, and wrapped her arms around him. "I've missed you, Varel!" she chirped.
Varel chuckled softly to himself and patted her shoulder. Realising he was embarrassed, she released him and they shared a smile. "It is good to have you home, Commander," he said as the men dismounted and approached them.
Nathaniel shook Varel's hand, and then introduced him to the Templar recruits. "Come on," Nathaniel said to them, realising that Gabby and Varel had things to discuss. "Let's get the horses stabled, and then I'll give you a tour of the Keep."
Gabby nodded gratefully to Nathaniel as she and Varel took a walk. "Templars, Commander?" he asked curiously. "I'm surprised, to say the least."
"I'll bet," she said with a grin. "The Knight-Commander could not spare any mages at the present time," she explained, "but apparently there were plenty of Templars to go around, and Nathaniel and I didn't want our trip to be wasted."
Varel grunted softly. "How soon would you like to perform the Joining?" he asked, wasting no time.
"I was thinking of tomorrow morning," she answered.
"Why the delay?" Varel asked with a frown.
"Well, they've spent most of their adult lives cooped up in a Tower," she explained, "which I can identify with. I thought it would be nice for them to let their hair down a little, if only for one night."
"As you wish, Commander," Varel replied evenly.
"You disapprove, don't you?" she guessed.
Varel halted and sighed. "Not exactly, Commander," he replied. "I just don't think it's a good idea to become overly familiar with the recruits before their Joining."
"Normally, I would agree, Varel," Gabby answered, "but it's already too late for that. Nathaniel, in particular, spent a lot of time with the recruits. In a place like the Tower, it can't be avoided."
He nodded. "Fair enough, Commander," he replied. "Who will perform the Joining?"
"Nathaniel and I, as usual," she answered.
"Very good, Commander," he replied. "I will make the necessary arrangements."
"Thank you, Varel," she said warmly as they walked toward the Keep. "Where is everyone?" she asked with a frown. "I thought Anders might have come out to greet us."
"Anders buggered off somewhere when he saw the Templars ride through the gate," Varel replied with a hint of mischief in his voice, "as did the other mages."
"Ah," Gabby chuckled. "So you didn't warn him, then?"
"Indeed I did not, Commander," Varel said solemnly, "as per your written instructions. The guilt has nearly torn me apart."
Gabby threw her head back and laughed. "Did I tell you I've missed you, Varel?" she asked brightly, slipping her arm around his as they headed toward his office.
The Templars' tour of the Keep began in the dining hall, as Nathaniel was famished. "This is where we spend most of our time," he told the Templars. "Look around; I'll get us some food."
The Templars glanced around in astonishment at the huge hall and suddenly felt quite small and insignificant, having been accustomed to the more intimate and sometimes claustrophobic feel of the Circle Tower.
"Look at this!" Conn exclaimed as the other Templars joined him in one of the corners of the hall.
"What is that?" Ser Richardson asked with his mouth hanging open. Nathaniel glanced over and suppressed a chuckle, watching with amusement to see what would happen.
"Where did this come from?" Ser Bailey called over to Nathaniel.
"Honnleath," he answered, biting his lip to stop himself from laughing.
"BOO!" a preternatural voice boomed throughout the hall; the Templars scattered in disarray and fled through the exit. Panicked cries of "Maker preserve us!" could be heard from around the corner.
When Nathaniel had stopped laughing, he called the Templars back into the hall. "It's alright," he reassured them, "you're quite safe." As the Templars warily re-entered the hall, Nathaniel introduced them to Shale.
"More men in frocks, I see," Shale remarked pithily as the Templars hesitantly approached. "They do appear to be mage-killers, however. I must say, I approve."
"It-it can talk?" Conn gasped in astonishment.
"It can indeed, mage-killer," Shale replied. "My, it is a bright one, isn't it?" she said to Nathaniel. "Does it follow commands and perform tricks, as well? I have been meaning to acquire a pet…"
"Don't mind Shale," Nathaniel said to a dumbstruck Conn. "She has a very dry sense of humour."
"She?" the Templars gasped.
"Yes," Shale replied superciliously. "Kindly address all formal requests to court me to the black-haired Warden. It does not take kindly to cads and scoundrels seeking to take advantage of me."
"It most certainly does not," Nathaniel said seriously, folding his arms, and then burst out laughing at the expressions on the Templars' faces. "I think you lot had better sit down," he said, pulling a few chairs out and inviting the dazed Knights to sit. "You'll get used to things around here," he said encouragingly. "Either that, or you'll go insane." Conn and Richardson laughed; they had become used to Nathaniel's sense of humour. Willoughby and Bailey looked a little pale.
"We'll have some food, and then I'll show you to your quarters," said Nathaniel. "I suspect you've had enough touring for one day."
Gabby emerged from Varel's office a little later, her head spinning from the sheer amount of work the two of them had to do tomorrow. Nathaniel, having left the Templars to settle into their quarters, went to fetch her some tea; he recognised that look on her face.
"Hey, shorty!" yelled an ebullient voice from the end of the hall.
"Anders!" she cried, overjoyed to see her friend striding over. Tears spilled from her eyes as his long arms enveloped her. "Oh, I've missed you so much!" she mumbled against his shoulder.
Nathaniel watched the exchange impassively, until he noticed the smile fade from Anders' face, and the sudden tension in the mage's body. Anders' eyes met his; Nathaniel frowned heavily and nodded his head upward. What's wrong?
Anders pulled back and at once affected a jovial expression. "You nearly put me in the ground, Gabby, when I saw those Templars riding in through the gate!" he chirped, although his voice had a hard edge to it. "I thought they'd finally come for me, and so did the other apostates!"
"Sorry, Anders," Gabby said wearily.
"Had an interesting time at the Tower, eh?" he asked softly, brushing a tear from her cheek. "Well," he said, leading her away from where Nathaniel stood. "Why don't we sit down, and you tell me all about it?"
"I have to unpack my things," Gabby said quickly, patting Anders' chest with her hand. "Maybe later, hm?" she replied, and headed out of the hall, with Anders' eyes never leaving her.
Anders walked over to Nathaniel. "What's happened, Nate?" he asked, his voice uncharacteristically stern.
"What do you mean?" Nathaniel replied quietly.
"Don't give me that!" Anders snapped, taking Nathaniel by surprise. "How is it that she's returned from the Tower…" he paused and took a deep breath. "Something happened there, didn't it?"
"What's wrong, Anders?" Nathaniel asked sharply.
"Never mind…" Anders mumbled. "I'll ask Gabby, instead."
"I wouldn't advise that at the moment, Anders," Nathaniel warned. "She's tired, and needs some rest."
"I bet she's tired," Anders retorted. "What happened at the Tower, Nathaniel?" he asked again, "between the two of you, I mean."
Nathaniel looked confused. "I don't know what you're getting at, Anders," he said irritably.
Anders looked at him doubtfully. "Whatever you say," he said, and began to walk out of the room.
"Where are you going?" Nathaniel asked sternly.
"Up to see Gabby," Anders replied as he headed toward the stairs. Nathaniel groaned to himself and followed.
Anders reached Gabby's door and hesitated for a moment, glaring at Nathaniel as he caught up. Anders knocked on her door; it opened, and she peered around it, looking tired and upset. "Gabs," Anders said softly, "can I speak to you for a moment?"
She nodded and gestured for him to enter. "In private," Anders said firmly as Nathaniel followed him in.
"I'm here to make sure you don't keep her too long, or get her to do something stupid to 'cheer her up'," Nathaniel answered.
"Don't you ever get tired of knowing what's best for everyone?" Anders said angrily. "Sod off, Howe, and leave us in peace!" he said with uncharacteristic rancour.
"Will you two stop bickering?" Gabby said exasperatedly. "I'm very tired, and I don't need this!" She sighed and her tone softened. "What's wrong, Anders?" she asked the mage. "Why are you so upset?"
Anders paced back and forth for a moment, and then looked at Gabby as she sat down on her bed. "I really have to speak to you in private, Gabby," he insisted, glancing at Nathaniel, who stood his ground and folded his arms.
"Look," Gabby said wearily. "The two of you are like brothers to me, and I don't want you fighting. Anders, you're obviously upset about something, so just tell me. You know I'll tell Nathaniel, anyway."
"But, this is…personal," Anders said anxiously. Nathaniel's eyes narrowed and his face hardened as he looked at the mage.
"It's alright, Anders," Gabby reassured him. "I have no secrets from the two of you. You both know everything about me. Just tell me."
Anders glanced at Nathaniel, then back at Gabby, anxiety etched on his face. He sighed heavily, closed the door and then sat on the bed next to her. "Gabby," he said quietly. "I want you to brace yourself."
She looked at him in alarm. "What?" she exclaimed. "Just tell me!"
Anders closed his eyes for a moment and then looked at her. "You're with child, Gabby," he said heavily.
Nathaniel covered his face with his hands and turned away. Gabby was stunned into silence for a moment. She turned to Anders, her face a mask of confusion. "A-are you sure?" she stammered.
Anders nodded solemnly. "Yes, Gabs," he said softly, taking her hand. "No doubt about it, love."
The three of them were silent for a while. Gabby stared into space; Anders watched her with a concerned expression, and Nathaniel paced back and forth, his practical side coming to the fore as he began to make plans. Eventually, Gabby broke the silence.
"Anders," she began hesitantly, "how soon after conception can you tell…"
"I'm sorry, I don't know," he replied with an apologetic shrug. "Some healers can tell immediately; others, not until weeks afterwards." He turned to her and spoke softly. "How long ago were you last with the King?" he asked cautiously. Nathaniel stopped pacing and listened intently.
"Erm," Gabby mumbled as she thought for a moment. "Maybe six weeks ago? Yes, just under six weeks ago," she confirmed.
"That's probably about right," Anders replied. "That's around the average time that most healing mages can detect the presence of an unborn child."
"But you said that some can sense it immediately?" Nathaniel interjected, his question loaded with meaning.
"No, I didn't sleep with Cullen, Nathaniel!" Gabby snapped. "That's what you mean, isn't it?"
"Cullen?" Anders asked in astonishment. "But…I thought the two of you…"
"What?" Nathaniel shouted at the mage. "How dare you suggest such a thing?"
"Look, I'm sorry!" Anders protested. "All I know is that Gabby returned from the Tower pregnant! What else was I supposed to think?"
"There were several other things you could have thought, Anders!" Nathaniel said angrily.
"Stop it!" Gabby cried. "Both of you!" Her shoulders trembled and she covered her face with her hands as sobs wracked her body.
"Oh, Gabs…" Anders whispered, wrapping his arm around her shoulder.
She broke free and stood up, her face drained of all colour. "I'm one of those women, now, aren't I?" she cried. "An unmarried mother, carrying a child the father will never acknowledge, or have anything to do with," she sobbed. "A common trollop, that's what I'll be seen as!"
Nathaniel and Anders exchanged sorrowful expressions. "No, my dear," said Nathaniel, pulling her into an embrace as he tried to reassure her. "You will never be one of those women."
"B-but my child will be a bastard," she whimpered. "I-I never wanted that…" she thought of Alistair, and how his upbringing had affected him.
Anders rose from the bed. "I'm going to Amaranthine," he declared, opening the door.
"What?" Nathaniel exclaimed furiously, loosening his grip on Gabby. "Now? What in the Maker's name is wrong with you?"
"I need some fresh air," Anders replied caustically, with a withering glare at Nathaniel as he left the room.
"Excuse me for a moment," Nathaniel said to Gabby, following Anders out of the room. "Now, look here!" he shouted at the mage.
Anders turned around to face him and placed his hands on his hips. "What!" he snapped.
"You came up here, all full of concern for your friend," said Nathaniel as he glowered at the mage, "and now you're sodding off to Amaranthine to drown your sorrows because things are getting a little upsetting? Well how do you think she feels?" he yelled. "What kind of friend are you, anyway?"
"You don't know what you're talking about, Nate!" Anders spluttered, his face reddening.
"For the last time, my name is Nathaniel!" he bellowed.
"Oh, and don't we all know it!" Anders sneered. "You can't go anywhere without Nathaniel sticking his nose in, or Nathaniel giving his unwanted opinions on everything! You sanctimonious git!"
"If you're going to use big words, Anders," Nathaniel spat, "at least be sure of their meaning first!"
"Alright!" Anders yelled, his eyes wide with fury. "Here's one I do know the meaning of – arseholes!" With that, he turned on his heel and stormed away.
"Anders, come back here at once!" Nathaniel shouted.
"Piss off!" he yelled in response.
The two men jumped as Gabby slammed her door closed. She trudged over to her bed and collapsed onto it, staring up at the ceiling. She could hear the sound of quiet talking at the end of the corridor, and could tell it was Nathaniel and Anders, but couldn't make out what they were saying. At least they've stopped yelling, she thought. Eventually the talking stopped, and a quiet knock sounded at her door.
"Is there any point in telling you to go away?" she asked the door.
"No," Nathaniel replied, cautiously opening it. "Gabby…I'm sorry about that," he said humbly. "We're all a little upset."
"Don't be too hard on him," she said. "You know what he's like; when he's upset, he hides it with humour. When he's really upset, he takes off for a bit. He'll be back."
Nathaniel grunted softly, his anger at Anders apparently diffused. "I'm going to take up your duties for the rest of today," he declared. "You should get some rest. I'll go and see what Varel has for me."
"Thanks, Nathaniel," she said quietly. "You can tell Varel," she added, "but no one else. Not even the other Wardens for now."
"Alright," Nathaniel replied with a nod. "Do you need anything?"
"No thanks," she answered. "Just to be left alone for a while."
"I'll call on you later, if that's alright?" he asked. Gabby nodded, and Nathaniel closed the door behind him.
Anders returned from Amaranthine several hours later, and caught Nathaniel's eye as he strolled through the main hall. Nathaniel approached him. "I'm going up to see Gabby, now," Anders declared.
Nathaniel extended his hand. "Well done, Anders," he said as the mage shook it. "I'm proud of you," he added. "If that means anything to you, that is."
Anders grinned wryly, and, without another word, went upstairs to Gabby's room. He paused outside her door, and, taking a deep breath, knocked on it.
"Come in," she answered.
Anders entered to find Gabby sitting in a chair, reading a book. "Hello, Gabs," he said sheepishly, wringing his hands.
"Oh, Anders, you're back!" she said with a grin, putting her book down and rising from the chair. "Are you alright?" she asked.
"Me?" he asked incredulously. "Are you alright?"
She snorted and shrugged her shoulders. "It's a case of having to be, isn't it?" she replied.
Anders closed the door. "Gabs," he began ruefully, "I'm really sorry about earlier…about the quarrel, and me pissing off like that…I…" he faltered.
"Well, you're here, now," she said with a warm smile, "that's the main thing. Did you get anything nice in Amaranthine?"
Anders cleared his throat noisily. "Erm, yes…" he mumbled. "Sit down a minute, Gabs," he requested.
"Oh no, not more bad news," she mumbled.
"No…well, I hope not," he replied. "Just…sit for a minute, please."
Gabby complied with his request and sat back down in her chair. Anders knelt down in front of her. Taking a very deep breath, he retrieved something from his pocket. "I bought this," he said, handing her a small wooden box.
"What is it?" she asked with a frown.
"Open it," he said softly.
Their eyes met for a moment, and Gabby's mouth fell open. "A-Anders?" she stuttered, her hands shaking.
"Open it," he repeated.
"I-I can't," she said as a tear spilled down her cheek. "My hands are shaking too much."
Anders took the box and opened it, turning it toward her; she immediately burst into tears. "You'll never be that kind of woman, Gabby," he said tenderly. "I won't allow it. You'll have a husband, and your child will have a father."
"I…" she began, but was unable to speak further.
"If you'll have me, that is," he said.
Gabby leaned forward and buried her face in his neck, sobbing and trembling. Anders smiled softly. "Is that a yes?" he asked hopefully. Gabby nodded, still unable to speak. Anders gently pulled away from her, smoothing away her tears with his thumbs.
"Anders," she whispered hoarsely, "I don't know how I'll ever be able to thank you for this…I can't believe you'd…" she halted as fresh tears fell.
Anders grinned. "Well," he said chirpily. "Just think of all the benefits for me! I get someone to warm my slippers and fetch my pipe," he joked, "and a beautiful girl on my arm, to boot! It's no hardship, trust me."
Gabby laughed through her tears, and then her expression turned serious. "Anders," she said, taking his hands, "you know I'd never try to stop you from seeing other women…"
"Well, let's not think about that for now," he replied awkwardly. "We need to get you married!"
"But how, Anders?" she asked anxiously. "Who's going to marry two mages?"
"It's all arranged," Anders said proudly. "We're heroes in Amaranthine, after all, and have a lot of influence there. I spoke to the Revered Mother. After a little arm-twisting, and a promise of a large tithe, she reluctantly agreed."
"Really?" Gabby asked with an awed expression.
Anders nodded. "Of course, she'd never allow two filthy mages to sully her precious Chantry," he said dryly. "She said she'd do it here. The old cowbag will probably have her fingers crossed behind her back the whole time," he said with a grin, "but I don't care. I've just got to let her know the date. I didn't want to take it for granted."
Gabby gazed sadly at him for a moment. "Anders, you really are the sweetest, kindest, most wonderful…"
"Oh, no!" Anders chuckled. "Not more crying!" He laughed as he brushed away more of Gabby's tears.
"You'd better get used to it," she said with a shrug. "I am with child, after all. It comes with the territory, I hear."
Anders rolled his eyes and tutted. "Great," he mumbled. "Nine months of blubbering," he said with a cheeky wink. "I'll help you through it," he promised. "We'll get a sister from the Chantry to help with the birth, though."
"No, Anders," she said resolutely. "I want you to be there. If…you'd be willing, that is," she said hesitantly. "There's nobody I would trust more to deliver my child."
Anders raised his eyebrows in surprise. "Well, I'm touched, really," he mumbled. "Yes, of course I'd be willing. You do realise, though…" he faltered for a moment and cleared his throat.
"What?" she asked.
"Well, I would have to…look at your…bits," he said with an anxious grimace.
Gabby burst out laughing. "I think that will be the last thing on my mind at the time, Anders!" she exclaimed.
"True," he replied with a boyish grin. "So, it's a 'yes', then?"
Gabby nodded and pulled Anders into a hug. "Yes," she whispered. "Thank you so much."
Anders sat back and took the ring out of the box. "No need to thank me, Gabby," he said. "I should be thanking you. I owe my life to you. This is the least I can do to repay you."
Gabby held her hand out to him, and he slipped the veridium band onto her finger. "Good guess!" he exclaimed. "It fits pretty well!"
"How does yours fit?" she asked.
"Mine," he said flatly, his face dropping suddenly. "Erm…"
"You did buy yourself a ring, didn't you?" she asked in astonishment.
Anders' hand flew to his mouth as the two of them dissolved into fits of laughter. "I was so nervous about buying yours, I completely forgot!" he laughed. "You do realise," he warned her, "that you've just agreed to marry a complete prat?"
"That's nothing," she countered. "You've just agreed to marry a common trollop."
"Well, we should make quite the pair, then!" he chirped. "When I…acquire a ring, that is," he added dryly.
"Anders," Gabby began, "I know you're not doing this for romantic reasons, but I feel I should tell you about Cullen," she said. "You have a right to know."
Anders nodded. "Alright," he replied as he rose to his feet and pulled another chair over next to Gabby's. "Go ahead," he said as he sat down.
As the Wardens, Templars and some of the Keep's staff sat down to supper that evening, the entrance doors to the dining hall were pushed open by one of the Silver Order's Knights. "Please, forgive the intrusion, Commander," he said to Gabby with a sweeping bow. "A contingent from the Circle Tower has arrived, and its leader is demanding to speak with you."
"The Circle Tower?" Gabby exclaimed. "They…they must have departed just after us," she mumbled. "What do they want?"
"I'll handle this, Commander," said Nathaniel, rising to his feet. Before Gabby could protest, five heavily-armed Templars swept into the room. Nathaniel held his hand up and approached them. "Whom do I have the honour of addressing, Ser?" he asked their leader.
"I am Knight-Lieutenant Ambrose, of the Circle Tower of Ferelden," he said with a bow. "Might I know your name, Ser?" he asked.
"What brings you to Vigil's Keep, Knight-Lieutenant?" Nathaniel asked, evading the question.
"We are here for Warden Howe, Ser," Ambrose said officiously. "You are required to turn him over to us."
Gabby stiffened in her seat. "What do those skirt-wearing freaks want with him?" Oghren whispered to her. She shook her head silently as a feeling of cold dread gripped her.
"And what do you want with him?" Nathaniel asked calmly.
"You've no need to trouble yourself with that, Ser," Ambrose replied. "I must insist that Howe be released into our custody, immediately," he said with a hint of menace in his voice.
Ser Willoughby stood up. "What's this about, Ambrose?" he asked the leader of the Templar group.
"This is Tower business, Meredith," Ambrose replied airily. "Nathaniel Howe!" he called loudly. "You will make things easier for yourself if you come willingly!"
Gabby stood and walked to Nathaniel's side; every man at the table stood with her, many of whom moved their hands to their weapons. "I am Warden-Commander Surana," she declared, "and I can assure you that Warden Howe is going nowhere until you explain yourself. What do you want with him?"
"This is a serious matter, Warden-Commander," Ambrose said haughtily, moving his hand to the pommel of his sword. "I strongly advise you to co-operate with us and release Howe into our custody. Now," he said firmly.
Ser Ambrose's eyes scanned the hall as the sound of several swords being unsheathed was heard. "No, Ser Knight," Gabby countered. "I would advise you to co-operate with us. You are heavily outnumbered. State your business or get out."
Ser Ambrose grumbled to himself and turned toward one of his men, who produced a scroll. "This," he said as he handed it to Gabby, "is an arrest warrant. We do not have to co-operate with you at all. Now where is Howe?"
"An arrest warrant?" Gabby exclaimed as she opened the scroll. "For what?"
"For the murder of Knight-Commander Cullen," Ambrose replied.
~To be continued~
This story is continued in a sequel, called 'In Blackest Envy'. I thought about just continuing with the story, but it's going to take quite a different direction, so I thought a sequel to be more appropriate. I hope you'll enjoy it :)
I'd also like to shamelessly promote another new story - a collaboration between another author - CCBug - and I, entitled 'Nobility Has Another Meaning'. Starting 20 years before the events of Awakening, a young Robert Varel is proud and honoured to become Seneschal to Arl Rendon Howe - until he realises how twisted and paranoid his master is. Varel does everything within his power to protect and aid Howe's victims - the most deeply affected being the Arl's young family, whom Varel comes to care for a great deal. Eventually the Howe family is torn apart by the Arl's madness, and Varel demoted, losing touch with those he swore to protect. A chance reunion with Howe's son, Nathaniel, several years later, gives Varel hope that he can fulfil his promise to Nathaniel's mother - but will the bitter and deeply wounded Nathaniel accept Varel after all this time, or lash out at him? And can Varel get through the shades of Rendon Howe he can still see in Nathaniel, and reach the young boy he used to know and care for? It's published under CCBug's pen name, and I really hope you'll be able to take the time to have a quick read, and let us know your thoughts. Thank you!