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5.6

They ended up going to Redcliffe Castle anyway, the very next day, to pay their respects. Well, sort-of-respects, anyway. To get provisions and restock for their trek into the mountains, Zin said, and everyone agreed they needed that. Bann Teagan provided them with everything they could possibly want, from arrows to field rations to spare socks to extra health poultices. Wynne, Leliana and Zevran together raided the caste's stillroom, each with their own speciality in mind, and left it all but empty.

Alistair tried to talk Zin into some heavier mail from the castle armory, but Zin just laughed and shook his head. "I can't move in that," he said. He kissed the tip of Alistair's nose. "This mail is fine. And it's much lighter. And enchanted."

"I just want to make sure you're protected," Alistair said.

"Enchanted mail," Zin said. "Really fast. Wynne. I barely even have any scars." He nudged Alistair's shoulder with his own. "You should know. I think you got a good look at most of me last night."

Alistair, predictably, blushed. "More marks than I'd like," he said stubbornly. "And bruises and stuff."

"We all get bruises," Zin said. "There's no way not to get bruises, doing what we do. There's a bit on your left calf that's black and blue from where that crazy bandit kicked you a couple of days ago, babe, that's just... it's just our lives, right now. Bandits and bruises."

"And kisses?" Alistair said, wincing when it came out a question rather than the firm statement he'd meant to make it.

"Definitely kisses," Zin said, though, brushing his lips against Alistair's earlobe this time. "But we're not making out while you're wearing that very impressive plate mail. I can barely reach you."

Of course practically the first thing that happened when they began their trek towards Haven was that Alistair, despite his fancy armor, got injured. "I never liked spiders," he said woozily as he slumped against a tree with Wynne leaning over him. "Creepy little buggers. Too many legs." He stared down at his own leg, which felt peculiarly distant. "Wynne," he said plaintively, "why can't I feel my toes?"

"Trust me, once you can, you'll wish you couldn't," she said briskly. "Zin, be a dear and get me some fresh-boiled water."

"Of course!" Zin said, practically stumbling over his own feet in his haste as he went to get Morrigan and start a fire and find a pot and get some water, all at the same time. Graceful as a rogue, Alistair thought and chuckled a little to himself.

"What do you need boiling water for?" he asked Wynne, and then, a little worriedly, "You're not going to dip my leg in it, are you?"

"I thought I'd make some tea later," she said. "And Zin is a dear young man, but he was hovering over you and getting in my way. "Now, tell me if this hurts." She did something to Alistair's leg that made him thump his head against the tree trunk and pass out.

"Yes," he said when he recovered consciousness again. "That hurt."

"I imagine it did," Wynne said and handed him a mug of tea. "But now everything in your knee is the right way around again, and you're going to be just fine. And Shale found a beehive."

Alistair sipped at the tea, heavily sweetened with honey that almost drowned out the dry, flat taste of elfroot, and drifted a bit despite the throbbing in his leg. Zin came to sit next to him, and even with Alistair's plate and Zin's mail and the cold ground and the tree roots, it was kind of comfortable and comforting.

They kept on traveling, once Alistair could walk again. Things would have been much more difficult before Wynne decided to come with them, he reflected. Morrigan could heal, kind of like she could cook, if it was absolutely necessary; the results usually weren't that great unless she took special care, and Alistair didn't imagine she would have taken any special care with him.

Zin, of course, said there was nothing wrong with Morrigan's healing at all, and had no trouble accepting it. Of course, since she took special care with him. "I think she likes you," Alistair said into the nape of Zin's neck as they sat curled up together in the silent camp, keeping an absolutely unnecessary watch, or rather, staring into the fire and making out.

"I'm a very likable person," Zin said. "Who are you talking about?"

"Morrigan," Alistair muttered.

"She probably likes me better than anyone else in this group," Zin said, "which given the way you've glared at her from the start... wait." He tried to crane his neck around enough to see Alistair's face, which wasn't really possible with the way they were sitting, thank the Maker. "Are you jealous?"

"Don't be ridiculous," Alistair said, pressing his face into Zin's neck. "Yes."

"Because I love you like crazy," Zin said, and Alistair felt as though everything inside him tumbled out of a dark dank house to lie, dazed, in the sunshine. "I thought that was kind of obvious." He snorted and said something that sounded suspiciously like, "Tea."

 

5.8

Getting to the village of Haven wasn't easy. Alistair was used to seeing the Frostbacks in the distance, a blue blur, and he'd never considered what it would be like to get up close and personal with the mountains.

Now he knew. They walked up and up and up, on roads that grew more and more badly kept, through a stark landscape of stone and grass and more sky than he'd ever really thought about before. The sky was supposed to be overhead, but here, when he turned back to look, the sky was somehow arcing down right in front of him, too. There was just too much of it, pale blue, stretching forever. It almost gave him vertigo.

Wynne said something about the mountain air being fresh and bracing; she must be wearing long woolen underwear, underneath that robe of hers. Sten and Zin and Alistair himself had armor from head to toe, Serpent had fur from head to paw, and Shale never gave any sign of noticing anything as corporeal as temperature and its effects on the body, but Zevran and Leliana were starting to look a little pinched and goosefleshy. They could really use some sturdier armor, Alistair thought. With long sleeves.

Morrigan, with an air of matter-of-fact practicality, had procured a dark green fur-lined cloak from somewhere, and kept it so tight around herself that she wasn't showing any bare skin below the neck, for the first time in Alistair's experience. He thought it was, on the whole, an improvement.

The air was thin here, and had a bite that seemed to threaten snow -- more snow than what already dusted the highest peaks and lay in disturbingly dry drifts on the shaded side of every slope they passed. But the sky stayed clear, and just when Alistair was starting to wonder if they were really on the right road after all, they found the village.

 

5.9

The village of Haven wasn't a very friendly place. The guard they met, coming in, tried to persuade them to turn around and go right back where they came from. The shopkeeper, once they managed to find the shop, could barely be prevailed upon to sell them anything. While Wynne and Leliana were sorting through supplies, Zin went off to make friends with a small boy who was playing by himself, and came back with a very peculiar look on his face.

"That child," he said, "is carrying around a human fingerbone in his pocket." He shook his head. "There's something very wrong here."

Alistair blinked, because that seemed like something of an understatement. Everything in Haven put him on edge, made his skin tingle with wrongness, as if the air carried something more than just mountain chill. It wasn't like sensing the taint of darkspawn, but whatever it was, it made him deeply uncomfortable. The sky had clouded over, too, and there was snow in the air, just a few drifting flakes.

Zin clearly took the conversation with the boy as a sign, and started to tear through the village in that way he had, looking into everything, poking things to see what would happen. When he walked into a house without even knocking, Wynne made a disapproving sound, but when she caught sight of a narrow blood-soaked table set back against the wall, almost like an altar, she fell silent.

"That is human blood," Morrigan said. Alistair didn't see how she could be sure of that, but then he thought about the fingerbone, and just followed Zin without a word or gesture of protest as Zin went on looking and poking, ending up back in the shop and going into the room behind it, despite the shopkeeper's protests.

The smell of blood was heavy and cloying back there, painful on the sinuses. In the innermost corner, they found the remains of a body, cut to pieces -- butchered, Alistair thought, not just killed but methodically taken apart, some of the remains carelessly wrapped in a bit of tattered cloth. Alistair jerked his eyes away, sickened by the sight, and saw a much-dented shield leaning against the wall. A lot of the paint had been scraped off, but he could still make out a red curve along the bottom, flaking white above, and a broad grey stripe that might have been the metal of the shield shining through, or the painted grey of a tower.

"That's a Redcliffe shield," Alistair said. "This -- this is one of the knights of Redcliffe." He made a face. "Most of him, anyway." At least there wasn't a head with a familiar face staring sightlessly at him. That would have been... bad. "I guess he was looking for Brother Genitivi, just as we are."

"This is a stupid thing to do." Sten stood at the back of the group, but Alistair didn't think he'd missed any part of the scene. "Why kill a man untidily in here and leave the remains to stink up the room?"

"It looks a little like a sacrifice," Zevran said, "as did the blood in the other house. That impostor back in Denerim said he was acting in Andraste's name, but I was certainly never taught that she requires human sacrifices."

A howl went up from outside the house: Serpent was taking exception to something, which turned out to be a number of hostile armed men. Alistair came out the door just in time to see the mabari leap on a man in grubby robes, who sent a spray of icy cold straight up into the snowy sky as he fell.

Moments later, the armed men were joined by villagers, men and women both, who wore plain, threadbare clothes and fought with their bare hands. It seemed the shopkeeper had called up reinforcements. Alistair gritted his teeth. He hated to wield sword and shield against unarmed opponents, but they wouldn't back down, seemed not to hear it when Zin called for them to stop, and he kept seeing that pitiable bundle in the shop's back room, kept smelling blood soaked into rough wooden floors.

Maybe that was someone he'd been friendly with, like Ser Donall. Maybe it was someone who'd dismissed him as being of no account, just an unwanted by-blow. Maybe it was someone he'd never even met. But he'd never know, and that... well, that was the point, wasn't it? Whatever lay behind the horrible murders of the knights of Redcliffe, these people were all complicit in it, clearly ready to kill for it again, and to die for it.

It seemed that both the armed men and the unarmed villagers had tried to keep them away from a steep slope beyond the shop, so as soon as they could, they went that way and found a small chantry. Preaching to the congregation was a revered father, of all things -- Alistair hadn't believed there were male priests anywhere outside the Tevinter Imperium, and he stared in shock for a moment, until the man denounced them and called for their deaths.

Then there was more fighting and blood. Alistair had never imagined fighting in a chantry, and afterwards, looking at the bodies, he felt a wave of unease. Everyone else seemed unmoved by that aspect of it, but he shared a look with Leliana. "I suppose the Maker will understand," she said quietly.

As small as the chantry was, it had room enough for a secret door, leading to what might be a hidden library on better days, but was a prison cell now, where an injured man lay groaning.

Well. At least they'd found Brother Genitivi, at long last.

Wynne bound up his leg, and he explained to them how to get to a temple higher in the mountains, where he believed the ashes of Andraste were hidden.

 

6.

"We'll stay here overnight," Zin said, "get some sleep."

"Here?" Three voices said it at once, so Alistair didn't have to. He was getting rather too tired to go deeper into this strange temple tonight, though he did want to solve the mystery of whatever strange cult had sprung up that drove these people to kill to defend its secrets. But -- here?

"Here." Zin gestured. "There are doors. There are beds. Fires for cooking, though I think we should put at least one of them out before we sleep. Anyone who really wants to can go back out into the temple and sleep with the crazy cultists, or go back outside the temple and sleep in a snowdrift, but I'm staying right here."

"It is being sensible," Shale said. "Soft-bodied creatures need a protected environment to rest in. This may be as close as we will get, here."

"I cannot decide if sleeping in the beds of dead men is tasteless, or kinky, or both," Zevran said. "Also, it makes me wonder why I have never done such a thing before." He bowed gracefully. "And here I believed myself jaded. As always, you provide such interesting new experiences, my warden."

"Just spread your bedroll on top," Leliana said, "and think about something else, at least while I am in the same room."

"Just cook first," Sten said. "Can we eat the animal that we killed before? It's likely too tough for steaks, but--"

"Liver and kidneys should be fine," Zin said. "I'd say brain, but I don't think brontos have any."

Zevran nodded. "Infinitely preferrable to the muscle meat, I should think. My dearest bard, I thought sauteed kidneys were currently in fashion in Orlais. You are making a terrible face."

"Dead men's beds and liver," she said darkly.

"I will try to get sweetbreads for you," Sten said, turned and left. Alistair blinked after him. He wasn't sure if Sten was trying to be friendly or unfriendly, there. Either way, Leliana probably wouldn't like the idea of sweetbreads any more than liver and kidneys.

Zin and Morrigan had put out one fire and encouraged the other, meanwhile, and Zevran was rigging up the cookpot. Wynne came back in -- Alistair hadn't even seen her leaving -- carrying a kettleful of clean snow. "I think we could all use a hot drink," she said. "If anyone can find my small blue bag -- I dropped it when that mage with the scraggly beard came rushing out -- there's some of that tea mix Zin and Sten made from the leaves we got in Denerim."

The tea settled them down. Alistair seated himself on a mostly unbroken bench, stripped off his gloves and curled his hands around the mug to warm them, and felt his body relax from battle, his muscles un-tense, finally. He felt even better when Zin came to sit next to him, leaning against him ever so slightly.

Sten came back and handed several bloody lumps to Zevran, went out and cleaned his hands in the snow, and returned again to sit down and accept his own mug of tea. The chilly room began to fill with the warmth of fire and people, and with the smells of food; onion scavenged from an empty house in the village below, some odd roots that Zin had dug up, the liver Leliana apparently dreaded.

"This place doesn't feel holy," Leliana said. "I know Brother Genitivi felt something when we came here, I could tell, but it's not speaking to me like that at all."

"It's a ruin full of snow," Sten said. "And homicidal people who keep large animals indoors."

"Any holiness would have to struggle pretty hard against the smell of bronto shit," Zin agreed.

Leliana looked sad. "There's a lot of the temple we haven't seen yet, though," Alistair pointed out to cheer her up. "Once we get through that locked door, maybe there'll be holiness in the air." He hoped so, actually. Any sign that they were really going to find Andraste's sacred ashes at the end of this cold and crazy quest would be welcome.

"'Tis clear something is hidden here," Morrigan said. "But one wonders what, precisely, these cultists are protecting so ferociously."

The food Zevran eventually dished up was delicious, of course. Even Leliana ate without complaint, though she looked very closely at some of the bits in her bowl. Alistair didn't; he had realized early on that the less he knew about what he was actually eating, the better, unless someone tried to feed him darkspawn flesh. Zevran hadn't poisoned them yet, and had the ability to produce appetizing meals from the most unlikely ingredients.

"This is... not so bad," Leliana said.

"Be still my heart," Zevran said, clutching at his chest. "If you should care to express your gratitude in a more intimate manner, of course, I would certainly not argue with that."

"I'll do the dishes," Leliana said. "It's my turn, anyway." She waited until Alistair and Zin had finished their third helping, though. The rest of them sat back and stretched their legs out while she went off with the bowls to clean them in the snow. The drifts in the hallway outside were going to look horrible by tomorrow.

Zin poured everyone more tea. Serpent stretched out in front of the fire, and Alistair noticed that he was gnawing on a very large bone. Sten must have brought back mabari food as well as people food.

"This is, indeed, not so bad," Zevran said. "Now, if our wardens take one of the smaller rooms that were reserved for the mages, and Wynne the other, that leaves the rest of us to the shared pleasures of this rather quaint cultist dormitory."

"I think not," Morrigan said coolly. "If you imagine that I am sharing an enclosed sleeping space with you, elf, your imagination is too vivid to be healthy. For you."

Alistair's hands had stiffened around his tea mug, and now he forced them to relax again. Zevran had assigned him and Zin to the same room, a private room for just the two of them, as if it was a matter of course, and no one had argued or even lifted an eyebrow. They all knew. Knew, and didn't care, busy with their own concerns: Leliana suggested hanging a blanket, Morrigan declared her intention of putting Zevran's eyes out first, and Wynne was trying to pour oil on the troubled waters, though given Morrigan's temper, it was more like pouring oil on a fire.

"Very well," Wynne said, going from conciliatory to exasperated, "Morrigan can sleep in the other private bedroom, and I'll be here in the dormitory. In an ordinary bed, thank you very much, not one of those... bunk things."

"Um," Alistair said, wishing he were wearing a helmet. With a visor. Turned down. "Why don't you and Morrigan and Leliana work something out with the bedrooms, and Zin and I can--"

"No," Sten said very decidedly.

"Ooh," Zevran said, "I wouldn't mind that."

"I would." Sten looked down from his full height at a sitting Zin. "You are loud, kadan."

"Sorry?" Zin said with a grin. "But Alistair and I would be in separate beds, you know. Opposite ends of the room, if you like."

Sten looked mildly placated, but Leliana rolled her eyes. "That would be ridiculous," she said, "when the two of you could share a proper room with a proper bed and a proper door."

"And proper walls," Wynne added. "I think I'll rest more easy here in the dormitory after all. These stone walls look thick, but you can never tell. Morrigan, the other bedroom is all yours, I believe."

"I will stand in the hallway," Shale announced. "In fact, I will go now. If there are any more squabbles, feel free not to inform me of them." The golem made a huffing sound. "This obsession with making squishy bodies squish even more is something I would prefer not to spend any more thought on."

"Your courage is an example to us all, my friend," Zevran said.

"I could pop the painted elf's head like a grape in its sleep," Shale muttered. The golem clomped off. Zevran, head still intact, put away his spice pouches and his knives.

Leliana assisted Wynne to her feet, and they began to discuss whether it would be wasteful to hang a blanket as a curtain rather than use it for its proper purpose, given how cold the air was despite the fire. Zevran immediately offered his assistance in keeping them warm, and they chased him around the nearest fire, Wynne aiming blows of her staff at his kneecaps with remarkable skill. Sten simply walked up to the bed he'd chosen and sat down on it, with Serpent at his heels. Alistair had a feeling the mabari would be keeping Sten's feet warm tonight.

"I," Morrigan said, "will retire to my room, where I expect I shall sleep deeply and soundly." She swept away, and they heard her close the door with a firm thud.

Alistair finally raised his eyes from his own knees and tilted his head back enough to look at Zin. "Maybe we should..."

"You definitely should," Zevran said, "but not here. Out you go. This is a warden-free zone tonight, my friends. With only three proper beds. I would, of course, be delighted to share with one of you lovely ladies-- ow!"

Zin and Alistair hurried down the short hallway and into the anteroom, where someone had considerately cleared out the bodies, but the piles of damp books looked nearly as dismal. "Did you mean it when you said you'd feed them to the darkspawn if they gossiped about us?" Alistair asked plaintively, touching an earlobe just to find out if it felt as hot from the outside as it did from the inside. It did. "Because I get the feeling they do. A lot."

"Mm," Zin said absently, his eyes fixed on Alistair's face. "You're so hot like that, babe. All flushed like we've already gotten started. Let's go to bed."

"I'm not... doing anything," Alistair said. "We need to rest. Those cultists could come looking for us, they could attack in the middle of the night, Zin, I probably shouldn't even take my armor off."

"You can keep it on if you really like," Zin said. "I can live with a few bruises. But we have a room with a bed and a door that locks, and I thought you could fuck me till I scream."

"Zin!" Alistair hissed. "What if Morrigan hears you?"

Zin shrugged, going to toss his pack into the waiting bedroom. "If she hears me screaming, she only has herself to blame. She could've stayed in the dormitory with the rest of 'em. Shared a bed with Sten, the way she keeps claiming she wants to." He came and took hold of Alistair's arms with both hands, tugging him along. "C'mon, babe. Bedroom. Now."

Alistair let himself be pulled into the bedroom, and stood silent and watched while Zin locked the door, stripped off his mail and leather with remarkable dispatch, and settled naked on the bed, on top of their bedrolls and the extra blankets. Not wanting to sleep on dead men's sheets was one thing, but in a climate like this, they needed all the blankets they could find. The top one was woven in a pattern of brown and grey stripes; Alistair thought it was probably made from local wool. The one underneath that, though, was purple and fancy-looking.

He looked at Zin; Zin looked back. After a few moments of this, Zin cocked his head invitingly and ran a hand down his chest, pausing to flick at his right nipple. His eyelids fluttered.

"You look good like that," Alistair admitted, shifting from foot to foot. "I mean, you should probably stop. Get in the bed. I'll stand watch."

"Shale is standing watch," Zin said. "Or do you mean you want to watch me?" He knelt back on his heels on the bed, one hand toying with a nipple, the other stroking lower and lower. "I was hoping you'd be more... active." He licked his lips. "I want your cock so much. In my mouth. In my arse. You want to wear the armor while you fuck me, go ahead. I told you I wouldn't mind the bruises."

"I'd mind," Alistair said, scarlet from Zin's words but very clear on this important point. "I don't want to hurt you." He began to unfasten the buckles on his left side. "I never, ever want to hurt you. Your skin, it's..." His fingers were unaccountably clumsy. "I want to lick you all over," he muttered, struggling with the cuirass and wondering why he felt so exposed when Zin was the one who was naked and making a show of himself.

"Need a hand with that?" Zin asked teasingly, his own hands quite obviously busy.

"No," Alistair said. He finally got the cuirass off and set it down with some care, but flung the gambeson any which way and set determinedly to unbuckling his greaves, glancing up now and then to see what Zin was doing that made him breathe like that. Zin's hands were stroking and caressing, and Alistair wanted to be the one to do that. He wanted to be the reason Zin moaned in that particular way. Well, in any way, really.

He had to sit on the edge of the bed to take the greaves off, and Zin abandoned his self-pleasuring to drape himself against Alistair's back, the heat of him very welcome through the thin shirt that was all Alistair wore now, and lick at Alistair's neck, which was terribly distracting. When Zin's teeth nibbled at the edge of Alistair's ear, Alistair's hands shook, and he finally threw his socks in a corner and twisted around, grabbing Zin and pushing him down. Zin laughed at him. "Shirt. Smallclothes."

"Get under the blankets," Alistair said. He stripped off the last few scraps of clothing and tugged blankets over both of them. The wool was scratchy, but the air was cold. He didn't understand how Zin could have sat there naked and exposed for so long. "You must be freezing," he said, concerned, and wrapped himself and the blankets around Zin, nosing at the back of Zin's neck and then licking it since it was right there.

"Don't care," Zin said, squirming. "Let me just--"

"No." Alistair tightened his grip. "Don't move, you'll let the cold air in." He pressed closer, feeling how perfectly he slotted against Zin's back, how his hardness fit between the round cheeks of Zin's arse. "Hold still, I said." He ran his hand down Zin's chest and stopped to play with Zin's nipples, rubbing and scraping and pinching softly until Zin made little noises and squirmed against him, rather than squirming to get away. Alistair stroked his hand lower, closed it around -- yes. This was just like touching himself, really, only with Zin in his arms, making delicious noises and writhing sinuously.

"Oh," Zin said, "oh, oh," and then, "You're going to make a mess all over me."

"So're you," Alistair said. He twisted his wrist in a way that always did it for him, and Zin shuddered and clenched, his arse moving against Alistair in a way that made Alistair shudder, too. The bed creaked in protest beneath them as they moved, and Zin's moans were definitely not quiet, and Alistair had a short moment to think that walls were splendid things before he lost himself in this close and wonderful pleasure, bodies moving together, the heated, spicy smell of Zin's skin. The way Zin pressed against him, went rigid, then trembled and spent himself, hot slickness all over the blankets and Alistair's fingers.

Alistair tried to push closer, but there was no closer, there was just this, Zin, heat, pressure. He groaned as he came to his own release, the pleasure bright and sharp, like a clean sword cut.

"Mess," Zin said sleepily.

"Probably, I don't know, good for your skin or something," Alistair offered. He got a hand between them and rubbed idly, spreading his own seed over Zin's arse and the small of his back. "I'll check tomorrow and see how stunning you are."

"You'll check my arse tomorrow?" Laughter and sleep mingled in Zin's voice now. "You're so kind, babe. I look forward to that."