Bzzt! A bumblebee zoomed past Dog's head. He flicked an ear at it and sneezed. Back there, in the shadow of the Big Stone Kennel, all the tracks were covered in round smooth rocks like dry riverbeds, and the smell of people and dust and horses was everywhere. Now instead of rocks there was good cool mud with sandy chunks, and grassy clumps, and worms wriggling all over!
Dog trotted on, lolling his tongue out in a grin. Proper mud! Squishy! Soft on the paws. Lots of fun smells. Grass all around, dewy grass with mice and grasshoppers and sticks and pawprints. Rabbit tracks! Right there. Fresh. Large, too. Fat juicy rabbits!
Yum! Dog paused to pant and lick his chops. Can't hunt, not yet, got to take the young one to the pack leader.
Pup's lost again.
Keep up, the Leader went this way! Hey! Hey! Dog turned around and barked impatiently at his ward. Where did Pup wander off to? Oh, back there. Always so slow, with that hard and heavy shell and only two legs to walk on. My fleas move faster than him!
Pup is stiffer than a bronto in that shell of his, can't even curl up in a ball to reach where his tail should be. At least he's got a good collar now, almost as good as mine. Maybe in a few seasons from now, he'll be able to track packmates on his own. He already knows how to fight. Leader should mark him with colored mud for the hunt, like a proper warrior: dark trails down his ribs, two paw prints on his haunches. But Pup would probably only huff, happy to be scratched. He'd flop on his back, and pant and drool and show his belly in no time.
Can't make a fearsome warrior out of a wriggly pup without even a tail to wag. He's still got a lot to learn. Two barks short of a howl for a proper war hound, but not bad for a two-paw puppy. Maybe if he didn't carry that chunk of hard stale milk with him, he could smell the Leader's tracks himself. Dog barked again, wagging encouragingly. It's easy, look, Pup, just do what I do: put your nose to the ground and follow this trail! It's still good and strong, it hasn't even rained yet! I know you sniffed him all over lots of times, so you must remember how he smells.
Oh well, maybe later. He'll learn one day. Every time I tried to help him clean his nose for tracking, he always pushed me away. But he can't lick his own muzzle clean, his tongue doesn't even reach his nose. I've got to teach him to follow a scent, in case he ever runs off without me. He'll never find his way back without a wet clean nose.
Up ahead, Pup! One of my trees. You've got to mark your hunting land at every big tree, or others will claim it. Here! You can sniff the bark down here and smell my mark, even though I left it many rains ago. The Leader wasn't with us then. We were still with the pack Mother and the big noisy herd we all hunted with before the Dragon took Mother. We had a good hunt together. Many tasty kills.
The Leader went through here, but he didn't stop to hunt. Hmmm. Wait. He turned from the trail here, and went his own way, over the grass and right through the trees. Huh, where'd he go next? Where where Where where WHERE?
OH! Over that stream. Sneaky Leader! Didn't want to be trailed. Turn here, Pup! Here! Here! Up the hill! Watch it! Don't you smell those burrs in the grass? Itchy, worse than bugs. They stick to your side in clumps, and break up when you bite them out. Even you, with those stalky heron legs, will be scratching your sides. The Leader isn't here to groom your fur.
Pup was making noises again...
Now what are you barking about? Dog cocked his head to the side, listening. Humans! They bark and huff and yelp and whine all the time. Just one of them makes as many different noises as a whole lake full of frogs. All those sounds and all that panting, no wonder they're so slow. They've probably never got enough breath left for a proper run, much less a decent howl.
"Are you even looking for him, boy? Come on." Pup grumbled as he trailed a few steps behind Dog. "Stop chasing squirrels! Let's get back on the road."
No! No! No! Dog barked right back at Pup and shouldered him in the leg, herding him in the right direction. He didn't go by the human trail, he went through here! Dog leapt over a fallen trunk. Here! This way! Hurry!
The wind rustled in the tree tops. The crows cawed overhead. Come on, Pup! This is our trail! Stop your huffing and puffing, you'll fall behind.
"Oh, fine. But if you get us lost, we won't have time to stop for dinner."
Dinner? You won't catch any rabbits without my help! This way! Don't wander off gathering fleas. Dog twisted around the branches with the casual trot of a born tracker. Here, through the bush. Don't whine! We'll find him soon, and you'll be pounced and licked clean and I'll get some rest, and we'll all have a big juicy bone to gnaw on.
A mabari tracker on a mission was always a menace to keep up with, but Dog was on a whole new level. Since morning, Alistair had ducked pine branches, climbed over fallen logs, rolled downhill, and - he was pretty sure - landed arse-first on a fire ant nest.
On the open road, away from the stone walls and stony faces of Denerim, Alistair could now appreciate the irony of the situation. I worried the most about confessing to Anora, but she was the one who took the news best. Even wished me luck. Of course, I need all the luck I can get.
Just before Alistair left town, Anora had taken him aside for another quick chat. The conversation was quite enlightening, and nowhere near as scary as it could've been. It looked like he'd been wrong about Anora all along. He'd never expected her, of all people, to give her blessing to an ex-fiance to court her father, much less follow it up with such a surprising offer.
Wait 'til I tell him about her generous goodwill gift!
Loghain avoided the dangers of the Wending Wood, leaving the merchant-frequented Pilgrim's Path for a much smaller trail leading toward the good hunting of the Hafter River valley and the Knotwood Hills beyond. He settled for the night in a clearing which was too heavily wooded to be Alistair's Clearing, but which had the same crisp, clean feel in its sun-warmed tree branches and its wind-blown grass. This place looked as pristine as if the Blight had never come to Ferelden. The moss-covered bark of the young oaks had never known the scourge of fire; climbing ivy was the only invader clinging to their branches. It was a reassuring reminder that some parts of his beloved country had kept their beauty and remained untouched by the horrors of wartime, unmarred by darkspawn armies, unbroken by invaders' attacks.
Got to get some rest, or I'll never make it to Montsimmard. Be nice to get a few hours' sleep, just by way of a change.
All was quiet in the wilderness around the camp, well away from merchant wagons. He must've been the only man around for miles. The tiny, smokeless fire burned down to ash, and Loghain leaned against the tree trunk, sword and bow in each hand as he finally nodded off. His first sleep in two days was patchy and restless.
In the morning, Loghain drifted slowly back toward wakefulness, groggy as hell from the broken night just past, and the sleepless nights that had gone before. Sunlight was warm on his closed eyelids and the forest was quiet, peaceful. Even the taint felt calm, a reassuring, friendly presence. A barely-formed thought drifted drowsily through Loghain's subconscious: Alistair's gone hunting.
He jolted to full wakefulness at the sound of a mabari's greeting bark.
Instantly, the memory of leaving them behind in Denerim hit him with a heart-pounding rush and he was up, snatching weapons and pack, sprinting soundlessly for the thickest undergrowth beyond the clearing's border.
He'd barely made it to hiding before Dog galloped into the clearing, followed by an all too familiar, strapping young warrior. To Loghain's ears, both Alistair and Dog were making about as much noise as a platoon in full plate.
Loghain's desperate, last-ditch effort at concealment went about as well as could be expected. The mabari paused, snuffled at the tree Loghain had rested his back against, then bounded right for him, barking madly. Loghain just had time to drop his pack before Alistair hit him with a running tackle, bowling him clean off his feet and sending the pair of them flying. Loghain landed with a hard thud amid bracken thick enough to entangle his bow, and Alistair landed on top of him, holding him down with armored arms.
Loghain grunted, winded by Alistair's considerable weight. Even as Loghain raised his hands into a defensive pose, he wondered if Alistair would hug him or slug him. In Loghain's experience, being tackled to the ground like this was usually the opening move in a full-scale, knock-down drag-out punch-up.
Loghain regretted his light armor when Alistair's brawny arms tightened around him hard enough to make both leather and ribs creak. Then Alistair lunged in for a kiss. Loghain's eyes snapped wide and he huffed in his usual, instinctive shock at being on the receiving end of affection.
As they broke apart, Alistair kept patting Loghain's chest and shoulders, as if checking for injuries, as if he wasn't sure Loghain was real. "Found you! Finally!" His cry was pure unselfconscious relief and joy.
Loghain tried to compose himself from the physical assault on his person, committed by someone more enthusiastic and brainless than even the youngest mabari pup. "What in the Void are you doing here?"
"I'm following you! Why did you leave?"
"Isn't it obvious?" Loghain growled, doing his best to bring this moonstruck young idiot to his senses. "Now answer me! Why are you here when you've got a wedding to attend! A country to rule!"
"What?"Alistair's head jerked back as if Loghain had punched him. "How can you even ask that?" He scrambled gracelessly to stand with far too much empty space between them. "That's what you planned from the start, isn't it? You plotted to take me to Denerim to marry Anora. Yet after all we've been through together, after everything I've shared with you, you still wouldn't change your mind! How could you even think I'd go along with that wedding? It's not even a wedding, it's the biggest lie ever, not just for me but for Ferelden, and I can't! I... " Alistair's voice shook. "I trusted you! And you, you didn't even have the guts to see it through to the end! So you left me there and you ran away! And you're still running!"
"Oh, stop acting like a maudlin maiden!" Despite himself, Loghain was annoyed by Alistair's hysterics, and that irritation showed in the impatient sharpness of his voice, the hard twist to his mouth as he climbed to his feet. "You're a king, like your father, so you need to stop traipsing around after me, go back to Denerim, get married, and concentrate on ruling the bloody country while there's still a country left!"
"Look, I'm the worst choice for a king, we both know it! Anora knows it, and now the whole Landsmeet does too!"
"I had to tell them the truth! It's not like I can carry on the Theirin line. So I told them that, and then I renounced the throne. It's over. The wedding's off, I'll never be king."
As Alistair spoke, Loghain knew he was standing there agape, but for a long, choked moment words wouldn't come: not from the lack of something to say, but from too many things clamoring to be said first. For one stunned second, Loghain even thought that Alistair was taking their declarations of commitment to a whole new level of celibate insanity. But then he couldn't help giving a ragged, relieved sigh, when he realised what Alistair must have meant. A far more practical point: it's all but impossible for a Grey Warden to father an heir.
It's over. Over. Alistair's words were a drumbeat echoing in his ears. All over. At last Loghain managed to gather his scattered wits enough to gasp out, "What the fuck were you thinking? What sort of selfish idiot leaves Ferelden's future in chaos, you -"
"Nice vote of confidence in your own daughter!" Alistair shouted over him. It had the rare effect of stopping Loghain mid-snarl, as efficiently as a fist in his teeth. "Anora's wiser and more trustworthy than any noble the Landsmeet can hope to find, and I made damn sure she'll stay on the throne where she belongs."
Stung, Loghain stepped back. Alistair had thrown his grievous mistake in his face: without thinking, Loghain had taken his daughter's accomplishments for granted, just like the rest of Ferelden. "Neatly done," Loghain retaliated, "You left her behind to do your dirty work for you."
"You left first!" Alistair cried, "Disappeared without so much as a simple goodbye."
"Of course I left. There was nothing else for me to do," Loghain cut off the accusation with a brisk tone. "My duty to Ferelden was done."
"'Duty'?" Alistair's stare was wounded, his voice sharp with accusation. "What about us? Was I a 'duty' too? Was it all just a lie? A game? Was teaching me to want to be tied up just a convenient way to keep me leashed on the way back to Denerim?"
"I never taught you to want that," Loghain snapped, outraged at the implication of force, after all the care he'd taken to ensure Alistair choices and Alistair's needs came first. "All I did was help you to admit it."
"Oh, you helped, all right. Did you have a good laugh afterwards? Did you plan all along to leave me behind as soon as I was no longer useful?" There was steel in Alistair's voice at the last word; the kind he always had when talking about backstabbing royalty, or the assassins who served them: sharp with disappointment at the idea of such ultimate betrayal.
"Oh, come off it," Loghain growled, determined not to let himself be swayed by Alistair's wounded stare. "In case you haven't noticed, you're always 'useful', if you want to be. Ferelden hadn't even recovered from war with the Orlesians, before it was hit by the Archdemon and an entire darkspawn army. Lothering was far from the only town wiped off the map; Maker knows how much farmland has been blighted. There's a whole country to rebuild, and all you want to do is whine about my leaving you behind? I've left men behind before, at Ostagar and elsewhere: good men who wanted to be useful, because that was what circumstances demanded. I did it before and I'll do it again in a heartbeat, because unlike you, boy, I know where my duty lies."
Loghain regretted saying it, even before he saw Alistair's tell-tale flinch and the thin-lipped grimace that followed. "Is that all I am to you? A 'boy'? You sound like Eamon!"
The taint tightened Loghain's throat and made his hands shake with an echo of Alistair's distress as well as his own anger. "Don't ever compare me to that slimy sack of shit!"
At this short distance, their shared, tainted shadowsense made hiding from one another, on any level, impossible. Loghain expected to feel righteous rage from Alistair in defense of his foster father, but instead Alistair winced again, as if at a fresh wound, and Loghain felt the pang. Then Alistair shook his head, gathering himself after that instinctive reaction, and gave a sarcastic snort. "Yeah, I suppose you've got a point about Eamon. Sorry."
Eamon must have shown his true nature at the Landsmeet, bluntly enough that even Alistair took notice. Bloody pity that scheming old sod didn't have a stroke on the spot! Even though Loghain hadn't had the treat of seeing the look on Eamon's face or hearing his bluster, he was still pleased enough - by Alistair's apology and by his new insight into his former guardian - that Loghain made a small concession in return. "And I suppose I shouldn't have called you a boy." Loghain's grimace shifted into a brief sideways smirk. "I, of all people, know better."
The smirk faded and Loghain drew a breath. His ribs twinged slightly, the bruises of Alistair's bearhug already fading, but the taint still bound them closer than any physical embrace. As Loghain spoke, he hoped Alistair could sense Loghain's unspoken need to reassure Alistair of the truth. "Believe me, what we shared was…" unforgettable, "-not a lie. You were never a lie."
Loghain paused and wished he could end the confession there. It would be so easy to stop. But he kept on talking, because the whole truth was far more complicated, and Alistair deserved to know about the whole tangled mess of Loghain's life, his motivations, and his losses. "But some things are necessaryfor the good of the realm. I know how it must feel; trust me, I do. Your father Maric needed a strong queen. He and Rowan were betrothed as children, long before I met either of them, and in the end they both honored that commitment." He fixed Alistair with a heavy stare. "All three of us honored it, despite what any of us may have wished. To see Maric and Rowan wed was what Ferelden needed, and a need like that cannot be ignored..." his voice lowered to a reminiscent murmur, "...even if it meant sacrificing someone I very much wanted for myself."
Alistair's eyes widened as he understood something no other living soul knew about Loghain. "You were in love. With..." Alistair's voice trailed off, but the unspoken question was obvious in his expression. Which one?
Loghain faced him, meeting his gaze without flinching as he admitted, "I loved them both." How could I not? They were closer to me than anyone else, each in their own unique way. I trusted them with my life.
Alistair's eyes widened. "...You gave them both up," he breathed, appalled. "Just like that. Without even trying..."
"I had to." What did it matter, that letting Rowan go, and watching Maric marry her, felt like tearing my own heart out, twice over? "It was my duty."
"Fuck duty!" Alistair grabbed Loghain's shoulders. Loghain could feel a tremor in his grip, a physical shake which wasn't quite deliberate. "Don't you see? I'm the living proof of just how badly that perfect royal wedding turned out! How many more king's bastards will it take 'til you realise you can take all this self sacrifice too damn far?"
Loghain's eyes narrowed and he replied dryly, "Oh, I think one bastard's quite enough."
"Good," Alistair echoed, just as dry. "Now, this is what's going to happen. If you even think I will ever go along with any sort of duty that involves you leaving me behind," Alistair pulled Loghain quickly into his hold and whispered breathlessly, "I won't, Loghain. You're too important. If you want to go somewhere, fine, go, but I'm going with you. And if you want me gone, well - too bad," Alistair shrugged off his hooded cloak, exposing the dragonbone collar. "You'll have to take this back first."
He's wearing my collar. The realisation hit Loghain like a physical blow; his heart gave a single thud against his ribs, hard as a fist against the bars of a cage. "Don't be a fool," he husked, although at that moment even Loghain couldn't tell if he was speaking to Alistair or himself.
"And," Alistair continued speaking over Loghain's murmur, "if you want more than a day's head start tomorrow, you'll have to do much better than tying me up or sneaking out again without a single word!" As Alistair spoke his fingers were busy unbuckling the collar, and now he drew it off his neck and held it out in one hand. The dragonbone pieces curled like a sleeping serpent in his palm. He met Loghain's stare and lifted his chin proudly, as if the sheer vulnerability of his pale, stubbled throat was a challenge.
Dramatic idiot. "If you don't know by now that armoring you, or leaving you behind out of harm's way, has nothing to do with restraining you, then you're an even bigger fool than I thought." Loghain's fingers reached out of their own accord to cover the collar in Alistair's grasp, to close Alistair's fingers over the smooth dragonbone. As if charmed, the touch took the fight out of him. The bone was still warm from Alistair's skin. "Put that back on," he grumbled.
At their feet, Dog planted himself pointedly right behind Alistair and headbutted him toward Loghain. Loghain steadied him against the sudden shove, with a hand on his shoulder.
Alistair's gaze lifted to meet Loghain's. "No. You do it. Put it on me. Properly."
Loghain's throat tightened at the implication of what that request meant. "Only if you want me to."
"You can't just walk away. You have to finish what you started."
The word was a spell. It held power: so many memories of Alistair, helpless with trust, flushed with lust, needing Loghain's hard body and harder mind, his mercilessness. His mercy.
How can anyone refuse such an offering twice?
I can't walk away. I can't leave it undone. Loghain himself was undone, by one word and the sight before him. He felt lost. He'd never even been the one to lead a ritual, a wedding, a Joining; let alone create a whole new ritual, one just for himself.
Alistair was somehow able to trust him: the kind of blind trust Loghain never felt for anyone, not even himself. I need to give him something worthy of that trust. Something beyond the rigid rites of the Chantry and the Wardens. This is not about the past, it's about building a future together, starting right now. We're free to do all that. Together. Today.
But this wasn't a ritual. Not quite. Not like witnessing Maric and Rowan's handfasting, or sliding a ring on Celia's delicate finger, or drinking death from a goblet.
Even though his own marriage to Celia had ended up more political than personal, there was an unfailing pattern in Loghain's life, of profound loss and sacrifice, and at the head of it all were always ritual formalities: official and public, unstoppable and inescapable. Like Rowan and Maric's wedding, where he'd sacrificed two loves. Like the Joining, where he'd sacrificed his life.
All for Ferelden.
His country's needs trumped everything else: Loghain had always believed that. But just this once, Loghain had seen his chance, and had fled Denerim before Alistair and Anora were wed. He'd been desperate to avoid yet another ritual reminder of everything he'd lost: everything he wanted, needed, but could never, ever have: his life returned to him, his love returned. By Alistair.
If this was a ritual after all, it required no sacrifice, no rhyme, and only one reason: Alistair asked, and Loghain was honored to give his answer.
They were without a witness, except Dog, yawning at all the fuss over a handful of sunbleached old bones for a collar. The collar was carved and corded and presented for the claiming, gathered on Loghain's palm like a broken cage of ribs, only missing a beating heart inside.
Flemeth's bones: the strongest, most potent dragonbone in all the Wilds.
An amulet for a Templar.
A ward for a Warden.
Alistair's fierce, fighting sword may have conquered the dragon, but Loghain's cunning, carving dagger had tamed her remains, had sculpted every bone to fit to Alistair's flesh, smoothed every edge to spare Alistair's skin. From abandoned relics of death, Loghain had transformed the bones into a shield against dangers untold and unseen, recompense for all the times he could not be there to fight at Alistair's back.
The two of them moved as one. There was no need for words, no place for questions, no room for uncertainty. The bond between them blazed silently with need, reassurance, pride, joy; shared, echoed, certain as the sun.
Slowly, Loghain reached out, with both hands. The hand not holding the collar settled on Alistair's shoulder, nudging gently downward. Silently, eyes fixed on Loghain's face the whole time, Alistair sank to his knees. Then he bowed his head, baring the nape of his neck, pale and vulnerable in the early morning light. This was not the servitude of a knight to a noble, nor the blind faith of a Chantry follower. Alistair knelt like a lover seeking closeness and pleasure. That thought - that memory - sent a surge of heat through Loghain as he reached for Alistair.
He lifted his handiwork to Alistair's neck and let the smooth bone pieces slide and click into place right over Alistair's collarbones, over the exposed skin. His palm slid over Alistair's jaw, over his burning ears. Loghain looped the collar around Alistair's neck and buckled it swiftly. When it was on, Alistair lifted his head, meeting Loghain's gaze once more. Their shared connection was drawing them ever closer, lodestone and steel. Loghain trailed a hand from his shoulder, over the sleek dragonbone, and touched the point of his chin, coaxing Alistair to rise to his feet as gently and wordlessly as he'd encouraged him to kneel.
Once Alistair rose, the collar once again completing his armor, Loghain slid his hands down that broad chest, checking buckles and fastenings, just as Alistair had done for him so many times before.
Bronze buckles glinted in the sun, well-worn, vellum-smooth leather caressed his fingertips, and Alistair's warm gaze felt like another, only slightly less tangible caress. Under it, Loghain's skin tingled. The morning brightened around them as sunlight slanted through the trees and filled the clearing. The hush that had fallen between them felt momentous, too sacred to break: the dawn of a new life. Their promise to each other had none of the trappings of officialdom, no pageantry or witnesses, no Chantry sanction, no flowery vows - no words at all - but it had needed none.
For the first time in his existence, Loghain had followed his heart, had allowed himself to reach for what he truly wanted. Abruptly he flung his arms around Alistair and hauled him chest to chest with a thud, into an embrace every bit as crushing as Alistair's reunion bearhug had been.
"I'm sorry," he whispered finally, barely breathing his promise into the crown of Alistair's head, "I won't leave you again."
"You won't," Alistair agreed, just as softly. "I'm coming with you."
Loghain lowered his face against Alistair's hair, closed his eyes, and drew a slow, deep breath, filling himself with that familiar scent and savouring it, headier than the richest wine. He nodded into that intoxicating warmth. Looks like I'm both claimed and forgiven. I don't know how he managed that particular feat of trust, but I'm obviously staying on as his Commander. As far more than his Commander, now.
Quite a role to live up to… not that we won't enjoy trying out new roles.
Loghain inclined his head, a nod to an equal. "We'll go together."
How strange it still felt, this new bond; how impossible, that Alistair was willing to go with Loghain, collar or not, wherever he went. Loghain had had Hero of River Dane fans. He'd had armies. He'd had a one-time-only lover, and another love he'd never even had one time with, and he'd stood aside and watched them wed. He'd had a wife he'd had nothing in common with except their daughter, and he'd left both of them behind far too often. And then, there was this instinctive, essential connection that had arisen so gradually, so naturally with Alistair.
No one ever felt that way for him! Maric was the one everyone worshipped. Rowan was the one they all listened to. Loghain was always the expendable one, the one who had to protect, defend, risk his life, fighting for the figureheads everyone loved.
But Alistair was listening to him, was smitten by him. Was following him. And nobody else, not even Duncan, could claim that Alistair had done the same for them. Alistair was Loghain's, body, heart, and soul, offered as freely as his love, and who was Loghain to refuse such an offer?
Perhaps we'll both get to share Alistair's wish for many years to come. Until the end. There's no one else I'd rather meet the end with. And until then, he's mine.
Loghain cupped Alistair's face in his grasp and leaned in to taste that familiar, daring smile, and found himself smiling back, smiling into their kiss.
...And his, Loghain admitted to himself in the privacy of their shared embrace, shared breath, shared mind. Alistair returned his kiss eagerly, enticingly, humming happiness as their fingers met and intertwined over the skin-smooth edge of the dragonbone collar.
The sun had moved quite a way across the sky since all had fallen quiet and still. Dog yawned pointedly. Still no response. He snorted at the bodies piled together in the green clearing, then gave a quiet growl at a cheeky squirrel that dared to come too close. You're lucky I'm on watch. Run off or you'll be a snack.
In the stretching shadows of the trees, Leader rested. Pup was curled up at Leader's side: collared, claimed and licked clean.
All was well.