Rating: pg-13 for mild adult content
Summary: Two-thirds of the trio head off on their own.
Note: This was written for ten_by_ten’s “secret meeting” prompt.
“How long will you be gone, Brother?” Thomas sat in the middle of Nathaniel’s bed and watched as his older brother finished packing clothing into a well worn satchel. Nathaniel had a week until he left for the Free Marches, but he felt as if it didn’t hurt to have everything prepared.
He inspected one of his daggers before deciding to set it aside for sharpening. “Eight to ten years.”
Thomas sighed. “That’s a long time from now. I’ll be…” He scrunched up his nose as he did the mental calculations. “Twenty or twenty-two by the time you return.”
Nathaniel sat down beside his little brother and put an arm around his shoulders. “One of the things that I’m going to miss is seeing you grow up. Promise me that you’ll become a fine young man.” While their parents never gave the three of them much attention, as the eldest, Nathaniel had always made a point to show affection towards his younger siblings.
Thomas hugged him tightly around his middle. “I will. I want to be just like you when I get older.”
He laughed. “Well, maybe not just like me,” reaching out, he tapped the end of his brother’s nose. “I like you how you are, my little musician.” Thomas had taken an interest in playing musical instruments at a young age, especially the lute. Father had always frowned upon it, saying that Thomas was wasting his time on foolish activities, and he often made himself scarce whenever Thomas would play. Oddly enough, his hobby was something that their mother strongly encouraged.
“What will you miss the most?”
Nathaniel sighed. The Keep, for starters. The apple pastries Adria would make especially for him. Watching Delilah practice her dancing. Listening to Thomas compose a new song for Mother. Sitting at Father’s side in his study. Riding all over Amaranthine in the Spring. Moira. He would miss Moira the most, though he wasn’t about to admit that out loud to Thomas. “Oh, I don’t know. Everything, I guess.”
“Do you have a sweetheart that you’ll be leaving behind?”
This boy is too perceptive for his own good. “What makes you say that?”
“I just figured that you would. The head maid’s assistant keeps on giggling whenever you pass by.”
Nathaniel quirked an eyebrow. This was a first. “What?”
“And the serving girls all gossip about you. As do some of the laundry staff. They say that you’re cute.” Thomas looked Nathaniel over with a critical eye. “I don’t think you’re cute.”
“Well, that makes two of us. But to answer your question, perhaps I do have a sweetheart.”
“What’s her name? Do I know her?” Thomas sat up straighter and gave Nathaniel his full attention.
“Perhaps you do. Then again, perhaps you don’t.”
Thomas made a face. “If you don’t want to tell me, just come out and say that you don’t.”
He gave him a small smile. “It isn’t that. I just want to keep her to myself for a little while longer. Once I return, I’ll tell everyone.” His father had asked if he had already asked Moira to marry him. He had seemed relieved when Nathaniel had said that he hadn’t. Good, his father had said. It’s best to leave such matters until you come back instead of dealing with them over long distances. Grinning, Nathaniel put his little brother into a headlock and rubbed his knuckles over the crown of his head. “Besides, if I tell you, what’s to say that you won’t go stealing her from behind my back? You’re a charming little scamp; I’m afraid that my lady wouldn’t stand a chance.”
“It’s going to be so quiet at home without Fergus around,” Moira commented, looking out of the carriage’s window. “An entire year without him; I’ll not know how to behave once he returns.”
“It will be odd without him,” Eleanor agreed. “I do wish that he would have postponed this trip to Antiva until the weather was better; I worry about how his ship will fare in rougher water.” Their father had some business dealings with a minor noble in Antiva; instead of being away for such a long time himself, Bryce had decided to send Fergus in his stead. The trip was to serve a dual purpose; Fergus would conclude their father’s business and he would also have one last fling before settling down with some nobleman’s daughter. Over the years he had played the aloof young swain that flitted about from girl to girl. Their parents had tolerated him in the past, but now that he was twenty-one, they had finally put their foot down on his flirtatious behavior, insisting that if he were to someday become Teyrn that he should start acting like a proper heir.
Moira sighed. “At least he won’t be making the first leg of his journey alone. Nathaniel will be with him.” The fact that Nathaniel was set to leave was hard enough on its own to bear; the thought that her brother would also be away made Moira feel incredibly lonely. The three of them had been a unit for years now and they had never been apart for such a long time – Moira almost felt resentful that the two of them were leaving for places they’d never been to while she was to wait for them to come home.
A selfish part of her wished that Fergus would be the one to stay away longest, that Nathaniel would be gone for merely a year. She was going to miss him so much. At least with both he and Fergus leaving at the same time from Amaranthine’s harbor, she now had an excuse to spend the most of what little time was left with him.
“That does set my mind more at ease. At least there will be a friendly face aboard for a while.”
“Oh, you know Fergus,” Moira said, looking out the window again. The sky was as dark as her mood and it looked as if it would soon rain. “It never takes him long to befriend someone. I wager that before he sets foot in Antiva that every single man on that ship will think that he’s their long lost brother.”
Moira’s guess as to the weather proved to be true; the skies opened up once the carriage pulled up to the front gates of Vigil’s Keep, shrouding the tallest battlement in darkness and adding a decidedly eerie atmosphere. Servants held covers over their heads to ward off the worst of the rain, but Moira and her mother had to gather up their skirts in their hands to avoid ruining them with mud.
“Dreadful weather, isn’t it Rendon?” Bryce asked, shaking the Arl’s hand once they had reached the Keep’s throne room.
“I’m just glad that you and your family were able to make the trip before the worst of it hit,” he replied. ‘Eleanor, it is a pleasure as always to welcome you and your children into our home.”
Moira dipped into a low curtsey, happy that she had finally mastered how to do such a move gracefully. She tried to hide the smile that crept onto her face when she noticed that Nathaniel’s parents were looking at her in approval. “Delilah, I’m so pleased to see you again.”
Her friend gave her an even lower curtsey. “It seems as if it has been ages,” she replied. “Thank you for your latest letter; I’ve just now finished penning a reply.” Moira hated the formal manner that their speech tended to take whenever they were in the Arl’s home. It was such a contrast from their conversations in Highever, but she wanted to be seen as an agreeable young lady, one that the Howes would be pleased to have as their daughter-in-law.
She looked up when she heard footsteps echo behind Delilah. “Nathaniel,” she said, fighting the urge to fling herself into his arms.
Nathaniel took her hand in his and dropped a courtly kiss across the backs of her knuckles. “My lady, you grow prettier every time I see you.” Moira beamed at him, even though she heard Fergus stifle a snicker behind her back. She felt some satisfaction when the sound of her mother clearing her throat cut the muffled bit of laughter short.
“You must be tired after your trip,” Arlessa Regina said. “Please, allow me to show you all to your guest rooms.”
Once they were alone in Moira’s guest room, Delilah turned into the chatterbox that Moira knew her to be. “Father is already talking about pairing me with Lord Packton’s son. You remember him, don’t you?”
“Only vaguely,” Moira admitted from behind the painted silk screen in the corner of the bedroom. “Is he handsome?” Her voice was muffled as she slipped the dress she’d been wearing for the past two days over her head.
Delilah’s cheeks turned pink and she busied herself with helping Moira put away her clothes into the empty armoire. “I like to think that he is. Father says that the Packtons are below our station, but it wouldn’t hurt to give him a chance. Father is also in talks with Arl Wulff. He has two eligible sons, you know.”
The water in the nearby tub was laced with rose scented oil, something Moira knew Delilah favored. “Yes. They’re both suitable for you.” She didn’t care how much of a girl it made her, but it felt good to finally run soap through her hair. She’d woven her hair into an elaborately braided style for the trip, but even then, she couldn’t help but feel grimy. “How exciting; you might have three boys fighting for your heart.”
Delilah sighed. “I can only hope to find a relationship as well matched as the one that you have with my brother.” She laughed when Moira peered out from behind the screen, her eyes wide. “Oh, don’t look that way at me. I cornered Nathaniel a month ago and he finally confessed that he was courting you. I promised him that I would keep silent, but it doesn’t count if I talk to someone that’s also in on the secret as well, does it?”
Moira gave a rueful smile. “No, I guess it doesn’t. Truthfully, it’s a relief to be able to speak to someone about it. You don’t know how often I’ve wanted to say something to you.”
Delilah hugged a pair of embroidered slippers that she had been admiring. Moira had the same shoe size as she and she wondered if her friend wouldn’t mind sharing while they were together. “Oh, don’t leave anything out! I wish to know everything. Does my brother give you gifts?”
“Small ones, on occasion.” Actually, she was wearing a pair of earrings he had given her for her last name day. She was careful not to get the delicate interlocking metal rings caught as she wrapped her hair up in a towel. Drying off, she pulled a plain white shift on and went to sit beside the fire to allow her hair to dry. Delilah joined her and before she knew it, she was talking animatedly to her about all the sweet things that Nathaniel had often done in the course of two years, the two of them giggling and sighing like the way that Moira had wanted to do ever since she was sixteen.
The rain still hadn’t let up by that evening, which was all right in Moira’s book. It meant that the pattering of raindrops outside muffled her footsteps, making her progress even that much harder to detect by any guard that happened to come by. She was the first to admit that her stealth wasn’t the best, but she had been practicing until she’d been able to sneak past the guards back home. Even Ser Gilmore – and it was still so strange to call Roland by his formal title, seeing as he’d been simply Rory to her since he was eleven and she eight – hadn’t been able to detect her presence. She was at a door and carefully fitting a pair of lock picks into the keyhole – she’d caught the stable boy picking a lock in the barn when he’d accidentally locked himself out. She had persuaded him to teach her the same skills in return for promising not to rat his more unsavory method of entry out to the stable manager – when the door abruptly opened.
“I thought I heard a little mouse scratch at the keyhole,” Nathaniel whispered, gathering her in his arms before she pitched face first onto the floor. “Whatever shall I do with her now that I’ve caught her?”
Smiling, Moira let him lead her into his bedroom, her hands blindly fumbling at the lock behind her back. “I wonder what you have in mind,” she murmured, rising up on tiptoe to kiss him. “I’ve wanted to do this since we first arrived,” she told him, her fingers sifting through the hair at the nape of his neck.
“My sister has kept you busy,” Nathaniel agreed, his lips tracing the shell of her ear. “You’re wearing the earrings I gave you.”
She nodded, recognizing the pleased tone of voice he used. “They’ve become my favorite pair. I rarely take them off.” She sagged against him when his teeth grazed across the skin of her neck. “Delilah and I have been talking.”
“Oh? What about?”
“You. For your information, your sister thinks that you’re incredibly romantic.”
“Well, there goes my reputation. For the record, Fergus also knows about us.”
Moira’s eyebrow rose. “I see. At least that explains all the teasing he’s been doing lately.”
He drew back so he could see her face. “Teasing? If he’s bothering you, I…”
“No, it’s no bother. He’s just asserting his usual older brother status and now he has something to hold over my head.” Moira stepped out of his embrace and walked over to the fireplace. “I don’t mind; I’m going to have an entire year without him, so he’s been making up for whatever time he’s going to lose.”
Nathaniel came up behind her and held onto her shoulders. “I feel as if the both of us are abandoning you,” he confessed.
“I’ll be honest; I feel the same way.” Moira blinked away tears that had suddenly sprung up, her throat tight. “You two are going to be headed off on your own while I’m stuck here waiting for your return. It makes me wonder when my turn will come to have my own grand adventure, or if it ever will.”
He rested his chin on her shoulder. “If it makes you feel any better, most of my time away will be spent getting up at the crack of dawn and training all day long, only to spend my nights on patrol duty. I doubt that it will be as exciting as you think it will be.”
She hugged her arms. “There will be plenty of pretty girls there.” There was still that little nagging, irrational fear that kept her up at night that some unknown woman would be able to take him away, no matter how devoted she knew he was to her.
Nathaniel frowned. Turning her until she faced him, he gently tilted her head up. “Know this,” he said, his expression serious. “I love you, Moira Cousland. While I’m gone, the only thought that will go through my mind when I see these so-called pretty girls will be how much prettier you are than they. Do you doubt my feelings so?”
She shook her head. “It isn’t you that I’m worried about; it’s the girls that are likely to throw themselves at you that have me concerned.” She traced the edges of his frown with the tips of her fingers. “We women are tenacious when we see a handsome man that we want.”
“That’s the second time today that someone has told me that.” He had stopped frowning, his stance relaxing.
“Oh? And who was the first?”
“Surprisingly, it was Thomas. He said that I have half the maid staff all a-flutter.”
“I would have to agree with half of the maid staff then. You make me all a-flutter whenever I see you as well.”
He grinned. “I don’t know how I became so fortunate that you feel that way; for the life of me, I have no idea why you would.”
She rolled her eyes, even as she wrapped her arms around his shoulders. “That you aren’t aware of how wonderfully attractive you are to the opposite sex is part of your appeal, my love. Heaven help us if you ever decide to grow an ego.”
He dipped his head and gave her a light kiss. “And that is one of the many reasons I keep you around. The moment I do, I’m certain that you would be right there to put me back in my proper place.”
“Well, I can’t be fighting off every single woman in Ferelden otherwise. My day would be completely full and I’d never get a chance to spend any time with you. But tell me, where is this proper place that I would be putting you back into?”
He drew her closer until he could bury the side of his face against her hair. The scent of roses wafted up from the strands and mixed with the faint lavender of her usual perfume, making him pleasantly lightheaded. “Where else but where it has always been? My place is wherever you are.”
Moira chewed on her thumbnail and looked herself over in the full length mirror. Using one hand, she pulled her hair up and away from her face and then let it drop back down to her shoulders. Turning one way and then another, she finally drew back from the mirror. She nibbled at her bottom lip in indecision as she surveyed the bit of cosmetics she had brought with her, finally settling on a tiny dab of perfume behind both ears and in between her cleavage. Belting her robe tightly around her waist, she blew out her candle and closed the door behind her.
The week had gone by in a blur, which was exactly what she had been afraid of. At least the rain had stopped after the fourth day: it was dry enough to tour the gardens with Delilah on the fifth day of their visit and even more so on the sixth day when she and Nathaniel managed to sneak out of the Keep and head out into the countryside for a picnic lunch. They had spent the rest of the afternoon beside a small stream; the banks had still been muddy and she was glad that she had thought to change into a plain tunic and breeches she often wore during her training drills instead of a gown.
“Do you like it here?” Nathaniel had asked, twirling a lock of her hair in his fingers as they lounged together underneath the shade of a tree.
“I do. Amaranthine is beautiful this time of year.”
“I’m glad. I was hoping that you would.”
“Worried that I might grow homesick should I leave Highever?”
“A bit. I want you to be happy here.” She made her way down the hallway, her bare feet not making a sound against the stone floor. Moira hesitated at Nathaniel’s door, her knuckles hovering over the wood and her heart pounding in her chest, before she straightened her shoulders and gave a soft knock.
When Nathaniel opened the door, he had expected Moira to appear dressed much as she had been for the better part of the day. The thin blue robe that covered her nightgown took him by surprise. “You’re leaving tomorrow morning,” she said in a rush, closing the door and locking it. “I…”
It was as if a light had gone off in his head. “Do you think that I expected you to…” he trailed off, his hand waving about ineffectively as he tried to search for a term.
She shook her head. “No, but I want to.” Biting her lip, she stared up at him. “That is, if you want to. If not, I can…”
“No, I do. It’s just…” He sighed. They’d never been at such a loss for words before. “Can we start over?”
She pressed her lips together. “I’m not any good at this,” she admitted, fussing with the sleeves of her robe.
“Are you certain?”
She nodded, slipping the robe off her shoulders. “I want this, Nathaniel. I’ve wanted this for years.” She tugged at the ribbon holding the neckline of her gown.
“Wait. Let me.” His hands brushed over her skin, his thumbs running in circles over the bumps of her collarbone. He dipped his head and kissed her, and suddenly the nervousness that had clawed at her throat vanished. She melted against him, moving when Nathaniel led her towards his bed. She sighed against his mouth, her hands pulling his tunic up and over his head.
“I love you,” he whispered, his mouth trailing down her throat and then lower. After that, no other words were needed. Nathaniel wished that he had thought to light more candles other than the one short stub at a table on the other side of the room; he had wanted to see her better. They moved slowly, taking their time to learn the texture of the other’s skin, where bodies dipped and where they curved. There were a few awkward moments as was to be expected: Moira laughed off the way that Nathaniel’s elbow had pinned her hair to the mattress and she had apologized for the way that her fingernails had dug too hard into his biceps. Moira had tensed and inhaled sharply when they had finally come together and it had taken everything in Nathaniel to stay still long enough for her to get used to him. He nearly came unglued when she had experimentally tilted her hips upward, her mouth opening up on a gasp at the sensation.
It was over soon after. Moira had lay there underneath him, her hands smoothing over his sides, but he could tell that she hadn’t finished the same way that he had. He’d murmured an apology against her ear, his hands and lips trailing down her body until she shuddered and cried out, her back bowing. Nathaniel rolled to his side, bringing Moira along with him. She settled her head against the curve of his shoulder, her hand on his chest. He dropped a kiss over the crown of her hair, yawning. It wasn’t long before both of them fell into a comfortable slumber wrapped up in the other’s arms.
Moira woke later on feeling slightly disoriented. Reaching out in the dark, her hand touched nothing but the sheets next to her. Sitting up, she pushed her hair out of her face. “Nate?”
She wrapped the coverlet around her and slid out of bed. “Any regrets?” she asked cautiously, going over to where Nathaniel was standing at the window. The moon was still high in the sky; what little light that spilled through the window barely illuminated part of Nathaniel’s face, sending the rest into shadow.
“Only that I’m leaving in the morning.” He reached out and trailed the backs of his fingers against her cheek. “Maker, but I’m going to miss you.”
“Will you write to me as soon as you are able?” She wrapped her arms around his waist, her hands splaying upwards over his back.
She gave a watery sounding laugh before sniffling. “I doubt you’ll have an opportunity to do that. Think of the poor messenger you’ll be sending out all the time. As often as possible will be fine for me.”
Nathaniel’s eyes went towards his bedside table drawer, where he kept the wedding band Moira’s mother had given him. Originally he had meant to wait until he returned to ask her, but at moment, it felt right. “I love you,” he began. “When I look at you, I want to tell everyone how happy you make me.”
“I love you too.” She kissed his shoulder and snuggled closer to him. “And I want to do the same.”
He tipped her head up so he was looking her in the eye. “And when I return, nothing would make me happier than the ability to tell everyone that you’re my wife.”
Moira beamed up at him. “You have no idea how much I want that, Nate,” she breathed.
“I was going to ask you this when I returned, but now I realize that I can’t wait for years for an answer. Moira, would you do me the honor of consenting…” He didn’t finish; Moira had thrown her arms around him and pressed her mouth to his.
“I’ll not have our children find out years down the road that their parents became engaged while wearing nothing but a sheet,” she said, laughing as he spun her around. “Ask me properly when you return, but know that my answer will be yes.”
“Yes? Truly?” He couldn’t contain the happy laugh that escaped him.
“Yes.” She planted kisses across his cheeks and chin. “Even if you ask me a thousand times, I will always say yes.”
He kissed her hard, tangling his fingers into her hair. “I didn’t think it was possible for me to love you any more than I already did. Never doubt that my feelings for you will ever lessen; if anything, they’ll only grow stronger.”
Moira un-tucked the coverlet she had wrapped around her, allowing it to fall to her feet. “Come back to bed, Nathaniel,” she whispered, taking his hand and lacing her fingers with his.
Nathaniel woke to something tickling his nose. Stretching, his arms bumped into incredibly soft skin. He grinned and opened his eyes. Moira’s back was facing him, her hands tucked underneath her chin. His knees fit perfectly behind hers and the curve of her hip seemed as if it had been made specifically for his hand alone. The room was still somewhat dark, but he could tell that it was close to daybreak. Reluctantly pushing himself to his elbow, he leaned over and kissed her shoulder.
“Mmm,” she hummed, still half-asleep as she burrowed deeper beneath the covers, her back settling firmly against his chest.
“Wake up, dearest.”
“I don’t want to.” Reaching down so she could cover his hand with hers, she turned until she was on her back. “If I wake up, it means that it’ll be morning. Morning means that you’ll be gone.”
“Believe me, I don’t want to get up any more than you do, but I’d rather spend what little time we have together in your room so that no one catches the both of us sneaking about the hallways in our night clothes.”
“You have a point,” she told him sulkily. “It might have worked when we were children, but I doubt it will now.”
He kissed her forehead. “Come on, the sooner we put ourselves back to rights, the longer we can stay in the other’s company.”
They dressed in silence, the two of them creeping down the hall until they reached the guestroom Moira was staying at. Nathaniel busied himself with lighting a fire in the hearth while Moira slipped into a day gown behind the changing screen. She ran her brush through her hair to remove sleep tangles and then went over to where Nathaniel was sitting in an oversized chair. “When does your ship leave?” she asked, slipping into his lap, her arms wrapping around his waist.
“I’m going to miss you so much. We’ve never been apart for so long.”
He cradled her cheek in his palm and hugged her tightly. “I will come back to you, I swear.”
“And I’ll wait for you, always.” She leaned against his hand and closed her eyes. “I’ll wait for you forever.”
“Luckily we won’t be apart that long. You do realize that this is going to have to serve as our actual goodbyes, don’t you?”
She sighed. “I know. I’m going to be able to give Fergus the tearful send-off because he’s my brother, but it doesn’t seem right that I’m going to have to be formal and polite when it comes to you.”
“Only for a little while longer. Then we’ll be married and everything will be different.” His brow furrowed and he wondered what they would be like as a couple. He hoped that they would have something like he remembered his own parents having; he might have been young at the time, but he could clearly remember the way that Mother would laugh and how Father would gaze upon her with such affection. Father had adored the two of them, and then when Delilah was born, he had doted upon the three of them. Nathaniel recalled riding upon Father’s shoulders and the late night stories he would tell about the Blackmarsh and how he would often would find Father in the nursery cradling Delilah as she slept. But then Thomas was born and everything…stopped. Mother’s laughter rarely rang out unless Thomas was playing the lute, and even then, Nathaniel often caught her looking sad and wistful. Father distanced himself from all three of his children, but it seemed as if the youngest two caught the brunt of whatever had happened. Nathaniel might have managed to receive a bit of affection from Father over the years, but it had always felt as if he had to work to earn it, that he had to prove to Father that he was worthy of his affection.
In contrast, he thought of Moira’s parents. Bryce and Eleanor’s home was always filled with warmth and love. He could recall only a handful of times where it was obvious that the two of them were having arguments – Moira had certainly inherited her quick temper from her mother – but even then, they were both quick to get over whatever issue they had been fighting over and forgive the other. What had struck Nathaniel the most was the fact that it seemed as if the Teyrn and Teyrna had a partnership where both of them were considered equals, that they were friends as well as spouses. If anything, that was the sort of marriage that he envisioned for himself and Moira. Perhaps once they were wed, Vigil’s Keep would once again be the sort of home where laughter and love would echo through the halls.
“At least I shall have plenty of time to win over your mother.”
“What are you talking about? Mother adores you.”
Moira raised her eyebrow. “Nate, just because she doesn’t say anything, I know she doesn’t quite approve of me. I’m not very feminine in comparison to your mother and sister.”
He shrugged. “I know how you are. If I wanted someone that was exactly the same as my mother or sister, I would have married Bann Esmerelle’s daughter years ago.” He kissed her forehead. “Didn’t I tell you when we were children that you should marry someone that doesn’t mind getting bested in swordplay?”
“You actually remember that?”
“Of course I do. I have a mind like a steel trap.” He tapped the side of his head for emphasis.
She laughed. “Remind me never to do anything foolish in front of you. I’ll be bound to hear about it decades after it happened.”
Nathaniel tugged her closer, his hands sliding over the silk of her dress. “Don’t worry; I wouldn’t do such a thing. You have my permission to act as foolish as you wish as long as the same can be applied to me.”
She looked at him with so much love in her eyes that he felt as if his heart would burst from it. “I believe we have a deal.”
“Mother, I’m only going to be gone for a year. You’ll have plenty of time to make certain that my clothes are in order when I return,” Fergus teased.
Eleanor tisked and ran her hands over his shoulders to smooth out several wrinkles. “I’m a mother; indulge me.”
“Remember what I told you,” Bryce said, embracing his son. “When speaking in Antivan, the phrase another beer, please is not the correct thing to say to your host as soon as you arrive, even if it sounds similar to it is a pleasure to meet you.” He leaned closer to Fergus. “If you’re going to use the first phrase, make sure to wait at least until you’re through with first mug he gives you.”
Fergus laughed. “Relax, Mother. I intend on being a model guest.”
“Who is this man and what have you done with my child?” Eleanor hugged him. “I’m going to miss you, my son.”
He squeezed back. “I’m going to miss you too.”
Moira wiped at her eye with a knuckle. “Make certain to leave at least one Antivan woman with her heart intact. I fear that you’re going to start a war after you pursue the wrong nobleman’s daughter.”
“I think I have more to worry about from assassins protecting their sisters and daughters than nobles.”
She rolled her eyes. “One day, some woman is going to steal your heart and bring you to your knees. I only hope that I’m there to witness it.”
“If that day ever happens, little sister, I’ll be certain to marry her and never love another.”
“Just take care of yourself, all right?”
Fergus hugged her tighter. “I will, I promise. And I’ll look after your Nate as long as I can.” He said the last in a whisper so that she was the only one to hear.
“Thank you. I know he doesn’t need it, but…” she pulled back slightly. “What did you call him?”
He grinned. “We can’t call him our Nate any longer, now can we? As long as I’ve known you, you haven’t been one to share.” He chuckled when Moira lightly smacked the back of his head, kissing her cheek noisily in return.
Nathaniel tightened a strap to his pack and watched as Fergus’ family bid their son farewell. His heart clenched as he saw Moira wrap her arms around Fergus’ neck and kiss his cheek. “I hope you have a safe journey,” Delilah told him. Unlike the Cousland’s public well wishes, Delilah and Thomas had privately seen him off. His sister’s eyes were still a little red, but she managed to keep her voice level as they stood outside the Keep’s front gates.
“Remember to write us,” Thomas said.
“I will. The two of you had better remember to write me back as well.”
Delilah wrung her hands in indecision before going up on her tiptoes and throwing her arms around Nathaniel’s shoulders. “Be safe, Brother,” she whispered, her lips brushing against his cheek.
Not caring about appearances, Nathaniel embraced her with one arm while reaching out and bringing Thomas into the hug with his other. “I’m going to miss the both of you. Take care of yourselves.”
“Have a safe passage, my son,” his father said, clapping his hand on Nathaniel’s shoulder.
“Thank you, Father. Farewell, Mother.”
His mother nodded, her hands clutching a linen handkerchief in her hands so tightly that her knuckles had turned white. “My son.” Her nostrils flared and Nathaniel was certain that she was blinking away tears. She stepped forward and flicked a bit of imaginary lint off his sleeve, her hand lingering longer than necessary. “Make our family proud.”
“Of course he will,” Rendon said, his tone proud. “He is a Howe.”
Nathaniel broke away from his family and went towards the Couslands. “Farewell, my lord, my lady.”
“Take care, Nathaniel,” Bryce said, shaking his hand.
“Be careful, my dear,” Eleanor told him, holding his other hand. Her thumb ran comfortingly over the back of his palm. “Come back to us safely.”
“I will.” The thin chain around his neck seemed to weigh a ton; underneath his tunic, he had threaded the ring Eleanor had given him onto the links so that it rested over his heart.
Moira’s lips were pressed into a thin line. She opened her mouth to say something, but then slightly shook her head and swallowed hard. “My lady,” Nathaniel said softly, taking her hand in his. He kissed the backs of her fingers, his lips lingering over her left ring finger.
“Well,” Fergus said, his voice cheerful. “Shall we be off?”
Moira and Delilah watched until their brothers were specks on the horizon. “Everything will be all right,” Delilah said, threading her arm through Moira’s.
Her chest felt tight and she could feel tears burn at the back of her throat. “Yes, it will.”
Nathaniel stood in line with Fergus as they waited to board the ship. “That wasn’t the most heartfelt of farewells,” Fergus noted casually. “I mean, you’re not going to see my sister for a really long while.”
“Forgive me. I couldn’t think of any poetry to recite on bended knee at the moment.”
“Sarcasm suits you, Nate. Grouchiness doesn’t. I do hope you aren’t going to brood the entire time.”
He scowled. He thought that he would have been all right with leaving, but it was taking everything in him to stay on the docks instead of running back to the Keep and back to Moira. “I do not…Moira?”
“That didn’t make any sense.”
“Shut up. Is that your sister?” He took a few steps forward, pointing at the entrance to the docks.
“Why would my,” Fergus squinted. “By Andraste, it is Moira.” Moira seemed to be looking for them, and they both knew the moment she had spotted them. There was a considerable crowd of merchants and sailors who were blocking her way, but she elbowed through them, her hands holding her skirts up to her knees, exposing the tall boots she wore underneath. Nathaniel watched as she ran towards him, his feet moving on their own to meet her halfway.
“Oh Nate,” she said, kissing him as he spun them around in a circle, lifting her off her feet. “I couldn’t bear to have that be the last time we see each other.”
“How did you get here so quickly?”
She gave him a slightly guilty look. “I borrowed your horse.”
He laughed, kissing her again. “By yourself?”
“Actually, I got caught halfway out of the stables. I also borrowed your captain of the guard. He wouldn’t allow me to leave by myself otherwise.”
He looked behind her. Just as she said, the Keep’s captain was standing a few feet away. “Captain Varel is a good man. You’ll have to thank him for me.”
“Oi! Put my sister down and get on board before we leave without you!”
“I love you,” Moira breathed, kissing him one last time.
“I meant what I said earlier. No matter what happens, no matter how long I’m away, I will always love you. Nothing can ever change that.”
She touched his cheek. “You have to go,” she said brightly. “Don’t tell me goodbye; just say that you’ll see me later.”
“Nate! Move it!”
“Feel free to kill my brother,” Moira said, smirking as Nathaniel bent to touch his forehead to hers. “Or else I may beat you to it.”
“I will see you later,” he promised. He took a deep breath and stepped away.
“Much better in the heartfelt department,” Fergus commented, holding out a hand to help Nathaniel onto the ship’s deck. “And you look far better than you had before. I’ll have to thank Moira for putting you in a much bearable mood.”
Nathaniel watched as they sailed away. Moira stood there hugging her arms. He stared as she smiled brilliantly at him and he had to agree: having Moira smiling at him as his last view of her was far better than seeing her close to tears.
I’ll see you later, he thought, holding onto the rail of the ship. And once I return, nothing will keep us apart again.