Carrie, thank you for your sterling beta job, for being a friend in a million, and for doing something unbelievably kind when I was feeling low.
After supper, one of the Wardens went up to his room to wash, and to say a few words of thanks to the Maker. It wasn't mandatory that he prayed after meals; he'd already done so with his fellows before he'd eaten, but it was something he liked to do, feeling it lent structure to his day and kept him disciplined.
He entered his bedroom. It was much larger than the one he'd occupied at the Circle Tower, and he still felt unaccustomed to its space and openness.
Sitting down on his large bed, he untied his sash from around his waist, carefully folding it and placing it on his nightstand; he then reached down to remove his boots. He was no longer required to wear templar plate, but old habits die hard, and his pride in his service to the Maker was something he had no desire to hide.
He found he was now proud to count himself a Grey Warden. Although the Wardens had been less active as of late, their vigilance was still necessary, and he took pleasure in being part of their revered Order.
What he was most grateful for, however, was the kinship he shared with his fellow Wardens. After a shaky start, he even counted Anders, the Circle Tower's most infamous apostate, among his friends, now, and Gabby was also more a friend than commander.
He paused and sat up straight as he thought of her. She'd been so good to him, so kind and accommodating. She'd looked beyond their differences and had accepted him as a brother, and had provided him with a home. Not only that, but she'd provided the templars with a private room in which to pray, had crafted lyrium for them, and had done what had never been thought possible at the tower; she'd brought mages and templars together as equals, something he approved of.
And what had he done for her in return? He'd helped to kill the man she loved.
He'd had no idea of Gabby's previous relationship with Cullen, only finding out after she and Anders had been into the fade.
He'd watched as the tears had rolled down her face as she lay asleep; he'd seen the sorrow in her eyes as she'd awoken. He'd been present when she and Padraig had discovered that Cullen was no longer in the fade, and, upon waking, had asked them all to leave her alone.
It was then that the enormity of what he'd done truly dawned on him.
Living at the tower had been intolerable under Cullen's rule. Although he'd never been a victim of one of Cullen's punishments, many of his friends had, and it had grieved him to see so many of his fellow knights treated so wretchedly.
He'd warned his roommate, Clifford Magnusson, on several occasions to break off his dalliance with one of the mages, fearing the consequences to his close friend if they were discovered; sadly, his fears had been realised when one of the new intake of templars had reported discovering Clifford in a compromising position with his lover.
After learning of Clifford's death, he'd immediately gone to the chapel to pray for his friend's soul, as well as to ask forgiveness for Knight-Commander Cullen. On this occasion, however, Andraste had not heard him, and he'd found himself consumed by anger and mounting bitterness over the conditions under which he, and his brothers, were forced to live.
One night while patrolling outside the apprentices' dorm, he'd stopped and listened to a whispered conversation between Jerome - Clifford's lover - and another apprentice. Jerome had spoken of his desire for vengeance and had laid out a plan; the only remaining element he needed was the assistance of one of the templars to gain access to Cullen, and to prevent the Knight-Commander from dispelling his magic; although the templars' resistance to magic was high, they were not immune to it.
As he'd listened, his next action had become clear: he'd known that Smyth was still on duty, and that he should be informed immediately.
He hadn't informed him.
If only he had, then the poor man wouldn't have been taken to Aeonar; perhaps Smyth could even have prevented Cullen's death, but, if he had, then things would still have been the same at the tower, and things had needed to change.
He blinked several times, returning to the reality of his room, and rubbed his forehead with his hand.
Gabby and Smyth weren't the only people who weighed heavily on his conscience. When Ambrose had arrested Nathaniel, he'd come so close to confessing.
So close, but he had not.
Nathaniel Howe had also been good to him; he'd tried to teach him archery and had had the decency to warn him and his brothers of the dangers of the joining, despite hinting that he was forbidden to do so. He'd fervently hoped that Nathaniel would be able to clear his name, but, as several weeks had passed since his arrest, that seemed less and less likely.
He rubbed his eyes and yawned, knowing he faced another night of broken sleep. With a groan, he rose from the bed and knelt down, clasping his hands together as they rested on his thigh.
"Holy Maker, creator of life, I beg your forgiveness in the name of your most revered bride, Andraste.
"Forgive me my sin of lust, for it has led me astray.
"Forgive me my sin of wrath, for it has interfered with your Holy right of justice.
"Forgive me my sin of pride, for it has placed my purpose before Yours.
"Forgive me my sins, Holy Maker; I beseech you to remember your mercy in the name of your most worthy bride."
He opened his eyes and remained kneeling for several minutes, before he rose and walked over to the window, intending to watch the sun set over the Keep.
He watched as the Keep's Guard settled into their positions for the evening under the direction of Captain Garavel, and the lamps were lit in the courtyard in preparation for the coming darkness. His eyes then wandered to a lone figure, dressed in a blue robe, heading away from the Keep; he squinted and watched as the man, whom he surmised was Anders, approached the circle of oak trees outside the northern wall.
As Anders neared the trees, three men on horseback emerged, glancing around. One of the men, dressed from head to toe in black, dismounted first and was immediately swallowed in a bear hug from Anders. The black-clad man quickly pulled away and slapped Anders' arms as the other two dismounted; Anders shook the hand of the second man, who was clad in silver armour, but did not greet the third man, who wore templar armour.
He took a step back from the window and held his breath as the four men appeared to be holding an intense discussion.
Suddenly, Anders broke away from the group and charged toward the Keep; he was quickly stopped by the man in black, who grabbed his arm and talked to him again. The man in silver armour briefly interrupted them before heading for the main gates of the Keep with Anders, while the other two walked over to the outer wall, disappearing from sight.
He leaned heavily on the window sill and took several deep breaths; after taking a moment to collect himself, he looked up at the rapidly-darkening sky, and nodded.
"I see your purpose, Maker, and submit to Your will."
Turning from the window, he retrieved his sash from the bed and fastened it around his waist. He then walked over to the corner and took his sword from its stand, sheathing it on his hip; if he was to face justice, he would do so properly attired.
Taking one last look around his room, he swallowed down a bitter lump of regret and closed his eyes for a moment; he then turned and exited, slowly closing the door behind him.
Anders had done his best to appear casual when he'd crossed the courtyard, but anyone watching would have seen he was agitated. As soon as he was out of the gate, his pace, and his heart, quickened.
Nearing the five oaks, several sets of horses' legs came into Anders' view, tucked back under the shade of the trees, and one horse moved forward and halted, its rider dismounting.
"Nate!" Anders called, and strode ahead, ignoring Nathaniel's proffered hand, instead smothering him in a crushing hug. Nathaniel returned the embrace, with several back slaps for good measure, and managed a brief chuckle before pushing Anders away, keeping a hold of his arms.
"Damned good to see you, mate! Those bastards didn't have anything on you, then?" asked Anders, and Nathaniel shook his head.
"I knew it!" Anders continued. "So, did they ever work out who was responsible? 'Cos I'd like to know myself," he added, a menacing tone creeping into his voice.
The other two horses were brought forward, and Ambrose and Varel dismounted. "Well met, Anders," said Varel, offering his hand, which Anders shook.
"You too, Varel," Anders replied, his look of relief giving way to outright hostility as he set eyes on Ambrose. "What's he doing here? And why are you lot hiding out here?"
"It's all right," Nathaniel urged, "he's on our side. Look, I don't have time to explain everything; I just need you to answer some questions, and then I'll tell you what's going on."
Anders' glare lingered on Ambrose for a moment longer. "Go on, then," he said eventually.
"Has anything untoward happened here while we've been gone?" asked Nathaniel.
"Erm, well, yes, actually. Clem and I have lost our powers, and most of the other mages have been affected to some degree; all except Gabby and Agnes, really."
The three other men exchanged glances, and Ambrose, who appeared intrigued by this, stepped closer. "Have you ascertained a cause?"
"Not yet," Anders said warily, looking the Knight-Commander up and down. "Gabby thinks there may have been a disturbance in the fade."
"So Gabby's well, then?" Nathaniel asked, and Anders nodded. "Has anything else happened?"
"Yes, the drains have been playing up again," complained Anders, completely oblivious to Nathaniel rolling his eyes impatiently. "They've been so bad, I was able to use them as an excuse for coming out here."
"Nothing else?" Varel prompted.
Anders shrugged. "Like what?" he asked, a frown forming on his features. "What's this all about, Nate?"
Nathaniel's head fell back and a collective sigh of relief was heard amongst the three men. "Anders," Nathaniel said seriously. "Who survived the joining?"
"Martin and Meredith; Conn didn't actually take the joining, did he? Why do you ask?"
Nathaniel's face dropped for a second as Varel and Ambrose looked grimly at one another. "Luke…didn't survive, then?" asked Nathaniel quietly.
"Sorry, Nate," answered Anders, shaking his head. "I know you were friends with him."
"And he did survive," Nathaniel growled, his shoulders rising and falling rapidly as he stared at a point in the distance.
"Who? What are you on about?" Anders asked, completely confused and becoming annoyed.
"We know the identities of Ser Cullen's murderers," offered Ambrose. "One of them is dead; the other resides within your Keep."
"Wha…?" spluttered Anders, his eyes darting between the other three men. "Don't be daft! Meredith and Martin are as soft as shit! And they're my friends; they wouldn't have done something like that! And they've comforted Gabby when she's been upset over it. Are you saying one of them is just pretending to be sympathetic?"
"We have a signed confession implicating him, as well as reams of statements and written accounts all pointing the finger at him, Anders," said Nathaniel. "The evidence against him is overwhelming."
Anders backed down from his indignant stance and turned away from them to face the Keep. "Who?" he asked in a low voice.
Nathaniel glanced balefully at Varel and Ambrose and stepped closer to Anders. "Meredith Willoughby."
Anders' teeth dug into his bottom lip and he stared, unblinking, at his home, which now housed a murderer who had masqueraded as a friend.
"I'll fucking kill him!" he blustered, stalking toward the Keep.
Nathaniel ran forward and grabbed his arm. "Wait, Anders! We can't just…"
"Do you have any idea of how devastated Gabby was when Cullen died? Do you?" Anders interrupted.
"Of course I do, but we…"
"That bastard, from day one, has professed friendship towards us, and has expressed regret over what happened to Cullen, knowing full well how it affected her! And we have one of your templars here," he said to Ambrose, "suffering from advanced lyrium withdrawal because of him!"
"Smyth is here?" Ambrose gasped. "Advanced…?"
"Yes, he's in a right fucking state!" yelled Anders, lowering his voice as Nathaniel touched his arm. "All because of Meredith," Anders hissed. "He was supposed to be our friend."
"Anders, believe me, I'd like nothing more than to gut him myself," Nathaniel said, "as I almost ended up in Aeonar because of him, but we can't just go charging in. We don't want him to panic."
"And may I remind you both," added Varel, "that Willoughby is under Knight-Commander Ambrose's jurisdiction, and he must ultimately decide what is to be done with him."
"No, he's not," argued Anders. "He's a Grey Warden and he falls under our jurisdiction."
"Then it is Commander Surana's decision," said Varel.
"Gabby's off duty, now," said Anders, "and I'm in charge during the night. That fucker's mine."
"I won't argue with that, Anders," said Nathaniel in a placating tone, "but will you at least hear me out? Then you can decide whether or not to go with my suggestion."
Anders looked at Nathaniel doubtfully.
"Come on, Anders," Nathaniel whispered to him. "You've admitted it before; you can't think straight when you're angry."
"All right," Anders snapped. "Just make it quick."
"Thank you," Nathaniel said, placing a hand on Anders' shoulder. "The only ones who know of our presence here, besides you, are Garavel and some of his men; let's keep it that way for now. Varel is going to speak to Garavel and arrange for the nightly security sweep to be completed a little earlier than usual, so there are fewer men in the courtyard. What I need you to do, Anders, is enter the Keep, find Meredith and think of a reason to bring him outside; he can then be quietly taken into custody. You need to do this while giving no indication that anything is amiss, and, if possible, keep Gabby out of it. Can you do that?"
"Gabby will have to know sooner or later," Anders protested.
"Of course," agreed Nathaniel, "but in her current condition, wouldn't it be better for her to hear it from you, in private, than for her to witness a shouting match, and possibly a fight? There's no way of knowing how Willoughby will react, and she's going to be upset enough as it is: we're talking about one of Cullen's murderers, here. Can you do this, Anders?" he repeated.
"I don't know, Nate," Anders sighed. "You know me and my big gob."
"Our success depends on you," Nathaniel urged, clapping Anders' shoulders. "You must keep your emotions in check."
Anders considered this for a moment, and, reluctantly forced to conclude that Nathaniel was right, he nodded. "All right, Nate, we'll do it your way. So long as I get to have a pop at him when he is caught."
"Straight after me, Anders," Nathaniel agreed with a grim smile.
"Are we ready?" asked Varel, and the other three nodded their confirmation. "Right, I'm going to talk to Garavel, then," he said, walking toward the Keep. "Nathaniel, Ambrose, stay out of sight for now; Anders, you come with me."
Alistair and Elissa ate their supper at a small table set on a balcony overlooking the Palace gardens; although the King and Queen usually dined with several others, tonight Alistair had wanted her all to himself.
"I'll probably be away for a few weeks," he told her. "The acting Knight-Commander is at Vigil's Keep right now, so that will be my first port of call, and then I'll accompany him back to Kinloch Hold."
Elissa nodded and dabbed at her mouth with her napkin. "Please give my regards to the Warden-Commander while you are there, and extend an invitation for her to visit with us. It was a pity she was unable to attend the wedding."
Alistair cleared his throat and took a sip of wine from his goblet. "I will," he replied. "Anyway," he continued, changing the subject, "Eamon will be remaining here to offer support; the two of you will have to preside over the appointment of the new Grand Cleric."
"Oh, you really know how to spoil me, don't you?" she teased.
Alistair grinned and shrugged his shoulders. "I know, I know. It's not the most exciting of tasks. Just remember something," he added, his tone becoming serious. "You are the Queen, not Eamon."
"I should hope not," she replied. "Somehow, I don't imagine he would fit into any of my gowns."
"No, he doesn't really have the hips, does he?" Alistair quipped, and reached over to take his wife's hand. "I still can't believe there's a little me in there," he said softly with a glance at her belly.
"It may be a little me," she countered.
"Only if we're lucky," he replied with a warm smile.
She returned his smile and gazed into his eyes. "Do try not to be away for too long, husband; I shall miss you. We shall miss you."
"I'll miss you, too, my dear," he said sincerely. "Although you should make the most of the peace and quiet while I'm away; there will be quite a storm upon my return."
"You're resolved, then?" she asked.
"I am," he answered firmly. "This is long overdue, but there will be stiff opposition, make no mistake about that."
Elissa squeezed his hand. "There is one at least who supports your decision, husband."
"Thank you, darling, that means a lot," he replied, stroking her hand with his thumb. "If they run me out of Ferelden, at least I know you'll still be at my side."
"Let us hope it will not come to that," she said with a mock-serious look. "I rather like living here; the sheets are so soft. I don't know, Alistair, you might be on your own."
"Cheeky wench," he teased, and the two of them shared a laugh as they finished their supper.
Anders concentrated on steadying his breathing as he entered the courtyard; Varel was already deep in conversation with Garavel, who silently pointed at several of his men and beckoned them over.
Anders was on his own. Right. This is what being Gabby's second is all about. Don't make a fool of yourself in front of Nate.
He trudged up the steps to the inner Keep, his stomach doing somersaults as he neared the main hall. He paused at the entrance for a moment, trying to recall whether Meredith had been in the hall at the same time as he and Gabby, cursing himself for not paying more attention.
He'd decided that he would first distract Gabby; he'd thought of the perfect excuse to call her away, and then, once she was out of the way,he would seek out Meredith.
He entered the hall and quickly scanned the interior. Most of its occupants had departed, leaving only a few domestic staff and the members of the Silver Order whom had just finished their shift. Meredith was not in the hall. He glanced over to where Malachy still sat, finishing his supper; Gabby, too, had departed.
"Mal?" he asked as he walked over to the knight. "How long ago did Gabby leave?"
"Um," Malachy mumbled with a mouthful of food. "About ten minutes ago."
"Any idea where she went?" asked Anders.
"Dunno, mate, sorry," replied Malachy. "Maybe the prayer room? She left with one of the templars; he looked a bit agitated, actually."
"W-what do you mean?" Anders exclaimed, his eyes wide as adrenaline coursed through his body. "Which templar? Which one, Mal?"
"The blond one," replied Malachy. "I can't remember his name. I don't really spend much time with them…"
"Silver Order!" Anders barked. "On your feet!"
The surprised knights looked at one another and slowly rose to their feet.
"Get over here, quick!" shouted Anders.
The knights, Malachy included, scrambled over to where Anders stood.
"I want Meredith Willoughby found and held! Right now!" he ordered. "And locate the Commander! If they're together, escort her to safety!"
"Yes, Warden!" the knights chorused, and Malachy, being their most senior member, began to split them into groups.
"Daniels!" Anders called, singling out one of their newer recruits. "Warden Howe is outside; tell him and that templar accompanying him to get in here and help with the search!" The young knight nodded briefly and ran out of the hall.
Anders turned to Malachy. "I want Willoughby taken alive if possible," he directed as he left the hall to begin his own search. "But you have my authorisation to take any and all measures necessary to protect the Commander. Am I understood?"
"Yes, Warden," Malachy answered.
"Good, now go and find the fucker," Anders seethed as he rounded and left the hall.