At the very back of the temple, they found the leader of the cultists, a Father Kolgrim, bearded and bristling, who claimed that Andraste had been reborn as a high dragon and it was their duty to protect and worship her. Alistair boggled. The idea that the prophetess of the Maker had been reborn as a dragon was so outlandish that he could barely find words to call it heretical, and the idea that a dragon would need to be protected by humans was also beyond odd.
Kolgrim wanted them to do something with the ashes, and this confirmation that the ashes of Andraste really existed here gave Alistair, at least, new strength. Some in their party might have listened to Kolgrim's request, but Zin was too busy laughing at the idea of a dragon being Andraste reborn, and Kolgrim didn't take well to being laughed at and called a heretic, so they had to fight their way out of the temple.
On the other side, a narrow but well-used path led from the temple's back door to another door set straight into the mountain; pillars and half-ruined arches hinted that this had been a grand place, once, but now the small open plain nestled between icy mountainsides was nothing but harsh and craggy. Steam rose from pools of water heated by the molten rock deep below -- or not so deep below, Alistair saw as they crept quietly along the path, trying not to alert the dragon.
They reached this next door, and when Alistair put his hand on it, the sensation was as if the door had touched him in return, shaking him down to the ground. This must be the Gauntlet, then, where the ashes were, where Kolgrim hadn't been able to go. Zin chose a smaller group to take with him inside; Alistair was relieved to be part of it. The others would watch and wait.
When they came tumbling out from the Gauntlet, dazed, overwhelmed, the first thing they saw was an enormous dragon carcass blocking the way. Morrigan was sitting perched on the dragon's neck, legs crossed, inspecting the fingernails on one hand. She looked up when she saw them coming. "'Twas hardly my idea," she said defensively. Then, after looking more closely at them, she added, "The others are well. The elf found a pool where the water is not too hot for bathing."
Alistair turned his head to look at Zin; Zin shook his head slowly, so his hair was hiding his eyes. "Good. That's... good." His voice sounded a little flat. "Dragon."
"Perhaps 'twas not the wisest choice," Morrigan said, "to let your dog carry the horn we took from Kolgrim."
"One would not expect an animal to be able to blow it," a piece of the rock wall said, and Alistair twitched, realizing Shale had been there the whole time.
"As we did not," Morrigan agreed, "until he did, and this giant lizard descended on our heads."
"And breathed fire." Shale's stone face might not be very expressive, but the golem's voice said it all. "I'm quite certain there are crystals that would protect me against such things. Crystals that I believe are in its pack at this very moment."
"We were not," Morrigan said, "prepared."
"You seem to have done a great job of it," Alistair said bracingly, since the others were just standing there, seemingly unable to free themselves of the Gauntlet's hypnotic trance. "That's definitely the deadest dragon I've ever seen."
"Seen a lot of dragons, has it?" Shale asked, but the mocking tone sounded more friendly than not.
He hadn't seen a lot of dragons, no. Certainly not high dragons that cultists had decided were Andraste reincarnated. The dragon had been large and frightening when it was alive, but now it just looked large and pathetic -- after seeing what lay at the end of the Gauntlet, after finding Andraste's ashes at long last, Alistair was feeling a vague distaste for the way the cultists had warped a true sacred calling of protecting a true holy relic into this bloody and pointless worship of a rather unfriendly animal.
The rest of the party came back just then, Serpent in the lead and barking merrily. Zevran's hair was wet, unbraided and slicked back. Alistair tried to remember if Sten had ever had any eyebrows, or if the dragon must have singed them off. "You've returned!" Zevran said. "That is a good thing indeed. As you can see, we were a little busy while you were gone."
"You killed the dragon," Alistair said.
"Yes, my friend," Zevran said, "and it was by no means easy."
Alistair shook his head. That, he could believe. "Wait. You killed the dragon?"
"Oh, not me personally," Zevran assured him. "I believe it was our lovely Morrigan who delivered the killing blow, as it were. I was busy trying to hamstring it at the time."
"Wretched beast," Morrigan said. Alistair thought she meant the dragon, but she might have been talking about Serpent, who put his wet head in her lap. Or about Zevran. "If you are quite done, I will take my turn in the bathing pool."
"We will come with you," Leliana said, tugging at Wynne's arm. The two of them looked barely half awake, lost on some other plane of existence, a trace of exaltation still burning in their eyes and making their faces luminous and beautiful and strange. Morrigan's mouth tightened a little, but then she gave a short nod and set off, leaving the other women to follow.
Sten frowned, which looked so strange without eyebrows that Alistair decided he must have had them before after all. Or had he? Seeing a man's face every day, you'd think you could remember little details like that. "Are you well, kadan?"
Zin didn't answer, and Alistair swung abruptly to look at him. There was no exaltation in Zin's face. His eyes were bleak and empty, and he had his arms wrapped around himself as though feeling the cold. Alistair dragged him over to the sunny side of this little canyon and leaned him against the warmed rock, not far from where Shale was basking silently. "The Gauntlet was... it tested us," he said to Sten. "Zin most of all, I think. We have what we came for, but..."'
"But the price was high," Zevran said, "I can see that."
Sten clapped Zin on the shoulder. "We have succeeded here, kadan," he said. "You can rest now." Then he turned away abruptly and began scratching Serpent behind the ears.
"Rest grows boring after the first few years," Shale remarked to no one in particular.
"Then if you will assist me, my large and sturdy friend," Zevran said, "I will climb up to the dragon's, ah, nest, and find out what treasures it might have hoarded there."
"If I will assist?" Shale didn't sound eager at the prospect, despite the lack of interest in more rest. "The painted elf is usually a little more observant. I am hardly anyone's first choice for scaling sheer cliff-faces."
"I did not mean for you to climb," Zevran said hastily. "Merely, if you would stand just here, and raise your arms, I believe I could climb you. No?"
Shale huffed, but consented to stand where Zevran had indicated, and in moments, Zevran was swarming up Shale's body and then a rockface that Alistair would not have thought would provide a toe-hold for a fly. Delighted noises from above seemed to indicate that Zevran had found something worthy of the effort, even before Sten was nearly brained by a falling helmet. Alistair tried to catch the various things that came hurtling down before they could be too badly dented against the rock, or could dent anyone standing below. Serpent caught a strip of leather and claimed it for his own, finding a sunny patch to lie and worry it while he watched.
When the women came back, damp and steaming, both Wynne and Leliana seemed more collected than before. "I believe it would be best if we set up camp here," Wynne said. "We could stretch some canvas against this wall to make a temporary shelter, perhaps tie it with ropes around the pillars. I know it's hard on poor Brother Genitivi, waiting for us," she glanced sideways at Leliana as though they'd spoken about this already, "but I for one do not relish the idea of returning through that temple this late in the day."
"No, indeed," Zevran said, climbing down the way he had climbed up and with the same ease, making a showy jump from Shale's shoulder to the ground. "I think we all could use some rest first. But the night will undoubtedly grow cold. Would it not be better if we went inside this Gauntlet, I believe you called it, for shelter--"
"No," Leliana and Wynne said at once.
"No?" Zevran quirked a brow. "I see. Well, then we shall simply have to stay out here. And I do believe our illustrious leader has not had the opportunity to try the hot bath yet." He clapped a friendly hand on Alistair's shoulder, and Alistair, looking at Zin with growing concern, didn't flinch away. "You, my friend, look like just the man to rectify that. Do make certain that he washes everywhere. There are so many little spots that one might easily miss. Now that I think more closely about it, perhaps I had better come with you--"
"No," Alistair said hastily, snatching up the cloths and soap that Leliana held out to him, "no, that won't be necessary. At all. Ever."
He hustled Zin away as fast as he could, sighing in relief when they were out of the entrance to the Gauntlet and away from the others. The pool was just where the others had explained, close to the tiny ruin where they'd found someone's lost treasure earlier, apparently things the dragon hadn't even bothered with. The surface of the water steamed, and Alistair tested it cautiously before stripping an unresisting Zin and easing him in, following himself as soon as he could. The air on the mountaintop was sharp despite the late-afternoon sunshine, but the water was hot enough to make his skin prickle.
There was a ledge along one side of the pool, at the perfect depth to sit. Alistair settled himself as comfortably as he could manage, and leaned Zin against his chest. After spending some time in the water, Zin began to come back to himself. His eyes cleared, he drew a shuddering breath, and then he reached out and hit Alistair's shoulder with his closed fist, hard. "You think things would be better if you were dead, do you?" he said.
"I just thought," Alistair said. The things he'd heard and seen and said inside the Gauntlet were still a little jumbled in his mind. "I mean, if Duncan had... if Duncan was... everything would be all right if Duncan were here," he tried to explain. "He'd handle all of this much better than I would."
"He would, would he?" Zin said. "You idiot. Do you imagine I could live without you?"
Alistair felt his lips draw back from his teeth in a snarl. "You'd already said you'd rather be dead. Defending your parents to the last breath. Why do you think I care what happens to me if you're already gone?"
Zin's face twisted. "They were my parents. My father was wounded, was d-dying, and my mother wouldn't leave him. Duncan asked her to, I begged her, but she refused. She chose to stay and -- and--" He smacked the water, sending drops flying, but Alistair could see the wetness already on his face. "I don't know what Howe's soldiers did to her. I don't want to think about it. I can't stop thinking about it."
"Oh, Zin," Alistair said, and Zin half-turned in the water and threw himself into Alistair's arms and wept like a child.
Alistair didn't know what to say, or really what to do, but he could hold Zin until the stars fell out of the sky, so he just hung on, pressing his lips into Zin's hair, damp from the steam, and only making a small sound of complaint when Zin bit him. After a while, Zin stopped shaking quite so hard, and just snuffled against Alistair's chest. "I got snot all over you," he said.
"Lucky we're in the water, then," Alistair said and reached out a hand. "And I have a secret weapon against Zin-snot."
Zin gave a watery chuckle. "You do, huh?"
"Yes. It's called," Alistair drew his words out, "soap." Alistair sniffed the tiny bar Leliana had given him, worried for a moment that she'd handed him something fancy and floral, but it smelled like grass, not unpleasantly. He snagged a small piece of cloth as well, the kind they usually had for a washcloth on days when all they had to clean themselves with was a few drops from a waterskin, dipped it in the water, and began to wash Zin.
Very thoroughly. He began with the face, wiping away the tear tracks and kissing Zin's eyelids. The neck, behind the ears, the shoulders and collarbones. Alistair unfolded Zin's left arm to its full length and washed it from shoulder joint to fingertips, then the right one; when he stroked the underside and washed the armpits he took care to keep his touch firm, not tickle-light. Zin made a noise, but didn't jerk away.
Then the chest and stomach, all that skin and muscle, made for wide, sweeping motions, and probably the nipples didn't get any dirtier than the rest of the skin, so Alistair really had no reason to linger there, he just liked to see them draw tight, liked the soft sound that Zin made. When he wiped out the navel, Zin squirmed, disliking to have it touched.
Alistair shifted Zin on the stone ledge so he could reach to wash his back, scrubbing a little harder against the muscles there when Zin murmured his pleasure at the scratching sensation. Then he urged Zin to stand up so he could wash his arse, those gorgeous rounded cheeks and the crease between them. Turned him around and washed what the chantry mother always called the private parts, though Zin had made it clear that no part of his body was too private for Alistair to touch. Zin was half-hard, and thickened even more as Alistair handled and washed him.
"This is nice," he said.
Alistair kissed Zin's hip. "Sit down again." Zin did, and stretched his legs out, one after the other, as Alistair washed them, all the way down to the feet, between every toe. "Okay," he finally said, "I think we're done."
Zin shook his head and looked at Alistair over his shoulder, under his hair. "Not when only one of us here is clean." He stole the washcloth out of Alistair's hand and began to scrub him right back.
It was nice, it was more than just nice, but Alistair wasn't lounging around in the hot water to pay detailed attention to his body. He dodged away from Zin's ministrations and swabbed at himself with handfuls of soapy lather, ducked under the surface to rinse and then climbed out of the pool, shivering as the crisp mountain air hit his heated skin.
"There, clean," he said and held out a hand to Zin. "Come on out before you prune up too badly."
"It's cold out there," Zin objected. "I can see your gooseflesh from here."
Alistair picked up a blanket and held it temptingly wide. "I'll make sure you're warm and dry."
Zin pouted, but that was a definite improvement over Zin before the bath and Zin during most of the bath. When Zin came out of the water, Alistair was slow with the blanket because he couldn't help but stare. He'd seen quite a bit of naked Zin by this time, but naked Zin in the sunlight, with drops of water clinging to his skin, that was definitely something worth looking at.
"Cold," Zin said. "Cold cold cold." He made as if to get back in the water, so Alistair caught him in a blanket hug and rubbed his hands briskly up and down Zin's sides and back.
"You have some water left here," he said and licked at the top of Zin's shoulder. The water tasted of minerals, but not in a bad way.
He turned Zin around, and the blanket slipped, so Alistair chased a drop down Zin's back with his mouth and sucked it off his shoulderblade. Zin's spine made a perfect groove down his back, a canal for the water to travel. Alistair filled it up with kisses instead, kisses running down Zin's back like water drops, down and down until Alistair had to kneel to lick the small of Zin's back and bite gently at the perfect round curve of his bottom. He followed the course of a drop of water as it trickled down Zin's tailbone and lower, lower, both hands on Zin's arse spreading him open, puckered skin under his tongue and Zin moaned and his legs buckled. Alistair steadied him and eased him down, then tried that tongue thing again to see if it would have the same effect.
"Oh, holy..." Zin's voice dipped into a throaty, incredulous whisper, then trailed off completely. Alistair figured that was good. He licked, kissed, sucked at the slick skin and pressed with his tongue, testing but not breaching the muscle. So tight. Impossible to believe that he could fit here, that he could take Zin that way, or maybe it would be more accurate to say that Zin could take him that way. Impossible to believe such a thing wouldn't hurt, except Zin made it very clear that no, it didn't hurt, in fact, he loved it.
Zin sounded as if he loved this, too. Alistair had a vague notion he should be bothered by it, what he was doing right now. But he'd washed Zin clean himself, and he couldn't imagine finding any part of Zin disgusting just on principle. Particularly when Zin was moving against him and breathing in little gasps, falling forward on his elbows and arching his back the way he did when he was close. Alistair wondered if he could pleasure Zin into spending just by doing this and not stopping, or if he should stop and do something else. He wasn't sure how he would ask, though, without making the decision to stop. Thinking about it made him chuckle, as busy as his mouth was, and Zin cried out and squirmed, reaching under himself with one hand.
Barely a touch, not even a full stroke, and Zin found his release. Alistair came close, too, just from hearing it and feeling it. "You're so gorgeous," he said into Zin's skin. "You're wonderful. You're perfect. You..."
Zin collapsed forward, then rolled over, nearly kicking Alistair in the head. His belly was slick with seed; he'd need another bath. "I'm a sure thing," he said. "You don't have to flatter me, you can just fuck me."
"I can think of many things I want to do to you," Alistair said, flushing hotly. "But there's no, we don't have any..."
"Use this," Zin said, swiping his fingers through the mess on his stomach, "if you don't think your tongue made me slick enough." One hand smeared the seed all over Alistair's hardness, the other dipped down between Zin's own legs, and Alistair sat back, both to get away from the knowing touch that made him ache with desire and to better see the way Zin's fingers pressed inside. Alistair ran his hands up the insides of Zin's strong thighs, caressing, pushing them wider apart, and Zin flashed him a grin. "You like it when I finger myself, don't you."
Alistair took a deep breath, determined to answer despite his burning face. "Yes, I do. But I, ah, I like to be the one to do it, too." He closed his eyes, even though, yes, he really liked to watch Zin do this, because Zin's knowing gaze on him was too much. "You're so hot inside," he said, remembering. "I like to touch you everywhere, you've probably noticed."
"I want you to touch me everywhere," Zin gasped. "Always, I always want..." Zin hooked a leg around Alistair and pulled him close, gripped him with one hand and guided him inside. "Always want you."
Alistair tried to move slowly, wary of causing pain. The ground was hard beneath them, and a blanket didn't do much to soften it; the rock was warm, too, from whatever heated the water. There was a pebble digging into his knee, and chilly air blowing across his back, and water running from his hair into his eyes, and no matter how much he tried to distract himself with these little discomforts, it didn't change the fact that he was inside Zin and Zin was clutching at his arms with both hands, trying to wrap his legs around Alistair's hips, doing everything to draw Alistair closer, deeper.
"I love you," Alistair said. "I love you." He wanted to say more, to find words as big as the sky, as brilliant as the sun, but these were the only ones that came close. "Zin. I love you."
"Fuck me harder," Zin gasped, and then he tilted his head back and laughed. And maybe it was warden stamina, maybe it was just wishful thinking, but it seemed to Alistair that it went on forever, the two of them joined together as close as they could be in this heated pleasure. The rhythm of it was fast and hard, and Zin cried out with every thrust, short high cries, until he arched and shook and screamed loud enough to echo across the mountaintop, and his body wrung Alistair's own release from him, unstoppable.
"Sten was right," Alistair mumbled into Zin's shoulder, trying to gather the strength to move. "You are loud."
It was raining when they finally crossed the drawbridge to Redcliffe castle, the kind of rain that's very close to being sleet. Alistair hunched down into his armor, grateful for the helmet for once, but he had to straighten up and flip up his visor when they were accosted by the guards. In its way it was a relief to see that there were guards; someone was maintaining the castle to nearly its usual standards, and Alistair had a pretty strong suspicion of who that someone was.
These particular guards were new, but one of them had been part of the village militia before. He recognized them all, and waved them in to where it was drier and warmer. They put down their packs and draped cloaks to dry before going into the hall, where Bann Teagan was deep in a conference with Murdock, the village mayor, and someone that Alistair didn't recognize, but the smell of fish that hung about her seemed like a bit of a clue to her profession.
"We can just sit and wait," Zin said, but Bann Teagan had already seen them and came hurrying over.
"My friends," he said, taking in their wet and bedraggled state, "I should ask you to rest and eat something, and I will, but... I have to know. Does your return mean that your search has been successful, or unsuccessful?"
"We have the ashes," Zin said, and Bann Teagan looked inexpressibly, almost painfully relieved.
"Then let us go at once," he said. "One of the Circle mages stayed here, after the... after they came to help with Connor. His healing has not had much of an effect on my brother, but at least Eamon is no worse than he was."
"Considering how long it's been, I'd say that's pretty impressive," Zin said. "We probably don't all need to go crowd into the sickroom, though. Alistair, why don't you come with us, and Wynne, if you think you're up to it?"
Wynne wanted to meet the Circle mage, of course, so they left the others in the hall and went up to the arl's bedroom, where Isolde was keeping a bedside vigil, looking pale and drawn and as if she needed to wash her hair. She twisted around on her knees when she heard them coming, and her face darkened at the sight of Alistair but then lit up at the sight of Zin. "You have found the ashes!" she said.
The mage turned around almost as swiftly, and his face was torn between relief and terror. "You have? That's wonderful!" he said. "I have a ritual -- I think it will work--"
"Emmett, isn't it?" Wynne stepped forward. "I hope you will allow me to help."
"Yes, of course!" Emmett looked more relieved and less terrified. "It's out of Corstorph's greater compendium of..." Wynne and Emmett went into a technical discussion Alistair was just as happy not to understand a word of. Instead he listened to the quiet conversation between Zin and Bann Teagan about the current state of Redcliffe village and Redcliffe castle. It still threw him a little to hear Zin sound so practical and so familiar with all the concerns Bann Teagan had been dealing with during Arl Eamon's long illness, even though he knew now that Zin had been brought up to know everything about running a castle and caring for its adjacent town.
Isolde straightened up a little stiffly and shook out her skirts, both of which took some time, before coming over to join them. "The ashes must work to cure Eamon," she said. "I have already lost my son, I will not lose my husband as well."
Zin looked startled, and pain and regret flashed across his face very quickly to be replaced by a blank, polite mask. "I'm sorry -- I thought we had managed to save Connor in time."
"Yes, in time for the mages to steal him away," Isolde said.
Bann Teagan cleared his throat. "When the First Enchanter and his escort returned to the tower, they took Connor with them."
"They could not even wait for Eamon to wake up," Isolde said. "Though perhaps it is better this way, to save him the pain of having to say farewell forever to his son, his only child--" She'd started out sulky, but she was working her way up to tragic with every word.
"But it's not forever, is it?" Zin got an expression back on his face; it was a frown. "You can write to him, visit him, and once he is harrowed, he can get permission to travel."
"That is easy for you to say." Isolde looked even more tragic. "I understand the wardens will accept anyone. But for the arl and arlessa of Redcliffe to acknowledge their shame, to go begging to the Circle for time with a mage -- oh, this is all my fault, and now I have brought this humiliation on Eamon!"
Zin just stared at her. Alistair tried to remember if Lady Isolde had always been like this. He thought she probably had, only he'd been too young to really understand it. Or maybe just too him to understand it, because he wasn't sure he did now, either.
"I think you will find," Bann Teagan said, "that Eamon has quite a different view of the matter."
Lady Isolde wrung her hands. "I cannot bring myself to tell him of this! He was so proud of his son, and to lose Connor like this..."
"You can't be serious," Alistair said without stopping to think first. "Lady Isolde. Are you saying that you will cast Connor off because he is a mage? But you were willing to do anything to protect him!"
She didn't even glare at Alistair for being Alistair before she answered. "Of course I was! He was my son, and the Guerrin heir! But now," her voice broke, "now he isn't, and Eamon has lost his heir, and it's all my fault, and -- and--" When she blinked, tears began to slide down her cheeks.
To Alistair's immense surprise, Zin stepped up and put his arms around Isolde, even though he was still frowning, and she began to sob into his chest. "Connor is still your sodding son," he said. "Eamon won't blame you for having given birth to a mage child. Maybe you'll have more children, or maybe Teagan will inherit, or his children, if he gets married. Redcliffe isn't lost, the Guerrin name isn't lost, your marriage isn't lost." He quirked an eyebrow at Bann Teagan. "And Eamon will want to keep as much contact as possible with Connor, won't he?"
"Yes," Bann Teagan said unhesitatingly. "Eamon loves the boy, and magic won't change that."
Isolde sniffled. "The other nobles will look down on him for this. On us."
"Maybe some will," Zin said, "but the ones who do won't be worth troubling yourself over. But Andraste's curly eyelashes, Isolde, if you pretend Connor never existed, others will despise you for that, and the people who will feel that way are much more worth keeping as your friends and allies."
"You don't know that," Isolde sobbed. "And you can't call me... Oh, you are a Grey Warden, you have no breeding and no manners. You don't understand..."
Zin gripped her by the shoulders and pushed her back until they could look each other in the face. "Didn't Teagan tell you? My name is Zin Cousland. Don't tell me I don't understand."
Isolde's eyes went wide. "The Couslands -- but the Couslands were -- they say that--"
"Howe says," Zin said. "He lies." He shook Isolde gently. "I was brought up on Fereldan politics. Trust me when I say that I know what I'm talking about. What you have to understand is that things are very different here from in Orlais. You have to stop thinking like a blighted Orlesian."
Somehow, in the middle of her tears and her temper, Isolde found a small bubble of laughter, and Alistair liked her better in that moment than he ever had before. "That is not so easy," she said, her accent more pronounced than ever. She bit her lip. "And don't tell me there aren't Fereldan nobles who would pretend a mage child never existed. I know there are."
"Yes, there are," Zin said. "But the important thing for you to remember is... Listen, my father once told me that if you allow something to be your secret shame, that just leaves room for other people to discover it, to look down on you or blackmail you. Don't make this into something someone else can hold over your head. You already tried to keep Connor's magic secret once, and you've seen what a disaster that turned into."
"Maker, yes," Bann Teagan said.
"And, er," Alistair said, and almost turned silent again when they all looked at him, but he pushed on. "If you try to pretend you don't love Connor, it will break his heart, and it will break yours."
"You should listen to Alistair," Zin said with a wry smile. "You were willing to go to any lengths for Connor, before. He's still the same boy."
Isolde produced a dainty little handkerchief from somewhere and blew her nose. At the other end of the room, Wynne and the circle mage nodded at each other. "We're ready," Emmett said.
"Then let us do it," Bann Teagan said, "and wake my brother up at last."